Hold on tight - Yahtzee is reviewing an RPG.
You know me: I'm a twitchy, instant-gratification kind of gamer, the sort who isn't happy unless there's a gun the size of a motorbike in his hands and a severed alien willy bouncing off the front of his space helmet. But every now and again, the planets would align and I'll be affected by weird cosmic rays, and suddenly all I want to do is play a nice fantasy RPG. Not a JRPG, God no - it's just space radiation, not the infinite power of Christ - but a Western RPG, something with goblins and swords and men in loincloths going on about wenches; so this time, I pumped steroids into my video cards and had a crack at Oblivion. My only previous experience with the Elder Scrolls series was a brief spell of Morrowind during the previous planetary alignment, in which I ran around some muddy countryside in the rain for a few hours fending off weird sub-human creatures (so basically it was just like Glastonbury Festival).
In Oblivion, you start off in a dungeon in the imperial palace. You're never told what crime you committed - I guess you're supposed to fill in that blank for yourself - so I choose to believe I was in there for shagging the emperor's wife and daughter at the same time while playing a rock guitar solo on the desecrated corpse of God. Anyway, then the emperor showed up (played by Captain Picard - and I have to say I liked him a lot; he was the only character who actually seemed to know they were in a fantasy RPG), he took one look at me, noticed the camera floating behind my head, and said, "Oh, bugger; you're the protagonist, guess I have to die now." And die he did, but not before giving me the address of a mate of his for advice on the world-saving quest I could maybe think about following in between looting bodies and fast-traveling.
I chose to play as a Nord (a race of brave William Wallace-types big on football violence) and I picked specialization in swords and heavy armor - partly out of a total lack of creativity, but mostly because I'd tried playing a mixed class in Morrowind and found that switching between magic and weapons mid-battle was as smooth and intuitive as shifting from fifth to reverse in a car with a missing gear lever. Oblivion's interface, however, seems a lot more user-friendly - for a PC RPG, anyway; I still had to check the manual to figure out how to fucking drop things, but if you can at least swing a sword without cutting your own legs off, then it's still a hell of a lot more intuitive than anything Richard Garriott ever made. But even if Oblivion had the most perfect interface ever devised and dispensed milk and cookies while cooing gentle reassurances in a soft motherly voice, it would still be condemned by its biggest flaw.
Let me tell you about immersion: Immersion is when you go for a midnight walk after a weekend marathon of Thief II and catch yourself looking for your visibility gem. Immersion is when you're playing Condemned and your cat suddenly jumps onto your lap, only to be immediately launched off by a reflexive cannon-like blast of terrified piss. If a game can truly draw you in, it can make up for a lot of flaws. Take something like Assassin's Creed - so stuffed with bad design choices they were leaking out of its pores, but I didn't despise it because Assassin's Creed presents itself so well; and if you go into it with the right mindset, it'll suck you in like a thousand-dollar whore. Immersion can save the life of a bad game, and inversely, a lack of immersion can be a dog-shit bullet right between the eyes.
For a game that is obviously trying so hard, Oblivion is one of the least immersive RPGs I've ever played. The world map is huge - granted, if you intend to walk from one end to the other, you better pack a few sandwiches, but frankly, take one good look around the moment you first emerge blinking into the daylight, and you've pretty much seen everything. It's like they took two hundred square yards of medieval English countryside, added a few wolves, then copy-pasted it until it was roughly the size of Yorkshire. Fortunately, you can bypass the insipid landscape and instantly teleport to anywhere you want, but that defeats the point of having a huge gameworld in the first place. I really hate to say this, but compare to that electronic smack-addition World of Warcraft - every territory has different terrain, colors and monsters, and the fast-travel system (while badly in need of an in-flight movie) at least gives the impression of a huge epic world. Oblivion, by comparison, might as well be entirely taking place in the same fucking meadow.
And then there are the characters: They all have this weird, stiff, unreal quality about them, indicating that Cyrodiil is apparently located inside the uncanny valley. And that's before you try to talk to them - besides the main characters, there are about a hundred million individuals with maybe two actual personalities between them (neither of which are particularly well characterized). One crazy beggar woman switched between a grackled drawl and a well-spoken aristocratic tone from line to line, so either she's pulling a very inept con, or the dialogue assignment is fucked. The attempt to create a procedurally-generated NPC conversation system was courageous, but then, so is jumping into a skip full of used syringes. The tiny number of voice actors just makes it laughable, with characters frequently found conversing with themselves about how much they enjoy buying from the shop owned by themselves. On top of that, the endlessly repeated lines are so badly written and awkwardly delivered, it's like you're trapped in a middle-school amateur dramatics production of The Lord of the Rings adapted for stage by a deaf budgerigar.
Oblivion might be incredibly deep and full of interesting quests that all end with foxy night elves giving you soapy tit-wanks, but it's all for naught because it just won't let me in. Whenever I thought I was starting to lose myself in the experience, some NPC would get stuck on a paving stone or force me to feed them that stupid conversation pie, and I'd come crashing back to reality, where I am nothing more than an Anglo-Australian tit trying to outsmart a cloud of ones and zeros. The root of the problem is simply that they try too hard to impress us, so if nothing else, remember this: Spinning a plate on a stick is impressive, but try to spin three at once, and you'll just end up digging porcelain out of your face.
Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw: Has obviously never been to Glastonbury
Fair Use Notice: I just really like the Kinks, okay
FullyRamblomatic.com: On the other hand I thought Morrowind was pretty good