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Oblivion Review

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Oblivion Review

Review - posted by Vault Dweller on Sun 23 April 2006, 05:23:23

Tags: Bethesda Softworks; The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion

We proudly present our review of the first truly next-generation RPG, Oblivion:

However, with Morrowind I think we saw that our kind of game appeals to a wider audience, given the game's success among more casual gamers who are neither "hardcore" nor "RPG geeks".
Gavin Carter

That quote is probably the best and most honest description of Oblivion I've ever seen. It's a game for casual players. Hardcore fans of the series or RPG geeks need not apply. You shall not find depth or challenge in Oblivion.

Fantasy, for us, is a knight on horseback running around and killing things
Todd Howard

Turned out, Todd meant literally "running around".

However, with Morrowind I think we saw that our kind of game appeals to a wider audience, given the game's success among more casual gamers who are neither "hardcore" nor "RPG geeks".
Gavin Carter​

That quote is probably the best and most honest description of Oblivion I've ever seen. It's a game for casual players. Hardcore fans of the series or RPG geeks need not apply. You shall not find depth or challenge in Oblivion.

Oblivion is a new generation action-adventure Elder Scrolls game. At some point, The Elder Scrolls games were leading role-playing games that pushed the genre forward, but action games traditionally sell more, which explains several attempts to jump on that bandwagon. Battlespire sucked, but it's finally been decided that it sucked not because the design was bad, but because it was sold as an action game. At that pivotal moment the design for Oblivion was born: an action game for casual gamers sold as an RPG! Brilliant! Why brilliant? Well, any complaints about the action elements would be met with "It's an RPG! Duh!", while any complaints about the RPG elements would be met with "It's not your grandpa's RPG with die rolls and skill checks. It's an action game! For next generation! Duh!"

It's time to move RPGs forward and really show how entertaining they can be.
Todd Howard

It's a mini-game!

Welcome to Disneyland!

The Story

I think it's fair to say that a game involving a demonic horde invasion qualifies as a dark game.
Gavin Carter
While that may be true in theory, Oblivion is not such a game. First, there is no demonic horde invasion going on there. The demons did open portals all over the place, but instead of invading, they are patiently waiting for you to show up and close all those portals in not very timely manner. Second, the rest of the world doesn't seem to care much and if they do, they hide it well. The problem with the demonic invasion, even as poorly organized as the one presented in Oblivion, is that it doesn't fit the "take your time to explore our world and join a faction or four" motto of the Elder Scrolls series. I mean, the game starts, the emperor dies, I'm told to find the heir NOW!, before it's too late, so joining the Thieves Guild instead and looking for something to steal didn't seem like a very immersive and logical option. All that dramatic main quest urgency seems to play against the strength of the series, breaking immersion and questioning the presence of the menacing, yet silly due to their uselessness, gates. Speaking about the gates...
I even ran into a gate to Oblivion and decided to enter and see what lay within.
Gavin Carter
Our friend Gavin was surely jesting with us, because every gate is more or less the same. It's a pocket of hell, inspired by those portals leading to fiery hell pits from the Diablo 2 expansion. Each gate leads to a small linear area, filled with hot lava, red sky, some demons and ungodly towers, which you must enter, climb to the top through a series of always the same passages, and click on the stone to a) close the gate # 114 for good and b) take the stone with various random properties to enchant your weapon with it.

Oblivion Gates and the exclusive Concept Art.​

If you recall, the Oblivion plane was a tightly guarded secret and the reviewers, who were invited to Bethesda, were prevented from entering Oblivion gates. Now you know why. Uninspiring would be a good word, which is disappointing, because a lot could have been done there. Making a smaller Tamriel world, but adding an actual Oblivion plane with a few daedra towns and regular daedra folks, who may or may not be crazy about the invasion thing, thus giving players far greater role-playing opportunities, would have been a much better choice than borrowing a page from Diablo 2.

