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Dremora guarding a Gate

From the Jaws of Oblivion

7, 8 including The Shivering Isles
First Person, Fantasy RPG
Another solid Bethesda title
PC, Playstation 3, Xbox 360

          I am coming full circle with this writing. Oblivion was, years ago, simply alien to me. I had heard via some source or another about The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. The report was touting how massive the world was, stating that it was possible to run from one town to the next for literal days. On the one hand, the scope of the world sounded amazing to me. I didn’t think technology was capable of the feat. But, even in those days, I didn’t want to risk getting into a game like that. I had better things to do than run from town to town in a digital landscape.

          As such, getting me into Oblivion was a hard sell. As someone who needs glasses the limitations of a first person perspective were all too real for me. I had learned to use my other senses to get around my very limited sight. I liked games in the third person because the viewpoint simulated expanded senses. Being unable to hear exactly which way an enemy would be coming from, as surround sound still needed a expensive array of tech, was a prohibitive hurtle for instance. I had a lot of reasons for not wanting to try it. But I found myself snowed in and with a lot of time, so I figured “Why not?”

          Not understanding anything of the system, I tried to make a Redguard that looked like me. I failed in that, but I enjoyed the game enough to try another build. And then another. And thinking I had the system down… yet another. I think I ran a total of five or six characters, picking apart every nuance of the game as well as I could. And since I was playing it on the 360, I couldn’t change things via console commands or mods. It meant a hard uphill fight all the way through.

          I came to love Oblivion. It is what put me here now, on the path of a prospective game creator rather than just a player. I have learned much, and from one source in particular. I avidly follow Extra Credits. James is a game developer who you will find to be an integral part of the process. He enjoyed Oblivion, but it sounds as though from a development standpoint, he didn’t think it was that good. This was a hit to me. Oblivion is what gave me an interest in game development, to the Extra Credits realm, through which James’ professional assessment carries weight with me. What inspired us may be different, but our goals are the same I think.

          We are going past eleven years after release Oblivion’s original release. After Skyrim and the Online versions are the newest kids on the Elder Scrolls block. In writing this I have to think critically. I set my fondness aside to answer one question: Is Oblivion a game still worth playing? My answer is “Yes, if you like the Elder Scrolls.” Sadly, I can’t say “yes” without that condition. I’ve noticed that Bethesda’s titles tend to be paired, having a Fallout title being released and then an Elder Scrolls. While each new game may not be better than the last due to being developed nearly simultaneously, each new entry has its merits over the last. In this way, Skyrim is just a better introduction to the series. And as good as Skyrim is, I’ll likely say the same of The Elder Scrolls VI when it gets all the wrinkles ironed out.

          This is a look back. I remember things I loved, but I also admit to if they didn’t, especially if I noticed the change in Skyrim.

Story

Oblivion

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Where War is Waged

          A prisoner is taunted in their cell by another inmate, who cackles that they will soon die. They become silent as guards draw close. The normally composed guards whisper frantically back and forth, ensuring that they were not followed. A man speaks of his dead sons, and the others defer to him. Compassion shifts to alarm as the guards reach your cell, expecting it to be empty. Ordered to stay beneath the window the guards escort in Uriel Septim VII, the Emperor himself. He takes an interest in you, but his entourage hurry him along into a newly opened secret passage. Seeing no reason to let the opportunity go to waste, you follow along. Not far along in you see the cause of all the alarm: Strangely armored agents attempting to assassinate the Emperor! The guards serve admirably, at the loss of one of their own. They press on, locking the passage behind them uncertain if they can trust you. After finding your way through a nearby sewer opening you happen upon the group once more, more adequately equipped to aid in the fighting. Once this threat was extinguished, the Emperor insists a halt and looks at you. Something about you sparks his interest, and he insists not only on your trustworthiness but that you accompany him along the way. Eager to get moving, his guards agree. Moving a small ways you find a gate locked, which leads into a dead end. The sound of more attackers bear down, and you are left with Uriel Septim. He removes The Amulet of Kings, the true sign of his right to the throne, and gives it to you. He entreats you to find Jauffre. The apparent dead end was not so, as a passage opens to another assassin perfectly poised and kills the Emperor. You revenge is swift, and so the battle ended. There is one remaining guard, Baurus, who laments the total failure of the Blades as the Emperor’s protectors. Hearing of the late Emperor’s sentiments, he sends you along through the sewers, your exit leaving you in the bright sun for the first in a long while, ready to make use of the Emperor’s final words: “Close shut the jaws of Oblivion.”

