Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Oblivion and Why I Find It Dull and Boring.

I will go on the record now as stating that at times I did in fact enjoy playing...but I will also say this only happened after the third time of re-buying the game. My brother has recently bought the Anniversary addition of the game, which has inspired me to go into and Dissect Oblivion and my reasoning for finding it un-enjoyable.

Why Oblivion Has Such A Great Modding Community...
Whenever I read or see something about Elder Scrolls: Oblivion I come across one word, "Mods", and the assertion that the game is best played with them. However I play the game on the xbox 360, and while I have no access to such mods I can totally understand why Mods make the game better. If you've ever read
this blog you probably noticed I played the Baldur's Gate Trilogy, and if you know anything about the series you probably know there is/was a very successful modding community full of ridiculously amazing mods. However, unlike Oblivion the BG series was thoroughly immersive and interesting on it's own without the mods. BG had a distinct world with a unique and well defined sense of appeal. The mods exist to make the game more re-playable and to add a bit of color to the game. In Oblivion the mods are needed to make the game interesting for more than five minutes. The world within Oblivion is MASSIVE to the point of obnoxiousness, and to a certain extent I like that but the world is really full of nothing. There are dozens of NPCs, areas, and quests but none of them have any urgency nor anything special about them really. Admittedly there are some quests I prefer over others, that's a given with anything, but honestly most of them were kind of dry and dull. The NPC's are all the same, (literally they have the same voice actors), the quests do not have any real weight to them, and the game gave me no true sense of being a hero/asshole figure. In a "Vanilla", not modded, game you spend your
time wandering from point A to point B occasionally stopping to talk to misc. NPC 2 in order to gain some bit of nonsensical information that apprently leads you to area 6 in order to kill/steal/defend something and then return to NPC 1...and that's if you can find them. Needless to say all of this eventually becomes tedious and boring beyond words. Even during the quests I enjoyed I found myself going "Now what?" half way through a fight. I am pretty sure that is NOT the feeling Bethesda was going for...I hope, but honestly who can be too sure when the majority of quests are about as interesting as a sad clown or a brown dog. Actually...I like dogs and they can be interesting so scratch that last bit. There is a reason the game comes with tools setup so that Modder's can have a field day. The developers were frickin lazy and could not be bothered to add a unique element to any of their quests, so they went "Let's let the players do it" or I imagine it somewhat like this:
Writer " Did you guys notice how redundant the quests are?"
Designer "We can't be bothered with that."
Writer "But won't that pretty much make expanding out general audience hard if they do not find something intriguing about the game"
Designer "Good point let's just throw in some stuff so people can make their own and...what are you doing outside your cage?"

I know some of you may be going "You're just Bioware biased," or "How do you know about those cages?" Well the truth is yes I have been spoiled by Bioware, but can you blame me? I am a gamer who loves a good story and a distinct immersive world with people in them that act and feel like real people. I like having quests that are distinct and are fascinating in more ways than one. In Oblivion the only way to really get that seems to be in the form of Mods and that is a crying shame. Even if you do not buy even half of what I'm saying, I must ask you how good is a
game where AT LEAST half the fans admit they can only play it when they mod it. If the game itself is only relatively enjoyable and becomes more of a chore than a pleasure how good is it? I have read countless boards and forums and I consistently hear the same thing, "Oblivion gets boring rather fast if you don't have mods". For that reason you must question the strength of this game on it's own. I full heartedly support any and every modding community from ModtheSims to Spellholdstudios, but their works must not be the sole reason to own and play this game.

