Sunday, June 22, 2008


I stand tall and proud. I have faced the Daedra of Oblivion and cast them out of Tamriel. Beating a massive RPG like this is a simultaneously exhilarating and deflating experience... I'm delighted with where I've gone, but a bit saddened that the journey is over.

My overall analysis of the game is that it is an incredibly wonderful achievement that, for certain players, will be nearly undone by its leveling system. As I've previously complained, I was forced to stop leveling up in the game because it increases the power of your enemies faster than your own combat prowess. That major flaw aside, however, the world and the plot themselves are excellent, fully worthy of the Elder Scrolls label.

On balance, I'd say that this game is better than Morrowind. If nothing else, its vastly improved system of fast travel means that you spend more of your time actually playing the game and less time moving from point A to point B. That said, you still spend enough time journeying to new destinations to encounter the amazing beauty of Cyrodiil. The graphics are wonderful, even on my standard hardware, and a pleasure to look at, unlike the often ugly design in Morrowind. The natural scenes are the best; when you climb up a mountain, stop periodically to look back down into the valley, and prepare to be impressed at the sweeping vista laid out below. It looks somewhat like my hikes in Northern California, and I can think of no higher praise.

Combat, while still not a great system, is more interesting than in Morrowind. There is a greater variety of monsters; delightfully, none of them are airborne this time around. I mainly fought with my bow and arrows, and generally enjoyed it... the game is good at providing good sniping positions, and when facing a single opponent you'll usually have a chance to take them down before meeting them face to face. The AI is better than I was expecting; massive Daedroth and Clannfear will charge at you directly, while hedge wizards will summon defenders and run away. Once you figure out the system, it's a little too easy to abuse - on an open field, I could kill nearly any opponent by firing my bow while running backwards away from them - but it does require a combination of skill and strategy to take someone down, along with a strong understanding of your surroundings.

By the end of the game, actually, I was no longer bothering to fight anyone. You can boost your Stealth to around 120 or higher with various augmentations, and as long as there were some shadows around, I could get around most situations. I had to keep reminding myself that this was OK - there are no experience points in the game, so the only things you gain from killing a monster are their loot and some slight increases in your combat skills.

I liked magic more in this game as well. Specific spells were missing; I would have loved to have Mark and Recall again (though I would not trade fast travel for them), if just to have a quick way to exit a dungeon. I kind of miss Levitation, though I certainly understand why they got rid of it. On the whole, though, this was a better system. You automatically regain magic over time, even without resting, and once you gain access to Arcane University can create your own spells. Your only option for enchanting items this time around is also through the University, but prices are far more reasonable than in Morrowind.

Some of the improvements didn't do anything for me. The idea of horses is cool, but in practice, I just used fast travel everywhere. The minigames were annoying, especially for Lockpicking and Persuasion. Which is a bummer, since I took both of those as major skills. Lockpicking in particular becomes useless as a skill after you finish a quest that grants you an unbreakable lockpick.

That brings up another point: unbalanced skills. I had this problem in Morrowind too, though... most people will end up creating a new character and starting the game over after playing for a few hours, just because what sounds cool and useful in a three-line text description doesn't actually turn out to be what you expect. I guess my criticism comes down to a few things. First are skills that seem to just be useless. Obviously this includes weapons and spells that you don't use, but also things like Lockpicking. Next are skills that go up really quickly. I shouldn't complain, but, for example, I got my Stealth up to 100 very early on in the game, just because if it's a primary skill and you usually sneak, it will rocket higher. Finally are skills that affect the overall gameplay. I really regret not having picked Armorer as a primary skill; at the time, I had planned on avoiding combat and thought I could get by without needing a very high skill. In practice, though, that meant that I could not use enchanted weapons and armor (at least not for long - you need to pay others to repair them between quests if your skill is low). And without it being a primary skill, it went up sloooooooowly... I repaired everything I could, but by the end of the game I was just at skill level 37, far from journeyman level. Now, I could have paid for training... but that would require more leveling, and broken gameplay for me again. Anyways! I shouldn't complain too loudly, but I think they can definitely make improvements in Elder Scrolls V.

