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The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion

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I think it's safe to say that The Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion is one of the most widely anticipated games of 2006 -- one of the few MMORPGs of my favorite definition (Massively Multientity Offline RPG). I will add to this statement by saying that although I really enjoyed Morrowind, Oblivion is not one of my most anticipated games of 2006. So keep in mind while reading this "review" that I went into this game with fairly average expectations -- in short, I think I'm fairly unbiased in regards to the game. Something I can't really say about some games.

With all the necessary background information, I feel safe saying that Oblivion is one hell of a game. It's hard not to go into this game and be almost immediately captivated by the world that Bethesda has created. And that's probably the best way to describe the world in Oblivion: captivating. Despite its stale, generic, middle-age fantasy setting, Oblivion still manages to have enough depth to really reel in its players. This is, in part, due to the fact that Bethesda has gone absolutely crazy in populating the world with NPCs powered by SkynetRadiant AI (as Bethesda has coined it) which maintain their own unique daily schedules. It is also due to the extreme amount of detail which the developers have taken notice of in-game: the volumes upon volumes of readable books, a shop sign wavering to-and-fro as a result of an arrow fired at it, and even its own reservoir of unique flowers and plants which can be harvested and combined to create potions and the like. The game just feels alive.

And in this feeling of reality comes one of my biggest gripes about the game: with all the extensive attention paid to Oblivion's graphics... They're probably the most disappointing aspect of the game for me. While I play the game I just continually see cool things that beg to have a screenshot taken of them (which is good), but very rarely do I see a beautiful animation or uniquely-designed enemy or character (which is bad). The game's rendering engine seems custom tailored to create good screenshots but, like Everquest 2 the characters, enemies, and animations feel so stale and stilted. It's quite a shame, actually; seeing Oblivion-caliber realism combined with World of Warcraft animation quality and we'd have a sure-fire graphical winner. Don't get me wrong, you'd have to be blind to not realize the amount of beauty this game is capable of. I just feel that a lot of the graphical prowess is put to waste as far as fluid animation is concerned -- each individual action is well-done, but as a whole there is simply something off. It's part of the problem with trying to recreate Real Life on modern hardware: you may make a lot of overall progress, but the closer you get to reality, the easier it is for people to spot rough spots. That said, check out some of my favorite "Oh, that's purdy!" moments (this was before I had to reduce my overall visual quality -- sadface):

Shortly after the above screenshots were taken I was forced into downgrading the visual quality in an attempt to actually live through combat without sinking into a single-digit framerate. I was quite sad to have to do this as it marks a first for being required to lower image quality to maintain a 30+ framerate, but hey, my AMD64 3500+, 2gb DDR400 RAM, 256mb 6800GT rig had a nice run of being top dog for most of my gaming needs. In the end I got rid of the ridiculously lengthy viewing distance, dropped the HDR rendering (which especially made me a sadpanda), dropped shadows, and added bloom (in place of the HDR). One of the nice things about this change was that I could swap in bloom and 2x anti-aliasing in place of the HDR and still get a 10-15 overall framerate boost. I would really like to see this game on my rig with HDR and anti-aliasing but Bethesda must have realized that some things were not meant for the eyes of mortals. Which is a shame; it would've felt neat to spontaneously combust in a cloud of joy.

Speaking of joy, I'd like to spend a moment to relay the true reason that Oblivion surpasses Morrowind in every way: the combat. Bethesda must've imported a team of super-coder-monkeys to completely overhaul the system from the previous games because, this time around, the combat has a whole lot of weight to it. And I mean that quite literally. When I swing my sword at an enemy, it feels like it oughta hurt. When an enemy blocks my swing, my speakers emit a shrill clank while my character recoils back and prepares to take a big, unprotected blow from my adversary. The new ability to quickly and easily cast spells while still having a sword and shield (or two-handed weapon, if that's your thing) equipped makes playing a Battle Mage, of some sort, a truly fantastic experience. Enjoy some screenshots of combat.

Part of the reason why combat feels more enjoyable to me is the increased emphasis on proper projectile physics and the like. Shooting a bow is actually quite entertaining (more so than any other FPS bow I've ever tried) because when an arrow hits your target, the damn thing remains sticking out of him until you kill him and yank the arrow out. If you miss, the arrow either breaks (if you're shooting a stone wall at point blank -- not that I found this out the hard way or anything) or clatters around the ground. And when you kill an enemy with a particularly devastating blow their weapon and shield will go flying (as will their corpse) out of their hands. So if by some chance you found an enemy with an especially purdy, glowy weapon that is absolutely tearing you apart and you get him down to his final sliver of life, I'd recommend trying to avoid cliffs. Because, and I say this once again purely with conjecture due to the fact that I'd never do something this stupid or anything (cough, cough), if you're near a cliff and deliver a big death blow you might as well say good riddance to that beautiful sword as it goes careening down an insurmountable cliffside. Oh how I miss that pretty blue-glowing sword.

And while this coupling of complaint and praise doesn't really impact gameplay in any way, shape, or form, the physics are spectacular. I have taken to busting into people's dining rooms during dinner and running amok on their table and laughing maniacally as all their lovely meat, silverware, and plates go clattering to the ground. I then run out of the house hoisting my sword in the air and shouting my dinner-miscreant battle cry as I disappear into the fog. My complaint about these physics, which lies in a similar vein, is that there should be destructible objects in the game a la the Source Engine. There have been so many moments in the game where I thought it'd be cool to break through the glass of, say, a display case or to just go crazy and destroy every barrel in a town (how's that for "infamy," eh Bethesda?). This, honestly, was one of the most disappointing things for me going into the game. Though if this is how far I have to go to find a complaint I'd say that Oblivion is pretty well off.

Supposedly the game world in Oblivion is smaller than that of Morrowind's -- oh well, I say. Good riddance to endless spots of land with no discoverable content. Oblivion's countryside is dotted with far more little facets of the game to reward explorers, whether it be a bandit hideout, random encounters with NPCs, or surprisingly large dungeons (redundant in design as they may be) than Morrowind could've ever hoped for. And this more focused land size seems to have helped Bethesda constrict the ease with which the main story quests can be accomplished (the Guild Wars-esque "Fast Travel" is really handy too), which I am very thankful for.

I'm not too far into the main story quest yet -- I've played thirteen-fourteen hours of the game so far and I've really just been doing miscellaneous sidequests for the Fighter's Guild, Mage's Guild, and then competing in The Arena in a one-on-one battle to the death. I've also completed two of the game's sixteen "Planes of Oblivion" which are horrendously annoying to look at, but ever-so-difficult and enjoyable to play through (not to mention the really rewarding items that can be found within). The story in Oblivion seems far more focused and intriguing than I ever found Morrowind's to be too, so here's hoping that the game keeps it up as I get further into the game.

For now, this is about as long as my review of the game will get. If I feel any of my complaints are unwarranted, or if aspects of the game I had previously considered flukes persist to the point where they start to grate me in ways that make me cry myself to sleep at night, then I'll update this article with the appropriate information. And here's hoping there's a patch soon which can address the frequent crashes I'm getting at seemingly random points, which seems to be a nice big bug custom-tailored for Trent Polack. Lucky, lucky me.

Also, hearing Patrick Stewart say the following line made me all sorts of tingly.

close shut the jaws... of oblivion
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