A Blast from the Past review
FBT has wares, if you have coin
Steam just told me I’ve played Oblivion for 500 hours. FIVE HUNDRED HOURS! And that’s just the Steam GOTY version. My original vanilla disc is still knocking about somewhere, exhausted. What kept pulling me back to a decade-plus game?
Oblivion launched Bethesda into the RPG majors. If Morrowind was their GTA III, Oblivion was San Andreas. Yet I wasn’t a fan when I first played it. It felt too twee with the butterflies and meadows; I was all about the down n’ dirty Morrowind; the Cliffracers, the endless walking, the vague quests, that incomprehensible diary ... Oblivion was dumbed down; it wasn’t as dense and inscrutable as Morrowind - that game, you had to decipher, live in it to get into it; a true RPG. Oblivion felt like The Elder Scrolls Fisher Price Edition after the commitment you made to Morrowind.
But … Oblivion was hailed as one of the best RPGs of all time, a master-class in design, environment and story. The world was alive, so they said. I decided to give it another go. And another, and another, and now Oblivion might be my all-time favourite game. What happened? Did I get in or sell out? Time to get me some Horse Armour and find out what the hell I was doing for 500 hours. I should be able to review this from memory. But where the blast in that?
Still a Blast?
Opening with a nice pan around the Imperial City, we’re not in dusty Morrowind anymore. This is a posh, well-heeled world. We enter through a barred window and we’re in a prison – this is more like it. After the basic character selection (Khajiit) none other than Patrick Stewart rocks up, as my cell has a secret exit in it. He’s on the run from the "Mythic Dawn" - as long as his linage is on the throne, they can’t invoke Mehrunes Dagon, the ruler of a hellish plane known as ‘Oblivion’ who wants to wipe Tamriel clean of all us house-cats and assorted other races. But first, Sir Pat and I have to escape this tutorial mission. As I navigate the tunnels and sewers I battle rats, goblins and Mythic Dawn (who have awesome armour that annoyingly disappears when you off them) and learn the basics - but also find my personality and background as I go; Bethesda know how to do a character build. Rather than have it all thrown at you, you build character in stages and get a sense of how the game’s going to go and what works for you – you even have complete freedom to pick and name your own class rather than compromise. It’s amazing. I make my choices and get set free; now I’m the only one who knows Sir Pat messed about with one of the maids; I need to get that illegitimate son on the throne before Mehrunes arrives. It's all on me.
I’d like to say it’s as if I’ve never been away. 500 hours is a long time but rather than instantly knowing where everything is and what needs doing, I walk out and mutter “where the hell am I?” Oblivion is vast but I’m instantly excited to get out there and re-experience it all. As I ignore the mission marker, I take in the sights. Oblivion still looks pretty damn good. The draw distance is a bit flaky, it’s not as detailed as I remember and does have a 2006 feel but it’s just so lush and interesting. It’s not about the pixel count, it’s about how it all fits; Oblivion flows as if it evolved; this is ‘real’, alive and vibrant unlike its successor Skyrim’s gloomy wastes that seemed like an RPG set in the Tory’s austerity era – in Oblivion I keep expecting the Queen’s gamekeeper to yell at me to get off the grass. It’s just beautiful. I might be an Oblivion veteran, but I’m genuinely excited to get lost. This is escapism.
Memories of the guilds, the side missions, moments, creatures and weapons flood my mind – as well as those Oblivion Gates. It’s one thing to dig into an RPG, it’s another to do it by flashback. "Don’t go wandering until you join the Thieves’ guild, you need the lockpicks" I tell myself, but wait, which Daedra shrine netted the master lockpick, that’s a better option although I need to level up first, and I need to murder someone to join the Dark Bros so go do that - but I need an invisibility spell where’s the Mages guild? Oh, Fighter’s Guild they’re always next door I might as well pop in and - Wait, there’s a random mission here isn’t there, oh a soul gem, I need a soul-catcher weapon and there’s that mission where I have to get all those statues from the ruins I should do that early for the XP and money to buy houses although they’re cheaper if the rulers like you so I should do local missions ... and where the hell am I? How’d I end up here? Oh, I forgot the lockpicks … I’ll need to pace myself if I’m going to get anywhere.
You never get anywhere. At least, not where you’re intending too. Fallout 3 could be argued as a sister-game to Oblivion, they share the same structure and style, despite being worlds apart but while that game’s shell-shocked design was consistent enough that fatigue pushed you back to the missions, I still find myself running through Oblivion’s fields like I’m in a shampoo ad (I do have shiny fur) instead of getting down to business.
There’s so many locations, caves, shacks, ruins, inns, villages, plus areas you just come across and stare at. Oblivion is the only RPG where I’m in no rush to use the fast-travel. And when you do get back to civilisation there’s so many subtleties – the towns are believable and filled with folks who have their own routines and interaction; Bethesda went all out trying to create a living, breathing world and while it can be random at times it works better than a lot of modern RPGs that ignore or over-complicate the NCP experience.