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The Hero Emerges

          Plus Uriel Septim VII was voiced by Sir Patrick Stewart. Always a plus in my book.

The Shivering Isles

Into The Madgod’s Realm

          Upon roaming the world, you hear of a mysterious door that appeared near the town of Bravil. Upon exploration a crazed Dunmer emerges from the portal and comes into conflict with the guard stationed there. After the Dark Elf is put down, the voice of Sheogorath becons you to enter his realm. The Deadric Princes are not known for truly making requests, especially of mortals, thus you are left tasked with heeding the Madgod’s call.

The Knights of the Nine

Umaril the Unfeathered Returns

          As you travel the world, you hear rumors of a terrible attack upon the Chapel of Dibella in Anvil. Going and exploring yourself, you see the horrors of the aftermath. The altars lay desicrated, and everyone is left with little but questions. However, one man seems to have insight. A Prophet preaches near the waylayed temple, speaking of Umaril the Unfeathered. He calls for a crusader to take up the arms of the legendary Pelinal Whitstrake and defeat this ancient menace once and for all.

Summary

          The stories in The Elder Scrolls are handed directly to you in most cases. You don’t need to run around the world doing side quests to get all the details. As long as you follow the quest marker, you’ll get the complete story. Since I have been through Oblivion many times I remember its stories more keenly. If you are a lover of The Elder Scrolls, it will be worth your time to experience them. In Skyrim, so many of the wrongs you righted as The Hero of Kvatch went wrong again. It was dismaying to me to see that. It is a joy to indulge in the last of the good times of the many groups I came to love again.

Theming

          In The Elder Scrolls IV, you are in a beautiful world that is ruined by the spearhead from the Deadric forces of Oblivion. One thing I loved about this title is how vibrant it is. I am on the Stylization side of The Uncanny Valley, rather than the Photorealistic vantage points. All the characters in this game are a bit cartoonish. Very vibrant skin, faces are rounder than they are in Skyrim. Cyrodiil is a lush part of The Elder Scrolls world. There is beauty everywhere from he countryside to the ruins. Even the titular realm of Oblivion is pleasing to look at in its demonic way.

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A Different Sunrise

          When I originally played the game I remember travelling over a bridge and to my left the sun was rising. I stopped and looked out over the water to experience this. It hit me that I was marveled by a digital sunrise enough to appreciate it. Oblivion is still beautiful, especially in expansive landscape shots. Bethesda did a wonderful job in making a world that hurt to watch be encroached upon.

Knights of the Nine

          The reason I abhor and rarely touch this expansion is the reason it has good theming. You are to be a holy crusader, wielding the relics of a saint. But in order to do this, you have to be a good person.

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Such sainthood. Much Fame.

          What determines goodness? Fame and Infamy, which are your reputations for good and bad deeds respectively. These are mostly increased by quests you complete and, in some cases, how quests are completed. Thieves Guild and Dark Brotherhood increase Infamy, while the Arena, Fighters’ and Mages’ Guilds increase your Fame. And in one of the DLC scenarios, you aim to get Mehrunes’ Razor, a powerful dagger. Do you brute force the gate open, or do you eat the heart of Mehrunes’ Champion? The latter will earn you some Infamy.

          You don’t need to be famous to wear the armor. You just can’t be infamous. Once you collect and hold onto or wear your first piece of armor you’ll have no problems. But the first time you do a bad deed, the game stops and you get a warning warding you away from illicit acts. But as soon as you get a second bump in Infamy the armor literally falls out of your inventory and sticks to the ground. You are unable to claim or otherwise move it.

          What do you do?

