a review of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion
a videogame developed by bethesda softworks
and published by 2K games
for Microsoft Windows, the microsoft xbox 360 and the sony playstation 3 computer entertainment system
text by tim rogers
When The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion was originally released on PC and Xbox 360 back in 2006, critics everywhere were rushing to let their wrists go limp, hold their hands at shoulder-height, and throw their voices into higher octaves in order to shout at what a gorgeous situation it was. Critics, in general, are like that. They get free videogames, usually before everyone else, and this sets off a kind of chemical reaction that leads people to call “Spider-Man 2” “The movie of the modern age. Hands. Down.” on an internet messageboard because they got tickets to a preview showing. When Oblivion showed up, it was after over a year of its being shown “behind closed doors” to journalists who were also given free muffins. Eyes peeking out from over the tops of those muffins, those priveleged few men saw a game that would have an expansive world where you were free to do whatever you wanted, even kill people. That the game was set in an actual fantasy world bellowed a verbose message down into the wells of these blogger hearts; the comic book geek in Coke-bottle glasses who tumbled down there during a kickball game decades ago stood up and jumped like he thought he could reach the moon. The idea of a new Elder Scrolls game spoke to people in this era of Grand Theft Auto, where the only games with “freedom” also happen to be set in worlds that resemble ours as closely as possible. It didn’t even matter that Oblivion was part four in this acclaimed series, nor did it matter that part three had been released for the Xbox and PC at a time when Grand Theft Auto had yet to find its feet on the PlayStation 2. Oblivion was here and now, it was big and large, it looked gorgeous and it probably played gorgeous, too.
I’m sorry, though. It’s not a good game. It won numerous accolades and “Game of the Year” awards from videogames media, probably because the editors-in-chief of such publications felt some sort of obligation — so long we’d sat in that cursed meeting room, so long wanting to get our hands on the precious controller and play precious the game — after having pumped it up for so long. It was a weird, hot fad, all of a sudden, even, for the jock-gamers who play Halo 2 on Xbox Live while seated firmly in a leg-press machine, lifting half-tons as the controller vibrates: heckin’ steoroid freaks were playing Oblivion; it was showing up on their gamer cards, they were recommending it to their friends. Why? God, why? I guess it’s because it was well “produced”. In this era where the “Lord of the Rings” movies were able to pop up in cinemas and make billions of dollars despite their being about elves and fairies, being three hours long, being three movies instead of one, and being directed by a fat man (whose appearance Hollywood had tried to hide like Area 51), fantasy and assorted fantasy memorabilia is almost right up there with NASCAR T-shirts on the list of things to buy your third husband Bobby for his first birthday since the quadruplets were born. Somehow, Bethesda knew where to put this game: stress that it gives you freedom, pump the gorgeous graphics, and put Patrick Stewart’s name on the back of the box.
A tangent: Patrick Stewart plays the part of the emperor, and you play the part of a prisoner. The emperor comes through your prison cell, being escorted through the catacombs and out of the city. He notices something in your eyes — minutes before this, you were hecking around with a character editor, seeing how obese and/or anorexic and/or bald and/or rat-nosed you could make you character before finally groaning for a half an hour trying to create someone that just looked like nothing at all — and realizes that you must have some sort of merit. He gives you a little Captain Picard speech. Anyway, he gets murdered a couple minutes later, and you never see him again. You have to find his son, who is a priest, who doesn’t know he’s Captain Picard’s son. His son is played by Sean Bean, easily one of the more talented character actors of our day. He was 006 in “Goldeneye”; he was Boromir in “Lord of the Rings”; he was Odysseus in “Troy”, which, yes, really sucked, though hell if that Sean Bean wasn’t great. Above all this, he is Sharpe. I daresay that he is a more talented man than Patrick Stewart, though maybe he doesn’t have the pedigree. Why not give him top billing, though? Put his name on the front of the box? Well, that would probably be because the story is brutally ****ed — you blunder and guide his character around, stop in and out of these “Oblivion Gate” things, fight the same twenty or so monsters inside each one, “seal” the gate, and keep adventuring. All the game needs to sell itself to you is those first ten minutes — after your character is freshly made, and Patrick Stewart is dead on the ground. I bet there were some dudes who hoped and prayed he would come back in the end to wreak vengeance on the world, shouting “ENGAGE!” and shooting fireballs out of his fingertips. Sucks to be those people.