Still, it’s not perfect; there’s the over-zealous guards who were trained by Angela Lansbury; it’s impossible to commit a crime, they can spot the invisible cat using Sneak skill to break into a house at night from a mile away (forcing you to spend hours being chased until reaching Armand), vital NCPs get stuck or killed (you randomly get warned stuff like ‘Lathon is unconscious’; who the hell is that?) and some NCPs get locked out of their own houses; then there’s the basic dialogue; once, I was posing as a courier and the person I was supposed to hoodwink said “It’s you! The hero of Kvatch!” guess my cover’s blown then? Nope, none the wiser, they still fell for my con, and most of the NPCs have the same voice which gets confusing in a crowd - when they're not having a mood-swing. You’ll enter someone's house, hand over a prized heirloom, get thanked from the bottom of their heart, then yelled at to leave. They’re all bi-polar in Oblivion. They’re corrupt too.
I’d forgotten about a mini game where you can get someone to like you by using a subject wheel and judging your success by their facial expressions; even after 500 hours I’ve still not cracked it. I just bribe everyone to like me. Cyrodiil is an expensive place but like all games that have money, you have none for ages then end up with more than you can spend, buying yet another house and filling it with stuff you lose because you’ve got too many houses filled with stuff. The GOTY edition includes the DLC, which was more than Horse Armour; there’s houses to suit every kind of adventurer from a Pirate's cove to Vampire’s hollow - if you factor in the town-houses you can buy, Estate Agent could have been a Character Class.
Other DLC included spell books and the Mehrunes’ Razor mission which is still great. While Knights of the Nine is a nice bit of business that fits in with the games’ overall tone, the second Add-On, Shivering Isles was not a favourite of mine. Then, or now. It’s too abstract and distant from the main game, transporting you to the world of a Mad God who has a big problem he needs you to deal with. It does make for a change of pace, but look at it; I don’t need a change.
So far, I’m loving Oblivion. It is a great game; looks good, plays well (standard Bethesda bugs and crashes aside) and there’s no dud missions. The random encounters are always neat little adventures while the guild missions, unlike Skyrim’s constant de-ja vu, are compelling and original enough that you find yourself following them constantly rather than dipping in and out or forgetting them entirely – something Fallout 4 excelled in. The Thieves’ Guild and Dark Brotherhood are still standouts (not sure what that says about me) but the others, particularly the Mages’ are equally great. The shrines let you have some fun as an emissary from the Daedric Princes and there’s great random missions you come across; it’s just a fun world to be in.
The main mission is a well-built story though; recovering the Emperor’s illegitimate son is only the beginning but it’s not padded out, the battle to save Tamriel heats up quickly - you really get a sense Mehrunes is approaching and time isn’t on our side, plus the Emperor’s son, Martin, is an amazing character; reliant on you and full of self-doubt, eventually he comes into his own as the true hero of the game – that you realise you’re the support act and don’t mind shows how effective the game’s story is – for an RPG it’s quite an achievement that a sense of pressure builds, drawing you back rather than forgetting there even is a main mission.
Oblivion was ahead of it time, but it is showing its age – it looks good considering, but the missions have no repercussions for the player and there’s no choices to be made; the fame vs infamy has no real impact other than smiles or scowls from the locals (some bribing will take care of that) so you’re heroic whether you like it or not. For all its open-world setting it’s very siloed - even Morrowind had complex interactions between the guilds and houses but here they keep to their own sandbox. The creatures aren’t up there with Morrowind’s Netch or Nix-hound either; bear, wolves and deer along with stalwarts like Minotaur and Ogres, they’re just not as fantastical as they should be but they do get across where you are. Creatures than have escaped from Oblivion are a bit more like it; to look at, but to fight, not so much. I’d forgotten how quickly health and fatigue drain when wildly flinging swords about. Not like you can run far when fatigued – or when you’re over encumbered. Bloody over encumber. The crap I had to leave behind …
Ultimately, Oblivion is designed to be accessible, commercial even and certainly one for the masses not the hardcore fantasy-players, but it’s not dumbed down – it is a rich and detailed world you do get completely caught up in. I can see where those 500 hours went. Mostly on bloody Oblivion gates.
Once you’ve heroically saved Kvatch, they’re everywhere. Portals to Oblivion and where the Daedra are pouring out from, they’re not easy to take down, fairly samey and can be a drag to do. There’s 60 in total; it seems like more. Way more. Closing one nets you a magical stone you can imbue weapons and clothes with, making them valuable prizes. Still, another one? You stop take a selfie then one photo-bombs it.
As I reach 530 hours, I’m still not done and in no hurry to leave. I didn’t sell out. This was – and is - a genuinely great game. There’s still loads to do (20 Gates to go) but it’s not the to-do list that’s keeping me here. Great to look at and live in, Oblivion is simple where it counts and complex where it needs to be; it has a great main mission, tons of worthy side-quests and just enough quirk to keep you curious; it just gets it all right. It might not be the deep-dive fantasy Morrowind was, but it’s an adventure all the same. I am a mage, murderer, thief, gladiator, knight, trader and so much more - a shrine-worshipping, Nirnroot-obsessed hero of Kvatch for starters. Here’s to the next 500 hours. Is that a gate over there?
2006 | developer; Bethesda Softworks | Publisher; Bethesda & Take-Two/2K Games
Platforms; Win/Steam, X360, PS3