Why Oblivion is actually a good game

Why Oblivion is actually a good game

Listen up, you primitive screwheads. This is a Kitsune-length continuation of the off-topic discussion in the misspelled Orrery thread.

As several readers of the recent RPG Codex review noted, much of the criticism raised there and elsewhere are valid. Oblivion is without a doubt one of the easiest games ever to nitpick to death, and I can rationally understand many objections.

But as Tom Chick would put it, the game is just plain fun! After having put in ~80 hours, completed three guild quest lines, and achieving level 26, I’m still completely addicted to the game and definitely want to finish the main quest. Apparently, a few million people agree with me, at least to some degree. So how can such a bad game be so good?

I think we have a classic case of not understanding what a game tries to do on our hands. Much criticism seems to completely ignore the designers’ intentions, trying to shoehorn Oblivion into some preconceived notion of how an RPG should work, and noting its failure to do so while ignoring the things it does right according to its own intentions.

The leveling system. The single most scandalized point – yet I didn’t have a problem with it! Starting out, I got my butt kicked pretty often; then the game got somewhat easier as I leveled up but always remained challenging. (Well, until I completed my 100% Chameleon suit.) Just as it should be, by and large.

Here’s what I did: I’m a powergamer at heart and wanted to do almost everything with a single character. So I researched the character system and built a “Paladin” character that was optimized for fully experiencing the game while staying ahead of the power curve.

That’s not the only way, though. A number of people have spoken up and said they didn’t have a problem with prebuilt mage or thief classes. Yet some insist that the leveling system is terribly broke, both regarding character progress and NPC adjustment. What gives?

Oblivion tries to cater to two audiences simultaneously – powergamers and roleplayers – and apparently does so successfully! The catch: You must stay consistent with your initial choice of what you want to be. If you’re a munchkin you better do your research and figure out how to optimize your class for a combat-heavy game. On the other hand, if you’re a roleplayer you better stick with your role – and that means, go right to Kvatch when people tell you to, and do the quests at the guild that fits your character (which are tailored to your abilities and give very nice rewards).

Using a class that’s not unsuited to combat, and then deciding to just ignore the pressing main quest as well as “your” guild quests because you feel like looting random dungeons and boosting your level instead, and then coming back later to the main quest is a recipe for disaster. No doubt about that. But think about what you did! You essentially role-played a clueless hobo who ran off into the woods instead of doing any of the obvious tasks at hand. And you’re surprised that the game doesn’t reward you for that? IMO this illustrates not how broken Oblivion is but how broken most other RPGs are, since they created this must-grind-before-questing attitude.

The Radiant AI. Yeah, it does a lot of stupid things, and waiting around for NPCs can be a drag. But by and large, simple things such as alchemists going to their shop in the morning and making potions until they sit down to eat at noon just adds so much flavor to the game, I wouldn’t want to miss it.

See the Black Horse Rider galloping by, get an edition of the Black Horse Courier that reports your latest misdeed for the Dark Brotherhood. See fighters practicing with a combat dummy or shooting at a target range. See University adepts listening to a regularly scheduled lecture. Guards patrolling the streets, occasionally pursuing some criminal. People sitting down to read or stopping to chat with each other in the street.

To be honest I wasn’t terribly impressed with NPC schedules in the old Ultima games – when NPCs are just little sprites anyway I don’t really care how realistic they act. In a fully realized 3D world like Oblivion’s, though, this combination of scripted and randomized NPC actions is extremely effective to create a believable world on an unprecedented scale. However, you’ll be disappointed if you were expecting the NPCs to perform their broad range of actions with the efficiency of an FPS bot. That’s not what they are there for – they exist for flavor only. Just enjoy the show and laugh at the funny antics.

The interface. Yeah, I hate the inconsistent dialog keys and limited hotkeys as much as the next guy. I applied a mod to reduce the font size for inventory lists, too. But please, this interface has:

