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Oblivion Kinda Sucks

I’m some% through my second playthrough of Oblivion for the 360 and with over 30 hours of gameplay down I’m struck by a couple of things: 1) This game is not that good and 2) I have spent over 30 hours in the last month playing a game that I determined was not that good within the first 5 hours of playing.  I don’t know when I came to this conclusion in the first playthrough but I do remember getting this impression then.

It’s impossible to critique Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion without also discussing Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, since the later game essentially shares the same architecture with a couple of updates that don’t really do anything to enhance the gameplay experience (and, in some cases, totally destroy it).  While Oblivion has a number of gameplay features that make it bad (combat is essentially button mashing with some bizarre collision detecting), some of these things were present in Morrowind too.  The difference is that Morrowind had enough going for it that you loved it despite its flaws.  I first played Morrowind in 2002 (Xbox version, although I’d later buy PC version and the expansions) and it remains one of my favorite games of all time, warts and all.  It was the first console game that felt really immersive (the 200+ hours I clocked testify to this).  It was also the BIGGEST game I had ever played, taking place on the island of Vvardenfell, with dozens of unique, large cities and hundreds of unique dungeons located throughout the island.  A lot of these things are replicated in Oblivion, but it feels like all of the things that made the admittedly flawed Morrowind so charming have been stripped out.
This will function more as a comparison of Oblivion and Morrowind than a review of either.  I’m assuming readers will have at least a basic familiarity with each title.

Map of Vvardenfell, the setting of Morrowind. Look at all the variegated terrain and interesting topography!

World: In Morrowind, you could spend days just exploring the island, ignoring all active quests and never being bored.  By the time I stopped playing (because we moved to England and my Xbox wouldn’t work over there), my character had walked over just about every square inch of accessible terrain.  I had flown over the unaccessible terrain.  I had scoured the bottom of rivers and seas for treasure and dungeons.  I had wiped out entire towns just so that I could move into all of the houses.  Fast travel was available if you really needed to get from town to town and skip the wilderness, but you needed to actually use a hired travel service in certain towns and, even then, you could only take certain routes.  For instance, traveling from A to B might actually require you to travel from A to C and C to B.  It was annoying and it cost money.  You know, like actual travel.  Result: you would generally prefer to jump/run from A to B, increasing your Athletics and Acrobatics skills while you did.

In Oblivion, instant, free fast travel is available at all times as long as you’ve been to the destination before.  You’re not using an in-game travel service – the game is just letting you skip to the destination.  Your character engages auto-pilot and, some game-hours later, you come to in your destination city.  Two locations on opposite sides of the map are suddenly folded on top of each other, allowing you to travel instantaneously (except for the passage of game-time, which barely matters (unless you’re a vampire*), since you can just auto-wait til a desired time anyway.  There is no penalty for waiting (again, unless you’re a vampire*).  The result of this is that the world feels incredibly small – the sense of place you got in Morrowind is totally absent.  This sort of thing was made popular in games like Grand Theft Auto IV, where you could skip to a quest-related driving destination.  It worked here, though, because a significant part of the appeal in GTA IV was related to the exploration you would do anyway.  Because the world of Oblivion itself isn’t altogether very interesting to begin with (especially vs. Morrowind), you don’t feel the same need to wander around the wilderness for days on end.  If your character is a vampire*, which is difficult to reverse once it happens to you, you literally can’t do this even if you wanted to (because you would fry during the day time).
Additionally (and this is Very Important) Oblivion has introduced a leveling concept, sort of like the rubber band AI in racing/sports games.  As your character levels up, so do the NPCs and enemies you encounter.  The theory behind this is that the player will be challenged throughout the game.  However, when you get to level 20 and rats and mud crabs are able to do big damage against your ebony armor-wearing Nord Crusader, well, it just feels a little REALLY STUPID.  The difficulty of a given quest is dependent on when you decide to undertake the quest.  In other words, it might be relatively easy to kill some ridiculous vampire boss when you’re level 2, but it will be difficult to kill that same boss in that same dungeon when you’re level 15.  This does not compute.  It is, again, REALLY STUPID.
Seriously don’t know what they were thinking here, especially since they got it right in Morrowind.  In Morrowind, there were certain places that you simply couldn’t go until you were advanced enough because you would get killed right away by superior opponents.  This is how reality works, too.  On the flip side, after playing for long enough, your character has essentially leveled and collected equipment to the point of being a demigod.  After finishing the main quest, I literally went around the world and destroyed everybody.  Everybody.  It was awesome.  NPCs would be scattered across the city streets as a testament to my awesome power.  I would laugh maniacally as I walked (not ran, walked, like the fearless superman I had become) through the streets of Vivec canton, cutting down in single strokes the very same Ordinators who had arrested or killed me countless times before.
Cities: Again, Morrowindkilled it here.  The cities were unique and discrete and – gasp – had characteristics that largely seemed

