[CRPGs] A year ago...

Capellan

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Anyone got any recommendations for level-balancing mods that can be applied to a game in progress? Otherwise, I might finish up some bits of business with my character and then retire him and declare Oblivion finished, at least for now. It would at least be completely in keeping with the way I've been playing him to completely abandon Messers Jaufre, Martin, and the entire province of Cyrodiil in their hour of need.
You could always go grind the hell out of non-class skills (IIRC this doesn't boost your level). Casting spells in any wilderness areas counts for improving them, for instance. With some mana regen potions you can spam low level effects and grind up high enough to cast good stuff. Invisibility is a great counter for Gates, for instance. Oh, and jump everywhere, because you can literally bounce past some enemies once your athletics is high enough :)

Also, are you ruthlessly stripping all guild houses of food items to make potions (which will grind your alchemy as well as have you drowning in gold)? Because you should do that, too :)
 

Phantom Grunweasel

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I thought this might be of interest to readers of this thread: a gigantic oral history of Obsidian, with a particular focus on the development of Pillars of Eternity and lots and lots of in-depth interviews with people who worked on various Infinity Engine games (the interview with David Gaider in particular is a real gem). Ignore the rather gaudy prose of the introduction - it calms down quite a bit afterwards.

Beneath a Starless Sky
 

Phantom Grunweasel

Situation Normal Oll Korrect
Validated User
It's coming up on a year since my original post. Since then, I've begun a new job; bought, moved into, and furnished a house; had a child; experienced what certainly felt like a short-lived but intense species of nervous breakdown; and even wrote and published a browser-based game of my own. The feedback process for that last, I might add, made me feel slightly remorseful about the occasionally cavalier tone I've adopted towards other people's work on this thread.

But in all this excitement, I still made time to keep gaming, often at times just in an attempt to feel like something in my life was staying the same. CRPGs, which remained my drug of choice, also have a pleasing wish-fulfilment rhythm of exploration, combat, and steady gains in wealth and power which offered a nice antidote to the swirling chaos of my real life. I kept to the same vague moving-through-history theme as the previous year, beginning with Oblivion's medieval fantasy and ending with the distant-past-as-the-far-future space opera of the Star Wars galaxy, before returning things to the very beginning with another trip to Eora:

The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion

80 Days

Alpha Protocol

Fallout 2

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic

Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire


Reviews and thoughts to follow.
 

Phantom Grunweasel

Situation Normal Oll Korrect
Validated User
Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire

Are CRPGs just too long for me these days? I can remember a time, in my teenage and student days, when their length was the whole point. When the challenge was often just filling up long, empty hours. And more than that, when length was so attractive because every detail, every morsel of lore or inconsequential sub-quest, drew me further into this alternate world. I was appalled by people who didn’t bother with the manual (I read them lovingly cover to cover), skipped the cut scenes, fast-forwarded through the texty talky bits. I treasured it all.

But now, and I realize my condition is hardly unique, I’m kind of busy. And my life isn’t just busy and sometimes stressful, it’s interesting – interesting to me, anyway – in a way that it wasn’t when I was younger. I still play CRPGs – for nostalgia’s sake and because I still enjoy a lot about them – but my needs are different now. I can still get through 100-hour monsters like the Pillars games but I’m playing for an hour or so at a time. I no longer have the time to slip languorously into the world of the game like it was a soothing hot bath. I want action and I want adventure in my hour of playtime.

The reason I bring this up is that over the course of this thread, I find my reaction to the longer games tends to follow the same course. My enthusiasm crests at a certain point and after that I just start to find the whole thing a bit tedious and want it to get to the point. This is exacerbated by the fact that these games are often Game of the Year or such editions, with a whole load of free DLC that I feel obligated to try, like an overstuffed diner at a fancy restaurant being plied with unwanted dessert. I’ve noticed that I tend to have the most positive reactions to the shorter games, like the Mass Effect series and Shadowrun. And so I wanted to consider whether I was being entirely fair to Pillars of Eternity 2, like its predecessors a very long game.

So let’s talk about made-up arbitrary fantasy bullshit.