          To begin The Knights of the Nine, you have to go on a Pilgrimage to a wayshirne to each of the Nine major deities. This purges your existing Infamy. But this is the only way to accomplish this, so it must be done every time you falter. The Dark Brotherhood and Thieves’ Guilds are the first quest lines I complete anyhow, so that Infamy is wiped out. But in order to ensure that I don’t have to take the Pilgrimage twice (or more gods forbid), I leave Knights until the end.

          So yes… good theming. Terrible if you yourself aren’t “Good”.

Mechanics

          One of the first things I posted to my site was a massive walkthrough for a Perfect Character Guide. This was based on the 360 version of the game, so no console commands or mods. The only boon I had was a duplication glitch. This guide is lengthy and a bit hard to read I admit, but I am still proud of it. I spent a lot of time on it, and had concrete results. As Oblivion was the first game of its type that I played, it set the standard for other games like it to me.

Wayfinding, Fast Travel and Maps

          In both games, fast travel would let you swiftly (to the player) jump from your present location to any other landmark you’d been to previously. In this game you were allowed to travel to major cities before visiting them formally, which made it feel like you knew the world, or at least the province. This meant you were rarely left with a lengthy hike.

          A minor change, and Skyrim relayed a different feeling entirely. Lacking the knowledge of even the cities in Skyrim it made me feel foreign and, if I may, sort of clueless. If you are a native of somewhere, you know where the big cities are, or general location. As natives of Earth we can name the continents if not specific countries. Lacking that, I could only imagine The Last Dragonborn being foreign to Skyrim. In this game I felt lost in the world, and relied more heavily on the quest compass which is saying something. Even though Skyrim continued with the “freshly escaped prisoner” trope, The Hero of Kvatch had a somewhat better jumping off point from than The Last Dragonborn in this respect.

          The other portion, the map, worked much better for me in Oblivion. It was a simple map, something you’d find on a scroll or animal-based parchment, and was a top down view. I never had trouble getting my bearings. Additionally, since I had the starting cities to work with, I could use those as hubs for more distant quests and goals. In Skyrim I just gave up. The map screen was pretty, and had some zoom and rotation, but I could never figure out a solid orientation. Again, I knew I was heading towards the quest marker. But with no compass rose on the map screen I was always guessing at direction. Additionally, it felt like a dragons’ eye hologram from an extremely high altitude. The problem being is that I remember rolling cloud cover obscuring much of my map while I was trying to navigate. For me, simplier is better.

Simplified Character Management

          The biggest reason I would recommend Skyrim over Oblivion to a series newcomer is just this point. While Oblivion gets the Simplicity Point for the map, Skyrim is a lot easier to play and understand the growth of. While I am happy to not need to spend tens to hundreds of hours to understand new system nuances, there are some elements I miss from Oblivion.

Mobility: Speed, Athletics, and Acrobatics

          If I could have a super power I’d want to mainline The Speed Force like Barry Allen or Wally West, one of the noticeable Flash mantle wearers. As such, how I get around a world matters to me. Fast travel is wonderful for this as I go from Points A to B in the blink of a loading screen. As above, this only worked once I had been somewhere once. Thus I still had to hike on foot until I had a horse.

          In Oblivion, aside from Skills, there were Attributes which helped govern the performance of Skills and Stats (Health, Magicka, Stamina, and Carry). There are no Attributes in Skyrim, like Speed. Additionally, two skills were taken out on the way to Skyrim were Acrobatics and Athletics. Some of the perks of the latter were integrated into Skill trees, but the former disappeared entirely. These encompassed mobility options for Oblivion and I loved them. In their absence, I was left to plod around Skyrim ceaselessly. Skyrim is pretty in places, alarmingly bleak in others. Even at the end of the game, or in the post game, I used fast travel because it was just far too long otherwise. Not at all because I wished to.

          I liked Athletics in my first play through of Oblivion. The more I ran around, the faster I would get. Eventually. It was a constant payoff for continued adventuring. While it may be unrealistic to zip around everywhere, that is part of why I play a lot of science fiction and fantasy games. The uncanny nature is a draw. When I want realistic running in which I have to watch my stamina I get out of the house and go for a run.

