Oblivion’s Manifest Destiny Elder Scrolls Goes From Epic to Insane

Oblivion’s Manifest Destiny Elder Scrolls Goes From Epic to Insane
Despite investing about 60-odd hours of my life into the almost disturbingly realised virtual world of Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, I must admit to only grazing its main plotline. Oh sure, initially I was very concerned about who had offed Cyrodiil’s Emperor Uriel Septim VII (imperiously voiced by Patrick Stewart) and so my dark elf self set out to find his sole surviving heir, the blandly-named Martin, in hopes of stopping the demonic invasion from the hellish plane of Oblivion.

Soon I single-handedly closed an Oblivion gate and became known throughout the realm as "The Hero of Kvatch” but by the time the assassin ringleader escaped via mystical portal, I was well distracted by all the other things I could do in the inspiringly open-ended role-playing game. I worked my way into the good graces of the mages’ guild, conducted B&Es on village homes, earned gold in the arena, explored innumerable ruins and dungeons, slaughtered beasts and bandits and ran side-quests ranging from stopping merchant price-fixing and ridding a woman’s house of foul-smelling scamps to reclaiming a family farm that’d been overrun by ogres and entering a watercolour painting to rescue a trapped artist.

Now my mission to save Cyrodiil is being delayed even further because its expansionistic developer Bethesda released The Shivering Isles, an ambitious add-on featuring an entirely new continent to explore (about a quarter the size of the original’s already vast landscape).

It’s a much more twisted environment filled with giant mushrooms, foggy cesspools and tentacle-like tree roots. In other words, a perfect homeland for Sheogorath, the Scottish-accented Prince of Madness, who Oblivion vets may recall from a particularly strange little side-quest that ended with flaming dogs raining down from the sky.

The new island mirrors its ruler’s split personality with equally surreal halves — the bright Lewis Carroll-flavoured Mania and the darkly psychotic Dementia. Both sides’ inhabitants are about as insane as you might expect — paranoid, delusional, drug-addicted and even suicidal (one depressed dude actually hires you to put him out of his misery).

There are new monsters, including Gnarls (which, in a rare pop-cult nod, drop "bark” after you destroy them), flash new armour and a badass sword called Duskfang/Dawnfang that kindly keeps track of your killings. But Shivering really comes through in its main storyline, which will have you driving adventurers mad, torturing townsfolk, ingesting psychedelics, betraying allies and poisoning a duke all in an effort to prevent an impending (and probably deserved) apocalypse while rising in rank to become Madgod of the isles.

For PC players, this type of expansion pack is par for the course — developers have long used expansions as a stopgap measure to increase a game’s lifespan by leveraging the core game world with new quests until an official sequel can be created. But what’s revolutionary about Shivering Isles is its availability on Xbox 360 version (and, eventually, the new PS3 port as well) thanks to next-gen console hard drives and download services, which previously had been used mostly for new multiplayer maps in games like Halo 2, not story-based content.

Oblivion actually inflamed fans early on with its infamous "horse armor” download, the type of item that should’ve been purchasable with in-game gold but could only be bought for three real-world bucks. Despite finding micro-payments for virtual goods distasteful, even I was tempted enough by an awesome mountaintop view to buy a sweet crib called Frostcrag Spire. Throughout the game’s first year, Bethesda released more and more downloadable content — albeit most now included side-quests adding actual playtime — culminating with the "Knights of the Nine” plug-in which created a new faction within the main game world and several hours of new errands, but cost a hefty 800 Microsoft Points ($12.40).

Shivering Isles, which promises about 30 more hours of gameplay, runs an even heftier 2400 Points ($37.50), a fair chunk considering you‘ve already bought the original game and there are no manufacturing/shipping costs (not to mention the inability to re-sell upon completion). But unlike Oblivion’s earlier downloads, the fresh landmass, new beasties and thematically tight missions have turned this expansion into a creative triumph that blazes a new trail for console gaming’s quest to keep titles vital.