Say "Goodbye" to all of this...and "Hello" to Oblivion

I’ve spent a couple of weekends playing The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, and that means it’s time to share my ignorant impressions of it with all three or four of my readers. The question is, since all of the _cool kids_ have already discussed the game in depth, what more can I bring to the table?

Well, I have an angle. Let’s see if I can run with it. Actually, “running with it” is exactly what I want to talk about. One of the things people like to say about Oblivion is how incredibly huge the game world is – how it brings an entire province, a substantial portion of a continent, to life. “It covers an area of approximately 16 square miles,” is a commonly heard claim.

Here’s the thing: it’s not true at all. Here’s the other thing: that’s OK.

Let’s get this out of the way, first. You don’t want to play a game that lets you travel across a continent. As anyone who has driven across Kansas can attest, travelling across a continent is something you should prefer reading about to actually doing. Travelling across a continent is an experiment in boredom, punctuated by occasional moments of pleasure or little travellers’ epiphanies. When you get old, you only remember the good parts.

It turns out that those good parts are not enough to sustain a viable videogame. Consider True Crime: Streets of L.A., which merely modeled a single city, and which I found to be an excellent substitute for sleeping pills.

If you ignore rivers and mountains, you could probably walk from one end of Cyrodiil to the other in about 30 minutes of real time; the previous game, Morrowind, felt much much larger, even though it was supposedly only half as big.

The real achievement Bethesda should be lauded for here is not for creating a game space as large as a continent, but for creating a game space that feels both huge and interesting at the same time. The world in Oblivion manages to feel bigger than it actually is. Part of this is because of the density of encounters and interesting places to explore, and part is because of the subtle way the biomes and landscape types blend in to each other. Every time I walk to a new city, or set off across country, I am full of anticipation, because so far every single time I have done that, the game has managed to surprise me.

Trust me: you don’t get that feeling driving across Kansas.

Lleyawin

Lleyawin

To give just one example: last night I walked from Lleyawin to Bravil. Lleyawin is a port town, a racially diverse town of some opulence in the middle of a swamp. The buildings in the nicer part of town are almost Georgian, solidly constructed, but with frescoed exteriors. Bravil is a frontier town that, apart from the inhabitants, could have been lifted from Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles: cheap clapboard shacks, flophouses, forts, and bars. As I left Lleyawin, I travelled along the river to search for plants to use in alchemy. Along the way I found a cave being used by bandits as a hideout (there are, approximately, 8 hojillion of these in the land of Cyrodiil). The cave turned out to be the site of a turf war between the Black Bows, who I have been hunting for bounties, and a group of marauders. So I could sneak in and pick them off as they fought each other. Further up the road (and past several bandit attacks), I came across the ruins of what might have been a small lighthouse on a tiny island. It had burned to the ground. No apparent plot significance, no great treasure to scavange from the ruins, but simply strange and beautiful in the evening light.

As I approached the walls of Bravil, I was attacked by a troll outside a ruin. Not having fought a troll before, I started to run, and had just changed my mind and turned to face him when a second troll came barrelling through the underbrush towards me. I ran back to Bravil with my tail between my legs and the trolls nipping at my heels, leaving the poor hapless guards to fight them off as I slipped through the city gates.

Bravil

Bravil

There are plenty of problems with Oblivion, and I will no doubt talk about them in irritating detail in the days to come. But it’s important to not miss the forest for the trees. The game purports to offer a large and interesting game-world, and in this repect it meets and exceeds its promise. If the only thing the game had was empty cities with varied architecture, and different areas of the world with different ecologies, I would probably still play it. The fact that it offers a lot more makes that all the more compelling.

In the week I’ve owned my Xbox 360, I haven’t once had the urge to put a different disc in the drive. A week may not sound like much to you, but to me, when it comes to videogames, it is an eternity. Whatever niggling issues I have with various game mechanics in Oblivion are dwarfed by the simple fact that I’d rather be playing it than any other game I own right now.

Lastly, for those of you who are waffling between upgrading your PC or getting an Xbox 360 to play the game, just trust me on this and spring for the Xbox. You’re going to be playing this game for many, many hours. You’ll want to be on the couch.

If you enjoyed this, be sure to read the next article in the series.