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Oblivion - The Second Opinion

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Oblivion - The Second Opinion

Review - posted by Section8 on Thu 22 February 2007, 04:05:22

Tags: Bethesda Softworks; Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion

Note from the author - So anyway, I had this mostly done a long time ago, back when I had too much spare time, and had notes for the rest of it, so I thought I'd finish it up. It's not so much a review aimed at somebody trying to decide whether or not to buy the game, but more a design focused analysis of the game's flaws. It rambles, it's not overly well structured, and it's about as far from poignant as you can get, but it gives me an idea of the style of critiques I'd like to write, and Gothic III is next on the list to get the treatment.


The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion

Every now and then, a game comes along that sounds so insanely good on paper, that it doesn't really need salesmanship to get it out the door and into the eagerly grasping hands of gamers. But that didn't stop Bethesda hyping the ever-loving shit out of fourth Elder Scrolls RPG anyway. So is it the second coming? Is it even a decent game? These are the sort of questions that rattled through my mind as I sat back and watched the Patrick Stewart narrated introduction to Tamriel's Imperial province of Cyrodiil, where the game takes place.

As is the case with most RPGs, the first interactive portion a player gets to dive into is character creation, the first step of which is customising the race, gender and overall look of your character. And if you're one of those people who likes to alter every little nuance, prepare to be intimidated. It's about as comprehensive as the face customisation of The Sims 2 or Second Life, but Oblivion offers very little macro level control over the dozens of sliders that define your character's facial characteristics, making it hard to "sketch out" a general look. For instance, something as simple as giving yourself a convincingly large nose involves careful manipulation of most of the fourteen sliders in the nose rollout.

Additionally, there are no customisation options for body shape, and so a pudgy, elderly Imperial head winds up being stuck on the same body as a brutish Orc barbarian's face, or a sharp featured, pointy High-Elf noggin. It seems a little incongruous to have a completely overwhelming degree of facial customisation, but no control over physical characterisation.

But no matter, because Oblivion doesn't begin with you winning second place in a beauty contest, it starts as all previous Elder Scrolls games do - with you in custody for unknown crimes, and awaiting some fated event that starts you on an adventure almost certain to involve significantly less salad-tossing than your average lifetime imprisonment. A "chance" meeting with Emperor Patrick Stewart Uriel septim VII sets you on your way, through the obligatory tutorial dungeon, and toward freedom.

From a narrative perspective, this opening chapter sets a disturbing precedent of implausibility for the sake of gameplay. The Emperor's elite bodyguards, the Blades, are unable to prevent the Emperor's death at the hands of a weakling assassin that the pathetically unskilled player can easily defeat. They're then happy to send you on your way with the sacred Amulet of Kings, the symbol of heriditary rule in the empire. But. Plot silliness aside for the moment, the player then gets to finalise their character build, either picking from a list of predefined classes, or defining a custom class from a set of 21 skills. With that, it's a short walk to freedom.

And what freedom it is. This is basically what the Elder Scrolls games are all about, putting the player in an expansive world and allowing them to do their own thing. It's not entirely intimidating. The main storyline basically stems from the Emperor's assassination, and the player is guided along this path as soon as they take their first steps outside. Aside from that, the major towns are all clearly marked on the player's map, and there are immediately visible landmarks to check out. There's just so much promise at this point, that it's hard not to be excited.

However, that was probably the highest point of Oblivion. Knowing that there is so much out there, and the sense of wonder that accompanies that, are great feelings. It's this point where you gladly cancel your social commitments, phone in sick, tell your loved ones you'll see them in a month or so, and embark on this promising new paraphilic relationship. But, as time goes on, you begin to realise that your affection is ruled by imagined possibilities, and each of the game's many facets turn out to be fairly unfulfilling. Kind of like trying to eat a meal with a Swiss army knife. You think it's going to be crazy useful having 27 different tools handy, but in reality, the only thing worth doing is threatening to cut someone unless they bring you a fucking knife and fork.

Anyway. The most obvious shortcoming is presented very early on to the player through the interface, which has been designed from the ground up to be slick and simple to operate with an Xbox360 controller, and viewed on a TV screen across the room. The PC version is identical, save for the addition of a mouse cursor, and doesn't play to any of the strengths or weaknesses of the PC platform. There's entirely too much tabbing and scrolling involved in even the simplest of tasks, and it even lacks considerations such as tool tips.

