The Elder Scrolls series from Bethesda has been on my mind recently. This is partly due to the imminent release of Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim on the 11th November, coupled with the fact that I’ve been playing Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion on the xBox 360 while I wait for a working computer.
The game was released in early 2006 for the xBox 360 and PC. PS3 users had to wait a whole year before they could play it, although seeing as Oblivion won wheelbarrow-loads of awards for the ‘Best RPG Game of the Year’, ‘Best Game of the Year’ etc. I’m sure that most PS3 owners were just glad they got to play it at all.
5 years is a long time though. Since that time many more RPG’s have been released, games like Dragon Age: Origins, Dragon Age: 2, Mass Effect 2 to name the first handful that spring to mind. Has the game aged well? Does it still stand-up to the more modern RPG rivals?
Has it aged well?
For those who’ve never played it, Oblivion is a first or third person RPG. In ultra-short terminology, it’s a swords and sorcery RPG but it offers a lot more than that description suggests.
Once you’ve started the game and decided what your character looks like from the rather large set of options and slider bars, the story starts. You awake on the floor of your cell. There’s not much you can do yet except to listen to the insulting rants of the guy in the opposite cell. It’s not long before you hear guards approaching. With them is the Emperor (expertly voiced by Patrick Stewart) who is being led out of the city for his own safety, after an attempt on his life. Would you believe it, the escape route goes right through your cell. The emperor says he recognises you from his dreams, and you are free to leave the cell after he’s gone. You follow the Emperor, diverting at certain points to run through a brief tutorial of your controls. Though fear not, you soon meet up with the Emperor again just in time for him to be assassinated, hand you an amulet and ask that you find his son. A short while later and you are out in the big wide world.
Even for a game 5 years old, when you do finally get outside, the sights are breathtaking. The sheer size of the land, and the fact that you can explore every square inch of it is a nice distraction. It’s not just the land that provides you with such an idea of scope either, you are free to do such a wide array of different things. There is of course the main quest line where you have to save the kingdom from the attacking evil, but it’s the side quests and tasks that I find myself spending most of my time on. There are guilds you can join, the Mages Guild the Fighters Guild and the Thieves Guild. For clarification the Thieves Guild works like Robin Hood, they help the poor and don’t kill anyone etc. Though if the more bloodthirsty acts are your particularly penchant there’s always the ‘Dark Brotherhood’ which is an Assassins Guild.
Aside from the more guild based quests you may overhear rumours which starts quests, find items or by grabbed by random people in the street. You’re never short of something to do, even without doing the quests you can still explore the many points of interest, or break into people’s houses for no other reason than to steal their cheeses if you want. In fact, I’ve played this game both on the xBox 360 and the pc and I’ve got so caught up in all the side mentions that I rarely bother with the main quest at all. This is something that very few games have, even now. Certainly the Dragon Age’s or the Mass Effects are not this diverse in terms of questing.
So, I think we’ve established that there is so much to do in Oblivion. What about graphics? 5 years is a long time, so the graphics must be on the downside of awful, right?
Nope. Don’t get me wrong they have dated a bit but they are still very nice to look at. Mouth-synching is a little off when people speak, and the special effects aren’t exactly from ‘Avatar’ but I would still give the graphics a good 8 out of 10 even compared to modern-day graphics. They can just be a little jerky at times, that’s all.
Same as the graphics really. It’s dated a bit but not to an extent that you would notice.
And now we get to character development, what I consider to be one of the brighter jewels in Oblivions crown. The way your character develops is as diverse as the questing. Development is done predominantly by way of two things. First there are attributes such as Strength, Willpower, Speed, and Luck. These attributes are numerical values that directly affect the second thing, the skills. Skills are divided into either combat skills (Block, Blades, Blunt weapons etc.), Magic use (Illusion, Destruction, Conjuration) and stealth (Sneak, Security, Speechcraft). Increase your strength and you can carry more, and do more damage with the blunt weapons skill. Increase your Willpower and your rate of Mana regeneration increases, as well as affect use of your Illusion spells.
Now we come to the skills themselves. There are 21 skills in total, and the more you use a skill the more you develop it, gradually gaining points in the skills, up to 100. As your skill grows you receive perks at the 25, 50, 75 and 100 stage. So if you get your stealth skill to 75 you can sneak quietly even in the loudest metal boots, get your security to level 50 and you won’t have to start again if you fail to pick a lock.
During the tutorial section, depending on the skills you use more of, you will be suggested options for your major skills. You do not have to take these suggestions you can create your character how you want. These ‘Major’ skills will start with a 25pt bonus. This means that your character is already at the 1st perk stage for 7 of the skills. The remaining skills are deemed to be minor and start at 0. Whenever you achieve 10 points worth of increase to your major skills you go up a character level, which allows you to increase 3 attributes by 3 pts each.
Honestly, it’s a lot less complicated than it may sound. Fundamentally, you are given a system that will allow your character to develop according to the way you play, and it still allows you the ability to grow any other skill as well, it may just take a little longer.
In short the character development is brilliant.
I have set it in a wonderfully rose-tinted romantic light I know, and I’m sure you’re thinking that there must be downsides right? It can’t all be expansive countryside, and diverse character development options.
You’re right. There are downsides, but thankfully not many.
The first is something that may not look even look like a downside . Oblivion has something called level-scaling. Basically, as your character level increases the enemies and natural hazards around you become more dangerous. In most cases this is a brilliant idea, it stops you becoming some sort of demigod; destroying everything in one hit, and never even getting close to dying. There will always be a challenge waiting for you.
There is of course a downside to this, in that if you created a character that did not have a combat skill as a major skill (I know it’s pretty unlikely but go with me here.) then you would soon find yourself being outmatched, and not really being able to train in combat skills very well as most encounters would lead to your death, a cycle of doom if you will. There are user-created mods that remove the level-scaling options and put a logic around where the tougher monsters are. It’s up to you if you use the level-scaling or not. I prefer the level-scaling, as I have never created a character which didn’t have some level of combat training.
The other things is that I do find the controls around magic a little lacking, certainly on the xBox 360 not so much on the PC. I’ll explain. You can only assign one spell to your cast button. In the case of the xBox 360 the ‘RB’ button. My latest character is developing all of his magic skills, he’s has his Starlight spell for light, a Protect spell, his Fireball spell and a couple of others that could all be needed at any time. There is a quick-cast wheel which you can assign 8 spells to, with each one allocated a direction on the keypad, so in theory all you need to do is hit the d-pad and then RB and you cast your spell. Although it’s quite a nice system and there probably wasn’t much anyone could have done about it, short of having some-kind of action bar on the button which would only work for the PC version. My main issue is remembering what I have assigned to each d-pad direction in the heat of battle you don’t want to try to charm a zombie going for your brains instead of incinerating him. Maybe some kind of visual representation on the screen would help.
It’s not a big gripe, and if you don’t touch magic you wouldn’t even notice or care. You’d be slashing and blocking away happily (RT to hit with the weapon, and LT to block with your shield.) It’s a simple combat system, perhaps a little too simple but for me this is not a combat-based RPG. You are going to fight there’s no way around that, but to me I find the enemies get in the way of my exploration and questing. I tend not to hunt them out, though that could just be me.
So, does it stand up to modern RPG’s? Hell yes, and in a few cases it beats them too. This is still one of the largest and non-linear RPG’s I have ever played. Plus, today you can get the game plus all the Downloadable Content for around £15-20.
Will Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim beat this? Well all signs point to yes, but until then I am more than happy casting and slashing my way through Cyrodil…. Oh, and the odd bit of late night cheese-stealing as well.