Opinion Piece

Skyrim Is Coming: Looking back on the Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion

In just a few long weeks I’m going to  either physically explode or start frothing at the mouth before attacking random strangers and running in circles. The reason for this strange behavior, well, slightly stranger than normal, is the release of the fifth game in the Elder Scrolls series. It goes by the name Skyrim, and you may very have heard of it. In fact it’s hard to believe that it has been five years since the Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion was released and stole my heart. I know, that’s a dramatic sentence, but it’s a true one. Oblivion has stolen several hundred hours of my life in those five years, which is a terrifying statistic when you stop and think about it. It had flaws, many of them, but there was something truly amazing about it. So here’s my rose-tinted view of Oblivion.

The very first time I played Oblivion I didn’t even make it out of the bloody sewers. At the time I had only just picked up my Xbox and had just two games to play; Oblivion and the mighty Gears of War. So I had stopped playing Gears long enough to slap in Oblivion, and after stumbling around in the dark for what felt like an ice-age followed by a decade, I decided that enough was enough and I switched back to Gears of War. A few days later Gears lay completed at my feet, so I slapped Oblivion back in and decided that I really needed to actually give this game a proper go. And so I ventured through the sewers, swearing loudly at a rat that wouldn’t die and slashing madly at a skeleton determined to poke something sharp through my eye, and eventually ran into a door. I confirmed my character and idly watched the loading screen which seemed to take for ever, and then it hit me full in the face. I stepped out from the dark sewers into a huge world filled with color, light and beauty, and I fell in love.

I therefore blame my first ever proper decision on being intoxicated with love. I decided that I need to get myself a horse, so I decided to assault a passing guard, kill him, nick his gear and take the horse. Exactly 2.5-seconds into the fight I realised that this was, quite honestly, the single worst idea I’d ever had. About 1.5 seconds after that I was running away as fast as I could, madly trying to look for a cupboard I could hide in until the nasty man with a sword went away. He did not go away, and that sword turned out to be really bloody painful. Bastard.

This rather regrettable decision did serve to point out one fact, though; this was a game about choice. My second choice was that, despite some tosh about the end of the world or something, I was going to go adventuring. Before I made a name for myself, though, I was going to need to get myself some gear, because the flimsy clothing I was wearing was about as likely to protect me from a sword as a slightly damp piece of kitchen towel. As for the rusty sword I was carrying, a small angry bunny rabbit would have been far more threatening. And so I decided that the life of the shadows was for me, so I set off for nearest town to find a tavern and set about stealing myself some cash. It was in this tavern than I did something against my nature in games; I committed a murder. Usually I’m actually pretty moral in games, normally only killing when I view someone as truly deserving it, but I decided that I’d give it a go. The poor sod didn’t stand a chance lying in his bed, so a quick knife slash ended his life and made the transfer of ownership a much easier task, so I went to headed to bed safe in the knowledge that I was a little richer. About halfway through a blood good dream involving a very pretty girl (on retrospect I don’t think this was in the game….) I was rudely awoken by a man in a black cloak who represented the mysterious killers known as the Dark Brotherhood. Thus began my life as an assassin.

Still, even though the work of a dark assassin did take up a considerable amount of my time, it was the world itself that really drew me in and sucked up the hours. It was just so freaking big! It was this giant world and the fact that I almost lead a complete life as an adventurer without ever going near the main quest that was the best part of the game, for me. The main quest itself was pretty fun, but far more enjoyable was to simply venture into the world, ransacking caves for loot, becoming an all-powerful wizard, helping random strangers or fighting for money in the arena. At one point I tooled up with some new gear and entered the wilderness only to emerge three days later with cooler loot and a big grin on my face having dispatched numerous evil monsters and generally felt badass while doing it. Where ever I looked in the land of Cyrodil there was a cave to explore, an ancient to fight through or some small village that held a mysterious stranger with a quest, far to willing to entrust something valuable to such a morally questionable person like myself. Sure, there were some big problems with the huge world of Oblivion, namely some irritating loading when moving from area to area, stiff characters and about three different voice actors often ripped me out of my immersion in the game.. In today’s world, should I have to review it, these problems would weigh the game down considerably, but ultimately I didn’t give a rats arse about the problems, because sometimes the fun factor simply sweeps the problems under a rug, sits on them and whistles innocently.