Size of the Game, the World, and Geography.
This next part is somewhere between good and bad and "eh" f
or me, as this is a major thing with Bethesda. Whether it's "Fallout" or "Elder Scrolls" Bethesda believes in one thing over all and that is open ended gaming. You create a character, are walked through a tutorial, and from there are given the entire world to explore. At first this is a major plus for the game. I thoroughly enjoyed walking and wandering through Cyrodil and simply exploring, but eventually the novelty begins to wear thin. After a half hour of simply trying to get from Point A to Point B you eventually find yourself tired and bored. The game alleviates this by having random bandits and creatures wander the path and attack you. It does help, but occasionally it is simply annoying random encounters. After killing another set of bandits you look at your map and realize "Oh crap I'm barely half there". And I know some of you are about to comment and mention the fact that there is fast travel. Yes there is.

However like almost every other game with Fast Travel you must go to most areas first to access travel to that area. That fact is perfectly reasonable, as it is reasonable to assume that if your character visits an area once or twice they may devise a "short cut.". My issue is that the existence of Fast Travel seems to be absolutely necessary otherwise traveling is a migraine beyond reconciliation. The world is so massive that once you visit every major place you do not want to walk anywhere except for a change of pace and even that decision you may come to regret. Perhaps I'm just pulling hairs here, but I simply do not think it should be almost necessary to use fast travel in order to make traveling tolerable. For instance in Fable there III there is a fast travel option, and I did use it often. Yet in Fable I did not get a sense of dread when I needed to walk. Fable has a large interconnected world but it was interesting and small enough to be fun to wander through. The novelty did not quite run thin because it was just the right size to not be overwhelmed. Though I will say in both games the random encounters would work my nerves sometimes(but thats just a me thing). Both games have fast travel; In one it is impossible to go without it, and in the other it is a perk not always used.

Having said all that I will go back to the positive of this large world. I honestly enjoyed the graphics of the various areas. The world itself was a pretty but occasionally redundant plain that seemed like it should have a life of it's own. Cyrodil was populat
ed with both peaceful and aggressive animals and people who wandered the roads. At times it was simply pleasant to stop and look at the scenery. Another big bonus is that you get to sense what your character goes through while traveling. At times I would feel that mix of tediousness, weariness, calmness, paranoia, and excitement that goes with traveling by ones self. There are times when you can positively let your guard down only to be attacked from behind by a crab or bear forcing you to defend yourself. Yet as I said the novelty of this wore thin after a few hours of game play.

Furthermore whether you are using fast travel or riding a horse there are negatives. If you use fast travel you can easily not level correctly. I will address leveling later on but basically in Oblivion enemies level at the same rate you do. That sounds fine and many games do something similar but not to the extent of Oblivion. Each character has a set of skills and if you do not raise your various combat skills, i.e get into a ton of fights, your enemy's will be far stronger than you. This means that you HAVE to do a fair bit of random wandering throughout the game to balance the various other skills you have. If you focus on your Acrobatics skill and not your Blunt Weapons skill you can easily end up with a character whose combat skil
ls are roughly at level three, but everyone else in the world is level 7 because you are an amazing acrobat. The game all but forces you to wander along the roads and wilds while only promising the reward of proper leveling. I found myself annoyed because at various points I was content to wander the cities only to realize I need to go kill a few wolves so they would not be stronger than me. There is no incentive not to fast travel beyond that. Exploration becomes an overly tedious endeavor due to the massive nature of the world, so that excuse flies out the window. But here lies the games biggest offense, none of this is clear until fairly into the game. I am a purist of sorts. I try not to look at a manual and rely on a game to explain itself to me when I first begin to play. You first begin to play and after a few hours begin using fast travel not realizing the sin you have committed by using a near readily available tool. Honestly it is like the game's designers held out two pieces of candy, one coated in lint and dirt and the other perfectly fresh and clean. Then expected you to pick the dirty one for the delicious caramel filling that is SO obviously inside. They give you a tool and then tempt you to use it knowing full well that the seemingly best way to get
better at combat is for you to wander back and forth for what seems like hours on a never ending stretch of country road. The only counter for this seems to be the occasional fights that come from quests and The Arena( think gladiators). That brings me to...