The Character System

There are fewer skills, but they'll be better balanced.
Gavin Carter
The poor TES character system, once innovative, deep, and brilliant, has been tweaked and dumbed down from 36 skills in Daggerfall, allowing you creating any character you want, with specific advantages and disadvantages, to 27 somewhat plain skills in Morrowind, to 21 skills in Oblivion: 7 in each group (the immortal Fighter, Mage, Thief builds), 3 skills per attribute. As you all know, some skills have been merged - one Blade skill for all bladed weapons, one Blunt skill for all non-bladed weapons, some skills have been dropped, some concepts have been changed - enchanting is no longer a skill, but a service, staffs are "rocket launchers" and can't be used as melee weapons, crossbows are gone again, etc.

While Bethesda tried to invite people to play straight classes with extra bonuses, I don't really see a reason for a fighter to pick Blade, Blunt, and Hand to Hand skills and spend time raising all three, considering that these skills are practically the same and have the same perks. I don't think that many thieves would agree with Bethesda's suggestion to use bows for stealth kills and blocking (yes, blocking), and I don't think that pure mages' problems have been fixed by the rocket launchers because every character can use them, so in the end, the most viable option is still the fighter/mage/thief character, mainly due to the poorly developed & supported concepts of straight fighters, mages, thieves.

Now, about them perks. Each skill has 4 perks, added automatically at skill levels 25, 50, 75, and 100. These perks represent a slight gameplay improvement and a wasted opportunity. First, even offering a small choice of perks would have allowed players creating truly unique characters. Going with something like Daggerfall's Mastery of Long Blade, Critical Hit bonus from X 6 to X 7, Faster Attack bonus, etc would have made developing your character more fun than simply watching skill level rise.

Some perks are plain useless, like the Mercantile perks. Actually, the new trading system deserves a mentioning. If you remember, in Morrowind storeowners had a money limit assigned to them, which wasn't a bad idea, but it was poorly executed. In Oblivion, merchants have a maximum value per item assigned to them, i.e. merchant A can afford to pay per item up to 200 gold, while merchant B can afford to buy items at 1,200 a piece, and so on. So, what that means that you can sell an unlimited number of items as long as they are within the range, and if they are worth more, you will still be offered the max value, i.e. 20 bucks for a 2,000 item. So, Mercantile perks allow you what's called investing in stores, which means increasing the max value. So much could have been done with the investing concept, yet not surprisingly Bethesda picked the most idiotic, least interesting option.

One of the towns and a busy street.

The Magic System

The magic system has so much more in it, that it would take me 100 pages to answer it all.
Todd Howard
I'd really like to read at least the first 10 pages, because all I can think of are the newly added cast-n-fight feature, the staffs (a.k.a. rocket launchers), the recharge stones as an alternative to soul gems, and the above mentioned portal stones for enchanting. I can't believe that Todd wasted 100 pages for what I fit in one sentence. I guess that's where he's got that idea for the big-ass font used in the game. Anyway, those changes are positive and, in my humble opinion, made the game more fun. The cast-n-fight feature alone is the best improvement to the series, and integrated into gameplay very nicely. The rocket launchers can unleash hell in seconds without paying attention to / being limited by mana (they are limited by charges though), so they might be a bit on the overpowering side. The stones, like I said, are an alternative, so that's always a good thing.

Now, some comparisons with Jedi Academy are in order. The game and the physics thing beg for some interesting and interactive with environment and/or opponent spells. Even spells similar to Force Push, Pull, Grip, etc would have improved combat significantly, but for now we are stuck with a more traditional vanilla spells repertoire that doesn't do an action game any favours. (I'm eagerly awaiting those ""It's an RPG! Duh!" responses. I know. Silly me).

Some romance opportunities.

The Combat

Well, most good RPGs have action.
Pete Hines
Of course, they do and since Oblivion is a good RPG, it has plenty of action. It seems to me that all problems in Tamriel are solved through violence (which causes more problems down the road, but that's a different story for another Elder Scrolls game). I can't really blame them considering how awful the persuasion mini-game is. I mean, if I had to choose between trying to quickly admire, boast, coerce, joke (yes, all of them at the same time) and hitting someone in the face with a hammer, I'll probably pick the hammer.

