Oblivion Journal

16 Jul. -- The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion is such a huge, rambling game that it needs a long rambling review. I'm going to cover some general aspects of the game, then add points and interesting bits as I play more.

I haven't played games like this before, so I get a kick out of lots of things that are near-beer and stale Pepsi to you hard-core gaming types.

This isn't a strategy guide because a) it'd be 200 pages long, and b) it's been done, at the the Elder Scrolls wiki.

The game

If you've been living in a bubble, Oblivion is a single-player RPG. You start out meeting Emperor Jean-Luc, er, Uriel Septim, who dies but sends you out, a first-level nobody with leather armor and a rusty iron shortsword, to save the empire. Well, with management skills like that, who needs him? Ignore the main storyline as long as you like; there's plenty else to do.

Oblivion basically nails the D&D experience, except for hearing Lore do characters, and sending out for pizza. Except that you can do anything and go anywhere. I mean, look at all those places. There are several hundred places to explore and loot, and at least a hundred separate quests, some of them quite elaborate.

But before we get to that, dig on that art. And this is only a hint: this is medium level graphics, all my computer can handle. And it's more impressive in game, because it's 3-D and fully animated. The water moves; deer run around in the distance; it rains and snows; spells light up your surroundings; look carefully at the two moons and you see them move against the starry background.

The game uses the same Havok physics engine as Half-Life 2, so it's fun just to play with objects. Throw plates around; set off traps with an arrow; move dead enemies into creepy and entertaining poses, or just throw them down the stairs.


Being pretty helps (earlier games look clunky in comparison), but the user interface makes it a wonderfully immersive experience. Moving around feels so natural that you can navigate a complex 3-D obstacle course almost without thinking.

Combat is an admirably simple and satisfying minigame. It removes almost all randomness-- if you hit you do damage; spells always work-- they'll just do little damage if you're underpowered. All you really have to do is click the cursor on the target-- but the target is moving, and when you get hit the camera gets jostled, so there's just enough challenge.

There are also minigames for making friends and for lockpicking; I happen to like the first and not the second, but no matter; as in almost the whole game, if you don't want to do it one way there's another-- e.g., you can cast charm and unlock spells if you prefer.

The quests are varied, and some of them are a little goofy, or odd enough that they make a nice change of pace-- in one, for instance, you enter a character's dreams; in another, a god commands you to crash a party and cast a rather raucous spell.

I don't have many complaints, but one is that some of the quests are a bit too linear. Sometimes there's a choice in how you respond to a character, but usually not. An example: you confront a band of thieves which seduces men and then robs them. (If you're a woman, you're asked to join the gang.) And you have to confront them-- you can't play along, you can't try charming them into surrender, you can't demand a cut and then leave. Not that I'd expect to be able to use all of these options, but it'd be nice to get a choice instead of the one reply you're all too often presented with.

My characters

My first character was a brawler named Clyde. Clyde is not subtle; he likes to bludgeon his way through a situation. His neatest trick is Mara's Gift, a birthsign attribute which restores 200 health points once a day; this has saved Clyde's bacon enough to feed an entire Bob Evan's. Clyde goes for the biggest weapons and thickest armor he can find.

I wanted to try a more sneaky type, so I started Adurise. She has good people skills (there's a quest where you're given four Charm spells; I didn't need any of them) and mad skillz as a Marksman. She's nowhere near as strong as Clyde, so she relies on things like generating creatures to fight for her. That's one on the left below, identified in the game as "Adurise's Zombie". Isn't he adorable? He looks like he's brainlessly moaning "Mommy!" (I like summoning Scamps, too, but so far nothing beats conjuring up a Flame Atronach.)

Clyde was something of a goodie-goodie; Adurise has explored her darker side by joining the Thieves' Guild and stealing things, often from her benefactors and employers. At least she hasn't murdered anyone, unlike Clyde. (It was a villain, really, but she just sat there and didn't attack and there was no other way to complete the quest.)

There's clothes scattered liberally throughout the game-- whoever outfitted the game's chests and barrels obviously figured no one could have enough silk outfits, paint brushes, and yarn-- but it's slim pickings for an adventuring dark elf chick. Most of the outfits become long dresses on a female character. Adurise has killed 113 people and 485 creatures; she rates something more butch, like those stylin' maroon leather pants.

(Yes, she does dress, or undress, like that. Makes it easier to sneak and cast spells, don't you know. It takes a mod to actually get her topless, so if you're a parent you don't have to worry about your teenager seeing such stuff unless, perchance, your teenager knows how to Google.)

The levelled game

The game is designed to level up as you do. The idea is that you can solve almost any quest, including the main one, at any level; the monsters will match you in wussiness. I understand this is controversial. It does lead to an oddity: the monsters can very easily out-level you, especially if your major skills are not combat-related. You may be burninating Ogres at a low level, only to have them whup you later on.

