I bought The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion last year because everyone raves about how great it is, or was. I didn’t think very highly of Fallout 3, which I still haven’t bothered to finish, and which is in some ways Oblivion 2.0, but got the game anyway in hopes that these two highly-rated Bethesda RPGs would finally "click" for me.

No luck yet, but I am slowly plodding forward inch by inch to finish the game. Mostly out of spite at this point, and to get all 1250 Gamerscore for it (I have the Game of the Year edition which includes the Shivering Isles expansion) so I can trade it and move on with life.

Oblivion starts you off escaping from a dungeon cell, meeting the Emperor (voiced by Sir Patrick Stewart) who dies shortly thereafter and you finally exit the dungeon into the world with the urgent mission to find the Emperor’s heir. Only, it turns out, the mission isn’t all that urgent after all because Oblivion is such an open-world game, it really doesn’t matter when, or if, you bother to do anything. In fact, it would prefer you didn’t, because there are Guilds to join, Arenas to fight in, and all manner of individual NPC who’d like you to do favors for them. I could almost submit that Oblivion is a single-player MMO in that "story" is very sparse and as an "adventurer" all you really do is act as a mercenary doing odd jobs for the NPC’s and/or find caves to "grind" for loot, usually with no real reason to be there other than that.

My initial reaction last year once entering the world is that everything looks the same, which diminishes my feeling of exploration. Since then, I have encountered a few areas that are different in appearance (snow-covered with constant snow weather effects, etc.) but otherwise I’ve traveled to every town on the map and my initial impression seems to hold true. With precious few exceptions, once you exit that first dungeon to begin your adventures, you’ve just seen everything the world has to offer.

Someone on Twitter last week described Oblivion as an "open world exploration RPG" and I’d be inclined to agree with that assessment, only it’s not quite the type of exploration I care for. Since so far, most of the world looks identical there is very little feel that any area is different from another. That limits the "exploration" to simply wandering the world waiting for "You discovered [insert POI here]!" to appear on the screen and a POI icon will appear permanently on your map. That’s enjoyable in its own small, shallow sense but there’s precious little else to "discover" that I’ve come across so far. Worse, it seems an awful lot of "exploration" is the type I don’t like: examining every pixel of the room or area I’m in to see what objects are there and whether they have enough value for me to bother taking them to sell. The only other "exploration" is speaking to every NPC you find to see if they have something for you to do or not. I’m not crazy about MMO Quest Dispensers who stand still 24/7 with glowing punctuation marks over their heads. But even worse is the very old-school CRPG method of being forced to speak to every NPC, not to mention having to waltz into everyone’s home as if you owned the place, to "discover" any "content" the game might have.

The quests themselves, for the most part, are standard fare you’d get in a fantasy RPG or MMO. Go kill someone; go talk to someone; go retrieve and/or deliver an item. Each quest has its own little backstory relating to the NPC delivering it and perhaps with the history or politics of the town or region. You know, the type of stuff you skip over to click the ‘OK’ button if it were an MMO. But since you’re forced to stare at the bobble-head people and listen to the voiceovers, it makes the presentation far superior to a simple quest text in an MMO. Technically, you can skip forward one statement at a time in the voiceovers, and I regularly do so if I already get the gist of the conversation. Nothing about the game has yet made me care enough about my character, the "main story" or the world, so I certainly don’t give a rat’s ass about some random bobble-head’s story. If the voiceover and story is interesting enough, I’ll watch and listen to the bobble-head, otherwise it’s "get to the point already" just like an MMO would be. This is something Star Wars: The Old Republic will have to contend with, as well, but that’s another story for another time.

During character creation, your choices determine your primary skills rather than simply selecting a "class" like you would in an MMO. The problem I’m seeing so far is that all the various skillsets are defined in a strict "fighter, thief, mage" system and you’ll need all three to continue through the game. What you end up with is despite the illusion of all the choices of how to create and play your character, every character is still a "fighter, thief, mage." It doesn’t matter if I play a goody-two-shoes or an "evil" character who sneaks around stealing and assassinating people. The quests can only be played out to a singular resolution so we never have any choices to make, therefore there’s really no "role playing" within the game itself, only to ourselves in the sense of "I’m playing a sneaky thief" or "I’m playing an archmage who throws fire and lightning." That’s a problem I’ve always had with so-called "sandbox" games and players raving about the ability to "tell their own story." I suppose it’s just my own particular perspective or definitions, but I don’t consider "this is how I killed the dude to finish the quest" to be anywhere near the league of "this is my character’s story."

