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Mod the Universe
More than likely, if you’ve played The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion on a PC, you’ve played it with mods (that is, modifications). Mods to update the graphics engine, mods that change the combat, mods that alter the landscape and environment, mods that change the models, mods that alter the ambient sound, mods for additional quests, items and other content and most importantly, mods that change the levelling.
When written out, it all sounds very excessive, but personally, I think Oblivion desperately needs all that, because otherwise it becomes too repetitive and bland. It’s a huge open world devoid of any variety, depth and in many cases believability. Nothing is less immersive than listening in on two apparently different characters have an inane, disjointed conversation about mudcrabs in the same voice.
This and more reasons is why the Shivering Isles was a much needed expansion.
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I Saw a Mudskipper Today, Dreadful Creatures
The Shivering Isles places you in the realm of Sheogorath, Deadric Prince of Madness.The very first thing that happens when you enter is to have a short interview in an office with a representative of Sheogorath before the office disassembles around you, leaving you in lush, alien surroundings.
This surreal and dreamlike happening is a promising beginning as Oblivion cultivated mundanity and stuck to fantasy archetypes very rigidly. Cyrodiil was Middle Earth (even though it is quoted in the lore as being a dense tropical jungle), unless it was Middle Earth with snow. Oblivion was a spiky hell dimension. Again and again.
The Shivering Isles on the other hand is packed with much more memorable florae and fauna like the huge mushrooms that might be trees or the Grummite frog men, primitive savant craftsmen who evolve from angry giant mudskippers.
More signific antly The Shivering Isles is much more fast and loose with traditional fantasy roles and the moral implications of your actions. In Oblivion you are generally a virtuous hero and sort of saviour of the world. One of the few exceptions to this might be The Dark Brotherhood which gives you the option to join a murder cult, but even then you’re dealing out rough justice half the time as most targets are less than innocent.
Generally in Oblivion, there aren’t moral grey areas. There is right and wrong. For example, in Morrowind, The Blades were a shady intelligence and espionage agency. Like a medieval CIA. In Oblivion they are goodly samurai knights. Their role goes from murky to so pristine it sparkles.
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They Had it Coming
The Shivering Isles is something of a reaction to Oblivion as you seem to be outside the role of adventurer, looking in on it. The first quest sees you watch a group of adventurers get brutalised while you covertly learn the way to kill the guardian to the inner realms of the isles. Later on, you become a dungeon master as you decide various grisly fates for a warrior, a wizard and a rogue; the stan dard for character classes in role playing games.
Some quests simply can’t be done without doing something pretty much evil, but it all gets lost in the moral relativity of everyone being insane. It’s a credit to the way the quests are written that it rarely feels like you are being knowingly evil rather than swept up in the madness of the place. With that said, the evil that you do is much more creative than Oblivion's narrow instances, with the exception of one or two quests.
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Guild Rules State That in Times of Crisis, They Do Nothing
The pacing of the storyline is better handled than Oblivion’s also. There are certain things you can’t do from the beginning with good reason and options gradually open up to you, whereas in Oblivion you can do virtually anything you want at any time, which gives next to no impetus to follow the main quest as it gets lost among all the possibilities.The Shivering Isles still has freedom and an open world, but it has a more focused approach to the narrative and because of this it has an easier time integrating the elements of the world with what is happening within the narrative.
In Oblivion, few things felt integrated. Townspeople would occasionally gossip about stuff that is relevant, and sometimes others would address you by a new title as champion or guild master or some such, but aside from superficial perks and nods, there was no interaction of the world at large with the disparate elements of Cyrodiil.
For example, you would think that as oblivion gates opened, the fighter’s guild would get more contracts fighting daedra or protecting towns from the threat. They didn’t. Perhaps the mages guild leant their expertise to dispel the daedric invasion? No time for that, there’s necromancers to fight! Maybe The Dark Brotherhood would be assassinating prominent Mythic Dawn cultists? Don’t be ridiculous. The events of Oblivion are supposed to a massive, world shaping cataclysm yet it doesn’t affect the everyday workings of Cyrodiil, somehow.
Virtually no story elements of the game acknowledged the others let alone integrated together, whereas Oblivion - Shivering Isles is much more centralised around the primary quest and therefore never feels as compartmentalised as in Oblivion, because it isn’t trying to do everything at once.
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Each Continent Has a Single Tree Type
"But wait," Oblivion apologists everywhere say "how can the Shivering Isles be better than Oblivion, when Oblivion was four or five times bigger than the Shivering Isles?" Less is more, is how. Oblivion struggled to fill its vast empty spaces with actual content and there was little reason to explore once it became clear that each dungeon was virtually identical to every other of its type. Finding daedric shrines was one of the big reasons to explore Oblivion, and Oblivion - Shivering Isles is one big daedric shrine quest.
TSI even had a laugh at Oblivion's expense with its quest to collect tongs and callipers, the bane of the loot hungry adventurer's existence; useless in Oblivion, worth daedra dollars in TSI. Aside from the types of dungeons in TSI being simply more interesting and distinctive than Oblivion's, there was the madness and amber ore element, wherein collecting ore would allow you to forge armour. There was also a hidden quest that didn't appear in the journal, in connection with notable landmark 'The Hill of Suicides' with tangible rewards. TSI was actually giving players a reason to want to explore again.
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Beard of the Gods
The Shivering Isles still suffers from lots of what made Oblivion a much less enjoyable and immersive experience than it could've been. There's still one voice actor per race. Sheogorath himself is one of the aforementioned voice actors putting on a terrible Scottish accent. The levelling system is still abominable if you aren't using mods (you should be using mods). There isn't much of a satisfying post-game, or the feeling of anything much happening in this supposed living breathing world after the main story line is completed.
TSI does however climax with the battling of an actual god, as oppose to Oblivion's running away from one. The subjects of the Shivering Isles are either dangerously paranoid or manically obsessive and it leads to bizarre scenarios like surprise mercy killings and running cat men out of town. There was a much greater emphasis on role-playing in the context of the story; ranging from court intrigue to forging and betraying alliances to interrogating, terrorising and even torturing the populace. Perhaps most importantly was the distinctive nature of the art direction in comparison to Cyrodiil and that it actually conveyed a fantastical world. It also righted the grievous error of no one in Cyrodiil having a beard, though technically the isles may not actually be in Cyrodiil.
The Shivering Isles in many ways exists to right what was wrong with the previous instalment, but that is a task it would never be able to fulfil completely. It is however a worthy instalment to The Elder Scrolls that gets back in touch with the spirit of the series after Oblivion homogenised it.
Still not as good as Morrowind though.