Oblivion

By Shamus
on Jun 29, 2006
Filed under:
Game Reviews

Imagine you get a sports car. It’s beautiful. And fast. And safe. Good mileage.

But once you get it home you notice there are things about it that bug you that were not apparent in the showroom. Maybe the leather seats have a strange smell that won’t go away. Imagine the horn makes a clownish Harpo Marx style honking. When you turn on the radio it’s always set to spanish talk radio at full volume. The vanity mirror on the back of the sun visor is convex. To turn on the headlights, you always have to press the on button twice.

None of these issues make the car undriveable. It’s still a great car. But every time one of these annoyances pop up you will wonder why the designers made the car this way. These problems didn’t make the car cheaper or easier to design. They are just oddities that have no purpose other than to keep this from being the perfect car.

This is Oblivion in a nutshell. The game is a wonderful thing, except for the many little issues that mar the experience and make you wonder how things got to be this way.

Oblivion is an open-ended sandbox world. You start out as just some regular person, but fate places you in a position where you can save the world. But you don’t have to. When someone gives me a quest to travel to some city and deliver a message to so-and-so as part of the ongoing campaign against the evil that is threatening the world, I say, “Sure, I’ll do it” and then wander off and start goofing around. I’ve been exploring the endless miles of countryside, diving into all the little dungeons I find. I’ve been collecting armloads of rare plants and herbs growing everywhere so I can work on my alchemy. I’ve been looking for rare or interesting books to add to the collection I’ve started. I kill bandits when I encounter them in the wilderness. I bought a house and furnishings. I joined the theives guild, which lets me fence stolen property. I sneak around at night, breaking into homes and swiping anything that isn’t nailed down. I slay monsters. I go swimming to work out my athletic skills, practice magic spells, or do minor sidequests for random strangers. I play the little mini-games. I play dress-up with my character and try to come up with an outfit that is functional but still looks cool.

Then as I’m wandering around I encounter some guy and I see I have a dialog option, “I have an urgent message for you!” Oh right. I was supposed to give this guy the message. I can go back to the main quest anytime I like. I can wander off again if I feel like doing something else, or if I think it would help to obtain some equipment before proceeding. This causes a bit of a break in realisim, but it makes the game much more fun. There is always something to do, and when you get tired of that there is always something else.

Become a paid assasin. Join the Mage’s Guild, the Fighter’s Guild, the Thieves Guld, or one of the other major factions in the game. All of them have a long and complex series of quests that will (I think) culminate with you becoming the head of that particular guild. Acquire property in all of the major towns in the game. Invest in shops. Hunt animals (deer, wolf, bear, etc) in the wilderness for their meat and pelts, or just for sport. Craft magical weapons and armor. Make up your own spells. Hunt vampires. Hunt rare artifacts for some of the various collectors in the game, or start your own collection. Just explore the land and try to fill in the entire map. (Good luck doing that, it will take forever.) I’m sure there is a lot more than this that I haven’t even heard of yet.

Collecting books is interesting. The game has seemingly hundreds of “books”, which look like books in the world but which contain poems, amusing short stories, history & backstory, or subtle in-game hints. This isn’t any big technological accomplishment, but someone did sit down and write all these things. It really adds a nice touch of authenticity.

The thieving in this game is in some ways better than in the game Thief, because there is a real running day / night cycle. The streets are busy during the day. People get up, leave their homes, go to work (which is usually in a shop). When evening comes, they close up shop, go to the tavern for a bite, and then head home. Everyone has a slightly different schedule, so you can’t count on anyone going to asleep at exactly 10:00pm, or waking up exactly at 6:00am. Like in real life, their schedules vary a bit. So, you need to pay attention to what your mark is doing, and you need to keep your eyes on the clock. Unlike the sunless, ever-night world of Thief, you need to worry about people waking up in the morning. Also, some people have dogs, which complicates things a bit. People have locks on their doors and chests, and unlike in Theif there are locks you cannot open until you have enough skill. However, people tend to lock up things that they value, not things which you might value, or – more importantly – your fence might value. So you never know if that maximum difficulty chest in the corner is full of gold and jewels, or sentimental baubles. You don’t just charge into the house, open the most difficult container, and leave with the best stuff. The best stuff might be sitting on a table. Or in the basement. Or in the bedroom. Or locked up. Or they might not have any single items of value. You don’t know for sure, so you have to search the place. Unlike in Theif, these places are highly, highly detailed. There are a lot of barrels, bags, boxes, chests, desks, bookshelves, cupboards, dressers, tables and cabinets to search. These things are dense with clutter and loose items, and the valuables you’re looking for might be hidden anywhere, or not there at all.

Oh yeah: All that clutter introduces a new problem, which is that lots of stuff can be knocked over. You have to be careful when sifting through objects, because the game has a very nice physics engine. If you bump into loose items or knock things over while searching for loot, you’re going to make noise. Which is bad.

