The Altered Scrolls, Part 12: Violence is Bad

By Rutskarn Posted Saturday Oct 24, 2015

Filed under: Elder Scrolls 111 comments

Can you see what's going on here? Yeah, me neither.
Can you see what's going on here? Yeah, me neither.

Combat in Arena means the player flicks the mouse to roll a die. Combat in Daggerfall is that, but bafflingly clunkier on top of being both reliant on and very poorly served by the player’s lukewarm mouselook. In Morrowind the graphics are just good enough to show you that you shouldn’t be missing all the time. At the time of Oblivion‘s development, combat had been been both a staple of and pretty consistently the worst part of the franchise. It was clear something had to be done.

Oblivion was the first Elder Scrolls game to introduce a clean action-oriented combat system where attacks hit where they’re aimed and do set amounts of damage. The game introduces special moves, attack rhythms, active blocking, and staggering mechanics with the goal of creating something that wasn’t just functional and modern, but a genuinely engaging, immersive set of play mechanics.

Oblivion has the worst combat in the series.

The worst part is that they were tantalizingly close to creating exactly what they’d intended: fun and involving brawling that’s just chaotic enough to give the player a sense of control. The central mixup between fast attacks and power attacks is pretty basic, even for the time the game was released, but along with the game’s footwork (which depended on character speed, adding another variable for melee fighters to consider) it provided enough depth to make even small encounters theoretically interesting. The game’s active blocking introduced a few other worthy variables–reflex tests for quick blocking, tactical considerations when you or your opponent begin holding block. Then there’s the special attacks, which let you achieve specific goals–knockbacks, disarms–that really contribute to the sense that you’re an experienced warrior controlling the battlefield. Spells feel pretty solid, although the delay between pressing cast and actually seeing the projectile launch–while shorter than Morrowind‘s windup–is grating.

It’s a shame, because there’s really just a few crucial details that damn the thing. It breaks down like this: the designers wanted every successful attack (which means every attack the player successfully lands on target) to do damage. “Players are sick of swinging their weapon and having it do nothing. Let’s make every attack with a valid weapon do damage.” The designers also wanted every encounter to be scaled to the player’s level so that every monster is an appropriate but not insurmountable challenge. “Players want to be able to roam totally freely in a free-roaming game, and we don’t want to lock off any of our content by level, so let’s make it so that every combat a reasonable character runs into is somewhere between easy and moderately challenging.” Neither philosophy is unreasonable or even contradicts the other. The problem is they make a mistake with the first that’s made exponentially worst by the second, and it’s this:

Attacks don’t do enough damage.

Oblivion might not have any towns as weird as Morrowind's most mundane, but it's got a lot of places you'd like to bed-and-breakfast in.
Oblivion might not have any towns as weird as Morrowind's most mundane, but it's got a lot of places you'd like to bed-and-breakfast in.

Presumably Bethesda’s goal was to make a combat where everyone’s hitting all the time take as long as the old Morrowind combats where hits were less guaranteed. They more or less succeeded, but there’s a few things they overlooked. Firstly, hitting someone and watching it chip their health only a little is, if anything, more obnoxious than missing entirely. Needing to hit something a dozen times with an axe the size of a postal box is frustrating. Needing to do it a dozen and a half times while your opponent active blocks is twice as frustrating. Needing to pause between every attack after the third to recuperate fatigue while dodging your opponent’s counterattacks and very sluggishly restoring your own health with your low-level restoration spell and your automatically refilling molasses–sorry, magicka bar is tooth-grinding, particularly when your opponent is doing the same. Now your axe is getting dull and your damage is sharply reduced. Now your armor is getting busted and you’re taking more damage. Alright, he–he just took a potion. Okay. He’s finally dead. Now get ready to kill the next fifteen of him between you and the end of the dungeon.

Not every enemy’s like that, but enough are that all the joy is gone from random violence. And lord help anyone who takes Marksman, because you’re about to discover grindhearty combat is even more frustrating when you spend it hopping backwards through a narrow dungeon watching half your inventory leap into your opponent’s character model. Something about ending a combat 200 yards from where it began to find a corpse plumed with dozens of magic arrows lends an archer to believe their time is not highly valued.

But even this could have been bearable, or at least potentially not unbearable, if it weren’t for the level scaling. Because enemies are of uniform difficulty, and increase their stats to match your character’s level, there is no refuge in overleveling, no escape from tedious pool-noodle slapfights. You can’t wait until you’re such a high level that every enemy drops before you. You can’t obtain a weapon vastly out of proportion to your own abilities. Worse, if your build is anything but optimal–if you’re not really pushing your combat skills to their limit with each level–you’re going to watch your opponents get gradually tougher and tougher forever and have no easy way to get that ground back.

It gets even worse if you are playing optimally–because playing optimally means getting the best ratio of your damage to your opponent’s health. Your damage is dependent on your skill, your opponent’s health is dependent on your level. See where this is going? The best way to play the game for any non-magicka user is to never level up, because leveling just gives you the option of marginally increasing a few combat-related variables that will always increase, and by a larger margin, in your opponents.

I said that Morrowind‘s disconnecting a player from their character through arbitrary failures was about as bad a sin as an RPG’s combat system could commit, and that’s still true, but I think punishing players for trying to level up is a pretty solid encore. Whether or not people like the general package is down to individual experience, although I think everyone has at least a few truly obnoxious combats, but the design is completely indefensible.

And frankly, Oblivion‘s dungeon crawling needs the help. The game adds some neat traps and a more diverse range of tilesets to shake things up from the parade of grey caves and brown tombs in Morrowind, but all sorts of little things drag down the experience. The way the 3D environments don’t map too well to the monochrome tiny 2D map. The way the same level-scaled monster is seeded every ten feet of the overlarge map. The sometimes unambitious audio design. The way the loot in the game is heart-stoppingly shitty.

My decent-level character went out and found the first decent-quality lock I could, just to show you what was behind it. Are you overwhelmed?
My decent-level character went out and found the first decent-quality lock I could, just to show you what was behind it. Are you overwhelmed?