The glib, dismissive sneer of that phrase, which I have just coined, makes me wince. Like the Pillars of Eternity 2 team, like I imagine a good proportion of this forum, maybe like everyone who’s ever cracked a joke or told an anecdote, I have spent considerable time and energy trying to get people to invest in my made-up arbitrary fantasy bullshit. Whether you’re telling the story of how seven doomed knights rode out to confront the Dark Lord Banesuth, or the story of the disintegration of a middle-class marriage over the course of a cool New England spring, you’ve got to get over the problem of why any of this made-up arbitrary fantasy bullshit should be expected to matter to the audience.

The problem with Deadfire is that it’s very made-up arbitrary fantasy bullshit. Take the opening. Eothas has awakened, entered the gigantic adra statue beneath your castle, burst out of the earth, made a gigantic mess, killed a bunch of people, taken your soul, and stamped off to the coast. You’re in hot pursuit on a hastily-purchased ship.

That’s not a bad inciting incident. Players get pretty attached to their stuff and to NPCs – maybe the PC is really mad at Eothas for destroying their home and killing their friends and servants? But the problem is that the actual destruction takes place off-screen before the beginning of the game, with the details being relayed by a voice-over and a few static images. As a player, you don’t experience any of it. You don’t know any of the NPCs who’ve died, you don’t have any time at the beginning of the game where you just wander around Caed Nua and enjoy living in your dream home before it all turns to shit. Intellectually, the player is aware that Eothas has wrecked a bunch of their shit but the game seems in such a hurry to establish the new status quo that it doesn’t register emotionally.

So maybe the PC wants their soul back? After all, that’s the plot of the second half of Baldur’s Gate 2 and it works there. But Eothas’ theft of the PC’s soul is quintessential made-up arbitrary fantasy bullshit. Of course, it’s that in BG2 as well but there, the consequences are crystal clear. Without their soul, the Bhaalspawn is going to sicken and die. There are dream sequences and conversations with a coughing, sickly Imoen that hammer home the point: being soulless is a bad scene. But what does it mean to have your soul stolen (or rather fractured, which is really just more MUAFB)? Is that why you’re Level 1 again? Maybe so, but then why have the game’s returning NPCs, Eder, Aloth, and Pallegrina, also lost all the XP they acquired adventuring with you in the Eastern Reach? Are you going to die without your soul? What does any of this actually mean for the PC? I never succeeded in finding out just what it meant either to lose your soul or to recover it, even after I did so.

So perhaps you want to stop Eothas hurting more people, and foil whatever plot he has going on? Well, as to the former: you can’t. The game never lets you forestall or gain a march on Eothas – you just follow in his wake, picking up the pieces from the places he stamps on and having a series of conversations with him. As for his plan, once it’s revealed… well, it’s also very made-up arbitrary fantasy bullshit. Don’t get me wrong: it has a certain mythic grandeur to it and ties in with themes from both of the games… but there’s two problems with it. The first is that Eothas is and remains in complete control of everything from the start of the game. You’re told early on that neither you nor all the combined fleets of the various Deadfire factions have a hope of stopping him. You can influence him in conversation but that’s it.

I’m sure it might have seemed like an interesting subversion of most RPGs’ predictable power fantasy narrative but taking agency away from the player never makes for a compelling or urgent storyline. It’s hard not to compare it to the sense of desperate tension in Dragon Age: Origins, where a few relatively simple narrative tricks bestows this immense sense of urgency.

The second problem is the made-up arbitrary fantasy bullshit nature of Eothas’ plan. What does his plan to break the Wheel mean, in real and personal terms? I also criticized the first game for weaknesses in the main story and in providing the PC with a coherent motivation but it absolutely nailed one thing: not just telling but showing us what Waidwen’s Legacy means. We experienced all those tragic, horrifying individual stories of fear and loss, cruelty and self-sacrifice, playing out across the region. By the time we finally confront Thaos, this isn’t something abstract he’s done. It isn’t made-up arbitrary fantasy bullshit any more. It’s a truly horrifying crime. We never get anything like that for Eothas’ plan, either a clear-eyed and unflinching vision of the endless cycle of divine exploitation that he is trying to end or else a sense of the kind of chaos and madness that his scheme would release the world.

