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Video Games

To Oblivion and back again

I’ve recieved some flak about my negativity toward Oblivion. I do qualify at the beginning of my last post that my review was more of a fill-in-the-blanks supplement to unrealistically shining reviews of the game, but I suppose some resources for comparison would help my readers see where I’m coming from. Here’s some excerpts and summaries of reviews I’ve read that should illustrate the need for critical reviews such as mine.

Gamespot – 93%

This review does a great job of highlighting the depth and immersiveness of the game, but barely glosses over the bugs. Though Gamespot allotted a similar score to other publications, the review’s unfounded summary downplays the shortcomings laughably:

 

The Good: Huge, lavishly detailed world offers tremendous amount of action and adventure; main mechanics like combat, stealth, and magic are fun and well designed; impressive artificial intelligence and hundreds of believable characters; outstanding symphonic score, as well as excellent voice acting and sound effects; tremendous replay value, plus gorgeous graphics to make it easy on the eyes.

The Bad: Frequent though fairly brief loading times; you might run into some technical issues with performance.


PC Gamer UK (print article) – 93%

These blokes hit the nail on the head when they declare Oblivion “a messy masterpiece”. Although the reviewer is doubtlessly as giddy as we all are when playing this game for the first time, his review is even-tempered and reflects the still inflated score:

It’s: Narcotically addictive, (Gasp!) Emergent, Brutal
It’s not: An AI revolution, A grind, Perfectly polished

FiringSquad – 95%

I was both delighted and disappointed by this review, as it is the best example of investigative games journalism of the bunch but is incongruent with the score. This reviewer voices many concerns about gameplay balancing, interface, and quest tedium, yet qualifies the generous score with the availability of mods that remedy the game’s many shortcomings such as in this example:

The interface we’re less keen on. It’s clearly designed for the 360 and has big, giant icons and text that don’t work too great on high-resolution monitors right in front of your face. Fortunately, there are mods to shrink those images and the text to show more lines of inventory. Mods will also take care of annoying “loading area…” and other routine messages that really don’t add much to the game.

I agree wholeheartedly with PC Gamer magazine’s take on this issue – if it’s not in the box it’s not in the score. Ultima 9 (mentioned in a comment on my last post) was released in such an unfinished state that the company offered a replacement install disc for free by mail, but this didn’t save it from the journalistic guillotine of any publication worth its weight in mithril.

To me, a great game is one that makes you forget you’re in a game. With the exception of load screens, the Half Life series is probably king of suspension of disbelief. Undoubtedly those games are much more simplistic and linear than a supposed “world simulator” like Oblivion, but they give you no less than what you need to get by. The Grand Theft Auto series does this better with each iteration, as does Elder Scrolls, but GTA and Half Life follow the (defunct?) Google mantra of finding a niche and polishing the hell out of it.

Whether you prefer a virtual reality Robert Munsch over a papier mache Tolstoy is your choice to make. Myself, I tend to take the road less travelled by tipping my scale toward the unquantifiable “games as art” extreme. Sure, many of my criticisms are specifically about gameplay mechanics pertaining to numbers in a database, but reading between the lines reveals my displeasure of my awareness of that database.

I like Oblivion. I really do. But I don’t love it. I think a score of 85% is appropriate for such a game, as I feel about 20% of what the game throws at me is unpolished or broken, but the execution and charm offset this penalty by 5%.

So again, yesterday’s critical review was no less complete than the blindingly incandescent or quizically schizophrenic reviews from other sources. In truth, I’m too lazy to maintain a news source that follows any topic to conclusion. I just calls ’em as I sees ’em. Let today’s blog entry show that I take reader comments (electronic and otherwise) seriously enough to revisit or change my mind on an issue.

Categories
Video Games

Elder Scrolls: Oblivious

I read a great quote in a review of Elder Scrolls: Oblivion – the more perfect a game is, the more perfect you want it to be. One of the nicest things I can say about this game is that I want it to be VERY perfect.

PC Gamer gave this opus a questionable score of 95%, and other critical publications have honoured it similarly, so in my review I will skip over most of the praise and bring to light some of the shortcomings of this otherwise good game.

Indeed, after playing 50 hours and gaining 28 levels in a scant 2 weeks (that’s an average of 3.5 hours per 14 days – and I spent nearly half of those days away from my computer) it may seem hypocritical for me to write a review entirely badmouthing Oblivion. I may be a stickler for quality, but I’m not the only one. When around 2/3 of user-recorded gameplay videos illustrate bugs and exploits, and nearly half the user-created mods created in under a month claim to be fixes for gameplay bugs and annoyances, you can be sure that the “final” product doesn’t live up to its own hype. (but what game does?)

For instance, one of the most lauded features is the NPC dynamic chatter. Dynamic, yes. Chatter, yes. Lifelike? Not at all. Once you’ve heard 3 pairs of NPCs converse the algorithm is painfully obvious – salutation, topical sentence, generic sentence, goodbye. The randomness of each of these elements is what makes this otherwise sensible formula a waste of good prose. For instance, one particularly hilarious exchange unfolded as follows:

Man 1 – “Good day.”
Man 2 – “How are you?”
Man 1 – “I’ve been better. How are you?”
Man 2 – “I’ve been better.”
Man 1 – “I hope things get better.”
Man 2 – “Bye.”