          I liked Acrobatics too. It was one of the few skills in the game that offered an objective strategic advantage. I noticed that NPCs never jumped. But if I could hop and skip to a vantage point, that worked well as an archer. And if I was being particularly menacing, summoning a Dremora Lord while I was in a high place would mess up patrol patterns and let me sneak around unnoticed. There were MANY times this was effective. And I know how unrealistic it would be to leap over three or four buildings in Whiterun. But it would be nice jump up next to and stab a smug dragon in the throat when it started using Thu’um from the top of a house. The inability to leap at height, via natural stats, augmentation, or both, limited the fun factor. This said, the absence of Acrobatics gave value to other skills. Not having water leaping or a water walking spell gave value to Vampire Lords ability to fly over the water. Not being able to tag a dragon with a blade in the air adds value to the Dragonrend shout. But I miss being like Samurai Jack by being able to “jump good”. And while I focus on ascent, Acrobatics also lessened damage from my falls. Sure, I liked jumping off mountains as a “shortcut”. But I could survive them in Oblivion. The Dragonborn would die from the same falls I would. I’m not looking for my fictional heroes to have my regular knees.

          I liked Speed. As it was a stat I could use a Touch spell to make NPCs I was forced to follow move faster even while walking. It enhanced my Stealth to where it wasn’t laboriously slow at the games’ end. In transit I could stand up and run. In tight spaces, I could Sneak but still move at a moderate clip. Being able to make spells to add 100 points to Speed and either Athletics or Acrobatics allowed me some fun transiting options.

Spell Making

          As you may have gathered from the above, I really enjoyed spell making. Many of the spells I wound up making were “artisan spells”. They were not all useful, just pretty and kitschy. But again, they were fun. I already spoke of my quickening spells. I would make spells which bolstered my Personality (Attribute) and Mercantile (Skill), while Charming a target so that I could make better transactions with NPCs, bypass the coercion minigame, or deal with the world while being a Vampire who hadn’t fed for 100+ days.

          And all these things tie back into mobility. While fast traveling is instantaneous for the player, the game still calculates how long it would take you to run there. In both titles you can be astride a horse or have one in a near enough stable and that shortens your in-game travel time. What frequently happened to me in Skyrim is I would remember a time sensitive quest, would go to fast travel, only to arrive too late. In Oblivion I would make a spell to bump up Speed and Athletics, which were natively at 100 on their own. Doubling my pace in Oblivion turns six hour treks into one or two hour jaunts. I could get quests done FAST because I didn’t need to reload because I wouldn’t make it or wait a day because I had missed a time window by in game minutes.

Merchant Gold

          In Skyrim, merchants have a set amount of gold before anything you want to sell is just given to them. My first playthrough, my first house had a chest of “vendor trash” that I couldn’t get rid of because merchants kept running out of gold. This was annoying, to say the best. Realistic, sure. There is only so much gold. That scarcity gave it value. But the lack of gold, ironically, kept me in the scavenging game longer. I scoured every inch of every cave, burial ground, and fallen foes not for loot, but for raw gold. The phrase “Who cares about flawless diamonds?” began spilling out of my lips. Who would have the gold to buy one, let alone that and all my other loot, anyhow?

          Now, I balked about the Oblivion system. Merchants had a set amount of gold that was the maximum they would purchase anything for. I found it to be “such a waste” that I would have so many Daedric Cuirasses that were worth 6,500 gold that sold only for 2,000. But at least I could get SOMETHING for them. I had more gold and less vendor trash. I could keep my treasures and trinkets more easily.


          All the griping about the mechanics above? This comes because I know the system fairly well. There are diligent Oblivion players that don’t care about all the stuff I just vented about. Skyrim has the approachability down pat. here are pluses and minuses, but no one will be scratching their heads in how to make a powerful character or how to get rich. As I am often finding myself saying “If that (below-the-surface and in depth mechanics) is what you have to complain about, the game is probably good enough for a passing play at least.”

