The Elder Scrolls IV Oblivion Review – The Amateur RPG

In my ongoing quest to review The Elder Scrolls games completely out of order, next we arrive at Oblivion. Released in 2006 Oblivion was a lot like many of Bethesda’s games new and old; admirably ambitious and deeply flawed. But there was something else too. And that thing was amateur. Yeah, considering this is a AAA game I cannot help but use the word amateur to describe it. It feels like a smaller studio’s attempt to get in on the fantasy action RPG genre, with some memorable and charming highs, and some dire lows. This is going to be a long one, so I’m going to split the review up into smaller, more digestible segments of specifically what worked and what didnt in the most stand-out parts of the game for me. Strap in.

Transparency:

What do I mean when I say transparency? Well I mean how willing and capable the game is at conveying information to the player… Oblivion sucks at this. Case and point: The UI in the image above.

All those symbols on the bottom two layers of the UI move the player to different menus and not a single one of them makes it at all clear what you’ll see when you click on them. On the first row we can see that the fist surrounded by a black and white circle is our core stats sheet… But why? What about that fist conveys that if we click it we will be viewing our core stats? The answer is nothing at all, and the only reason I know that it shows us our core stats is because I am looking at the image while writing this, not because I’ve memorised it from my time playing the game. And just look at how vague the other icons are: A person walking inside a circle. A sword with and axe and fire around it. A pyramid wearing a crown!? What the hell do any of these mean? I sank like 50 hours into this game and I still can’t tell you.

Hey, did you know that to view your quest log you have to first open the map? You do this by clicking the compass in the above image, at which point the other icons above it change to a compass in different positions with overlaying icons. One of which will be your overworld map, the other your local map and the rest your quest log and active quests. I’m not joking when I say this might be one of the most unintuitive UI’s I’ve ever had to use. Hell, I’ve played my 60 minutes of Elder Scrolls Arena (1994) and found that some (of course not all) of that game’s UI, abstract as it is, is easier to read than Oblivion’s.

The UI isn’t the only thing lacking in transparency though. Worse than that is the game’s reluctance to allow you to make informed decisions during character creation. One thing that I love is when a game gives you all the infomation you need upfront about your character as you’re making it before going into the game. Think of the original Fallout, where the alteration of one stat will update all the other’s it interacts with on the character creation sheet the moment you make the change. Or, as a more contemporary example, think of the Outer Worlds and how it shows the exact things increasing or decreasing your main attributes will effect – critical hit chance, accuracy, companion synergy and so on. You don’t get that in Oblivion. You don’t get much of anything.

Let’s say you really want to play as a Breton. This is all the information you will have to go off based on what the game tells you about their race: ‘In addition to their quick and perceptive grasp of spellcraft, even the humblest of Bretons can boast a resistance to magical energies. They are particularly skilled at summoning and healing magic.‘ There’s a lot of flavour and lore here, I guess, but nothing practical that’s going to help inform my character creation process.

They’re good at spells… Okay, but what does that mean? Do they get more magicka? Regenerate magicka faster? Start with unique spells warrior races don’t? Okay, so they have magic resistance… How much? Is it an activated ability or a constant passive effect? I’ll give the game points for at least mentioning they get a bonus to restoration and conjuration spells but, again, how large is this bonus? Are there any downsides I should know about when selecting this race?

Until you physically start playing the game and get out of the character creation process, you won’t know Bretons get a permanent bonus of 50 magicka that other races do not have, or that their resistance to magic is also a permanent 50% one. The game also doesn’t mention even once that they have an activated ability called Dragonskin, that shields you against 50% of enemy attacks for 60 seconds.

And while the game did previously mention you got a bonus to restoration and conjuration spells, until playing you don’t know that it is a +10 bonus, nor that you also get a bonus to the mysticism skill. It totally glosses over the +5 bonuses you get to alchemy, alteration and illusion too. The game also refuses to tell you Bretons get +10 intelligence and willpower, as well as suffering a -10 debuff to agility speed and endurance… Unless you play as a female Breton, in which case you suffer a -10 debuff to strength instead of agility.