That's far from the biggest disappointment, however. Veterans of the series will no doubt fondly remember the thrill of exploration and discovery in previous games, and sadly, Oblivion manages to take most of the excitement out of this aspect of the game. For one, the ever present 'Quest Compass'ensures you never stumble upon something; you're aware of everything within a broad radius, and an icon to represent the type of location (cave, ruin, village, shrine) points the way.

But even worse in this respect, just about everything in the game is derived exclusively from your character level. Monsters, Loot, NPCs, wildlife, even shop floor stock; it's all transparently balanced to suit you. So if you're an adventurous youngster, forget the idea of finding danger or wealth beyond measure. Everything is conspicuously homogenised across the whole world, to the point where locations become little more than slight visual variations on the same thing.

I would estimate that some ninety-percent of the many game locations are functionally alike - a dark place filled with cookie cut sets of inhabitants, and loot appropriate for your character level. Basically, nearly every location is a quick mission generator madlib. "I want to explore a (tileset) themed dungeon, face (monster type) and get loot for a (number) level character." And to add to this oddity of world design, dungeons respawn a few game days after being cleared, so basically you get to pick and choose once you've explored a few. I found myself taking note of the dungeons where the inhabitants exclusively wear heavy armour, and I'd revisit every couple of levels to upgrade my equipment.

And it's not just exploration that this poorly conceived method of auto-balancing encounters taints. There's almost no sense of achievement when it comes to gaining levels, or discovering the next tier of weapons and armour, since the entire world simply adjusts. Nor is there any great need to strive for advancement. A measly level one character can become the greatest fighter in the land as Grand Champion of the Arena, or you can save the world at level two. Even worse, is that character level is not necessarily a measure of combat prowess in a game where the open-ended character system permits players to create classes where their non-combat skills determine their character level.

The only things that interrupt a difficult curve that is rarely in line with the character's own progression are two mechanisms. Firstly, the fact that monsters (not humanoid NPCs) only scale every five levels, and secondly, the player abilities that are gained every each time a skill hits a multiple of 25. The monster scaling provides a means for players to overcome a difficult or prohibitive challenge through character advancement, albeit one tied only to a questionably designed meta-system, with no grounding in the game world. It's a small freedom that most RPGs have adopted as a standard - the ability to take on a difficult task, or the option of improving their character ability to make the task easier - but like most liberties in Oblivion, it's needlessly crippled by a transparently ugly game system.

The character perks gained every time the player reaches a higher rank in any given skill (every 25 points) are another mixed bag. They range from pointlessly baffling, such as the Mercantile skill steps, to the ridiculously empowering, for instance, Armorer, which allows the player to increase the effectiveness of most items by 25% when they attain an Expert rank at 75. There's also the prohibitive spell casting, where spells are all assigned to restrictive brackets for each level of mastery. Not necessarily a bad thing, but when you effectively have only five tiers of spellcasting, the in between times get fairly repetitive. And just for gags, there's the Alchemy, which unlocks extra effects for each ingredient. Which is good if you discover a positive effect, but it also unlocks negatives, meaning an Apprentice Alchemist can mix two ingredients to make a healing potion with no side effects, and a Journeyman can mix the same two ingredients to make a healing potion that suddenly has a horrible downside.

All of these little quirks are indicative of a core system that is horribly underdesigned. Of course, when the game attempts to encompass so much, then it's understandable that there will be more shortcomings than in a game with a simple scope of design. How much can be forgiven is ultimately determined by what sort of experience the player has in and around the core systems, in other words, the quality of the interactions the player has with the game.

Most commonly, interaction involves your character, something blunt, and somebody's skull. There's a lot of combat in Oblivion. Outside of towns, nearly ever single member of a civilised race will attack you on sight, or occasionally demand money, then try to kick your arse. Monsters and animals likewise exist only to fuck shit up. So how does it all play out? Listen...

Morrowind's combat has been vastly expanded upon, but that's not to say the combat system of Oblivion is vastly expansive, it's more an indictment of the vacant shell of Morrowind's design. The melee combat will be familiar to anyone who has played a melee focused FPS, or even third person hack and slashers such as Severance or Rune. You can swing a weapon, block or parry, or throw a few spells into the mix. Like games in a similar vein, it's a matter of timing swings and movement so that you avoid enemy blows by stepping in and out of their range, and deliver your own in return.

Against humanoids, it's not difficult to master a technique that will get you through most fights. Monsters require a bit more patience, since they tend to hit harder and live longer, but there is very little tactical variance depending on what picks a fight with you. You basically have something that works against melee combatants, and something that works against ranged combatants. There isn't even a functional difference between bladed and blunt weapons. Both weapon sets have the same stats, and the same power moves.