If you end up particularly doing a lot of jumping or speech craft for a period of time without doing a lot of heavy combat, you will level up your enemy/yourself too quickly. Essentially the game uses real world sense in this, if you do not train a particular ability or skill you cannot be good at it. On one hand this is perfectly reasonable, and on the other it becomes a hinderence. My character Andrala was a Redguard with a propensity for jumping, running, and stealing. I played her as a classical thief/assassin character, but the game is not made for that really. She was an average fighter but the quests I focused on involved far more stealing, underhandedness, and communication than anything else. S
he would regularly go to The Arena to train but that was not a priority after a while as she began doing other quests. Eventually she ended up leaving the city only to find herself easily bested by various creatures and people who were allegedly of the same level as her. Every creature I fought was the same level as I in name, but in truth they were far higher level than me. She was good with small groups and did her best to dodge but eventually it was just overwhelming. Her combat skills were significantly lower while her acrobatics skills, lock picking, and even some of her magical skills were near matching. Eventually it became clear that Andrala was no match for the creatures of Oblivion and I started over. It was a thoroughly disappointing experience for me as I was trying desperately hard to like the game.

The moral of the story is do not go into Oblivion without a game plan...and then be prepared to abandon that plan entirely. You cannot quite play as a mage character, and you cannot quite play as a thief, and you cannot quite play as a you have to be in between. You cannot just focus on one or two skills because if you level up your character in these skills without working on the others you will end up seriously faulted in the other areas. You can have a general direction of your character, but you must become somew
hat of a Jack-of-All trades type. I suppose there is nothing inherently wrong with that ideology, but it's implementation created somewhat of a broken system. Forums are filled with comments by gamers(including myself) arguing over whether Oblivion was balanced or not. Those who were lucky enough to immediately be able to jump into the game without help or even with use of the manual are quick to call players like myself utter idiots over this issue. Yet any position has merit so long as there is a reason with evidence and...from the thousands of testimonies of gamers, to the Elder Scrolls wiki, to blogs/articles detailing the issues, and concluding with the decision to streamline Skyrim there is evidence of legitimate problems with the game's leveling system.
I give credit to the attempt to take leveling in more of a real world direction. We all know that someone who focuses on athletics and never studies will not usually pass their chemistry test. We also know that the best artists practice their craft above all else or at least take a significant amount of time on it. They attempted to take a similar approach with character leveling and structure by having it so that the skills you focus on most can level independently and faster than other skills. That in itself is perfectly reasonable. Ho
wever, the fact that by leveling a skill of two you can over-level yourself, and the inclusion of enemies that level at the same rate you do across the board is more of a hindrance than a help.

Yet there is another minor-major issue I find I cannot let go. As stated enemies level up with you regardless of your actual skill level. There is a serious issue I take with this and one I cannot quite let go because when I say enemies I mean EVERY character you will/can fight
in the game will be at your level. For instance if one of the rats from the tutorial wandered outside while you were walking by and your level ten...then essentially so is the rat. This basically totally discredits Bethesda's attempts at pseudo realism with the skill leveling. Fine I can accept the rats of this world are huge, like...New York rat huge, but not the same level as someone who just came back from an Oblivion Gate. There is some sense to the leveling system in that certain creatures are encountered only at certain levels due to their individual attack strength and power, but that only does so much ultimately. Keep in mind this is a simplification of wha
t happens.I am double checking the wiki as I type this because the entire system structure baffles me on this point. Essentially creature and people of the world level with you until being replaced by a stronger version of themselves, which still does not balance the issue really. I simply do not see the sense in not having a truly standard level of enemy depending upon type. I just prefer my rats to have 6 hp and stay that way depending on the environment they live in. For instance a wild rat may be scrawnier than a sewer rat, but is quicker, and a sewer rat may be thicker but its stronger. Various creatures have base attack strength and level up relative to each other so that a rat is not the equivalent of say a bandit. Also keep in mind I'm using the rat as an extreme example. The fact is sense enemies level in relation to you there is a sense of "who told the
m I was coming?" or "Why are these wolves suddenly here and different than before" But here I digress

