I haven’t played Oblivion since the first time. I skittered off it, though in a totally different manner than my first encounters with Morrowind. I played it through, played quite a lot of it, but it ultimately left me cold.
That was, however, a stupid number of years ago. It’s high time for a re-examination.
The Elder Scrolls IV
Oblivion is very much a game “of its time”. There’s a certain look and feel that a lot of games from that era seem to have; it keeps reminding me of Deus Ex: Invisible War. Normal mapping and physics engines and bloom were exciting new innovations and everyone went to town with them. I suppose it’s just the way that corpses behave like so many invulnverable sacks of jelly, emitting blood but never splitting open, slithering down slopes with little regard for previous solidity.
When I first played Oblivion, I had to run it on bare metal settings because my computer just wasn’t up to it. Sadly, despite having a computer four years of technology ahead of that old rig (though now pushing four years behind current trends), I’m still running the game barely touching middle settings — I might have four cores, but each of them is only 2.3Ghz and Oblivion just doesn’t have the balls to split itself between them.
Even still, the framerate fluctuates between 130 and 30 frames per second, beholden to unknown whims (it certainly doesn’t entirely correlate with how much action there is on screen).
Mechanically, Oblivion is often better than Morrowind but also considerably streamlined. It feels very easy to be a jack-of-all-trades, and a not even a mediocre one — with the weapon skills compressed from long swords, short swords, axes, spears and blunt into just blade and blunt, you’ve only got to focus on two skills to be able to proficiently wield every single weapon in the world. Suddenly there’s no need to focus on being a quick shortsworder or a slower but more powerful longsworder (or having to sacrifice other skills to be both); you can be all fighting things to all men very easily.
The mushing together of (some) skillsets seems to be just a symptom of greater rot, though. Take, for example, the Mages’ Guild recommendation quest for the Bravil chapter.
In order to complete the quest, you are required to cast the Charm spell a few times — fair enough, it is the Mages‘ Guild. But you don’t get given a charm spell and told to (learn to) cast it, you get given charm scrolls (amusingly, the reward for this quest is the charm spell). An elite organisation of magic users, and the entry requirements for Mister Player Character are precisely zilch: read scrolls to win. At least the Fighter’s Guild and Thieves Guild have some kind of natural selection, in that their quests involve fighting and thieving and no amount of lockpicks or fancy swords will make up for you being totally pants.
I think this attitude does the game a disservice.
If you can be all things to all men, a huge slab of the whole lasting-consequences jig that we tend to play these kinds of games for is cut away. When I decided in Morrowind that I wanted to have both long and short swords as my focus, I had to drop fun things like alchemy (fun is relative) and accept that, without massive amounts of training, my character would never be any good at it. In Oblivion… Well, most of my non-levelling skills are still buffing quite nicely in the background.
I suppose the removal of casting/brewing failure means that even at low levels you can still perform these actions (whereas in Morrowind, you most definitely could not), so it’s much easier to get off the ground with a low-level skill.
Having said that, despite the streamlining of other elements, combat is vastly improved. While even Arena and Daggerfall at least encouraged rocking back and forward during combat, Morrowind most often consisted of you and your opponent standing still and knocking lumps out of each other (I keep thinking of how the fight in Tribunal with Almalexia’s rogue Hand should have been a collossal back-and-forth skirmish across all of Godsreach, when in reality it was a slug-fest that barely moved out of a ten foot square).
Oblivion‘s opponents are a lot more mobile — combine this with heavy blows and blocking staggering opponents back (and even spontaneously turning them into jelly and firing them away, at higher levels), and you will find yourself taking up a lot more space.
Plus, blocking is an active ability, so it’s actually useful (and can thus be relied upon as a major levelling skill). It seems like a simple thing, but suddenly you (and your enemies) have another option with which to add spice to battles.
That’s not to say combat is without issues; animations seem to be a bit peculiar, as I’ve often found myself staggered by an inconsequential-looking hand movement from an opponent, or been knocked back by hitting a shield that wasn’t being held up to block at the time.
And, well, level scaling. Games are supposed to ramp up as you go (and leave terrible low-level enemies for hot-knife-through-buttering to let you feel like a hero), not remain completely static regardless of your power level. I can understand things like important quest lines being tweaked to an extent to avoid them becoming irrelevant after a few days of side-quest cheesing, but skewing the entire universe seems a bit much.
I couldn’t blog about Oblivion without mentioned its voice acting. In Morrowind, they could get away with only having five voice actors because every conversation wasn’t hidden behind vocals — the only noises people made were infrequent barks as you walked past or fought them. But with every single line of dialogue in the entire world voiced by the same handful of people…
Even though Oblivion has considerably less dialogue than Morrowind, it’s still got a terrifying amount of voice work in it — they must have chained the actors to a studio for weeks to get it all done.
But this causes all the characters to smush together. Because dialogue remains a mixture of unique individual- or organisation-specific lines and wider generic lines, each character can’t have any fun nuances because they’ve all got to mesh with the generics (removing the generics from actual characters and giving them specific sets wasn’t an option?).
Okay, in Morrowind you could still tell the generic pieces of text against the special pieces of text, but without the voice there’s a degree of abstraction that makes it easier to swallow. With real live voices, it seems much harder to suspend disbelief when everyone sounds exactly the same. I spent most of my first playthrough of Oblivion listening to my new Marsheaux CDs (they should be due a new album soon, looking forward to that), and sadly I have seen little reason not to continue in the same vein this time.
A more viable strategy might have been to follow in the footsteps of Baldur’s Gate II, where party interactions and much of the main quest dialogue were voice, but the rest of the game kept on as pure text. At least that would have let them slip in a couple of sly references to your character’s given name. Hell, you don’t even pick your arena title until you’re challenging for champion — couldn’t you have done that at the start so the announcer didn’t have to say “Combatant From the Blue Team” every time?
Overall, what can I say? It’s not so much a continuation of Morrowind‘s archetype as a swap-shopped alternative, where we have sacrified some features for others. Mechanical refinement came at the cost of streamlined skill choices; conversational depth and wordiness got traded in for voices. I think some of the sacrifices should have been unnecessary, and I remain unconvinced that the pure voice acting adds enough for the massive cost it has exacted.
But my opinion has certainly mellowed since last time. Oblivion is not a terrible game, and though it’s certainly not quite as good as Morrowind, it’s still got plenty to offer. I’ve held off a little way through the main quest, and am pursuing various guild lines — I’ve still not touched the Knights of the Nine or Shivering Isles content at all yet, and I fully intend to do so (I barely got into the Shivering Isles before calling it a day last time, so no spoilers!).