Stop the forces of Oblivion from destroying the mortal plane.
PC Release: March 20, 2006
By Ian Coppock
Whether it’s spending time outdoors or getting into a big video game, summer is usually a time for grand adventure. It’s no coincidence that fantasy RPGs like The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt are usually released during the summer months, and with that time of year right around the corner, this is a great opportunity to take a look back at the high fantasy epics of yore. The best adventure stories are still enjoyable years after they’ve been told, and though The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion‘s status as the best of those games is up for debate, its legacy is still felt over a decade after its release.
The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion is the fourth title in Bethesda’s venerable Elder Scrolls series and, like the other games in that lineup, is a high fantasy RPG with all the hallmarks of a magical adventure: a big world with lots of items and helpless non-player characters for whom you can run fetch quests. A few editions of Oblivion have been released over the years, but the best one to buy these days is the Game of the Year Deluxe edition available on Steam, which includes the base title and a ton of DLC all to the tune of $20.00 (or about $.01 per hour of entertainment).
Like the other Elder Scrolls games, Oblivion takes place in the magical world of Tamriel, a continent rife with magic, elves, orcs, all that good fantasy stuff. The game’s story is set 200 years before the events of Skyrim, and in classic Elder Scrolls fashion, begins with the player character having been imprisoned for an unspecified crime. Players can fashion their character from 10 playable races and a wide variety of cosmetic options. Each race also has its own perks and abilities: elves are great with magic, orcs are great with smashing skulls, etc. Players can also pick a class to suit their playstyle, making Oblivion a much more rigid RPG than most fantasy adventures released today.
The player character catches a big break from jail time when, of all people, emperor Uriel Septim shows up at their cell. Uriel’s being chased by assassins, and his secret escape route leads through the player’s cell. The emperor’s bodyguards allow the player to accompany their party into the tunnels below the prison, though their efforts are in vain, as Uriel gets killed by a cabal of red-robed assassins. Before dying, the emperor tells the player to find his secret son, and prevent the demonic forces of Oblivion (hey, name drop!) from overrunning Tamriel.
Even though the player’s been entrusted with saving the world, they can do whatever they want after this prologue ends. Like other Elder Scrolls games, Oblivion starts players out with the main story objective but gives them the freedom to go wherever they want. Players can join a faction, go find legendary items… hell, just sit there and relax by the lake, Oblivion doesn’t care. The Elder Scrolls has always been a big believer in player agency, and no less so than with Oblivion.
In grand RPG tradition, players gain experience by using their class’s core skills, and can level up attributes like athletics and magic affinity. Unlike Skyrim and other modern RPGs that are more open-ended, Oblivion only lets players level up if they use their class’s pre-assigned skills. A player who picks a magic class, for example, won’t level up if they use something outside that skillset, like swords. This design philosophy is dated by contemporary standards but Oblivion has over a dozen classes that combine lots of different skills. The biggest danger is that players only have the prologue to see what skills they like before being forced to choose something, so pick carefully.
Oblivion can be played from a first- or third-person perspective and gives players a high degree of freedom in choosing how to navigate the world. Players can charge into battle sword in hand or sneak around assassinating foes from afar with a bow. Magic makes for the most audacious combat approach, while lockpicking lets players get a bit more creative in “borrowing” enemies’ possessions. Players can also become adept at schmoozing up to NPCs and haggling at stores. Whatever the skillset, Oblivion‘s core gameplay is classic Elder Scrolls: talk to NPCs, get quests, descend into dungeons, and fulfill a goal. It’s an inveterate quest design structure that gets saved from weary repetition by the hours of adventuring fun players have along the way to an objective.
Oblivion‘s combat system is not difficult to understand: just use a sword, a spell or a bow to kill a foe before they can kill the player. Enemies will usually charge right at the player, but with a bit of practice, dodging the opponent’s attacks and going in for the kill become all but second-nature. As players level up, the world will start providing more advanced weapons and treasures. Of course, enemies will also level up, and more powerful monsters will start creeping along the realm’s roads. This combat system would eventually undergo little change in Skyrim, but weapons can degrade, so it pays to keep equipment nice and shiny.
Players can set out to complete Oblivion‘s main story, complete standalone side quests, or join a faction. Like Morrowind and Skyrim, Oblivion features entire quest arcs that are not only narratives in their own right, but also give players an opportunity to build their character and gain access to valuable resources. These factions’ quests can get pretty involved and almost always end with the player becoming the head of that organization. It turns out that when the world is ruled by swords and bloodshed, the promotion ladder becomes surprisingly flexible.
