I have made it no secret that I have a serious problem with The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. More often than not, I will jump on any chance to make a negative comment on it, or those who developed it. But I have never gone into real detail about just how deep the rabbit hole goes, or where it leads. I have never explained the history behind and the nature of these feelings in full detail. Now that we have a forum specifically for user reviews, I see a new opportunity to do so.
Let me first explain that I didn't jump on the bandwagon with the Oblivion criticisms: I always at least try to finish a game before even discussing it, to avoid spoilers and the like, and to develop my own independent opinion. When I did finish Oblivion, and went online to discuss it, I instead found myself cursing the bandwagon for not being nearly big enough, as well as lacking some kind of horrific and murderous device on the front to aid in cutting a bloody swathe through the fanboys, whose lack of taste made my stomach churn.
This review is "Oblivion, As It Was" because I am stating the way I felt about it when it was still new... an easy task, as my feelings towards the game itself have not changed.
The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion is, of course, the sequel to The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, a game which I thoroughly enjoyed and praised, and for all its faults, was, in my self-righteous and freely-provided opinion, very good overall, especially with an active modding community to correct the aforementioned faults. True, the dialogue system was reminiscent of a visit to Wikipedia without using the 'search' function, and it wasn't the prettiest game around, but it's a bit silly to expect a steak will not have some gristle in it... and the non-gristly parts of this steak were juicy and delicious. With all the wondrous things Bethesda showed us and told us before Oblivion came out, I expected the next course in the Elder Scrolls meal would be just as yummy, if not more.
Starting up the game for the first time, I immediately found myself confronted by what I can now call a sort of cruel foreshadowing. The slow, moving, and epic theme of Morrowind was replaced by a perverted version of itself that made me imagine Jeremy Soule snorting crushed Ritalin while chugging triple espressos, the same thing it now seems everyone involved in making the game did. I suppose it was supposed to be more powerful, more urgent, more epic, but instead it sounds like the guy running the recording equipment had severe diarrhoea and could only let them have a few minutes at a time before running back to the crapper again. This is personal preference here, of course, but as I said... also foreshadowing, because this ADD-friendly characteristic does not end here.
Shrugging off this change to one of my favourite video game themes as lamentable but ultimately minor, I proceeded to make a new character. Since the unmodded faces in Morrowind looked like they had been worked on by a mildly retarded plastic surgeon with poor eyesight, I was pleased to see I could now customize my character's facial appearance. While my efforts to give my character a beard failed, due to the fact Bethesda apparently thinks making my character look like someone carefully cuffed him around the jaw with a baseball bat will work for that purpose, I was ultimately pleased with the result. I didn't start to subconsciously notice what would turn out to be further foreshadowing of Oblivion's craptasticness until I began looking around the jail cell I found myself in.
Everything around me appeared to have higher graphical quality than the face I had just spent... too damn long, I guess... working on. It all looked very nice, as I had expected from screenshots and video previews. Walls, objects, clothing - very good graphics, except my character's face, which appeared, in contrast, to be of the quality level which would have gotten the same reaction sometime in 2002 or so. I shrugged this off, and decided I had spent enough time indulging my autistic tendencies by ****ing around with the face of a character I would mostly be playing as in first-person.
Next thing I noticed? Someone was speaking to me. This was cool, I thought, and preferable to Wikipedia at this point. But then I saw he was a Dark Elf. Why did he sound like C-3P0 with PMS, instead of the awesome "I just swallowed a handful of gravel and chased it down with a quart of gasoline" voice the male Dunmer had in Morrowind? Oh well, I've only seen one NPC so far, anyhow, I thought, and his silver-tongued insults were nicely atmospheric despite his voice being as it was. More characters arriving added to this delightful sense of atmosphere I hoped would continue for the whole game... the voice acting itself was well-done and believable, and made the NPCs feel more alive than the cardboard cutouts in Morrowind. They still looked like someone had assailed them with an ugly stick, but oh well. I don't play RPGs for flashy graphics, and they still looked way better than Morrowind characters.
