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The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion
Review By: Jared Black
Developer: Bethesda Softworks
Publisher: 2K Games
Genre: RPG
ESRB: Teen
# Of Players: 1
Online Play: No
Accessories: Hard Drive (caching)
Buy Now: Buy The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion at Amazon.com!

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I have to start this review out with a confession: I haven’t actually “beaten” the main quest in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.  Normally I would not write this review until I did, but therein lies exactly what makes Oblivion so great.  Despite having played over 76 hours (as clocked in the game, I've probably played at least several more when you consider time lost to restarts and not saving) as I write this, I’ve only spent a few hours in the main quest and still enjoyed virtually every moment I’ve had with the game.

If you played The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind on Xbox, you’ll be right at home here in Oblivion.  Like Morrowind, Oblivion is essentially a single-player MMO.  The game starts out with your character in prison, soon to be met by a fleeing Emperor that just happens to need to use the escape route hidden in your cell.  He immediately points you out as a person of destiny, and allows you to escape with him.  The area that follows serves as not only a tutorial, but also builds and customizes your character’s initial attributes based on how you handle it.  Naturally you aren’t forced to stick with the choices the game makes for you, as once again you can build a custom character completely from scratch to best suit your play style.

After you make your final decisions (which will effect the rest of the game, so choose wisely!) the initial dungeon, you’re completely on your own.  Choose to follow the main quest, or go in a completely different direction and explore wherever you please.  It’s all up to you.  Which brings me back to my original point; Oblivion is not about following some pre-determined path to save the princess or defeat an ultimate evil (although you certainly get to fight plenty of it).  Instead, it’s about forging your own destiny in the engrossing world Bethesda has built for you to play in.  Many games have followed that design model, but what truly makes this game great is that you’ll have fun regardless of what you choose to do.

The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion

Most of your quests will come from the various guilds and factions scattered throughout the land.  Join the Fighters Guild and beat people up, join the Mages Guild and help advance the study of the supernatural, or even join the Thieves Guild and rob people for the good of your own guild.  There are also a variety of other groups scattered throughout the land, including vampire hunters, orders of knights (some of which reward you for accomplishing tasks), and even the murderous Dark Brotherhood.

While some of the quests are fairly standard RPG fare, most of them have enough interesting twists and turns to keep the game moving along well.   Each guild has its own subplots, political maneuverings, backstabbing, and in-fighting that you’ll eventually (should you choose to participate) play a key role in.  Along the way you’ll be manipulated, lied to, and even do a bit of your own trickery to advance in your chosen factions.  

Something Morrowind lacked on Xbox that Oblivion adds is a handy quest tracking system that makes it easy to juggle multiple quests at a time.  The next objective in your current quest is displayed with a marker on your map, while a list of your active and completed quests is also available along with plenty of notes as to what’s going on and where each quest stands.  At any time you can select a different active quest as your current one, which makes it much easier to revisit quests you’ve dropped earlier in the game.  Keeping track of everything is no longer the overwhelming prospect it once was.

When not performing quests, as you walk around the game world you’ll often witness the much-heralded “Radiant A.I.” system in work.  While not quite the leap forward many had hoped it would be (to Bethesda’s credit they never promised it would be), it’s still impressive in action.  NPCs will have conversations with each other, and although they’re somewhat stale (usually small-talk or something you’ve already heard dozens of times elsewhere) on occasion they’ll surprise you with something interesting to say.  As events happen in the game world the conversations will evolve, and you can even pick up on hints that may help you out along the way.  The A.I. system also governs most NPC schedules and actions, determining when they sleep, when they go to the local tavern, etc.  For example, if a character indicates that he will meet you in a certain city, you can literally follow him around as he travels the entire distance to that city.  Combined with the realistic tracking of time (although time passes much faster than real life), it creates a very convincing game world.  Having a NPC unavailable at certain hours of the day doesn’t negatively impact gameplay either, as you can instantly speed up the passage of time for however many hours it takes for the proper amount of time to pass.

The A.I. isn’t perfect, of course.  As I mentioned, NPCs often repeat the same conversations you’ve heard over and over again.  Worse than that, NPCs that join up with you for whatever reason seem to lose all independent thought.  So, if you agree to take someone to his or her home, along the way you can visit dungeons and they’ll fight alongside you without question.  Although it is a great way to clear out tougher dungeons early in the game, it’s a little weird.  At the minimum, having them mutter some random comments (such as “So, why are we here again?”) would’ve helped.

One of the best additions to the series in this installment is the ability to fast travel to locations you’ve already visited once, as well as key cities every citizen should know about automatically.  While I was worried that this new feature would lead to a lack of incentive to explore and discover the surroundings (the best part of the series in my opinion), that turned out to not be the case.  The game still gives you plenty of motivation to explore, and many of the quests require at least some travel to lesser areas you cannot fast travel directly to.  Aside from that, there are still unique locations across the land that reward those willing to gut it out and set forth to find their own adventure.

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Posted: 2006-05-19 19:00:15 PST