The Elder Scrolls are indeed an aged vintage. It’s hard to believe that the original Elder Scrolls: Arena RPG was released in 1994. And today the basic philosophy remains the same: construct a huge game world and give the player total open-ended freedom to explore and quest.
There’s a main storyline, of course. The emperor of Tamriel has been assassinated and the usual dark forces are afoot. But it’s entirely your decision whether to follow that thread or just wander off and do your own thing, maybe dipping into this central quest occasionally.
And being minstrel types, we wandered. Actually, that’s a lie, we can’t stand bards with their big fat lutes and daft poetry, so we rolled up an itinerant fighter who could heal himself (the traditional paladin sort). Incidentally, there’s a good deal of scope for customisation during character creation, and elements of fighter, thief, mage and healer can be blended as you see fit.
Whereabouts did we wander? Around the capital city for starters, with its cluster of shops and services, elven gardens and vast arena where gladiators duel for cash prizes. Graphically this is all stunningly rendered, and even more so when you leave town and gaze over the lush countryside vistas.
Not long after departing the city, we stumbled upon a dungeon entrance tucked away in some ruins, so torch readied, we ventured underground. This contained the expected array of traps, treasure and monsters – goblins to be precise.
The combat system is well executed, with an intuitive click-and-slash system which boasts plenty of scope for battle tactics. The enemy AI is pretty impressive, too; goblin berserkers leap at you with multiple mad axe slashes, whereas a goblin warrior with a shield will use it to the full, blocking when appropriate.
Having collected bucket-fulls of goblin armour, we staggered to the next settlement and flogged it all, then taking some time to watch the town-folk go about their daily business. Developer Bethesda’s “radiant AI” means that NPCs (non-player characters) have virtual lives, getting up in the morning, going out to their jobs, then retiring to their house for a sherry in front of the fire in the evening.
They’ll even chat to each other, and although these conversations are mostly banal, occasionally they’ll mention something important which might lead to a quest. NPCs can even get up to no good; at one point, we saw a woman being chased by the town guard for thieving. The poor lass was eventually cut down by an arrow (allowing us to sneakily loot her, grab the key to her house, then go and have a nosey round, pilfering an expensive vintage wine from her cellar).
All this undoubtedly breathes extra life into the Oblivion experience, although there are some oddities in the character interaction department. If you break into someone’s house and they spot you, they’ll quite rightly demand to know what the hell you’re doing… but click on them to chat, and they’ll happily engage in some cheerful banter or rumour-mongering. There’s also a strange bug which alters a character’s voice partway through a conversation.
But none of that really matters in the face of the sprawling, epic adventure that Oblivion offers. There are so many quests to undertake it’s mind-boggling, and these missions aren’t simple delivery errands or ‘kill’ tasks. Well, some of them are, but many have interesting back stories and involve diverse goals, such as spying on people or even assassinating them. There are moral choices to be made and four guilds to advance through the ranks of via questing. You can even become a vampire in Oblivion! The depth here is staggering.
And we haven’t even mentioned the extras like buying a horse to speedily travel the world, or your very own manor in which you can store your trusty arsenal of beast-slaying weapons and potions. We’ve played for twenty hours now and get the feeling we’ve barely scratched the surface.
One controversial difference between this and the preceding Elder Scrolls titles is something called “level scaling.” This means that as you level up, the monsters in the game grow in relative power. RPG purists might dislike this design philosophy, and we can sympathise to a point, as it does feel artificial in some respects.
However, it’s not like every encounter is the same – there are still tougher “boss” style monsters for example – and this system helps to keep the game challenging throughout, no matter how powerful the player becomes. So, it’s a bit of a trade-off, but one that’s worth it in our opinion.
Company: Take-Two Interactive