An Old-Timer's Review of Oblivion

Comparisons to Morrowind
What the Expansions Need to Improve

Revised and updated, but still a work in progress, so please offer feedback.

I'm an old-time PnP (pen-and-paper) gamer, but I love CRPGs and video games in general, too. I didn't play Daggerfall, but that's probably because I was too hooked on Ultima Online and Diablo. I loved video games like Windwaker, Halo, Prince of Persia, KOTOR, Burnout, Fable, Jade Empire, Half-Life/2, etc., etc.

Morrowind stands tall near the top of my list of favorite games, right up there with the original white box Dungeons & Dragons, perhaps even equal to Squad Leader, Melee/Wizards, AD&D, Car Wars, Hero, GURPS, and then computer games like the original Wolfenstien 3D, Doom, Command & Conquer, Quake, Warcraft, and Planescape: Torment, as well as the video games mentioned above.

Oblivion is the newest entry to my list of greats.

You see, all this fuss about preserving "true RPG" elements and such don't mean much to me. I like action, I like strategy, I like role-playing. CRPGs in general seem to fall into one of two main camps: they either force you into a certain series of "role" choices (ala KOTOR) or they try to stay out of your way and let you invent your own rational for what your character does. Morrowind mostly stuck with the latter approach, relying on you the player to put as little or as much thought into it as you like. In stark contrast to this, KOTOR constantly rams good-versus-evil choices down your throat. I enjoy both types of games, so I definitely don't have a problem with Oblivion's minimalist approach and I don't think it's very different from Morrowind in this respect.

The biggest difference between Oblivion and Morrowind (and the main thing most people seem to take issue with, although they will probably cite other more specific reasons) seems to be that Oblivion is more than just a CRPG. You can just go out and bash stuff and have fun doing it if you want. This wasn't true in Morrowind. For some reason, a lot of die-hard RPG players have a problem with this aspect of Oblivion, as if somehow all the emphasis on action detracts from their ability to role-play. While it is true that you're probably not going to take time to ponder your motivations during the heat of battle, there are plenty of opportunities to seek out quiet moments in a peaceful meadow or deep forest where you can ponder to your heart's content.

For me, Oblivion does exactly what I wanted it to do. It answers almost all of the problems Morrowind had and pushes the envelope for games even further. However, as with any ground-breaking effort, it has some rough spots that need to be polished.

Here are some specifics about the good and the bad, in no particular order:

* The combat rocks! It is vastly more fun, both spellcasting and bashing. I still miss all the time, but it's my fault when I do and not because of a dice roll. A bit like Halo with swords and spells. Combat is now a major part of what makes the game fun, which is a dramatic departure from Morrowind. Perfect!

* Animations. Awesome! Vast improvement over Morrowind here! Surprisingly clever idle animations that sneak up on you when you're not expecting it. Drinking, sleeping, praying, saluting, and more! The only major oversight here is the lack of any built-in way to make your character use these animations, too! There's also a problem with the jump animation not firing consistently, but that is addressed under the Mounts topic below.

* Graphics. Breathtaking. When you've been in a dungeon or an Oblivion gate for a while and you finally emerge into a sunset or sunrise, it will take your breath away. It is such a beautifull, vibrant land that you will develop an emotional attachment to it for this reason alone. If you have to run this game with minimum settings, you are really missing out! No elaboration necessary.

* The RAI is simply awesome. The NPCs seem dramatically more interesting when they go about their daily tasks and the possibilities are almost endless. Badguys will chase you down if they can! The only really major problems are that NPCs in combat don't use their healing potions and seem oblivious to the danger posed by molten lava and other environmental hazards (like traps).

* Fast travel is perfect. Morrowind had fast travel anyway, and anyone who tries to tell you differently is just full of it.

* The compass is great. No more endlessly wasting time hunting for things that my character should be able to find. It is overused, though. Once I find the cave where my target is, do I really still need a pointer guiding me to the exact spot in the cave? No, I can easily explore the cave on my own, so it's just silly in many cases and ruins the illusion of surprise. It should be used more sparingly in the expansions, or at least made optional for those who dislike it. I think it would be perfect if it vanished once you got within a certain radius of the target.

