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The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion
Score: 100%
ESRB: Mature
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Developer: Bethesda Softworks
Media: Blu-ray/1
Players: 1
Genre: RPG/ Adventure

Graphics & Sound:
"That cake looks too good to eat!"

...Although I've heard this said many times in my life, I've never really understood it. No matter how beautifully a cake is decorated, the point of a cake is to be eaten. Now that I've played The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, I think I understand. Only, with Oblivion, as soon as I was done uttering that statement, I would proceed to grab a fistful with my hand and shove it in my mouth and then just start playing with the cake.

The visuals in Oblivion are nothing short of amazing. The water effects look like something out of a technology demo, with realistic reflections and interactive waves. Breathtaking.

The models are extremely detailed and are well done, right down to the facial animation. The one thing about the faces in Oblivion that I highly applaud, but it seems to be (ever-so-slightly) off the mark, is the aging of characters. You can choose the apparent age of your character, which will change things such as coloring and amount of wrinkles, depending in part on race. The part that seems slightly off is the wrinkles. I can't put my finger on exactly what is off, but I think it benefits from this addition to the depth of character animation. You get a good feel for the age of NPCs - the characters are just that - characters. The highly detailed character animation and models combine with the excellent writing to create believable characters that make you feel like part of a story, rather than a casual observer who's waiting for the text to end so you can kill something else.

The musical scores in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion are well done and fit the action and environments very well. Most of the time, they just sort of add an ambience to the game, but at times the change between different pieces will be a bit abrupt - typically, however, this occurs when you enter (or leave) a city or other large area; basically, the environment is changing and the music follows its lead. The sound effects do a good job of reinforcing the environment that you are exploring, as does the large amount of voicework. Oblivion is very well "put together," from a production standpoint.

Now, while the original cake analogy above accurately describes the appetizing graphics featured in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, there are several ingredients in this delicious treat that have nothing to do with it's appearance and everything to do with its gameplay.

Primarily, I'm speaking of a persistent universe. I've heard this term used several times before as a goal for role-playing games, and I've heard games tout this as a feature before, but I am not aware of a game ever having an environment that is as persistent as that of Oblivion. When you kill an imp, the imp's body remains. Leave the area and come back and it's still there. Loot the corpse and take off with your new found treasures. Pick up too much and become over-encumbered? No problem, just drop something and come back for it later. I have actually holed-up in a spot I considered to be relatively safe and stockpiled ever-so-much-more than I could hope to carry. When my armor ran low, I would return to that spot and sift through the piles of items I had dropped to find what I needed.

Piles? Yes, piles... the items are not only persistent, but are treated as 3D items in the world -- and are affected by physics. Drop an item or kill a monster on an incline and watch it slide down. Running over a dropped item can kick it to the side. If you're not careful when browsing in stores, you're likely to knock bowls off tables or knock over books on a shelf. If you're really stubborn and have only a short distance to travel, you can carry more than your encumbrance will allow by kicking an item or two along ahead of you. (This gets easier if you practice a bit.)

Oblivion also has an interesting crime and punishment system that will bring about penalties for theft and murder in cities and civilized areas. The laws of the land are detailed enough to protect you if you kill out of self-defense, but hold you accountable if you start the fight. Theft is not tolerated, and if you're observed, you'll have to pay a fine or go to jail. Items that are successfully stolen will be marked with the symbol of a red hand on them (as in, "Don't get caught red-handed") and will not show up as an item to be bartered to a merchant if that merchant is honest. This won't stop you from planting it in his store, mind you. It is refreshing, however, to see a game that actually has penalties for blatant anti-social behavior.

The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion does a good job of managing difficulty. There were very few parts that simply did me in, yet I found several parts to be challenging enough to keep the game interesting. Part of managing the difficulty, however, is up to the player as it always is in these types of games. If you make really stupid choices and attack things that are out of your league, you'll find out pretty quickly.

The Oblivion realm, itself, is a very dangerous place, and I would suggest taking a bit of a creep-and-save approach when adventuring in this realm. Mind you, I'm not telling you anything you wouldn't read anyway, as the loading screen shown when venturing into the Oblivion realm states just that. I'm generally not in favor of creep-and-save tactics, so I was glad to be given this tip; it felt kind of like the developers were saying, "Dude, I won't think you're a wimp for saving often in here... it's gnarly." Also, much like the multi-choice adventuring books of the eighties, it can be useful to save your place at more than one place... just in case you find that you chose poorly.

The leveling system makes sense and is based on actually using your skills. This means that if you choose a class with major attributes that you can easily practice (such as Athletics, Restoration and Agility), then you'll find you're able to level much more quickly. Make sure that you end up with a character you actually want to play as, however; easy to level doesn't necessarily imply fun to play.

Game Mechanics:
This game is fantastic. It is beautiful to look at and amazing to play. The persistence of the world is astounding and, I believe, a first for a console game. Fallen enemies will slump and roll down inclines and then will remain where they come to rest. Dropped items appear to drop from you when you drop them, and then come to rest as physical 3D objects in the environment which can be kicked and bumped in all of the physics engine's glory.

The storytelling is excellently done, and the story is actually interesting, although it's very hard to stay dedicated to the main storyline, with an entire living, breathing world beckoning for you to explore it.

If you're a fan of RPGs or the player versus environment aspects of MMORPGs, then you'll love The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. I think of it as a Massively Single-player Offline Role Playing Game; there are a lot of interesting characters out there... they just happen to be NPCs.

-Geck0, GameVortex Communications
AKA Robert Perkins

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