Main Quest and immersion
I had absolutely NO incentive to complete the main quest of the game and never actually got around to purposely trying to any of the three previous times I had the game to play. According to my last save file and my journal I spent at least a week consistently playing the game and in that week I can accurately guess I spent between four and five hours playing the game. I can tell you this wasn't for lack of trying with the main quest. I just found myself doing other things for the simple fact that outside of wanting to please Patrick Stewart(Oh Captain My Space Captiain). Truly the quest seemed utterly unimportant and trivial outside of the occasional reminder that the Emperor had been murdered. Seriously if you removed the entire story line the game would be exactly the same. You are given absolutely no reason to care about this world at all. After being in a city for a while all the NPC's blur together due to the repeatedly used voice actors and lack of creative and different dialogue. I talked to dozens of different characters and they had the most 2D personalities ever. This is even worsened by how the game starts out really. Beyond a mild desire to find out who exactly the Mythic Dawn assassins were, and Patrick Stewart being his voice actor, I could not give to flying figs about Emperor Uriel Septim. You nev
er even find out why you start off as a prisoner, and for all you know you could be a child rapist or serial killer. I suppose part of this is so that you can imagine what your character is like and who they are. Yet there is a sense of being pulled out of the game by these nagging questions, and the lack of ability to give your character an even remotely unique perspective. The game is set up so that by befriending people you can gain quests easier and you must do so in the form of a mini game that makes about as much sense as watching a chicken run around and land on a color card with a choice on it. Also...I am amazing at the speech craft mini-game but it really is the MOST random way how holding a conversation. Essentially you have a wheel with mul
tiple choices of how to act:
And as you move about the wheel you watch the NPC's face to see how they will react if you select an object. The goal is the put the least emphasis on what will annoy them and the most on what will make the happy.

....You think I'm joking don't you?
Nope apparently this is the SOLE scope of human interaction. On the record I will say that my beloved Bioware typically only gives players a few choices of how to respond, be a jerk, be a good guy, be funny, ask questions. However at least you know what your character is saying and typically there is a neutral option so one can easily brisk through conversation. In Oblivion once you start a conversation you see it through until every choice on the wheel has been selected once. This mini-game ONLY exists in order to level up your speechcraft skill and gain quests. It is not bad exactly, but it ruins any sense of immersion one may have, and is honestly rather stunted. It pulls you out of the game.

Being pulled out of the game is a major issue I have with Oblivion because the moment you feel even a bit interested in the world you get pulled back out. The sensation of playing Oblivion is one I can describe as like being a traveler in a world not your own. Part of this is because you are suddenly tossed into the world, and the only back story that exists is in your head. Honestly this could have been fixed by coming up with two or three back stories for players to choose. Truthfully if the intent was for the player to come up with a back story for the character it is kind of ruined by having the player start off as a prisoner. It makes it incredibly hard to imagine your character being a farm boy visiting the city, a woman training to fight in The Arena, a man training to be part of the city guard, or a tavern wench when you automatically start off a prisoner. Simply a voice over explaining how different backgrounds land the character in prison would be nice. A farm boy who accidentally insulted a noble and ends up in jail on false charges and then having a distinct bonus in certain skills would make sense. Perhaps I ask too much but it is the little things that set up the world.

