Stop right there, criminal scum! Yes, it is time to return to the Imperial heartland of Tamriel and face the infernal armies of Oblivion once again. Centuries before we ventured north to the frozen continent of Skyrim, we found ourselves flying over the impressive Imperial City, listening to the impressive voice of Patrick Stewart foretell an impressive Doom, and we landed in a familiar setting: a dingy prison cell. From such lowly beginnings all the stories of the Elder Scrolls stem and Number IV offers perhaps the best-told tale in the book.
By early 2006 Bethesda had established themselves as promising masters of the open-world, action-adventure RPG with the ground-breaking Morrowind. The successor to that classic cemented this reputation, bringing the signature huge open map, multi-threaded stories and semi-organic character progression to the latest generation of hardware. The developers knocked it out of the park with this one, managing to combine intelligent quests and incredible detail with a beautiful world that feels permanent and real.
There is a particular set of experiences ingrained in the soul of those who played Elder Scrolls religiously, subtle psychological triggers lurking in your hindbrain waiting for the barely-remembered stimulus to bring the old sense of joy and discovery back. These are the signs of a well-crafted mechanism, the precarious balance of a hundred hair-fine cogs turning around you, ticking out satisfaction. It could be thrashing at a mob of Daedra with a life-stealing sword, clinging to a wavering sliver of life, or seeing your Sneak skill level up in a dungeon you thought was empty, or contemplating that shopkeeper’s face as you try to swindle a deal. “Blow away, windbag.”
Oblivion had its drawbacks, mostly due to the limitations of the technology. NPC voice actors were often suspiciously similar and their dialogue options, while often fun or informative, did repeat a little too often. The result is that a walk through the Imperial City leaves its audio footprint in your mind as much as any other part of the game. The developers also perhaps bent over a little too far backwards in the name of a truly freeform RPG experience; as every enemy scales with your level, you are never really outmatched (unless you’ve made some pretty poor choices). Indeed, the easiest way to “complete” the game is without levelling up at all.
Yet despite this Bethesda presents a convincing world, high-resolution in many ways, and a credible threat: the Mythic Dawn were insidious, dangerous and believable and the Oblivion Gates appearing out of nowhere gave the potent impression of another world invading the Cyrodiilic idyll. Diving into those maws never stopped being exciting, and the mangled, fiery landscape found beyond was an arresting contrast to the sunny fields left behind. As you ascend the bloody Daedric towers to close shut the jaws of Oblivion one by one, you get a palpable sense of achievement and an intriguing power-up or enchantment each time.
One never really completes an Elder Scrolls game; you only finish stories within them. Each time you play through you can have completely different experiences. Although it seems a deliberate design to frustrate the completionist facets of the gamer’s soul, Oblivion overwhelms that need with sheer storytelling prowess and immersion, even as you yourself are complicit in telling that tale. All of this is becoming truer, as even now mod work continues on this old masterpiece, updating graphics and menus and content. On top of that, Cyrodiil is even being imported into the Skyrim engine by intrepid modders. This is the age of infinite access, enabled by the constant flow of enthusiasm these games engender.
A decade after its first release, The Elders Scrolls IV: Oblivion retains the power to capture the player and cocoon them in its expansive embrace. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a continent to save.