A while ago, a cursory glance on the back of the Oblivion box convinced me that it wouldn’t run on my computer. I think that was before I upgraded my video card and added more memory. Recently I was looking and different games, and realized that my machine actually is slightly above the minimum requirements. My video card (venerable Radeon 9800 XT) was not explicitly listed as one of the supported chipsets but believe it did meet the requirements spec-wise. So I finally bit the bullet and decided to install the damn game and see what is it all about.
These are some of my first impressions. When reading this post, please keep two facts in mind. One, I only put few hours into the game. I have seen very little of the in-game content and have only visited 3-4 cities and wandered aimlessly through the wilderness. Two, I’m a huge Morrowind fan. In fact, I think that the $10 I paid to buy the Morrowind jewel case out of the bargain bin was the best investment I have made in years. I have played Morrowin on an off for years, exploring it’s huge world, completing quest trees for most of the factions, exploiting it’s enchantment system and etc. Needless to say, I feel compelled to compare both games.
Someone doubtlessly is going to say that I should not compare the two because of something or other. But I will. Oblivion is technically a sequel, and a spiritual successor to Morrowind. It takes place in the same universe, uses the same background fluff and similar class and leveling system. I know that Oblivion is it’s own game, but it was built out of the stuff that made Morrowind so great.
The character creation system in Oblivion is impressive. It really gives you a fine tuned control over how your character is going to look. Using sets of adjustable sliders you can fine tune just about everything – how far apart your eyes are supposed to be, how wide is your nose ridge, whether or not you will have a pronounced chin, high cheek bones and etc. The only other game with a system this complex was Second Life which BTW, sucked.
I was very pleased with the way it worked, until I realized that it actually takes skill and practice to use these sliders to make good looking characters. Most of the faces that I tried to build and mold from scratch looked like some weird deformed aliens. In the end I pretty much ended up hitting Randomize button repeatedly until I got a workable face, and then fine tuned small details.
In Morrowind, everyone was butt ugly. You actually had to use fan-made mods to get sets of faces that did not look like deformed aliens. Oblivion tried to fix this issue, and created very detailed, hyper-realistic characters. They are not ugly – but they are creepy as hell. All of them suffer from the Uncanny Valley effect big time. Especially if you crank up the Age slider, and the game engine generates weird looking wrinkles in odd locations. Ugh!
You get used to it after a while. Still, I remember the characters from Morrowind more fondly, especially after applying some of the mods that exchanged facial textures for better ones. They were uglier, less realistic, less mobile, had no facial expressions and yet seemed more alive.
In Morrowind, you get to create your character in the first 5 minutes of the game by talking to a few guards and Imperial officials. Someone asks you for a name, another person asks you for your sign, then you fill out “paperwork” regarding your occupation (eg. your class) and are set free to roam the huge world.
Oblivion takes this idea, and stretches it into a 30-40 minute tutorial. You have to go through this lengthy dungeon crawl with many scripted events, and dialogs and you don’t even get to pick your class until like half an hour into the game. I can totally see how they wanted to ease the player into the game by doing this but I didn’t like it. It was to long, and too claustrophobic.
Let me give you a comparison: first thing you see when you start playing Morrowind is an open world. You see a village, people milling around and a huge, sinisterly looking giant bug in the distance (later you find out it is not an enemy but a domesticated beast and a local equivalent of a public bus). 5 minutes later you are set loose in that village, free to go anywhere. When you start Oblivion you are presented with a very linear dungeon crawl, interrupted by occasional scripted events. To me it almost seemed like a chore you need to get through before you actually get to play the real game.
If you ignore the Uncanny Valley effect, Oblivion is very pretty. The trees rustle in the wind, birds and butterflies can be seen flitting around. When you move through the wilderness you will spot deer, rabbits and other creatures that are not hell bent on killing you. It is a nice change from Morrowind that featured abnormally aggressive (if not homicidal) wildlife. I had some slight issues with the leaf animation though but I blame my video card. Whenever there is the aforementioned “rustling in the wind” going on, I get strange visual artifacts such as green vertical and horizontal lines flickering all across the screen. It happens mainly around the Imperial City and tends to go away when I get closer, or move around. It doesn’t happen inside of buildings or in dungeons where there are not trees. Anyone else got that issue?
Other than that the game is truly stunning. I also love the collision detection effects which now allow me to bump into items and hit them. For example, if I swing my sword at a cup or a vase, it will fall off the table. This did not happen in Morrowind.
The user interface in Oblivion is clunky to say the least. You can immediately see it was designed with consoles in mind. I much preferred the drag and drop based Morrowind UI even if it tended to be clumsy at times. At least you had pretty much everything you needed on a single screen. That system only needed a little bit polishing and I can’t figure out why they replaced it. Actually, scratch that – I know why. It was not compatible with console.
Oblivion splits the interface into multiple panels, which have their own sub-panels. The panels themselves don’t actually fill the whole screen, and show you only few items at a time requiring a lot of scrolling around. It’s a mess.
Morrowind had no mini games. When you wanted to lock-pick a door, you’d just hit it with a lock pick and would either hear a satisfying click, or disappointing clunk. It was all based on dice rolls, so if your Security skill was high, you could open most doors on a first or second attempt. You could keep spamming the button until you succeed, or used up your lock pick.
Oblivion changed this mechanic to a mini-game where you get to actually pick the lock. So you get to push the tumblers, lock them into place and etc. It’s a bit silly, since there is still an element of chance involved in the game. High level locks will mercilessly break your lock picks as if they were made of glass. Personally I thought that the lock picking mini-game from Thief was better than this, but oh well.
