When it was released last year The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion was widely considered to be the first great role-playing game for the Xbox 360. It was massive in scale, beautiful to look at and full of dozens (if not hundreds) of quests to go on. This was not one of those games you could beat in a weekend; Oblivion was so large and involved that I wouldn't be surprised if people are still working their way through the world of Cyrodiil one year after its original release. Regardless of whether you're still closing Oblivion gates or just letting the game sit on your shelf collecting dust, Bethesda Softworks is ready to unleash the newest chapter of The Elder Scrolls series.
Shivering Isles is Oblivion's first real expansion pack. Unlike other downloadable content, Shivering Isles takes you outside of Cyrodiil into a completely new world full of strange new monsters, bizarre landscapes and some of the craziest characters ever to grace a role-playing game. Shivering Isles doesn't rewrite the game play of The Elder Scrolls, but it does do an excellent job of offering you some truly memorable missions and a fresh new world that is actually fun to explore.
Currently this new expansion pack is only available on the Xbox Live Marketplace, which means that if you're going to jump into this brand new world then you will need to have some sort of broadband connection and around $30. The new content takes up close to a gig of hard drive space, but if you're the type of person who fell in love with Oblivion then Shivering Isles is definitely worth the time, money and hard drive space it's going to take to download. While this may not be the most ideal distribution for everybody, I didn't have too many problems with getting it downloaded and running on my Xbox 360.
Once you've downloaded Shivering Isles you are free to access the content at any time, regardless of who your character is or how far you are with the general Oblivion missions. After waiting a day or two a mission bubble will pop up and inform you that people have discovered a brand new island out in the middle of a giant river. It's your job to go there and discover what the heck is going on, a task that is about to take you to a brand new world full of mysteries and crazy people … lots and lots of crazy people.
Before you even enter the new world a guard warns you that everybody that enters ends up going mad, something that is only illustrated further by a few stragglers who pop out of the door and seem to be out of their mind. I don't know about you, but this sounds like the kind of mission I want to embark on, so I gladly jumped into the light and was transported to a bizarre new world that combines Alice in Wonderland with Tim Burton's nightmares. You're met by an oddly dressed man named Haskill who tells you that you have entered a portal to, you guessed it, the Shivering Isles. He tells you all about the Daedric Prince of Madness, Sheogorath, and how you're going to be put to the test to demonstrate your worth. After making a few jokes at your expense and warning you of the troubles ahead Haskill waves his hands and all of the walls turn to butterflies, revealing a colorful new world full of unique architecture and strange plant life.
The world of Shivering Isles is split into two different realms: One that is colorful and upbeat called Mania and another that is sad and full of darkness known as Dementia. The ruler of both is Sheogorath, this crazy old man who is just a couple games short of a trilogy. Even though he is completely off his rocker, Sheogorath seems like a nice enough guy who just needs you to help him out on a couple of missions, most of which will feel familiar to anybody who spent the time going through Oblivion's storyline. As you complete these lengthy missions you will improve your rank and title, until you ultimately find yourself crowned the Madgod of the Shivering Isles.
At first these missions are a whole lot of fun, some of them are much more impressive than anything I remember playing in the main Oblivion storyline. In one early mission you have to activate an ancient dungeon that allows you to trap intruders. Once you've battled your way through the corridors and activated the dungeon you get to sit back and watch a couple of wayward intruders explore it. As you watch the party look around and try to make sense of their surroundings you can choose to kill them off by creating a monster they have to battle or make them go mad (and eventually die). For example, in one room there's a huge cage with some sort of treasure tucked behind it. If you want to make it simple you can spawn a monster and kill them off that way, or you can drop thousands of keys … none of which actually open up the cage. Regardless of what you choose the outcome is the same, all of the adventurers die and its your job to rush back to Sheogorath and get your next quest.
Unfortunately not all of the quests are as inventive as what you see early in the game, as you near the final stretch of the game you will be sent on these boring fetch quests that just feel tacked on. It's still fun battling the weird monsters and finding out what Sheogorath will say next, but it felt like kind of a waste given how strong some of the early missions are. Having said that, Shivering Isles will take you a good 20 - 30 hours to complete, maybe even more if you work on the numerous side-missions. And even if thought the game ends up sending you on some boring quests, the story in Shivering Isles is far more enjoyable than that of Oblivion. And best of all, there are no Oblivion gates to shut down … something I absolutely hated about last year's game.
When you're not doing the bidding of Sheogorath or working on all of the side quests it's fun to just explore this brand new world. Everything about this world is different, from the large mushrooms growing out of the ground to the outlandish architecture that litters the roads and walkways. The area in Shivering Isles is considerably smaller than that of Cyrodiil, which is perfect for people that got sick of walking for ten minutes just to get to a new castle or cave. Even more impressive is how different the two areas are in the game, the contrast between Dementia and Mania is truly impressive, if you didn't have a map handy you probably wouldn't know that these two locations share the same island.
What's really nice about The Elder Scrolls games is that thanks to the level scaling system it doesn't matter when you tackle Shivering Isles. You can take your level 30 character in or start a brand new character and do the adventure at level 1. No matter what your experience is you will have a balanced game where the enemies are neither too strong nor weak. Because of the way The Elder Scrolls games are constructed this kind of expansion pack makes sense, I really like the way it all ties together and allows literally anybody to do the adventure at any time.
After the super-serious happenings in Oblivion we needed some sort of moment of levity, and Shivering Isles certainly delivers in the humor department. This entire expansion pack plays out like some sort of weird parody, all of the characters are humorous and nothing is what it appears. Granted there are a few dark missions that touch on hot button issues (assisted suicides, drugs, etc.), but for the most part Shivering Isles is much lighter than the events in Oblivion. I especially liked the crazy voice acting; you can tell that the writers and actors had a lot of fun with the material.
When it comes to the graphics and game play very little has changed, we probably won't see a major enhancement to these aspects until The Elder Scrolls V is released. Instead we get a much more interesting quest and some of the funniest voice acting I've heard in a role-playing game in years. The game still has a few of the technical problems that plagued the original game (occasionally sluggish frame rates, background pop-ins, etc.), but they aren't too bad here and you probably won't even notice them after awhile.
Shivering Isles is not just a great adventure game; it also marks the first time an Xbox 360 expansion pack has offered extra achievement points. Shivering Isles allows achievement junkies the opportunity to collect another ten icons and 250 bonus points. Unlike the Oblivion achievements (which rewarded you for doing the extra missions), Shivering Isles gives you points for ranking up your character in the standard story mode. I suppose this isn't a bad thing, but it would have been nice to have some different variety in the available points.
If you were one of the many avid fans of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion then you owe it to yourself to jump into Shivering Isles and see what Bethesda has been up to. It may not be a full on sequel, but it's definitely an interesting adventure that will keep you on the edge of your seat for a good 20 hours. It's clear that a lot of effort has been put into making this a great stand-alone chapter in The Elder Scrolls universe; I had a lot of fun seeing everything there was to see and doing everything there was to do. $30 may be a bit much for a downloadable expansion, but after you've journeyed through the Shivering Isles I think you will agree that this it's worth every cent.