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3:21pm on Sunday, 14th May, 2006:



OK, so my new PC is settled in, I have no more evenings co-opted to reading student final-year projects: I can finally play Oblivion.

So yesterday, after a stonkingly good FA Cup final followed by a classy first episode of a two-parter Dr Who, I settled down and installed Oblivion.

Six times.

The final time, it stopped complaining about the missing DLL (which was so missing that I couldn't even uninstall the program), and I could play at last. OK, so three of those six times I ctrl-alt-deleted out of the installation when it got stuck about 5% of the way through, but whatever, something finally clicked and I was in!

I was desperately disappointed with what I found. I mean really disappointed — almost in tears. I know that sounds an over-reaction to what is, after all, "only a game", but I had very high hopes for Oblivion and it kept throwing up barriers as if it didn't want me to play it. It was terribly frustrating.

The interface was my first problem. It's a console-friendly minimalist set up, in which the mouse doesn't move a pointer, it moves the whole world. The cursor is always in the centre of the screen, and when you move the mouse right then the world moves left. Movement is achieved by WASD, but the A and D are strafes, not turns. This is the same as in Morrowind, but it's not something I get along with at all well. I was hoping that for Oblivion they'd let us map turn left/right onto keys, but they didn't. Worse, they don't even allow the rotate controls to be mappable onto anything at all. Now I'm in stuck with unlearning the World of Warcraft controls I keep trying to use...

OK, well never mind, let's hear what the scarily monkey-faced emperor with Jean-Luc Picard's voice has to say. He's going to be killed, but he doesn't care, but he's going to try run away whatever. The escape route goes into the sewers through a secret passage in your cell, so off we go, into the dark!

The very dark. The so dark that even when I change the video settings so they're at maximum brightness, I can't see where I'm going dark. The kind of darkness that wouldn't matter so much if they had a mini-map, but — jaw-droppingly stupidly — they don't have a mini-map. What the hell?! To find out where I am, I have to hit tab, click on the compass, click on the tab for the map, and then it'll show me. Then I have to hit tab again and I'm back to the game. Why isn't there a mini-map? I mean, why? I have to keep breaking off from playing to see where I am.

Within moments, the emperor and his two bodyguards are set upon by assassins, and one of the guards dies. I'm told I'll need a weapon, and should take the one from the dead bodyguard's body. Great, except she has no body. I spent half an hour looking for her body and I couldn't find it anywhere. Sitting patiently in my quest log is the admonishment to pick up her weapon, and it's not there. While I'm searching, I'm attacked by rats time after time and have to punch them to death or blast them with 6-point damage fireballs. Rats in sewers — they were up all night thinking of that one...

OK, so I give up on the weapon and head off into the depths. By sheer luck, my cursor crosshair alights on a dead goblin I couldn't see (maybe I killed it thinking it was a rat?) and I pick up some kind of a club. Those rats will regret taking me on now! There's a chest I can see, but my cursor doesn't change when I mouse over it, so I ignore it. Later, I discover that the cursor never changes unles syou're right on top of something, so it may be that I could have opened it if I'd gone closer. Again, this is just ridiculous: why can't I mouse over something to see if it's pick-upable and then go closer if it turns out that it is? Using greyed-out cursors to show this is well established, but Oblivion doesn't do it. Now, I have to go right up to every damned barrel and every damned mushroom and every damned bone just to see if I can do anything with them. Jeez!

When I finally club my way out of the passages (combat consisting of centring the cursor on whatever black mass is making those "eep eep" noises and clicking as fast as you can), I encounter the emperor and his bodyguard again. The fact I haven't clapped eyes on them for an hour raises no eyebrows, and what do you know, as luck would have it I've arrived just in time for another fight. The enemies keep on coming and the emperor is killed, with his dying breath bequesting me the plot token I need to continue. After a dialogue exchange with his surviving bodyguard, which by now I have mercifully discovered how to click through, I'm given a key and escape into the open air.

This motif of emergence from darkness into beautiful, lush brightness is a great transitional effect: it says that you're free, the world is there for exploring, the dangers of your escape are over, go forth! It works very well in Baldur's Gate II, and it would work well here, too, if it had been daylight into which I emerged. However, having been beaten up so badly escaping, I rested several hours to recover my lost health; this meant it was the middle of the night when I stumbled out of the sewers, which rather spoiled the visual impact of Oblivion's very nice (when faces aren't involved) graphics.

I headed off towards the first goal I had, picking flowers and stuff along the way to use as ingredients for alchemy (those 25 pieces of rat meat in my inventory will come in handy that way eventually, I'm sure of it). I found a shrine to recover my lost magic, which was kind of a waste as I was at maximum at the time, and then I came across a (let's call it a) dungeon. In I went.