* Level-Scaling is great. I can find plenty of challenge even at a high level. Huge improvement over Morrowind. However, it needs refinement (ala Ken Rolston's statements). Not everything should scale infinitely. Some battles should get easier as you become more powerful. Common bandits shouldn't wear Daedric and Glass armor. Some things should be rare and hard to find. It should be possible to find some powerful things early on with luck and daring. Poor scaling of NPC bosses in comparison to creatures badly needs fixing, particularly in relation to the difficulty slider (if you crank up the difficulty enough to make NPC bosses challenging at a high level, then creatures become impossible to beat). NPC boss scaling in general needs to be addressed. See Oscuro's Oblivion Overhaul mod for a good atttempt at fixing this. What's really needed is the capability to set the scaling level offset for an NPC to a percentage above or below the player rather than a fixed number of levels above or below. Also, traps need much more aggressive scaling. I've expanded on this topic near the end of the review.

* Good-versus-Evil Choices. Huge improvement over Morrowind here. Being a thief really gets you in trouble, the Dark Brotherhood really is evil (not like those pansy Morag Tong in Morrowind), the Daedra are perverted, etc. Still some minor gameplay tuning needed here, though, especially with stolen items and houses owned by criminals you've killed honorably. The only thing really missing here compared to Morrowind is the option to complete a quest without violence (probably because combat is so much more important in Oblivion). It would be really nice to see more branching storylines based on your choices (like KOTOR).

* Levitation. I do miss it (how could you not!), but in practice Oblivion is more challenging without it, so this was a good call. Some sort of climbing system would be a huge improvement, though. Horses help to offset this loss.

* Spoken Dialog. It's awesome, but skip the celebrities next time and just hire more actors, or hire actors who can play multiple voices (for a good example, listen to the audio book "Eragon"). At a minimum, voice actors who don't have a lot of range shouldn't be used for more than one race. There was certainly a lot more dialog in Morrowind (since it didn't require voice acting), but the amount of unique dialog for each character was arguably almost as limited as it is in Oblivion. Also, in Morrowind, any unique dialog was usually buried under such a vast heap of repeated junk that it might as well have not existed at all. Oblivion takes exactly the opposite approach to dialog, which sometimes makes it feel like there isn't much of it. On the other hand, you won't have to waste any time trying to figure out whether an NPC has something to say or not. The spoken dialog in the Thieves Guild quest has major problems, though, which is really disturbing.

* Stealth. Awesome. Huge improvement over Morrowind. Needs some refinement in the way it interacts with RAI, but still awesome. The major problems seem to happen only at a very high stealth. NPCs you've attacked tend to just stand there getting slaughtered instead of running for help. Also, NPCs who manage to escape a surprise attack should be able to alert their allies to your presence and start hunting for you.

* Mounts. The horses are very, very cool. Mounted combat definitely needs to be added in an expansion, along with more options for controlling your horse. The only really annoying problem is the way the "jump delay" system works. If you set the jump delay down low enough to avoid problems where the player jump animation fails to fire, then your horse starts making really annoying jumps over small dips in the terrain. Charging down an incline may be extremely hazardous on horseback in real life, but in a fantasy game it seems completely out of place. Since Cyrodiil is mostly steep hills and mountains, you'd think that their horses would be a bit more surefooted!

* Hotkeys. Big mistake here. Each hotkey should cycle through a list of items you set rather than only having one thing per key (i.e., several swords on one key, several healing spells on one key, several destruction spells on another key, etc.). Also, you need to be able to hotkey potions without accidentally using them (especially on a gamepad), using the same select-and-then-fire system used for everything else. Since action-oriented combat is a huge part of what makes Oblivion great, this oversight is severe and must be fixed at the earliest opportunity.

