Elder Scrolls, Game Reviewing, and Judging (Part 1)

A look into Zachery’s past…

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I could never understand the appeal of the Elder Scrolls series. Whether because they’re Western RPGs (and yes, I grew up on the JRPG – don’t judge) or because the game mechanics never hold the game together, they never show me that spark of life that I always desire. Granted, everyone seems to like them a whole lot, and even I thought to give the series a try when Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion came out six years ago. Why not jump into the fray with a high-powered game PC and begin a new adventure?

Back when I attended high school, who didn’t have a sense of idealism about these things? Surely a major magazine or publication would NEVER lie about the quality of a game? I found that my tastes and their tastes differed quite substantially. They looked for experience and freedom; I searched for mechanics and arbitrary constraints. The latter, somehow, became a blight upon a successful game, while the former became the standard by which all games should be held. What a weird development!

Oblivion looked like the Next Big Thing; who could resist? After months of hype and ogling at absolutely beautiful screenshots, as well as an entertaining (and for a CRPG neo-phyte, new) first person perspective, I bought the game without the slightest hesitation. My friend Joe had played Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, and he gushed about it continually. I imagine he did not understand my personal taste in this matter, but how could you know until you played it? Once I got the DVD disc and put it in my drive, though, my enthusiasm quickly turned to disgust. What a horrible, horrible game to foist upon an unsuspecting person used to the brilliance of Japanese action games.

Unfortunately for its developers, I did not buy Oblivion to ogle at the beauty of 3D worlds. Although, apparently, the old “me” did! I’m just looking at the disdain I felt for the game long ago when (for whatever reason!) I posted a review on GameSpot. Witness and revel in my high school prose. Did I get it right?

I tried my best to like it; I really did. Seeing that bright yellow glow of “Editor’s Choice Award” from Gamespot gave me high hopes. Truly, those graphics are absolutely marvelous; crank those settings up if you have a high end graphics card of the time and watch your jaw drop to the floor in the wonder of highly detailed and carefully crafted environments. People have wrinkles on their face, sheep look wooly, and even the zombies look absolutely disgusting. Light shines into rooms and off building in the most realistic way possible. The outside world can be seen from quite a distance, and it look real. It is just like they threw magical elements into the real Medieval times, and the whole presentation is just superb.

Why am I talking about graphics? I don’t know! Apparently that becomes a “thing” that people do when reviewing games. A bunch of empty, vague, and useless descriptions.

The sound is also quite good. Every thwack, bow string, and flowing stream is full audio splendor. The orchestrated score adds alot of character, and never overwhelms the on screen action too much. There’s some ambient stuff as well, which make the dungeons all the more creepy. Each character you meet up with is fully voiced (and it’s good voice acting, not the drivel gamers usually have to put up with). They are real people; they go about their daily business and do what they please. and look great while doing it. Really, the graphics and sound combine to make this one of the best looking games that has every been released, bar none.

Sound? Really? I do not even understand what I’m saying. Every big budget game hires an excellent Foley artist; why would Oblivion NOT attempt to immerse you in an open world?

As well, this is extremely long (to admit, I didn’t get very far; 20 hours or so was enough) game, for those who enjoy it, it sure is a fantastic values. There are lots of sidequests to enjoy, as well as the various caverns, castles, and abandoned places where loot can be found. That’s more than $50 can buy you nowadays, and the recent expansion pack only adds to this aspect.

In this paragraph, I clearly lied; I did not make much past the initial tutorial stage. Getting your open world training from Grand Theft Auto III does not perform any favors for acting like a human being in the world of Oblivion, so I just messed around a whole lot killing guards and wandering for a few hours. Nothing felt interesting, so I stopped playing, really:

Of course, then we hit a speed bump that forces us to stop and think for a second. “How does it play?” you might ask, hoping that the glorious visuals automatically translate to great game. Well…not exactly. You see, somewhere along the line someone thought this game should be played in the first person perspective. I realize that Elder Scrolls games have always been in first person for an “immersive experience”. Hey, YOU get to be the character, you’re immersed in the game. Cool beans. So, how’s character development? Well, you just sorta “pick” what you want to do during the long beginning sequence (in the sewers). Lovely. Personally, I never felt attached; if anything, the random screens that pop up to make you choose your path felt a little jarring to the experience. You develop your skills by learning them; but why ever choose magic? Melee weapons are KING in Oblivion; magic is there for healing and nothing more. And then, how do you hit stuff? Well, there’s a block, and a attack button, and a charge foward move – and that’s it. Any stats? NO. You never know how many hits points an enemy has left, nor how much you’re taking out. For goodness sake, this is an RPG; people buy these to LOOK at the numbers and determine how effective we are. Indeed, I felt like I was playing Rune all over again; only instead of a viking, I can look really weird. And don’t zoom the camera angle out to see your character; it’s an awkward experience to be sure. The people are interesting to talk to, but I couldn’t kill anyone; for being such a free form game, I can whack a person with a sledge hammer 50,000 times, and get the message “so and so is unconscious”. And stealth is completely useless; no matter how much you build your skill, enemies just suddenly run up to you and attack. Bow and arrows are just as useless as magic because they take way too long to repair. And the default walking speed is horrendous. Someone may want to call this realistic – and in response, I call it a “video game”. I want it to be fun. If it was supposed to be realistic, one shot from my hammer should down most enemies (and they me), and this game would be really hard core then, and it wouldn’t have such high ratings.

Still, this particular section hits the nail on the head. A 9.6 rating from GameSpot certainly requires a modicum of amazing mechanics to go along with everything. Tempering your expectations remains impossible in that light. Plus, Elder Scrolls games do not have interesting nor strategic combat for the most part – the more choice you provide a player, the less interesting their combat options. Each attack does the same thing, in other words, which is killing enemies. Plus, stealth becomes absolutely maddening when you cannot perceive how an enemy detects you. Of course, that’s the same problem in every stealth game ever made in the three dimensions, but still notable here.

Part 2

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.
  • One thing that often gets forgotten with every major Bethesda release is that every one of their games is fundamentally flawed. Yet there’s a required suspension of disbelief inherent to every western RPG up to this point. Just think about D&D and you’ll see what I mean. I think Bethesda is so hailed not because they do well with combat and mechanics on a deeper level, but because they build worlds that are the closest anybody’s seen to creating a real world. Even Skyrim is janky and broken in a lot of ways. And the combat isn’t terribly great there. But at least they fixed a lot of the stealth problems. It almost makes stealth too easy (like a lot of games these days).

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