DLC Homes

          Hearthfire is a wonderful part of Skyrim. The act of building houses was really enjoyable. To this day I do not have an “ideal build” for any one home, let alone three. The avenue this went in Oblivion was that each city had a house, and atop those the DLCs added more scattered around. Each of them pandered to a particular archetype.

Melee, Battlehorn Castle

          The big melee feature here is an NPC that you can train with. You tell him you want to spar, and then you can work on whatever weapon and armor skills you would like. There were other perks, such as a semi-hidden quest. I mainly used my sparring partner.

Mages, Frostcrag Spire

          Altars of Spell Making and Enchanting, the only ones available outside of the Mages Guild questline. Semi-permanent atronach followers. Teleportation to every active guild hall. Special Alchemy table that bolsters your skill by fifteen.

Thieves, Dunbarrow Cave

          A chest with a Very Hard lock that always resets, allowing mastery of Lockpicking. Once you master the mini-game it is arguably faster to keep your skill low as you won’t run into terribly difficult locks too often. That, and the Skeleton Key is something you actually keep in this game. There is also a pirate crew you can send out for plunder, and they will return with loot and gold.

Assassins, Vampires, and the Infamous
Deepscorn Hollow

          This has a lot to offer. While designed with the assassin in mind, with a unique garden full of poison materials, and unique clothes, included are elements for the vampyrically inclined. These include a “cattle pen” with an ever sleeping victim if you wish to feed. Also a method to cure Vampirism without an elaborate quest. There is a vampire who resides here and can be sent out, who will return with loot and bump your infamy up by one each time. For the particularly infamous, you can be blessed by Sithis himself at a special alter.


          Whether you were playing an archetype or min-maxing, there was a veritble use for all of these. The Sparring NPC in Battlehorn was good for targeted magics of all types. If you have Frostcrag Spire you don’t need to dither overmuch with the Mages Guild just to get Enchanting access if you’re pretty much melee only. Deepscorn Hollow has access to rare poisonous materials that are always useful. Dunbarrow Cave, The Thieves’ Den, has several high level trainers that are always at your beck in call so you don’t need to hunt out the others as readily. Was having preset “housing archetypes/themes” better? That can be debated. The perks in them felt much more concrete and immediate than those of Skyrim.

Dungeon Design

          One MAJOR improvement to Skyrim was that nearly every dungeon or hideaway had a quick exit option. These could be everything from hidden walls to stairways leading above the entrance to drop back down. This relieved getting done with a quest and having to backtrack out of a cave. While I may want to go back around and gather loot, as I said with the merchant gold, it was prohibitive to do this. Either way, no matter how convoluted this got, it was a favor to the players. It was also realistic. If you’re a thief, are you going to dig in somewhere WITHOUT having a secret exit?

Characters

          I started The Elder Scrolls as a Redguard. I went to a Dark Elf, and the a High Elf for the magicka boost. I had the same thinking in Skyrim, but racial differences were not as extreme. What first told me that Skyrim was different was the utter disdain I was me with. Cyrodiil, bothing being connected to a bigger city and being before several big and bloody wars, was much more accepting all around. I remember I had recently mastered Destruction magic. And I swore that the next knee-wounded, Hold guard that called me “goldenrod” was going to be reduced to a pile of ash. Well… Windhelm has a few ash piles guarding their gates now.

          As a High Elf, Skyrim was hostile to me. And having met members of the Aldmeri Dominon I get why. It hit a bit close to home, however. It stung enough to jar me out of my enjoyment. Skyrim was, by far, a more serious game.

          Oblivion seemed rather jovial to me. As I spent a lot of time with Oblivion there are characters that I remember fondly in the game. Some are obvious, some are less so.

Sheogorath

Sheogorath Himself

          Sheogorath is obviously at the top of the list, you interact with him a great deal during The Shivering Isles DLC expansion. Such care went into his creation as to even animate a special scene if you choose to assault him. Haskill, Sheogorath’s chamberlain, deserves special mention as well. His dry wit and annoyance are the perfect foil to His Lord’s over the top nature.