To my mind this is all crucial information that helps to outline and inform character builds. Even if you’re not the type of person to plan your build ahead of time, knowing all this information will help you understand what playstyle Bretons are designed around and how to play to their strengths. And because the game doesn’t give it to you (I got it from The Unofficial Elder Scrolls Wiki), you can’t make those decisions about your character. What’s worse is that it isn’t an isolated case for Bretons, but that this lack of transparency about how your race will affect your playstyle stretches across all races.

Skyrim similarly suffered. But Morrowind hit the nail on the head, making sure to detail which skills and attributes your race started with and their powers/passive effects prior to you confirming that you want to play as them. This meant that when you designed your class, you could make an informed decision about how to play into the strengths of your race. After designing your class you got one final and complete overview of everything you had done during character creation to confirm this is how you want to play. I don’t see why you’d hide that information from players in this game.

And to be clear this isn’t the only RPG that masks this kind of infomation, but it’s something I’m going to start taking into account more when writing reviews on games like this.

The World Desgin:

Unlike Morrowind before it and Skyrim afterwards, it may surprise you to learn the world of Oblivion wasn’t hand crafted, but rather procedurally generated with edits made to account for locations and quests that needed to occur within it. And this only worsens the issue of it feeling amateur because there isn’t a single memorable place in the entire open world to discover outside of the main cities. All ruins are white stones sticking out of the ground, all caves are wooden doors in rock faces, all daedric shrines – supposedly to unique evil gods – are generic white statues in the middle of nowhere seemingly placed at random. The entire world is nothing but green rolling hills and forests, with absolutely zero diversity to be found with the exception of slightly snowy rolling hills and forests to the north. The completely uninspired world design undermines the thrill of exploring, and the generic exteriors to many of the games discoverable locations only feed into it.

Then when you do get the urge to delve deep into a dungeon you will either have endless grey stone corridors, or endless grey caverns. These dungeons aren’t all copy and pasted, but it sure as hell feels like they are. Morrowind’s caves and dwemmer ruins had the same issue – though it’s daedric shrines and ancestral tombs normally offered variety. Morrowind’s larger sandbox also offered more vertical dungeons players might have to fly or swim through. But Skyrim also suffered similarly to Oblivion, with all it’s dungeons being long, linear corridors. Even so, there is a lot impressive architecture in Skyrim’s overworld and interior cells that make locations more visually interesting than just being the colour grey. I mean Bleakfalls Barrow might by Skyrim’s most boring dungeon, but there is a reason you remember it aside from the fact it’s essentially a tutorial dungeon: it looks really cool. In Oblivion, that really isn’t the case with discoverable locations. I think the reason dungeon design seems to be so stale in these games is because of how many there are. With so many on the map, it becomes increasingly more difficult to make them distinct.

The main cities of the game are hit or miss. The Imperial city is iconic and unique. Despite sharing the same architecture and many of the game’s dungeons, the lore and layout of the city are something to be marvelled at. Even so, this too is undermined by how many loading screens one must traverse to get around it. Skingrad is a giant, multi-walled keep that inhabits both high and low ground, Cheydenhal has a scenic river cutting through it and bridges to either side, and Bruma is full of thatched rooves to keep the warmth in from the snow. There are some more generic cities like Chorral or Bravil, but even these have a few lesser designs in them to set them apart. And yet there is still complaints to be had in this part of the game; The cities are far too big. The streets, even in day time, will be seemingly empty because there simply aren’t enough NPC’s to inhabit them. More often than not it feels like you’re wandering around an abandoned city than a populated one, but the moment you step inside any public building you suddenly get introduced to half the bloody population who are supposed to be outside. Again, it just feels amateur.

