2021-06-16: The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion -- My Journey In Modifying My Experience
Time flies... I'd actually finished Oblivion something like two weeks after I finished Morrowind, attempting to knock all three of the modern TES games out during a one month streaming hiatus I took. Then I just never got around to writing about it. A shame, that. But at least now I've had time to let my thoughts on the game percolate a bit.
When I finished Morrowind I had two choices: go do the expansions and all the content I missed in my rather direct path through the main plot, or continue on. It's usually my policy to continue on, to experience new stuff; so I did. One thing I was made painfully aware of, though, was that Oblivion's level scaling was bad. Very bad. Several friends flat out recommended I play the entire game at level 1. That felt like it would cheapen an experience, even if it did make it "better", so I opted to do something else: mod the game.
After some research I learned the main problem with the level scaling came from a combination of level-scaled gear on foes and level-scaled enemy spawn choices. Eventually you reach a point where every foe is a high level Daedra or minotaur in high tier armor and things get unfun. I opted to try to fix this with a mod that didn't drop old foes from the spawn pool and limited gear for foes to certain tiers. It was my hope this would give a more "Morrowind" experience and, to a point, it helped. I think.
I'd opted to keep components of my roleplay approach from Morrowind. I feel a thief-mage gives me access to as much of the game's core systems as possible in one package: stealth, archery, magic, and falling back on melee when necessary. I dropped my self-imposed geas on stealth archery but largely limited myself to using it as an initiator and only when a melee sneak wasn't viable. No 100% chameleon multi-sneak-shots, no retreating to reset aggro to get multiple shots. One shot to start a fight then fall to magic or melee. I think that's a good rule to prevent rendering the game into a stealth archery frenzy.
You start in Oblivion much like you do in Morrowind: incarcerated for some undisclosed reason. This time in an Imperial prison. Through a twist of fate you end up involved in an attempt on the part of the emperor to escape an assassination, follow him through the dungeons and sewers under the castle, and ultimately witness his assassination and are left to find the Blades and get help. Your actual character creation doesn't take place until the end of this opening dungeon, at which point you are given a hint as to what class you may enjoy, based on how you handled the opening encounters. This hint was wildly wrong about me, trying to make me a beefy warrior type.
You only tag Major Skills in Oblivion, instead of the Major/Minor divide from Morrowind; you also only get seven instead of ten. This is offset by the fact that a lot of skills have been crunched together. For the record, I tagged Blade, Alteration, Restoration, Light Armor, Marksman, Security, and Sneak. Of note: there is no Short vs Long Blade anymore, it's just Blade. I didn't take Athletics or Acrobatics this time, to try to stave off the effects of level inflation. Speechcraft and Mercantile suffered a similar fate, being dropped to make room for Alteration and Marksman.
My plan was fairly simple: sneak around, backstab what I could. Only if I was certain this wasn't possible would I resort to stealth archery. Combat after that would be largely melee; magic would be used for buffs and healing and, as a last resort, damage against fully physical immune foes. I feel the alluring pull of the way of the ninja archer, but I wanted to experience more of the game's systems than that.
Right from the start of the game, though, I was in for some pain. Immediately upon exiting the Imperial Sewers and gaining character control, I ran across a pair of bandits that proceeded to take five minutes of strafing, dodging, and healing to defeat. Oblivion introduces far more robust blocking options than Morrowind, and the enemies use them well. You can't just flail like a dingus and win; enemies will block you, stagger you, and get their own hits in. More precision and finesse is required.
This brings me to my first complaint: the fusion of Short and Long Blade together into a "Blades" skill severely impacts the feasibility of daggers. Backstabs do a flat one-hit damage multiplier, so you want big chunky damage on that hit. That means daggers are a bad weapon for backstabs. Durability is a constant concern, and blocking limits when and how often you can attack so you want few quality hits instead of a lot of small ones. The strength of daggers is you can apply enchantments rapid-fire, but that wasn't a style of play I was really going for. I considered modding a dagger to have higher damage to offset the benefits longswords receive but ultimately held off from doing this. I just started being a thief that wields a katana instead. If they were split, perhaps short blades could have a higher sneak multiplier; I don't know.