Ald'ruhn from Morrowind

to follow from their specific geography.  For instance, Ald’ruhn, the seat of House Redoran, located near Red Mountain, is unlike the other cities in Morrowind.  That’s because the other cities in Morrowind don’t need to cope with the massive dust storms that frequently occur.  As a result, the buildings are all windowless.  In other words, you get the feeling that the game designers ACTUALLY THOUGHT ABOUT THIS.  Similarly, Sadrith Mora, seat of House Telvani, has unique architecture that feels like it would be preferred by the wizarding class that lives there.  The fact that it’s on an isolated island similarly reinforces the idea that this location would be preferred by a stereotypically reclusive population.  There are nomadic Ashland tent-cities for the nomadic Ashlanders in the Ashlands.  This seems so simple and obvious but it’s lacking in a lot of games.

In addition to the already-established problem of Oblivion fast-travel, the cities in Elder Scrolls IV feel randomly (or boringly, perhaps) designed and, other than perhaps the Imperial City, haphazardly placed.  You get almost no sense of connection between the people walking around and the cities in which they live.  Beggars looks the same everywhere and are all named similarly (John Smellsalot or Fiona Ispoor, etc).  Guards look the same everywhere, etc.
Main Quest:  I think we’ve passed the point of spoiler warnings for games this old, but obviously there may be spoilers here.  Morrowind’s main quest saw you attempting to unite the various factions of Vvardenfell in an attempt to defeat Dagoth Ur (who is immortal, obviously).  In the process of uniting the continent, it is revealed that you are the prophesied reincarnation of an ancient war hero.  Is this sort of cliche and obvious?  Maybe.  Is it a perhaps too-faithful adaptation of Joseph Campbell themes?  Yes.  But it’s also BALLER.  When you finally arrive at the center of Red Mountain, holding ancient and mythical artifacts whose sole purpose is to essentially destroy a God Machine, it feels like what you’re doing is Very Important.  Like the stuff of actual myth/legend that will form the basis of epics that NPCs in the game world might compose, as opposed to the typical save-the-princess/defeat-the-evil-wizard stuff of typical fantasy games that might make the local papers but would essentially never be more important than a footnote in the annals of history.
The main quest in Oblivion is, how shall I put this…really stupid.  The emperor is dead, which is evidently a big deal, even though

If they wanted the Oblivion gates to be fearsome, maybe they shouldn't have made them look like female genitalia? Although, I suppose for a number of RPG gamers that might be very fearsome.

everything seems to be business-as-usual in the empire.  The one negative result of the death of the emperor is that “Oblivion gates,” essentially portals to the netherworld, are opening all over the world and all sorts of nasty baddies are coming over from the other side.  This sounds problematic, right?  Right.  But the thing is, life seems to go on as normal for the denizens of Cyrodiil.  Sure, they’ll mention the Oblivion gates and wonder aloud if it’s all really happening, which is sort of strange when you and the NPC with whom you’re talking can actually see one of the gates just outside the city walls.  Now I understand that the game wouldn’t really be an Elder Scrolls game if you lost the ability to roam freely and ignore the main quest, but this all just seems a little too crazy for me.  It seems to me that if portals to the underworld were opening left and right, and that I was basically led to believe that I was the only one who could save the empire from darkness, I should be better incentivized to deal with this right away.  Instead I’m fast traveling between cities to complete assassination contracts for the Dark Brotherhood.  Huh?