Some ideas were intriguing, but insufficiently developed. I loved getting companions who would follow me around; they come late in the game, but are very useful. That said, it's very hard to get a melee fighter as a companion, which would be much more useful to me. If you do get one, then they'll never repair their weapons or armor; after following you for long enough (assuming they survive), the weapon will break, and they'll resort to just using their fists. Mage companions don't have this problem, but they are extremely weak, and without having a melee fighter in the party, will quickly fall to your opponents. On the whole, while the follower system doesn't hold a candle to Bioware's RPGs, it does mark a nice improvement over the more solitary gameplay of Morrowind.

The overall scope of the game was as expansive and amazing as I had hoped. The actual main quest doesn't seem to take terribly long, but I spent months on the side quests before turning to it. It's a great system that allows people to be as obsessive or casual as they want, and play the game in whatever style they like the best. Just be careful not to level up too quickly.

Moving towards the meat of the game, let's finish with some


I'd complained earlier about the factions; it actually ended up being better than I had thought once I found the Dark Brotherhood and some other minor factions, but it still is a slight step down from Morrowind. A lot of the "factions" you join are really just quest rewards and don't have the same vast plotlines of the major factions.

One thing I really appreciated was how distinct each faction was. This can be seen in the types of quests they send you on, the rewards, the rules and the storyline. For example, most Fighters Guild quests involve some combination of reconnaissance and combat; every quest will give you a few hundred gold pieces; and the overall thrust of the plot has to do with repairing the maligned reputation of the Guild. In contrast, most Dark Brotherhood quests require deep infiltration and sudden deadly force; you are rewarded with rare magical items or occasional stat boosts; and the primary plot circles around identifying a traitor in the Brotherhood. The Mages Guild is an entirely different beast as well, with you running a variety of errands in the first half, then later gaining access to Arcane University and following a more structured quest line as you investigate the necromancer menace.

Thieves Guild was the most fun, of course. You have a standing quest called "Freelance Thievery" that just requires you to steal and fence stolen goods. The "real" quests are far more entertaining, and lead to some unique rewards.

For each guild, once you completely finish the quests and become head of the guild, you get some extra-special rewards. I think that the Mages Guild may be the coolest: you get access to an enchanted chest that can duplicate ingredients, and can order apprentice wizards to follow you. I was initially disappointed with the ultimate reward for the Thieves Guild, which was a single enchanted item; however, as I became more expert at how to use that item, I came to realize what a cool, game-changing system it was. The other two guilds include regular payments as part of their reward, but the sums are so minuscule that it does not seem worthwhile.

Most of the side quests are associated with factions, but there are a plethora of stand-alone quests and mini arcs. Each Daedric lord has a quest that reflects their own particular personality; Sheogorath and Sanguine's were the most entertaining. Each of those quests will grant an artifact with particular power or unusual abilities. There are a ton of random stand-alone quests as well, some of which are rather interesting. Early on I investigated a discount wholesaler in the Imperial City; stumbling across an abandoned farmhouse may lead to a search for a Lovecraftian unspeakable evil; and a kidnapping will force you to confront a ghost town's dark secrets. Again, I was stunned by the vast variety of content that's just floating out there, waiting for you to stumble across it. Even though I've "beaten" the game and all major faction arcs, I'm sure that there are plenty of quests out there that I just never found.

And last but not least, how was the game's story? For that, peek behind the curtain at some


The plot was quite good, although personally I have to give a slight edge to Morrowind. Still, Oblivion's tale does have the hallmarks of the truly great RPGs: A vast plot that feels rooted in history, requiring you to learn about the earlier ages of the world as you seek to confront the present threat, making your tasks feel like the culmination of an entire universe's history. The early assassination of the Emperor gives a good impetus for everything that follows, and the way that Oblivion gates continue to open throughout the game adds a sense of urgency and dynamism to the action.

In general, characters aren't as fully fleshed out as in Baldur's Gate (nearly a decade later, still the gold standard for a story-driven RPG), but the most important ones do carry sufficient gravitas and depth for their role. Martin is kind of a stock fantasy character, but a good one: the reluctant, noble person who resists leadership but eventually learns to embrace his role. Except for the climax, he feels much like an Aragorn archetype. The Blades are good as well, although honestly I liked their fortress even more... in all the Elder Scrolls games, the Blades are just a little bit TOO perfect, too pure and selfless to take seriously.