* Mods. Dramatic improvements in the mod-handling system greatly reduce savegame corruption and mod-related crashes, but these new protections create some limitations that are hard to get used to. There are major issues that still need to be resolved with the Construction Set, but great mods are being released daily despite this hinderance. In many ways, these limitations have driven the mod community to release much better tools than were ever created for Morrowind. The sheer number of mods already released is staggering. Even if most of them are crap, there's still more than 4,000 mods already, and many of them are already very good. The patch 1.1 failed to correct a major texture-loading bug for replacers, but the mod community has managed to work around this issue. Bethesda created a really stupid PR nightmare with the mod community by failing to release a NIF exporter at the same time that it launched it's own efforts to charge money for official mods. As long as the exporter does get released and the CS bugs get fixed, everyone will forget these complaints in short order.

* Bugs in general. Arguably better than Morrowind, but maybe not by much.

* Houses. This point is less significant than the rest. The buyable houses in Oblivion are great, but they are a poor substitute for Morrowind's quests to build your stronghold. Sure you can accumulate a lot of very nice houses in Oblivion, but the sense of accomplishment is not the same, especially when there are only two NPCs who will join you in one of your houses (and one of those is the really annoying Devoted Fan). The stronghold theme from Morrowind should've been expanded on rather than removed, especially since RAI makes it possible to have NPCs actually doing useful stuff for your stronghold. Also, as mentioned earlier, it should be possible to acquire some houses through quests, such as the graverobber quest in Imperial City (which would also solve the problem of not having a buyable house there).

* Quests. The main quest in Oblivion is awe-inspiring. It's a really great story with all the same wit, subtlety, and sacreligious elements that made Morrowind (and the Tribunal expansion) great. The quality and depth of storytelling here puts almost every other CRPG to shame. The gameplay is intense and very challenging. Too bad it's so short. The Fighters Guild and Mages Guild quests are good, too, but disappointing in comparison -- the writing is good, but the gameplay suffers from significant balance issues and the NPC bosses you're up against are way too easy to kill once your character reaches a medium or high level. I can't comment on the Thieves Guild or Dark Brotherhood quests since I haven't gone very far into either of these yet. Some of the Miscellaneous Quests are quite good: the Vampire Hunters mini-guild stands out as a really good take on the typical Morrowind search/gather quest model.

* Havok. The physics in the game are a lot of fun and do add significantly to the overall experience. Be careful not to drool on yourself in shock and amazement the first time (heck, every time) you kill a Storm Atronach, especially if you're standing on a steep hill. The major complaint about Havok has to do with it making it so difficult to decorate your house(s) with the spoils of your adventures. This was a major element of fun in Morrowind, so I was really disappointed the first dozen times I tried to arrange my house in Oblivion and then acccidentally knocked everything back onto the floor, ruining all my hard work. After a while, though, I slowly started to enjoy it, making it into a bit of a game to see what I could get to work and what would just collapse. I've come to grudgingly accept the system and enjoy some aspects of it, although I still think it's way too jumpy. The other major disappointments are the lack of useful common objects (you can't use random objects to hit an NPC or cause a distraction to lure enemies away) and the fact that many of the traps fire way too soon and/or don't do much damage. I also find it really strange that Bethesda chose not to take more advantage of Havok than they did. It really would've made the game a lot better if Bethesda had spent some time adding physics-based puzzles like those in Half-Life/2.

* Quest Pop-Ups. Like the compass, this is an extremely controversial subject. The pop-ups can be a major spoiler for the game because they provide extensive hand-holding that ruins the challenge and sense of immersion for many players. Basically, it's like having a built-in walkthrough. I tried to ignore them as much as possible because they give away too much. The pop-ups definitely need to be made optional in the expansions so players who don't like them can turn them off.

* Load times. On a fast PC with a lot of RAM and some tweaking, the load times are not bad in general. The HUGE improvement over Morrowind is complete removal of reload delays after death. This improvement is such a big deal that it's almost worth the price of admission by itself.

Expanded Discussion of Scaling Issues

There are several distinct issues with scaling that Bethesda should have fixed, and probably would have fixed if they hadn't been in such a rush to release the game during the Xbox-360 "launch window".

Here's a bit more detail on the scaling issues.