I’d love to interview Sean Bean about the relatively newish concept of using established dramatic talent in videogames. I’d open the interview by asking him how much they paid him, and he would probably laugh affably at the question. Then I’d say, seriously, though, what brand of cellular phone did you use? It sounds so clear. He’d probably laugh at that, too, and we’d be getting along supremely; he’d probably have invited me out for a drink after the interview, and everything; then we’d finally get into the details, and I’d ask him about the recording process. If he’d seen the full script, if they’d offered to show it to him, if he just recorded his lines cold, or whatever. Whatever he said wouldn’t matter because, hell, by this point, I’d already have his phone number, and he would have mine.
Friends of mine, mostly people on Xbox Live, got all guidance counselor-y and tried to tell me that the story is the last thing you want to appreciate about Oblivion. Said one guy, “Like, I played for like sixty hours before going into my first Oblivion gate, dude.” What do you do for sixty hours, apparently? You harvest berries, or mushrooms, grind elements with your Novice Mortar and Pestle so that they show up as fatigue-curing items in the tools tab of your inventory, or take side-quests, or join the Shadow Guild and make your pretend self become a pretend pretend assassin. This would be great, except: I don’t like playing Oblivion. It’s not fun. The collision and physics are sketchy as stuff. You get on your horse and ride, and it just feels like it’s hovering above the world. You can ride down a mountainside and it feels like you’re getting a bad blowjob from a weeping girl in broken braces on a bumpy escalator. There’s this weird, frigid disconnect between the player and the world and the controller. At least the 360 version has rumble, though you know what? It’s not timed right. The rumble should hit with the sound of the horse’s hooves hitting the ground. Instead, it’s just some even rhythm. It’s jarring and weird.
Add to this a combat engine that is not Halo, and you make me frown. Why should the combat engine be Halo, you ask? Well, because it’s a first-person game. Halo has magnificent, frightening amounts of crunch. You can aim your gun right under a little guy’s shield and sidestep around him and shoot him right in the foot, and then in the face. In Oblivion, you’re just playing with generalities. You aim and shoot. In Morrowind, you could smack a rat on the head with a club and hear a wet thud, only to see text pop up on the screen telling you you’d missed. That was kind of cute; that was like a Jorge Luis-Borges story, like “A Dialogue about Dialogue”. It was a weird little postmodern riddle, and we forgave it because the game wasn’t in 720p HD on a giant TV. We were playing it on something reasonable, maybe 25 inches, maybe in college. It was funny, is what I’m saying. Here in Oblivion, when there’s a weird little delay between your pressing of a button and your character’s swinging his sword, where in the end, you’re just bashing buttons and slamming your numbers against your opponent’s numbers, expecting ultimate victory, it just doesn’t feel fun. It doesn’t feel entertaining. I’m sure if you spend all of your time plotting which orcs to kill next in World of Warcraft with guild-mates as excited as you are about clicking that mouse, if the most exciting part of your evening tends to be when you ask this Night Elf who is actually a girl in New Hampshire who’s probably hot what she’s drinking tonight and she says “Peach Schnapps” and you feel a stir in your boxers like Hell yeah, she might be drunk soon, then maybe Oblivion seems like “Ben-Hur” must have seemed to the moviegoing kids of 1959 who’d spent their fall semesters reading books. The truth is, MMORPGs are like spreadsheets you share with other people via the magic of graphics, and Oblivion, a decidedly singleplayer game, lets you manage that spreadsheet without the hassle of having to constantly compare yourself to other people and feel inadequate because there’s always someone with higher numbers in something. This design decision turns out brilliant, in a way, because the game doesn’t owe courtesy to other players — there’s no waiting your turn when it comes to rolling the bones against that skeleton knight — and it can kind of have an action feel to it. Though man, hell if they didn’t blow it. Sure, it’s big, and it looks kind of real, though let’s face it: we’ve come a long way from entertaining ourselves with MSPaint doodles and spreadsheets measuring how many times we’ve masturbated in the past fiscal year; it’s about time someone starts building the Holodeck from “Star Trek: The Next Generation”, or at least approximating it within my extremely expensive high-definition television.