Not to mention the fact that merely clicking on a locked door will trigger the lock picking mode. This is trouble – I can’t tell you how many times I got arrested because of this (ok, I’ll tell you – four times). I’d walk into some room, click on a door, see the lockpicking screen come up, go “Agh, fuck! Cancel! Cancel!” only to get face full of guard when I finally got out of it. In Morrowind you could attempt to open a locked door without getting in trouble. You actually had to equip a lock pick to try to break into it, and I think I liked that system better.
I also found few plot driven doors in the game. By that I mean doors that cannot be picked, but must be opened with a key you need to obtain via some quest. No such doors existed in Morrowind, and I am firm believer they should not exist at all. I know why they are in the game though – they prevent you from breaking the game by going into areas you are not supposed to visit until you are doing a specific quest. But it’s annoying, and I resent this hand holding.
The persuasion mini game is equally silly. In Morrowind I could just sit there and spam the Admire button until the person liked me or hated me. It was simple and easy. In Oblivion I have to play that little game. Conceptually it seems interesting. You alternate between admiration, joking, compliments and observe how the person reacts. I wish it actually made logical sense. For example, some people would be more receptive to admiration, others would respond to jokes, while some wouldn’t respect you if you didn’t treat them like shit. It would add depth to the randomly generated NPC’s and make them seem like they had personalities. But unfortunately the game is purely mechanical, and tells you nothing about the person you are playing against. It’s a timed logical puzzle – nothing else. I was disappointed.
One thing that bothered me the most about this game was the way all major cities were implemented as separate cells – they are technically their own, self contained dungeons. In Morrowind all the major settlements were part of the game world. You could pass through them without stopping, jump over the city walls and etc. In oblivion all the cities are enclosed inside of high walls. The only ways in or out are city gates, which present you with a loading screen. That means it is probably impossible to jump or fly over the walls, and get into cities in ways other than the designated access points.
This makes these self contained settlements seem to be separate little environments, set apart from the outside world. I don’t know why, but this bothers me. Every time I enter a city, I am painfully aware that I moved into a new in-game cell and for all intents and purposes I am now “indoors”. It’s silly but that’s how I feel.
In addition, I suspect that all the cities suffer from a Tardis effect as well. That is, they are bigger on the inside than on the outside. This was typical of buildings in Morrowind, but now it applies to whole cities.
Believe it or not, but somehow the upgraded combat system in Oblivion seems less intuitive to me than that in Morrowind. But perhaps this is because I’m not used to the new system. I sort of miss being able to hold my mouse button, and then release it for a more powerful attack. Holding the attack button in Oblivion does seem to produce a stronger attack, but you can’t hold it indefinitely. It just hits by itself after a short delay and you need to time it just right.
On the other hand, I really like that Oblivion finally allows you to make an active use of the Block skill. In Morrowind blocking was pretty much left to chance and it was a fairly useless skill. Now you can actually hit a button to block, which is great. There is still some dice rolling in the background, and you still seem to take damage when you block (at least at the lower levels) but it is an improvement.
Big new addition are horses, and they are great. One of the first things I did in the game was to steal one to see how it is to ride it. It’s great! But not awesome. I quickly realized that the horses were not all they had cracked up to be when I got attacked by some highway bandit and no matter what I did, my character would not draw his sword. Apparently, you can’t fight from a horse. You also can’t take your horse into any of the major cities. You have to leave it at the gates, which is stupid. That last annoyance was probably not a conscious design choice, but a side effect of the cities being self contained cells. Designers did not want you to enter buildings on a horse, so when mounted you are not allowed to open doors. Since cities are simply bigger buildings in this game, horses are banned from their streets.
I really, really, really miss the fast travel system from Morrowind. Last week I made that poll about different fast travel implementations but I must admit that I haven’t realized how bad Map Based method can be until I played this game. The fact that you can instantly wrap to every major city in the game from the get go just adds insult to injury. Planning long trips and clever use of Mark and Recall spells in Morrowind were part of the fun. Traveling in Oblivion is a no-brainer.
So far the game has a very Medieval Europe look and feel to it. That is, if you ignore the Orcs, Elves, cats and lizards. But the architectural look and feel of most areas I visited is very down to earth and almost historical. The shrines and temples look strikingly similar to Catholic churches and priests wear brown robes, and the “bald on top” hairdos typical of medieval monks. There is nothing wrong with that. In fact, I’m sure that some people will argue that this more realistic setting helps the game to be more immersive.
That said, I totally miss the high fantasy setting from Morrowind. I miss the gigantic silt striders towering over everything. I miss the funky buildings made of some ancient giant crab shells or overgrown mushrooms. I miss the flying jellyfish and the bizarre kwama creatures. I miss the towering zigurrats of Vivec city and the fucked up architecture of Daedric shrines. I miss seeing ruined Dwemer towers peaking over mountains. I miss the living gods, and the all-present theocracy. Next to all that funky stuff, Oblivion’s world seems incredibly bland. If it wasn’t for the brief moments when NPC’s mention “The Nine” (meaning the good Daedra) it almost feels like a different world altogether.
While this post is a long rant, enumerating Oblivions shortcomings compare to his aged predecessor, please keep in mind that I have not given up on the game. Some of my complaints can be easily fixed using mods. Others, I can live with. It is not Morrowind but I’m willing to give Bedsheda a benefit of a doubt. I just need to keep in mind that Cyodill is a much more tame place than the oddball Vanderfell island with it’s ancient secrets, bizarre animals and corpus disease.
How did you guys like this game? What was your favorite part? Which aspect of it you hated the most? No spoilers please!