Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Xbox 360 review: The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion

The story of The Elder Scrolls IV opens with the player-controlled character locked in a cell in the Imperial City. Here, players will determine their race and physical attributes, as well as special skill sets based upon a star sign. Before players can begin their adventures in Cyrodill, they must first escort Uriel Septim, current emperor of the land, through a network of underground tunnels as they evade the assassins of the Mythic Dawn. As it so happens, the entrance to this escape route begins in your very own prison cell, and Uriel Septim believes this is no coincidence. All off this acts as a rather lengthy combat tutorial, though players can just as easily let the AI Imperial Guards take to the forefront of combat.

As Uriel's final moments draw near, he asks the player to seek out Martin, the next in line to claim the throne. Leaving through the sewers, players will emerge unharmed and now free to roam about the hills, mountains, plains, and forests of Cyrodill. Players now have the freedom to choose to engage in the main story, or to spend time tackling sidequests, and there are benefits to both. The main story introduces players to key areas and can often reward them with powerful weapons and armor found in the dungeon areas. The sidequests take time, but will yield results in the form of experience to increase skills as well as some small treasures that can be sold.

There is some nice variation in the architectural style and geographic layout of the various towns players will visit during their journeys. Some are more memorable than others, like the snow-laden cabins of Bruma and the stacked wooden houses that line the trench river in Bravil. But as a whole, the artistic direction of the game sets players in a rather generic medieval fantasy world. Which is not to say there is nothing to do there, with an abundance of optional sidequests at their disposal.

The sidequests - most notably the major ones of the Dark Brotherhood and the Mages, Fighters, and Thieves' Guilds - will make up the bulk of the gaming experience in terms of time and variety. The main storyline pales in comparison to any one of these. The protagonist's aiding Martin doesn't make for a downright terrible narrative, but it isn't until approximately two-thirds of the way in that the narrative becomes genuinely interesting. From there, things become really intense and action-packed, but everything leading up to it is a series of boring labyrinth searches, wherein players will be accompanied by AI-controlled Jauffre, whose tendencies to charge headlong into battle prove more of a burden than a help.

The game's management system is pretty straightforward. Weapons, armor, and alchemic ingredients are all allocated to one section of the menu, while sidequests and the world map are on another. The third and final set of tabs details character abilities, skill levels, and their special attributes that come with whatever star sign players choose at the beginning of the game. This format provides ease of access to anything players might need to review during their journeys.

The level-up system isn't very involved. So long as players keep hacking away at enemies, they will increase their skill in arms combat after a predetermined number have been killed. The same goes for number of jumps made to increase agility, and number of locks opened to increase security. Games like thos in the Final Fantasy series would encourage players to spend their experience points with the knowledge of what skills will benefit them in particular ways, but Oblivion doesn't give many pointers in this department. Instead, it touches briefly on the combat skills, which will be key to the main story. As far as the rest are concerned, they will only be explored in the sidequests.

Aside from the first gate at Kvatch and the final Great Gate, the Oblivion Gates scattered across Cyrodill are completely optional. Most of them have a similar layout, with some of the ones encountered deeper in the wilds being larger than those nearest the towns. The gates are home to Daedric Princes, some of the most clever AI enemies in the game, as well as some of the most versatile monsters. The towers and gates present players with some of the game's best puzzle elements. After they have acquired a Sigil Stone and destroy its respective Oblivion Gate, players will generally find their skill sets to have received a substantial boost. It may not always be in the best interest of players to tackle an Oblivion Gate, but the results are certainly worth the time and effort.

For one of the earliest major releases on the Xbox 360, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion looks very good. By today's visual standards, it hasn't aged particularly well, though the water effects are still convincing enough. The skybox, on the other hand, is still one of the most gorgeous in any game in recent memory. the soundtracks presents a beautiful contrast of epic military fanfare with soothing, mystical melodies. The gameplay is pretty fluid, though enemies tend to stick to a few tactics, often favoring the 'charge headfirst' method. The story is quite strong, though players may find themselves largely disinterested until the latter portions amp it up.

My rating: 8.0 (out of 10)

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