I was going to put this part at the endit's more dramatic
as a conclusionbut the fact is I'm wordy under the best of
circumstances, so out of courtesy to those who don't have all day,
this section gets right to the point.
Elder Scrolls III: Morrowindis history now. And whether
or not you personally liked it, it's widely accepted as one of those
games that changed the world. Opinions on how "good" or
"fun" it is differ. But it is unquestionably among the
most important video games ever made. Each and every Elder Scrolls
game has somehow raised the bar higher than its predecessor,
and people naturally expected the same from Morrowind's sequel.
So does Oblivion trump Morrowind?
Well ... no. At least not in my opinion, which puts me in the extreme
minority. Suffice it to say that while Oblivion is an impressive
technical achievement and a very enjoyable game, if I had to choose
between the two, I'd take Morrowind. For the first time in
Elder Scrolls history, a new installment is a (small) step
Oblivion is the worse game for a variety of reasons: structural,
mechanical and thematic. Mistakes were made in its execution that
were not made in its predecessor. It is still a triumph in many
respects. But it is not equal to Morrowind, and, as far as
I'm concerned, it is not the game we were hoping for.
The Beginning of Steerpike's Review
Oblivion is awesome ... and it sucks. There's such a split
personality associated with this game that it almost feels like
two titles, not one. The first is an incredibly engaging and well-designed
roleplaying experience with stunning visuals and fascinating technology.
The second is a frustrating and obnoxious pain that goes out of
its way to constrain your actions, sacrifices gameplay to show off
cool tech and includes "features" that make you feel like
you're part of a secret government experiment to see how infuriated
people can become before they explode.
I have two major complaints. The first is the enormous collection
of little things that ruin the game experiencenot bugs, but
quirks and idiosyncrasies; design decisions so half-assed that they
have no right being in a game this good. More on those in a minute.
The second is that no matter how hard I tried, I never felt like
I was part of the world of Oblivion. I could not immerse.
It felt not like a living place but like a disconnected series of
questlets. And that's a serious problem, but it's also a very subjective
Save the World! (Whenever)
I haven't finished Oblivion. There's no "finishing"
it; it never ends. I have completed the main quest, which takes
about 25 hours of a 250+ hour game if you hurry. I've also finished
a wide variety of side quests, but I'm not "done." Oblivion
is basically a big fantasy sandbox.
The Elder Scrolls games are true epics, offering up a vast
and sprawling universe full of distinct culture and rich history.
The Empire of Tamriel sits on millennia of posterity. It is a vibrant
place, truly real, which makes the awesome, world-shaking adventures
found in the Elder Scrolls that much more engrossing.
For centuries, Tamrielonce a contentious battleground in
which nine nations warred constantlyhas enjoyed relative stability
under the imperial rule. Led by Tiber Septim, the humans of Cyrodiil
invaded their eight neighbors long ago, using trained dragons and
the chainmailed barbarism of the imperial legions to conquer elves,
lizardfolk, cat people and everything in between. Eventually the
annexed nations learned to deal with their new role as provinces.
And the Septims have ruled Tamriel ever since. Uriel Septim VII,
the latest in a long line of imperial mediocrities, has reigned
for more than fifty years. He, like all emperors before him, knows
the dark secret of Tamriel: should the Septim line end without an
heir, the marble doors of Oblivion will open and devour the world.
The land of Oblivion is the Tamrielic Hell, a brimstony nightmare
that is home to the fiendish Daedra, demons that figure prominently
throughout Tamriel's history. And while individual Daedra occasionally
find their way to Tamriel, a barrier exists that absolutely prevents
the establishment of a permanent passage between the two worlds.
Or so everyone thought.
Your character, who starts inauspiciously as a prisoner in the
imperial dungeons, couldn't really care less about any of that until
the emperor (voiced by Patrick Stewart in the easiest few grand
he ever made) and his bodyguards appear, rattling keys and babbling
about murdered sons and approaching assassins. It would seem that
your cell is the secret access point to an underground passage out
of the Imperial City. Someone is coming to kill the emperor, someone
who has already killed his sons, and his guards are making their
last-ditch effort to get him out. Figuring that death in a dank
and anonymous tunnel is preferable to rotting in prison, you trail
But luck is not on Uriel's side. He's murdered by cloaked assassins
down in the tunnels and dies literally in your arms. With his last
breath, he gurgles out some instructions that saddle you with an
unfairly gargantuan responsibility: it turns out that there is another
son, an illegitimate son named Martin, who must be found and enthroned
But the marble doors of Oblivion didn't get that memo, so they
dutifully creak open, and soon demon gates are popping up all over
Cyrodiil, with an extensive selection of infernal Daedra pouring
through to terrorize the countryside. Getting invaded by demons
is rarely good news, and for an empire already in decline, it's
likely the final nail in the coffin.
