My dad, tired of all those "X things to do before you die" lists, is making a list of things he doesn't want to do before he dies. "Go to Ikea ever again," tops his roster.
Here's mine. Purge the dungeon. Reactivate the artefact. Pass the trials. Recover the five pieces. "Take this crystal." I swear to God, someone in the supposedly offbeat madness-themed Shivering Isles actually asks you to "Take this crystal". And sadly, despite its gorgeously wonky scenery, Shivering Isles asks you to do far too many things I never wanted to do again after playing Oblivion - a game I love more than my pet frog who escaped and died when I was a child.
This is precisely what its makers were trying to avoid, and they do manage to make Oblivion feel fresh - for a while. It's a whole new landmass (albeit not a huge one) that looks strikingly odder than Oblivion's, and is populated almost entirely by a dozen new species of creatures. And the premise sounds perfect for inventive silliness: you become an agent of the mad god Sheogorath, defending his realm against the forces of Order - fighting boredom, essentially. So what do you spend the vast majority of your time doing?
Clearing out dungeons, the one thing that's virtually the same as it was in Oblivion, and the dullest part of it at that. Killing dozens and dozens of identical enemies, opening dozens of identical doors and pressing Use on dozens of artefacts to restore, retrieve or destroy them. In other words, fighting boredom.
Just so you know, I'm going to spend this review slating Shivering Isles, then give it a perfectly decent score. Please do not adjust your magazine. There is a reason. It's a perfectly decent expansion pack. It's colourful, sumptuous, combat is fun in moderation, and a handful of the quests are still more interesting than 90% of what you find in other RPGs.
But I gave Oblivion the highest score I've ever given. It's the game where I played a real murderer at a murder-mystery weekend, where I slept on a houseboat and woke up at sea. The game that sucked me into a painting, rained burning dogs on me, then asked me to kill my closest friends for money. I went undercover in a terrorist cult. I walked on water. Now they want me to "Take this crystal"? I spit on their crystal!
You can do better than this, Bethesda: you've got no shortage of time, money, talent or technology, so why are you frittering it away on quests that are merely good? The sloth and complacency of that is insulting, and if you think one of your most devoted fans isn't going to call you on it, that's insulting too. In fact, I'm just going to go ahead and feel insulted pre-emptively and assume you've given me at least two good reasons.
But Shivering Isles is good, and I suppose I should say why. Least but not last, the art. This is gorgeous. The twisted fungal blooms that throttle the Isles' rocks, the sleek stone ridges of the hulking Order Knights, and the breathtaking, glistering, mauve-spangled night sky are all intoxicatingly beautiful, pictures of precisely the kind of potent fantasy that the rest of the game's design needs. Bethesda's artists may be the only ones still showing up to work on time. Or perhaps just the only ones whose work actually benefits from the heroic quantities of psychotropics Oblivion's success must afford.
The new enemies, too, are more than up to scratch. Invisible amphibious Scalons betray themselves in the murky waters only by a trail of ripples, before materialising and pouncing at your face. Twiggy Gnarls move like a stop-motion nightmare. The cumbersome-looking three-metre tall Frankensteinian Mangled Flesh Atronachs flip out like breakdancing ninjas if you insult their stitching. A shame, then, that you spend almost all of your time fighting the Knights of Order, who are simply blank men with swords.