Most of Oblivion is set in a verdant province called Cyrodiil, which, with its castles and rolling green hills, is the quintessential medieval fantasy setting. Of course, this also makes the game world difficult to distinguish from the dozens of other medieval fantasy games that thought it would be innovative to have a world of castles and rolling green hills (because that‘s never been done before). There’s a bit of jungle to the south and some mountains in the map’s western corner, but the rest of the world features samey medieval countryside that, while pretty, is extremely conventional for a fantasy RPG.
Players can also head to one of the region’s many cities to find quests or just get a drink at the inn. For all the visual sameness afforded by Oblivion‘s wilderness, the game does a good job of giving each of its cities a different visual theme. Each city features its own palette of building and landmark textures, though they all offer the same mix of inns, guild stops, and NPCs bursting with random exposition. Some of Oblivion‘s visual design, especially its environments, have aged well over the years, but its NPCs and wildlife look mannequin-esque by contemporary standards.
As it happens, Oblivion‘s NPCs are where most of the game’s weirdest design choices really shamble to life. For starters, the guards’ AI is omniscient, to the point where they can sometimes detect players burglarizing a house on the other side of town. The game’s friendship system is also one of the most bizarre minigames ever devised by man. Players who need to gain an NPC’s trust have to play a pie chart game that makes them alternate between telling jokes, making threats, and complimenting them on… what, exactly? No one knows; but it does allow players to forge lifelong friendships in the span of several minutes. It’s a wonky system that only gets funnier as years go by.
Even more hilarious than the instant buddy minigame is how Oblivion allots its voice actors. Rather than mix a bunch of voice actors together across the game’s numerous races, Bethesda decided it would be a good idea to give each race a single pair of male and female voice actors. In other words, a conversation between three male humans just sounds like one guy talking to his other two personalities. Because each NPC has its own canned dialogue, repeatedly pressing anyone from a suave nobleman to a dirty beggar for news will result in the same scuttlebutt, delivered in the exact same tone. Oblivion‘s voice acting is one of gaming’s most lovably bad design choices. Fortunately, the game does a lot better in other areas of sound design, especially its gorgeous soundtrack.
Oblivion‘s voice acting kerfuffle becomes less entertaining when confronted with the game’s writing. Most NPCs spend an inordinate amount of time drowning the player in exposition, which isn’t that out of character for an Elder Scrolls game but is particularly common in Oblivion. The shopkeeper who wants help investigating a shady merchant will take four or five paragraphs to explain exactly why she wants the job done. Drowning the player in mission details does not substitute for storytelling, but it does make it harder to remember why the quest was taken in the first place.
The bulk of Oblivion‘s storytelling and voice acting efforts were put into the main questline, which features performances from such big names as Terrence Stamp, Sean Bean, and the immortal Sir Patrick Stewart. These actors’ thoughtful performances and much more concise writing save Oblivion‘s story from becoming as plodding as the farmer who spends thirty minutes explaining why her dirtbag husband ran off. The story also touches on themes that pop up in other games, like how the whole Dragonborn thing works. Oblivion‘s main story is arguably the most involved of the series, and the idea of the entire world being destroyed by demons gives Skyrim‘s dragons a run for their money.
The Elder Scrolls games are not known for deep character development, preferring to let their massive worlds be the meat of the game. There’s nothing wrong with that approach, but Oblivion features a modicum of character development that makes it stand out from its peers. The emperor’s bastard son, Martin Septim, is given a thoughtful demeanor and gradual character development arc by Sean Bean, who managed to channel his inner Ned Stark before ever having signed to HBO’s Game of Thrones. Mankar Camaron, the mortal bad guy voiced by Terrence Stamp, similarly provides some fascinating insights even if they are all squashed into the very end of the game.
Oblivion‘s staple of endearing characters continues in The Shivering Isles, an expansion pack that sends the player off to an island chain full of crazy people. The expansion is meant to be played after the main questline, but allows players to interact with kooky characters and gives the medieval fantasy trope a colorful twist of insanity. It’s one of those rare expansions that is both chock full of content and the clear product of lots of love; it remains one of the most memorable fantasy RPG expansions of all time. The Shivering Isles is rolled into the aforementioned Game of the Year Deluxe edition, along with the less memorable Knights of the Nine DLC and a variety of spell, house, and armor add-ons.
So why should modern RPG enthusiasts consider giving Oblivion a try, what with its dated visuals and oftentimes tedious dialogue? Because like other Elder Scrolls games, Oblivion succeeds in handing players a robust world and telling them to go wild. It contains that same spirit of wild abandon and exploration that was captured by Morrowind, and later Skyrim. It’s a fantasy game that allows for open-world grand adventure, but has a central story that’s deeper and more involved than that of any other Elder Scrolls games, giving it an element of enjoyment not quite found in Skyrim. Medieval fantasy enthusiasts pining for the next great adventure may well find it in Oblivion. Even 11 years later, it’s one of gaming’s surest staples of satisfying adventure.
You can buy The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion Game of the Year Edition Deluxe here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.