Fortunately after that rather rude bootstrap, things got a fair bit cleaner. At least until I started running into bears. Bears would probably be your first experience in "Dodge or die" combat. You can circle strafe them easily, if you have room, and they'll just swipe and miss you all day. However one good blow on you and you're feeling it. They appeared in dungeons quite frequently around the level 6-8 range, making them feel fairly out of depth. I resorted a few times to extreme cheese like luring one to a door and dancing in and out getting sneak attacks on it. Not the best feeling win in the world but a win's a win.
Combat right from the start, though, was "meaty". Most enemies took a couple dozen swings of a dagger to dispatch, eventually requiring a swap to different sword types. Even then combat consisted of flailing between defensive movements, slowly chipping foes down. The mod I applied to keep the enemy pool diverse at least gave me some reprieves in the form of scamps and other small foes, but when things "on par" spawned, I knew I was in for a long drawn out fight.
On the plus side, several major complaints from Morrowind were patched up. Movement speed is tolerable from the start. I didn't feel the need to go find a mod that made me run around like some kind of Yakkity Sax comic skit and even if movement speed was a bit iffy, the addition of on-map fast travel smoothed over any painful travel segments. That said I kind of feel the addition of map travel is a slight detraction from immersion. Morrowind's Silt Striders and boats covered the world so very well that I never missed map travel-- if I lacked my mod to boost my movement speed I'd surely be singing a different tune, though.
Additionally, combat calculations feel less frustrating. You don't have a miss chance and weapon skills instead contribute directly to damage. In aggregate this likely means your DPS is unchanged, but it feels a lot better to land blows for 10% of their damage than miss 90% of the time. This also means you can apply enchantments even if your weapon skill is trash. This all may be less realistic but it's more fun, in my opinion. Finally you have innate Magicka regeneration, as opposed to Morrowind where I modded that in to save my sanity and make magic viable at all.
For the first 7 or 8 levels I just wandered around checking out dungeons. I eventually landed over at Bravil and did a quest involving delving into the nightmares of a Mage experimenting with dreamwalking. An enjoyable and unique first real quest to the game; Morrowind didn't have anything like this. I also did a quest where I was asked to visit an island in the main bay of the continent to hopefully retrieve an item from a fort thereupon. Once reaching the island, I was forcefully drafted into a game of life-or-death manhunt and had to wander a mazey castle dungeon, assassinating hunters. Once that was done, I was left with this really cool abandoned fortress I wanted to use as a base, but alas, chests in Oblivion are not permanent storage unless they're a "house" or something close to. I couldn't store my goods here or they'd be culled in a few in-game days.
Honestly I think this "Random wandering" segment of the game was my favorite. I still desire to return to the game and just wander around to see what I missed. The addition of a compass on the HUD with icons of nearby dungeons really encourages a random wandering playstyle where something new is always waiting for you over the next hill. I don't consider this God's gift to Elder Scrolls like some people do: I found Morrowind's method of "Get close to a dungeon and a square appears on the in-menu map" to be quite sufficient; but this certainly makes it hard to just blindly wander from place to place on your main quest.
I eventually landed up in Imperial City and found the Thieves Guild quest chain. Like a proper underground, most of this chain takes place in the form of being dead-dropped orders from a shadowy unknown leader. The interesting thing here is you can't just smoothly progress through the chain of quests. For each new quest you have to prove your worth to the guild by stealing and fencing more and more stuff. Unfortunately I kind of accidentally broke this gating system over my knee by stumbling into a house in Imperial City's rich district that had about 10,000 gold worth of stuff to hock. I never had to go and pad out my resume of thievery to continue the chain.
The quest chain starts with petty thievery, weaves through some espionage to get rid of a particularly bothersome guard captain, then begins a strange series of missions to steal specific artifacts for purposes unknown. At the end the guild leader himself summons you and sends you on a mission straight into the Imperial Palace to steal one of the titular Elder Scrolls in what is billed as the heist of the century. It certainly is. The final stealth missions require a master class of combat, stealth, and knowledge of enemy AI. I had some pretty big problems here not because of the stealth but because of the combat.
