The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion is without doubt one of the finest games to grace the PC and consoles during this generation. It's a huge, stunning adventure that lets you go anywhere, exploring and tackling quests as you see fit. If you're a PlayStation 3 owner who is yet to sample the delights of Tamriel then Ubisoft's Game of the Year should be high on your list of future purchases.
Not content with the already epic original release, developer Bethesda Softworks released two expansions to the game. The first, Knights of the Nine, added a new 10-hour quest, while the second expansion, Shivering Isles, delivered more content than most full-price releases. So, rather than re-review all three titles, read on for highlights of our previous thoughts.
Greg on Oblivion
The sequel to 2002's Morrowind is such a remarkable accomplishment, not even because of its vast plains, seemingly endless amount of quests, and polished mechanics, but because it's equally accessible to both hardcore and casual gamers. You don't have to devote your life to Oblivion to truly enjoy it, and for those who don't want to pump in the hours, the main storyline can be completed in relatively few hours. However, once you've created your character and exited the sewers, you likely won't touch the main quest for quite some time.
The story begins with your character, for reasons unknown, waking up behind bars. Soon after, you're greeted by the Emperor himself (voiced by Patrick Stewart of Star Trek fame) who warns you of his dire situation and uses a secret passage within your cell as an escape route. Eventually the Emperor is ambushed by a group of marauders, leaving it up to you to restore the rightful ruler to the throne and once again bring peace to Cyrodiil.
Initially, when travelling through Cyrodiil's landscape, you'll be attacked by the occasional rat or wolf, but as your level increases, more difficult enemies begin to appear. By the time you're at level 20 you'll be fighting Ogres, Trolls, Spriggans, Will-O-The-Wisps and plenty of powerful Necromancers. While I'm a classic RPG purist, and would usually love to be able to level up my character to be able to kick some serious Daedric ass with a single blow from my Umbra sword, having enemies level up with you actually makes a whole lot of sense. In Morrowind, if you ventured to certain areas of the map too early on in your journey, you'd face some of the game's toughest denizens. In Oblivion, you're encouraged to explore without having to fear the dreaded 'reload previous save' screen over and over again after groups of Frost Atronachs, Dremora Lords, and Spider Daedras decide to ambush your level 3 character. The system works well, but it can also be a pain in the royal behind for players who like to level up quite a bit before embarking on the main quest.
The game map is enormous, roughly three times larger than that in Morrowind, and is home to dozens of caves, landmarks, dungeons, cities, thousands of NPCs to interact with and four guilds to join (six if you count the Blades and Arena). For anyone who's played Morrowind, the game actually feels a bit smaller in scale, partly due to your character's speed (your character moved like a snail in Morrowind), and the illusion that cities are closer than they seem thanks to the game's incredible draw distance.
Equally impressive are the number of items and spells you can acquire in the game. I'm not sure what the exact numbers are but there must be well over a 1000 items that can be collected, equipped, and stolen. Similarly, there are a seemingly endless amount of spells that can be cast, provided you have the required amount of magicka and have reached the appropriate skill level.
From a technical standpoint, Oblivion doesn't disappoint. Bethesda has done a remarkable job at bringing Cyrodiil to life, and not just visually either. The Radiant AI delivers on all fronts, as NPCs go about their daily activities - eating, sleeping, hunting, training and generally living their lives the way people do. But every now and then the AI goes beyond its menial tasks and does something extraordinary. I've seen NPCs fight over kills; I've seen rival goblin clans fight one another to the death; I've seen the population of an entire city come to the aid of a downed comrade; I've seen NPCs steal items I accidentally dropped and then sell them to the nearest merchant. Occasionally they'll do something that is a little odd, but on the whole no other game features AI as impressively lifelike.
Cyrodiil is a massive province, filled with trees, grass that sways back and forth as you wade through it, towering stone structures, and beautiful sunrises - make a trip over to Dive Rock at around six in the morning and you'll see what I mean (watch out for the giant troll nearby though). Character models are well designed, although often quite ugly, and the lighting has also been well implemented. From an audio perspective, Oblivion succeeds, for the most part, with solid voice acting and an impressively epic score, but also fails miserably at times, with NPCs engaging in some horribly dry conversations.
Lesley on Knights of the Nine
As if the epic-ness of the main game wasn't enough, the Knights of the Nine expansion supplies another ten-hour quest line, mixing the fascinating mythology of Tamriel with the chance to be really, really good. Previous factions allowed you to specialise in magic, fighting, hunting vampires, become Champion of the Arena and a skilled thief. Despite all this variety, it was the Dark Brotherhood which set the game apart, the chance to choose to become an assassin and walk the Dark Path of the Night Mother.
