reviewed on PC
"I Have Seen the Gates of Oblivion, Beyond Which No Waking Eye Can See"
Oblivion is the fourth installment of Bethesda Softwork's Elder Scrolls series. It's been about four years since the release of Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, and the expectations of PC RPG fans are running incredibly high. Can Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion carry the legacy? The short answer: yes. The longer answer is much more complicated. Oblivion departs in several key ways from Morrowind, but it also adds several beloved features of Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall - and then makes some truly odd decisions that one can only assume were made because the game was developed for both the PC and Xbox 360 at the same time.
"Live another life, in another world."
That quote is the motto of the Oblivion team (according to the instruction manual), and they have managed to bring Oblivion to life in a way that can only be described as amazing. The game is visually staggering; on a mid- to high-end rig, the far clipping plane is basically nonexistent, showing off the absolutely incredible landscape of the Province of Cyrodiil (where Oblivion takes place - the heart of the Empire). It looks real - and I cannot stress the world real enough. The hills and mountains look real. The trees look real. The underbrush and grass look real. Most of the buildings look real, too - the architecture of the various buildings (houses, castles, towers, ruins, stables, farms, vineyards, hovels, etc...) is convincing. The architecture is also varied enough from city to city to give a cultural feel without being over-the-top. As for what lies within the Oblivion portals, well - let's just say the atmosphere there fits the world's lore extremely well.
The music is both emotive and subtle, played at an appropriate relative volume in the right instances to create the perfect soundtrack to an experience such as this. It can be immersive in a way that no other game has accomplished - with high end hardware.
But most of us don't have $600 top-of-the-line video cards, and thus some accommodations are made. This is most evident in the level-of-detail declination that takes place over distance - textures, at certain mid- to long-range distances, can appear muddy and visually non-distinct. This isn't a huge complaint; technically, that's the appropriate way of scaling detail down (spend less time rendering things that are far away), it's just more noticeable in a game as visually stunning as Oblivion.
Be forewarned: the Elder Scrolls series is infamous for being designed for the next generation of hardware. While the minimum system requirements don't seem so bad (2.0 Ghz P4 or equivalent, 512MB RAM, 128MB DirectX 9.0 compliant video card, DVD reader), it doesn't scale well to the low-end. The outdoor areas can be sluggish even on machines that meet the recommended requirements; most likely, you won't get the full Oblivion experience until a year or two from now. Which is fine, because with the Elder Scrolls Toolset, there are likely to be so many mods out by then that Oblivion will be like a different game.
Character creation lite
There have been said to be two major difficulties with Morrowind: being able to create a character that is totally useless from a gameplay perspective, and the sheer scope of the game world into which you are dropped with little guidance. Oblivion tries to tackle the first problem by drastically reducing the complexity of character creation. The number of available armor types you can choose from has dropped from four (Heavy, Medium, Light, Unarmored) to two (Heavy, Light) - weapons have undergone a similar transformation (from Long Blade, Short Blade, Axes, Blunt, Spear and Hand to Hand to simply Blades, Blunt, and Hand to Hand). They've also removed Enchant entirely, incorporating the ability to recharge magical items as something everyone can do, and limiting the creation of magic items to only those with access to the Mage's Guild. They also limit you to seven class skills total, instead of five major skills and five minor skills. A number of spells have also been removed, including Lock, Levitate, Mark, Recall, and Slow Fall.
This had me extremely worried. Typically, games do not undergo a reduction of complexity gracefully - Deus Ex, one of my most favorite games, underwent a similar reduction of complexity to Invisible War, which I rate as one of the biggest disappointments in gaming history (right behind Star Wars Galaxies). Oblivion manages to dodge that bullet - being limited to seven skills makes you really think about what you're taking, and this is not an easy task. And the unfortunate reality is that a Combat or Stealth specialist is not going to fare as well as one that diversifies - the ability to pick locks (or cast the Open spell) is pretty much a requirement, as is a way for your character to heal him/herself and defend him/herself in melee combat. So, while good steps have been taken to make character creation more accessible without reducing depth, the problem of being able to create a character that lacks certain needed skills has not been solved. That said, there's no point in the game where your character is unable to improve him/herself, so you can always train up Alteration or Security after creation.
No Pros and Cons at this time