Friday, May 23, 2008

The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion

Warning: This review is longer than the actual game.

If Quest for Glory was remade today , it would be very close to The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Both games have day/night cycles, thieves guilds, fighters guilds, mages guilds, goblin caves, trolls, tons of side-quests, a huge world to explore, a horse-like creature that you can buy for fast travel, at least three different character classes to choose from, stats that level up in real time as you preform them, a weight system in-game for everything you carry, magical spells, and the list goes on and on (and QFG is a 20 year old game, mind you).

That being said, Oblivion is more of an interactive world than an interactive story, as opposed to other games like Half-Life. Oblivion's main selling point is its enormous depth and size, which easily puts every single Final Fantasy and Zelda game to shame. The world in Oblivion is massive, and just to explore it, without completing any quests, would take dozens of hours and even days to do. In terms of size you could say it's about as big as a small San Fernando Valley, and your horse is as fast as a car. It is this world and the attention to detail in it, that makes the game such a joy just to be in, much like in other games such as Freelancer.
Though despite all of its detail and sheer number of locations, the world in Oblivion feels copied and pasted many times over. After trudging through one small section of the land, you can run into all the game has to offer, which would be shrines, wells, caves, ruins, forts, and towns. Every single section of the world has these same landmarks, and because of that, none of it feels unique. In Quest For Glory, every single landmark was clearly identifiable from the rest. There were locations like 'Erana's Peace,' 'The Druid's Tree,' and 'The Troll's Cave.' Every location in Oblivion feels like a generic copy of each other, and so, that is one aspect of the world that makes me as a player lose my suspension of disbelief.

Oblivion's main fault however is due to its main strength. Because the world is so huge and massive, and the designers wanted the player to be able to roam freely in whatever direction he chooses, this creates a situation where the designers don't know which direction the player will take. Most games today are very linear (like Portal), where the designers specifically create each section of a level to evoke a certain response from the player, and they essentially hold the player's hand until the ending, making sure the player experiences everything he was intended to. In Oblivion, this is impossible since the designers don't know in which order the player will experience the game.

Continuing from that, the designers don't know what level the player will be when he reaches a certain cave. He could be level 2, making all the enemies too hard, or he could be level 15, making all the enemies too easy. In many other RPGs, like Final Fantasy and KoTOR, the games are on a set path of progression, so the designers have a good idea of what level the player is, at a certain section in the game. Because of this they can appropriate the player's skill level and set the enemy's skill level accordingly.

Now, since Oblivion can't do this, rather than risk making certain sections of the game too easy or too hard, the game scales all the enemies whenever the player levels up. This means that whenever you get to level 17 and get a nice set of Glass Armor and a 20 Damage sword, all your enemies will get similar weapons and armor. This is understandable, but it really destroys the game internally.

Role Playing Games are all about a sense of achievement. When you gain a new skill, level up, or kill an enemy and get enough gold to buy that new set of armor, you feel like you accomplished something. You want to feel like your character is getting stronger as you keep playing. But if all the enemies followed you every time you made progress to get better weapons and improve yourself, that sense of accomplishment is lost and everything feels pointless. That's what kills Oblivion on the inside, since leveling up and acquiring better items often feels in vain as your enemies will just get better too. To be fair to the game, your character does get better than a few sets of enemies, but these are mostly the weaker creatures like rats and mud crabs. Any character that wields a weapon or armor is always scaled to match you. There is no easy way to solve this problem, but their current solution doesn't seem adequate.

Moving on, Oblivion, like all RPGs, has an epic main storyline. The main quest itself is quite good, although it does take a few pointers from Lord of the Rings, and can probably be beaten in under 20 hours (assuming you skip the side-quests associated with it). However, there is a real lack of tension or building momentum up to the final battle. One of the reasons that attributes to this is the fact that you can drop the main quest for up to dozens of hours to do something else and then come back to it only to finally finish it at your own pace. You can literally leave the main story, right after a critical battle takes place where they need your help, and come back fifty days later to find it waiting for you again.

Now, if you don't want to embark on the main quest, there's plenty of side-quests for you to chill out in and explore this world. There are four main guilds, each with its own quests, requiring you to do special tasks to raise your rank, plus there are normal side-quests that you can do as any character.

But once again, there's a couple of serious issues with all of the side-quests. First of all, the point in doing side-quests for me is to
a) Gain Experience to level up my character for the main quest.
b) Gain Gold to buy new items.
You can scratch (a) out, since all the enemies scale up with you, and you can scratch (b) out as well for one main reason: most side-quests reward you with between 100-300 gold. By the time you actually do most of the side-quests, your character is such a high level that slapping the occasional passer-by on a city road means he drops 2000 gold worth of loot in a 1 minute battle. Now who wouldn't take that any day instead of spending 30 minutes on a lame side-quest that gives you only 200 gold?
I also would've liked it if there were more choices in each quest, like KoTOR's quests, where you could end each quest a good or evil way. Most quests in Oblivion only let you end the quest the way the game wants you to.