The quest is divided into several sections, beginning with a pilgrimage around Cyrodiil to the wayshrines of each of the deities. Aided only by a parchment scroll, half the fun is finding these shrines, as markers don't actually appear on your main map. This isn't too hard; it just involves a little lateral thinking. While fast-travelling is an option, getting a horse and riding the entire way is reflective and also very beautiful. Half the fun of Oblivion has been the ability to saddle up and ride on a whim, but this is a meditative journey, a reflection of the holy quest; as your in-game avatar rides, it's easy to contemplate places previously visited as well as newly-discovered hamlets, bridges and waterfalls. The land is filled with trees covered with fiery-red leaves and on the way it is possible to run into others on the road, intent on visiting each shrine and receiving a vision of Pelinal Whitestrake, the Divine Crusader and sworn enemy of the Ayleid Sorcerer-King, Umaril.
Once this section is complete, Pelinal directs you to an abandoned priory deep in the heartlands of Cyrodiil, to the ransacked Priory of the Nine. There the spirits of the slain knights send you on the real quests to reclaim magical armor and weapons once worn and wielded by the Divine Crusader himself. Now scattered across the land, some in other dimensions entirely, these are the only things which will protect against the evil sorcerer's powers.
While Umaril remains the Big Bad of the expansion, he has his own super-powered minions known as Aurorans, who look a lot like the Daedric warriors found in Oblivion, but pack a much bigger punch. Fortunately, they also carry flawless gems, money, spells and decent weaponry, making these encounters well worth the effort. Fortunately, if you're higher than level 20 or just have the difficulty set really low, they take only a few moments to dispatch.
This quest line is the biggest yet and keeps you hooked right to the end. While the dungeons are not as big or as maze-like as the previous expansions, the chance to really explore Cyrodiil really makes this quest much more effective.
Lesley on Shivering Isles
The Shivering Isles might evoke images of an icy tundra but it's actually anything but. Half is almost pleasant, bathed in autumnal light, and the other is filled with mist and suitably creepy. Welcome to the first and last expansion for Bethesda's award-winning RPG The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.
Although visually very different, The Shivering Isles feels very much like a part from the original Oblivion; a journal note pops up directing you to Niben Bay, south of the Imperial City and an aptly named 'Strange Door'. A mysterious island has appeared slap bang in the middle of the lake and there is a strange portal at its centre. You don't need to be a high level to enter or worry about a different control system as The Shivering Isles uses exactly the same game engine as Oblivion.
Walking through the portal is as mundane an act as they come but after a quick civilised chat, Bethesda surprises everyone with a truly stunning sequence which looks equally impressive on both PC and 360. The room in which your character sits turns into a swarm of blue, green and purple butterflies (and that one moth) which flutter away to reveal the Shivering Isles in all its odd glory. Sheogorath might be nuts but sometimes even the insane Daedric Prince can summon up things of incredible beauty.
The Shivering Isles is vast, with its own dungeons, hamlets, villages, marauders and wildlife. It's also self-contained and you don't have to return to Cyrodiil until you really want to as everything needed for the next fifty (and then some) hours of play lie in Sheogorath's realm. He might hate horses but that doesn't mean you shouldn't wander aimlessly, taking in the landscape. There are stunning waterfalls, mountains, caverns, hidden caches of treasure and of course, locals who are just that little bit bonkers; some are nearly normal, some are religious zealots and some just love to flay the skin off anything that crosses their path.
As with the main game, there is an over-arching quest line which deals with the mysterious Greymarch and the Daedric Prince of Order, Jyggalag, with the unpronounceable name. This quest line sees you learn more about Sheogorath, his realm and the personal bickering of the underlings who watch over his realm, drug addict Thadon, the Duke of Mania and paranoid Syl, the Duchess of Dementia. But there are also numerous mini-quests which see you helping out locals, torturing anyone who takes your fancy. It's a lot of fun and the new assortment of odd NPCs is a refreshing change to those found in Cyrodiil. While the actors from the original have returned, there's plenty of new information to be had, new weapons and books to read.
The main quest line also allows you to use the skills learnt back in Cyrodiil, making the whole line feel like a blend of the quests completed in the Thieves' and Fighters Guild with a touch of the Dark Brotherhood thrown in for good measure. This is a nice touch as variety is the spice of life, especially when The Shivering Isles could have been just more of the same. Instead, it's different and just as engaging as the main game. The drastically different environments are filled with new enemies and generic caves to explore. Even after completing the main quest there's still plenty to do and, failing that, there's always the option to return to Cyrodiil with your new uber-weaponry.
As a whole
The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion - Game of the Year Edition is incredible value. Exploring all the game has to offer will take well in excess of 200 hours and despite its age (in next-gen terms) it still delivers the production value you'd expect from a modern adventure game. If you want one game to deliver the goods until the flurry of new releases hit later in the year, this is it.
The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion - Game of the Year Edition is also available for Xbox 360 and PC, published by 2K Games.