[ul][li]Global automap that knows all terrain, rivers, roads, and big cities; and automatically fills in smaller locations as you find them.
[/li][li]Local automap with automatic annotations for all dwellings, and quest markers (even for mobile targets!) that are shared with the global map and even point you to the nearest exit as necessary.
[/li][li]Categorized alphabetized inventory with complete tooltip descriptions for all items and spells.
[/li][li]Fast-travel that brings your horse along if you have one, allows traveling with companions, correctly adjusts the game time, and strikes a perfect balance between discovery and convenience by requiring you to find most locations first.
[/li][li]Minimal HUD showing all you need to know without cluttering up the screen, including markers for quest targets and map locations (fading to indicate distance!), a visibilty marker while sneaking (also fading by degrees – the RPG Codex review is wrong here), and an unobtrusive hitpoint display that doesn’t paste ugly health bars all across the game world.
[/li][li]Quest log with a full record of past entries for the active quest, conveniently abbreviated lists for available & completed quests, and dynamically changing quest markers on the map and in the HUD.
[/li][li]Standard shooter controls for the character, not some weird shit like Gothic.[/ul]
[/li]Here I have to admit defeat: if you bitch about this interface I just don’t know what the hell you were expecting. Despite its consolitis, this is seriously the best RPG interface I’ve ever seen.

The combat system. Apparently some people manage to complain in the same breath that Oblivion is not enough of an RPG and that melee combat doesn’t have combos. I’ll just note this last complaint is not only absurd but simply wrong – all power attacks are executed as combos, using the attack button together with a directional button. There are four different attacks all told, and two power attacks have distinct effects (disarming and knocking down). Moreover, you can block instead of attacking, and different weapons have a different attack speed and reach.

All of these abilities are governed by your character’s stats and equipment, so in direct contradiction to the criticism the combat system is actually a nice mix of RPG and action elements. That may not be good enough for purists who want either a perfect RPG system with no player involvement at all, or else a very involved fighter-style system. Personally I prefer the existing system over either of these alternatives.

On top of that, enemies execute regular power attacks as well and your character’s reaction to those sometimes made me physically recoil in my chair. The visual shaking, knock-back, and temporary loss of control over your character after a hit is incredibly well done, and a good approximation of what I imagine knights beating up on each other with heavy metal devices would feel like.

I really try to avoid getting hit here whereas in most RPGs I just walk up (with a tank character) and soak up the damage. There’s also a clear difference between lumbering brutes like ogres (very powerful attacks with a long preparation, giving you time to evade) and fast enemies such as some bandits (I encountered one who moved so fast I didn’t manage to hit her even once while she attacked my NPC buddy).

The quests. Yeah, the main quest is kind of dull but you know what? The plane of Oblivion is still cool the first time you see it, you don’t have to close that many Oblivion gates if you don’t want to, and the amazing quality of the guild & side quests more than makes up for it. Oblivion’s overall quest design sets a new standard for RPGs as far as I’m concerned, and it’s simply beyond me how you can totally ignore this just because the various guild quests aren’t in conflict with each other.

Don’t you people who make this criticism appreciate the writing, the settings, the sheer creativity of the quests at all? Would you be happier if the Grey Fox told you “Kill Vilena Donton!” and she told you “Kill the Grey Fox!” instead of the existing final quests, just so that there’s a “real choice” between these guild quests?

Just thinking about this makes my head explode so I better stop writing now. If you hate Oblivion you also hate cute little puppies, fun, and Nintendo. There you have it!

My ultimate view on Oblivion is that it gives a great first impression, but then starts feeling both empty and contrived at the same time after ~20 hours of play. It feels too much like a game world that organizes itself around me. Which I guess some people like; I prefer a world in which I’m just a shlub who needs to make his way.

Ultimately, I’ve pretty much decided to shelve the game for six months to a year until there are mods out to fix or rebalance the things I don’t like.

Ambivalence is the word that best describes my impressions.

Charles pretty much nailed it from my perspective as well.

I agree with you 100% Christoph. Oblivion is super fun and deserves many kudos. Unfortunately, logic dictates we ought to completely ignore everything you just said because anything I think is guaranteed to be false according to you.

an unobtrusive hitpoint display that doesn’t paste ugly health bars all across the game world

This is one of my big pet peeves with a lot of games. You spend all this time on a cool 3-D model, cool lighting, etc. Then you go and put a big ugly recticle above it to select or target or a health bar. It’s really bad in RTS game, where sometimes all you see are big groups of colored squares. So ugly. I think the way the recent Zelda games did this the best so far: a small, unobtrusive arrow above the character/unit’s head. Maybe there is a better way (slightly increase the gamma on the skin of the unit, say), but that one is pretty good.

I played it, I enjoyed it, I finished it, I shelved it. I didn’t feel any compulsion to go back to it, I doubt I’ll play it again.

Don’t feel ripped off, don’t feel angry, don’t regret paying money for it. But in a year’s time, I doubt I’ll remember it.