User/NPC interaction is little better. When talking with a female townie I clicked a conversation topic about a quest and was told about a dangerous gang who hangs out at a seedy, rough bar, which I should avoid. When I then asked the woman for a rumor she told me how much she enjoyed patronizing that same bar!

The fact that Bethesda cheaped out on voice actors makes the matter much, much worse. They seem to have hired fewer than one voice actor per race per gender, amounting to a world of hundreds of NPCs with about 6 or 7 voices. The umpteenth time you hear 2 NPCs conversing in the same voice you’ll be pulling out your hair, guaranteed. That’s not to say that the voice acting is bad – it’s mostly B-movie shmantastic – but in your travels you’ll be subjected to classic RPG-talkie foibles like 2 conversing NPCs (or 1 in a monologue) pronouncing a place or another character’s name differently. Why would someone tolerate his wife or best friend calling him by the wrong name his whole life? Other times it’s obvious that the actor read the lines in no particular order, since inflections and emphases are voiced inappropriately in context (e.g., “he stole the DAGGER” instead of “HE stole the dagger”).

Combat, perhaps the game’s strongest point, is great but not perfect. I’ve observed others play as magicians and melee soldiers, and I myself am playing as an archer, so I feel I’ve gotten pretty good exposure to the mechanics of combat. As an archer I’m having a great time sniping at unsuspecting prey, but once my target is aware of me I’m in little more danger than when I lurk undetected in the shadows (though shadows seem to have no effect on concealment). However, I can say with confidence that player strategy, regardless of weapon specialty, is pretty much transferable. Melee opponents charge blindly while they close in and will either do an undodgeable running attack or will stop in front of me and wind up for a huge swing that is very easily evaded. “Touch” mages glow like Rudolf before striking so evading their hits is easier than Little Mac taking down Glass Joe. Archers and ranged mages smartly aim where you will be at your current trajectory, so it’s easy as pie to fake out arrows or lightning or especially fireballs from a sufficient distance.

Though it’s a very rare exception, I’ll occasionally be thrown a pretty nifty curve ball such as when my bow is drawn while I zero-in on a hammer-wielding goon, but a well-placed whack crumbles the bow before I can get a shot off. Since every untalkative man, woman, rat, crab, bear, and demon in the whole world will detect you with its 50-foot radar and promptly attack, combat is reduced to a time filler to keep you busy while traversing the map a-la Doom.

And this brings me to another problem. The level design is, for the most part, totally awesome. The wilderness looks gorgeous and serene, and the accompanying score by the king of ambient fantasy music, Jeremy Soule, is appropriately magical, but the way it’s all rubberbanded together sucks you out of the fantasy. First and definitely foremost, the damn “Loading area…” message! Every 15 steps you’ll be greeted by this huge 5-second message explaining the 1/10 second pause preceding! Thanks for reminding me of my hard drive while I quest for the magic mace of Grunkalunka! Also, the calm travel music is abruptly aborted as if skipping to the next song on a CD and is replaced by a battle score when a one-hit-kill crab starts hobbling toward you, whether or not you intend to engage it. If more enemies join the fray, the song is aborted and restarted for each combatant. Ingredients can be harvested from indiginous plants, but it’s impossible to tell whether a plant has been harvested because the fruit-laden graphic doesn’t change. Finally, though towns look great and are mostly room-by-room accurate, there are no “facilities” anywhere! No baths, no chamberpots, nowhere! I guess royalty and paupers alike are too polite to say anything about each other’s (or my) B.O.

One of my favourite activities in the game is theft. Sneaking and pilfering and pickpocketing was a LOT of fun until the mechanics became obvious. If they don’t see you, it didn’t happen. I did a series of quests for a countess who displayed her newly acquired trophies in cases right beside her throne. I crouched from plain sight, putting each case between the countess and I, and became total concealed. I picked the “very hard” (hah) locks on the cases and stole back the exceedingly valuable prizes from right under the countess’s nose, stood up again, WORE her prized amulet, and she still greeted me as her hero. If an NPC is sitting at her dinner table you can snatch the fork from under her hand as long as you’re behind her. Such minor thefts of silverware and decorative urns are a great source of income at first, but later on even “precious” gems are worthless as compared to otherwise commonly found swords and armours.

Speaking of which, you’ve no doubt heard of Oblivion’s annoying habit of leveling-up the world as your character levels up. The tougher you get, the tougher everything gets, so instead of conquering you’re always playing catch-up. In such an open-ended world this scheme works to an extent. Regardless, it’s highly confusing to see ordinary roadside bandits wielding daedric (evil god) armour and weapons, when the daedra themselves use inferior weapons! A bandit wearing $20,000 worth of equipment will approach you and demand $100. Spent it all on glitz, did ya? Killing one roaming bandit will yield a better sell than all the luxuries in an entire town, imperial castle included.