The leveling also bothers me, but possibly not in the same sense it seems to bother many others. I’m not a fan of vertical levels in (massively-) multi-player RPG’s but in single-player RPG’s it doesn’t matter. Oblivion scales as you level, which I approve of in concept if not in execution. The "problem" with Oblivion’s particular leveling system is that I never have any incentive to actually bother leveling. At level 2 I reached Grand Champion rank in Imperial City’s fighting arena. I was the most fearsome fighter in the world and could easily thrash multiples of the worst opponents they sent at me. At level 2. Currently, I’ve done many a quest for many an NPC and have nearly topped out with the Mage’s Guild, getting busy with the Fighter’s Guild and just joined the Thieves’ Guild. I’m only level 7. I could easily finish the game without reaching level 8 unless it’s purely by accident, simply from incidentally raising enough skills to level. In fact, other than leveling would allow me to increase my Strength so I could carry more than two or three decent items to sell, or to increase my Magicka to cast some of the cool-sounding spells, I really have zero incentive to go out and level more because leveling in Oblivion is mindless grinding of skills, and that is not why I play RPGs. The loot also scales with level, so I’ll never see any cool gear unless I level, either, but again if the only way to ever see "cool stuff" is to "waste time" grinding, I guess I’ll just have to do without that cool stuff. I read people post of their high level characters and just boggle at how or why they bothered to get that high (level 20+) considering all the time you have to spend (unless you "macro" your skills… another pet peeve) doing it.

All in all, as I said early on, I am continuing Oblivion simply out of spite and to get all the achievements. But I feel that as an RPG it’s an exceptionally poor one. As an "open world exploration game" it’s great if one happens to enjoy the (in my opinion) limited means of exploration the game offers.

After completing all the Guilds, I will finish up the main story then Shivering Isles. I’m interested to see if my opinion changes once I’m doing full-on story content. But for now, while just grinding enough quests to have something to do while raising skills, I have to wonder why Oblivion is such a big deal to so many RPGers…

6 Responses to “Oblivion: What’s the Big Deal?”
  1. Grimnir says:

    It’s not a game that you play to eat content, and neither is Fallout, or any of the Bethesda games really. They’re worlds that your character can live in, and much of the enjoyment from those games comes not from how they are is presented to you, but how you interpret and act upon them. The whole world is a tool for you to wield. If you’re walking around waiting for something to take you by the hand and lead you on a magical adventure there’s really no doubt that you’ll be left disappointed.

    It’s a cop out in this day and age of spoon fed content, but your own imagination will go a long way in these kinds of games. As children we used to go outside and play with no real goal in mind. Oblivion, Fallout, and their ilk present the same multitude of options that allow you to fire up a game and just play. If you’re grinding gearscore so you can toss the game, then you’re not playing it at all. It is so much more what you make of it than what it gives you, and that’s something extremely satisfying if you understand the point of the game.

    It’s not a race. There is no ending. After you save the world, there’s still murders being commited, thieves stealing valuables, and demons or gods wandering the realm. The age of Achievements has ruined a lot of open world type games by giving players a bucket list. Screw the bucket list. Just play.

  2. Aaron says:

    You’re hopeless. ;)

    “If you’re grinding gearscore so you can toss the game, then you’re not playing it at all.”

    Agreed. It’s more world than game. In the recent video discussion between Todd Howard and Minecraft creator Notch, Howard admits that Bethesda didn’t give gamers like you reason enough to care about the main storyline. But Oblivion is more about wandering and experimenting than accomplishing.

    You’re certainly right about some things. It’s ridiculous that a level 2 player can become Arena Champion. Not everything in the game should adjust to the player’s level, and that’s something they supposedly fixed in Skyrim. You’re also right about the cookie-cutter content in caves, forts, etc. But the game’s deeper than you realize.

    Though I don’t Oblivion will ever be your cup of tea, you’ll like it more as you level up. As you get further into the game, you will amass a wide variety of skills and more ways to play the game.

    For example, since I improved my Sneak skill and acquired an Invisibility spell, I switched from staying far away from enemies and sniping with my bow to walking right up behind them and stabbing them with a dagger (6x damage, as opposed to 3x with an arrow). Yet sometimes I find two enemies together, and it’s more strategic to fire arrows from afar… dipping my first arrow in a Burden potion so that the first enemy is rooted in place while I deal with the other.

    If there’s a mage, I can use a Silence spell to stop him from casting spells. Some enemies are more susceptible to some types of damage. Some are immune to normal weapons or particular elements.

    Then there’s all the unique story experiences, like the Chorrol mage guild quest, the Malacath shrine quest, or that crazy guy in Skingrad.

