the elder scrolls iv: oblivion

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

1.5 stars

Bottom line: The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion is not the fucking holodeck on 'Star Trek: the Next Generation'.”

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: fuckin’ 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 fucking 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 retarded — 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 shit. 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 fucking 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 shit like this in the game. If it’s not finished, leave it the fuck 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.

 

oblvscreen.jpg

 

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.

–tim rogers

Comments

13 Responses to the elder scrolls iv: oblivion

  1. It’s actually interesting that, when you really look at it, despite being waaaaaaay more deeply flawed than Oblivion and in many horrible, obvious ways, Morrowind is a lot closer to being Ben Hur-like. Comparing the two games is very interesting. Oblivion — despite sharing near-identical mechanics — is nowhere near the experience that Morrowind is. On the other hand, it’s a heck of a lot more playable. But for what, really? The experience is more easy to digest, but the tradeoff is you aren’t really digesting anything.

    Still, I reckon Oblivion’s a lot better than Diablo, for my money. Though I guess Diablo’s a bit more honest about itself.

  2. Diablo is INFINITELY more honest about itself, dude. The inventory screen is like a little Tetris challenge and the game has hotkeys for healing potions. I knows it’s about being braindead and bashing a mouse clicker. And it’s fun! Numbers go up, you chat with friends, et cetera.

    Morrowind, though, yeah. I like it better than Oblivion, personally. It . . . feels different. It feels bigger, grander. The . . . architecture is more interesting. I guess that’s because they took their time with it, they loved making it. Oblivion was made with so much desperation. It was made out a desire to CLENCH that one chance — that chance to be RENOWNED as the first big, huge, gorgeous, FREEEEEEEEDOM RPG for NEXT-GENERATION CONSOLES. It’s a Band-aid being ripped off, is all it is. It’s another tick-mark on the checklist.

    I’m harsh on the game because, well, I want to like it. It’s just not good. With this review, I prophesy that you, Toups, five years down the line, will scoff at the very thought of Oblivion — because something is coming down the pipe that’s so bitching it’ll erase all thought of this fat-footed attempt.

  3. I gotta say, I agree for the most part with this review, but for some reason I can’t stop playing the game anyway. Maybe all the problems haven’t sunk in yet – I am a low-level character and I only seriously got into the game a week or so ago – but I am having an immense amount of fun spelunking in dungeons, sneaking around taking fools out with fireballs or arrows.

    When I first bought the game, a year ago, I went with a pure-melee character, found I was dying all the time and the times when I wasn’t dying, I was being bored to tears. I put the game on a shelf and ignored it for 12 months.

    I picked it up again solely because I wanted to get some of the Achievement points from it, and it was the only game left that I had (well, apart from Ridge Racer 6, but that game is notoriously stingy with the points.)

    Again, I got bored with it within hours, but I asked around. The advice I got was “ignore the main quest, and add some magic to your character.” I did that, and now I’m hooked. I don’t know how long it will last though.

  4. i do so look forward to this thing coming down the pipe. Especially if it has dainty feet. because oblivion was fun, but not as a game. it was fun as a diversion.

    I hope the thing coming by pipe-travel is a mash-up of oblivion and Tsugunai: Atonement. graft the game onto the diversion and you might get ….a diverting game.

  5. Re: The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion is not the fucking holodeck on “Star Trek: the Next Generation”.

    That’s certainly true, but as an avid D&D avoider in my youth (and having never played WoW), this probably comes the closer to scratching some latent fantasy-immersion itch than anything else. Whether that speaks to some personal deficiency is up for debate, but there may be some some threshold of disbelief that things like NPC’s disappearing through doors triggers for you, whereas it’s not quite enough to kill the overall illusion for me. Sometimes it’s about the little things… casting a flame spell in a bandit’s mug and watching him/her tumble down a hill, moonlight glinting in their armor. I understand the complaints about the combat, but this is such a monumental step forward from the shocklingly un-visceral Morrowind that I can’t drudge up any real disappointment… the time to criticize the fat girl is not when she comes home from the gym, you know?

