The last time I did a wee Elder Scrolls binge, I played Morrowind and then went straight to Skyrim. I’ve never had much of a thing for Oblivion; while I find Skyrim‘s viking aesthetic reasonably boring, it’s not half as boring as Oblivion‘s extremely straight trad-fantasy trappings. But these feelings come and go regardless of how your conscious mind might object, and sometimes you just need to float around grassy hills and bash some glass-hammer-wielding minotaurs.
I’ve never actually managed to run Oblivion at maximum graphical power before. I’ve not played it since the machine before this one, whose anemic single-core performance meant I couldn’t squeeze the best out of this game. Not so anymore, oh no. I now very much have powerful single-core performance and a graphics card to match, and you know what? Oblivion is actually very pretty. It’s not just pretty, it’s gorgeous.
The thing I love to hate about Skyrim (and, indeed, any game made since about 2010) is the desaturated colours. Everything just seems to be drab and washed out; apparently that’s what passes for realism in game visuals, the same way big budget Hollywood films colour-grade everything to orange/brown. Oblivion is not washed out. Oblivion is a riot of bright green fields, bright grey rocks, bright brown dirt trails, all winding off into the distance of a bright blue sky.
It’s just such a shame, then, that the architecture depicted in such beautiful colour is utterly uninspired. Every town has real-world medieval wood- and stonework. The Ayleid ruins are straight out of the most boring corner of Lord of the Rings. The plane of Oblivion itself is a very traditional representation of “Hell”. And… that’s kind of it. I remember being thoroughly disappointed when I first came to Oblivion from Morrowind and it simply lacked all of the things I found fascinating and beautiful about the predecessor. That feeling remains.
Even if you strip away the weirdest elements of Morrowind‘s architectures, the mushroom trees and anarchic Daedric temples, because you reckon they won’t appeal to the mainstream, you’re still left with a variety of mundane architectures that are different enough from reality to have a bit of novelty to them; the stucco blocks of Balmora or the monumental cantons of Vivec are fresh without being intimidating. Alas, Oblivion stripped out those too.
Okay, fine, the Shivering Isle brings back some of the novelty, but I haven’t got there yet so shush for now.
It doesn’t help that I managed to fall down exactly the level-scaling hole I wrote about last time I played Skyrim. From a heady cocktail of blade, heavy armour, sneak, security and speechcraft, I got into a situation where one-on-one combat was extremely difficult, and two-on-one utterly impossible. Exactly as feared, my non-combat skills earlydominated my progression such that the scaling algorithm thought I was much more powerful than my actual damage output would suggest.
This is the flip-side of level scaling, because while I was in that situation, I could not find a dungeon that was at an appropriate level for me to complete. There was no possibility of retreating from a dangerous area to an easier one, because every random roadside cave was scaled to the same heights to make it an agonising crawl, and the shops wouldn’t deign to sell me enough potions or superior equipment to brute force the problem. Eventually I managed to struggle free when I get a hold of an ebony greatsword and slapped a fire damage enchantment on it, but it was a painful grind to get there.
The scaling also contributes to an overall lack of significance in finding items. I’ve spent most of the game fighting bandits decked out in mithril armour who are hitting me with glass claymores, and now I’m starting to see marauders in full ebony or even Daedric gear.
In a hand-crafted world, the rarity of such equipment automatically makes it special — even if that speciality is not in wearing it yourself, but in the carting it home to sell for a small fortune. But in Oblivion? Why bother hanging onto that Daedric cuirass when you’re guaranteed to stumble over another Oblivion Gate and get access to ten of the things? (Of course while Skyrim felt like it kept its bandits from bathing in top tier equipment, it only moved this particular problem over a bit when it added crafting.)
In fact, in general I’ve felt like I rocketed through the equipment tiers far too fast. It seemed like I’d barely left the Imperial City when I’d started finding mithril junk on bandits — for a game that prides itself on having hundreds of hours of quests and places to visit, it sure doesn’t give you much time to soak any of it in before the combat plateaus at maximum power.
So yes: I do love to hate Oblivion for how it squandered all that I enjoyed in Morrowind. Maybe I need to accept that Morrowind was simply an aberration and I should stop complaining; Daggerfall wasn’t exactly a bastion of smashing genre conventions either.
But it’s hard to deny that in its moment-to-moment gameplay Oblivion really is better than Morrowind. Melee combat, divested of dice rolls and given special bonus attacks, is just much more mobile and engaging (bonkers balancing aside). The landscape may not be inspired but it is lush and inviting (though I can get basically the same view by… going outside).
Is there a conclusion in here? Oblivion is both good and bad. It annoys me, but I want to keep playing it anyway. Maybe it’s me that has the problem.