The biggest disappointment is that, although many of the cities feel well defined within the confines of this game alone, they are all so boring when compared to cities from other Elder Scrolls games. Everything looks like a medieval-European castle in this game, and the diversity of Morrowind’s giant mushroom towers that only people who could fly could navigate, homes that dug deep into the ground to avoid ash storms and the massive pyramids in Vivec city is all gone. Even Skyrim was more diverse than this – Whiterun climbed a lone hill separated into districts, surrounded by flat grassy plains full of wildlife, Markarth was a colonized ruin of a Dwarven city built into mountainsides, and half of Winterhold had fallen into the ocean so it’s feeling of abandonment was at least intentional. But all the cities in Oblivion are just castles with slightly different layouts, with little to awe at after you’ve seen the impressive heights of the towers and length of the walls for the 50th time.

Couple this with the fact every texture in this game looks like playdough and not only have you got a rather generic aesthetic from a design standpoint, but a rather dated and ugly one from a graphical perspective.

The Combat and Levelling:

Thankfully not everything in this game is bad. And one of those better things is the combat. Unlike Morrowind or Skyrim, Oblivion’s biggest combat strength is how it allows you to be free to wield physical weapons and magic at the same time without over-complicating the process from the very start of the game. In Morrowind you have to unequip your weapon to use magic. In Skyrim you could only use one physical item while wielding magic, but your magic wouldn’t be as effective unless you wielded it in both hands. In Oblivion you can cast spells all while holding anything you bloody want. It is a much more freeing way to play the game and one I very much enjoyed, as a person who normally goes for a spell-sword build. Like the other games it does feel a lot like cutting butter when you swing weapons at someone, instead of a battle to the death, but I feel the fatigue mechanics make up for this by distracting you and forcing you to try and fight as efficiently as possible. Simply put, the higher your fatigue, the more damage your weapons will do. But the more you swing your weapons the lower it gets, and keeping track of this, similarly to Morrowind, gives the combat slightly more depth than Skyrim’s generic “swing until they die” combat. It’s not great, but it’s something. And I’d be lying if I said it made up for Bethesda’s trademark floatyness that haunts all combat encounters.

That said, the only really detrimental thing letting combat down is the difficulty. Mainly because it’s incredibly inconsistent to the point where I somehow felt less powerful at the end of my playthrough than I did at the beginning. A lot of this has to do with levelling; The levelling mechanics are similar to Morrowind’s in that if you improve any combination of your major skills ten times you get a level up. To level, you increase any three of your core attributes. The catch is that the amount you can upgrade these attributes (to a maximum of 100) is determined by how many times you improved a skill relevant to them beforehand. Depending on how many times you improved a skill, you can increase the attribute relevant to it by +2, +3, +4 or +5.

Now, in Morrowind it didn’t matter if your levelling was inefficient by only giving yourself a tiny +2 to any attribute because enemies didn’t level with you and thus you could out-level enemies eventually without fear of them keeping pace with you. It would take longer to out level them by doing so inefficiently, but it could be done. Enemies had fixed equipment that didn’t change to account for the new difficulty of the battle after you levelled, and all major loot in the game was also fixed, so you could obtain very powerful items at low levels to give yourself an edge when fighting against foes who would normally destroy you.

But in Oblivion the world does scale to you. You’ll reach a point where generic bandits are the same obscenely high level that you are, and probably carrying better gear than you are. To offset this difficulty spike in the late-game, you’ll have to have been levelling efficiently by giving yourself +4’s and +5’s to attributes consistently upon levelling up. This is because the game kept Morrowind’s levelling system without once considering how level-scaling enemies would interact with that system. It encourages you to level slowly and methodically in a game where you can unintentionally level up simply by walking or jumping, and it throws casual fun of the game out the window when you’re treating a fight against some random bandit with the same seriousness as an actual boss fight. If everyone’s a boss, no one is. And if you’re sweating to beat basic enemies you’re not having fun. I’ve found if you’re doing a short playthrough this isn’t so much an issue and the game can be enjoyed regardless of how you level. But if you’re like me, and enjoy making characters who go on an epic journey to discover as much of the game’s content as possible, doing efficient levelling will objectively make your experience better than not doing it.

