Retro Review: The Elder Scrolls IV Oblivion (2006)

Open world role-playing games weren’t a new thing in 2006, but many were still trying to find ways to build their huge ambitions on hardware that was lagging behind at the time. Perhaps we take it for granted now in 2021 to the point where we groan a little when it’s announced another video game series is going free-roam, but to my 11-year old brain, it was absolutely mind-blowing to play The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and explore every town, mountain and cave of Cyrodiil.

An imperfect yet charming game of its time, Oblivion now reaches 15 years of age today. Upon revisiting the title under a modern lens, it’s perfectly clear to see how those flaws have only aged much worser. The overall Wiseau-like vibe of its dialogue coupled with the janky character animations have been meme’d to hell and back, while the game’s many bugs and awkward controls have also brought inconvenience to anyone who’s played the game over the last decade and a half.

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But I wouldn’t say Oblivion is an awful game by far, it just requires you to accept many of its shortcomings (or mod them out) to be able to enjoy the moments it feels engaging to play. This is best communicated in the large, beautiful open world you can explore.

Set in the Greco-Roman-inspired province of Cyrodiil, in the region of Tamriel, the world of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion is vast with multiple biomes to add some diversity to your adventures. You can climb the snowy tundra of the Jerall Mountains, drag yourself through the punitive marshes Bravil, or head to the tropical shores near Anvil. 

The cities themselves are even built with this variety in mind, rotating the types of creatures and enemies you encounter to reflect the climate of where you are. This culminates in an RPG experience where you’re unlikely to be always seeing the same thing or fighting the same five enemies over and over again.

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Unfortunately, this doesn’t apply to subareas of Cyrodiil’s map such as the many dungeons, caves and ruins that populate it. Many quests will often take you to these places, but they’re all usually long-winded, repetitive and extremely boring to venture through. While they don’t quite feel as copy-pasted as a game like Dragon Age: Inquisition, the differences are too subtle to offer anything substantially new on your hundredth trip inside a dungeon. It even gets to the point where the rewards don’t feel like they matter because of how embarrassingly dull these areas are.

This counts for the Oblivion Gates too, which are portals to the game’s titular hellish realms which crop up all over the region. These locations are the anti-thesis of Cyrodiil’s beauty, featuring seas of lava, rocky islands and terrifying monolithic structures. This change in scenery makes it feel cool to visit on your first or second time but, just like all the other dungeons in the game, it can get old really fast when you realise just how often you’re coming to this place.

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So it’s no wonder that Oblivion’s best quests are the ones which actually take place in the cities themselves, where the writers and designers are able to utilise these surroundings to create stories which are much more engaging and rooted within the fantastic world of Tamriel and the magical possibilities it holds.

One such quest that stands out is ‘Whodunit?’ in the Dark Brotherhood saga, where you’re tasked with attending a party at a mansion and must kill all the other guests without anyone catching you. The where, when and how of killing them is entirely up to you, but this quest does allow for some creative input on your part. You can exploit the situation by finding ways to get each character alone, or even coerce them into killing each other for you. It doesn’t feel like an Elder Scrolls quest at all and might be something you’d find in a Hitman or Deus Ex game.

Other quests which are particularly strong include ‘A Brush with Death’, in which you enter a magic painting to rescue an artist trapped within it, ‘A Shadow over Hackdirt’, where you investigate a missing person in a strange, distrusting village, and ‘The Ultimate Heist’ where you literally steal an Elder Scroll from the capital city palace. Each of these quests radiate with personality and draw on the strengths of the RPG format by allowing you some creativity in how you approach the level. They each have compelling ideas and, above all else, really fun to play.

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These quests branch out nicely from the main story in such a way that progressing between them feels fluid and natural. For example, one of the first quests you receive in the game points you to a town called Chorrol. Stopping in at the town, the residents might talk to you about joining the local guilds, which will then send you out to other settlements and towns which have their own characters and questlines. 

It eventually reaches a point where a majority of the quests to do in Oblivion come to you, rather than you seeking them out for yourself. It allows you to experience most of the game without the progression ever feeling too forced or artificial.

Perhaps one of the most controversial aspects of this game is its flawed levelling system. When you create a character, you choose from a list of skills which ones you’d prefer to specialise in, and you can only advance your level by increasing these skills.

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The problem with this system is it leaves very little room to switch playstyles later on. If you want to major in sword combat at the beginning of the game but later change to magic or stealth, it becomes very hard to do so as you won’t be able to level up using these new skills. 

It gets worse when you realise all enemies in Cyrodiil level up alongside you, meaning even low-level bandits will eventually be kitted out with strong armour, deadly weapons and insanely high health. Not just that, but the scaling on this seems to be a lot more aggressive than it should be, with many enemies being able to one-shot you easily once you hit a certain level. It means having to eventually lower the difficulty slider or just stop levelling up at all, just to keep the experience balanced at an altitude you’re comfortable with.

Is Oblivion still worth a crack 15 years later? In spite of the flaws, I believe it absolutely does, especially if you’re a gamer who came into the series with Skyrim or The Elder Scrolls Online. While Morrowind may be inaccessible for anyone not used to it, Oblivion finds that right balance in adapting what it did well with what the series will become. And with it just being added to Xbox Game Pass, now might be the best time to visit Cyrodiil.

 

Tested on PC
Developer Bethesda Game Studios
Publisher Bethesda Softworks


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