As with all of the Elder Scrolls, it's really up to you
whether or not you do anything about it. The main story of Martin
Septim and Daedric incursion is just one of approximately ninety
million paths you can choose to walk. But in Morrowind and
its predecessors, the "main" quests were never particularly
urgent; they were more like slow-moving mysteries. You felt free
to ignore them because there wasn't any pressure associated with
your objectivesor at least none that was readily apparent.
In Oblivion, the world is literally going to hell. From
a roleplaying perspective, there's no practical reason not to deal
with it immediately, which creates an unpleasant sense of tension
and exigency that made me feel very rushed. It disconnected me from
the world, made me unwelcome. Morrowind absorbed me. I was
part of Vvardenfell. It became my home. I never felt that way in
Oblivion. I felt hustled along by an impatient tour guide,
because ignoring the main quest would be like playing DOOM and
choosing to explore the Martian surface rather than fight the monsters.
What a Lovely Engine You Have
Technically speaking, Oblivion delivers on all of its promises
and more. It is startlingly gorgeous, breathtakingly so, to the
point where I couldn't stop taking screenshots. The codebase, which
is a combination of proprietary Bethesda work and Emergent's middleware
Gamebryo engine plus Havok physics, is simply astonishing. The outdoor
vistas are too glorious for words, with only the tiny complaint
that distant objects such as grass tend to "pop" in rather
jarringly. Indoors, the game shows nigh-criminal attention to detail,
with every locale perfectly modeled and populated by hundreds of
lovingly designed unique objects. Oblivion is quite simply
the most beautiful game on the market today.
I'm reviewing the PC version here, and I've got a reasonably powerful
PC3800+, 2 GB of memory, a Radeon X1900 XT and two Raptor
hard drives in RAID 0, which dramatically reduce load times. Oblivion's
performance is perfectly adequate on my machine25 to 80
fps with all features maxed out. Forums suggest that lesser PCs
can handle the game provided users are willing to lower their screen
resolution and disable GPU-crushing effects such as high dynamic
range lighting. The 360 version, I'm told, stutters occasionally
but is otherwise a solid performer.
I never had technical problems with Morrowind (seriously),
though I guess others did. Oblivion, also, is surprisingly
stable for such a massive and complex game. It's not reasonable
to expect a product this colossal to ship without a few bugs, and
it definitely has some issues, but to describe Oblivion as
broken or even particularly buggy would be unfair. Everything works
more or less as advertised, which for Bethesda is still kind of
an aberration. It's good news, though, especially considering it
could have been a technical train wreck given Bethesda's history.
Programming gnomes are already working on the first of what's doubtless
to become many patches, so watch the website.
You should also watch it for new goodies. Like its predecessor,
Oblivion is mod-friendly. The Elder Scrolls Construction
Set is improved over its previous iteration, and fan-developed mods
are already available for free online. Just be advised that Bethesda
is charging money for its own official plugins. Horses that don't
look like a four-year-old drew them? Ching! Two dollars. New quest
that wasn't done in time for the release? Ching! Two dollars. I
can't fault Bethesda, but these things might add up for fans.
One of the game's chief selling points is the Radiant AI system,
which establishes individual identities, needs and solution paths
for literally every living thing in the game. Radiant, though still
experiencing growing pains, really does work; follow a single NPC
all day and you'll see that. It is far from flawless, as AIs occasionally
forget what they're doing, often get stuck in endless conversations
with each other and tend to bug out of work after lunch, but it's
nowhere near as busted as I thought it would be.
And yet, to my enormous surprise, it doesn't affect play much.
In all honesty, I didn't see that much difference between a Radiant-controlled
NPC and one of the scripted robots of Morrowind, except that
the scripted robots didn't wander too far from their first position.
This is partly due to artificial constraints designed to keep players
(and AIs) from breaking the game. I suspect we'll see a more ready-for-prime-time
version of Radiant in the upcoming Fallout 3.
