April 18, 2006

Living in Oblivion

by psu

I have not been posting because I've been running my Breton/Dark Elf Mage/Fighter/Thief guy around in the woods looking for all the different things to do. I think I finally have a good feel for this game, even though I really still haven't scratched the surface.

Therefore, it is time to complain.

To be fair, there really isn't that much to complain about. This is the most engaging "Western" style RPG that I've played since KOTOR.

Where KOTOR attempted the standard Bioware two-branched epic journey story, Oblivion to some extent punts the whole "main plot" question by filling the game with so much other content that there are really four or five full games on the disk rather than just one. You could spend your whole life running around the world finishing the various "side" quests.

Anyone who knows me knows that side quests are not my thing. Put me on the rails to get to the end of the game and just push me along is what I say. Oblivion's major achievement is breaking me out of this shell and making me embrace the side quest, and even love it.

Two things make the various quests in the game enjoyable:

1. They are easy to find. You just walk around and they come to you. You can't walk 50 feet in the game without finding some dungeon to go into, or someone who needs this or that, or someone who needs someone else killed. I even found the Thieves Guild completely by accident.

2 Each piece of each quest is small. You can play through the ones I've found in one wage-slave night. You don't have to spend hours and hours of your life tracking down all the little keys and knick-knacks.

All that stands between Oblivion and gaming perfection are all the standard things that are stupid about "Western" RPGs.

First, the leveling system is stupid. It's not broken or fatally unbalanced or anything. It's just stupid. Rather than a few simple numbers, you have to keep track of 21 skills governed by a half dozen different core attributes (Strength, Intelligence, etc). If you manage your skills in the obvious way, your character will not progress as fast as if you manage your skills sort of backwards.

The way the skills/attributes work, you pick "major" skills that your character specializes in and the rest become "minor" skills that you would think would be de-emphasized. When you practice the skills, they slowly level up until some threshold at which time you gain a level. When you gain a level, you get bonuses to your core attributes based on the skills that improved. These bonuses are calculated based on all of the skills that increased, whether or not they were in your "specialization."

However, when you level is determined by how much your major skills improved. Therefore, it is actually to your advantage to never use your major skills until you are ready to level. So, building that uber-sneaky thief guy? Best to not sneak around a lot. You want to build your Willpower so you can create a fireball of death? Don't run around casting fireball or it will take you longer to get there than if you cast Healing spells on yourself a lot.

Basically, to maximize attribute gain per level, you want to specialize in things you don't do a lot.

There are two things to observe here. First, the real goal of any leveling system in an RPG is to get you to the max level in everything at some point in the game. Everything else is just show. Second, by making the show as complex and byzantine as possible, Bethesda has painted themselves into a corner where Fighter/Mage characters are running around in a cave with no clothes on punching things with their bare hands rather than fighting with swords and spells, all in the name of maxing everything out faster.

I say, just chuck it and replace it with R. Just make sure I get better and more bad-ass as I play the game. I don't really care about the details. I should be able to do everything well.

The other major complaint I have about the game is about inventory and resource management. My character can carry 5 changes of clothes, thousands in gold, a whole armory, a whole pharmacy, and ingredients for a state dinner. But, if I run across that extra book that puts my over that arbitrary limit, I have to suddenly do bin packing. This is stupid.

It's also stupid that it's hard to find money. It's not that hard, but it's hard enough that people resort to exploiting glitches to make sure they don't have to worry about money. The fact that people do this and still have a lot of fun indicates that this kind of resource constraint is not really needed in the game. It's just there so the old skool fan-boys don't complain about the game being "dumbed down". But, those guys will always have that complaint, so it's best not to listen to them.

That's pretty much all I have. The face animation and lip sync could be better (KOTOR was better, and KOTOR was creepy). Otherwise, this game is an enjoyable fantasy romp, as long was you don't get too caught up in trying to believe the world is alive, as opposed to pre-programmed. I don't think anyone has ever collected this much excellent pre-programmed content in one place before. You could play the game for years and never run out of things to do.

Pete should buy this game soon.

Posted by psu at April 18, 2006 07:09 PM | Bookmark This

> Pete should buy this game soon.

Hey, man. Convince people to click on enough google ads that we make a few hundred bucks in a short period of time, and I'll buy a 360 before you know it.

But really, $465 is a lot to spend for one game.

Posted by peterb at April 18, 2006 09:01 PM

There is a great deal (or, arguably, more than in any other game to date) of incidental content in this game but this doesn't make the world feel more alive to me, or perhaps it does but it is not the kind of aliveness that I find interesting enough in a game. The real world is quite alive and full of a myriad of little highly realistic chores for me to procrastinate on. Both Morrowind and Oblivion seem to model this with soulsucking fidelity. Just as I will not become a significant player in the real world by repeatedly doing my laundry and changing the cat litter, Oblivion gives me little reward for doing boring things.

The key points of whining -

1. Main quest is unengaging. Perhaps not so much on the elements of the story itself but the fact that the characters are bland and uninteresting. The fine voice acting helps little - that everyone's face, as the Russian expression goes, is begging for a brick, helps even less.

2. The realtime combat is boring and clunky. In most action games (and that is what the combat is here, an action mini-game), the action has depth, putting in more time practising makes you better. You _can_ become a deadly with the railgun in Quake, you _can_ crush all your friends with Akira in Virtua Fighter. There seems to be no such payoff in Oblivion combat.

3. Combining 1&2 and a myriad of other details, like the leveling system, money, etc - it is inordinately difficult to achieve and feel exceptionality. No matter what you do, you are a relatively mediocre figure in a perfeclty weight-adjusted world. While this does enable a great deal of free exploration, it never lets you feel, even fleetingly, as a badass linchpin of a motherfucker. And this is not a fair tradeoff.


Posted by pvg at April 22, 2006 03:29 PM

In the game's defense, the world and the NPCs are no less zombie-like than the world and NPCs in any other game that I've played. It's true that they were hyped up a bit, but who really believes that stuff.

Posted by psu at April 22, 2006 04:21 PM

..."No matter what you do, you are a relatively mediocre figure in a perfeclty weight-adjusted world. While this does enable a great deal of free exploration, it never lets you feel, even fleetingly, as a badass linchpin of a motherfucker"...

I'm old crpg player, also spent much time in Daggerfall long time ago, with big hopes started to explore this game, got 5 min eiphory, then all non-consistent things came out one after another, started read forums, complaints and as much i hate it i was forced to agree to most of them... this game have no fun, almost all aspects broken, i almost can't name single thing what is good in game... until u name it! Thats SO GOOD not to play as "badass linchpin of a motherfucker" as in 100% all other crpg... after all this game have an edge! /sry my english, its my 5th language ;)

Posted by Hirsch at April 23, 2006 04:27 PM

This is certainly true, the NPC's are not significantly more wooden than in many an RPG. The plot is no more hackneyed. The various glaring deficiencies are no greater or more pronounced than in RPGs I've put 8 hour late night sessions in. It's hard to really put my finger on what made me actually care in, say, KOTOR or Fallout 2 or Planescape. But somehow those games added up to more than the sums of their flawed parts.
Oblivion adds up to less for me and it is not because I don't like the combat or the fact the that emperor looks like a hobo really messes with my ability to suspend disbelief. I play it, enjoy it a fair bit but I find myself not really giving a pair of fetid dingo's kidneys. At the end of the day, caring-on-rails might be more important than broad but bland freedom.


Posted by pvg at April 24, 2006 02:12 AM

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