Unfortunately, my enjoyment of the game couldn't even escape unscathed from that jail you start in. Though Patrick Stewart's voicing of the also ass-ugly Emperor was top-notch, I felt like I was talking to a senile old fart, not a respected leader of an entire continent. Yes, the Elder Scrolls lore says he was probably 80-something, but it's no fun when he acts like it by responding to my character in a manner that screams "We didn't bother to record him responding differently when you say different things", which left me worried the dialogue in the game would continue to be half-arsed and to rattle my suspension of disbelief. This was only in the back of my mind, though. I was still eager to play, mostly dismissive of my worries, and overall fairly impressed with what I had seen.
At the end of the dungeon, of course, an NPC recommended a class to me, at which point I followed in the grand Elder Scrolls tradition and told him to go **** himself, because all the built-in classes were bogged down with useless skills and I wanted to make my own. This took me even longer than making my face, because now you could only pick 7 skills of equal importance, instead of 5 major and 5 minor ones like in Morrowind. I didn't mind too much, especially since they cut out some skills, and consolidated others into a single skill, I'm just indecisive.
After I finished with that guy, who would not let me take the Emperor's stuff in spite of the fact he had just entrusted me with a sacred imperial artefact and told me to haul my grubby, just-pardoned-from-prison ass off an a mission of utmost importance, I continued through the sewers, fighting suspiciously weak goblins with the game's improved but still underwhelming combat system (more on that later), I finally stepped outside, hoping to see the lush jungles of Cyrodiil described in previous Elder Scrolls lore, but instead getting generic fantasy ****. Oh well, I must have just not found the jungles and stuff yet, right? I didn't see them in the intro movie, and this is a developed area anyhow! Whatever... now to the Imperial City... oh boy, let's see this "Radiant AI" at work!
Oh, what disappointment. Remember when I said that the underwhelming faces were foreshadowing? They were foreshadowing the fact that Oblivion seems to expect you will spend more time looking at things than people... in a ROLE-PLAYING GAME. It's a game about playing the role of a character, interacting with other characters. But the NPCs aren't even half-arsed... more like... I dunno, quarter-arsed, at best. Despite all dialogue being voiced, they apparently fired a bunch of the voice actors at Bethesda, because there are FEWER voice actors now than in Morrowind, where they had a tiny fraction of the number of lines. All male elves sound like the first you see, with that ****ed up, achingly stereotypical British accent (female elves lack a British accent, for some reason, just like male Imperials, and unlike female Imperials). Their social interactions are also unbelievably awkward and absurd, like they grew up in their abusive step-father's closet, so you basically hear the same few voices saying the same **** all the damn time. When YOU talk to them, it's still like Wikipedia, except now there are 90% fewer articles, voice instead of text, and each article is limited to one paragraph in length, probably so the 13 year olds apparently targeted by this game don't get bored.
The faces are ugly because you'll want to spend as little time as possible looking at them, and even if you didn't, they run out of things to say almost immediately... except to each other, because they love to make jarringly unnatural small talk. It's like listening to especially eloquent retards carrying on about stuff that doesn't even concern them.
Also, everyone walks like a woman in high heels, with their hips swaying wildly, but since my character did this too, I pushed it to the back of my mind, and reminded myself that in Morrowind, they walked like they were trying to goose-step but didn't quite know how, and ran like... I dunno, Flashdance. So it was still an improvement, and I'd play female characters in the future.
Understandably, I was quick to leave the city, perhaps to encounter something more socially adept, such as a starving, rabid wolf. Lucky for me, that's the first thing I ran into. I was frightened by this at first, recalling how simple wildlife in Morrowind would maul my starting character like he was made out of leftover meat by a deranged butcher whose favourite book was Frankenstein, but thankfully, combat in Oblivion is much better. If you swing a weapon at something, and you are close enough, it will hit. Rather than determining if you hit or miss, the corresponding skill determines how much damage is done. You also manually control blocking, and can do it with any weapon. A hit is assured, as is a block; so my craptacular weapons and blocking skill was sufficient to slay the wolf. I also tried some spells, which are actually very useful now that magicka (you use it to cast spells) actually regenerates, instead of waiting for you to take a nap when it runs out every 15 minutes, like you were 90 years old or something. Spells also work 100% of the time now, with the related skill determining how much it costs to cast them, and whether you are sufficiently skilled to use then in the first place. If you need to be level 50 in the skill to use a spell, it will work 0% of the time until you reach that level, and 100% of the time afterwards. Very cool, and it gives you a real sense of progress in these skills, at least.
