Saturday, April 26, 2008


Ahhh, working on Saturday. Yes, I remember what this feels like...

Coming up for air - I wanted to share a few thoughts on Oblivion. Expect a more comprehensive review when I beat the game... possibly sometime in 2009.

Wow, this game is gorgeous. I don't have an amazing graphics card - just an nvidia 8600 GT - but it still looks lovely. Not just lovely in the terms of well-done graphics; lovely in that it's something I want to look at. This is in stark contrast to Morrowind, which also ran great on my computer at the time, but where much of the world looked ugly.

There are exceptions to the visual appeal, though. The biggest that I can think of is faces... virtually everyone you meet in Tamriel is somewhere between plain and hideous. I suppose it's nice to not have everyone in a game look beautiful, but it does feel particularly ugly.

My character in this game is similar to the one I played in Morrowind: primarily a thief character with some magic skills (in this case Illusion and Mysticism) and Speechcraft. It's a fun character, but the game's leveling system is kicking my rear. I spent the first part of the game sneaking around, breaking into houses, stealing stuff, running errands, and generally having fun. It's a strategy I enjoy - I generally don't like combat, so I like focusing on more stealth-oriented activities. However, Oblivion is an interesting game in that the enemies you meet are "leveled". When entering a ruined temple at level 1, you might meet a skeleton. Entering that same temple at level 5 may present a zombie. Go back at level 10 and you'll face a powerful ghost; I assume that at even higher levels you would be staring down a lich or something similar.

I get what Bethesda is doing here. They want to keep the game challenging, making sure that wherever you are and how powerful your character is, the fighting is still interesting but winnable. The problem is that for a lot of players like myself, one's level does not reflect their combat abilities. I may be a master thief, but I am a novice at using most weapons, and so I can't face some of these creatures. Often times you need to defeat monsters to complete a quest, as opposed to being able to sneak around them or find other solutions. Needless to say this can be very frustrating.

The situation is better now, but only because I've purposely stopped leveling. In Oblivion as with Morrowind, you need to sleep in a bed to gain a level; my character has now gone for over a month without any sleep. Because of this I've been able to gradually build up his Marskman, Light Armor and Blade skills, while at the same time keeping my level at 11 and so not facing harder opponents. As a result I now can finally, generally, hold my own in a one-on-one fight. Still, I'd rather just be able to play the game and level normally, without worrying about it becoming unplayable.

On the bright side, there is a mod to fix this situation. Actually, there are several mods. Actually, there is a huge modding community that has offerings that tweak any aspect of the game you can imagine. This is a big part of why I deliberately waited for over two years before starting the game: I knew that the Elder Scrolls had a great community, and their offerings would only get better with time. I've installed a few small mods that help with specific annoyances, and have been pleased at the results. Changes to the leveling system are far more sweeping, so I'm holding off on that for now. Ideally I would have installed one before starting the game; now that I'm dozens of hours into it, I'm being careful not to mess anything up or upset the balance.

Speaking of messing things up: I started playing the game in Vista, and now am actually running it in Ubuntu. I have to say, I'm very impressed with how the Wine project has come along. The last time I seriously tried to use it a few years ago, it would work with specific titles, but even then you would need to jump through hoops and be left with a game missing some features. It's still more complicated than installing in Windows, but an order of magnitude less complicated than it was before, thanks in large part to some very well-written wikis out there. It took less than an hour for me to get everything installed and running.

And what did I find? Not only does Linux rule: Vista really does suck! The game actually runs BETTER in Ubuntu than Vista, which startled me. For example: I did not realize until playing in Linux that there was speech in the game. In Windows, I heard sound effects, and could read what characters said, but for some reason, the actual speech never ever played. (This actually ticks me off, since it means that I missed 90% of the Patrick Stewart voice-overs.) There are other individual sounds that didn't play for me: doors opening and lockpicking are two I can think of. Anyways, that was a really pleasant surprise. The one thing I had to give up was water animations, which is a shame - the water in Vista looked wonderful - but it's a small price to pay for better performance.

I haven't picked up Knights of the Nine or Shivering Isles yet. Not sure yet whether or not to install them before beating the main quest... you can tackle them in either order.

There seem to be fewer factions this time around than in the prequel... either that or I just haven't found them all. In Morrowind, I think I belonged to around 10 factions by the end of the game, including religious orders and the Imperial army. Right now I'm just in four: the standard three guilds (Fighters, Mages, and Thieves) plus the Blades. Ah well... even if there aren't many factions in the game, I'm confident there are mods out there to add more.

Oh, the best thing about the game so far? Fast travel. This was by far my biggest annoyance in Morrowind: it took FOREVER to get most places, since you had this enormous map and only a finite number of places to which you could travel. Oblivion has an entirely rational system in place: after you visit an interesting location, it appears on your map, and after it is on your map, you can just click on it to travel there. Poof! It isn't magic... if the location is on the other side of the country, it will take you days to appear there, but that's fine. The game simulates you walking (or riding) that whole distance so you don't need to do it yourself. So I really like this new system... it keeps things balanced and challenging, since you need to travel to a place first before you can fast-travel, but it cuts the repetitiveness way down.

One minor related annoyance: there is no equivalent of Recall, Almislvi (sp?) Intervention, or Divine Intervention. These were incredibly useful spells in Morrowind that let you warp instantly out of any place. It saved my skin in some situations when I was deep in a lair and couldn't face a powerful opponent. Fast travel in Oblivion is much more flexible (and cheaper) than these spells, but it is also very limited: you can't use it inside caves, castles, when underwater, when enemies are around, when trespassing, etc. Again, it does sort of make sense - being able to escape anytime is arguably quite unbalanced, especially if you can heal/repair/upgrade and then fast travel right back to where you were - but I still miss it. A nice compromise would be the ability to, say, immediately leave a dungeon after you've fought your way down five levels, killed every monster in there and taken all the treasure. Spending five minutes running back to the entrance is not my idea of a fun game.

Oh, there's plenty more that I could write, but that would cut into valuable time that I could be spending playing this game. Expect plenty more in a future post!

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