Actually, that’s a pretty broad problem, and another consequence of the game stripping away Morrowind‘s laissez-faire distribution of loot and treasure in favor of something encouraging balance and predictable character growth. Being a thief in Morrowind meant exploring houses to root out a few valuable items–often potions and liquor, books, sometimes small gems and worthy gewgaws. It hit a pretty good balance: most things were worth somewhere between five and twenty coins, but the big-ticket items were a heavy chop above that. An average potion is worth about fifty gold. A pearl is worth a hundred septims. A nice book can be worth 300. The right bottle of liquor or drugs can get as much as 500 gold and neither are exceptionally rare. For storefronts, everything you can buy from the owner will generally will be present somewhere in the shop itself–with a little ingenuity you can make a small fortune by clearing off one or two shelves. And if you’re not the thiefly type so much as the secondhand bandit type, the crates of random jerks in the countryside scaled from “an assortment of worldbuilding loot like clothes and trade goods that’s not really worth much” to “a selection of very valuable and useful items clearly worth ending a dozen intelligent lives for.” Morrowind‘s loot never felt like too much, since there were plenty of very expensive purchases to save up towards, but thieving was a consistently rewarding pursuit–enough so to balance out just how abstract it felt in a world where NPCs never moved much and every store was always open.

Oblivion is a much more immersive environment to be a thief in. NPCs have day and night cycles; there are times where their doors are and are not locked and when storekeepers are and aren’t around to watch the merchandise. They’ll follow you around if they think you’re being suspicious. They’ll call guards if they catch you stealing something. And yet I’ve never played a thief since my first time with the game, because the thieving is only fun until you’re sizing up your first score. Valuable items just don’t really exist outside of a few random and limited collections here and there. Clutter in the game has a value between zero and well below a hundred gold, including ostensibly valuable items like gems, rare books, and fine wines. Most things you can steal are literally worthless or the closest thing to it; breaking into the basement of a noble typically turns up a caliper (there are a lot of calipers in the game and they are completely useless), six balls of yarn, a cabbage or two, and two gold coins. It’s usually not even worth breaking into locked containers–half the time all you get is a petty amount of money and one lockpick to replace the three you spent getting in. Everywhere the game frustrates your attempts to make a living through thievery; the game is fond of putting expensive or valuable-looking weapons and armor in display cases, only to reveal once you’ve broken in at night and broken the max-difficulty lock on the case that the contents are worthless garbage that just look valuable. It might be a neat subversion in a game less thin on genuine player satisfaction. As for random bandits, the best loot is always going to be the level-scaled stuff they’re wearing, because their chests and crates are going to be stuffed with the same junk as random boxes in town. You haven’t played Oblivion until you’ve ventured into the woods and found an entire cavern system full of scruffy local bandits dressed in demon-forged hell armor, wielding weapons finer than those the Emperor’s own bodyguards employ, only to discover their treasure trove consists of one clay mug and a pair of sandals. And once that’s happened to you–it’ll happen again. And again.



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111 thoughts on “The Altered Scrolls, Part 12: Violence is Bad

    1. MadTinkerer says:

      Ah, but you know what takes real skill? Posting a Forth pun on the fourth post of a comments thread. I have never done it myself, but I look forward to that day.

  1. Raygereio says:

    Oblivion has the worst combat in the series.

    I disagree and looking at what you wrote, so do you it seems. The problem you describe isn’t with the combat mechanics, those – while not stellar – worked. The problems were shitty balancing and an implementation of dynamic difficulty adjustment that was so bad, that almost a decade later “level scaling” still generally considered a dirty word in gaming culture.

    1. Lanthanide says:

      Yes, but the main result of that bad level scaling system, is that it ruined the combat.

    2. GloatingSwine says:

      It kinda is.

      At least in other Elder Scrolls games the optimum approach to combat was to do some combat.

      In Oblivion the best approach to combat is to stack damage reflect so that enemies beat themselves to death trying vainly to hurt you because that’s the only way you can get combat done before you die of old age.

      The best way to fight in Oblivion is to not do the actual combat..

    3. Rutskarn says:

      I think we’re using different definitions. When I say “the combat was the worst,” I mean, “actively fighting things was the worst,” not, “the underlying animations, commands, and broad principles were the worst.”

      For me it doesn’t matter how much of the mechanical principle was sound when you don’t want to implement any of it because it’s hideously boring.

      1. tmtvl says:

        I know ‘almost’ only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades, yet I still feel like Bethesda almost got it right, and the changes from Morrowind to Oblivion were absolutely necessary.

        Looking forward to the conclusion.

        1. Rutskarn says:

          I agree, and I think Skyrim brings things full circle on that.

      2. Raygereio says:

        The combat related gameplay of Oblivion was bad. I agree wholeheartedly. But that gameplay is constructed by things like combat mechanics, encounter design, enemy & item stat balancing, any many more aspects.
        And not all of those were bad.

        I think it’s worth pointing to what the actual problems were, as opposed to calling the whole thing bad. You’re actually doing that in the rest of the article, but I feel that one line undermines that.

        1. GloatingSwine says:

          Yeah, but they all added up to a product that just didn’t work.

          Oblivion’s combat is distinctly less than the sum of it’s parts.

        2. Bropocalypse says:

          Not ALL of the car’s parts are broken, so the fact that it can’t get above 10 MPH is forgivable.

          1. Felblood says:

            More like:

            “I know the car doesn’t run, but you really needed to dedicate more than one paragraph to how great the suspension is, just so your review can be balanced.”

            As if anyone cares how good the suspension is in a car that doesn’t move.

            Anyone who argues that a review needs to be “balanced” in order to make it less different from their own views, and not becasue the analysis is materially unfair, doesn’t understand how this website works.

        3. Daemian Lucifer says:

          How?How is “this whole doesnt work,and its because of these parts of it” undermining the in depth look?

          1. Raygereio says:

            With how it’s positioned, it defines the article. And I suspect, also defined Rutskarn writing. When you’re analyzing a series in this manner, there’s value in looking at what each installment did right. What it added to the overall series that was for the better. I think when doing a review of any kind, highlighting the positive is of equal importance to understanding what went wrong.
            More importantly, I think the change in the combat mechanics was one of the more important changes in TES series. So essentially: I didn’t care for the negative tone the article took, and I’m surprised that what I see as an important topic is barely touched in a single paragraph.

