I bought The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion last year because everyone raves about how great it is, or was. I didn’t think very highly of Fallout 3, which I still haven’t bothered to finish, and which is in some ways Oblivion 2.0, but got the game anyway in hopes that these two highly-rated Bethesda RPGs would finally "click" for me.
No luck yet, but I am slowly plodding forward inch by inch to finish the game. Mostly out of spite at this point, and to get all 1250 Gamerscore for it (I have the Game of the Year edition which includes the Shivering Isles expansion) so I can trade it and move on with life.
Oblivion starts you off escaping from a dungeon cell, meeting the Emperor (voiced by Sir Patrick Stewart) who dies shortly thereafter and you finally exit the dungeon into the world with the urgent mission to find the Emperor’s heir. Only, it turns out, the mission isn’t all that urgent after all because Oblivion is such an open-world game, it really doesn’t matter when, or if, you bother to do anything. In fact, it would prefer you didn’t, because there are Guilds to join, Arenas to fight in, and all manner of individual NPC who’d like you to do favors for them. I could almost submit that Oblivion is a single-player MMO in that "story" is very sparse and as an "adventurer" all you really do is act as a mercenary doing odd jobs for the NPC’s and/or find caves to "grind" for loot, usually with no real reason to be there other than that.
My initial reaction last year once entering the world is that everything looks the same, which diminishes my feeling of exploration. Since then, I have encountered a few areas that are different in appearance (snow-covered with constant snow weather effects, etc.) but otherwise I’ve traveled to every town on the map and my initial impression seems to hold true. With precious few exceptions, once you exit that first dungeon to begin your adventures, you’ve just seen everything the world has to offer.
Someone on Twitter last week described Oblivion as an "open world exploration RPG" and I’d be inclined to agree with that assessment, only it’s not quite the type of exploration I care for. Since so far, most of the world looks identical there is very little feel that any area is different from another. That limits the "exploration" to simply wandering the world waiting for "You discovered [insert POI here]!" to appear on the screen and a POI icon will appear permanently on your map. That’s enjoyable in its own small, shallow sense but there’s precious little else to "discover" that I’ve come across so far. Worse, it seems an awful lot of "exploration" is the type I don’t like: examining every pixel of the room or area I’m in to see what objects are there and whether they have enough value for me to bother taking them to sell. The only other "exploration" is speaking to every NPC you find to see if they have something for you to do or not. I’m not crazy about MMO Quest Dispensers who stand still 24/7 with glowing punctuation marks over their heads. But even worse is the very old-school CRPG method of being forced to speak to every NPC, not to mention having to waltz into everyone’s home as if you owned the place, to "discover" any "content" the game might have.
The quests themselves, for the most part, are standard fare you’d get in a fantasy RPG or MMO. Go kill someone; go talk to someone; go retrieve and/or deliver an item. Each quest has its own little backstory relating to the NPC delivering it and perhaps with the history or politics of the town or region. You know, the type of stuff you skip over to click the ‘OK’ button if it were an MMO. But since you’re forced to stare at the bobble-head people and listen to the voiceovers, it makes the presentation far superior to a simple quest text in an MMO. Technically, you can skip forward one statement at a time in the voiceovers, and I regularly do so if I already get the gist of the conversation. Nothing about the game has yet made me care enough about my character, the "main story" or the world, so I certainly don’t give a rat’s ass about some random bobble-head’s story. If the voiceover and story is interesting enough, I’ll watch and listen to the bobble-head, otherwise it’s "get to the point already" just like an MMO would be. This is something Star Wars: The Old Republic will have to contend with, as well, but that’s another story for another time.
During character creation, your choices determine your primary skills rather than simply selecting a "class" like you would in an MMO. The problem I’m seeing so far is that all the various skillsets are defined in a strict "fighter, thief, mage" system and you’ll need all three to continue through the game. What you end up with is despite the illusion of all the choices of how to create and play your character, every character is still a "fighter, thief, mage." It doesn’t matter if I play a goody-two-shoes or an "evil" character who sneaks around stealing and assassinating people. The quests can only be played out to a singular resolution so we never have any choices to make, therefore there’s really no "role playing" within the game itself, only to ourselves in the sense of "I’m playing a sneaky thief" or "I’m playing an archmage who throws fire and lightning." That’s a problem I’ve always had with so-called "sandbox" games and players raving about the ability to "tell their own story." I suppose it’s just my own particular perspective or definitions, but I don’t consider "this is how I killed the dude to finish the quest" to be anywhere near the league of "this is my character’s story."
The leveling also bothers me, but possibly not in the same sense it seems to bother many others. I’m not a fan of vertical levels in (massively-) multi-player RPG’s but in single-player RPG’s it doesn’t matter. Oblivion scales as you level, which I approve of in concept if not in execution. The "problem" with Oblivion’s particular leveling system is that I never have any incentive to actually bother leveling. At level 2 I reached Grand Champion rank in Imperial City’s fighting arena. I was the most fearsome fighter in the world and could easily thrash multiples of the worst opponents they sent at me. At level 2. Currently, I’ve done many a quest for many an NPC and have nearly topped out with the Mage’s Guild, getting busy with the Fighter’s Guild and just joined the Thieves’ Guild. I’m only level 7. I could easily finish the game without reaching level 8 unless it’s purely by accident, simply from incidentally raising enough skills to level. In fact, other than leveling would allow me to increase my Strength so I could carry more than two or three decent items to sell, or to increase my Magicka to cast some of the cool-sounding spells, I really have zero incentive to go out and level more because leveling in Oblivion is mindless grinding of skills, and that is not why I play RPGs. The loot also scales with level, so I’ll never see any cool gear unless I level, either, but again if the only way to ever see "cool stuff" is to "waste time" grinding, I guess I’ll just have to do without that cool stuff. I read people post of their high level characters and just boggle at how or why they bothered to get that high (level 20+) considering all the time you have to spend (unless you "macro" your skills… another pet peeve) doing it.
All in all, as I said early on, I am continuing Oblivion simply out of spite and to get all the achievements. But I feel that as an RPG it’s an exceptionally poor one. As an "open world exploration game" it’s great if one happens to enjoy the (in my opinion) limited means of exploration the game offers.
After completing all the Guilds, I will finish up the main story then Shivering Isles. I’m interested to see if my opinion changes once I’m doing full-on story content. But for now, while just grinding enough quests to have something to do while raising skills, I have to wonder why Oblivion is such a big deal to so many RPGers…