Too bad that sense of progress doesn't extend far beyond this. The real reason I could kill wolves and such so easily is that the game makes itself easier for you. The first big battles I fought were disappointingly easy, because instead of nasty, apeshit, demonic invaders with swords as long as my leg, I fought bad guys who looked like the little ****ers in Gremlins... you know, that 1980's B-movie? The evil demon soldiers I faced were apparently interns or something, because I could have sneezed on them and killed them. All the NPCs were telling me "Oh ****, the evil demonic Daedra are invading, and you have to stop them with that rusty sword", instilling a sense of foreboding at a presumably difficult battle ahead, but after killing some gremlins and going TO A BIGASS FORTRESS IN HELL, ploughing through the bad guys (some gave me trouble, until I got used to the simplistic combat), and emerging victorious from a gigantic hell portal, all I could think was "That was it?".
I didn't know about the level scaling until a bit later, but I was righteously ticked off when I learned of it. Why can't I find better armour and weapons? Because nobody will drop them, and no loot container will have them until I reach an arbitrary level, then every bandit and his goldfish will head over to Honest Bob's Loot Emporium (We reserve the right to refuse service to player characters) for free **** (that costs YOU a fortune), then stuff it in chests, wear it, and wield it. Obviously, they will also use it against you, so the bad guys are always a match for you... no matter how hard you try, you will never be able to be powerful relative to the NPCs (the monsters level up too, weaker ones being replaced by more powerful ones), except by virtue of them having the intelligence and combat prowess of a slightly retarded Cocker Spaniel with severe cataracts. You will also never get really great loot before, say, level 20, because it won't exist. Even quest rewards are levelled, so you get the dollar store versions of them if you do the quest too soon... but I guess you could do the main quest in the meantime, right?
Wrong. Even stuff in the main quest is levelled. Some demonic invasion, their best troops are apparently AWOL until you hit level 20. Even their reservists patiently wait for you to enter their glowing orange gates of fiery doom and kill them, rather than overwhelming the cities of Cyrodiil. The NPCs cry about how, any day now, a bunch of evil mother****ers will swarm over the city wall, and URGENTLY beg you, and only you, to do something, but you can take as long as you like. Goodbye, suspension of disbelief!
When you do go into the hell gates, of which there are MANY (nearly all are optional), you are teleported to one of a comparatively tiny number of "Planes of Oblivion" repeated over and over, which you will have to drag your ass through to get to a stone at the top of a huge tower to close them. You get to keep the stones, and make cool stuff with them, as they create powerful (again, for your level, so it's best just to kill monsters for 20 levels if you want the best stuff) enchantments you can't quite match, otherwise.
Speaking of enchantments, you have to join the Mages' Guild and advance to a certain rank to do them yourself. This is not a problem, because the factions in Oblivion apparently have very low standards, and don't require you to be in any way qualified. You can finish the Mages' Guild questline, and advance to the top rank, without casting a single spell. You can finish the Fighter's Guild questline without using a weapon. You can finish the Thieves' Guild questline with all the subtlety of a main battle tank driving through an art gallery displaying a blown glass collection. You can do all of this, and monopolize the ****ing power structure of Oblivion. With one character. Especially since most of these quest lines are short, and you get a promotion after almost every mission, even though there are NPCs who are older than the fossilized dinosaur turd I used to have on my mantle, and have been trying to advance in rank for most of their lives.
Side quests, for the most part, are also a load of ****. Because Bethesda's writers apparently think diplomacy is for pussies, most quests, not counting the ones which you could more or less do in real life by getting a job with UPS, end in you killing someone or something. I suppose that's to be expected when most people in Cyrodiil are too stupid to actually speak... they have to stab each other instead.
That's another thing; there are NPCs you can't kill. Some of them are in escort missions (inexplicably, the hardest escort mission doesn't do this), but most of them are not. If you take their health down to 0, they faint, then shortly get back up. Just for kicks, I once shot about 30 arrows into an innkeeper (who went flying over tables and knocked stuff all over the place, showing off the Havok physics engine, one of the few good things in the game), until they were a walking pincushion, utterly unconcerned they had arrows sticking out of them from different angles all over their body. This is hardly immersing. What if I want to rob these arseholes? So what if they give a quest later on! Bethesda harps about the freedom given to players, but won't let them kill a damn innkeeper.
