Back to Oblivion

With Skyrim just on the horizon, it’s a good chance to take another look at Bethesda’s role-playing masterpiece, Oblivion.

My first experience with Bethesda was Daggerfall.

I’ve always had a fondness for first-person gaming, and FPRPGs are few and far between. I remember very clearly being at CompUSA and holding the box for Daggerfall in my hands. I also remember the game crashing every time I tried to go underwater. And don’t get me started on the mess called a map. Still, despite its flaws, Daggerfall was fun enough for me to look forward to Morrowind.

Morrowind was an important transition. Though its landmass was much smaller than the continent in Daggerfall, there was much more to do. (Thanks in large part to hand-crafted dungeons and non-randomized questing). My favorite moment had to be seeing someone fall from the sky, trying on their magic boots and jumping halfway across the country to my doom.

Again Morrowind had serious flaws. All of those “hand-crafted” dungeons were simple templates and rarely held any real challenge.

Oblivion was the one that put everything together.

Oblivion is probably the greatest modern RPG. In many ways, it’s the game Bethesda has been trying to make since the beginning.

Oblivion isn’t so much a game as it is a world. Sure you can burn through the main quest and wrap it up in a fairly short amount of time, but the more you think like your character… the more you explore … the more you will be rewarded again and again.

Once you step out of the sewers, you can set out in any direction you want and find adventure…good, level-appropriate adventure. I normally avoid them, but Oblivion’s game guide is a solid purchase. If you just powered through the game, you have no idea how much you missed. Find the Horror of Dive Rock?

I could go on for a long time about how great Oblivion is, but rather than bore you with a few hundred thousand words on the subject I’ll condense it to one word… awesome.

As I play through for the third time though, old gripes I had have resurfaced, and new problems have jumped in as well.

You should know I’m a completist. You could easily have 3-4 different game experiences by simply specializing as a fighter, mage, thief, assassin and sticking with those guilds. I tend to try and do them all however.

The biggest issue I have with the game is the core leveling system. You select major skills. When you gain about 10 skill increases, you gain a level. When you gain a level, you raise your attributes. Depending on which skills you raised, you can raise the governing attributes more. For example, if I gain a level by raising a spell skill 10 times, when I sleep I’ll have the option to raise an attribute 5 points, while the others can only be raised 1 point.

It’s a perfectly logical system. However, it’s not exactly practical. Raising skills involves a lot of repetition. Combat skills are easy enough to raise, but others require grinding. If you choose the wrong skills in the beginning, you might find yourself spending a chunk of your time trying to raise skills rather than playing the game.

For example, if you selected acrobatics as a major skill, you pretty much have to stand around jumping. That means every where you go, you should be jumping. That may work great for Super Mario Brothers, but in Oblivion it’s silly.

There are also spell schools like Illusion. It’s more of a supplemental school, and you won’t use those spells as often. That means you’ll have to stand around casting light again and again to get an increase.

The problem with all of this is content is leveled. Which means as you go up a level so do the monsters in the game. This means you’ll face the coolest, hardest monsters when you’re at the top levels. It also means, that’s actually an incentive NOT to level at all.

On the other hand, why have levels at all? As you gain levels, everything increases proportionally. So monsters do more damage, but you take more damage. You can heal more, but you have more hit points to heal. You do more damage, but monsters have more hit points. In that regard the experience hardly changes.

As your skills increase, you do get a few perks. But these could easily be awarded from questing or other ways rather than skill grinding.

In truth, levels are only really there to give players a sense of progression. The problem is, since content levels as well, you don’t get that same sense of power that you might get from a different RPG that allows you to backtrack and wipeout monsters that used to give you trouble.

As I game more and more, I’ve also grown to hate the mini-game. Oblivion has two I dislike.

Speechcraft is useless. The mini-game is illogical on a fundamental level and never should have been in the game in the first place. Can you imagine having a conversation with someone where you repeatedly intimidate and crack jokes back-to-back in rapid succession and somehow that makes them like you?

They could have eliminated personality from the game entirely and had merchant prices and haggling based on fame. You’re not going to be a merchant in Oblivion. You can’t make a profit buying and selling. All mercantile does is let you make a slightly larger bit of cash selling loot.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t hate speechcraft or mercantile. I like the idea of getting different information from folks via your ability to chat them up. In Oblivion however, this process isn’t interesting.

If there’s one side of the RPG Bethesda needs to work on, it’s the “life” side of the game. About the only “normal” thing you can do in Oblivion is buy a house. You can get a servant for one of them, but beyond that you really just quest.

I’d love to see romance injected into the series down the line. Courtship, marriage, children (if applicable) they can all be a good source of character development and further story/questing.

I’d love to come back to my house in Oblivion and see it had been robbed. Then I could hunt down the thief. Or what if I had a wife and returned to find she’d been spending a bit too much time with one of the city guards. What if my son was kidnapped? What if I got land and a title? Oooh a peasant uprising? There are a lot of possibilities here.

Speaking of illogical, who puts one pair of tongs in a barrel? I understand that the loot tables are probably randomly generated, but I have to laugh at the contents of barrels and sacks sometimes. Apparently calipers are very popular.

No one will ever be able to argue that there wasn’t enough random, useless crap to pick up in Oblivion. If I had a nickel for every time I was trying to pick up a strawberry and came away with a silver platter I’d be rich.

I don’t understand why there are so many objects with zero value packed in chests, drawers and barrels throughout the game. Sure, at some point I’m going to break into a random person’s house, steal everything they own and sell it. That’s a given. But there has to be a point where designers can say, “Hey, this room doesn’t need 15 barrels, 11 sacks, and three chests in it.”

And don’t even bother buying a horse.

Yes, horses are faster… until you try and turn that is. And believe me, when a pack of trolls and pissed off unicorn jump out of the bushes, you want to be able to turn fast.

But that really points to a bigger issue… third person gameplay. The animations are bad. Everything takes too long. Some series simply shouldn’t have third person at all. Thief was one example. The third installment changed the fundamental way the character moved so even in first person it didn’t feel natural. Oblivion doesn’t quite screw up that bad, but you will throw things at your screen when you get knocked down in battle.

I could probably nitpick a bit more, but those are the major issues. Even when you combine them, Oblivion is still a masterpiece. Hopefully Skyrim will be close in quality.

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