Composer Jeremy Soule, who also scored Morrowind, returned
to provide his awesome talents to Oblivion. I tremble at
the thought of Soule teaming up with Irrational's mighty sound design
god Eric Brosius; they could probably rule the world through audio.
Oblivion's soundtrack is exquisite and minimalist: mostly
haunting, lonely violins and flutes. It's a big change from the
sweeping orchestrations of Morrowind and testament to how
diverse and talented Jeremy Soule is.
Scenic Cyrodiil on $20 a Day
Oblivion didn't exactly have me at hello. The tunnels where
the emperor meets his fate also serve as a bloated and rather dull
tutorial, taking more than an hour to complete. Moreover, it does
nothing to help you understand the impenetrable menu system. The
interface is, frankly, obtuse. It requires countless clicks to get
at controls and information that should all be accessible from one
screen. Some critical information isn't available at all. How it
made it out of testing is beyond me. Default mouse controls are
clumsy and require considerable remapping, and the instructions
fail to describe important interface elements and world effects.
The big full-color map included in the box has nowhere near the
level of detail that Morrowind's did, depicting instead a
world that seems rather barren. Which is weird, because it's anything
but barren. That world, in addition to being so beautiful it could
stop hearts, shows signs of handcrafting that border on the creepily
obsessive. The landscape is overwhelmingly peppered with places
to visit and things to do: haunted ruins, plundered mines, huge
cities, old castles, mysterious caves, tiny hamlets and, of course,
those terrifying Oblivion gates that keep sprouting up like malevolent
orange mushrooms. Every corner of Cyrodiil is an embarrassment of
adventuring riches. In fact, I suspect that's why they made the
map so bland, because they want you to find everything on your own,
lawnmowering back and forth across a game world that is actually
larger than Morrowind's until you've uncovered every farmhouse
and crumbling fort. No thanks.
As always, Bethesda learned hard lessons from the previous game
and enhanced play in many areas, such as a dramatically improved
new stealth interface that allows you to slink around and attack
from the shadows if you so desire. Combat in general has been significantly
improved: it's visceral and hectic, often involving multiple parties
on both sides. The addition of Havok physics and more effective
sound design shivers every blow and parry through your wrist like
a gong, while combos and power attacks greatly increase the frantic
bludgeapalooza of the game's battles. Slamming an enemy against
the wall with your sword, seeing his shield clang to the ground
and spin away like a top while he sinks slowly to his knees ...
Alas, nonviolent encounters are another matter. The characters
with whom you interact are very much on the wrong side of the Uncanny
Valley (that means they're ugly), and the limited dialogue tree
makes conversation seem like a highly directed affair. The AIs don't
tend to respond dynamically to what you do, and the inclusion of
voices for every single character in the game is a mixed blessing.
Actor Sean Bean, perennially excellent and often underappreciated,
provides the voice of Martin Septim. Instead of the bored phone-in
we usually get from Hollywood stars, Bean delivers a layered, subtle
performance that he clearly considered carefully and put his heart
into. Unfortunately, he and Patrick Stewart represent the beginning
and the end of talented voices in the game. Everyone else is so
painfully wooden that it hurts, it physically hurts, to listen
to them. Inexplicably, they got like three women and three men to
voice all of the (literally thousands) of speaking roles in the
game, so get used to hearing the same voices over and over. Worse,
characters often change voices in midconversation, so without warning
the hiss of a reptilian Argonian becomes the whiny tenor of a wood
In the interests of freeing you up to do whatever you want in the
world, several hundred unique side quests are available. Of them,
many are clever and well-written; others are simple FedEx tasks,
and more than a few are tedious and dumb. Unfortunately, some of
dumb ones are also some of the most importantsuch as ones
that offer advancement in a faction or guild or progress the plot.
In two significant quests for the Mages Guild, you never even leave
the grounds. In one main quest instance, you're forced to drop what
you're doing and follow a character, on foot, to another locationwhich,
if you're far away (and I was very far away indeed) can take literally
That Works Fine. We'd Better Fix It.
I think Bethesda believed a lot of things to be broken in Morrowind
when they really weren't, which is the only way I can explain
some of the more imprudent design decisions found in this game.
Despite grandiose promises, Oblivion is a highly structured,
regimented experience that makes little effort to conceal the massive
checks and constraints on player liberty. Though nonlinear and freeform
in a global sense, Oblivion denies the player the small freedoms
that are the heart and soul of a truly open game.