            1. Daemian Lucifer says:

              Its barely touched because Rutskarn doesnt share your opinion that the combat is such an important aspect.What he does find important(random questing)he spent an entire post praising earlier.So all he has to say about combat fit in a single paragraph here,and a positive one at that.He does say that its only one problem that breaks the whole thing,and its a big problem.

            2. MichaelGC says:

              The article seems to be doing almost exactly what you’re saying it’s not doing, for me! It speaks favourably of the mechanics, and then says the hard work there was undermined by other factors: factors which impact the overall combat experience but which aren’t themselves combat mechanics. So, ‘worst combat’ in Rutskarn’s view, but not necessarily – even explicitly not – ‘worst combat mechanics’.

            3. Felblood says:

              “I didn't care for the negative tone the article took, and I'm surprised that what I see as an important topic is barely touched in a single paragraph.”

              Aww, did somebody get a little salt on his witto butthurt?

              Seriously though, have you read any of Rutskarn’s other works? This Elder Scrolls series is probably the nicest he has ever been to a game he wasn’t actively earning royalties on.

              Additionally, he’s as much as stated that he’ll come back to these mechanics in the Skyrim section, where they finally get a chance to shine, instead of being smothered in their cradle by a leveling system that utterly fails to make use of them.

          2. Bropocalypse says:

            It doesn’t, that was the joke. :P

      3. Saggo says:

        Or more directly, combat is a product of mechanics and balance. If you fail one, the overall product (combat) most likely fails.

      4. See, the issue with saying Oblivion’s combat was bad, though, is intertwining yourself in an assumed knowledge of the game’s design. Barring any other games in the franchise, Oblivion was the logical stepping stone between Morrowind and Skyrim, and it played the role well by standing on its own in terms of combat.

        I recall slashing at Daedra repeatedly in Oblivion, desperately fighting them off and attempting to reach the Sigil Stone at the top of the Oblivion tower, which by the way gave your weapons plenty of power and upgrade to fight off enemies. Weapons might have scaled, but guild quests developed weapons that gave you power. The point was to make epic combat, not boring, which brings me to my next point.

        “The sometimes unambitious audio design.” If you think for one second that Oblivion’s soundtrack was unambitious, we need to talk about music. When you go up against a Daedra and the thundering orchestra began in the background; When you came across a moon well and the “Peace of Akatosh” began to play; When you traversed the forests and a soothing, peaceful wind instrument blew softly in the breeze. That’s ambitious audio. That’s an epic soundtrack, one that is dynamic between soft and soothing and deep and pounding.

  2. Neko says:

    I played the Bow Thief in Oblivion, and… yeah. To stay on top of the levelling enemies, I basically had to shoot the best possible arrows from my uber-enchanted bow that imbues them with extra fire and lightning and I applied the deadliest poisons known to man or mer to the arrows themselves. Oh, it was fun, and I could spot Nightshade from half a mile away, but I did start to feel that maybe it shouldn’t take twenty shots to the head with this stuff to bring down a goblin.

    For my Oblivion Gate runs, and there were so very many of them, it made more sense economically to cheese it and run past everything, parkouring over the heads of demons and (ultimately) abusing 100% chameleon armour.

    1. Dt3r says:

      Yeah, focusing on marksman and stealth in Oblivion was painful. I ended up using a mod that increased the sneak attack multiplier to something crazy (x10?) and by late game some of the enemies were still stupidly durable.

      1. It’s been so long I can’t even really remember what I did, but I think the one saving grace of oblivion was that you really weren’t tied down into what you thought you were going to do at the start of the game. I never played an exclusively bow character, always switching to a sword in close quarters. The game didn’t make that particularly easy but I had a lot of patience as a kid.

        On the other hand it takes just as much patience even not switching to different weapons in the menu, since you need to fire a bazillion arrows into the enemy to kill them. Oh and you can get staggered.

        I loved the game at the time but I think it’s pretty damn unjustifiably bad in some areas.

    2. Nice to know somebody else broke and started abusing the chameleon spell. You can’t cast 100% chameleon on yourself, but you can get over 100 with a combination of casting and equipment. Fairly easily at that.

      And it’s necessary too, since even 14 year old me broke at about the third hellgate thing and started to do exactly what you did.

      Edit: Forgot the best part, which is that you could wear as much heavy armour as you wanted, but you had to take your booties off if you wanted to sneak properly. So I’d be sprinting full speed invisible and with no boots on and not a single NPC was witness to this.

      1. Chris says:

        You did not even need to mix in spells. You could just purely enchant a set of cheap cloth clothes (the cheapest “Armour” to enchant) up to 100% chameleon and you were basically invincible.

        I read somewhere that dynamic hearing based AI was a thing that was planned and cut when they implemented chameleon, you can only find it in the thieves guild quest where you steal the elder scroll from the blind monks.

        Oblivion seems to be a veritable quagmire of cut content and poorly realized ideas. But personally i vastly prefer that to skyrims perfectly functional unbelievably boring world. At least oblivion was interesting.

        1. Knowing Oblivion I’m not surprised about the cloth armour trick. Personally though, I just enchanted the armour I was wearing so I never had to switch armour ever. I mean, once you’ve broken the game, does it really matter that you could break it harder?

          That monk quest is a great example of Oblivion in a nutshell. They’re supposed to be blind, but they automatically detect you if you’re in front of them. WTF? But I do agree with you overall in enjoying Oblivion more than Skyrim. Personally I chalk that up to Oblivion being my first TES experience, but it’s hard to be objective about these things.

    3. swenson says:

      For a very long time, I tried to hold off on abusing the 100% chameleon thing. I knew it was possible, I just felt it was so cheap… but as I was also playing a sneaky marksman, I finally just got SO SICK OF IT that I broke down and went for it. (actually, I think I ended up going with like 80% chameleon, it was just too cheap to go all the way)

      Anyway, sneaky archery was much more effective and fun in Skyrim, but possibly too much so. It’s slightly ridiculous how easy it is to kill things once you get a few levels in.

  3. Fizban says:

    Oh, Oblivion. I was having a grand old time finally playing a mage that didn’t completely suck, ignoring the main quest for a while until I decided I should go check it out. I’d also made sure to grab a mod to make harvesting alchemy ingredients single-click instead of container based because duh. I walked cross-country all the way to Kvatch leaving a 20′ wide swath of vegetation devastation in my wake, brewed all the potions, leveled more than half a dozen times, and proceeded to get curb-stomped by the dungeon the game had been pointing me at since basically level 1.

