Curiouser and curiouser.
It used to be that buying a console game gave you a certain quality advantage over PC gamers. Since console games couldn’t be fixed once they were shipped, developers had to get things right the first time. With PC titles, however, game companies took (and still take) less care because they knew they could always patch their work later. Essentially they were using an unwitting public to do their beta testing for them.
But with all the consoles online now, that unfortunate circumstance has come to a television near you, arriving in the form of The Shivering Isles
, an expansion pack for Bethesda's epic The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion
. While it offers an eccentric through-the-looking-glass experience, the Shivering Isles'
bug infestation is impossible to overlook.
But let’s start with the good stuff, and by good, I mean weird. The Shivering Isles are lands of madness, literally, because all the inhabitants are pretty much insane. The realm is split into two halves, complete with a bipolar capital city.
The northern half, known as Mania, is colorful and raucous, and its inhabitants espouse the insanity of the artist. They favor any mind altering substances, and nurture the creative, if mad, spirit.
Living in uneasy coexistence are the residents of Dementia. These deranged denizens embrace the dark side of the psyche, those deep and forbidden desires you’re not supposed to talk about. Rather than squelch their perversions, the Demented embrace and celebrate them.
You will travel both lands during your quest to serve Sheogorath, the mad god who rules the isles, and you’ll have a good time doing it. One quest, for example, is to repair a dungeon that is used as a trap for those entering the Shivering Isles. Once repaired, you move through a series of control rooms watching over an intrepid band of adventurers that have entered the dungeon. In each room you have controls you can use to either drive them mad with illusions and psychedelic gasses, or kill them in particularly gruesome ways.
Not all the quests are as creative as that, however. In fact, there are an awful lot of simple fetch-and-carry scenarios. A particular mission for the Duke of Mania, for example, required that I take some of his mind altering drugs to enter a quest area and return his stolen chalice. With almost limitless opportunity for weirdness, I was ready for anything.
Unfortunately I got nothing, because all that happens when you take the drugs is that the door opens. If any of you found the fantastical oil painting side quest in the original Oblivion, you'll understand how disappointing this was.
Even Sheogorath himself is more annoying than uncanny, “Or maybe he’s not. Perhaps he’s a plate of biscuits. I do so like biscuits. But I don’t like him, so he’s probably not biscuits.” Let’s just say it takes him a long time to ever get to the point. On the other hand, Haskill (the butler of madness) is a droll Jeeves-esque character who will crack you up. Especially once you gain the ability to summon him at will for advice.
While the Shivering Isles offers new items, monsters, herbs, characters and quests, the game itself remains fundamentally unchanged. The graphics are still excellently detailed, but are still subject to some stuttering and popup. There’s no new music, so keep your MP3’s handy.
The Shivering Isles
also features Oblivion
’s pervasive challenge-scaling so you can take a new character through the new content, or just bring back your uber-avatar who defeated the Gates of Oblivion. Which is, unfortunately, where things get crazy in bad ways.
I brought back my original character to explore the new realm, and spent my first two hours just trying to find them. Oblivion, with its magical police alert system, unavoidable city gates, and infallible stolen goods ID system, is a very, very unfriendly game for the criminal lifestyle. Still I was determined, and my bloodthirsty vampire mage had managed to sack an entire city and otherwise terrify the populace.
I finally figured out that you need to have a clean criminal record to even locate the entrance to the Shivering Isles. With my head hung low, I surrendered to guards I could have eaten had I wanted to. A hefty fine, long jail sentence, and some lost skills later, and suddenly *poof* the gate to the Shivering Isles appears.
Using my long-standing character also exposed the release’s biggest bug: after a long time playing, the game runs out of ID numbers for items, and things just start disappearing. Minor things. Important things. Quest items. My tour of the Museum of Oddities was indeed odd, as there was hardly anything in the museum – just empty shelves.
As of three days ago, more than a month after the release date, there is a patch to fix the problem. Of course, that’s no help to me, as my saved games are already corrupt. And it also wasn’t the only bug. Twice I became immobilized by terrain features and had to revert to my most recent save.
The Shivering Isles may be fixed now, but I’m here to review the game I played. And unfortunately, that game was badly broken. Too many people out there paid $30 for the privilege of being a beta tester, and that’s just not right.
Meanwhile, The Shivering Isles is a little bit too right in the head. We expected to have our sanity challenged by talking dogs and barking women, not game breaking, data corrupting bugs. Still, those of you without corrupted save files might consider a trip to the land of madness – it is a strange and bemusing place, and at least it’s more Oblivion. I just can’t figure out what the developers were thinking when they let ship a broken game. Were they insane?