I was pleasantly surprised at the end of the game by the lack of treachery. All along, I had been convinced that Chancellor Ocato was secretly in league with Mehrunes Dagon, and at the critical moment would prevent us from lighting the dragonfires. Similarly, I kept expecting the ally in Paradise to turn me in, and was delighted to find that he could more than keep his own in a fight. So the endgame proved to be a bit more simple than I expected, but there's nothing wrong with simple. (Truthfully, I would have loved to face an ending like that in Planescape: Torment, where you actually have a wide variety of available ways to end the game, but that's a standard complaint I have with everything.)

Interestingly, the faction quests felt at least as strong as the main quest. In particular, I think that the Mages Guild plotline could have served perfectly well as the main plot for an Elder Scrolls game. It even had some parallels with the current one: the Necromancers are similar to the Mythic Dawn (in both cases, people drop out of civilized society to make contact with a dark evil that they try to bring into Tamriel); the King of Worms is roughly equivalent to Mehrunes Dagon; and the black soul gem ritual bears a large resemblance to the Mythic Dawn rituals. The early part of this faction's quests seemed relatively plodding, as you are forced to travel to each Mages Guild and perform tasks; but this does force you to get a feeling for the Guild's nature and health. It is interesting to compare the vibrancy and pride of Arcane University, the guild's center, with the bickering, laziness, and incompetence found in the outlying guild halls. The subplot with the Count of Skingrad, a secret vampire, adds another wrinkle to the guild's battle against the forces of the undead. Oh, and Hannibal Traven is a fine NPC, and has possibly the best voice actor in the game.

I think that the individual quests within the Thieves Guild were the most entertaining in the game, but the overall story felt a tad stale. It's yet another variation on Sleeping Beauty, the story of a nobleman who has fallen upon obscurity. Still, the personalities you meet are entertaining, and you do feel plugged into a fun, vast shadowy network.

Speaking of shadowy networks, my reaction to the Dark Brotherhood was quite similar to the Morag Tong in Morrowind. In both cases, my thoughts of "Wow, this is really cool!" battled with the queasy feeling in my stomach. The game makes no apologies: these are evil quests for evil characters. You must assassinate innocents or good people, often in macabre ways; however, the rewards for doing so are quite tempting. I do give Bethesda props for going all-out on this and not pulling their punches; the game is rated Mature, and the Dark Brotherhood alone earns that title. Some of the best quests in the entire game are for this faction. There's a delightful twist on a horror trope when you have to play the role of a serial killer in a house, killing the guests one by one and keeping suspicion from falling on yourself. The overall storyline here was fascinating as well. My one regret is that the eventual traitor is a stranger to you; the endgame would have been much more compelling if you were more personally vested in the other Speakers.

Fighters Guild... well, it was better than I expected. The individual quests were often dull or frustrating - not at all surprising, given the style of character I played. But the larger conflict against the up-and-coming Blackwood Company was well done. I was especially impressed with the quest where you infiltrate the Company and join them on a raid. As I was halfway through the process of slaughtering the goblins in a village, I got the sinking feeling that something was wrong... why weren't they fighting back? Sure enough, when you return to the village later and see the bodies of townspeople lying where you struck, it's a horrible feeling... it made me think of American soldiers fighting in Vietnam, and other places where the glories of heroic combat are abruptly plunged into the darkest pits of civilian massacre. I do think they glossed over the aftermath a little, but the moment itself will stand as a vivid memory to me.

So, taken as a whole, what is the story of Oblivion about? I think I can identify a couple of themes. On a personal level, it deals with taking responsibility and striving for what's important. This is most obvious in Martin's quest, as he comes to terms with the demands placed upon him; however, throughout the game there's a strong emphasis placed on sacrifice. Think of Hannibal Traven surrendering his soul to stop Mannimarco; or Oreyn accepting the humiliation of removal from the Guild as he strives to save it; even Lucien Lechance is, in a very real and grisly sense, "sacrificed" when he tries to cleanse the Dark Brotherhood. In all these cases, people must surrender rank or their very lives; in return, the organizations they have supported can survive.

On a more political level, it's interesting to think about the "invasion" aspect of the Oblivion gates. This becomes particularly intriguing after you enter Mankar Camoran's Paradise and learn from him that Tamriel itself is just another Plane of Oblivion, and that it is Mehrunes Dagon's rightful realm. To put it crudely, the player cannot accept that first possession to land means eternal ownership. Men and mer may be the original invaders, but it is their territory now, and you have every right to stand against the reconquista. The interplay between Daedra and Mythic Dawn is also worth pondering. Among the rare parts of the game that startled me, walking down a city street and passing a cheerful shopkeeper who suddenly pulled a knife and started attacking me ranks very high. It's a dramatic presentation of a fifth column rising in support of an invading force, sort of the mirror image of the insurgency we faced in Iraq. I don't think you can draw a direct parallel between this game and either the War on Terror or the Iraq War, but there are still some resonances when you consider the images of invasion, assaults on nations, the ruined city of Kvatch, and the subtle collaboration between military invaders and their civilian supporters.