There's also another problem with many of the side-quests: Loading screens. Loading screens for cities run as high as 25 seconds, and for houses run as high as 10-15 seconds. This isn't that bad, but when you're traversing this world as much as I am, it becomes a serious nuisance. Many side-quests which you MUST complete in order to raise your rank in the guild of your choice are pretty much summed up like this:
1. Go to the guild hall and get your quest, which requires you to go to another city. (25 seconds of loading to other city)
2. In the other city, enter so-and-so's home to get your task. (10 seconds of walking, 15 seconds of loading)
3. They tell you to go to "blah-blah" cave and kill "blah-blah" (20 seconds of talking)
4. Do it. (25 seconds of loading to outside of cave, 15 seconds of loading entering cave, X# of minutes killing said bad guy)
5. Report back to the guild hall and repeat. (25 seconds of loading to city, 10 seconds of walking to guild hall, 15 seconds of loading to interior, 10 seconds of talking)
This literally has you staring at loading screens for more time than actually playing the game. And sometimes, you're not even required to go kill anything, so you just go back to the return city for another loading screen. And you have to do this about 8-14 times for each guild, each time the reward being a basically useless ring or an insignificant amount of gold. When you're trying to complete all the side-quests one by one, this is the only way to do it, and it becomes extremely tedious.
That's also one thing I liked so much about (Resident Evil and Call of Duty)4--The loading screens in those games were virtually non-existent. I didn't even realize I was in a loading screen by the time the location changed. It was great!

Lastly is the issue with the gameplay's economy, specifically of gold and things you can do with it. I'm a believer in that there should always be something better to buy or something to use your gold on, otherwise there's no point in collecting more gold, thus killing a whole gameplay element. In Oblivion, the extravagances of buying every house, one or two horses, and anything actually useful prices up to about $200,000. I got to that mark faster than I realized (especially due to the fact that every passer-by dropped $2000 worth of loot), which meant that after I bought every house for sale in the land of Cyrodiil, there was nothing more to buy, so I was basically left with another $200,000 in my pocket and truckloads worth of potions and magical scrolls that I would never use.
Knights of the Old Republic didn't have this problem, because there was a special space station in the game that had highly valuable items always up for sale, and it was nearly impossible to acquire every single one, so you always wanted to get more money in that game.

Still, despite its issues, the majority of the gameplay in Oblivion is well-balanced and incredibly deep. There are many ways to achieve each of your goals, whether that be killing people, making money, or getting a quest done. One example of this would be the degradable weapons and armor. System Shock 2 also had this, but it was very unbalanced in that game. In System Shock 2, weapons usually started at health level 3/10 when you picked them up, and lost a level only after firing them for several shots. With few replacement weapons around, and only one way of repairing them (through small tools that cost money and were hard to find), the degradable weapons became a nuisance. In Oblivion though, you have a lot of choices of how to solve this problem. You can repair the items yourself with repair hammers (easily acquired anywhere in the world), or you could have them repaired by an in-game smithy, or you could drop the weapon and pick up another one like it, also easily found all over the game world.

The only real issue with the combat is that there is no sure-fire way to take on multiple enemies at once. This can be considered as a feature, forcing the player to tackle one enemy at a time, but it seems odd since every other First Person (shooter) gives you a way to kill multiple bad guys at the same time, usually in the form of grenades, a rapid-fire weapon, or some kind of rocket launcher. The only thing close to this in Oblivion is a splash damage fire/ice/lightning spell, but if you're not a magic character, then you're basically all out of luck.

In conclusion, is Oblivion worth playing? Yes, it is! The sheer depth of the world and everything you can do in it is worth experiencing, much like it is in other huge games, one of those being Freelancer. The first half of Oblivion is excellent, sending you on a variety of different tasks and quests, but then the game has you enter way too many Oblivion Gates, and sends you to a ridiculously hard nightmarish hell for one hour over and over.
As a superficial experience, Oblivion is a great game and a very enjoyable ride. Only if you care about internal game mechanics--and only if you notice it about fifty hours in--will you dislike the game, assuming you have 100+ hours of your life to throw away anyway. As a game, I would recommend it, but if you want a more concise gameplay and storytelling experience, you're probably better off with KoTOR, Zelda, Final Fantasy, or even the twenty year old Quest For Glory series.

Final Score:




At 5/24/2008 2:34 PM, Blogger ifedajay said...

Sounds like much bueno fun!


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