Combat: This is the one area (besides graphics, which has more to do with technological progress than design acumen) where Oblivion improved slightly on Morrowind.  In Morrowind, each melee attack carry some percentage chance of succeeding or failing.  This approximates how tabletop roleplaying games determine melee outcomes, which might be fine for tabletop games, but which is frustrating and stupid in a 3D action/adventure roleplaying game where your character is standing right in front of a target (who is not making any apparent effort to dodge your attacks).  In Oblivion, you still stand face to face with opponents, swinging weapons, but the probability factor has been replaced by actually having to physically dodge attacks.  Imagine.
To be fair, melee combat is pretty ridiculous in both titles.  You’re essentially just button mashing when standing face to face with an opponent, hoping that you kill him before he kills you.  I don’t expect Soul Caliber levels of melee nuance, but a little nuance would be nice.
Also, Oblivion removed cliff racers from the bestiary, which was a welcome change.
Factions: Yet another thing that Morrowind did very well and Oblivion basically ignored. Morrowind has a ton of factions you can join.  I had reached the top rank in the Assassins Guild, the Thieves Guild, the Fighters Guild, the Mages Guild and House Hlaalu (which is like a guild for aristocratic jerks, holding obvious appeal for me).  I had at various times joined the Imperial Legion and various religious groups when it suited my immediate needs, only to get thrown out when it seemed appropriate.  During the time I was a vampire*, I was technically part of a vampire clan (don’t remember which one).  Each of these groups had members spread throughout the island and interesting quests (plenty of go-retrieve-this-and-bring-it-back quests, but also more unique ones).  Point being that not only was there stuff to do outside of the main quest, but it was well written stuff.
You can still join factions in Oblivion, but the whole endeavor is extremely unsatisfying.  There are only five or so major factions and you never get the feeling that you’re joining a big, coherent group.  The noble houses in Morrowind (I get that we’re dealing with a different culture in Oblivion, but something similar to the noble houses would have gone a long way to creating a more immersive experience) were probably the best example of what a faction should be: tons of people, spread throughout the world, easily identifiable and with dispositions that are almost perfectly correlated to your position in the group.  In short, it actually feels like being in a club.  The Oblivion Thieves Guild has some of this, with other thieves whom you haven’t even met saying thiefy things like “Shadow hide you, fellow thief” as you walk by, which is interesting because HOW DID THEY KNOW I WAS A THIEF?  Was it my suit of heavy armor and closed helm, which no thief would ever wear and which would obscure my face, making identification actually impossible?  Also, why are they saying these things in public, where someone might hear?  It reeks of unprofessionalism.
*My Oblivion character is a vampire right now and it’s kind of a bummer.  The way vampirism works is this: certain dungeons in Oblivion** have vampires.  When fighting, there’s a small chance you’ll contract porphyric hemophilia.  If you don’t cure this for three days, you’ll turn into a vampire, which is essentially uncurable (it’s curable, but requires you to collect lots of hard-to-find items, meaning it’s essentially uncurable).  Being a vampire means you get skill bonuses, which is cool because now my character is unrealistically fast and strong, but you need to feed*** every day or else you’ll a) take sun damage, meaning you can only be outside at night (which makes day-time quest requirements difficult to accomplish) and b) age rapidly to the point where nobody wants to talk to you.  Whether this is just because you look old or because you’re obviously vamping hard, I don’t know.  And in Oblivion, unlike Morrowind, you can’t join a vampire clan.  Because there aren’t any.  So you don’t even get to roleplay, you just get stat bonuses/deductions every 24 game-hours and there’s (essentially) nothing you can do to stop it.  The affliction is basically the most important thing about my character, because of how it changes the basic tempo of the game, and I didn’t choose it or want it.
**Morrowind had vampires, too, and it was just as difficult to reverse.
**I’ve found that the most effective way to do this is to find sleeping homeless people and feed on them.  I don’t know if this was intentional when the programmers were coding the game or if this says something about me I’d rather not confront.

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  1. Monsieur Bobo › Dramaturgy in Video Games on Thursday, December 1, 2011 at 4:42 am

    [...] by just having characters stand around and lipsync a voice actor’s speech.  Skyrim, like all Elder Scrolls games, is about exploration, not narration, so who cares if NPC interaction is mostly an exercise in [...]

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