The in-game difficulty slider does little to amend this – You drag it down and the game becomes too easy with most enemies dying incredibly fast. You drag it up and every enemy is a ludicrous tank who will kill you in just a few blows. The best way to combat difficult enemies is genuinely to exploit their poor AI by getting them stuck on the environment where their melee attacks cannot hit you, but yours can hit them. I did this on more than one occasion just to save myself the trouble dancing around them until I won anyway. I’m not joking about dancing around, by the way. If you run circles around melee enemies they will pivot around, unable to block against you as quickly as they otherwise might be.

This is why playing as a mage felt more fun for me – with the ability to create and name your own spells and enchantments, the sandbox really opened up after I joined the Mage’s Guild. Combat became more about using the right spells at the right time, rather than about slapping someone until my fatigue ran out, and then waiting for it to come back again. Although, saying that, using spells is just a matter of pressing buttons until your Magicka runs out and waiting for it to come back. Luckily, it recharges faster than in Skyrim and has an attribute dedicated to improving it’s recovery, so I feel being a mage is more viable here. As in Morrowind, you can create some absolutely insane combinations of magic effects in custom spells that all feel so fun to use. This is especially great because, while warrior characters will often be at the mercy of RNG and the levelling system when it comes to obtaining good weapons, Mages’s are only limited by how much they’re willing to pay to make an incredibly powerful spell.

The Voice Acting:

The voice acting is outright unfinished. There’s lines of dialogue where the voice actor will interrupt themselves to re-reread their line, there are multiple different voice actors assigned to the same in-game characters and the performances themselves all feel like the first take of what the actors gave. You’ll either get such over-the-top acting that you’ll die laughing at how unfit it is for the tone of the scene – like panicked screams of woe as the most calming, relaxed ambience music ever plays over the scene. That or the most underacted performances you’ll see in gaming (even by Bethesda’s voice acting standards) – like when someone describes the slaughter of hundreds of people and the fall of their city to the hands of demons as though they’re a child recalling a cartoon they watched before school – creepy more than anything. I mean they even got Sean Bean to be in this game and I don’t think he could have given a more disinterested performance if he tried. Same goes for Patrick Stewart, for that matter. The only two people in this game putting any degree of umph into their performances are Wes Johnson and Terrance Stamp, who are so good that they single handily remind you that you’re playing a (supposedly) finished AAA game, and not experimental project meant to find new upcoming voice actors.

The result is a “so bad it’s good” experience. When you start playing it’ll be full of hilarity that they decided to launch the game with this awful acting still in it, but after it stops being funny it’s just sad and immersion breaking.

The Story/Quests:

The main quest is pretty good. Like Morrowind it revolves around a prophecy and tries to put a fresh spin on the generic “chosen one” formula. Where Morrowind really left it ambiguous whether or not you were the chosen one or just some random dude who happened to fit the bill, Oblivion out-right says you’re not the chosen one. Your job in this game is to keep Martin Septim, the new Emperor and the real chosen one, safe after this father is assassinated. The assassins’ goal was to steal his amulet and distinguish the dragonfires, both of which would cause a barrier between worlds to fall so that an interdimensional invasion of your world could take place, led by Mehrunes Dagon the daedric prince of destruction. After assuring Martin’s safety, you must help find a way to retrieve the amulet and close shut the jaws of Oblivion. And when all is said and done it isn’t you who saves the day, but Martin. And I am a sucker for stories that take cliché structures – like heroes of prophecy – and try to mix it up.

What I like most about the main quest is how it is structured to encourage you to go and indulge in side-content rather than rush to the end as soon as possible (*cough* Skyrim *cough*), just like in Morrowind. There are multiple quests that overlap with optional ones. The first, and most obvious, is the siege of Kvatch. You are sent to Kvatch to rescue Martin at the start of the game after it is destroyed. You can go in, get Martin and leave to continue to main quest, or you can stay just a while longer to rid the city of all it’s invaders. Later in the story, Martin will begin to decipher an old daedric book and requires you to obtain a daedric artifact to help him. There are many daedric artifacts in the game linked to side quests hidden in the open world, and whichever you choose to go for is entirely up to you.