    Oddly enough I managed to pull through by chugging all the potions I’d made on the way: 5 shots of health and magic regeneration makes you nigh invincible and infinite ammo while they last. So I tickled the demons to death all the way through the oblivion gate until I’d run out of the potions I’d planned on selling, after leveling barely enough magic to make it through to the end.

    Part of me always wanted to give it another try with mods, but I could never seem to find a de-auto-balancer that didn’t also include a ton of other personal complaints and fixes from the author regarding other mechanics. Now I just don’t care enough to bother.

    1. Zanfib says:

      How can you play a mage that does not suck in a tes game without levitate?

    2. flyguy says:

      ahha, the lament of alchemy. Your situation is nearly identical to my first playthrough of oblivion. Fortunately magic IS broken in oblivion, but, like so many other things, its incredible boring and grating.
      You can stack up a series of increase magic damage/reduce magic resist spells on durations making your shitty 5 points lighting damage spell do 40+ and beyond. too bad about the wait time to get your magicka back

  4. Zaxares says:

    My then-girlfriend absolutely loved Oblivion, but I think I gained a sudden appreciation for WHY she was always using mods to give herself super-ungodly-powerful weapons.

    1. Daemian Lucifer says:

      So what you are saying is that oblivion breaks up relationships?

      1. Alexander The 1st says:

        It does seem to bring relationships to oblivion, indeed.

  5. Matt Downie says:

    I remember early on in Oblivion I level-scaled myself to the point where many opponents became almost unbeatable.

    Then I turned down the difficulty and it became fun again.

    Later on I had to start turning up the difficulty again to keep things balanced.

    1. Michael says:

      I remember using a mod that nearly doubled the skill threshold for leveling. So you’d be getting ~17 skill increases per level instead of 10. It’s the only way I ever managed to make combat in that game enjoyable.

  6. Andy_Panthro says:

    The combat and levelling was the biggest reason it quickly became dull for me. The combat just became a chore, and when there’s so much combat it becomes very frustrating.

    Both Fallout 3 and New Vegas also felt this way for me, which is the main reason why I haven’t played Skyrim yet even though it’s been sitting in my steam library for years. I just don’t want to face another game with dull combat and bullet-sponge enemies.

    1. Alex says:

      I never really noticed any serious level scaling in fallout 3 or new vegas, aside from in the world map with larger deadly enemies appearing. Fallout 3 and new vegas were still not afraid to let an industrious player get their hands on some seriously high level weaponry very early on, and by the end of the game you would be able to take most enemies to pieces without worry.

      Fallout new vegas especially excelled at this feeling of player empowerment. With some of the ridiculously good weapons on offer late game, it was more than possible to one shot or even punch deathclaws to death without much consternation.

      Skyrims level scaling was definitely much more noticeable but again, the mechanics of the game meant that playing anything but mage would mean most encounters would become laughably easy in the late game, especially the broken but humorous stealth/marksman skills.

      1. Andy_Panthro says:

        I found FO3/NV combat was just dull, in much the same way as Oblivion, even if the level scaling wasn’t the same. Some of the DLC just increased the health of the enemies rather than any challenge. I would prefer if they concentrated on the world building and quests, and reduced the number of monsters/enemies.

        After reading this I’ve decided to try Skyrim and so far it doesn’t feel like much has changed, it looks a bit better and they’ve added those slow-mo finishing moves (that don’t look good imo) but no massive differences. The UI is absolutely awful though, worse than Oblivion (for mouse & keyboard anyway). Almost tempted to plug in a controller (but I hate controlling first-person games with controllers). The intro dragged on a bit too.

        Quite enjoying the world and the possibilities of crafting though, and the idea to move to a perk-based levelling system has merit (I’m not sure it has been done in a good way, but the idea is good). Will give it a fair shot and see how far I get. It’ll make a nice alternative to MGS5, that’s for sure.

        1. Ringwraith says:

          Grab mods that fix the UI and stuff, for the sake of your sanity.
          You can also turn off the finishers if you want. Though I like leaving them on because sometimes really weird stuff happens, they’re not super-frequent, and they can also do them to you.

        2. modus0 says:

          Install SKSE (Skyrim Script Extender) and SkyUI.

          SkyUI and many other good mods need SKSE to work, so it’s practically a necessity now days.

          And SkyUI makes the console-centric Skyrim interface so much better. I don’t think I could handle playing the game on the PC without it.

          Seriously, if you never install any other mods into Skryim, install SkyUI.

          1. Rob says:

            Yep. Here’s the list of non-gameplay mods that I consider absolutely essential for Skyrim:
            * SKSE – not actually a mod, but required for a lot of them (including SkyUI); it adds hooks into a lot of engine internals that aren’t exposed to normal scripts.
            * SkyUI – Changes the awful console-focused interface into one that’s bearable on PC.
            * Better Dialogue Controls and Better MessageBox Controls – fix the two major problematic interfaces that SkyUI doesn’t touch.
            * Unofficial Skyrim Patch – fixes a ton of bugs (both minor and game-breaking) that Bethesda never got around to fixing themselves. Noticing a trend here?

            Depending on what DLCs you have, you’ll also want to take a look at the Unofficial Dawnguard Patch, the Unofficial Hearthfire Patch, the Unofficial Dragonborn Patch, and the Unofficial High Resolution Patch (for the free HD textures DLC; you have to manually install this for it to appear in your owned DLC list).

            If you decide to wade deeper into the modiverse, you’ll want to download either the Nexus Mod Manager or the (superior but much less user-friendly) Mod Organizer. They will help you download and install mods, as well as keep them up to date and solve most load order issues. Steam Workshop will also work, but it doesn’t optimize the mod load order so you will run into bugs if you install multiple conflicting mods.

            This post is so going to get caught by the spam filter…

      2. Ringwraith says:

        Skyrim’s smartly has some places locked to certain level ranges, and even in something scaled up or beyond your level, you will still find multiple weaker enemies who die much quicker than their tougher compatriots.
        And sometimes you find one that’s hard-as-nails compared to all his puny underlings and you cry.

