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Bathseda''s Elder Scrolls series has always had a sort of love hate relationship with gamers in general. Some love the series for their massive open ended structure and absorbing narrative, while others end up hopelessly lost and pine for a game where saving the world is really of far more import than wondering around the wilderness picking flowers. My only experience with the series to date was the Xbox release Of Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind that I enjoyed enough to put in around 60 hours of play time, but never actually started the games main quest. (wasn''t my fault, some guy told me to start making a name for myself and get back to him, and I kind of forgot to get back to him.) I''d dearly love for Microsoft to get started on making Morrowind BC so that I can try a little harder, but even so I remain satisfied that I found value for money in a game that allowed the player to play a hundred different games depending on their mood.
It would be a shame for people to assume that Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion is going to be another Morrowind expansion pack, because the truth is that Bathseda have strived very hard to fix the issues that have plagued the series since it''s beginnings.
True the concept of the game remains inherently the same. You play the character of your choosing, with options to choose the race and Birth Sign of your character dictating the areas you will best specialize in. Then a series of options; ranging from nose size (and point) to how broad to make the shoulders, allow you to play as the character you want to play as. From here the main story is introduced; this time involving the assassination of the Emperor and all his sons allowing gates to Oblivion (a hell type dimension) to open up across the country. Only the Emperors illegitimate son remains to take up the throne and reseal these gates, but it''s kind of up to you to find him.
Once again though this quest is surprisingly unimportant to the game as a whole. You can save the world in little over 10 hours if you choose to, but the game wont end if you do. Alternatively you can allow the forces of darkness to get on with it while you yourself do whatever it is you feel like doing while all of this is all going on.
From this point on the options at your disposal are staggering. You can wonder the wilderness killing bandits and looting their caves. Or you can enter a random town and listen to the local gossip, which will then open up any side quests you find appealing. These can range from solving murders, committing murders, hunting vampires, catching thieves, and quite a few Indiana Jones type quests with back story''s equally as intricate as that of the main quest itself. Then of course there''s the imperial arena where you can become a Roman type Gladiator and engage in Mortal Combat for the pleasure of a bloodthirsty crowd, and make yourself a little money if you survive.
There are also four guilds scattered around the country, each with their own 20 hour+ stories, and each utilizing vastly different genres to help avoid any sense of repetition. There''s the Fighters Guild who are losing business to a new organization, and through a series of hack and slash dungeon raiding missions you need to help them regain their position. Then there''s the mages guild, where obviously spell casting becomes the focal point as you must investigate a sinister cult of necromancers before they can wipe out the mages guild for good. There''s a thieves guild where fighting and killing is banned, and so you have to master your stealth skills if you want to complete their quests and uncover the mystery behind the guild master Grey Fox.
Yet the guild that perhaps provides the most fun is The Dark Brotherhood, or the assassins guild. Each mission in this section can be completed by simply killing your target, but, as it''s a discreet organization then they pay more if you use discretion and finds less incriminating ways of completing a contract. The games most unique mission is featured in this guild, whereby you''re locked in a house with 5 other guests, and only if you can kill them all without any of them discovering your identity will you earn a bonus. You can do this by following them around until they''re alone, befriending them and talking them into exposing themselves, or even manipulating their prejudices so that they end up killing each other for you.
Of course doing the "bad quests" will effect your standing with the 9 gods of Tamriel, who will cure any diseases you have if they feel you''ve done more good than bad. This can prove useful as diseases will effect your stats negatively, and there are a lot of diseased creatures in the game. Plus, if they don''t let you pray (or like me you just couldn''t be bothered with finding a chapel) then you could find yourself going to bed with an acute case of Hemophilia, and waking up a full blown vampire. I, of course, manage to pull this off quite well in my game as it adds to your stats significantly, but others who find it harder to feed on sleeping victims everyday will probably find the fiery sun burn to be a distinct problem.