Nice equipment for bandits.

So even though we have this really deep RPG, we recognized that no matter how many parts the game has -- combat is the number one thing people do a lot of, so we need to make it great.
Todd Howard
From the role-playing point of view, Oblivion combat sucks. You always hit to please the action crowd and your skill determines damage to please the smaller RPG camp. Needless to say, 15 points of damage are more then 8 points of damage but when you always hit, it's only a matter of time (and health potions). At some point I ran into a bunch of Faded Wrath thingies that were immune to my glass sword of prettiness, I reached for my trusty staff of pretty, but deadly lightnings, and discovered that I forgot to recharge, thus establishing the parallel between me and my fictional character (I usually forget to charge my cell phone). I went through my entire, inconvenient as the back of a Volkswagen (that's a Mallrats reference), inventory and found a mace of magical awesomeness. My Sword skill was about 80, my Blunt skill was about 20. I prepared to die bravely, but since the developers knew that that would have made me upset and lowered my self-esteem, they made sure that even with no skill I'm still a formidable opponent. The Wrath thingies had to face my, well, wrath and were wiped out without any damage to my precious self-esteem. Yay!

Now, let's take a look at the combat from the action point of view. Hmm, not bad. I can hit anything that my sword connects with, I can jump back and forth, I can cast spells without having to disarm, and I can block manually, holding my shield up, while advancing in a totally menacing way. A big step forward from the MW's system. Of course, I wish it was a step toward the RPG side, and not action, but as Pete said, rpgs ARE about action, at least the good ones are, so maybe in some twisted way it was. Anyway, even though the combat is more entertaining and definitely looks & feels like a couple of guys whacking each other with swords, it lacks depth. Due to the limited number of things you can do in combat, all you have to do to win most of fights is block, wait for the attacks, and counter-attack 2-3 times before the opponent blocks and counter-attack you. Rinse and repeat. Running around and healing yourself works like a charm too. Going back to the Jedi Academy example, well implemented fast, regular and powerful attacks, plus the combos and even dual wielding would have worked much better in Oblivion. I would say that right now neither the RPG camp nor the action camp would be overly happy with what Oblivion offers in the combat department. The proverb about the jack of all trades comes to mind.

[Jedi Mind Trick] But let's face it - when you talk about ranged combat in an RPG, you're talking about bows. [/Mind Trick]
Gavin Carter
If you recall, there was a huge uproar when Todd announced that crossbows and throwing weapons have been axed (or blunted), but - BUT! - bows will be done in a grand, never-seen-before, I-can't-believe-it's-not-a-crossbow way. Frankly, I don't see what all the fuss was all about. Other than "look, my arrow is sticking out of that guy's ass, isn't that cool?" wow factor, I can't say that this "grand" way is much better than, say, what I've seen in Interplay's Stonekeep 10 or so years ago or what Painkiller's crossbow had to offer a few years ago. Still, the archery has been improved and sniping out monsters and evil-doers in dungeons is fun, so let's leave it at that.

Dialogues, Quests, Role-Playing

The player needs a certain size and a large number of choices to really make role-playing feel meaningful
Todd Howard
Well, hopefully one day Todd will make such a game, but let's talk about Oblivion for now. I believe these screenshots illustrate the role-playing and choices in the game:​

"Knowing this was a ruse, I refused" - Wouldn't it be nice, if I had a CHOICE to accept? "I had no choice but to kill them" - Wouldn't it be, like, totally mind blowing, if I had a CHOICE not too?