        1. Andy_Panthro says:

          I actually died to a giant spider because I had just been mindlessly killing bandits and not concentrating on my health. Turns out I wasn’t prepared for being poisoned! Alas I had not made any saves, so I have to start from the beginning of the dungeon again. Will see if I can sort out the mods for the UI, and I’ll definitely be turning off the finishing moves.

          1. Ringwraith says:

            Get Sky UI via the Skyrim Script Extender. They’re even both on Steam so you won’t even need to fuss around with installing them.

            I just mostly miss argonian poison immunity. :(
            (Although it did render a bunch of threats hilariously pointless, so I can see why they took it away).

            But yes, always quicksave! Things aren’t quite as spongy as Oblivion, and that includes you.

      3. manofsteles says:

        In Skyrim, late game Destruction mages could be just as powerful as the other player archetypes; it’s simply that they would have to wait until Master level to reach a power level that was useful based on most of the enemy scaling. The Master-level Destruction spells combined with enchantments that lower the cost of Destruction spells to nothing meant that most enemies could be killed relatively quickly, even at higher difficulty levels.

        And, as Shamus pointed out in an Escapist article, the mage play style comes with a huge amount of disadvantages that make it mechanically annoying and deficient (especially Destruction). Though admittedly, this is a problem that was present since at least Morrowind (though Morrowind’s spell-making system mitigated it to an extent).

        1. Kalil says:

          Well, no. No, they really couldn’t.

          Onehanded+Stealth+Smithing+Enchanting+Alchemy all reinforce eachother. While one-handed alone can give you a mere +100% damage, smithing can increase your base damage about five-fold without enchanting, another 5-10 times with enchanting and alchemy. Enchanting can double (triple?) that. Stealthy can multiply that by 4-12 times depending on weapon. And Alchemy can give it a further boost if there’s something you /can’t/ one-hit with your iron dagger.

          Magical damage is boosted only by alchemy. And only destruction.

          Base damage may be comparable. But it’s all about the multipliers…

          1. Rob says:

            Destruction did have that horribly broken Impact perk, though. You know, the one that added Stagger to dual-casted spells?

            You could have a legendary enchanted two-handed warhammer that staggers enemies most of the time on a power strike (and due to a hammer’s slow speed, for barely long enough to start your next swing), or you could spam cheap fire bolts and your opponent would never be able to act while you had Magicka remaining.

            The lower damage of spells meant it took much longer to actually kill anything, but you were at zero risk of retaliation when fighting most foes 1v1. Even dragons were susceptible to stun-locking!

            1. Kalil says:

              Yah, but if you fully utilize smithing/enchanting/alchemy (even /without/ using the bugged potions of restoration), you can one-hit a legendary dragon with any weapon in the game.

              One-hit kills beat stunlock.

              1. Rob says:

                That requires a significant investment in several skill trees, though. Impact only requires 40 points in a single skill before nothing’s a threat ever again.

                Weapons are definitely far better in the long run, but magic becomes a game-breaker super early.

          2. flyguy says:

            yeah, you can one shot face stab even the strongest dragons in skyrim, but dont expect to even 20 shot them with magic

        2. JakeyKakey says:

          I wrote up a few paragraphs, but it turns out Shamus already wrote an article last year about why playing as a Mage is absolutely horrible.

          A warrior will be able to find cooler shit every five levels. A mage has literally one good armor set found relatively early on, no weapons and a dragon mask to wear. I hope you enjoy blasting the same laser/ice beam at enemies for five hundred hours.

  7. Micamo says:

    The correct way to play Oblivion is to make a quick mod to give yourself a bow that does 1 million damage per hit, infinite uses.

    Seriously fuck the combat in that game

    1. Michael says:

      Or… press ~ followed by “player.setav Strength 150”.

      1. Blue_Pie_Ninja says:

        change the number to 255 to completely max out. Although don’t do that with any speed related skills especially Athletics. Seriously, you don’t want to be able to run so fast that running off a small hill can kill you from the distance you travelled through the air.

        1. Rob says:

          Doesn’t higher Strength also increase how fast your weapons degrade, or is that just Morrowind? I remember in one of the games going far beyond the Strength cap would cause weapons to snap like twigs when you swung them.

          1. flyguy says:

            hahaha, that was morrowind. If you never cure corpus for a ton of days (200 plus) you can get your strength to the point where stabbing even ONCE with some daggers causes them to immediately shatter.

  8. Daemian Lucifer says:

    Violence is bad,mkay.Dont do violence.

  9. Christopher says:

    It’s strange to me that such a large franchise uses first person melee combat at all. Elder Scrolls and Zeno Clash, that’s a bizarre club. I went through Skyrim largely moving around in third person(because I’m a console player, most comfortable with that angle even when the movement controls are bananas for it) and then using bows and magic in first person, like some kind of medieval first person shooter. Later on, summoned monsters to do the fighting for me.

    If only I had watched spoiler warning first, I would have specced in melee and just punched everyone to death in a quarter of the time.

    1. Daemian Lucifer says:

      The thing about games that have both melee and ranged combat is:melee combat is incredibly overpowered.You can use your machine gun to down an enemy with 6 bullets,or you can use your melee knife to instakill them.

      1. Ringwraith says:

        To deal with the fact melee has functionally no range, of course.

        1. Daemian Lucifer says:

          Which is a problem only in multiplayer games where you dont get insanely higher endurance,agility,speed and stealth over everyone else.

          1. Ringwraith says:

            Although those mostly depends on the game you’re playing,

        2. Couscous says:

          Has this ever been a problem in an Elder Scrolls game? It has always just meant that the enemy might get one or two hits on me before I hit him and wreck his day well before a ranged weapon user would unless he were using sneak attacks. Multiple enemies don’t really change this much, and Skyrim gives you a way to easily prevent a ranged enemy from getting off any shots before you are wacking him thanks to dragon shouts.

      2. djw says:

        A good example of this is Arcanum, where the lore tries to tell you that guns and technology are the new hotness, but the mechanics try to tell you that smacking enemies with a sharp piece of metal is still the best way to murder things.

        1. RCN says:

          Or just casting the most basic necromantic spell ad nauseum.