Of course, the main story is really quite a small part of the game itself. Even more so than the first Pillars, Deadfire sprawls with optional subplots and subquests, with desert islands and secrets and dungeons to explore, bounties to hunt and privateering contracts to undertake. You do all this from the deck of your very own ship, which replaces Caed Nua from the first game as your home and base of operations. The stronghold mechanics in the first game always did feel a little undercooked: you basically just bought a bunch of upgrades, one after another, but there’s more involving in owning a ship and commanding a crew. Supplies, sails, and cannons have to be bought, sailors have to be hired and assigned to the most appropriate place aboard ship for their skills. The decisions that have to be made are actually interesting: would you rather have a small but fast and maneuverable ship or something bigger, sturdier, and slower? Do you want cannons that are deadly at close range or would you rather keep your distance with long-range guns? Even the sailors themselves have rudimentary personalities and backstories that play a role in the various CYOA-style encounters at sea.

All of these decisions have the biggest impact during the game’s naval battles, which seem to have divided opinion. At first, I found them irritating and counter-intuitive and often cut them short by initiating a boarding action (which turns the encounter into a standard Pillars punch-up between your party and crew and the enemy crew). But their charms gradually began to grow on me. There is something satisfying about outmaneuvering an enemy vessel, coolly stripping away its sails with chainshot and clearing its decks with grapeshot before going for the coup de grace and holing the thing with a final shot below the waterline. My favourite part of the game’s final confrontation, indeed the only part that really felt appropriate climactic to me, was a massive naval battle.

The setting itself feels like a breath of fresh, spice-scented air after the drab late medieval Fantasyland of the previous title. The Deadfire Archipelago draws inspiration from Caribbean and Polynesian cultures and history. The game benefits from the change of scene. The writing in the first game often felt rather uptight and self-serious. This time, Obsidian has unbent a little and introduced colour, humour and even a smidgen of piratical camp into the proceedings. There is a rollicking, bracingly daft mission in which you can lure a pirate captain out by throwing an epic party, then assassinate him by priming his harpsichord with explosives. There’s a chance to have a second encounter with Concelhaut, the lich from the first game’s DLC, to reminisce about how you carried his skull around in your pack as a pet for years, to kill him again and once again adopt his talking, floating skull as your bitter and angry little friend. There’s a bizarre volcano god cult , a Fritz Leiber-esque heist of an archmage’s mansion, an undercover mission in which the party has to pose as attendants at a bathhouse.

There’s also the Archipelago’s capital city, Neketaka. I always appreciate a good video game city and Neketaka is an absolute treat: a pyramidal sea-girt metropolis absolutely seething with opportunities for intrigue, trouble, adventure, and dungeon-crawling mayhem. It took me perhaps a week of play to get from the docks to the palace where I was supposed to present myself, purely because I kept getting distracted by one thing after another. It’s a gorgeous combination of writing, art, and canny design striking a balance between talky bits and fighty bits. Even wandering around Neketaka in the later stages of the game, there were still surprises in the form of the CYOA encounters that popped up every so often.

And yet, you seem to sense that there’s still a definite STEM-type preference for impenetrable lore and world-building over fun and silliness, that swashbuckling, humour, and libido just doesn’t really come naturally to this group of writers. This is most evident when it comes to the NPCs. My verdict on the NPCs in the first game was ‘bland’ – likeable enough, but not really memorable. The same goes for both newcomers and returning characters in Deadfire. I found myself almost missing Durance and the Grieving Mother: as completely bonkers and abrasively weird as they were in every respect, they certainly weren’t dull. I just found it hard to care very much about any of my NPCs this time around, despite the addition of an anemic party loyalty system and, inevitably, romances.

I’ve never liked most party loyalty systems because it seems to me that, instead of making NPCs seem more like real people with their own opinions and ideas, it makes them feel more like slot machines that you have to feed with coins. I’m not really sure what impact, if any, the loyalty system had on the ongoing story. Somewhat more clearly, about half of the NPCs are aligned with one or other of the game’s factions and may decide to leave if you ultimately decide to side with their faction’s rival. This, I think, is a good idea. Maia, the game’s Rautai-aligned Ranger, left my group after I decided to throw in with the Vailian Trading Company. I quite liked Maia and had even pursued a romance with her: it felt like an actually significant moment, a moment in which I had made a definite choice and had to sacrifice something as a result – in other words, it was good storytelling and I could wish that there had been more ways of making the rest of the main storyline feel significant in the same way.

