Thursday, July 27

Living in Oblivion

It's been a while since my last post, since I was away on a trip. A trip to a far-away land called Cyrodiil. It's a beautiful place with lush forests, rolling hills, wonderful meadows, cloud-cloaked mountains and flowing rivers. It's paradise... well, that is, until you get waylaid by some half-lion/half-humanoid highwayman or get attacked by a pack of starving wolves. It's in these cases that martial arts training, swordplay, spellcasting and good ol' sneaking skillz come in handy. Oh, and there's the disturbing amount of fire-wreathed GATES TO HELL starting to pop up all over the place, spewing murderous demons. Aside from those little nitpicks though... paradise.

Don't worry, I've not lost touch with reality yet. And no, I haven't gotten roped into playing RagnaCrack Online. The schtick I'm into right now is the MMORPG (Massive, Magnificent Offline Role-playing Game) Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion on the Xbox360, and I couldn't be happier with some of the best action/RPG gaming I've had in YEARS.

Bethesda Software's sequel to their previous hit Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind (available on PC and the original Xbox) improves pretty much everything, from the combat to the graphics to the depth and richness of the story and world. In a nutshell, Oblivion is an open-ended single player RPG... a virtual fantasy realm sandbox where you are the center of the universe, where everything hinges on your actions and you create your own epic.

Everyone Has A Story
Of course, there is a main plot to all of the precedings. The title 'Oblivion' refers to Cyrodiil's version of Hell- a burning dimension filled with creatures that wouln't look out of place in Doom. Well, Oblivion has so far been kept at bay from the normal world by magical barriers- barriers held by the blood of Cyrodiil's Imperial family. But now, something is working to take out that obstacle, and as a result bad things are starting to happen. Your hero/heroine is cast as a hapless prisoner in the Imperial Prison who just happens to be sitting in the cell where a secret escape passage is located. One night, the Emperor himself, accompanied by his loyal bodyguards, The Blades, come through to escape some mysterious threat. You follow, of course. Soon the Emperor (voiced by Patrick Stewart) is no more, but he leaves behind for you a quest to save the realms and 'seal shut the doors of Oblivion'. And so, like the hero of destiny that you are, you readily take up the mantle of saviour of the realms.

Or not. Since the 'Main Quest' of saving Cyrodiil is really just a small part of the game. Apparently, according to the developers, the Oblivion storyline and all it's quests- which supposedly contain up to 60 hours of gameplay- comprises just TEN PERCENT of the overall game. WHOA! So if you just spend the whole time just flying through the main quest, you'll be missing most of the fun the game has to offer.

Aside from saving the world, there are tons of things to do. On your own as a masterless adventurer you could choose to explore the vast world, encountering whatever dangers cross your path, finding hidden dungeons, ruins, caves, mines and other dark places full of loot, enemies and magic. Or, you could join one or more of the several factions in the game. Become a sword for justice in the Fighters Guild. Engage in mystical intrigue in the Mage Guild. Ransack the riches of the land as part of the Thieves Guild. Walk the disturbingly dark and murderous path of the Dark Brotherhood. Engage in mortal combat for the cheers of the audience in the Imperial Arena. You can rise from a lowly apprentice to the highest levels of power in each of these many factions, through epic quests that are as rich and rewarding as the main storyline itself. And even then, at the top, you can go on and continue for other goals. That's a lot of stuff to do.

Of course, all the depth, richness of setting and epic storylines don't mean shit if the gameplay isn't up to par (take the previous Elder Scrolls game). Thankfully, Oblivion's combat (which you will inevitably do a lot of) is fun and challenging. Instead of the dull slap matches from Morrowind, characters now lung, parry and attack with more animations as well as both visible and spoken reactions to attacks. Heavy hits will stagger opponents, enemies will taunt and berate you as they score hits. You can fight back with a variety of melee weapons or attack spells, and seeing enemies slump down lifeless thanks to the new rag-doll physics engine makes every kill satisfying. There's nothing more viscerally stress-relieving than taking out an evil enemy, stripping their corpses of all their valuables (and clothing) and then depositing their remains into a nearby ditch. Heheh...
Controlling your character is easy and intuitive, though the Xbox360 controller does present some kinks- it's hard to use the 'Hotkey' function fully thanks to the imprecision of the right joystick, and it's all too easy to put your character into 'sneak' mode (which is done by pressing down on the left joystick) during heated combat, which makes you slower and less maneuverable. Also, battles with multiple characters, including allies and good NPCs, becomes chaotic since it's very difficult for you tell if you're going to hit an enemy or a friend. Of course, it's more realistic to have combat where you can run and maneuver instead of just statically standing around hitting each other in turn... it just takes quite a bit of practice to master the timing of blocks with strikes, but you do get the hang of it. Once you do though, combat is fun and you'll be looking for foes to take on soon enough.

As for magic, there are many schools of magic spells you can master, with an arsenal of magic to throw at foes. You can even create your own spells with the right skills and equipment. Alchemy lets you create your own potions from a sundry of ingredients and reagents you can find all over the land, while Enchanting lets you make the magical weapon of your dreams (and enemies' nightmares).
Stealth is also handled quite excellently- almost Metal Gear-like excellence, and it makes stealth-based characters like thieves and assassins quite fun to use. It's great to take out enemies with single, precised hits (though often it's hard to kill enemies in just one blow) after you've snuck up behind them. Solid Snake would be proud.

Creating and customizing is a large part of Oblivion. As you begin a new game, you create your own hero/heroine by selecting race (from stock humans to several different nations of elves to orcs and reptilian Argonians), gender and sign (which governs what special powers you can get). You can customize your character's mug from hair color to face shape to eye color and nose bridge-width... it's neat, though you have to take care to keep your character from looking ugly. As for character classes, it's all customizable too. While a dullard can go with straight-on Fighters or Mages, you can choose pre-set template occupations like Nightblades and Battlemages, or Agents and Witchhunters. Or you can create your own class, selecting skills, specializations and naming the job as you please. Yes, now you can have your magic-using, sword-swinging fast-talking Orcish Headhunter of your dreams.

So far, my first character, a female Dark Elf Soul Walker (a stealthy mage-warrior) has gone on a couple of cool little quests, exterminated a couple of bandit gangs, found and joined the legendary Thieves Guild, become an associate of the Mage Guild and loves travelling on foot across the country and taking long swims in lakes (Hehe). She's got her eyes set on becoming the Mage Guild Archmage and is contemplating how to become a member of the mysterious Dark Brotherhood. She's a good girl with a naughty streak, ready to keep one foot in the light while another in the shadow. My kind of girl.

She probably won't be my last... Oblivion just screams replay value, so you can try any other race or class, try the many quests with different approaches or just to try and do things that you didn't before. Darn, you could probably play this game for months and months and still not fully uncover everything.

So I'm hooked. And totally loving every moment of it. See you all in Cyrodiil!

Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion is now available on Xbox360 and PC.

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