Xbox 360 Review: The Elder Scrolls IV - Oblivion

Editor's Note: I found this one of the hardest games I have ever reviewed. The sheer size of the game does not lend itself to a short review. Just as Matt predicted, I ended up writing a tome. I cut more than half of that fat out of this review, never to be seen again. It is almost a shame, but those digital bits will never be used as some obscure torture device. I am sure you will agree; it's a good thing. I seriously toyed with the idea of an "Addendum to the Review" but in the end I just do not have time to tie that up in a nice package.

You may want to inform your friends and family before purchasing this game. The reason for this is clearly obvious; because you will not be reachable for weeks, if not months, once you start your adventure in this forth game in the series.

It is unprecedented that a single-player game has as much game play as Oblivion does. The Province of Cyrodil is roughly twice the size of Morrowind, with over 16 square miles to traverse in your journey.

Talking about Morrowind, it is hard to describe the scope and scale of Oblivion without bringing up the last game in the series, which received 2003 Game of the Year honors. This is because single-player open-ended RPGs don't exist on this scale. This is especially true for the PC release of Oblivion.

As if it needed the extra attention, Oblivion is the first RPG to hit the Xbox 360. This is the largest (no pun intended) release yet for the 360, and is the reason many people bought the console. Countless Xbox 360 owners, myself included, justified a purchase all the way back in November of 2005 because of this game, and rightfully so.

For what has become the standard for the Elder Scrolls series, Oblivion has an insanely high amount of quests to complete in a number of varied disciplines. You can join factions, many the same as in Morrowind. These include the Fighters Guild, Mages Guild, Thieves Guld, and Dark Brotherhood -- the Assassins Guild in the game.

It is not uncommon to have over 20 quests going at once, and the claim of over 200 hours of game play is not a marketing ploy. If you chose to ignore everything but the main questline, you will be playing Oblivion for about 30 to 40 hours. But that is such a waste of your money when it comes down to it.

It seems all wishes were granted in the upgrades department since Morrowind. The map now includes a fast travel system. You can travel to any major city or any place you have already discovered right away. Not only does this do away with the need for Silt Striders from Morrowind, but also the need to walk everywhere (if you do not like to do that).

The journal was a major pain in the rear in Morrowind, even after the Xbox release of the GOTY edition. Now the journal is organized into Active, Current, and Completed quests. This makes keeping track of this epic adventure very easy.

One thing Bethesda wanted to do with Oblivion was make the game more accessible. I was very anxious about them "watering down" the game. Now with the game in hand, and well over 100 hours into my adventure, I generally like the changes. The menus are simplified and streamlined. Although I do miss having the full breadth of stats at my fingertips as in Morrowind. An option to turn these on would have been nice.

One of the largest problems in Morrowind, combat, has been addressed. While it is not perfect, it is a welcome improvement. Fighting alongside friendly NPCs can be a chore, as you are not entirely sure where your weapon is striking. Since combat is such an improvement, including a button for blocking, it does not get in the way that often.

The game includes the ability to yield towards an NPC, and that is needed because you will be doling out your fare share of friendly fire. Making the story-specific NPCs impervious to death was also a very smart decision, especially for escort missions. This in itself cuts down on the frustration that it would have caused otherwise.

It almost goes without saying that Oblivion has the best graphics we have seen yet on the Xbox 360. Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter would be the only threat in this department, but it does not have the scale that Oblivion showcases. Armor and weapon detail is eye-catching, as is everything else. I found very little low resolution textures, most everything has a polish we have not seen before outside of PC gaming on a very high-end (and quite costly) rig.

The musical score also needs mention because it is so engrossing. The deep brass and intricate string orchestrated themes are pure ear-candy. Few game soundtracks are worth a recommendation to listen to outside of the game, but this is one of them.

Non Player Characters also received a major upgrade. With "Radiant AI" they have random, instead of scripted, schedules. Seeing a store owner close the shop and actually walk back to his house is neat. If you break into their house you would also see them eat and walk up stairs to go to bed.

Random conversations are mostly a good thing, although you will hear repetition creep in. There is really no way around this however. You will overhear two people talking and gain new conversation threads because of this. This leads to quests and other things to talk about.

Radiant AI is an amazing accomplishment, and has few faults. It allows for the level of immersion that is needed in a roleplaying game.

Even after a four-month delay, Oblivion still has its technical issues. But with the sheer size of the game, it was bound to happen. The Xbox will crash during loading screens. The game's auto save feature is good but really shows its flaws when the game takes down the Xbox 360.

You are also not going to experience Oblivion without frame rate and geometry pop-in issues. When not in enclosed areas such as houses or caverns, you will encounter severe drops in frame rate. When on horseback it is even worse. You will also see rocks, trees, mountains, etc. pop up right before your eyes when walking or riding in the wilderness. The geometry, texture, and lighting detail in the game are through the roof, and are what can be attributed to these slow downs.

These technical problems would almost assuredly hinder any other game but Oblivion. The game world is just so stunning, and the game play is so outstanding that these otherwise show stoppers are mere irritations in the grand scheme of things.

The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion is everything fans of the series wanted, and more. The long wait, and delay, were well worth it in the end. Oblivion is a masterpiece for the eyes and the ears, and should easily receive Game of the Year honors. Continuing Bethesda's tradition of delivering more than what is normally expected out of a game, Oblivion is an outstanding example of superior everything.

(***** out of *****)

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