In preparation for Skyrim, I’ve been dedicating myself to finishing Oblivion over the past month. I’ve had the game (GOTY version) for over a year but it just didn’t resonate with me at first. Neither did Fallout 3, for that matter.
But I buckled down, sucked it up, and pulled it off! I completed the Oblivion main story last week then immediately started the Shivering Isles expansion and Thursday night, I finished that as well, earning 100% completion for the game!
I’ve done my share of complaining about the game here, on Google+ and mumbling to myself the entire time playing the game, but I’ll admit the past few weeks where I was getting close to end of the main story then doing the expansion that the game had grown on me in a few ways. At the very least, I think I can see why, or at least some aspects of why, so many players hold it in such high esteem. So I’ll take this opportunity to share the two aspects of the game that stood out for me — the leveling system, and the world itself — and their pros and cons.
I’ve lost count how many times and for how many years I’ve griped about vertical leveling, primarily in multi-player RPGs. So, Oblivion “leveling the world” with you is right up my alley. Oh, I’ve read many complaints that Bethesda screwed up the algorithm in Oblivion and a gimped character would get to the point they could not continue. Honestly, I was expecting to be that person, but I never really had the slightest problem; quite the opposite, in fact.
Proponents of vertical leveling most often put forth the claim they enjoy going back to lower level zones and being more powerful or going back and thumping down a boss who defeated or frustrated them earlier in the game. Trust me, I’m all for that! But I want to defeat that boss not because I simply out-leveled him to the point where he’s grey and doesn’t even know I’m there like an MMO would do, but because I went out and increased my character’s knowledge and abilities beyond where they were. That boss still puts up a fight, he still fights the same way he did earlier, but now I have more to work with to defeat him which makes the victory so much more satisfying than waltzing up to a now-grey mob and one-shotting it with my auto-attack.
Where Oblivion falls flat is feedback. I finished the Oblivion story at level 19 and Shivering Isles at 21 — which could be considered low-level? No idea, really. At no point during leveling did I ever get any visual or otherwise feedback that my skills or abilities were increasing other than the drum beat and text notification saying they had. For me, a good part of leveling and acquiring new skills and increasing known skills is that I get to see the results of my character gradually becoming a badass. I like flashy moves, and I’m not going to apologize for it. One huge problem is that Oblivion is only really playable in first-person view, which is already cheesy as hell for a fantasy game, but makes it pretty much impossible to show off new melee moves. You’re stuck with stiff Rock ‘Em, Sock ‘Em Robots melee the whole time.
So that leaves magic. Mages get some super-cool flashy spells, right? Again, I finished at level 21 so I had neither enough magicka (174 at level 21) nor high enough level in any particular school of magic to cast any of the spells that sounded cool. I hot-keyed a few spells that I used most, like Protection and Restore Health, but once I was able to cast Flash Bolt fairly early on, that was the most damaging spell I was ever able to use, and that’s not really saying much. The only skill I can look back on and perhaps see an improvement during game play is Sneak. I ended up doing pretty much every dungeon, etc. in Sneak mode so by the end of the game I could sneak by NPCs easily even relatively close to them what I would consider moderate or better lighting. If I was fast enough, I could jump out from behind a wall or pillar right in front of their face and still get the 6x damage surprise attack. So there was that, and it did come in handy a couple times, but in my book being able to stealth closer ranks considerably lower on the badass scale than, say, dodging an attack, counter-attacking by tossing them in the air then leaping into the air, blades twirling, and pounding them into the dungeon floor with my sword piercing their chest in a flashy (perhaps in slow-motion even, on occasion) critical finishing move. Just sayin’…
Finally I’ll talk about the leveling mechanic itself. It was a tremendous drag. I’m out adventuring, slinging spells, seeing notifications that my skill increased in Alteration or Destruction magic, or my Security (lockpicking) increased but… none of that mattered. Only the ones listed as Major Skills contributed to leveling. My Blade skill can determine my level? Block and Light Armor? The only way to increase those is to, respectively, block attacks (duh) or stand there and get smacked around. Hey, I stood still and let this monster beat the hell out of me and guess what? DING! Makes no sense at all. Growing my skills in magic does not help me level, but repairing my equipment does? Huh? The end result is that I ended up spending a lot of time grinding skills, in the worst sense of the phrase. I wanted a better healing spell but my Restoration magic wasn’t high enough so I stood around casting the only one I did know until my magicka was drained (three casts), let it recharge, then cast again until Restoration reached the minimum level for the next heal spell. I had to do that for any number of skills I wanted to increase for various reasons not to mention grinding the Major Skills just to level up. A couple weeks ago I was doing exactly that but also grinding Athletics so I ran laps in Bruma jumping and casting a heal spell. If I was going for “immersion” can you imagine how silly a so-called hero would look running in circles jumping while casting spells on himself?
