The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion Retrospective
I had never dived into the expansive wonderland of The Elder Scrolls’ universe before, but seeing all the recent coverage of Skyrim peaked my interest. I scrounged a copy of the previous title, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, and decided it was time to take my first steps into the franchise. Initially, I planned to blaze through the campaign, do some side-missions, and finish this article within a week, but Oblivion had other ideas. Roughly two weeks after receiving my copy of the game, I finally finished the main quest line. Despite that, I still don’t feel finished with Oblivion—not by a long-shot. There’s a lot to love in this early XBOX 360 release, but five years of gaming advancements have made some aspects feel antiquated.
What Holds Up? Oblivion is half-a-decade old now. Since it came out so close to the 360’s launch, I think many would expect their fond memories of the title to be plagued by launch goggles. As a fresh face to the franchise, I can definitively say that this is not the case. I was a bit nervous that I would lose interest in the title quickly, as I did near its release, but I'm happy to say that I didn't. The vibrant landscapes, sense of setting, masterful storytelling, and sheer amount of content in Oblivion are stunning.
From the beginning, Elder Scrolls IV showcases its wonderful art direction. You begin with a journey through the sewers. The game holds your hand through the mechanics, but when you finally exit the dark corridors, the color palette is breathtaking. Suddenly, you escape a claustrophobic, sterile environment into a living world full of crisp skies and vivid foliage. Despite showing its age through some dated textures and modeling, the art direction more than makes up for any less than stellar technical achievements. Very few games—especially open-world titles—convey such a strong sense of atmosphere from start to finish. I wasn’t just playing as a Battlemage exploring through Cyrodiil, I was that Battlemage.
The dedication to a rich setting extends beyond the visuals of Oblivion. The characters you meet, their actions, and the stories that envelop them contribute to bringing this game to life. Bethesda does a wonderful job designing story lines that feel complete and varied, and promote the idea of being surrounded by a living world that isn’t centered around the player. For example, there were many times where I would begin a quest, travel to meet up with someone as part of that quest, and find him either dead or missing. The mission then shifts to discovering what happened to this person, all while still trying to complete my initial goal. It’s small touches like this which make Oblivion's characters and story telling so compelling.
There’s a plethora of people and missions to run into as well. I was pleasantly surprised by the shear amount of quests in Oblivion. It truly started to feel endless at some point. To give you an idea of what I mean, I had logged just over 40 hours of game time before stepping into my first Oblivion gate. That consisted of two guild storylines that are inessential to the main plot. Even after that, I still have at least two major quest lines left and however many one-off quests that I haven’t run into yet. It’s impressive that one game could legitimately pack in over 100 hours of content and not get stale. Few franchises could pull that off.
What Feels Outdated? As impressive as Oblivion remains today, it has begun to show its age in some ways. While the writing is superb, the in-game delivery of the story is subpar and some the quest design feels like it is without direction. A variety of quest glitches may also hinder progress through the game, which is unfortunate considering how well the quests typically flow into one another.
Perhaps the most antiquated piece of Oblivion is the dialogue system. In spite of all the wonderful design and writing that makes Cyrodiil feel like a genuine location, it’s easy to lose your immersion when speaking with the locals. During dialogue, the camera focuses on the speaker's face and never breaks that focus. It feels very unnatural to talk to someone face-to-face for an extended period of time without any movement among the two of you. Similarly, the dialogue options in Oblivion feel very limiting compared to games that have followed it, such as Mass Effect and Dragon Age. Many times, I would only be given a single dialogue option, or I would want to ask questions the game wasn’t designed for me to ask. Even if they were to give two options that yielded similar results, multiple dialogue options go a long way towards making your character feel like your creation.
Some of the quest design leaves a lot to be desired as well. While the majority of the missions settle into a happy medium between difficult and fun, there’s a handful that can drag the entire experience down. There are times where the player can feel totally lost while trying to complete a task. I think the best example of this is the vampirism quest. Without going into major spoiler territory, this quest is thrust upon you without being added to the mission log. It requires hunting down a handful of items—without any indication where they might be—and has an implicit time-limit to completion. Many of these aspects could be cool. I think the idea of a mission starting on its own and not caused by the player is a great idea. The problem with this quest, and similar ones, is a lack of information to the player. There’s nothing in your quest-log to suggest that this event is worthy of your time, and there are no attempts to point you to the genesis of the storyline. Typically, the only place you can find information that allows you to progress is an online database. The game doesn’t always do a good job of pointing you in the right direction.
Lastly, Oblivion can be a very glitchy experience. To a certain extent, that’s part of the charm of an open world series like this, but it can occasionally get in the way of what makes this title so great. When a player tries to think outside the box or just naturally does something the game isn’t expecting, it can cause bugs that either impede their progress or prevent them from advancing entirely. As an example, I was doing a quest where I needed to remove a group of vampire hunters from a town. I was told I could either assist them in hunting down vampires that moved into a cave nearby or kill the hunters outright. Deciding to assist them, I informed them of the cave, traveled there, slayed the vampires, and returned to tell them about it. Unfortunately, through a bug in the design, I had no way of informing them that the vampires were dead. The game wouldn’t let me, and I had to murder the hunters to continue. I don’t expect open world games to be glitch-less, but these types of major bugs can hinder one's progress in such a way that you don’t want to continue.
Does It Stand the Test of Time When I weigh the pros and cons of Oblivion, I feel that it has absolutely stood the test of time. Between the terrific sense of setting, fantastic writing, and massive amount of content, it’s hard to imagine anyone not feeling satisfied with this experience. For Skyrim, I hope Bethesda will keep the things that made Oblivion great, while fixing some of the minor issues that plagued that title. Before going questing through the land of Cyrodiil, I had mild interests in another Elder Scrolls game. After sinking 60 hours that felt like 60 minutes into Oblivion, Skyrim could not be higher on my list of anticipated games of 2011.