But the problem with the factions generally is that there is really very little to choose between the four of them: the VTC, Rauitai, the pirates and the native Huana. It’s not just that the game gradually reveals all four to be compromised or hypocritical or even flat-out monstrous in various ways. It’s that the game encourages you to undertake quests and privateering missions for all four for most of its running time. By the time you actually have to pick a side, you’ll have sunk ships and slaughtered sailors belonging to all four factions. It’s hard to really identify with any one of them under those circumstances: they’re just a bunch of different quest-givers. My choice of the VTC was more or less arbitrary: I kind of liked the mad science-themed missions they send you on and that was about it.

I gather that gating large quantities of content in video games is out of fashion these days: most people are only going to play the game and you want them to see everything, as close to possible, that your game has to offer. But I do wonder if locking the player into one faction over the others early on would help. Take Morrowind’s Great Houses. As with Deadfire, they all have their flaws. Redoran are self-righteous reactionaries, Hlaalu are more liberal but also heartless capitalists with links to organized crime, and Telvanni are a bunch of insane wizard lords pursuing their own bizarre obsessions and monstrous research projects. But you can only pick one and from that moment on, you’ve got your team sorted out. Might forcing such a choice early on have made me identify more closely with my chosen faction?

There’s also a problem with the larger setting, in which it feels increasingly clear that the writers started with an off-brand Forgotten Realms of a setting, that nobody was terribly excited about but everyone agreed would be commercially viable, then added in the stuff that they actually did love and wanted to do. Eoras is a bunch of generic fantasy stuff jumbled up with a bunch of highly detailed, idiosyncratic and weird stuff like animancy, the gods, and the Godborn. Wizards, for instance. How people feel about animancers and animancy is a huge plot point in both games, especially the first, but not wizards. What role do magic-users play in society? How does the average person feel about them? Likewise elves. Fantasy elves generally have ridiculously long lifespans and there’s rarely much consideration of what that would be like or how that would affect their view of history vis-à-vis humans’, but there’s one subquest in Deadfire that actually seems to go out of its way to make the illogic of the whole thing clear. An elf is on the run, being hunted by a fanatical society for something he did a hundred and fifty years ago, and it’s meant to show how weird and crazy the society is that they still want to punish him after all that time but… why? They’re from an empire that is made up of 50% elves. Why wouldn’t they remember stuff that was done in what, for half of them, is living memory?

The rules for combat and character classes have been revamped for Deadfire, with the weird side-effect that you need to completely rebuild your character even if you’re importing a saved-game file from the first one. So your human male paladin can become a female orlan druid, and nobody will blink an eye. I guess this isn’t such a big deal (you can just recreate the character you had before, if you choose) but to me it illustrates the breach between story and gameplay that occurs fairly frequently. Combat itself is enjoyable, with fun comic-booky special attacks and spells, although fights can get quite chaotic.

And then there’s the ending. People sometimes talk about the Ending-o-Tron, Mass Effect 3 and Tides of Numenera being key offenders, where you just pick options off a screen instead of feeling any sense of accomplishment. I think the problem with this is the way that the antagonist just kind of hands the options to you, often without any clear motivation. The first Pillars game actually did this quite well. After defeating Thaos, you end up in a position where you have control over all the souls from Waidwen’s Legacy. The gods have opinions, forcibly expressed, on what you should do with them. But you’re in control.

Deadfire puts Eothas in control. You can confront him, you can shout at him or agree with him, you can persuade him to do this or that with the machines of reincarnation, with the souls he’s gathered, but this is ultimately Eothas’ show. It’s kind of telling that you have the option of remaining silent through almost all of the main storyline’s big divine confrontations, when all the gods shout at each other. It’s an option I took until I started to feel a little like the stroppy teenage forced along on the family holiday. I was silent because in a lot of ways, even though you’re made much of as the Watcher and the Herald of Berath and the only one capable of tracking Eothas across the Deadfire, it’s hard not to feel a little surplus to requirements. For all its many pleasures and its improvements on its predecessor, Deadfire ultimately left me feeling something of the same fatigue and indifference I felt at the end of Pillars.
 

Houlio

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Validated User
You have a lot of good points about Deadfire, even though I really liked the game. For me it was a lot like moving from Fallout 3 to New Vegas, a nice change from something that depended on being broadly familiar (PoE1 is really like knockoff forgotten realms like you say) to one where the world seems to build on what was already present to make something different.

