Oblivion First Impression

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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.

Character Creation

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.

Forced Tutorial

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.

Visuals

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.

User Interface

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.

Minigames

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.

Cities

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.

Combat

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.

Horses

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.

Fast Travel

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.

Fluff

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.

Conclusion

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!

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12 Responses to Oblivion First Impression

  1. Jakob DENMARK Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    I loathed the character creation in Oblivion. I moved a slider until that option looked good, only to find out that is moved a nother slider an ruined my work. One has to be very patient and dedicated to make a good looking character, which I aren’t when I want to smack heads in. For comparassion, Mass Effect has a character creation setup with a few less sliders than Oblivion, but they weren’t interconnected and made the whole proccess smother.

    I didn’t like combat. Melee combat is hard, since distance judgment goes out the window in the realm of 2D screens. Bows and arrows were better. Tough I did enjoy stealth quite a bit. Quite satistying to sneak into a dungeon and do some great damage. And let us not forget the Dark Brotherhood quests >:) Some of them where are diabolical (like when you are required to socialise in order to…). Sure, one could just run in, bash some skulls and run out. But the fact that one was awarded with an extra goodie to succesfully complete an additional demand was fun :D

    I had some fun for a few hours, but it ended being very grinding.

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  2. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @Jakob: Heh, that’s exactly what my brother said about the character creation system. They could have cut down the number of sliders in half, and it would make no difference. In fact it would probably make the interface more intuitive.

    He actually spent over an hour messing around with the system one day trying to design proportional faces with a healthy complexion. You kinda have to know how to mix the colors in order to get something that doesn’t look like a zombie. Being an art major he actually got a kick out of it. Me, not so much. My Bosmer character actually looks like she did her makeup in the dark but that’s probably because I just wanted to get to the game. :P

    Good point about combat. I noticed that it was much easier to judge distance in Morrowind when enemies were not so jumpy, and they didn’t use all these lounging attacks that knock you back.

    That said, I sort of like how weapon range plays a crucial role now. Claymore vs. dagger combat is much more lopsided and realistic. I sort of wish you could use spears in this game cause they would totally let you exploit the range thing.

    Also, how in the hell Axes are blunt weapons?

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  3. vacri AUSTRALIA Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    All the faces in Oblivion suck, and suck hard. Character creation is mostly an exercise in creating a face that doesn’t make you physically ill when you see it, rather than creating a particular look. It’s amazing that they did all this work and no-one thought to say “hey… our faces really suck”.

    To make matters worse, you create your character’s look lit by torchlight, something that you don’t see much during the game, so what looks good there may or may not look good out in the world.

    Oblivion was a lot of fun, but one of the things that killed the immersion a bit for me was when common bandits started wearing high level ‘glass’ and ‘daedric’ armor as your character became more powerful.

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  4. Mart SINGAPORE Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    Some things I don’t like about Oblivion are:

    Fast travel

    The ability to teleport after visiting a place, no matter how remote, makes me a really lazy player. It somehow does kill the sprawling world concept. I would really love to have some form of inter-city transportation. And this also somehow makes the horse slightly useless.

    Become everyone

    I can be the CEO of the Fighter’s Guild, the Dark Brotherhood, the Thieves’ Guild and the Magic Guild (forgot the name) all at the same time. No matter how you align your character, what skillset your character has, you can be everyone. The quests to bring up your career in each guild is very fun to play, but completely kills the uniqueness of all your different characters.

    World leveling

    I would prefer to have areas of varying difficulty. A high-level area can be accessible, but make it dangerous for you to do so at level 1. At the same time, when I am of higher levels, I would prefer to visit a low-level area and feel like I am the Absolute Power. Somehow, by allowing the world to level with you, it makes the leveling, a core component of any RPG, a moot point. If I can save the world at level 1, why bother to become more powerful?

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  5. Mart SINGAPORE Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    Forgot to add to the last point about World Leveling:

    Something like Might & Magic 6 is cool. I can visit any high level areas as a lowbie, but is restricted to town or some “safe and guarded area”. When I become high and powerful, I can return to the starting area and mercilessly slaughter all the creep that was bothering me at level 1.

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  6. Morten DENMARK Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    My biggest gripe with Oblivion was probably the world leveling system. If I recall correctly then after you’ve levelled up 5 major skills, you can rest and level up which will also allow you to get improved attributes. Unfortunately, I had athelatics as a major skill, a skill that will only allow me to run faster which isn’t of much use, so I levelled up being only marginally stronger at combat (thinking that levelling up was always a good idea, how very wrong I was) only to find that enemies who used be easy are now really hard. After that, I got pretty sick of the game.

    I could have used the difficulty slider, but that felt really lame. Same for “exploiting” the game, by not resting until I had leveled up 10 major skills (like “power gamers” do).