          It was guaranteed damage in a game where the RNG could screw you and your next 10 generations over in a major way, while getting staves to power it up was more or less trivial. At least more trivial than getting good ammo anywhere.

          Also, no point in going over that basic spell. The more powerful spells in Arcanum were all laughably useless or marginally better versions of lesser spells with 3 times the cost.

          1. flyguy says:

            nah. most any damaging spell was pretty great. specifically the first fire damage spell was absurd. Cheap, aoe, spammy as hell.

            I’ve always felt that nearly everything in arcanum was just various tiers of brokenness (with some exceptions) Magic terminated everything, got you stat buffs for dialogue checks, and got things to tank for you. They even let you directly teleport for a faster version of fast travel

            Melee was strong, garunteed a lot of xp, was reliable, and outside of the initial area made you a walking god.

            Guns were very, very strong, but required that you build them yourself and you had to constantly make ammo. Despite this, you’ll never get touched so long as you have the ammo for it.

            I even made a character that only used tonics and drank everything to beat it all with buffs. Great game

            1. djw says:

              Actually, I think once you leveled up enough to get through Black Mountain Mines the rest of the game is a cakewalk no matter what your build is.

        2. LCF says:

          A molotov or ten and a sound pistol can go a long way.
          Though having two brutes with industrial-grade swords to finish off the wounded and the chaff is always nice.
          Also, Electro-armor.
          Also, most Magic is useless, and there are so few hostile Magic users.

    2. Spammy says:

      Now that you mention Elder Scrolls and Zeno Clash in the same sentence, how does the surreal weirdness of Zeno Clash compare to Morrowind?

      1. Michael says:

        Basically, it doesn’t.

        Morrowind is, at its core, a European fantasy setting where you’ve wandered into the weird part of the world. It’s supposed to be a coherent world with understandable rules (even if the game’s mechanics are a bit obtuse at times). But, you’re always reminded that the pseudo-Roman Empire is out there, and Imperial civilization is leaking into Vvardenfell.

        Xeno Clash is a game that exists in a very peculiar world state simply to mess with the player, and establish a tone. It’s trying for a 1970’s anti-Tolkien vibe. So you never get the kind of grounding Morrowind has. I’d almost be inclined to say it’s more compatible to something like Mad Max (at least the original fims) than Morrowind.

    3. Blue_Pie_Ninja says:

      I used third person when not fighting, and first exclusively for fighting. It was because every time I fought in third-person I hit the ground because of the camera angle I had. Fun.

  10. Ilseroth says:

    All right, so you talk of non-optimal builds and I can assure you I had the worst of it. I played a proper thief. AKA, I never leveled END and I was a Khajiit. I got up to level 30 with a maximum of less then a hundred HP. In addition, since I was a thief I elected to use daggers. Fun fact for those who don’t know, but there is pretty much no reason to pick daggers over other weapons in Oblivion (as there was no real benefit, as opposed to in Skyrim.)

    It was my first time playing the game, so I actually didn’t even realize that the game wasn’t supposed to be that hard. It wasn’t until my 2nd playthrough that I actually realized how the game was supposed to feel. As I waded into open combat with a selection of rings that gave massive damage reflect and leveling up strength and endurance and fights were substantially more abbreviated.

    Fun fact, my third playthrough was a hand to hand fighter. No armor. No magic. And I never leveled END. I am clearly a masochist.

    1. Ringwraith says:

      Daggers swing a bit faster.
      That’s about it.
      They even have a shorter reach.

      1. Daemian Lucifer says:

        Wait,wasnt the reason they removed spears the difficulty in having different reaching weapons?

        1. Ringwraith says:

          Maybe because it just reuses animations? I could be wrong on the range thing, but might just because it feels like your attempting to scratch people with a wet noodle.
          You’d really have to do the range thing properly with pole-arms though, and as evidenced by their flawed systems, they’re not very good at that anyway.

        2. Trix2000 says:

          Maybe it had more to do with longer reaches, since spears in theory can go out pretty far.

        3. Decius says:

          The difficulty is in having NPCs react to the player having a longer reach, especially when the player abuses the terrain to control the distance to “you can’t hit me but I can hit you”.

          Which is what spear users do.

          1. manofsteles says:

            Or they just levitate and troll the game back.

        4. Michael says:

          IIRC: The reason they gave was, “no one used them.” Same as with crossbows. But, yeah, Oblivion did have different reach and speed values for each weapon type, I think.

          1. manofsteles says:

            That’s weird; Morrowind’s character levelling mechanics encouraged the player to keep raising Endurance by x10 each level, and raising the Spear skill was one of the easiest ways to do that. Especially since, at early levels, they were very useful for reaching those damnable Cliff Racers.

            The problem was that there weren’t enough good unique spears in the game to justify doing that all the way through. If the unique spears weren’t severely underpowered, more players would have used them.

            I wonder if it had more to do with the trouble of adding the combat animations for spear users; I’ve seen many mods that add spears in Skyrim, and as I recall, the ones I’ve seen just reuse the animations for swords and axes and such.

    2. Coblen says:

      The one good thing about daggers is that they swing really fast. This means that you can enchant them with some pretty awesome enchantments. I seem to recall a dagger with weakness to magic, and magic damage being pretty sweet.

      1. Rob says:

        Pretty sweet, yeah. The weakness multipliers were applied separately IIRC, so 100% weakness to magic would become 200% after the next strike, then 400%, 800%, etc; so even a cheap 5 pt magic damage enchantment would deal hundreds of damage per strike after you hit them enough times. Since daggers were so fast you could skimp on the effect duration, meaning way more charges before you needed to refill. You could kill the (intended to be unkillable) final boss using this exploit.

  11. Scholar Beardpig says:

    The only way I ever beat Oblivion was by using the max invisibility trick. With a shirt, pants, boots, and two rings all enchanted to max invisibility, nobody could see or interact with you unless you wanted to. I just walked past the entire last third of the game.

    Wasn’t as good as Morrowind.

  12. tmtvl says:

    I’ve played both an optimally levelled character and many, many low-level characters. When playing as a low-level character the combat was a lot of fun, and it basically made Oblivion my favourite of the series.

    But, as anyone knows, de gustibus et coloribus, so I can see why not everyone likes doing things that way.