    I also revel in the opportunity to chart my own moral ascension or decline via the various guilds and questlines. There’s something special about a game where random citizens make it a point to tell me how they once looked up to me, but now know I’m a sinner, just like everybody else.

  6. I LOVE Oblivion.

    Now, I understand how it fails as a “videogame” in the ways that, say, Super Mario Bros. succeeds as a videogame. But I don’t care, I tend to lose myself in it, and get a huge kick out of it – which I guess says more about me than the game…

  7. I think you´re being too hard, Tim. Yes, Oblivion´s execution is flawed on many levels, but that´s only because it tries to do to many things.

    But ambition is something to look up to. I mean, yes, that 10 year-old boy might not get to become the best writer, plane pilot, president and doctor that has ever been, but still, him trying as hard as he can is admirable, and him not quite, downright, failing at each ambition is even more admirable. Becasue, you know, just being the best at each indivual activity is hard enough as it is.

    Case in point: making a believable dialogue interface in any game with as many characters as Oblivion is impossible. But in a make-believe world with the scope of this game, there is simply no way to not include some sort of dialogue interface for every character in the game (even when nearly every character in the game is killable, and killable by pther NPCs at that). To try and do that would simply mean another Duke Nukem Infinity (or whatever, the thing is that it would be too goddamned time-consuming).

    I can, therefore forgive Oblivion´s flaws, because it does a lot of things. And you know what? It doesn´t even do them completely worng. Betheseda could, for example, release a linear game based completely on the stealth interface about being a thief, and it wouldn´t even be a bad game.

    And, also, super-kudos on Oblivion for doing something that GTA always fails to do: actually punishing you for commiting crimes.

    If you ever kill a citizen in Oblivion it is near impossible that you get a reward larger than the punishment, and it´s also very hard to evade/defeat the guards (unless you find a rock and have a hell of a lot of arrows, which, yes, would be my biggest problem with the game). Why do they even let you kill people then, you might ask? Well, that´s because you can kill people in real life. And, as in real life, it´s not a very smart thing to do.

  8. the fact that oblivion punishes you for committing crimes is pointless when it’s just as easy to select >Resist arrest, and promptly mount the unmounted guard’s horse and ride away, or exit the village/city/town/whatever and run for a couple minutes until the “you’re being assaulted/also maybe there is a crab nearby” music quits. additionally, note how stupid oblivion actually is about initiating punishment: everyone under the employ of the Law is a fraction of a psychic hivemind. steal a book and the guards will be waiting for you outside. amazing! grand theft auto’s star rating angle isn’t as aggressively retarded – we can say that much.

    have to admit, though: much of what i’d do in the game was antagonize guards/common-folk and then see how long they’d keep up the chase, because it was hilarious. once had a dude follow me for a couple miles before i accidentally glitched the game and got myself doing the swimming animation on land, whereupon said dude just didn’t know what the hell to do (on the side, i’d also managed to aggro a wolf and wandering sorcerer, both of which were equally unsure of how to handle the situation).

  9. Now that´s interesting: that´s the exact thing my younger brother said to him when I asked what game he thought was more realistic (Oblvion vs GTA)!

    Yes, it is true that escaping the law is easy, but after that, you´re damned forever because until you pay your debt or turn yourself in, there is no way to calmly enter any town or city, because there is always the pressing fear that some guard may recognize you. Which is also what being a criminal in real life must feel.

    What is not like that in real life, however, is the fact that every guard in every city recognizes you and starts chasing you the moment you enter the city door, not unlike how they did when you first stole a tea cup on a city on the other edge of the world. In this aspect I admit what you said is true, because it feels very wrong. Betheseda needs to make some sort of algorithm as to whether X guard recognizes you or not, and how many guards chase you after that.

    Oh, and here´s something you should try: make someone pursue you and go to, say, a house invaded by trolls. Seeing the trolls and your pursuers fight each other is quite the spectacle, and you can rejoice in the spoils!

  10. Wow. This review makes me hate Oblivion and makes me want to go play it right now.

    Oblivion is great for two things.