There are also moments where you must bring characters information and they need to take time to figure out what to do with it, often prompting you to come back to them at a later time. Not only does this encourage you to go and get involved with what the rest of the game has to offer in such a way that doesn’t break the immersion by having you neglect the main quest (like in Skyrim, Fallout 3 or Fallout 4), but also adds to the stakes. This isn’t some threat you can solve from going from A to B over and over again (again, like in Skyrim), but one that must be studied and appropriately approached. Ironically this careful pacing and sometimes a lack of urgency makes the tension of story feel higher, rather than lower. I appreciate that.

The only complaint I have regarding the main quest is the Oblivion Gates it forces you to close. The invaders of your world come through these gates and by going inside of them to destroy a floaty ball at the top of a tower you can close the gates. Some gates exist in the open-world for you to close if that’s your thing, while others have to be done as part of quests. And trust me, all these gates are incredibly boring.

The enemies you fight in them are incredibly tanky and unfair to fight against. Clanfears, for instance, will spam the same attack over and over again to stunlock you and pretty much instantly kill you if you can’t block on time. Hell, even if you do block on time you might get unlucky by having them break your guard, leading you you getting stunlocked anyway. Attacking them with physical weapons causes you to take damage as well as them, which only leaves you more open to death. And they have so much health you can’t rely on magic to kill them before you run out of manna. For the first time in my gaming life, I am not ashamed to admit I opened the console commands to kill these Clanfears every time I saw one because they were just that annoying to fight against. I’ve never not wanted to fight something so badly in a game before.

The rest of the enemies are, surprisingly, not so different from generic overworld enemies except for the fact they have better gear and there’s an awful bloody lot of them. And given that there is so little distinguishing the final stage of closing any Oblivion gate from the last – that being climbing a big tower and pressing E on an orb – I found myself just using spells to heal, fortify my speed and rush to the end of these gates as quickly as possible. The reward you get for closing them is an orb that can grant you a powerful enchantment, but it’s just not worth the ordeal of having to suffer through that tedious gauntlet.

Luckily you don’t have to do too many of these for the main quest, and can ignore most others in the world. So, overall, they didn’t hinder my enjoyment of the game too much. That said, when the gates that hold the namesake of your game are the worst part about it’s quests and exploration, I think there’s a problem.

Better than the main quest are the side quests. In Skingrad I was approached by a paranoid elf who believed people in town were spying on him and he wanted me to confirm his fears. Over the course of three days I followed the people he suspected and not one of them was a spy… But I still told him that they were following him just to feed into his paranoia, and because he was paying me a lot of money to do basically nothing. But then one day he told me to kill these people he now thought he knew were conspiring against him, at which point I turned him into the guards who, rather than arrest him, killed him. That was a fun adventure.

In Chorral a drunk man learned he had a lookalike in another city who was giving him a bad name unintentionally. This drunk told me to find that man and tell him that he’s perfectly capable of giving himself a bad name, which got a laugh out of me. It turns out that man was his twin brother who was separated from him at birth when their home was attacked by ogres. I then reunited the two and helped them reclaim their old homestead from the monsters. Another nice adventure.

It’s so strange how the writing in this game is simultaneously so good, and also so bad. 90% of the dialogue is nothing but pure cringe, and yet the stories they convey and the structure of the objectives that NPC’s give you to complete all lead to rewarding adventures. Indeed, I believe the charm of this game lies in the side quests.

There are also faction quests for the arena where you become a gladiator, the mages guild where you stop a cult of necromancers, the fighters guild who rival with another evil version of themselves, and so on. There’s a lot of content in this game that is very interesting. It makes me wonder why Bethesda’s later games lean so much into radiant quests and dull fetch quests, when games like Oblivion prove they have a creative set of writers who can craft genuinely engaging stories for them.

