I don’t know if we’ve ever seen a more ambitious early-generation title than The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. By that time, especially following up on the critical and commercial hit Morrowind, the whole Elder Scrolls series was known for two thing; giant, expansive open worlds absolutely full of stuff to do, and not actually having any elder scrolls in the game. Oblivion carried out all expectations of the former with aplomb, but shockingly, broke drastically with series tradition on the latter. The gall of these folks. But, when you’re leading a new generation, sometimes you have to move past your limits.
Perhaps as a result of being perhaps the most ambitious early-generation title in history, I don’t know of a game that’s aged so drastically and instantly as The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Although a multi-console release, it was developed around the Xbox 360 architecture from it’s nascent days, releasing a mere four months after the system did. It’s scenery looked lovely, but its characters, looked……..
Yeah. Visually, even the best parts of it, most of the launch titles available at the time well outpaced it. They were new at incorporating voice acting into a game this size, which led to a lot of awkwardness both as it meant the characters had a lot less to say than they used to, and oddly, everyone sounded so much the same as all characters of the same race and gender were played by the same actor. DLC was a new thing, and this game was obviously experimenting with the market for that, mixing both the instant-joke expensive but useless horse armor with the could-absolutely-be-it’s-own-game bargain Shivering Isles expansion. And they had tried to correct some problems of the old games that didn’t really need to be corrected, leading to a lot of clumsily-implemented features, such as the counter-intuitive leveling system that quickly became infamous.
Thing is, the presentation may not be much, but the foundation of the game is very solid. The Elder Scrolls have always been at their best making you buy into the world, at feeling like it was a living, breathing thing that you were truly a part of. At its best, the Elder Scrolls would make you forget about this dumb meaty world where all your problems are and get you believing in this place where adventuring rules the day and people will regularly hire warriors to collect the laundry they lost at the end of a monster infested cave. It really excelled at that. The engine may have been hopelessly glitchy and the quest streams may be endless, yet they did serve the immersive experience this game really drove.
What’s really strange to me, though, is just how much my perceptions of this game have been driving by the video games environment I played it during. Usually I’m well able to isolate things, and just enjoy them on their own merit, but not so much this game. I remember playing it shortly after Morrowind. Back then, I experienced the game as a definite step forward in terms of engine, a game that was more directly interactive and less reliant on behind-the-scenes dice rolls and bore a lot more quality of life features that really enhanced the experience, even as it did simplify a significant amount of the gameplay. It was lacking character compared to its predecessor, having followed up a very alien realm by turning what was supposed to be a very Roman-inspired jungle nation into the standard fantasy thing you’ve seen over and over again, and the advent of voice acting significantly cut down on what people had to say, but it was still a really full and solid experience. Coming back to it after Skyrim, I found the game somewhat obtuse, somewhat inelegant, and again lacking in character and depth of world in comparison, and clearly outshone in different ways by both games on either side of it, but still a very solid experience.
And now? Well, I enjoyed it enough to give 70 hours of my life to it, but even so, once again, I’m getting a very different perspective on it. It’s builds its worth on the whole open world thing, of making you feel a part of this whole experience beyond just your screen, and it has a giant world of its own, so it definitely should be able to stand on its own, but I still find myself constantly and incessantly comparing it to other games. The Elder Scrolls has become the standard in open-world design, and open world has become so in vogue right now. Zelda does open world. Mario does open world. Monster Hunter does open world. From the 2D Platformer to the 3D Platformer to the 3rd Person Shooter to the Open World game, that now seems the default for basically everything released. And so many other games have taken and absorbed everything that once made Oblivion unique, to the point that I now have the same experience I do with so many other historically important games, the developmental milestones in the form that were once unique to this game but have proven so influential that all the ground they broke has been paved into a superhighway. It’s interesting to see where it comes from, things have gone far beyond it now.
I think every time I’ve played this game, I’ve had a different take on it. And when I come back some years down the road, when, at the rate things are going, everything is a Battle Royale game, I wonder if I’ll have a different take on the game then.