Oblivion is the fourth main game in the The Elder Scrolls series of fantasy role-playing and adventure games published by Bethesda Softworks. In contrast to the alien landscape of previous entry Morrowind, Oblivion takes place in the pastoral land of Cyrodiil – the seat of the Tamrielic Empire – and its large rolling hills, dark forests, and coastal trading cities, much like traditional Western/medieval European fantasy. The main questline follows the Oblivion Crisis, an invasion of Cyrodiil (and the rest of Tamriel) by the demonic denizens of Oblivion called Daedra that enter Tamriel through Oblivion Gates – portals that bridge the hellscape of Oblivion with the realm in which Tamriel resides. The player’s character begins his or her quest at the very beginning of the Oblivion Crisis and witnesses the assassination of the king at the hand of a cult that seeks to hasten the Daedric attack.
It’s a hell of a storyline, with considerable voice talent that included Patrick Stewart1 and Sean Bean.2 True to the series’ roots, the player can explore the world in whatever capacity they desire and are never forced to start the main quest. Players can join the treacherous Thieves Guild, the assassins’ cult The Dark Brotherhood, the scholarly Mages Guild, the arms-for-hire Fighters Guild – and more. The possibilities for role-playing are only constrained by the player’s imagination, and Oblivion‘s updated mechanics and utilization of schedule-driven4 non-player characters resulted in an unprecedented level of immersion.
As with former games, Oblivion utilizes a Dungeons & Dragons-style method of statistics, signs, and attributes to monitor a player’s advancement. Players choose to specialize in certain skills (e.g. Short Blade, Sneak, Alchemy, Block) at the beginning of the game via a “class” and advance their character through gaining levels in those particular skills. Although these skills and only these skills count toward a player’s quantitative level advancement in Oblivion, players are welcome to train any skill in the game in order to customize their character to their choosing. Additionally, training certain skills trains various attributes (e.g. Wisdom, Luck, Dexterity) that increase specific skills’ propensity for success. For example, the Armorer skill that facilitates a character’s ability to repair weapons and armor is governed by the Strength attribute, so choosing to advance Strength upon leveling up increases the effectiveness of Armorer.
As with Morrowind, the score is composed by Jeremy Soule, who also worked on the Guild Wars franchise.5 Morrowind‘s soundtrack suffered due to a lack of diversity and and lack of emotional effusiveness; in contrast, Oblivion is much more varied. The soundtrack has a total run-time of an hour: nearly fifty percent longer than that on Morrowind. Soule developed separate themes for when the player is inside a town, outside a town, or in a dungeon; which greatly facilitated immersion. The “Town” themes are warm and lively, which a heavy focus on woodwind. In contrast, the “Atmosphere” themes are typically more dissonant and minor, with a greater usage of strings and chorus as melodic leads. The “Dungeon” tracks are creepier, with less instrumentation and more ambient effects such as cavern water dripping and echoes. There are other themes for battles; these are okay, with a little too much bombast that occasionally dips into cheesiness. There are no separate themes for major battles with Daedric enemies or when the player is within the realm of Oblivion itself, which is mildly disappointing since the sounds of a generic bandit cavern are the same as the Flesh Spire.
Oblivion is beautiful, and has some of the most recognizable tracks from The Elder Scrolls franchise – especially the gorgeous and haunting “Auriel’s Ascension,” which is credited as “Atmosphere 6” in the game files. Knowledge of the game is not necessary to appreciate Soule’s striking portrait of medieval fantasy, despite the first three paragraphs of this review; it is highly recommended for fans of emotive classical music by Western composers in addition to purveyors of video game soundtracks.
Note: the Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind Soundtrack track information used in the star ratings are those files copied directly from the game data. Physical releases may differ. Take the individual star ratings with a grain of salt; naturally, listening to soundtracks outside of their original context will change one’s interpretation.
1. Atmosphere 1 – (2:28) – ★★★★☆
2. Atmosphere 36 – (4:19) – ★★★★☆
3. Atmosphere 4 – (4:41) – ★★★★★
4. Atmosphere 66 – (3:05) – ★★★★★
5. Atmosphere 7 – (3:30) – ★★★★★
6. Atmosphere 8 – (4:04) – ★★★★★
7. Atmosphere 9 – (4:11) – ★★★★☆
8. Battle 1 – (2:08) – ★★☆☆☆
9. Battle 2 – (1:06) – ★★★★☆
10. Battle 3 – (1:01) – ★★★★★
11. Battle 4 – (1:15) – ★★★★★
12. Battle 5 – (1:14) – ★★★☆☆
13. Battle 6 – (1:21) – ★★★★☆
14. Battle 7 – (1:09) – ★★★★★
15. Battle 8 – (1:08) – ★★★★☆
16. Death – (0:13) – ★★★☆☆
17. Dungeon 1 – (1:42) – ★★★★☆
18. Dungeon 2 – (2:32) – ★★★★★
19. Dungeon 3 – (1:04) – ★★★☆☆
20. Dungeon 4 – (1:10) – ★★★★☆
21. Dungeon 5 – (1:05) – ★★★☆☆
22. Success – (0:17) – ★★★☆☆
23. Title – (1:50) – ★★★★☆
24. Town 1 – (2:51) – ★★★★★
25. Town 2 – (2:25) – ★★★★☆
26. Town 3 – (2:56) – ★★★★★
27. Town 4 – (2:05) – ★★★★★
28. Town 5 – (2:10) – ★★★★☆
1… who plays the king at the beginning of the game.
2… who plays Martin Septim, the king’s bastard son and around whom the Oblivion Crisis revolves. Why? Well, you’ll just have to play the game.4
3SPOILER ALERT: (it’s Sean Bean; guess his character’s fate)
4… by which non-player characters actually ate, slept, went to the bar, only opened their shops at certain times of the day, etc. It’s common in RPGs now, but back in 2007 this was entirely new. Morrowind‘s characters forever stood in a single place or paced the wall with some minor scripted occurrences; Oblivion made real cities with actual interactions between other characters that had nothing to do with the player.
5Is Guild Wars still a thing? I remember playing a few hours of it with a middle school friend back in the day, but I haven’t heard too much about it since then.
6Not typos. There isn’t data for “Atmosphere 2” or “Atmosphere 5.”
7Morrowind‘s theme will always be my favorite.