For example, if you touch the wrong thing at the wrong time (like
the door of a shop after hours), it's a "crime," even
if it's just an accident, even if you make no effort to pick the
lock. I can't count how many times I got tossed in the slammer because
I tried to enter a merchant's shop without realizing that it was
closed. The cursor turns red when some action is criminal, but if
you're in a hurry or not paying close attention, it's easy to miss
it. How about a warning dialog?
If you leave stuff in chests or cabinets, it vanishes after a few
days. Were the effect limited to public places, I'd be fine with
itI wouldn't leave my stuff in a box at Taco Bell, after all.
But it's everywhere, even places that should be secure. And
you simply can't carry all of the stuff you need all of the time.
Your only solution is to mod the game or buy a house, which, as
you can imagine, is a rather pricey alternative.
Thinking I'd come up with a clever way around that, I killed a
guy to steal his house (so sue me, I needed a house). I was professional.
No one saw me do it. And yet despite possession being nine-tenths
of the law, touching anything in my new home was still a "crime."
If I put anything in "his" cabinets, getting them out
again marked them as stolen property. I couldn't sleep in the beds
because I was "trespassing." There was a corpse that I
couldn't get rid of on my living room floor. And my stuff still
disappeared if I left it there for too long. In a game intelligent
enough to assign unique objectives to every one of a thousand NPCs,
it's not unreasonable to expect it to be able to reset possession
when the original owner dies.
Look, house theft is probably not something that you'd get away
with in real life. And if the townspeople, with their vaunted Radiant
AI, had suddenly started wondering where the guy was and checked
his house and found me there, that would have been okay. But no
one did. No one missed him. The game decreed that I couldn't
have the house. In fact, the game's habit of doing stuff simply
to mess with me, and its habit of forgetting important things I
owned or did, contribute massively to my frustrations.
There are also simply asinine mistakes. Apparently no one at Bethesda
bothered to download Mount
& Bladebefore implementing an appalling horse
system so grossly and inexcusably dreadful that whoever's responsible
for it ought to be whipped. As if to counter that, you can fast-travel
to any location on the map at any time, turning the game experience
into a series of disparate segments and excluding the player from
the linear thread of a world.
The addition of minigames for speechcraft and lockpicking tasks
is a good idea in theory, but the execution of both games is trite
and ultimately frustrating. It's impossible to lose the speechcraft
game once you figure it out, no matter your character's speechcraft
rank. And once they finish whipping whoever did the horses, they
should turn the whip on whatever malice-driven gremlin implemented
the shockingly exasperating lockpick game. Minigames for tasks are
fine, but if you're going to do it, do it right.
Here's another example of stupidity rampaging through an otherwise
undeserving game: using their personal psychic twinkle, legitimate
merchants just magically know if you're carrying stolen goods, and
they won't buy them. If you're not a member of the Thieves Guild
with access to their fences, you simply can't make a living as a
thief. Guards automatically know what property is stolen, so if
you get arrested, all your stolen stuff is taken away, even if you
quite literally stole it five years ago a thousand miles away and
were never ever suspected of the crime.
They even managed to screw up the procedure for putting thing down,
for crying out loud. If you "drop" an item, it falls to
the ground at your feet and rolls away, or it gets kicked away when
you move. If you try to "set down" the item by dragging
it out of your inventory and into the game world, you fling it halfway
across the room because the physics are on crystal meth. Why can't
I simply arrange my objects in neat, orderly rows? Why provide bookshelves
if it's nearly impossible to put books on them? Why? Honestly, we're
talking about dropping stuff here; it's not a new game concept.
These are all little things, but, as I said before, it's the little
things that bring Oblivion down. Examples like those above
(and there are others, believe me) tarnish a game that actually
has almost nothing wrong with its big picture.
The Beginning of the End of Steerpike's Review
Based on the tirade above, it must seem that I hate the game, and
that's really not true at all. There is much to love in Oblivion,
much to experience and enjoy. In a lot of ways, it's simply
excellent, one of the greatest RPGs ever unleashed.