Continuing with that theme, I remember last year I wanted to increase my Sneak fairly early on. Sneak only increases if there are other people around who could potentially see you and you have to be in motion, not standing still hiding. So I did the equivalent of “macroing” the skill: I put my character into Sneak facing a corner in Imperial City and wrapped a rubber band around the analog stick so he’d constantly walk into the corner. I left for an hour or so to get lunch and run some errands and when I came home, my Sneak skill was pretty much where I wanted it. Now that is some compelling and immersive gameplay right there! /snark
I’ll start with “the world” in the larger scheme of things, and what most of us probably think about when someone says that anyway. I am reminded of the recent 40-minute dev video for
Big Huge Games 38 Studios (sorry, I can never resist doing that) upcoming RPG, Kingdom of Amalur: Reckoning where the developers said “open world” means different things to different people. In Oblivion, “open world” means there are no “zones” to load in and out of and seems to have the overall philosophy that “if you can see it, you can (most likely) go there.” In and of itself, it’s great to just “be” in an RPG world, see something off in the distance and say “hey, I wonder what’s there?” and lo and behold, you can go find out! My primary problem with the game is a near-total lack of diversity. Nearly all of Cyrodiil looks identical, covered in the same grass with the same trees, same rocks, same forts and ruins (re-use of limited assets is very noticeable here), and so forth. The two notable exceptions are Bruma, to the north near Skyrim, which is more bleak with some spotty, dirty snow on the ground, and there’s no mistaking Imperial City for any other town in the game. Otherwise, if I was blindfolded and someone loaded up a random area or town in Oblivion, I’d be extremely hard-pressed to open my eyes and know where I was. To accompany the visual lack of diversity, the audio is also lacking. Now, I love me some Jeremy Soule and what little music I did hear in Oblivion was good (though I’d consider it on the weaker end of his compositions) but there was so very little music. It seemed there was only one track that played in the world (there may have been two, but if so they sounded too similar), one for towns, one for dungeons, one for in-combat state. If there were more, the tracks certainly weren’t varied enough for me to notice and remember them. I love a lot of video game music, especially in RPGs, but if all I hear for hours and hours are the same few tracks, well, that’s why people eventually turn the music off and listen to their own choice of music instead.
I still haven’t quite decided if I would say that exploration is “rewarded” in Oblivion. There are a lot of POIs to discover on the map. While roaming the wilderness any POI within a certain distance will have an icon on your compass HUD so it’s easy to look at the map and notice you haven’t been there yet, and set off to discover that location. But the only reward is the text notification that “You discovered [insert POI here]” which is certainly a “micro-woot!” stimulus but that’s it, really. I think there are over a hundred dungeons in the game, but very few of them have a “point” within the game (ie. for the story, for side quests, or for my character) other than to loot stuff for gold or grind your skills to level. Indeed, I found the main use for discovering POIs was simply to have fast-travel points when I’d get a story quest so I wouldn’t have as far to run. Having said that, a fair number of those dungeons had quite intricate layouts so it was rewarding in a way to figure out how to progress through them; ie. how do I open this gate, what triggers this trap and can I disarm it, how do I get to a certain area, and so on.
What I did like is that dungeons don’t reset, per se. The monsters don’t just respawn. If I clear a dungeon (or not, even) then over time as the dungeon is not seeing use from us pesky adventurers (excuse me, pesky adventurer since there’s no co-op) monsters will gradually start moving back in.
Speaking of dungeons, they are way too dark. I had to maximize the brightness setting and even then had to use some form of light in the dungeons to see where I was going most of the time. My character was a khajiit so he had the racial Eye of Night ability but believe me, it got old real fast running through blue dungeon after blue dungeon. Of course, had I not been playing a stealthy character, I could have just used a torch or Starlight spell so that I could appreciate the natural look and feel to the dungeons at the cost of every monster charging me immediately. The dungeon crawler in me loves these things and I want to experience them as the designers built them, not coated in hues of blue. There should be some sort of middle ground where it can be dark but not so dark that I have to crank the brightness, close the curtains and turn off all the lights to play and then still end up having to use some sort of light or night-vision ability. There’s “immersion” and there’s “inconvenient pain in the ass.”
Finally, most non-guard and non-monster NPCs have their own little lives. No static MMO pez dispenser statue NPCs here, no sir! Many have their daily schedules such as from 8am to noon, she visits the chapel, then from noon to 2pm she’s at the local Inn for lunch, but not on this day of the week, and so on. Oblivion is also a “no punctuation marks over quest NPCs” game so that could be a nightmare without the POI pointer on your compass, but purely for the sake of “immersion” or attempting to create a “living” virtual world, I simply love this feature!
My last real beef with the game is that you end up becoming the “guild master” for every guild in the game. The Dark Brotherhood (assassins), Fighter’s Guild, Mages’ Guild, Thieves’ Guild plus the Imperial City Arena, too. That makes absolutely zero sense to me, but neither does being a “master adventurer” and a “master craftsman” in MMOs. However, since sadly my experience in Oblivion was weighed by more negative experiences than positives, I was in a purely Achievement Hunter mindset just to get it over with, complete 100% of the achievements and move on with life, so in that single context I was glad I was able to do them all in a single play-through. Unfortunate, but there it is.
Originally, I had planned to jump into Fallout 3 (which I last played in May, 2009) and start that over (ugh) to finish it before Skyrim but after Oblivion for a month or so, I think I just need a break from Bethesda instead so I’ll be fresh for Skyrim in November.