Prior to The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, a 2006 launch-window title for the Xbox 360, I took no notice of RPGs, seeing them as being dialogue and FMVs over real-time gameplay and graphics. I didn't even know Oblivion existed until it was on a demo kiosk at my local game store in 2007.
What initially got my interest was the character creator - I hadn't seen one as flexible or detailed outside of wrestling games. Then the graphics - real next-gen lighting and textures. The eerie dungeon atmopshere was next - I felt like I was actually in one.
I progressed though the opening area, fought a few soldiers, saw some spells cast, picked up some basic swords. Pretty ordinary medieval vibes. The room was pretty small. I was able to move VERY freely though, and jump onto anything I wanted. Kinda 3D platforming vibes, haven't seen that in a gritty medieval game before. And those swords looked DAMN nice, serious next-gen detailing.
There was very little in the inventory menus at this point, but I noticed they didn't have the kind of limited layout I was used to seeing with obvious slots to fill, instead full-screen lists with a bunch of sorting tabs and no clear endpoints. Most interesting...
As I kept moving through tunnels, something felt very...free about the mechanics. Like, I didn't feel any of the limits you expect in games. It felt kind of like an environment where a real human wouldn't feel out of place.
Ah, found the exit. I get to pick...stats and special abilities...wow, there's more going on here than I was expecting. And this menu artwork is excellent. Great production values. I wonder how this all fits together, what the point of the game is.
Ooo, outside now. It's sunset, can't see very far. There's a big hill in front of me. Walking around...a small romanesque structure...hm, it can be activated..."Continue your penance to earn the gods' forgiveness"...mysterious! Feels like something a lot later on.
It's dark now. Walking a bit more...I can search these crates and barrels...a torch...hey, it works! I'll walk towards the hill...oh, a couple of people are running at me...they're bandits! This is great real-time combat! Examining the bodies under torchlight...great lighting...I can loot them...I can take their clothes? That's something new. And the clothes are VISIBLY taken off their bodies, leaving underwear?? Ok, this is something.
Checking the menus...I can examine the map...different zoom levels...panning over it...still panning....still panning...WTF, it can't be THAT big. Not possible. I'm used to Zelda maps that fit on one screen. This is on a universal scale in comparison. It seems just about endless. 0_0
There's another page in the menus...what the heck are all these stats?? Fame? Infamy? Books read? Murders? Personality? Luck? This is overload...and it's true honest-to-goodness full-3D real-time action. It's like Zelda put on its big, BIG boy pants. I have GOT to buy this and play it proper.
I bought an Xbox 360 for it and Halo 3 in January 2008. Now almost 300 hours played, all on the same save file, with only about 30 hours being DLC, and still play it occasionally. And, I've yet to even begin two of the main guilds.
Oblivion has five major hooks for me:
- The World
It IS as big as the map makes it look. Given the size, I was worried about an empty, procedural feel. But it's anything but empty, and anything but a flat plain. Serene, thick forests with gently swaying trees. Prairie fields, seashores, bogs, soaring mountains. Inns and stables and farms and towns filled with people that have jobs and schedules and homes. Draw distance? What's that? Go to a hilltop and you can see forever. And you can go there. The map DOES end eventually, but it'll be a heck of a walk getting there. And on the way, you'll pass by dozens and dozens of hidden mines, bandit camps, ruins, shrines, mystical stones, and gates to the lurid hell dimension of Oblivion. Even the most obscure reaches of the map offer points of interest. The Imperial City, which is a city in every sense of the word, caps it all off, with its market, arboretum, housing districts, sewers, seat of government, graveyard, arena, and harbour.
- The Depth
As soon as you finish the opening area, you have no limits. You're barely pressured into the main story. There are hundreds of quests, and very few are level-locked. Every building is fully furnished, and you can pick up any object and drop it anywhere. Potions, spell scrolls, ingredients, cutlery, clothing, it's all 100% tangible instead of mere menu icons.
You can lockpick, eat, brew potions, barter, enchant weapons, and manipulate your physical and arcane attributes. And read lore books. A LOT of VERY wordy lore books. The Elder Scrolls has the densest lore of any video game series.
Oh, and there's dungeon crawling too. And a crime system. And diseases. And sneaking and invisibility and night vision and water walking and vampirism and horses and a drug den. Aw yeah. :P
- The Technical Prowess
It just plain looks good. Some people hate it, but there's a bloom effect applied to the world that imparts a surreal, entrancing quality. There's great use of colour, very detailed textures with gorgeous bump mapping, and ethereal screen-filling lightbursts from spells.
There's also well-managed ragdoll physics, an utter metric s**t-ton of fully voiced dialogue, and SO many layered systems. This sheer quantity does result in some weirdness/bugginess, but even on Xbox 360, it's never truly gamebreaking, and the performance holds up well.
- The Soundtrack
It's just beautiful. Combined with the sunsets, stars, lakes, just looking at a tree or a bridge...it makes the world monumentally absorbing.
- Unique Vibes
Lizard people, cat people, churls, blood fountains, trapping souls, a pantheon of gods, its own full calendar, cults, beggars, the menu sound effects, the cultured names given to each of the people/places/weapons...it all keeps the world fresh.