Speaking of which, though, the combat in Oblivion was never the slickest experience on the market, a problem that is hopefully going to be fixed in Skyrim. The first person view that the games uses, while immersive, does make the hack and slash combat feel a little uncoordinated and it generally just involved holding block, then hitting attack, and the block, and then attack, until something died. Sometimes it was you and sometimes it was the enemy.

The magic worked far better, despite the fact that I head numerous people who didn’t like it. It was the simple fact that I could create my own spells that sold it for me – I’d spent hours simply tinkering around with a spell which, when unleashed in the middle of town, would immediately set fire to everyone and cause them to riot in the streets, after which I’d happily scavenge loot from the poor buggers who got caught up in it all. Summoning creatures quickly became a favorite of mine and it was unusual to ever see in combat or just wandering around without some sort of creature in tow, It was just a shame I couldn’t figure out a way to make them carry my gear for me, because until I could afford my own house I was loathed to give up any piece of equipment without a fight. That sword is mine, dammit!

It was probably around twenty or thirty hours into the game when I remembered that the world was going to hell around me and I should probably do something about it. I remember that some people complained that there was no sense of urgency to the way the main quest was handled, which gave the whole “end of the world” thing a bit of an odd feeling. It’s  a perfectly valid point and one that tears my opinion in half; on one hand I agree that a lack of urgency to the quests made it the whole thing feel a bit stupid, but on the other hand the lack of urgency made it so much easier for the play to simply wander off and become lost in the land of Cyrodill, only emerging years later when somebody said something about a game called Skyrim. It was this freedom to wander off that made Oblivion such a fun game, and so if I was given the choice I’d take the lack of urgency any day of the week. But it does make me wonder how they’ll handle this in Skyrim.

But I’m digressing, which I’m almost certain is bad for my health. I think of every problem Oblivion had, the main storyline was the biggest. In all honestly the story itself wasn’t that big of a problem, it was those sodding Oblivion gates that really irritated me. The concept of going through an evil-looking demonic gate into an even more evil land is, quite honestly, a really cool one, but it face two big problems; apart from being turning everything bright red it didn’t really feel that much different from the normal world, and the second problem was that every damn gate as the same! Every gate required you to trudge up yet another bloody tower, all of which had almost the exact same layout, and kill enemies on the way. It was repetitive and dull, and to make matters worse the game then insisted on you having to shut down a gate outside of each major town! ARGH! It was about halfway through this gate closing escapade that I abandoned the main campaign yet again to return to my from life of crime, assassinations, looting, wizardly and general badassery, because it was far more entertaining. Still, the ending to the campaign was pretty cool. Who doesn’t like dragons turning into stone?

Hmmm, actually the storyline may have been the second biggest problem, the first being those damn enemies that levelled up alongside you as you went from weak and pitiful being to almighty demigod. One of the biggest draws of any RPG, to me, is levelling up and becoming more powerful as well as laying claim to better gear before going back to an old area and smiting all those that stand before me. But strangely Oblivion’s enemies levelled up with you, and while this did mean that you could never rest easy it also meant that a bloody rat could kill you if you weren’t careful. It might make for a constant challenge, but it didn’t do very well for making the player feel like their levelling up was actually worth anything. And that spiffy Elven sword you looted in a cave? it’s now worthless because the local bandits have suddenly managed to kit themselves out in the latest line of Glass armour and weapons. Lovely.