  13. Eschatos says:

    I really liked thieving in Oblivion. I didn’t have any experience with older Elder Scrolls games to compare it with, so I really didn’t care about the level scaling or most other problems. I was just happy that I could sneak into anyone’s house and take everything I wanted, then dump it into my shack at the Imperial City Docks(always my favorite house, small size be damned).

    1. Couscous says:

      The shack was always the first I bought and thus I never used any other houses. I wanted my loot in one place, and chests having infinite space meant it wasn’t a huge deal to just use the containers you could buy for your shack. By the time I bought another house, I would have put too much loot into the shack to make it feasible to take it all to another house nor was there anything mechanically to tempt me with the other houses. Aesthetics wise, the shack was nice and felt great because I was stashing insane amounts of high value items in the middle of a ghetto infested with thieves.

  14. Coblen says:

    I started playing oblivion again recently, and was amazed when I would pull off a x6 sneak attack, and not feel like the fight took any less time. I have an awesome sword, high blade skill, and pretty alright strength. Even with all that a low level destruction spell some lady gave me is clearing enemies faster. The reason I probably remember oblivion so fondly is because I always played a mage. I’m considering lowering the difficulty, but I really like how much damage the enemies are doing to me.

  15. Steven says:

    Technically calipers weren’t completely useless! There was a quest in Shivering Isles to find 100 pairs of calipers and tongs, for a crazy orc who was building a skyboat. Of course, you would only find him after an entire game of ignoring both items. You’ll receive the amazing payment of 500 gold for finishing the quest.

    1. Lachlan the Mad says:

      Also, doesn’t Ma’iq the Liar collect callipers?

      1. swenson says:

        Yep. In Oblivion, at noon every day, he stops for five hours to search for calipers, as one does.

        In Skyrim he will bemoan the lack of calipers in the game.

  16. Artur CalDazar says:

    Oblivion was my first Elder Scrolls game, and although at the time I didn’t understand the relationship to my problems the leveling system caused me a lot of headache.

    “I need X scamp skins for this quest” Well scamps don’t show up anymore because I am too high a level, I guess I’m just screwed.

    1. Spammy says:

      That’s a thing that can happen?

      No one made sure that couldn’t happen?

      1. Will says:

        I don’t actually recall any quests of the “farm x of this particular random-spawning mob” variety (though there’s no shortage of “farm x of this particular set-spawn mob”). However, it is definitely the case that low-level enemies, particularly daedra, will become exceedingly hard to find once you level too much.

      2. Artur CalDazar says:

        So it can be very hard or impossible to find certain foes depending on your level, so if you want to find one for any reason it’s a pain.

        But that specific example was for the DLC that gives you a castle, decorating it requires animal/monster parts, so its a paid for extra that is hampered by this system.

        The prime example of the player being screwed by the reverse leveling is perhaps the blade of woe for the dark brotherhood. It gets all kinds of boosts when you finish the questline, but for the level you first joined the brotherhood, meaning it’s almost always worthless. A level 3 dagger becoming as good as a level 7 one doesn’t mean much when you are level 21.

        1. Blue_Pie_Ninja says:

          I swear the Blade of Woe had insta-kill sneak attacks. Either that or it was because I never bothered to level past level 11 and had the difficulty on the easiest setting as the increases in difficulty on the slider at normal levels turned enemies into sponges and you into paper bag.

  17. I think a lot of people are forgetting that Oblivion actually did let you level past things. There’s no question that the I was more powerful at the end of the game then at the beginning, even though I accidentally leveled up like 50 levels in the speechcraft skill. People definitely exaggerate the aggressiveness of the scaling. Like in the beginning a few bandits is a big deal and quite the threat, but by the end of the game I was slaughtering huge camps of them and running back and forth through dungeons trying to aggro as many of them as possible just to send them flying with my claymore, and I barely even used two handed weapons. What I’m trying to say is that the game does not run away from the player, nor does it require any careful leveling.

    I totally understand being frustrated, because even at the end of the game I was easily winning fights 10 different ways, but those fights still took forever. It was like I could tickle them with some magic, tickle them with a one-handed sword, scratch them with a two handed sword, or start the fight with a sneak bow attack and watch their health be drained by 2%. The enemies tickled me right back. It was brutal.

    And did anyone even bother with the poisons? I only ask because I actually tried to make this work and it was such a huge amount of effort for an unbelievably small gain. On one of my playthroughs I maxed out alchemy and the poisons still sucked beyond belief. They would have sucked even if they were all instantaneous, but the ones that did any real damage worked over time. But by then all the enemies were alerted to you so it wasn’t even good if you were roleplaying an assassin.

    1. coblen says:

      I’ve had pretty good success with poisons in the past. They can do some pretty absurd amounts of damage. The real issue is that having to apply them is an absolute pain. The menu takes an eternity to scroll down to them, and your hotkey’s can really quickly fill up with a bunch of nearly identical poisons. One reason you might of found them weak is if you where still using the novice alchemy tools. I seem to recall getting anything better to be pretty random. The novice tools are garbage, the next step up is over twice as good.

  18. General Karthos says:

    He might as well have quoted my comments about level scaling from the last post. It’s the thing that destroys not only Oblivion but a LOT of other games. Oblivion is just the most egregious example, because your opponents level up only in combat ability, so unless you are doing the same, you’re going to fall farther and farther behind.

    Moderate challenge? Tell me that after you’ve put 217 arrows into a troll before it dies, and then you have to do it five more times to clear the dungeon where you’ll find nothing of any real value.

    1. RCN says:

      The reason Oblivion is infamous is not really because the enemies could outpace you if you neglected combat. Oblivion is infamous because the enemies could outpace you EVEN if you only trained your combat skills, and their health CERTAINLY outpaced you regardless of what you did. You damage simply did not increase to the same extent their health did and it didn’t take too much levels for simple bandits to soak arrows and fireballs like if they were unstoppable Nazi over-engineered war machines.

      Also, because the enemies were always the same. One thing that Skyrim did right is that despite still using a lot of level scaling, a level 100 character is not going to get its ass kicked by a GODDAMN GOBLIN.