The wiki has a whole strategy on efficient levelling; but screw that, we're here to have fun. As Adurise, I dealt with this by just not levelling up for a long stretch. That way my skills were rising and the monsters were not. Eventually, though, you'll want the additional strength and magicka.

It seems sometimes like the game notes how you're playing and rewards you appropriately. Adurise seems to run into more healing potions than Clyde did, and also chanced on a very useful Ring of Feather that allows her to carry more weight.


Things that amused me along the way...

Pointless fun

Things you can do just to mess around:

Neat stuff

25 Jul. -- My favorite character so far is Owyn, the Blademaster at the Arena. He seems like a gruff but decent sort, and he has a way with words. "You go out there and show those tree climbers who's boss!"

Mazoga the Orc is pretty good too. "Take me to Fisherman's Rock. Now!" I feel particularly protective of her because there's a glitch in the program that spoils her quest, and I needed a console command to save her. Unfortunately, after that, she decided to dash into a cave with half a dozen bandits all bunched together, and she seems to be gone.

Also good: Lord Rugdumph, with his malapropisms. "Trolls, I have been foretold, are particular to unflammable weapons."

The screenshot is an example of why I love this game. On a whim, I was swimming around inside a little lake in the eastern regions. And in the submerged foundations of this fort, I found a treasure chest. It's not that there was much in it, but it's just neat that the designers, in effect, reward you for just noodling around.

Another neat bit: as you knock off quests, you start appearing in rumors. It's fun to be recognized as the Hero of Kvatch. (On the other hand, the game is inconsistent about this. When I showed up offering to help save Kvatch, the captain of the guard was just as skeptical when I was a nobody as when I was Master of the Fighter's Guild.)

World-building critique

How does Oblivion stack up as a fantasy world?

On the whole, it's very satisfying-- mostly due to the solid visual design. It looks like a real world. Each town has its own architecture; the abandoned forts and ruins are enormously overbuilt-- plausible remnants of ancient empires. There are books all over in case you want to bone up on hundreds of years of Tamrielic history.

There are some things that only make sense because it's a game. Realistically, the towns are hamlets, with a couple dozen inhabitants each; the population of bandits and necromancers alone seems to equal the civilians. It doesn't really make sense that you can join four guilds at once and work your way to the top of each. There's no real explanation why goblins are monsters while orcs are citizens.

Some gamers complain about insufficient realism... well, really, if you want a faithful simulation of the medieval experience, dress yourself in burlap, go out to a farm, shovel some manure, and do that for the next forty years. One guy griped that instead of buying or finding heavy armor, you can enchant ordinary robes and shoes. Well, why not? What's the problem, it's not faithful to the way 12th century historical French and English infantry used Shield spells? (The same thing might explain why there aren't very many farms. Food just appears on tables and inside barrels and cabinets. With all that magicka, why not produce your food that way?)

That said, it is a Standard Fantasy World, with a pseudo-medieval social structure with powerful magic bolted on, lizard people with breasts, elves who speak a suspiciously Tolkienish language, and even a continent that would fit squarely into a two-page paperback map. I like swords & sorcery as much as the next geek, but it is possible to do better...


22 Aug. -- I was kind of sad once I completed the Mages' Guild and Fighters' Guild and almost all of the city quests. Is this huge game almost over?

Well, not quite. I did the Umbacano quests, which I recommend-- you have to explore ten Ayleid ruins, and you build up a very useful stock of Varla stones. Boethia's quest is also good-- you end up with a load of healing potions and high-end arrows. All that stuff will come in very handy for the main quest.

Then, finally, I delivered the Amulet of Kings to Jauffre. I'd carried the damn thing all around Cyrodiil for four game months, to say nothing of a couple side trips to Oblivion; and Jauffre loses it within two days. Monktard.

I like advancing in the game; the different quest lines don't all handle this as well, however.

I'd like to see more consequences to your increasing rank. Arch-Mage Traven had a Council; you ought to have to organize one too, and perhaps deal with its politics. There should be different kinds of problems to face at a high level-- less hack 'n slash, more intrigue and power games.

Another oddity: people's expressions reflect their base disposition toward you. As a result, they may be telling me the most dire news, demons invading, loved ones disappearing; and when they're done they revert to a big grin.


24 Aug. -- You may now address me as Champion of Cyrodiil, Savior of Bruma, and Hero of Kvatch. There's a statue of me in Bruma, though it doesn't really capture my big alluring red eyes.

The last few quests in the main line, after "Allies for Bruma", go quickly. Some of them, a little too quickly... defeating one lich at Miscarcand was child's play after facing six of them in the Umbacano quests; and for the final battle you're mostly a spectator. (Just as well-- more than about three opponents, and it gets too confusing anyway).