Why are we still trying to convince people that Oblivion is good or bad? Is having your own opinon based on observation just not good enough anymore?

Anyway, Charles got it right. Let’s move on!

So you’re saying the game’s not broken because as long as you roleplay a very specific archetype, everything works, and deviating from that archetype is your own fault because what the hell did you expect to happen, anyway?

Good argument.

I do not recall anyone saying Oblivion was a bad game, can you link to an example? I do recall people saying it does have flaws, which is not the same thing as saying it is a bad game.

Did anyone actually say the game wasn’t fun in that thread? Opinions don’t have to be binary.

Yeah, great sandbox world they have there that I don’t have any options.

The thing I find the most interesting is that the “Radiant AI scheduling” doesn’t do jack for me. Really, how does some alchemist going out for lunch make the game world more realistic? I don’t get it; it’s just nonsense on stilts.

Oh, and “push forward and hold the button to do a different kind of attack” is not a “combo,” Chris. See Jedi Knight for how to do melee combat properly.

DeepT, you just don’t understand. Games-of-the-Century like Oblivion don’t travel the middle road. You either love it, or are a twisted, half-brained mutant who spends his life picking apart good games, because there’s nothing else to do while he’s stuffing Cheetos in his parents’ basement.

EDIT: He OR She! Sorry ladies!

Yeah. God forbid we should actually use these crazy internet forums to talk about stuff. We should just move on before somebody gets hurt.

I wouldn’t care if it weren’t for the half-dozen other threads DISCUSSING THIS VERY TOPIC.

Again, move on or post in a thread my mind has been trained to avoid. Honestly.

My 360 died just at the apex of my frustration, taking my L20 thief-build through the first stage of Kvatch. (And boy do I mean heinously irritating)

Being forced away from the game for a couple weeks allowed me to reflect on the 40+ hour experience, and Charles blatantly nailed it better than I had.

The thread title wasn’t a hint that this would be another discussion about Oblivion? Seems easy enough to avoid to me.


Touche, but I’m feeling surly this morning, and there’s precious little else that getting views and responses right now. Color me bored.

Someone didn’t like the RPG Codex review…

Despite its flaws, I’ve enjoyed the game immensely. It’s pulled me in like no console game has in many years. I think it’s too bad that Kvatch seems to be broken if you go there much past level 5, because it sounds to me like a lot of people hit that wall and are soured on the game completely as a result. It’s especially unfortunate because that happens so early in the main questline. I wonder what a little extra time spent balancing that encounter at higher levels would have done for the general impressions of the game.

So far, I’ve put over 100 hours into it and I still have things that I want to do. I haven’t finished the fighters guild, arena or main quest, not to mention all the quests in towns. I have noticed lately that I’ve spent a lot more time fast-traveling, but that was more because I found the Thieves and Dark Brotherhood questlines to be compelling rather than a result of boredom with the world. I still find myself just stopping and staring around from time to time, though sometimes I can be impatient.

I admit that most of my RPG experience is with JRPGs, so a lot of things about Oblivion that are new and impressive to me may be pretty routine for folks who have played more Western RPGs. But it has me interested enough to want to go back and try out some other ones as soon as I find myself with another 100+ hour block of time on my hands.

Biggest issue here, I think, is that there are two very different schools of thought when it comes to RPGs. I enjoy one type, while Christoph likes another. And I think it comes down to whether or not you want your character to be the very center of the game world. My ultimate RPG would be one where the world moves on without me; if I just went and hunted goblins for sport, the evil bad guys would eventually conquer and enslave the whole world while I noodled; I suspect that this game would be something that Christoph and his ilk would hate.

Lots of people said they dropped the game quickly because of this or that defect, and the RPG Codex review was decidedly negative overall.

The thing I find the most interesting is that the “Radiant AI scheduling” doesn’t do jack for me. Really, how does some alchemist going out for lunch make the game world more realistic? I don’t get it; it’s just nonsense on stilts.

You don’t see how people going out for lunch is more realistic than people not going out for lunch, and instead staying at their work place all day and night?

Oh, and “push forward and hold the button to do a different kind of attack” is not a “combo,” Chris. See Jedi Knight for how to do melee combat properly.

It’s more than one button pressed simultaneously, ergo a combo. And please, if you can only cite a single game that did melee combat better than Oblivion I’d say that Oblivion still has done pretty damn well in that department.