So, again, I give a slight edge to Morrowind's story, which dealt with (to me) more interesting themes of pride and humility, but it sure ain't bad!

What's ahead for the future? My list of requests for the Elder Scrolls V includes:
  • More balanced and useful skills.
  • More interesting content for thieves.
  • More interesting and varied characters.
  • A better follower/party system.
  • Better leveling system that scales difficulty to combat prowess and not overall level.
  • More opportunities to make permanent impacts on the persistent world.
On the whole, then, I'm looking for tweaks and improvements. I'd say they have the core game down solid.

I still need to play the expansions, but this seems like a good time to take stock of where I landed at the end of this game. Some vital statistics:

My character was a Bosmer named Cirion. His class was a custom-made class called an "Elite Agent"; primary skills included Marksman, Security, Stealth, Speechcraft, Mysticism, Illusion, and Light Armor. By the end of the game I was a Listener in the Dark Brotherhood, Master of the Fighters Guild, Grand Champion of the Arena, Arch-Mage of the Mages Guild, Gray Fox of the Thieves Guild, a member of the Virtuous Blood, the Knights of the Thorn, the Knights of the White Stallion, and the Order of the Dragon. (I was also, briefly, in both the Mythic Dawn and the Blackwood Company.) My favorite faction was the Thieves Guild. At the end of the game, I was using a Glass Bow with either Steel, Silver, or Elven arrows; I wore all Elven armor, except I pull on Nocturnal's Cowl when in a dungeon or carrying out nefarious needs. (I WOULD wear more enchanted equipment, except for the aforementioned problem with my Armorer skill.) My most common spells cast were Restore Health, Life Detection, and either Starlight (early) or Night-Eye (later). I was level 14 at the end, though I'm sure I could have gone much higher by sleeping. Final Fame was 132 and Infamy was 31; actual Infamy would have been much higher, except that I didn't start the Dark Brotherhood until after finishing Thieves Guild, and wore the Cowl when collecting my rewards. My favorite store was the Copious Coinpurse in the Imperial City Market District; far behind in second place was the weaponry store in Anvil. My favorite city was probably Anvil, although I spent the most time in the Imperial City. I bought houses in Bruma, Chorrol, and Lleyawin, but didn't purchase many furnishings for any of them. By the end of the game I had nearly 200,000 surplus gold. That late in the game, the only use I could get from them was buying arrows and (hypothetically) training; that said, I think I may buy the Skingrad house and fully outfit it, just for the heck of it. I briefly became a vampire, but restored my game when I realized it wouldn't be much fun. I became a Master in Stealth, Marksman, and Illusion. I was an Expert in the remainder of my major skills, as well as Alchemy. I most wanted higher values in Armorer and Mercantile, both of which go up far too slowly. My favorite enemy was the Dremora Kynval. Well, unless the Sunken One counts as an enemy. My favorite companion was probably Mazoga the Orc, although keeping her alive was a pain. My favorite mod was the quest item leveler. I never bet on a match in the Arena. My highest stat was Agility, which (with enchantments) got above 90; my lowest stats were Strength and Endurance. I found a grand total of 14 Nirnroots, most stolen from houses. I was only arrested twice, both times for quests, and apparently somehow stole over 10,000 items (!). I had a single murder, to get into the Dark Brotherhood (others showed up on the Gray Fox's rap sheet), but a surprisingly high number of assaults. My highest bounty was only about 50 before Sanguine's quest, and several hundred after. I owned a grand total of two horses throughout the entire game: the Priory horse, which was apparently killed while I was clearing out a mine, and the Dark Brotherhood horse, which I never rode. My Speed was close to 100, so I rarely needed to use a horse to get anywhere or outrun anything.

All in all, I'm pretty content with how things ended up. I'll probably take a break from the game for a few months, possibly wait for the two expansions to drop in price, then plunge back into Cyrodiil. It's an amazing world, and I look forward to spending more time inside it.

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