The Paradise quest was great, though-- quite difficult, and Mankar Camoran was (for me) the best boss monster in the game, since a) he heals fast; b) he moves fast; c) he wipes out your weapons; d) he has formidable backup; and e) there's no place to hide and rest. So it's satisfying to knock him off.

An oddity from the main quest: There's a point where you have to escort Emperor Martin to the Imperial City. Martin will dutifully follow you wherever you go. I have a snap of the emperor, in his robes, visiting my shack on the waterfront (I needed to pick up more arrows). I wonder if he'd enjoy going dungeon crawling.

I haven't done the Dark Brotherhood quests. I may use a new character for that. Some big especially ugly orc, I think.

Orc for hire

11 Sep. -- So tieboy said the Dark Brotherhood quests were really good. I didn't want to use Adurise for that, so I started a new character, a big nasty orc named Chrem.

It's kind of an adjustment to go from 35th level down to 1st. Once again you have a pitiful amount of hit points, treasure of a dozen gold pieces is welcome, and you don't have well-furnished houses all over Cyrodiil. I have to admire the beginning, tutorial cavern-- it's not at all boring to replay, and it leaves you with a pretty satisfying starter set of loot.

Orcs in Tamriel are not an inherently evil race-- that's hurtful prejudice, really. That said, Chrem is a major murderin' mofo. The Dark Brotherhood is a gas, especially the first half dozen or so missions. You hang out at a Dark Sanctuary with your fellow murderers, who turn out to be the friendliest, even sweetest of all the guilds. They're always happy to see you and-- a really nice touch-- will offer you advice about each contract you take. Their conversation has a deeply macabre humor-- e.g. they'll talk about taking out an orphanage, and how some of the poor dears tried to fight back.

I'm also the Hero of Kvatch... I thought it'd be best to keep my fame just ahead of my infamy, and I wanted to see what Oblivion was like at lower levels. It's mostly scamps, plus some very underpowered Dremora.

At one point in this quest line you get a horse-- the best horse in the game, in fact. In one of my contracts, I swear, my horse killed the guy. I lured this wizard out of his cave, and since I was near zero health I hid for a moment to recharge. I saw the wizard's flashbolts, and when I went after him he was dead, with Shadowmere walking about triumphantly. Smart horse! Though not smart enough to ask for his share of the fee.

Speaking of smarts, if Bethesda wanted to improve the AI, the single biggest improvement would be if characters reacted to what's in front of them... especially if it's a corpse. They're stepping over some dead body, and they only want to talk about their damn town and how much they hate mud crabs. It'd also be cool if bandits, wizards, and other baddies who cluster together would have some reaction when their numbers lessen. Also, when their hit points reach about 5%, they should stop boasting that "today you die!" and start saying "Oh shit!"

What's up, Wabbajack?

18 Oct. -- Though I love the sandbox aspect of Oblivion, it turns out that I'm pretty goal-directed. About the only quests left are some of the Daedric ones. Sometimes I do a dungeon crawl or close an Oblivion gate, but that's starting to feel routine. Maybe I'll become champion of Cyrodiil again, just to see how the statue looks for an orc.

Or maybe I'll spend all my money on a better computer, like tieboy did, and see what this game really looks like. The linked picture is cropped, though not scaled. I found that I can run at high quality myself... just not in any useful way; the framerate gets positively medieval.

The Dark Brotherhood ends as satisfyingly as it begins. You can take a Murderer around with you-- I particularly like the gothy chick-- although she generally lasts five minutes tops. I took her to an Ayleid ruin and she got knocked off by a fricking wolf before we even went inside.

Being the Gray Fox is, I have to say, a bit of a letdown. Since it culminates the Thieves Guild plotline, there's nothing left to steal; and as it happens I've murdered everyone worth murdering as well. And getting chased around by guards gets old pretty fast, though it's pretty amusing when they say "I could make captain for this!"

Adoring Fan is chiefly an excuse to find ways to get him killed. The scorecard:

Best late-Oblivion Daedric artefact yet: the Wabbajack. It is just hilarious to turn a Lich or a Spider Daedra into a sheep. Unfortunately, it doesn't affect Adoring Fan.

If you're looking for cheap amusement, and you are, try this console command: player.createfullactorcopy. It creates a duplicate of yourself. See yourself as others see you! Talk to yourself; you are not all that interesting, but may have some interesting faction-based lines to say. Best of all, fight yourself. You'll probably soon discover why the game normally makes you encounter enemies of a higher level than yourself.

Any aspiring modders out there? I'd really like to purchase a house in Oblivion. It doesn't have to be an entire tower; just a little mansion overlooking the lava flows. A Dremora Markynaz down the unholy corridors could sell you some worship benches, upstairs and downstairs corpse mashers, flaying area upgrades, wall hanging corpses, and trophy cases.

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