One of the coolest things about Oblivion is Oblivion. Soon
the gates are everywhere, and even approaching one incites thrills
of terror as the sky goes bloody and ominous thunder roils. Wildlife
doesn't usually approach Oblivion gates, and there's always the
chance that some hideous Daedra lord found his way through and is
waiting to eviscerate you. Entering one of those chilling portals
takes real intestinal fortitude. The Plane of Oblivion won't win
any awards for creativity in art direction, with its lava, spikes,
impaled stuff, red sky, creepy towers, and more spikes, but each
visit is a nail-biter. Enemies level with you in Oblivion, meaning
that you'll always be challenged by whatever you faceno more
god among insects (actually, this makes the game really, really
ridiculously hard later on, so ratchet down the difficulty level).
And making it all the way through one of those Planes of Oblivion
to actually shut the gate and get the hell out of there will take
everything you've got, whether you're first level or fiftieth. They're
like encapsulated superdungeons. You come out battered, exhausted
and torn, bleeding from a million wounds, all your stuff broken
from overuse. Sealing an Oblivion gate is one of the most wonderfully
exhausting experiences I've ever had in gaming, and the effect remains
strong since it's fed to you in small doses and you can do it whenever
you want to.
Of course, whether or not you choose to follow the main quest,
you're going to find your dance card very full. You can join any
of several guilds and factions and work your way up through the
ranksassuming you can survive the cutthroat politicsor
just live the life of a freelance adventurer. Or both. Or neither.
It takes about five or six hours of play to really get established
in Oblivion, but after that you'll never be at a loss for
things to do.
And for all the little things done wrong, they did plenty of little
things right, like adding the ability to cast spells while your
weapon is still out. You'll find yourself in some long fights, and
it's nice to be able to heal up or blast an enemy without having
to put away your weapon and get out your spellcasting hands. Blocking
is now an active moveit's up to you to parry or shield yourself
from blows in combat. Archery is spectacularly implemented; thanks
to Havok, you feel each shot, whether you're on the giving or the
receiving end, and it's satisfying to lurk in the shadows of an
ancient ruin, Garrett-like, and deliver a killer arrow to the throat
of an unsuspecting foe.
Dungeon design is very clever, including everything from simple
caves to huge subterranean complexes, the remnants of an extinct
elven race. Again thanks to Havok, many dungeons feature deadly
booby traps, deadfalls, tripwires and even complex Rube Goldberg
slice-and-dicers. You can trigger these traps to damage an enemy,
using the environment as a tool to aid you. Since most players will
spend a lot of time underground, they were smart to focus so much
And, as always, the writing is exceptional. The Elder Scrolls
are famous for their devious, convoluted plots and unpredictable
outcomes. It's really nice to see writers who are willing to give
us more than the usual rote fantasy fare. All of the dialogue is
good, the quest concepts are for the most part terrific, and the
hundreds of readable books scattered throughout the kingdom are
just as engrossing as ever, especially the creepy Daedric cult initiation
Perhaps most important, despite my laundry list of complaints,
the game is fun. It is consistently enjoyable, minus several moments
of intense frustration when I try to drop something and instead
send it into low earth orbit, or return to a cupboard in an abandoned
farmhouse to find that my collection of alchemical ingredients has
wandered off, or get arrested for accidentally picking up an apple.
I have not, however, been playing it obsessively for hours on end
as I did Morrowind; I think that ties in with the fact that
I just can't feel part of this world for some reason.
Socks Still On
Bethesda has always been ambitious, and this is its most ambitious
game yet. It's visually stunning and usually a lot of fun to play.
During development, the true focus was the Radiant AI, and to Bethesda's
credit, it does mostly work. NPCs get up, go to work, break for
lunch, chat in the street, hit the bar for a drink, visit each other's
homes, all driven by the remarkable technology of Radiant. It's
just that none of that had any effect on me.
This game has already sold two million copies and is showing no
signs of slowing down. It's the fastest-selling Xbox 360 title yet
and is topping all of the PC charts. Most reviews have been almost
gushingly positive, and most fans, as far as I know, are perfectly
thrilled with the game. Considering the recent shortage of single-player
RPGs and the alarmist claims that indeed the single-player RPG market
is about to go the way of the brontosaurus, Oblivion's release
couldn't be better timed.
No review has ever given me as much difficulty as this one. I've
honestly never been at such a crossroads in my view of a game. I
owe Oblivion a fair shake, I have a responsibility to get
my opinion right. I've questioned everything from my grammar to
my objectivity during the agonizing course of writing this, and
in some ways I feel no closer to touching the pulse of Oblivion
than I did when I started.
It's good. It just couldit shouldbe a lot better.
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