Yes. So I killed a bunch of goblin things and some human mage types, but I couldn't rest inside so eventually ran too low on health to continue. There's a healy-spell type thing to recover health, but it gives so little back each time that it takes ages to get back to maximum. I used up all the potions I got from the dead humans and I didn't have enough of the right ingredients to make any healing potions myself, so I left.

Daylight! Yay!

I trekked across the countryside to an abbey where I met the man who wanted the plot token. He took it and told me I had to trek back in the opposite direction to find some guy called Martin. He also told me I could get free supplies from him and two of the other people in the abbey. Unfortunately, I only found one other person in the abbey despite a lot of searching, so whatever I was due to get, I didn't. I headed for the nearby town, and explored there, too. I asked everyone for rumours, and at least half of them told me they'd been in some other town miles away and seen a man who looked just like someone in one of the inns. The rest had a high intersection of rumours, too (there may well be something going on at one of the inns, but given that I never saw more than the cat-woman innkeeper there, I suspect I'll have to spend several hours sitting around waiting for a timer to trigger to see it). Anyway, I found some quest for fending "creatures" off a farm with the help of a coward's two sons, so I went there. The creatures were coyly unspecified, but anything had to be better than rats and goblins.

The creatures were goblins.

OK, so I beat those off, at the expense of the younger son who was pretty well holding a placard saying "will die for dramatic effect". I got back to town and picked up my pitiful reward, and then resorted to thumbing through the manual to find out the meaning of a strange icon on the screen that had been bugging me for some time (which I would have moused-over to see the tool tip, if the mouse ever moved from the centre of the screen). It turned out I'd gone up a level. I headed for an inn, slept, and made level 2.

By now, the game was feeling very much like Morrowind, except for the vastly superior graphics (when visible) and the consolitis affliciting the interface. The level-up process seems to be similar, which is another thing I was hoping they'd substantially change. The way it works is that you have 8 attributes (strength, intelligence etc.), all but one (luck) of which is associated with 3 skills. Of the possible 21 skills, you have 7 major skills and 14 minor skills. As you use a skill, you gradually get better at it until eventually it goes up by +1. When the total of any combination of increments to your major skills reaches 10, you go up a level. At this point, you can increase three of your attributes. The amount by which you can increase them depends on the skills (both major and minor) that have incremented since your last level up. Thus, if you've spent most of your time, oh, let's say whacking things with a blunt weapon, then your skill in using blunt weapons will have risen, and then come level-up time you might get to add another 3 points to your strength (because blunt weapon use is tied to strength), whereas you might get to add only 2 skill levels to your agility (from that time you fell into a pit full of rats while trying to loot the goblin you just killed — which didn't have anything on it anyway — and then you had to try jump onto various possible footholds for 5 minutes until you escaped). Anyway, the upshot is that the more that you did that was tied to a particular attribute, the greater the amount you can add to that attribute when you level up.

Why is this something I wanted to see changed? Well, the thing is that some skills are easier to increment than others, and can take bonus points away from where you want them. A +5 bonus to strength is a big deal for a fighter, but a +5 bonus to intelligence is not much use at all to one. Do too much alchemy, though, and you get the intelligence bonus. You want to specialise in one area, but find you're being specialised in another instead. Even if you get the right bonuses to start with, you'll lose out later on because skills are capped at level 100 and become harder to improve as they get higher. You may be adding 5 to your strength when you level up now, but once those strength-associated skills get higher you'll find the supply of increments dries up. Attributes are capped at 100, too, which rather stymies long-term specialisation. That's role-playing for you...

The mini-games of lockpicking and bartering: what are they about?

I'll probably like the way you can move around the map quickly by clicking on places you've visited already; it means less tromping around for the FedEx quests. I haven't tried it yet, though, so may change my mind; it seems to fit in with the fiction, though. The quest log is a minor improvement on Morrowind's, but still looks as if it's going to be hard to find stuff in after playing a while (or know where you're supposed to go to cash the quest in even when you've done it). The combat system is poor, especially coupled with the interface the way it is, but it's usable. The much-vaunted AI has yet to show itself; I suspect it's not going to, either, being just a bunch of standard scripts linked to a day timer...

Overall, Oblivion seems to me to be a version of Morrowind with prettier graphics, clunkier interface and similar gameplay. I'm not as disappointed now as I was when I started playing it, but I'm not all that happy with it, either. The gameplay is good, but there's too much stopping me from getting to it.

Then again, I played it solidly until 1:30am, so it definitely has something..!

Referenced by Those Karazhan Moments.

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Copyright © 2006 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).