And speaking of power moves, one of the attempts to spice up combat up by Bethesda in this installment of the Elder Scrolls is to award new moves for each level of skill mastery. Unfortunately, in order to perform these moves, you have to use the archaic combo of moving in a direction and holding the attack button, which feels about as regressive as omitting mouselook, since you can't effectively move independently while performing varied attacks. With any number of successful designs to draw upon, from Ultima Underworld onward that elegantly avoid this awkward playstyle, Bethesda really dropped the ball on this one, especially given the combat-centric nature of Oblivion.

Ranged combat features a similarly dated model, where enemies always aim where your current vector will position you by the time their projectile arrives. While this simple model is ideal for a game like Doom or even a classic top down shooter, such as Raiden, where the player relies on predictable attack behaviours and the challenge lies in trying to process an overload of concurrent threats, Oblivion rarely involves the player in a fight with more than four participants, and so it becomes incredibly easy to keep abreast of nearly all projectiles. So again, there's little variance in tactics for ranged battles. Imagine a first person shooter where it's nearly impossible to get hurt, and a typical enemy takes 30 seconds of hitpoint erosion to kill, and you have a fair idea.

Tied in closely with ranged combat but also with melee option is the magic system. There's no shortage of spells to choose from, and six schools of magic to specialise in, so you do get a little more variance than conventional methods of combat, but there's nothing groundbreaking here. As is typical, you have damage spells, damage over time spells, spells to stun an enemy and whatnot, along with various permutations, such as touch effects, ranged effects, area effects, and also various beneficial spells such as buffs or heals, but that's about the limit of it, despite a theoretically unlimited library, thanks to custom spell crafting.

While the spell range is certainly competent, and definitely more appealing than regular combat, this biggest shortcoming is the lack of any real progression in magical ability. Sure, you get better at casting spells, and get access to higher level spells, but typically, that means little more than a new spell that burns more mana for a statistically higher effect. Magery at low levels ultimately plays out pretty much the same as magery at higher levels.

Having said all of that, combat ultimately could be worse. There's very little frustration for the player, but like so many elements of Oblivion the avoidance of low points seems to have likewise smoothed any potential high points. You wouldn't play the game for the combat alone, but conversely combat doesn't necessarily become a hurdle to enjoyment of the peripheral elements of the game.

Speaking of peripherals, many non-combat skills are non-passive, meaning that usage of the skill requires some degree of input from the player. In most cases, this comes through a simple mouse driven interface, and some skills also require a certain degree of player dexterity. For instance, if the character tries to pick a lock, an interface window pops up displaying the tumblers of a lock, and the player must raise and lock each tumbler into place to swing a lock open, with more difficult lock obviously requiring more tumblers to be successfully circumvented.

Unfortunately, these active skill uses are perversely easy to master, and become little more than a pointless time sink. And what is truly tragic is that Bethesda even avoid using time management as a challenge, since accessing menus or skill interfaces pause the gamestate. The tense moments of Thief, where lockpicking incurred no challenge other than timing attempts around guard patrols, are not to be found in Oblivion, where the player can gaily spend hours picking away without a single nanosecond passing. The only time dependent skill is the horribly abstract persuasion system, and the time limits are so forgiving that you'll never notice their intrusion.

However, with the exception of lockpicking, speechcraft, alchemy and sneak, the non-combat skills don't really provide any distinct facet of gameplay. They merely supplement and enhance the core gameplay. For instance, character with increased mercantile skill can trade more profitably, but there's no commodity system so a player can be a trader as opposed to a combatant. Nor can a player take on the role of a diplomat, since the speechcraft skill serves only as a means of increasing reputation.

So when broken down into these component parts, the core and gameplay systems of Oblivion are hard to laud. Bethesda seem to have taken the path of least resistance on nearly ever design decision, and so you end up with a horde of unexceptional features built around simplistic mechanics. Arguably, that's a good thing, since it's very rare for a player to feel as though the game has wronged them, but ultimately, it just doesn't wind up being very interesting. Even the decades-past regression of certain design elements manages to avoid being overwhelmingly negative, since they aren't necessarily regressing to bad designs, just obsolete ones. Fucking old school, yo.

Ahem. But, you can't really judge each element on it's individual merits without looking at the bigger picture. Even if the bread and butter of gameplay isn't interesting in and of itself, there are still layers of wrapping that can make the experience compelling. Diablo's gameplay is simplicity squared (or is that rooted?) but the complexity of item generation and the Skinnerbox reward systems give the game legs. Planescape Torment actively tortures the player with it's stupefyingly bad combat, but the verbose narrative throughout most aspects of the game succeeds in spite of that shortcoming. SO how does Oblivion stand up?