The tyranny of choices.
To review, the dialogue system has been changed, so now you have 2-6 things you can ask any given person about. Upon such request, an NPC will give you 1-3 sentences, one at a time for people with reading disabilities, and sometimes a choice, such as "Do you want to accept this quest now or do you want to accept it later?", will be present. Seeing NPCs asking me "not to tell something to someone" brings a tear to my eye, because I can't, even if I wanted to. Even people with zero imagination would find that dialogue options are incredibly limiting, and that even the most basic and logical options are not there. You can't talk to hundreds of bandits and marauders you will find in ruins, caves, and forts. You can't handle such encounters peacefully by persuading them, fooling them, bribing them, and not to mention joining them. Once they see you, it's fight to the death, and considering that everything is scaled down to your level, the outcome is predictable and rarely challenging.

We track that on a faction basis, as well as every individual. You can make friends anywhere in the game, it's just harder with enemy factions.
Todd Howard
No kidding. When enemy factions such as the Necromancers cult and the Mythic Dawn cult see your friendly face, they tell you how they gonna own your ass (I guess they haven't been told that enemies are tied to your level, ensuring their untimely death), and, without giving you a chance to say something positive, they attack. Oh well...

The political landscape of the game world is highly fractured following the emperor's assassination, and you will have to be cautious of the motives of those who would befriend you.
Gavin Carter
You wouldn't be lying to your old pals, Gavin, would you? You shouldn't be cautious of the motives of those who would befriend you because a) you don't have a choice and even if you suspect something there is not a damn thing you can do about it, and b) Ken Rolston has this "no betrayal" rule (Douglas Goodall: ""No betrayal" meant that key NPCs couldn't turn on the player, lie to the player if they were honest in the past, nor could an NPC steal an item from the player, etc.").

Faction quests don't overlap, so quests never offer you to make a meaningful choice between, say, protecting an NPC for the Fighters Guild and killing an NPC for the Dark Brotherhood. Also, those seemingly powerful factions don't give a damn about the dark demonic invasion and, instead of doing something about it, do something else. On one hand, you have those stupid gates all over the countryside; on the other hand, you have a quest to find a job for some Fighters Guild's members who don't have anything to do. You can't tell them to close some gates for the benefits of the local communities, so the best you can do is hook them up with a lady who wants them to collect some ingredients. Makes sense.

To make matters worse, mage skills are not required to join & rise through the ranks of the Mage Guild. In Oblivion, most mage quests were about whacking someone. Coincidentally, that's what most Fighters Guild and the Dark Brotherhood quests were all about, creating this wonderful "same shit" feeling, and making the Thieves Guild's quests the only unique quest line in the game.

We also spent a good deal of time considering what happens when you hit the top of each faction, so it feels like a more rewarding experience once you're "done" with them.
Gavin Carter
When it comes to practical jokes, Gavin is without peer. The joke's on those who bought the game, so allow me to illustrate what happens when you hit the top.

Wow! Free ingredients! I knew that all that hard work would finally pay off! Thanks, Gavin!

Caves, Ruins, Dungeons

If we focus on anything most though, it is the "dungeon hack" experience. That's the meat of the game.
Todd Howard
The dungeon hack experience is one of the strongest elements of the game. Daggerfall featured huge, seemingly endless dungeons, where you could literally get lost without Mark & Recall spell. Morrowind fixed it by making the dungeons as small and linear as possible. Oblivion's dungeons are somewhere in between, and overall, superbly done. They are well designed, very atmospheric, with levers, buttons, and secret doors, and everything else you might expect from a good dungeon. After a while you may notice a repeating pattern, but it never bothered me.

Overall, caves, ruins, and forts are all over the place, so explorers would never run out of things to explore and loot. Even previously cleaned places would be restocked with bigger and badder evildoers in the best Diablo 2 traditions, and chests will be refilled with shiny loot and locked again. Some dungeon-related quests are boring (go to this cave and clean it up), some are very interesting and well done, like the Pale Pass quest where you are given an ancient journal and need to figure out by clues where an old fort, containing some old relic, is. What makes this quest even better is a rare option not to fight its undead commander. Sadly, such quests and options are very rare.