    I get it. It’s not your style of game. It’s also objectively weak in some ways. Even so, I think you’ll appreciate it more as you keep playing… which I wouldn’t ask you to do, but since you’re intent on torturing yourself anyway, lol.

  3. Scott says:

    That’s just it: I’m not seeing much use for “the world.” Despite the day/night cycle, the NPCs closing up shop and sleeping at night, the flawed but occasionally humorous Radiant AI designed to make the world feel more alive, I feel more alone in Oblivion (and Fallout 3) than in any other single-player RPG.

    There’s nothing to do except grind caves or grind talking to NPCs so that they give me a quest to go into a cave.

    There’s no “role-playing” if I never have any choices how to do anything; if there’s only one way anything ever happens. If it doesn’t matter if I’m good or evil, why bother exerting the effort to be either?

    So, if there’s little real “meat” (which for me is story, that’s why I play RPGs) to the game, no choices to make that have any impact, and awful Rock ‘em Sock ‘em Robot combat, I don’t understand what’s possibly so wonderful about the game.

  4. Ardwulf UNITED STATES says:

    There are essentially three issues with Oblivion: 1) The main story is fairly flat. 2) The leveling system is wonky enough to be considered broken outright by many. 3) The world looks pretty samey.

    The second and third problems are fixed handily by mods. The first is somewhat addressed by the Shivering Isles expansion, which (I’m told) is more engaging than the main plot.

    However, the issue I’m thinking you’re having is that Oblivion, and indeed the Elder Scrolls series in general, are not providing the kind of experience you expect when you think “RPG”. The Bethesda approach is pretty different from that of, say, Bioware. The world is much more dynamic and the main plot is such that you can ignore it if you want – not really an option in Mass Effect or KotOR. But the world is dynamic and reacts to your actions to a much greater extent, and in a more dynamic way.

    The aforementioned crazy guy in Skingrad is one example; he gives you a mission (without your having to approach him) but the results of the mission are ambiguous, and how the affair ends depends on how you handle the mission elements and how you report it to him. I ended up turning him in to the guards, who killed him – whereupon I looted both his body and his house.

  5. Scott UNITED STATES says:

    Can’t use mods on the 360, have to play the way Bethesda intended. :)

    There are a handful of well-done quests, and I’ve enjoyed the very few bits of “dynamic world” such as I sold an item then an NPC approached me later. Or the assassin stalking me, and the guy in Skingrad. But those have been few and far between and for the most part I’m not seeing the world as very dynamic at all. It’s persistent in the regard that if I kill some NPC, he stays dead. If I clear a cave, mobs will eventually come back but not the same as an MMO handles respawns. It’s more organic in that sense, and I’m fine with that.

    To use Grimnir’s statements: “They’re worlds that your character can live in…” and “It is so much more what you make of it than what it gives you, and that’s something extremely satisfying if you understand the point of the game.”

    Here’s the problem with many RPG’s: We play Adventurer #5914 on a set story to save the world. The End. And that’s fine for that type of RPG that is totally about telling its story. One of the places Oblivion is failing for me is that if it’s supposed to be all “open world” and “dynamic” and “use my imagination to make of it what I will” or whatever, rather than playing through it’s bland and generic story, then who am I in that world? I can build up NPC “relationships” to a point with the gawd-awful Persuasion mini-game, I suppose but there is no answer to “who am I and what do I do when I’m not being Adventurer #5914?” CRPG’s (including MMOs) have such limited systems to interact with the world. So we are simply Adventurers 24/7. Go out and kill monsters or NPC’s, loot their bodies, loot their chests, sell for gold, rinse, repeat. This is part of why superhero MMOs fail — in the comics we learn more about the person underneath the costume, who he is, what he does — and a lot takes place to develop the character of both the person and the hero. But in the games we’re in-costume the whole time with nothing to do except fight off bad guys.

    The “point of the game” has so far appeared to me that there is no “point” at all other than being an open-world hack-and-slasher but with far fewer monsters to hack-and-slash on.

    I suppose so far Oblivion has inspired my imagination to see the potential it failed to even consider, much less achieve. And honestly, being restricted to single-player is one of its biggest limitations for a game that is so character-generic when it comes to any semblance of story.

  6. Ardwulf UNITED STATES says:

    Part of the issue you’re having, then, is that the game that people remember and describe glowingly may not be the game that’s available to you as a 360 player. To be sure, that’s a fault in the design, but it was also understood by Bethesda that modders would go in and offer fixes for anything even arguably unsatisfactory, and even create replacements for whole segments of the game. To some extent the PC version of the game can be described as a design-your-own RPG kit.

    I surmise that this is true of Fallout 3 as well.

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