But for every problem there was always something to make me completely forget about it. In this instance it was the ability to be able to apply magical properties to my gear, therefore turning my cloak into a kickass cloak of invisibility. I would spend hours simply taking on random jobs and robbing perfect strangers so that I could blow it all on enchanting my armor. It was just a shame that I wasn’t allowed to paint it as well, though in fairness the concept of me running around in armor bright enough to blind the sun itself probably wouldn’t have gone down well with the citizens of Cyrodill.

By this point in the game my life as some sort of uber-ninja assassin was going pretty well. I’d mastered the art of sneaking around in the shadows with a well enchanted black cloak, and so I decided that it was time to enter the Fighters guild and learn how to kick some real ass. But just to be safe I also joined the Thieves guild and started my career of becoming an all-powerful wizard. It could very well be argued that being able to join all these different guilds as just odd, but I have a logical, well thought out argument to that: shut up, minion. Despite the fact that it did feel a little weird that you could become the master of each of them it did make for a far more interesting game. While I was primarily a stealthy player, I also enjoyed extending those stealth talents to fighting various monsters in the Fighters guild and throwing fireballs around the place like there was no tomorrow, which, presumably, if I kept throwing those big ones around there wouldn’t be. By time the game was over I could kick ass with a sword, summon deadly creatures, steal jewels from under the noses of kings and assassination anyone who happened to annoy me, which was practically everyone. It may not have been realistic, but realistic can shove it when I’m having this much fun.

Of course my shadowy life often lead me to have incidents with the local law enforcement boys. Happily these encounters tended to go better than my first attempt at assaulting a guard. But my run-ins with the guards did serve to highlight another problem with the game; the AI never felt that real. In most games, as I’ve said, I’m actually quite moral and should I have an encounter with guard in any other game I’d try my best to just get the hell out of dodge, but in Oblivion killing guards or citizens had almost no consequences. Killed a guard? No problem, just pay this small fine and all will be well in the world. The result was that I generally had zero problems with killing guards should they happen to get in my way. Again, this is something that Skyrim should hopefully combat.

And then came the DLC for the game. But not the Horse Armor. Never the Horse Armor. But after that came several small packages containing assorted houses which I greedily gobbled up. They were decently priced and provided some fun new content for a game already packed with stuff, but they were just the appetizer before the games first major expansion arrived; the Knights of the Nine. While it wasn’t that huge in terms of gameplay it was a polished addition to the game, and was worth playing through just for the badass armor that was rewarding throughout the quests, even if it did prove to be a nightmare to keep it equipped thanks to my less than nice approach. Knights of the Nine, though, was ultimately just paving away for the epic Shivering Isles expansion. In fact Oblivion’s Shivering Isles expansion remains my favorite piece of DLC to be released, and also stands as an example as to what DLC can actually be used for, instead of the endless amounts of garbage that we get thrown today for ludicrous prices. I’d already spent over a hundred hours in Oblivion on first playthrough, and then almost as many hours on my second playthrough, but then the Shivering Isles turned up and forced me (yes, forced.) to spent another twenty or thirty hours playing through it and loving every moment of it. It didn’t just add in some new quests to the existing world, but threw in a whole new land for me to explore with towns, side quests, and loads of new weapons and armor. It was the world and characters that proved to be the best part, though; they were an insane, twisted and highly interesting cast if misfits and the world they inhabited was never dull. It’s my sincere hope that Skyrim manages to deliver quality expansion packs like those that I loved so much for Oblivion, and thereby prove that DLC can still be used for good rather than  ludicrously overpriced Call of Duty map packs.

Coming to the end of my little walk down memory lane it’s clear that Oblivion had many faults. repetitive quests, what seemed like three voice actors, clumsy combat, loading times, glitches, enemies that levelled up with the player and more. But do you know what? I don’t care, because I love Oblivion in a way that few other games can invoke, and that’s why I’m currently so excited about Skyrim that you could power an entire city if you could find a way to strap me up and turn excitement into electricity. Hell, I could power a continent, because flaws or or no flaws, if Skyrim is half the game Oblivion was I’m going to fall in love with it and never look back.

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