The world itself is also the issue. The fairly small group of voice actors and thousands of NPC's becomes a bit distracting at times, and I'm pretty sure the voice actors had no clue what kind of character they were voicing at times. The biggest variation seems to be either to sound grumpy, cheery, polite, or hungry. Far worse than that fact is that all of the NPC's seem like dull stereotypes without any of the humor or self parody to make enjoyable .It all blurs together and the lack of distinction makes you feel like your surrounded by aliens/robots, thus leading you to wonder why should you care about them. There is also the fact that because of the limited dialogue you fall short of actually knowing the few distinct characters well, and once their quests are done they are quickly forgotten. The only thing that sticks out in my mind about the game world at this point is the landscape which was far more interesting than any of the NPC's. In the Fable series players gain interactions by points/leve,l and the dialogue structure is somewhat similar to Oblivion but far more lucid and flowing. You are granted a changing set of interaction option based on what skills you know how to due successfully. From there a set of humorous/sweet actions occurs. Fable provides an amusing context to their "dialogue wheel" that does give you some limited sense of what each random NPC is like. The reason Fable is far more redeemable to me than Oblivion is quite simple. Oblivion puts on the facade of having a good and deep dialogue system that mostly comes off as frustrating, boring, and without truly redeeming qualities to it. It feels like your being forced to interact with dozens of NPC's whose voice actors and writers even got bored with them.

As much as I harp on the NPC issue I am going to restate a fact I said before, the world feels full of nothing. In the attempt to populate the world with people the player can kill, talk to, and listen in on the designers crippled the world. A frequent and eery joke in Oblivion is the fact that all the NPC's must have killed the children because the only indication of a child( and not just a very young PC) comes in the pair of "Child's Overalls" found in a crypt. In fact someone even added a mod so that children existed in the world because the fact is it is empty. You end up in a city and constantly feel like you have not really explored it. On the map it is massive but only a few dozen interchangeable NPC's inhabit it. The cities feel like outposts and the villages feel like taverns with houses around it. You run around and get the eery feeling like half the town has died, and that half was the interesting half. That has always disturbed me really, and it sort of distracts from the game after awhile. You find yourself not so much in a world anymore the more you stay in one area. I would prefer to have dozens of characters go about their daily business and not interact with me than those who interact poorly with me.

This leads to my next point....

Interactivity and Stealing.
Part of the open ended experience with Bethesda games is the ability to pick up and steal damn near anything and everything. This far the stupidest mechanic ever because they make is damn near impossible to do so. If you steal an object in one town and fast travel to another you are immediately arrested in that town. Furthermore if you try to sell stolen objects no one will buy them because apparently they have serial numbers and a database for those numbers...I'm just guessing. It is a mechanic I have never encounter in a game before, and it is easy to see why. Stealing is such a temperamental system it constantly puts you on edge and you face being jailed fairly often. The worst part being most of the time I Accidentally picked up an object and put it in my inventory and the guards were summoned. There is no reasoning or simply being able to quickly drop it. The moment you pick it up you are done. Why in blazes would any player really steal a vase right in front of someone? You have to be quick and quiet and the house must be empty in order to be successful, and heaven forbid you have to kill someone innocent. For all the characterization options in Oblivion you honestly can't be an evil bastard. The guards ALWAYS know if you have done wrong as do the merchants. There is no rationale to the guards knowing if I stabbed someone in that persons basement at midnight when they live alone. There is certainty no reason for people in other towns to know. It is frustrating on multiple levels as you constantly have to be the good guy and unless a quest dictates otherwise you have to pay for your crimes even if they were not purposely committed.

In conclusion.
In the end I currently find myself asking one thing "Why should I play this game? Even if I did enjoy it on some subtly marginal level is it really worth getting into again?" Honestly I'm finding the answer to be no not really, if for no other reason than I despise the tutorial level. Oblivion is game that very die hard fans of the series will most likely enjoy. If you like story, a sense of urgency, fair leveling, and complete immersion may find yourself in a rut. Overall I would still recommend renting the game or playing it at a friend's house because at least then you can see for yourself. It is a game worth playing at least once whether or not you end up liking it. I am glad to have had the experience and have learned from it. As I said die hard fans will fall head over heels for this game. I just honestly cannot find too much that is redeeming about it to really invest my time into it. In the end it's an experience, and it honestly made me value the modding community a bit more even if I can't partake in it.

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