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His Man Haskill

          Cutter is the crafter of Madness arms and armor, also from The Shivering Isles DLC. I like the look of the Madness items. Heavy Armor is my preferred gear. And Cutter has a sadistic appreciation for the wares she creates.

          Falanu Hlaalu is a regular Alchemy merchant with some unusual habits. Down the street from Rosethorn Hall, she became a go too check on ingredients. I think she may need the money more than me anyhow.

          Whodunit is a quest, not a person, but deserves mention. Given to you by the Dark Brotherhood, this ideally requires subterfuge. The premise is that six people have been invited to a lock-in. The purpose is a party, and there is a chest of gold to find with the key to leave inside. This is a ruse, as the five guests spurned the same individual at some point, enough for someone to want to kill them. Then why six guests? Because you are the sixth, charged with their elimination.

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No party like a Dark Brotherhood party. It only stops when everyone drops…

          I like this quest because it is all uniquely written. The characters stories, responses to each other, both alive and dead, are contained in this house. As such, they were written with intentional depth. The guests can be slain in any order and responses are there for each. Moreover, when it comes down to three guests remaining, you can convince one that you two are together to turn them on the third. It is small and quick, but a lot of fun.

Community

          This is one of the few titles in which I have an inkling of a wider community outside the game itself. Mods have been the lifeblood of Bethesda titles for some years. The games I have played have been on consoles. As such, mods have been locked off from me until recently. And I still do not play the game with them. Console Commands have shortened the time and running around it takes me to do fetch quests and material gathering. That is enough for me. Now, with the next Elder Scrolls title I may take an interest.

          This said: I mentioned above that a game developer I like doesn’t like Oblivion. There is a mod he personally recommends. I’ll quote him here: “Truth be told, I felt like Oblivion left something to be desired. The Nehrim mod fixes all that and introduces its own full and original world.” I wholly intend to pick up the Nehrim mod at some point based on this recommendation.

          Bethesda has a passionate fan base, and this is proven every title by the sheer scope of mods that come out. And, to Bethesda’s credit, they encourage this wholly. They have recently gotten some flak for attempting to have paid mods. I know how intensive simply writing reviews is. But writing unique code to piggyback off an already completed work? That impresses me. If a sizable chunk of the funds reaches the creators’ pocket, I’d be willing to pay for mods myself. That’s just me. I digress…

Replay Value

          I have only played Oblivion and Skyrim of the Elder Scrolls series. For as much as I have played them there is not necessarily much in replay value. If you are determined, you can thoroughly complete the game on your first character. In Oblivion, if you are a strict adherent to Classes, Specializations, and the like, then playing another character may allow you to play differently. But if you are like me, and want to max out all the Attributes and Skills, a replay holds less appeal once you figure it all out.

Closing

          In a post-Skyrim world, I would direct anyone towards that game for their first taste of The Elder Scrolls. Bethesda learns the lessons of prior games and ALWAYS makes the next work better and more accessible. Some say that the selfsame accessibility cheapens the experience. I say that bringing more people to the table to share in what does and doesn’t work makes way for richer experience.

          If you liked Skyrim, nay, loved it, you should keep stepping back. See another side of Tamriel, perhaps a more peaceful and idyllic time. You’ll have some laughs. You’ll meet some deities. You’ll be able to reach to the stars and forge your own path. (Allusions to Birthsigns and Classes respectively.)

          I look back at Oblivion favorably. It taught me a lot. Due to Skyrim, and also to James at Extra Credits, I can look at it critically now. I can see what works, what doesn’t, and why. More than all that, I have fun in Oblivion. And in the end, that’s a huge goal of a game met.

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The Shivering Isles Welcome You

 

For more of James and the Extra Credit team:
Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/user/ExtraCreditz
Steam: http://store.steampowered.com/curator/2669017-Extra-Credits/

All pictures taken from the Oblivion website:
https://elderscrolls.bethesda.net/en/oblivion

Picture of Sheogorath came from The Elder Scrolls Wikia:
http://elderscrolls.wikia.com/wiki/Sheogorath

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