Platform: Xbox 360, PC. Version Reviewed – Xbox 360
It’s not an easy time for a new single-player RPG. Over the last two years, even hardcore fans have begun to concede that the future is probably online. Take a world of the scale and beauty of World of Warcraft’s Azetoth, fill it with thousands of players, and you have an environment that – in terms of richness and variety – is impossible for any conventional RPG to match.
So the surprising thing is that The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion doesn’t just hold up, it actually reminds you that there are things that a single-player game does best. As a result, the difficulty is all mine, for the simple reason that there’s so much here to see, do and experience that this review is only going to scratch the surface. Slapping a verdict and a score on a game like this is a bit like doing the same for a two week visit to New York – anything I say might not necessarily be reflected in your own experience of the game.
Of course, there are some areas where there just isn’t room for any difference of opinion: whatever you think of its gameplay, there’s no question that Oblivion looks utterly fabulous. The opening sequence in a grotty dungeon and a cobwebbed tomb only gives you an inkling of the delights to come, but surfacing near a river, with a view out towards the mountains and forests of central Cyrodiil is one of the great ‘wow’ moments in gaming. On some level, we’ve seen it all before – the use of instancing to create lush areas of natural foliage; HDR lighting with sweet bloom effects; specular highlights on armour and water; parallax mapping for rich texture detail – but on another we haven’t. Oblivion takes these techniques, some already turning into this generation’s equivalent of lens flare, and transforms them from technical achievements into artistic ones. Whether you’re exploring the imperial city on foot, tramping through ruins or riding through a mountain pass on horseback, there’s always a temptation to stop, pan the camera around and simply take the scenery in. The lighting on its own is just lovely, with so distinct a warmth and presence between the red glow of sunset and the harsh, blue lighting of midday that you’re tempted just to hang around and watch the light swell and fade over mountain valleys.
OK, so there are some complaints that hold true – there are odd patches of rough texture sometimes visible on faraway hills, you do suffer an intrusive ‘area loading’ message every ten seconds or so while you’re exploring (though the game only breaks to load when you move between an indoor and outdoor location). But moaning about these details is a bit like going to see the Mona Lisa and whinging that it’s too small. No-one else is listening – you’re only spoiling the experience for yourself.