The cornerstone of most, if not all, RPGs in terms of player motivation are the quests. It's like that old chestnut of a pickup line - "I'd crawl over 5,000 miles of broken glass to sniff the cock of the last guy to fuck you." A player is generally willing to overcome (read: put up with) all sorts of adversity (read: shit) to gain some sort of end result, preferably something they can deem a success. Motivation is key.

As mentioned some hours ago toward the top of this critique, Oblivion's first key motivation is delivered in dubious style, through an in game tutorial that also serves as the game's opening narrative. All bets are off when it comes to plausibility and continuity, with the game pulling up just short of NPCs speaking out of character about the game interface. It gives the player no real motivation to pursue the core storyline other than the vague "because it's there." Which isn't necessarily a cause for alarm in a sandbox style game, where the player ought to be free to make their own motivations, but it does set a clear precedent of being torn between two polar extremes.

The main plotline of Oblivion is intended to be a compelling fantasy saga, but since it moves at the player's pace - a compromise to permit player more freedom - the constant urgency mentioned throughout the narrative elements fails to surface, and likewise fails to drive the player. On the other side of things, the many peripheral storylines are seldom correlated to each other, or to the main plotline.

There's also next to no consequence beyond the purely cosmetic for player decisions, there are also no negative consequences for inaction. According to the inhabitants, the world is being invaded by the forces of hell, but nothing happens without the expressed prior approval of the game's one deciding board member. The player. To this end, the narrative is only as engaging as the player permits it to be, as the character is almost always externalised from the game's events and has no responsibility to the narrative.

This theme is manifested throughout other story arcs and narrative elements. Factions are non-exclusive, again permitting freedom without any responsibility. Quests are never time dependent, so the player need not fear commitment to a task. None of the quests require competency in a specific field - for instance, a player can serve the Mages Guild and rise to it's highest echelons without casting a spell. So even in this aspect of the game, Bethesda have taken the painless approach. Restrict nothing, and no-one bemoans the lack of freedom. Unfortunately, it's all freedom without responsibility, and so unless you apply your own imaginary limitations and consequences, it becomes fairly dull to experience.

Outside of the more direct forms of narrative, there ought to be a solid grounding of fragments to derive from. An example of derived narrative would be taking a look at a cave, it's inhabitants, and their behaviours. Without any explicit storyline directed at the player, they should still be able to infer a certain background story. Fragments of information throughout the game world itself should tell a story. Just ask an archaeologist.

However, everything in Oblivion seems to exist purely for the player's benefit. A cave full of bandits is nothing more than a killing field. A sword in a stone is a typical weapon for the player's level. Even more direct means, such as NPC to NPC conversations are horribly contrived. Most conversations read like a "Did you know..." startup tip for MS Office. About the only semblance of a world that exists outside of the player's own experience are the many in game books, but they don't really count since they don't involve experiencing the world, and can be discovered just as easily outside of the game.

At the end of the day, Oblivion doesn't create a captivating world for the player to experience and savour, it does away with the niceties of a consistent and plausible world in favour of giving the player a seemingly limitless supply of simplistic content to satisfy their immediate desires, and the experience depends largely on the player defining their own goals and obstacles. It encompasses the "sandbox" definition fairly well, in that it foists freedom onto a pedestal.

But to sum it up in a nutshell, while Oblivion provides the masses of content required create a sandbox experience, it sorely lacks the tools to make that experience captivating without a lot of input from the player's own imagination. It's like playing D&D by your lonesome. I'm sure there's fun to be had, but it can't hold a candle to the full experience, with a DM to challenge you, and provide a dynamic world to explore, and fellow players to share your imaginings with.

It's far from a failure, since it doesn't really put a foot wrong, it just doesn't set the bar very high. It's a game that was never likely to hold appeal to someone like myself, an armchair designer of the highest order, and someone with a gaming obsession stretching back a couple of decades, but I can see why the immediacy and simplicity of the bread and butter gameplay, as well as the sheer quantity of content does appeal to many people. To someone who only picks up the game for an hour or so here and there, it would take a long time for the bland and inoffensive nature of the gameplay to reach breaking point in terms of boredom, given the scope for self-driven goals in a massive gamespace. But, having said that, there are innumerable aspects of the design that could be improved and expanded upon without compromising that mass appeal. Then everyone's happy, right?

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