And goodness gracious, the merchants! Each merchant has a predefined maximum transaction amount – you can only sell one or many items for so much to a merchant. For a while I hoarded all my $4000 finds since the best merchant offered only $800, but by the time merchants leveled up to $1200 per transaction I had zillions of dollars more than that and my scrimpings became worthless. Even more ridiculous is that this limit is attached to any SINGLE transaction. Got 50 $500 amulets? You can’t sell them in one go – you have to do 50 separate transactions to get full fare, and each transaction is a friggin nightmare. Click the collective icon for many of one item, slide the slider down to the number to be sold, click OK, click Yes to verify, repeat. That’s 6-8 seconds times the number to be sold. Hire a damn beta tester, Bethesda.

Scrolling through items SUCKS once you’ve acquired enough loot. Some sorting functions are handy but they fall short of anything truly helpful. When you have 50 missions, why can’t you sort by town or locale? If keys are used automatically at doors, why do you have to scroll past the HUGE list every time you want to use a repair hammer? Why is the font so huge you can only see 6 items per screen? Why can’t you see the number of charges on a magic item without mousing over it? Why are clickable interface buttons so small and far from other elements?

Horses. Pretty. Worthless. You run faster and jump higher on foot and you can’t attack while mounted – even with arrows.

NPC escort missions are a throwback to the 80’s. In one mission I had to escort Brother Martin, a healer, through some sticky situations. As soon as he sees an enemy he runs full speed into its line of fire, enraging 3 or 4 other behemoths in the process. He gets about 3 punches in before he gets pummeled, at which point he heals HIMSELF (never me) continually until being knocked unconscious (this happens instead of death for story-critical NPCs) and I’m presented with a huge text message. As all 5 demons charge me, Martin stands up and throws another punch before getting knocked unconscious yet again, displaying another text message while I scramble for my life. And if your NPC isn’t story-critical then you can kiss him goodbye in as many as 3 encounters if you’re REALLY good. AI in this game is little more than a switch that gets flipped when an enemy is detected. Considering most such NPCs ask you for assistance because they are afraid to continue, it’s especially ludicrous to see them run right into your line of fire. Combat isn’t the only NPC foible either – in one mission where an NPC (a female orc) asked me to lead her to a combat area, she stopped walking just short of her target. I had to get behind her and SHOVE her to her waypoint like a stubborn mule.

And then there’s the bugs! Havok physics look wicked but are unpredictable. Pick up an item from a table and all the other objects start levitating. Kill someone near a door and there’s a 50% chance they’ll get stuck inside it, flailing wildly as the door swings. Dropped paper makes an audible CRASH like a brick and has the same physics, but the sound will never alert an enemy – nor will throwing items at a guard while concealed alert him. Walk between a chair and a wall and you’ll probably never get out. Paper has inventory weight but torches don’t. Seemingly empty glass cases may be full of items, and full glass cases may contain items other than those displayed. Pay a beggar a coin and his grizzled cockney gives way to proud bassey declarations. Some NPCs are missing voice files, so closed captions appear and disappear in about 1.5 seconds. Some NPC dynamic conversations are closed captioned, some are not, and sometimes this varies from sentence to sentence. Despite Bethesda’s claims, you can still find a lockpick concealed in a dead rat’s ____, or a cache of gems thoroughly stuffed up an impaled’corp. On and on and on.

Finally, finding the sweet spot of resolution, detail, and post-processing effects really stinks. Many options (including resolution) require the game to be restarted entirely, but at least load times are very nice on PC with a 7200RPM SATA drive. Some limitations are really weird – you can’t use antialiasing or bloom if you use HDR, you can’t take screenshots while antialiasing is on, the nicest shadow filters still look like crap, you never seen your own shadow even when “self shadows” is enabled, and there is no hardware audio accelleration or any option for multi-speaker configurations. On the plus side, the huge font is very readable at any resolution.

If youthinks I doth protest too much, yeah, you’re right. I still spend most of my free time playing this game. However, this is one game I won’t be completing 100%. Missions fall into 2 or 3 varieties and are otherwise indiscernable except for their well-written circumstances. Weapon upgrades are uninteresting and unneccesary, and magic items are far too expensive to recharge (100% of the item cost) and cannot be repaired manually until you are skilled enough (which I am not at level 28). Basically, you’ve seen it all after 10 hours, unless of course you opt to purchase one of several $1.99 content upgrades like horse armour or a wizard tower. Way to bleed us, Bethesda.

So yes, I am giving this critically acclaimed game a very hard time, but my criticisms are deserved and mysteriously undervoiced in professional reviews. Oblivion is an ambitious project to be sure, but a sloppy double-release with Xbox 360 detracts from the PC implementation in almost every aspect. Bethesda has unfortunately lived up to its reputation of releasing unfinished product to the marketplace, and as expected, relies on the mod world to fix broken quests and clunky mechanics – a huge task that modders have already tackled swimmingly, as they did with Morrowind.

The last word – Oblivion is an RPG wearing the chainmail of a virtual world, but you can see right through the rungs.

P.S., If you go out on the balcony of your house in Skingrad, don’t go back in that door! For some reason it’s restricted so if a guard sees you go back into your own house you’ll be arrested!!