Wednesday, December 29, 2010

This is why I don't go on dates with women...

You may have thought I was done obsessing about 'The Elder Scrolls.' If you did, you were very, very wrong. With Bethesda's announcement of the next installment of the Elder Scrolls series, I have found myself contemplating the future of the franchise once again.

I was introduced to the games with the third one, Morrowind. At the time it was groundbreaking. It was well-written for an RPG, had impressive graphics (for its time), and allowed players to enjoy an increased sense of role-play. It improved upon its predecessors' flaws in many ways. Though it cut features from the second game [most notably by decreasing the size of the game environment, and removing randomly generated dungeons and quests (it also eliminated the nudity; whether this was good or bad is up to you)], Morrowind was able to focus on certain design elements and season them to perfection.

Daggerfall, the second game in the series, was a direct step up from the previous game. Again, it changed scale from its predecessor and focused on a smaller part of the game's world. However, it magnified that smaller area (that of the Iliac Bay) and made it larger than any game environment yet in existence at the time (this was in 1996). It expanded Arena's basic gameplay and elevated it above that of a dungeon-crawler. Daggerfall allowed for deeper character customization and role-playing. Alternate endings allowed players to pick sides of a complex and fantastic political conflict. Unfortunately, its graphics have aged even worse than those of Morrowind; additionally, the game was kind of a buggy mess to begin with (the original release of the game was so error-riddled that the main questline couldn't be completed by normal means).

Oblivion, the fourth game in the series (please excuse my Tarantino chronology here), is much more difficult for me to evaluate. I liked the game a lot; however, I am prone to get into annoying rants about the game if prompted (and these rants are typically extremely critical of the game and its shortcomings). It wasn't necessarily an improvement over Morrowind in every way. However, the graphics were better, the combat was better, the magic system was more streamlined, and the quests were in general executed better (it did a lot of things right, I'll cede that). I'll go into all of these improvements in more detail, but I'll also look at the drawback each improvement came with.

Obviously the graphics were better than those in Morrowind. Oblivion pushed the limits of the hardware of its time. However, years later, the graphics have aged pretty poorly (most notably the character animations). I'm not picky about graphics, so I won't fault the game for aging in that department. I will fault the game for its faces. The game featured a face generator (the first in the series); it's janky. It takes entirely too much effort to get a face that doesn't look like it suffers from Down's syndrome. That is certainly something to be taken into consideration in the development of TES 5.

The combat was actually very good. It removed the random element from the combat of the first three games (some argue the random element was a good thing, but I don't have the strength of thought or fingers to go in-depth about it here). Blocking is mapped to a separate button or keystroke and attacks always hit. All Bethesda needs to do in the next game is improve on the system that they set up in Oblivion and add more complexity (as long as they don't overshoot and make the game too complicated). Magic was improved in much the same way. In the previous games the player was constrained by character skill as far as casting spells went. In Oblivion, every spell succeeds. This is good and bad. It is good because casting success is no longer random; it is bad because every character can cast magic, whether they have any skill with it or not (the same goes for most skills in the game). These streamlining features defeat the purpose of a lot of the game's mechanics and destroy a lot of that sense of role-play that the previous games had.

The quests in Oblivion were interesting enough. They improved on the previous titles' quests by adding more personality to each quest. Additionally, rewards for completing quests were generally more exciting. However, they sacrificed a lot of the quantity for the sake of making every quest special. They ought to have put in more generic quests to fill out the empty space (which Oblivion had a lot of). Not every job or task you do in everyday life has some dramatic turn.

OK, all of that being said, I'm going to tell you the biggest aspect of Oblivion that needs to be amended for TES: Skyrim: level-scaling. As your character advances in level, so do all of the enemies and all of the loot you find in dungeons. This sounds great on paper, but it ruins the purpose of progression in an RPG. Due to the scaling of enemies, it actually makes the game easier to never level up. Yes, you can save the world at level one (and it is a significantly easier task at that level). This gets me worked up to no end. This blind oversight works me into a white-hot rage just thinking about it. What were they thinking? Morrowind was fun because at a certain level, you were stronger than anything in the land! You could literally fly (Oblivion removed the spells that allowed you to fly) across the land dropping hellfire from your hands while the general populace was powerless to stop you! There was a real sense of improvement that made the game worthwhile!

I'm going to stop myself here. I feel that I have so much more to say about the game, but this has gone on for too long and it's starting to devolve into a mess of rants and loosely-related blocks of text. Oblivion was so close to being something great, but it ended up being a lifeless shell of a game. Unfortunately for nerds like me, the game sold so well that Bethesda is unlikely to address any of the above issues. They will likely continue the process of streamlining the game further until it is ground into a generic pulp. I may have to abandon the franchise before it really takes off. That's a downer for me...

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