Blog 490: The Elder Blogs: Oblivion

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).

If I can't steal dinner then I'm going to bloody well ruin it by WALKING UP AND DOWN THE TABLE. Somebody stop me!

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.

At least Oblivion gates offer a nice long holiday from any frustrations of the real world, usually enough to gain two whole levels.

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.

Game characters always blink when you screenshot them, just like in real life.

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.

Humiliating defeat!

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.

Glass armour wouldn't be out of place as some alternative green Iron Man costume.

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?).

Mister Arena, for example, has purely specific lines and no generics (you can't even do speechcraft on him). Why couldn't he have had a different voice?

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?

Even today we don't seem to have the technology to make computer game characters smile without contorting their faces into derpland.

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!).

Daedra Flasher Revealed To Be Eunuch Shocker!

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10 thoughts on “Blog 490: The Elder Blogs: Oblivion

  1. Some good points here. The high points of Oblivion for em where: the main quest, The Dark Brotherhood and Theives guild quest liens, and the Shivering Isles DLC. The other Guild quest lines and the Knights of the Nine DLC were decent, but most minor quests were easily forgettable, and dungeon crawling was a chore. The modders for Oblivion had a lot more to work with than Morrowind modders did, so the mods managed to make up for a good amount of the games basic flaws, but in the end, it wasn’t as fun as Morrowind was, even though Oblivion had a far more accessible plot, and could be played with a variety of play-styles without crippling your character.

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    • I found the Shivering Isles a mixed bag, though everyone else seems to love it. On the one hand, yes, it brings back the vibrant and unusual landscapes… On the other, almost every line of dialogue is “lol im so random haha xxxxxx” which starts to grate after a while.

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  2. So you are a heavy armor player? Well, sneaking in Oblivion is fine for you if remove the boots and with the right perk it does not encumber you at all in Skyrim 😀 Morrowind really is a little bit more demanding. Your comment on Daedric armor is correct, the pauldrons and cuirass of Daedric armor are missing, but get added in Bloodmoon and Tribunal. You had to kill the old wizard of Tel Fyr to get them before, essentially destroying the MQ if you had not contacted Corprus yet. This just leads us to other things where Morrowind is ahead of Oblivion/Skyrim. It was your freedom to harm essential characters and make certain quest inaccessible, now essentials behave like practice dummies and your Daedric warhammer + enchantments are not sufficient to kill them. The quest for Daedric items really was rewarding. If you choose not to kill Fyr (I always come to steal the cuirass of savior’s hide) you actually had to ship from Vvardenfell to Solstheim and cross the entire island, ship back and teleport to the mainland to get the cuirass & 1 pauldron in the later stages of Tribunals MQ (and if you don’t search for it, it is not easy to find). Sad to see cave bandits in Oblivion with said armor (nothing you can’t fix with a balance mod 🙂 In fact, I do not recommend playing it without one at all), and your knowledge on Daedric armor in Skyrim makes it possible to create one or seventy-four of them at any possible forge after crafting ~200 iron daggers. : /

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    • Not to mention the huge back door that means, even if you break the main quest, you can still murder Vivec, take the tools to the last dwarf and still complete the game…

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    • Have you tried the “backdoor” mainquest? I actually never did, because I heard it was extremly hard (permanent loss of HP because of Kagrenac’s tools or something like that?). But the remote possibility of having such a backdoor is completly unheard of nowadays, although it is an interesting and also very logical string of events.

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    • Well, that’s true for szre. I just got another reason to play Morrowind’s main quest yet again. Although it will propably take a long time until endurance & strength reach 90-100 and one has found/made enough items with “Fortify Health” enchantments to not get instantly owned by an Ascended Sleeper’s magic

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  3. I have never been a fan of Oblivion either (not comparable to Morrowind where I have spent hundreds of hours), although I have played it quite often, too. When comparing the appeal of both games, I came to my personal conclusion on why Oblivion is good while Morrowind is amazing. For me, it lacked depth and detail. Although the Mythic Dawn was a splendid evil faction, it never felt as fascinating as the Sixth House did. The faction had a shallow background, only few books and little lore. The ever-same looking agents, not enough faction-specific items (6th had goblets, bellhammers, bells, chandles, banners etc.) or special events/titles (the dreamers, corprus, the dagoth-status). The lack of skills (blunt/block… and now 1hand/2hand… no difference in daggers and longswords/maces), the lack of throwing weapons (I loved the stealth factions), the lack of previous features in general ( poison spells 😦 ) and the traveling system. The quest-marker is OK for me, but I don’t like teleporting to almost every place on the map. In Morrowind, you were more or less forced to explore the cities and main roads. The foreign architecture, the different people and the different zones (Telvanni Isles, Ashlands, Bittercoast, Red Mountain, Solstheim, Sheogorath, Ascadian Isles and the Grazelands) made exploring a rewarding and fascinating experience. In Oblivion, I tend to powergame (hate) and do things in a strict order, not wasting any time with smalltalk and exploration.

    Morrwind and Oblivion have great landscapes, but sad dungeons. The Ayleiid-architecture was amazing, dark and made a big impression at first. But this impression faded, because every dungeon looks the same (nearly every dungeon). They lacked distinct features and especially the caves felt machine-made. They did a boring job there, and they really lack the EPICNESS. Morrowind was the same, Skyrim did a better job on this (epic ruins, huge caves, high ceilings, every (nearly) dungeon felt different). I don’t blame Morrowind for that, but they could have learned a bit from playing their own games. Morrowind had some atmospheric dungeons, but they always have the scale of a basement. Why not using more structures like the Akulakhan cave. I like it when I see a dungeon which fills me with awe. It has to make an impact on the player like “This scale of epicness can only be experienced through my computer display” when you see that huge monument or the bottomless holes in an incredibly huge cave. The 140m high ancient tree is another popular example.

    To come to an end, I did not feel like replaying Oblivion thousands of times like I did with Morrowind. Now that Skyrim is out, I feel even less like playing Oblivion. But I can proudly confirm that I played Morrowind just a few hours ago because I just felt like it. Oblivion lacks the detail and the unique atmosphere of Morrowind, which drives one to play it again and again.

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    • oh, and i forgot something which annoyed me endlessly: light armor. Morrowind
      netch -> incredibly cool
      chitin -> quite nice
      nordic fur -> crap
      glass -> not stealthy, but very cool overall

      Oblivion
      fur -> crap
      leather -> too chunky to be stealthy
      chainmail + mithril -> looks OK, but doesn’t look like light armor
      elven -> shiny crap, and THE HELMET OMG
      glass -> do I need to comment on this?
      dark brotherhood -> very very cool, but: only 2 pieces with low armor rating, and both pre-enchanted

      Since I practically always choose light armor or take UNARMORED as a MAIN SKILL, this bugged me. Totally.

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      • I am a man of heavy armour. I love how in Oblivion, Daedric armour is everywhere, while in Morrowind you had to summon it or scour the entire world for a single scattered complete set (in fact, I don’t even think it’s complete). I think Morrowind demands a lot more of the player, perhaps making it more difficult to get into, but producing a much greater reward once you get into it.

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