As an aside: I seem to really enjoy games where I can steal stuff. Why is that? I’m quite honest in real life. I never steal, and I’m always careful to honor copyrights even when the holder(s) of those copyrights are complete jerks. However, once I get in a game I cannot resist swiping everything that isn’t nailed down, even when I’m playing an otherwise “good” character.

I’m sure I’ll have more later. I’m making an effort not to enumerate the various flaws I talked about earlier. They are many, but for the most part they have been covered elsewhere.

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10Just 10 comments.

From the Archives:

  1. One of the attractions of these kinds of games is that they permit us to fantasize about doing things we never would permit ourselves to do in real life, because they’d be dangerous, or unpleasant, or immoral. In a synthetic world like this we can indulge those urges without consequences to ourselves or anyone else.

  2. Bogan says:

    Told you it was a good game. I just didn’t bother to mention the flaws like random crashes you might get at times. At least you better so I know its not just me.

  3. Pixy Misa says:

    Flower-picking simulator. Bleh.

  4. hank says:

    One criticism I have of Oblivion is that while you can decide which quest to focus on, triggering a quest can bring up anomalous dialog options… the quest log needs to have levels of importance or somehing, so you can put things on the back burner if you’re not interested. Quest items can be found before you know what they are… you know it will be important later because you can’t sell it. In many ways this is a problem that hasn’t changed since the early Ultima games.

    And unlike Thief, the frickin guards are psychic. That satisfying silent arrow takedown is missing… kill someone out in the boonies, and next time you enter a town they bust you. Grrr.

  5. lplimac says:

    If you have the PC version you really need to go to Atomic MPC (http://www.atomicmpc.com.au/article.asp?CIID=36546) which has a excellent guide to optimize the game and can fix a lot of the problems that cause some of the crashes. It also give a list of mods that improve the experance.

  6. Will says:

    I was experiencing random crashes, but they didn’t seem to be software related. Turns out my video card was overheating which would cause complete hangups or BSODs. My quick and dirty fix was to prop up an extra fan inside my case blowing right on the already overtaxed fan mounted to the card. I haven’t had a crash since (and I’ve put in some 6-hour solid sessions).

    The Quest items are far more managable in Oblivion compared to Morrowind because they don’t have any “weight” penalty until the quest is over. I absolutely hated going out into the boonies and stumbling across a 90 pound warhammer that put me 60 pounds overweight and can’t be shed except by starting a quest on the far side of the island. Thankfully you at least had the capacity to teleport to a nearby temple or shrine. I’m certain that’s why quest items in Oblivion have no weight.

    Pixy, I prefer how Tycho called the game the world’s most robust lost in the woods simulator.” (assuming you use the BTMod to strip the dumbed down console interface off the game)

  7. Norman says:

    I havent played the game yet, but im planning to buy the 360 and oblivion soon. For now, I got Morrowind, and I seem to have the same problem as you. Even though im an honest guy who never steals and rarely curses(Except when playing Halo 2 on XBOX Live… friggin de-leveling n00bs killing themselves on my team…), I constantly find myself picking the locks of people’s doors and stealing anything they got worth over half a dozen gold. My theory is this: In real life, you live with the decisions you make. Steal a plasma screen or jewels, you might spend some time in jail. A lot of time. In games, if you steal, you dont spend that time. You might go down a level or so but thats about it. All in all you waste about 4 seconds of your life loading the place where you get out of jail! Oblivion might be different… maybe you actually spend that time, looking in your cell, seeing if theres a secret passage or a human rib your can work down to pick the lock. Anyways, I cant wait for this game, though I heard about the way animals get stronger as you level up. Not very cool, especially if you spend your first few levels in town uping your barter and speachcraft skills. Then when you decide to venture out to explore caves and kill bandits… you’ll be eatin alive(quite literally if your killed by wolves or other carnivorous animals.)

  8. Katy says:

    O_O Omigod, I want to play RIGHT NOW. The box is sitting in my apartment and yet I haven’t received the new desktop! Nooooo!!!

    Sounds like Oblivion just might suck away my soul, though (or at least, a good chunk of my free time).

  9. Randolph says:

    I can absolutely understand the gratification which comes with robbing NPC’s blind. But this has more to do with the ludic demands of said action than some fantasy fulfillment, although that also contributes to the thrill. It’s a situation in which your prowess alone determines the limits of what can be done within a rules based system. It takes careful planning and equally careful execution. Its the same sort of enjoyment one gets from turn-based strategy in which the action slowly unfolds over time, except the payoff is concentrated in a singular moment which culminates with the swipe and successful getaway. And, of course, there’s the tangible satisfaction of obtaining loot. So the pleasure is twofold; one has instant confirmation that their gaming prowess is increasing the moment a successful heist is accomplished, and one’s in-game assets are materially improving as well. It’s this sort of concrete, result based experience that demands both physical and mental concentration which empirically demonstrates that you have mastery over the system and its rules that makes the act so enjoyable.

  10. Steve says:

    Stealing is always fun except I never did it in Oblivion because one time I walked into a house out of their view like it was my own and I had buisness there or whatever to steal shit. I see the owner is asleep okay so far so good get stealing and walk out god damn guards were right there D:.

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