Not that any of this will prove to be anything new to elder Scrolls vetarians, but the wonderful thing about Oblivion is the way in which Bathseda have so efficiently ironed out a lot of the series flaws. The biggest of these advancements is by far the games new A.I system. Remember in Morrowind how NPCs would just stand around their homes all day waiting for you to come visit. Well that little issue has now been completely erased thanks to the games "Radiant A.I". What Radiant A.I is, is an all new system whereby a character is programmed with certain needs (a thief must steal, a guard must guard, farmer farm ect...) but then how the character fills that need is entirely up to them. So if you like you could just choose a random A.I character to follow and wait for something cool to happen. This can include anything from random pick pockets sneaking on them, to bar fights breaking out, which in turn can lead into a full blown riot if you''re not careful. One particularly cool moment I witnessed two guards fighting to the death, and shouting insults at each other for reasons I never could figure out. I suspect one of the guards was hunting deer and accidentally shot the other, because in this game that sort of thing happens all the time, but more often than not the player wont be around to witness it. If the system has one drawback it''s that sometimes a NPC you''ve grown quite fond of (shop keepers and trainers are the worst) can just disappear from the game entirely because they went out hunting and got killed by a bear. Even so, I wouldn''t trade it in for any other system, especially since I had to postpone one mission for a few days after I found out a character I needed to speak to had taken a weekends holiday and I didn''t feel like chasing her around the country. True story!
That''s the biggest improvement, but my favorite improvement is in the games combat engine. Gone are the invisible dice rolls that Morrowind employed to decide which strikes would hit. In it''s place is a much simpler system of, if you''re aiming on target when you strike then you will hit and your stats will decide how much damage is dealt. As with the previous games your approach to battle will be dictated by the type of armour you specialize in, ranging from heavy armour that protects you in the short term, but hinders your ability to move, right the way through to mages robes that offer some form of magic protection. I always favor the light armour as I like to move a lot during battle, but after experimenting with different styles I can safely say that any form of battle is made more entertaining with this new system.
Other advancements made have both their good and their bad sides though. Horses are a very welcome addition for avoiding the tedious amount of walking in the previous games, but then fast traveling (teleporting to any place you''ve already found) seriously detracts from the exploration aspect of the game.
You''ll also find in this game that enemies will level up alongside your character. Again there were elements I disliked about this system, because there was never a moment where I had to run for my life after approaching a big dungeon early, but still it ensured a steady challenge no matter how long I played for. Others have complained that they can no longer level up to almost god like levels and walk through even the toughest enemies in a single strike, but I would have found that very boring and prefer it when the monsters get bigger as you get stronger.
Thankfully for a game as epic as this Oblivion has been treated to some superb presentation. The graphics alone are a tour''de''force. At times I found myself walking between cities just so I could take in the view from the top of a mountain, or witness the sun set over the grassy plains. It''s all in the superb draw distance really. Yet the graphics become even more impressive when you witness the character animations, and the unrivaled rag doll physics that allow you to literally roll a defeated foe down a hill just for the fun of it. It''s true there are the occasional glitches where items will remain suspended in mid air, and there are clipping issues on some of the individually animated blades of grass, but considering the fact that the entire game world is pre loaded then it''s an impressive feat that they avoided as many glitches as they have. (Public service announcement - this video made all the glitches worthwhile - http://media.putfile.com/Rolling-With-Bears-Oblivion )
Finally we really have to give some consideration to the games audio. If you''ve ever played an Elder Scrolls game before then you''ll likely be prepared for a superb orchestral soundtrack, and it''s present and correct. Yet on top of that the game finally features voice acting, and very good voice acting too. The voices in the main quest alone include the likes of Patrick Stewart, Sean Bean, and Terence Stamp, but on top of that every single character has a voice in this game that fits their respective race. Even though most of the voices are repeated it''s still an impressive feat and proves to draw you into dialogue scenes far more than the rather tedious sections in Morrowind.
All in all I''d definitely recommend Oblivion as the best game on 360 right now. It offers the same gaming experience as buying Tomb Raider, Hitman, Thief 2, Baldurs Gate and Deus Ex on a single disk. The main story is a bit of a let down, but the many side quests, books, and character interaction ensure that you''ll be hooked into the Tolkienesque story regardless. Sure there are problems in the game. Some players have reported experiencing game destroying glitches, the graphics can feature pop up and clipping occasionally, and it crashes more than any of my other games. Yet like Morrowind these faults can be avoided if you know how to, and as a result do not prevent the game from being a game of the year contender.
Hardcore Morrowind players will likely be disappointed by the way the game seems to walk players through, but anyone who doesn''t enjoy getting lost in their epic games will have a blast regardless.