Back to the quests... to do them, you follow a magical arrow which appears on your mystical ****ing Compass of Omniscience (well, they don't actually give you an item like this, it's just part of your HUD thingy), which always knows exactly where to go to proceed with whatever you are doing. No exploration or exciting searching for a landmark in a dangerous (Hah! Not in this game!) place is needed, it even alerts you to dungeons 500 yards away. I suppose this is because those exciting jungles I mentioned much earlier don't exist, and the game just has: generic fantasy mountains, generic fantasy grasslands, generic fantasy coniferous forests, with hills and water here and there so Bethesda can make a claim of some variety being present. Hard to tell one area from another when it's all like that. Or maybe the compass is there because the quests are also half-arsed, having about as much substance to them as a fart, from a role-playing perspective especially, but usually from a gameplay perspective, too.
You can't even decline quests, because your character is only marginally more verbal than most FPS protagonists. When offered a quest, you can only say (with minor variations here and there) "Yes" or "Maybe Later". When you eventually get bored with working for Ye Olde Fed-Ex, and say "Yes", your magical Journal of Telling You What to Do Because You Must Be Retarded will say exactly what's going on and what you're SUPPOSED to do in this game that is supposedly so big on player freedom. You want to turn in the Thieves' Guild? Too ****ing bad. The journal says you should join them. Ignore it and do nothing, or obey it. The journal says missionary with the lights out, so you better listen, or you don't get anything. What a *****!
Oh, you also get a horse. Your horse sucks. It can jump, but not very well, so you usually have to make several attempts to jump over anything, and you may as well try going around, instead. Enemies, no matter how ****ing slow they are, will chase you and your horse for approximately the distance between New York and THE FUCKING MOON. If something gets in front of you, even if it's just a damn rat, your horse will run in place until it gets out of the way or you go around it, because apparently things that want to eat your toes have the right of way. Thankfully, there is a quick travel feature that lets you move in simulated real-time to places you have already been, or to cities and towns, though this is probably for the Ritalin-popping crowd, and not because Bethesda realized the horses suck. You can't do this if "enemies are nearby" (for instance, if a small crab is within 100 yards and aware of your presence, prompting a slow kamikaze charge because a huge Orc is invading it's turf, where non-crustaceans are pinched on sight), though, making the horse even more annoying. You could just skip the horse, because running doesn't even tire your Olympic athlete of a character, it only means that the fatigue of jumping and fighting wears off more slowly. Not sure if that's an improvement.
Now, it's not all bad. Like I said, most of the game looks good, and the combat is substantially better than in Morrowind. The few characters who have their own voice actors sound great. And on the rare occasions where I could manage suspension of disbelief, the main story was pretty good, with some really cool parts, and some which I'm sure would have been moving if not for the context (You can't fish a pie out of a cesspool and expect to enjoy it, no matter how nice a pie it would otherwise be). Some quests, particularly segments of the main quest, manage to shine through the dark river of Tdod Howard's excrement here and there, and are quite memorable. Skills and magic use have been tweaked or redone to be more fun and/or more useful, though the replacement of Speechcraft and Security skills being done by the game, to being mini-games, may annoy some, being too easy or too hard or simply unappealing. There's also a lot to do, though most of it is not terribly exciting or interesting, so you can at least get quantity in terms of gameplay, even if quality is generally lacking. You can also turn off the game, then go try to pick every berry off a blackberry bush, I suppose, but will getting jabbed by thorns until your hands are terribly swollen and infected with some horrible flesh-eating pathogen be worth the effort of getting said berries?
I would not say Oblivion is necessarily bad, at least not as a game. As an RPG specifically, it's a blight upon the whole genre, showing what I feel is precisely the wrong direction to go, but just as a game; it manages to have just enough going for it that it can be called decent, on the whole. There are many, many games you'd be better off playing, but it's not really an awful thing if you end up playing Oblivion instead. If you mod it, to at least try and fix the mistakes Bethesda still won't actually acknowledge. or to add some better quests and such, it may actually be quite good. I suppose part of my problem with it is just that I feel the whole thing is a big mistake that nobody will accept as such, but that's not the fault of the game itself.
In the end, I'm just one man with no say in the direction the gaming industry goes. I just hope that Oblivion is an evolutionary dead end... and that someday, I may be able to kick Bethesda in their collective balls and take all their wallets for tricking me into buying it with a mastery of bullshit that should impress even Peter Molyneux. Who knows? Maybe it will happen!
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