As I've mentioned before, we have a lot of people playtesting the game and they have all been providing feedback on how leveling and skill advancement feels, and we've been adjusting things accordingly.
Steve Meister
Frankly, the "dungeon hack" experience could have saved the game and make it great (still a poor RPG though), if not for one huge, GIGANTIC flaw that sucked most fun out of exploration and even thievery. Everything - enemies, their equipment, and treasure in chests - is scaled down to your level. So, if you are exploring at level 1-5, don't expect to fight a challenging opponent or find an awesome sword of inner beauty. It. Just. Ain't. Happening. Another page from Diablo is borrowed, but the main difference between the two games is that Diablo is much faster paced. Oblivion's progression speed is much slower, so you'll spend many long hours, clearing dungeons, knowing that you are not going to find anything exciting there and that the final chest will offer you nothing but a handful of coins, a potion, and the same equipment you already have. You won't encounter any enemy you can't defeat, which leads to rather idiotic immersion breaking moments like saving Kvatch (one of the towns) from the invasion and closing the gate, guarded by the pathetically weak demons, at level 1 or becoming the finest Arena champion, the best fighter Tamriel has ever seen, at the same level 1.


What happened to you, man? You used to be cool.

Here lies Mannimarco, the King of Worms, once a God-like necromancer, nerfed & killed by Bethesda Softworks.
Similarly, there is not much excitement in sneaking in and stealing some awesome stuff, because you can only find what your level allows you to find. So, unless you are role-playing a kleptomaniac, you are screwed. Now would be a good time to mention the stealth system, represented by an icon with a Yes/No functionality. Yes - you've been detected, No - you haven't been. There is no indicator showing you how much noise you are making, how close you are to being discovered, and how much your shiny helmet shines in the darkness. Must be the casual gamer thing again. Poor dumb bastards.

I'd say the "Radiant AI" system, and the NPC life. It's something no one has ever tried on this scale, and we're just starting to see how powerful it is, and how we can translate those NPC behaviors into meaningful gameplay.
Todd Howard
Sounds cool, too bad it sucks. The shortcomings of this greatly overhyped feature have already been explored to death, so there is no need to waste words documenting them. If you want to know how bad it is, read this Radiant AI overview and watch this famous "dinner party" video. Yes, it's THAT bad.

To review briefly for people with link-clicking phobias: NPCs walk around, go to work, to taverns, back home, to sleep, etc. They stop and chat throwing random lines at each other. It was supposed to add a degree of realism, but somehow Gothic games did a MUCH better job there. Maybe the devil was in the details. I've never seen an Oblivion blacksmith doing something, he/she was just standing there, while a Gothic blacksmith was actually making swords, going through the full sword-making cycle, forging, cooling, sharpening blades. There are ships in Oblivion and sailors walk to and from ships, but they never DO anything, but fake activities. Overall, 5-year old Gothic did a much better job creating an immersive world with seemingly alive people than what Bethesda did today, so sadly RAI is neither revolutionary nor evolutionary.

As you can see this very Radiant NPC has managed to ignore his suddenly dead friend, resting a few meters away from him.

And in conclusion...

Yeah, I'm biased, and I don't expect anyone to take my word for it -- but I think Oblivion is one of the most amazing games I've ever played. I think that even the doubters are going to be surprised, though they may not admit it out of stubbornness.
Steve Meister

Well, you don't see that in every game, that's for sure.
Oblivion is not a bad *game*, but it's definitely not one of the most amazing games, so we should forgive Steve for being so easily amused. I often criticized Oblivion's design during the development, but I still hoped that the game would be better. I hoped that all those fine people I quoted actually meant what they said and weren't trying to mislead the unsuspecting and trusting public, eagerly buying every word and putting a Gospel from Bethesda together.

Now, the main question is "Would you like Oblivion?". If you are ok with the flaws I mentioned above, and if a mix of a shooter with stats and an adventure game where you follow several linear storylines without much input from you appeals to you, then get the game right now and have fun. If you would rather play a well done action game, or a well done Thief-type game, or a well done RPG than a game featuring a poorly implemented mix of all 3, then play something else, because you won't enjoy what Oblivion has offer.

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