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  7. Alphast NETHERLANDS Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    Ok. My take on this (I am, as you know, a big fan of Morrowinf and a very moderate fan of Oblivion):
    * Faces: yes, it’s ugly, but with a bit of use, you manage to get some ok looking people (my current character is not stunning, but pretty ok). This said, isn’t it a bit more realistic? ;-)
    * Tutorial: not that bad once you realize that it proposes you a character that fits your gaming style. The trick then is to save the game just after the death of the Emperor. So every time you create a new character, you don’t have to do the whole freaking dungeon crawl. You just change (or not) the answers to the Blade guy.
    * Visuals: yes, that’s your video card. Same problem with my oldish computer. Otherwise, I have to admit that the visuals are stunning. I love the flowers, trees and herbs. If you want less computing power hungry herbs, there is a very simple mod which replaces the herbs with lower polygon counts. The effect is still very nice and the game runs a lot better on small configurations.
    * User Interface: I agree with you, it is not very user friendly. This said, the Morrowind one wasn’t much better (only the resizing was ok). Again, there is a couple of mods around which improve greatly the Journal UI. Also, I appreciate hugely the sorting of quests in the Journal which is far better than in Morrowind. Making a quest active is also a plus. I dislike the Alchemy interface which is even clumsier (removing items…) than the Morrowind one.
    * Minigames: I already mentioned that in previous posts. I used to hate them, but I know am at peace with the lock picking one (which I find quite realistic). The social one is silly, but bearable if you begin to learn how to use it.
    * Cities: yes, that sucks big time. However, villages and hamlets are ok. Another effect of the console game compatibility. By the way, the reason you can’t fly or jump above the walls is also that there is no Levitate spell in Oblivion, a thing that I regret deeply too.
    * Combat: a lot more difficult and also more realistic. You mentioned the Block skill, which is a lot better. Others mentioned the levelling which is a game killer, I think, unless your character is a basic warrior. Again, I think there is a couple of mods which improve this aspect. I haven’t tried them, but anyone knowing which one is good enough, feel free to share… ;-)
    * Horses: yes, they are ok for travelling but not for fighting. Again, there is a couple of mods around that improve this greatly. Including the possibility of letting them get in cities and even houses (if you wished to).
    * Fast Travel: yes, it is bad and annoying and I tend to ignore it as much as possible. I miss my Silt Striders.
    * Fluff: Well, that’s a taste issue. I don’t mind Cyrodil: after all the Imperials are supposed to be very “Latin” in Bethesda’s game universe. The books are still the ones of the Morrowind, Arena and Daggerfal mythology. And once you get down to Oblivion (in game), you recognise the Daedric architecture of the Morrowind ruins and the Daedric monsters are the same. Also, there are still Slaughterfishs in Oblivion (and they are a lot more dangerous) and Mudcrabs.

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  8. Jakob DENMARK Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    @Alphast:
    Sure, not good looking might be more realistics. But the slider manipulation is just horendous and a source of massive frustation. I want the ability to make good looking characters without having to have the algorithms and calculate how to manipulate them. The fix would be simple: Don’t make the sliders interdependent. Is there mods out there does that?

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  9. Alphast NETHERLANDS Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    @Jakob: I agree there. I don’t know if there are mods for that. Or some kind of “Better Faces” mod for Oblivion…

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  10. Steve CANADA Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    I had many of the same problems with Oblivion as you…and it wasn’t as fun as Morrowind. In fact, I just got to the point where I wanted to finish the damn thing, and “created” some super armor and a super weapon, did that trick where I pull back my bow string, and click an object in my inventory, then release my arrow…it causes about a thousand of the inventory object to be replicated all over the place :) Replicated a bunch o’ those things that restore the magic power in your items (can’t remember what they are called). Then I just smashed through the rest of the game, in god mode, and finished it. Bought the expansions but never loaded them.

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  11. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    @vacri: Good point. I didn’t think about the lighting issue, but you are correct. This is why my character looks odd in daylight! :P

    @Mart: Yeah, world leveling is something I’m dreading. As for fast travel, I try to walk/ride my horse to the cities I haven’t visited yet for the visuals. I love how you can sometimes catch glimpses of the Imperial City (or other towns) from higher mountains and etc.. On subsequent trips I fast travel.

    @Alphast: Actually, you can save just before exiting the sewers. Before you venture out into the actual game world they always ask you if you want to modify your character. You can change everything (including appearance) right there and then. :)

    @Steve: Steve, I heard that the Shivering Isle expansion is actually *better* than the main game both story and game-play wise. I don’t have it yet, so I can’t say if that’s true but apparently it is a welcome change of pace and setting.

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