ron, Aug-03 2008

On Oblivion: episode 1

Preface: while ranting is no exact science, deliberate ranting isn't even art. It needs to be genuine, and as such it takes special occasions and special games.
Enter Oblivion, a game with such a fascinating density of flaws that it warrants what nothing warranted before: a multi-part series of in-depth rants.
Join me today for episode numero uno, where I expel some warm thoughts about Oblivion's skill and character growth systems, and do check back sometime later this month for follow-ups about its game world, combat and quests.

Episode 1: the lack of all trades

A)Permanent character growth as a reward; B)an economy system of some sort. This is my current best definition of what makes a game an RPG, and Oblivion fails at requirement A. So far so good.
In nigh every corner of the internet, you will find people who genuinely, honestly tolerated Oblivion. They will explain to you that terrible, broken, nay, stupid combat is currently the industry standard for RPGs, and hence it's super-okay for Oblivion to feature just that. They will also explain to you that after a brief period of clarity during which they were aware how poorly designed the underlying skill system is, they fixed the game by starting over with a 100% backwards, 100% predictable custom-class character.

Here, let me be accomodating. I present you with the most positive aspect of Oblivion: landscape ogling. Note the deliberate absence of combat or any other expression of gameplay in this screenshot.

The unifying trait of all known proponents of Oblivion, since they somehow ended up progressing through the game, is that they all play as the one most straightforward class: the merchant healer wizard charmer warlord thief who plays the persuasion mini-game with every NPC on the face of the planet's crust, sneaks around in a patchwork of both light and heavy armor, lugs around 150 pounds in alchemy equipment and repair hammers at all times, tries for stealth kills with a bow, and then cleans up leftover mobs with a combination of summoned scamps and fireballs, while switching back and forth, undecidedly, between a two-handed war hammer and bare fists. And who would blame them? Who'd want to miss out on that strength boost?
This strategy might seem overly elaborate to those who have played good RPGs at one point or another, but it just so happens to be the smartest, most efficient solution to the absurdity that is Oblivion's character growth system.
Your character levels up each time any combination of major skills has gone up ten times, while individual skill levels go up simply through repeated use of that skill. Meanwhile, skill increases also contribute to the available stat boosts you can pick from when you level up. It follows that by training often in minor skills, the only skills that will not make you level faster, you will end up with the best possible stats at each given level.
That's not so bad, huh? So you can make your character really powerful if you understand the system and game it. But it can't be so nice and easy now, can it?

The trouble is that the leveling system just doesn't make your character stronger, as you'd expect it to. Well, yeah, okay, actually it does that, but it's a strange kind of strength, one that doesn't work to your advantage. Before becoming "stronger" by leveling up, the problem you first have to solve in Oblivion is actually keeping up with your foes.
The filthy root slung around the monolithic core of Oblivion's problems is of course the ubiquitous scaling of loot, enemies and enemies' equipment roughly, automatically, somehow, to your character level. And only your level. It tracks neither your combat proficiency, equipment nor plain stats, but still gives boosts in all those areas to the enemies it throws at you. Because the only way to get good stat boosts is to train as many different skills as possible, characters that develop too few skills, maybe only their major skills, will soon lag in stats and then be maimed by even basic randomly spawned creatures. Characters that dare to focus on non-combat disciplines for a few level-ups will be maimed even more. It's hard to believe whoever decided on the level-scaling mechanic had any awareness of how the character growth system functions, and vice versa. The game is like a child that had its shoe-laces tied together by its own spiteful parents.

Oblivion's dirty open secret is that if you're not playing as jack of all trades, you're doing it wrong. You're doing it wrong when you place your most favoured skills into the "Major" category instead of "Minor" when creating a custom class. You're gimping your stat growth and the game will become impossible to play very soon as a direct result. The same thing will obviously happen if you play any pre-fabbed class, and stick to skills that would make sense in the context of, *gasp*, role-playing as that class.

Let me give examples. For one, it's all but impossible to opt out of ever developing your armorer skill. If you never use repair hammers, never fix your gear on the go, you will find that your defense and offense will be reduced to crumples of rust five minutes into the usual twenty-minute cavern. Don't want to travel back to town just now? Good luck just the same!
The most concise summary that is still factually correct would be that it's stupid to not repair your own stuff in Oblivion.

This enemy here is completely immune to regular physical attacks, outright requiring an enchanted weapon or magic to defeat. Since it costs you nothing to develop your destruction magic skill, and encounters such as this one make it worth your while, you might as well add that particular feather to your hat as well. Along with all the others.

Another skill that is stupid to not engage in is alchemy. Premade potions cost more money, weigh more and have inferior effects, if you can even find (enough of) what you seek to begin with. All the while alchemy ingredients producing all kinds of critical and non-critical effects can be plucked every step of the way. There's no reason not to use them. Or rather you can't afford to not use them.
And you'll want to have lots of potions on hand. You, too, will eventually encounter dread zombies and other carriers of annoying diseases you will wish you had an immediate cure for. As usual, you could take frequent breaks, go back to town, heal up and then return to whatever ruin you were just exploring, but that's not exactly my idea of quality dungeon romping.
And besides, there really is no relying on the combat balance in the game, ever. It's best to come prepared for the utterly insane. While some stuff goes down in one or two brush strokes hits, just moments later you may be locked in an epic twenty-minute struggle against a troll. Or a cat. It's a wild country out there. Having more curative potions on hand will help you notice it less.
Restoration magic is the other shoe that drops in the same well. If you played Oblivion for a while and didn't strive to get your restoration skill to at least 50 (which makes available the cure disease spell), you, too, have done it all wrong.

Merchantile, Speechcraft, Conjuration, it just goes on and on. The skills your Oblivion character can develop certainly are useful. That's not the problem. The problem is that there is no reason, no reward, no advantage to specialize your character and to play any recognizable character class. On the contrary, the game dishes out only punishment for players that attempt to play a character role that is in any way defined.
Thankfully, this should also eliminate any desire to play through the game multiple times. If you've done it once, you've most likely already been everything that you can be in the game, all rolled into one. It's the only way to go.

To be continued.

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