That said, a lot of what you discuss I think hits the nail on the head for Deadfire. The companions are generally less individually interesting in favor of having them fit with certain factions. Part of it is that it seems like party members should agree to hate each other and split up much earlier on, but that wouldn’t make for a good party based game. The game’s main quest is weird in that you’re always playing catch up instead of taking action yourself for the most part. This is exacerbated by the game’s weird adherence to a 3 act structure when that doesn’t feel appropriate at all for a game that seems a lot like a classic hexcrawl. The ending sequence could have used more of the CYOA segments, especially if it used some of the -imho- permadeath options they used in the White Marches to resolve a lot of the final encounters. Maybe keeping the final big fight against the guardian is appropriate, but the text-based sections were easily the best part of the game.

All that said, I bounced off those elements in the opposite way. I found the game really refreshing and fun to play. I liked that basically all the game’s factions felt pretty fleshed out with morally good and bad elements in all of them, which is better than a ton of other highly praised games. The combat is nothing to write home about, but it’s better than the first game I found overall (still not as just fun as Tyranny). In the end though, you make a lot of salient points, and your initial argument about time is a really good one here. My current job lends me a lot of time in a day to play games or otherwise not do anything, and so playing Deadfire for several hours at once I think can make a big difference. To me the game was pretty short, but I think it benefits from doing a long play session to see how an arc concludes all at once. Splitting that up seems like it would make the game much more tedious I think.
 

Phantom Grunweasel

Situation Normal Oll Korrect
Validated User
All that said, I bounced off those elements in the opposite way. I found the game really refreshing and fun to play. I liked that basically all the game’s factions felt pretty fleshed out with morally good and bad elements in all of them, which is better than a ton of other highly praised games.
On the one hand, I do appreciate the nuance and psychological and historical realism of the way the factions are portrayed. It's portraying a morally complex situation. It's saying interesting and original things about colonialism.

But I guess my problem is that the game has this tendency to make you feel more like an observer than a participant in all this drama. I like the fact that the factions are a mixture of good and bad but it's hard to identify with any particular one of them. I mean, imagine that you started the game as affiliated with, say, the Royal Deadfire Company, for whatever reason. Then, fairly early on, you discovered about their assassination program and various other shady things - and you have the option of jumping ship (aha) to one of the other three factions, or staying with Rauatai (or doing some kind of double agent/triple agent thing). To me, that's a more interesting choice. You'd feel more direct and personal ties to the RDC, since they've been your guys from the start - you might also feel more personal disappointment when things came to light.

I don't mean to pick on Deadfire or Obsidian because obviously this shit is hard, and no game gives a perfect balance. Bioware, for instance, is much better at making the PC feel like part of the game world - but the 'morally complex' choices generally boil down to the 'hard man/hard choices' choice or the nice choice which generally also works out for the best. By giving the player a wider range of options, Obsidian inevitably makes the actual experience feel a little flatter and less emotionally engaging.
 

Houlio

Gauche
Validated User
That’s a good way to put it. The PC is definitely more of an observer (ha, Watcher) than an active participant in the game’s events. I do kinda wish the game included a “go your own way” faction, but that might get too close to having cake while also eating it that the current faction set up avoids pretty well. I suppose the best way to sum up my feelings is that the game’s factions are all interesting, which is more than I think other games telling similar stories can say (ie Fallout: New Vegas). In a lot of ways though, the game’s plot seems more to be like reading the history of a critical moment in Deadfire rather than an epic adventure.

And as for pushing the PC more directly into events, I totally agree. There are things in the game that feel very underused (I can only remember the whole being Berath’s Herald coming up twice). They also just made the entire premise of the game by fiat anyways. They could have set it up to more directly tie the PC to the world without much trouble.

Just to be clear too, while I enjoy Deadfire a lot, I also don’t think it’s perfect. To me, it seems like a better version of games I still like (New Vegas being the easiest to say) more than anything else.
 

Phantom Grunweasel

Situation Normal Oll Korrect
Validated User
Oblivion

Daggerfall was my first Elder Scrolls game. A kid at the time, for the most part I really just messed around with it rather than played it – using exploits and cheats to make my character rich and powerful and to complete quests by simply teleporting through the game’s infamous tangled, labyrinthine dungeons. But I do recall that sense of awe the first time I opened up the world map and took in the sheer scale of the game’s Iliac Bay region, stuffed with cities, towns, villages, farms, castles, and dungeons. I could go anywhere. I could select a random town from the map, go there, find work as an adventurer/trouble-shooter/contract killer, register with the local guild chapterhouses, settle down, buy a house.