    1) Making you feel like you’re in a painting by Claude Lorraine. That’s a good thing.

    2) Let’s just say the final thieves guild quest was like a Legend of Zelda dungeon times a million, IN REVERSE: start a million miles deep in the shit, a million miles deep into this gigantic confusing network of caves and tunnels swarming with monsters, make a mad dash for the exit with one heart (more like a marathon than a dash since it took several hours), then break down in tears when you finally reach daylight and gaze upon the sun again, and you kiss the earth at your feet. The desperateness and overwhelming odds of it was a lot like Dead Rising if it took place in a huge dungeon instead of mall. (The quest at first was skulking and dark and somewhat gentle, like Super Metroid or Thief: The Dark Project, but when the shit hit the fan it was like Dead Rising.)

    Anyhoo.

    As you pointed out, Oblivion is a textbook example of bad design. Not just bad design, but the most piss-poor GAME design that is even humanly possible. Chief example: yes, when you try to rest/sleep in mid-air, time freezes, you hover in mid-air, a dialog box pops up to say “You cannot rest while in mid-air”, then you have to click “OK”. They coded the game like it was a goddam python script. “Well obviously if there’s an error, we should have an error alert pop up, so the player knows what the hell went wrong!”

    Idiots.

    Nobody had the balls or the vision to just make it so you collapsed into a heap whenever you tried to sleep in mid-jump. A cute and/or clumsy heap. Either way. Some injured groans would help. If it functioned as a Feigned Death all the better. Or hey, maybe when you try to sleep in mid-air, nothing happens at all, your feet return to the ground as usual, and you take it from there.

    I happened to unknowingly contract vampirism in the game. The idiotic “computer programming 101″ shit bit me in the ass there too. I had no idea I even contracted vampirism. I just noticed that people stopped liking me and that my face was ghastly. It was so weird to realize that my character’s face looked strange. “Um? I don’t remember making my skin gross and wrinkly during character creation. I’ve aged terribly.”

    Eventually I googled it and found how to cure myself, which was to go on a 14-hour crapshoot quest. I assume the game wrote ‘You got bit by a vampiric rat! You contracted vampirism!” to Std.Out and let it hang there for .3 seconds. I missed it.

    How about when you go to feed while you’re a vampire, and instead of actually drinking blood, you get a dialog box? (FEED? OR PICKPOCKET? CLICK ONE.) It’s like a text-based adventure in 3d. It’s so disconnected. Or how bout the way the act of rummaging through a container stops time and makes you see the world in sepia? How about how the AI detection and criminal status is awful and makes no sense? A horse can detect whether you’re stealing somebody else’s property and will file the appropriate paperwork with the authorities? Can’t I at least bribe the witness horse with some food? If some horses are intelligent enough to have a passionate sense of human morals then some other horses should be intelligent enough to be morally corruptible. It would be like in those cop movies where the hero simply throws a steak to those loudmouth dobermans who are guarding the facility that he needs to secretly investigate in the middle of the night. In other words, it would be GOOD.

    Speaking of the holodeck: it occurs to me now that the fear and confusion, the sudden onset pallor, the gradual loss of friends, the googling for the cure, the extreme frustration, is probably what it’s like to turn into a vampire in real life. For a minute here I was thinking, “A holodeck is supposed to let you simulate FANTASY and ACTION, not let you contract a hideous disease and ruin your life!.” But actually a holodeck program which does exactly that could be kind of cool.

    Let’s face it. Oblivion really IS the holodeck of Star Trek: The Next Generation, if it was limited to the Middle Ages and was programmed by Microsoft.

  11. wow! hey, thanks for the long reply.

    i hadn’t read this review myself, since writing it. i just read through it again, apropos of your comment showing up in my inbox, and it got me thinking about Something Important. yay!

  12. OK I fired it up for old time’s sake and it’s much much worse than I remembered it, and my memory doesn’t tend to be generous. Everything about it is ass-backwards, everything. Everything!

    It’s still the closest you can come to being in a Claude Lorraine painting though. I’m gonna go ahead and call that an accident.

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