The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion is not the hecking holodeck on “Star Trek: the Next Generation”.
People disappear when they’re going in and out of doors. They don’t reach out and open the door. They just vanish. Sure, you can follow them outside and sure enough, there they are, walking down the street. I’m sure the developers showed this to journalists back during the “behind closed doors” phase, and one or two journalists might have felt like saying, yeah, people had schedules in Zelda: Majora’s Mask and/or Shenmue, as well — and then . . . “Would you like another muffin?” Dutifully, these sorts of things get pumped up: “TOWNSPEOPLE WITH ACTUAL SCHEDULES!” And then there’s all the weird little mini-game systems thrown in there. Like the persuasion game. “DYNAMIC CONVERSATION SYSTEM!” You can try to convince or coerce someone into giving you what you want by clicking choices on a rotating wheel. “NEW DEPTH IN FACIAL EXPRESSIONS!” Each time you highlight a choice, you can see the guy’s face change, to demonstrate how the selected choice would make him feel. Certain choices lock out other choices, meaning you’re going to have to disappoint the person one in four attempts — just like in a real conversation! You can joke, boast, coerce, or flatter. Some guys might laugh at a joke and then promise to murder your family when you try to flatter them. And then they’ll laugh at your next joke. What you have to do is boost-chain the joke-boast and . . . Huh? Forget that, though — you can just sit there for three minutes twiddling the d-pad around between the choices and watch the guy’s face permutate like a punctual epileptic. Please — don’t let me do stuff like this in the game. If it’s not finished, leave it the heck out. “HUGE GAME WORLD!” Yeah, too huge. So huge that right at the beginning, when you’re given your first destination, you can just open the map and fast-travel there. Hey, consider this, genius game developers: when your game world is so large that fast-traveling in towns is considered a necessary design element, maybe your slow travel sucks and your overworld carries the tone of a theme park after hours, with you playing the role of a widowed octogenarian with a broom and dustpan.
The game is not without its good moments. Being able to make my character look like a punk lesbian on a hunger strike, purple skinhead and clammy skin and all, is pretty hot. There was also this part where Unicorn’s song “REBEL” played on repeat for one hour while I talked to characters about crucial story elements and screamed “WHAT’S THAT? I CAN’T HEAR YOU?” though I reckon that might have something to do with the whole Xbox 360 “custom soundtracks” thing. (Note to the future: custom soundtracks may seem like a good idea, though why not try to make games with music the player wouldn’t want to not hear? Eh? Good idea, huh?) The PS3 version doesn’t have the custom soundtracks. Hell. It’s right here on my desk. That alone qualifies me to review it. I’d play it, with arguably better graphics, I really would, if only I wouldn’t have to hear the mopey music and be constantly reminded that there really are only five voice actors in this whole game aside from Sean Bean and Patrick Stewart, and that one of those five seems to have done the voices of over a hundred characters.
Being as fair as I can — sure, Oblivion is a nice first step toward making a “Ben-Hur” of videogames. It just needs a plot — don’t listen to the fans who say that they love the random questing; they’d love an awesome plot even more! trust me! — and some direction, and some guts, and some crunch. It needs to be a little more like Zelda. I know some might say that being more like Zelda would make Oblivion less like an Elder Scrolls game, though come on; we’re all adults here. “Inspiration” doesn’t have to mean a pixel-for-pixel rip-off, for god’s sake. We’ve come a long way from Daggerfall, which was awesome because it was 3D and you could rob people who didn’t even have names. Now, though, the people have names, and castle guards will swarm at you in the street after you touch a loaf of bread in a house that isn’t yours, even if no one had witnessed your hunger. You can jump and then press the wait button, only to be greeted with a menu that says “You cannot wait while in the air.” with a single selectable choice beneath this: “OK”. Don’t even get me started on the god damned hideous faces on some of the “human” characters in the game. Just . . . nut up, people. Videogames are as much a hobby as a complimentary appendectomy. Thanks for pulling that giant Band-aid off, Mario. However, the real wound lies beneath another Band-aid: The graphics are too good. You have access to powerful hardware now. Have a little conscience. With great power comes great responsibility, et cetera. Godspeed you, fleet-footed warrior.