The final leg of the chain sends you through an undead infested maze to find a secret entrance to the palace. In this area you're forced into a room full of undead and have to navigate a way to open the secret path and continue on to the palace. You can ignore the undead but they'll follow you into the palace and raise hell, often leading to aggroed guards suddenly deciding to detect you too. The problem is, at least with the way I'd modded the game and leveled so far, I could do absolutely zero damage to the foes here.
This is the only time I encountered a hard wall like this. I had meaty, long, sloggy fights sure, but never a flat out impossible battle. I resorted to a console kill to smite a single zombie I just couldn't take down; the only out and out cheat I resorted to in the entire game. Arguably I should have just left and returned with better equipment, a spell, enchanted gear, more levels, something... but it was a long walk, and I was so close to the end. It turned out just that one foe was a problem too; everything else I handled fine. I'm not losing sleep over it.
Once in the palace, you're left sneaking around its spiraling corridors, around guards, until you reach where the scrolls are kept. At that point all the monks within are blind, so you can walk around freely without concern for line of sight, but they're perceptive of sound. Once you have your target in hand, you have to sneak back out, jumping down an access chute that should inflict enough fall damage to kill you. You have a pair of magic boots to prevent the damage, and they're designed to break here on use, but you can live without using them and if you do you end up with a permanent pair of massive +Acrobatics boots for the rest of the game. Cheesy but good to have.
The payoff for getting the scroll is finding out your guildmaster has been cursed for years with a cowl that forces him into obscurity. No one can remember his identity or anything about him. Having broken the curse, he turns the cowl over to you, as well as his home. This is probably one of the best housing things in the game, in my opinion. You get a lot of housing as DLC, presuming you have the GOTY edition, but it's all really theme-y and kind of chintzy in that vein. Give me a good ol' house any day. This served as a good base for me to begin the actual plot from.
Oblivion has a meme-filled history for DLC. It was one of the first major, major games to offer DLC that didn't enhance content in any way. "Horse armor" is a commonly derided joke among people who remember this era of gaming. I had that DLC but I never rode a horse. I didn't see a need to. You also get, from the GOTY edition, three or four sidequests that open up immediately upon exiting the sewer (in a series of annoying modal popups you have to dismiss one by one) that each end in a thematic base you can use. Sadly the bases are, as I said, heavily chintzy and focused on themes. One's a pirate's cove that's intended for a thief character and comes with lockpicking training and a fence... but I didn't fancy my persona a pirate; just the opposite. There's an underground cave system for vampires, a castle, a mage's tower. I stuck with core housing: a house buyable in each major city and sometimes a base you get for finishing guild arcs.
On the plus side, housing (as in actual player owned housing and not a dwelling you 'borrow' from a plot non-critical NPC) is accessible right from the start if you go scratch together a few bucks, as opposed to Morrowind where you likely won't have access until you're deep in a great house quest arc. I love player housing. Having a base of operations in an open world RPG like this just enhances my feeling of being "in the world" so much more than anything else can. Even if it's just a room full of boxes that's flagged to never reset.
Around this point I started having major "Beef" problems. Enemies weren't a threat to me if I played careful, opened fights with sneak attacks, and carefully blocked and dodged. However they took ages, and tons of weapon durability, to kill. Instead of the random occasional fight being a slog, it was every fight. Eventually after a dozen hours of my health never dipping below 50% but having to go back to town every couple of fights to repair my gear, I pondered a compromise: reduce difficulty to around 40% (approximately cutting enemy HP in half) but play the rest of the game with no or broken armor. This actually made me take more damage than before, while making most foes go down much faster. I'd recommend it, honestly. I even got the bonus of getting to choose gear based on aesthetics rather than protective value. I went with the Arena Champion armor.
Oh yeah, at some point around the Thief arc I went and did the entire Arena quest chain. It's pretty fun and feels almost like PvP in a way. It's also a massive source of Fame, which I needed to offset the massive Infamy I gained by doing the Thieves Guild quest first. Running a -30 balance of Fame is really bad for Speechcraft. You pretty much ask the arena keeper for a fight, go into the area, and beat someone down. Rinse and repeat until you're the grand champion.