Conclusion:
Would I recommend this game? That is certainly a question.

Mechanically Oblivion is pretty bad with an inconsistent difficulty curve and repetitive combat which is only partially held up by the fatigue mechanics and unique spell making. Visually it’s pretty bad not only because of dated graphics, but because of uninspired world design that looks like I’m playing a downgraded Kingdom Come Deliverance rather than a fantasy game. No part of the world looks different from any other and dungeons aren’t distinct enough to warrant the same level of exploration I’d have given them in both newer and older Elder Scrolls titles. The Oblivion gates are cool at first, but they are full of the game’s most unfun enemy types and get repetitive very quickly.

The storytelling is a mixed bag with cringe-inducing dialogue and some of the worst voice acting – and implementations of that voice acting by the other designers – I have ever seen in a AAA game. But at the same time, these things fit neatly into well structured and paced quests that almost always take a turn you won’t expect. All of this in a game that encourages you to seek out the side content where you can. Though not my favourite Bethesda game story, the main quest is pretty good too and is only let down by the aforementioned Oblivion gates.

Ultimately, unless you’re a diehard Bethesda fan who somehow hasn’t played it yet, I don’t think I can recommend Oblivion. But the deciding reason is a bit more complex than the above pros and cons would have you believe:

Generally, games can be sorted into those from a bygone era and those that are contemporary. Oblivion fits into neither category. It isn’t old enough to belong to the bygone era of games like Morrowind and Fallout, and yet feels too clunky and dated to belong to the modern era of games like The Outer Worlds and The Witcher 3. And even though many of it’s new systems would be implemented better into Bethesda’s later games – like the level scaling systems, for example – it still holds onto just enough of what came before it that it doesn’t quite feel like a modern action RPG. Just as an example, it decided to keep Morrowind’s levelling system and just made it more awkward to use because of how level scaling interacts with it. So, it just exists in this nothingness. While playing you’ll neither feel like you’ve discovered an old relic game you were happy to stumble upon, nor the excitement of playing next new thing. It’s just a game that awkwardly exists between the borders of charmingly old and uniquely new. It has all of the worst things about new and old action RPG’s, while what it does well cannot make up for it.

I have to return to that word I used at the start of the review; amateur. This is a AAA fantasy game that feels like an indie studio stitched it together after reading about the high middle ages. It also comes with the numerous bugs and glitches Bethesda games are known for including and refusing to fix. There’s floating foliage, trees and rocks that let me see under the map, the constant worry of my save files being corrupted and a great many more I can’t possibly list here. And while I love mods, the fact it’s up to the community, and not the developers, to fix these issues doesn’t sit well with me. It’s shamefully lazy.

So if you’re not a Bethesda fan or don’t normally play action RPG’s of this type, then I’d say not to play this game. It’s not that I think it’s so dated that you should just play modern, improved titles… But that even earlier games like Morrowind do some of what Oblivion does but better – like providing a more diverse world and meaningful exploration. So yeah, play a better game than this one, be it newer or older.

3 thoughts on “The Elder Scrolls IV Oblivion Review – The Amateur RPG

Add yours

  1. I did enjoy Oblivion when I played it, but I fully acknowledge that when Bethesda games are good, they’re good in spite of their design sensibilities and not because of them. They have a tendency to just throw ideas at the wall and implement all of them rather than weed out what doesn’t work, and that lack of focus prevents them from ascending beyond being merely good. Also, it wasn’t a good idea to have one person design all the dungeons.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yeah I know I’m in the minority with my opinion on this one and recognise how big it was to a lot of folks childhood. But yeah, unlike even a game like Fallout 4 that I spoke much more favourably of despite it’s much more mixed reception, Oblivion’s core design elements felt like a constant barrier between myself and enjoyment as I was playing it. Also I didn’t know one guy designed all the dungeons! I guess I should give him props for the couple that are actually good and for getting that many done, even if a lot weren’t stand out at all. Must have been a lot of crunch for him.

      Liked by 1 person

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