    2. Crimson Dragoon says:

      It sure as heck ruined Final Fantasy 8. Your stats there were tied more to the magic you attached to them (long story) than your level, but enemies leveled normally with you. This means that leveling might slightly increase your strength, but it increased your enemies’ defense more, resulting in doing less damage at higher levels. There’s something wrong with your RPG when I beat the game at level 13 and had a far easier time with it than someone who took the time to grind to level 99.

      Frankly I’m having trouble thinking of a game where level scaling enemies worked. At best, you take away the power fantasy these games are supposed to provide of being a complete and utter badass warrior at higher levels. At worst (Oblivion, FF8), you’re actively discouraging the player from proper leveling and combat.

  19. Rodyle says:

    People act like it was better in Skyrim, but Critical Miss still summarized my experiences in that game really well.

    1. flyguy says:

      it is a little better is skyrim. I think many of us have had that experience where your dude enters a dungeon and its nothing but draugr deathlords that all cutscene oneshot you (who thought letting enemy mooks cutscene kill you was a good idea. twohanders man) I wouldnt even say these are rare cases.

      But in Skyrim there are still enemies that you trounce at level 20 with no combat skills. These are still the same enemies you trounce at level 1

      Not so in oblivion. Level one: you’ll boot that scamp out of kvatch, but at level 20 they’ll murder your face and take forever to kill.

      The implementation is just as egregious, but the range is better, if only slightly

  20. Blue_Pie_Ninja says:

    I recall that my Redguard Heavy Armor but extremely Athletic Destruction/Restoration Magic Sword and Board every-man could pick expert level locks with ease with a skill level of 6 in security and 11 lockpicks. Seriously, the only challenge with the lock picking is being patient enough to wait for the right time to put the tumblers on the lock up. Then you can get the skeleton key and just spam auto-attempt with no issues.

  21. TheVictorian says:

    Great article, but I disagree with the statement “…Morrowind”˜s disconnecting a player from their character through arbitrary failures was about as bad a sin as an RPG's combat system could commit…”

    Separating player skill from character skill is a fundamental aspect of RPGs; indeed, it is what separates it from other genres. Because your character is not just an extension of yourself or an avatar for your own skills, as it is in most games, but a completely separate entity with his or her own skills and abilities and who is capable of succeeding or failing independently of the player.

    Put it this way: in a tabletop RPG, my character’s ability to hit the ogre isn’t based on my ability to reach over and punch the DM in the face, but on my character’s attack skills versus the ogre’s defensive capabilities.

    The worst sin an RPG can commit is to ignore the character that the player has created and offer the same experience to everywhere, regardless of the player character’s intrinsic qualities.

    Now, the dice-rolling mechanic in Morrowing may have been frustrating for some, but it served the purpose of separating the player’s skill from his character’s. It didn’t matter how good your aiming skills were with the mouse or controller; if you character had no skill in Marskman, he wasn’t going to be able hit the broad side of the barn. Sadly, the mechanic didn’t work in reverse; if you had rubbish aiming skills with the mouse, then your character wouldn’t be able to hit anything, even if he had a high Marksman skill. Which is why I consider the first-person perspective an ill-suited for the RPG genre, but that’s another argument entirely.

    1. Daemian Lucifer says:

      Separating player skill from character skill is a fundamental aspect of RPGs; indeed, it is what separates it from other genres.

      Thats not what Rutskarns sentence contradicts.It doesnt say morrowind was wrong in trying to separate the player from the character,but in how it did it.Morrowind asks you to both have enough skill to hit something AND have a character that will have enough skill to hit it,which is a terrible design.

  22. Reithur says:

    The combat in the last few ES games has been somewhere between mediocre and disappointing for me, but never so much as when I tried Skyrim after playing Chivalry: Medieval Warfare. Great first person combat, but it’s a tough game to learn.

  23. August says:

    “Oblivion has the worst combat in the series.”
    What? Morrowind by a country mile. I can run around Oblivion and have fun just killing things. That’s physically impossible in Morrowind. Hell, the Arena in Oblivion in one of the more memorable parts, because it shows off the combat system against a differing array of enemies. The Arena in Morrowind is where fun goes to die.

    Not to mention you can fight and magic in Oblivion, something you couldn’t do in Morrowind. And it’s not as if Oblivion is the only or even first TES game with level scaling.

    Honestly, this sounds like hype backlash. Yes, Oblivion was not NEARLY what it was hyped up to be, but credit where it’s due, this was the first TES game where combat was fun.

  24. Phantos says:

    There’s a solution to not doing enough damage in Oblivion:

    Turn down the difficulty.

    No, I’m serious. I’m not saying that in a smug “git gud” kind of way. I mean Bethesda picked a weirdly hard place on the difficulty slider to be the default challenge.

    The game’s combat is so much less infuriating and time-wasting once you lower the difficulty. Even if you don’t try to cheese the system. I enjoyed it that way a lot more than any of the combat in Skyrim at least… but then, maybe I just need to lower the difficulty on that too?

  25. Vivi says:

    “Morrowind”˜s loot never felt like too much, since there were plenty of very expensive purchases to save up towards,”

    … Uh… Have we been playing the same game? The only things I ever need significant sums for in Morrowind are training, paying a smith to make glass armor, and permanent effect enchanting (much more expensive with a popular re-balancing mod installed). Looted gear is generally better than anything the shops have on offer. In contrast, I always quickly end up with a big pile of fancy weaponry and armor that are surplus to my “all-unenchanted-weapons-and-armor-in-the-game” collection, each worth thousands or even tens of thousands of Drakes, and no shopkeeper has enough money to buy any of them. I also collect one of each skillbook in the game, expensive liquors, Dwemer pottery and coins, stacks of hundreds of gems, pearls, precious raw glasses, and atronach dusts (they feel too valuable to actually use in alchemy, but I also never need to sell them), and I try rid the island of drugs by not selling or using any of the moonsugar and skooma bottles I find. And yet, by the time I build a house in my House faction, I’m running around with several hundred thousand Drakes in my pocket, because I have nothing to spend the money on. I was actually dissapointed the first time I reached that point and found out that I didn’t have to pay a realistic sum to build the house.
    That’s one thing that I remember being better in Oblivion. Or am I misremembering the part where you could buy several houses and then had to pay for the furniture as well?

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