* Loot scaling. Although loot scaling is generally a good idea, Bethesda took it too far in Oblivion, causing some major immersion problems as your character levels up. These problems are relatively easy to correct using the built-in leveled-lists mechanism, and Bethesda definitely needs to do so in the expansions. You should be able to find some powerful items even at a low level with some luck and daring. Common bandits shouldn't all suddenly start wearing glass armor when you get over level 20. Etcetera.

* Creature scaling. This is fairly well balanced in vanilla Oblivion because creatures do not rely on the strength of items they carry nearly as much as NPCs do (if at all). However, the fact that you stop seeing ANY weak creatures once you reach a high level and you never encounter strong creatures at a low level is a major problem. This means you never have to run from a fight and you never have an easy fight either, which tends to make the difficulty of any given encounter too predictable.

* NPC scaling. This has major problems in Oblivion, despite mods that attempt to correct it and despite being a huge improvement over Morrowind (where NPCs had no scaling at all). This problem is particularly evident with NPC bosses once the player reaches a high level. The problem simply boils down to the fact that "level offset", which controls how much weaker or stronger an NPC will be compared to the player, is a literal number of levels rather than a percentage. For example, when a level-5 player encounters a boss who is 5 levels higher than the player, the result will generally be a very hard fight (the boss is twice your level and probably has similar magic items). However, when a level-20 player encounters that same boss, the result will be a MUCH easier fight for the player (since the boss will only be level 25 and will have much weaker magic items). The only real way to correct this is for Bethesda to alter the Oblivion engine so that the level offset can be a percentage above or below the player rather than a fixed number of levels above or below.

* Scaled allies. This is a huge problem, especially in quests like "The Battle for Kvatch", where your NPC allies get trounced by the creatures they are up against no matter what you do. I suspect this problem is mostly a result of how imbalanced NPC scaling is versus Creature scaling, but it may also be caused by sloppy quest design. If NPC scaling were corrected, the problem would likely be much less severe.

Oscuro's Oblivion Overhaul does a good job of correcting the scaling issues, at least to the extent that it is possible to correct without a change to the game engine (i.e., NPC scaling offset).

If the expansions can tackle even some of these issues, especially the critical ones, Oblivion may yet surpass Morrowind on my list of favorite games of all time. And it will be even more successful than it is already.

For commentary, feedback, and points I failed to cover here, please see the original thread on the ESF boards and the second thread on the ESF boards.


dev_akm said…
FYI, I have been updating this review fairly frequently with new information, and I'm planning another round of updates once I complete the DB and Thieves Guild questlines.
Duncan said…
Would be nice if you could "show comments" with the original blog ;-)
Anonymous said…
"Morrowind had fast travel anyway, and anyone who tries to tell you differently is just full of it."

Yes, that's true-- but in Morrowind, fast travel wasn't free.

You had to earn (or steal) some money to take a Silt Strider, earn or steal some money to use a Guild Guide (or join the Guild so you didn't need to earn or steal quite so much money), or join the Temple to get Mark and Recall, or the Church to get Divine Intervention.

You had to be part of something (namely, the game) to earn the right to pop around.

Without that necessity, it's a very noticeable immersion-breaker (if you had managed to be still immersed after all the popup messages when exiting the sewers told you what to do or not do), as the automatic ability to fast travel to all major cities immediately upon exiting the sewers is clearly a device to make it easier for a player to get around the world that the game is set in. Which would be fine, except that the whole "charm" of an RPG is to stop being a real-world player of a game, and play a role in the game world.

Fast travel makes that more difficult, because it gives me a very convenient "easy way out" of all kinds of situations that I would have to role-play if it wasn't available. The emphasis on action further limits my options (since everything always ends in a fight anyway, I have to focus on being able to fight, how can I fight better or avoid fighting-- it's not like I could, oh say, bluff my way out of a fight with a high Speechcraft or something... like in an RPG).

Not that the game doesn't have merit; it does. But not so much as you find, if one is the kind of player who doesn't like mish-mosh of action and minigames all swirled up in their RPG-- so much so that there's hardly any RPG left, until modders add it back.

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