Speaking of which, during the arena arc I encountered a bug where my Fame reset. Likely it had something to do with the Cowl of the Grey Fox, which has the really cool effect of having its own Fame and Infamy. Anything you do while wearing the cowl doesn't impact your own reputation, but the wearer of the cowl's. Something in here janked though and I ended up with 0 Fame myself. Unfortunately this is kind of game-breaking (many events don't open unless your total Fame/Infamy is over a certain value) so I had to do some console shenanigans to restore it. In my opinion if you get through an Elder Scrolls game without having to save yourself with the console, you're lucky.
Compared to the thief arc, the main plot is kind of bland. You go find the Blades, tell them what happened, and find a monk named Martin who turns out to be the secret bastard son of the emperor. You then spend the entire plot getting him ready to take the throne and perform a ritual that will close the oblivion gates and prevent the Daedric lords from swarming into Tamriel. There's no intra-house intrigue, no becoming a savior yourself. You're just supporting Martin as he takes a role not unlike the role you took directly in Morrowind.
In my opinion, a big low-light of this plot, aside from the fact that you're playing second fiddle to Martin, is the oblivion gates themselves. Several times in the plot, the Daedric lords attack a city and you have to enter an oblivion gate to close it from the inside. These gates are standalone dungeons full of Draemora: massive tanky demonic warriors that take a fortnight to kill and can level you on a whim. This turns moving through the oblivion planes into a slow, careful slog. Additionally, each oblivion plane is a maze of spire-like interconnected towers, with a stone at the peak that can close the rift. They all look the same, play the same, but have different frustratingly confusing maps full of the same tanky Draemora.
Even with my self-imposed balance patch of "Enemies have half HP, I don't wear armor", this took awhile. I guess I could say similar of Morrowind: every dungeon was a cave full of undead. I don't know though, large chunks of Oblivion felt really samey in a way that Morrowind never did.
At one point late in the plot, the game expects you to go around the world closing seven or eight of these gates, as one quest. Fortunately it's optional; I didn't. I was pretty done with the planes by that point, having already had to do three or four of the things as plot-mandatory dungoneering. I suppose it'd be less imposing to approach it like you were supposed to approach the Nerevarine quests in Morrowind: a thing to do while fooling around with side-content in each major destination on the quest. When I smell the end of a game on the horizon, though, I tend to dive for it.
All of this cumulates in a battle where Martin himself leads forces against the Daedra. However many of those optional gates you closed reflects how big the defending army is. While they fight, you meanwhile charge into one more gate to seal it and stop the invasion. This leads to finally taking Martin to the Imperial City to assert his claim on the throne, which is cut short by a full scale Daedric assault on the city itself. You're forced to lead Martin through the entire city as Daedra appear on the streets, to the altar where he can finally perform the ritual, seal the gates, and end the plot.
All in all I liked Martin; my gripes about having to play second fiddle to him aside, he's a down to earth and flawed person who has a history of treating with Daedric power himself. He's no paragon and no perfect individual like you'd expect from his role in a game like this. That he's even a monk is probably due to the fact that he had an extremely checkered past, made mistakes, and hurt people. I wish there was more about him, more to learn from him. Sadly after concluding the plot, you don't interact with him anymore. I would have loved a DLC or expansion where you directly work under the throne as a member of the Blades.
So Oblivion, much like Morrowind, needed some "adjusting" to make fun. In the end I ended up reducing the difficulty and imposing challenges on myself to strike a proper balance of risk vs expedience. I recommend doing the same. I also had to play with level scaling (though apparently the mods I used to do this either didn't work or didn't work well enough). Also at some point mid-plot I decided to sneak in a more suitable set of clothing for myself so I wasn't just running around in completely broken armor, but that's a cosmetic change more than anything. Finally, the parchment UI of Oblivion is kind of an eyesore to me, so I found a darker UI mod to snap in.
I'm not afraid of modding games to make them fun. I feel TES is more conducive to this than any other series. That said I feel like I experience the core of Oblivion more so than I did Morrowind, what with me running around the world at 1,000 miles per hour and hacking combat to effectively give myself full melee power right from the beginning. It was a rewarding experience with some bumps. The plot didn't grab me, but a lot of the side content did, and I plan to go back and explore the world some more... at some point.
You know, when I chew through the 270 game backlog I have.