Of course, Daggerfall’s jaw-dropping breadth came at the cost of genuine depth (also at the cost of the game’s many and notorious bugs). All of that lavish scale, all those places, had been procedurally generated. Once it became clear to me that one place was very much like another in most ways, some of the thrill of exploring the Iliac Bay began to wear off. But the series had announced its signature promise to me: go anywhere and do anything.

Oblivion was a huge hit when it first came out but its reputation has suffered a little since then. Some fans of the series object to the game’s embrace of a much more conventional medieval fantasy setting and aesthetic after the genuinely weird and alien geography of Morrowind. The game’s graphics have also suffered by comparison with more recent releases – the NPCs in particular look unattractively lumpy and blocky and their much-ballyhooed AI can be very quirky, sometimes in enjoyably silly ways. I once encountered two town guards on the outskirts of Bruma, shooting arrows at each other and commanding one another to halt in the name of the law.

After playing squeaky-clean do-gooders for so many of the previous games on this thread, I decided to embrace the darkness and play as a murderous assassin. Like the other Elder Scrolls games, Oblivion rarely gives you much in the way of moral choices in the sense of the Paragon/Renegade options from Mass Effect. Almost all the game’s quests are linear in that sense. The choice you make is whether to pursue the quest at all. ‘Fame’ and ‘Infamy’ scores act a little like the Fallout series’ Karma rating, although you can develop both at once.

I do think the criticism of Oblivion’s tameness and blandness is a little overblown. It’s true that the game’s vision of Cyrodiil has nothing like the mad grandeur and strangeness of Morrowind’s fully realized, deeply immersive alternative world. Bethesda have admitted that they were trying to embrace a more conventional fantasy aesthetic, perhaps believing that some people had found the earlier game’s setting and lore too cold, inaccessible, and off-putting. It’s also true that the Imperial Province looks nothing like how it’s described in some of the series’ earlier lore: as a gigantic rainforest with Roman-style cities linked together by Roman-style roads cut through the jungle.

But I still think it’s unfair to think of Oblivion as a Disneyfied and sanitized riposte to Morrowind. For a start, the more sophisticated AI and greater depth to the engine means that there’s simply more to do, in the way of quests. The fact is that Morrowind presented you with this vast, fascinating world but a good 80% of the quests you were given were basically ‘Go somewhere and kill someone and/or get something/rescue someone.’. Missions that involved doing other stuff were quite rare, since the engine was designed around combat.

But Oblivion is able to give you more options, more things to do, and as a result its quests are weirder, shaggier, and can zig and zag in unexpected and even shocking ways. A case of mistaken identity turns into an epic quest to restore family honour. Looking for a missing husband ends up getting your character chased through a trap-filled maze on a remote island by rich sickos, Most Dangerous Game-style. You might have to enter somebody’s dreams or a magic painting, you might run across a village that’s been turned invisible, you might have to try and engineer a blood feud between two neighbouring families or investigate a creepy cult-dominated village. This world only seems like a tired old fantasy setting: it’s really quite deeply bizarre in its own way.

And one with a surprisingly pessimistic quality to it. Oblivion does not portray Tamriel as a happy place or a just place. The daedra are cruel and mercurial, toying with mortal lives for their own amusement. The Empire is a force for stability and law, but hardly ‘good’ as such (Tamriel isn’t really a good vs. evil setting at all – although daedra are often malevolent, they represent stranger and less straightforward metaphysical concepts than simply ‘evil’). A great number of quests have melancholy or downbeat endings. And, playing as a stealthy character and ghosting through the game’s castles and opulent mansions, I discovered an eye-popping array of dark secrets: the vampire aristocrats who feed on the prisoners in their dungeons; the pious noblewoman who has a secret bloody chamber where she tortures captive immigrants. The game doesn’t offer you the catharsis of exposing these atrocities: expose to whom? These are the people at the top of the ladder, the people who lead the Empire. Dragon Age is often bleak and unsparing in its representation of the abuses of power; the Pillars of Eternity games likewise but neither series is quite as nonchalant as Oblivion: presenting things for the player to discover or not without comment.

And that’s not even getting into the Grand Guignol horror, madness, and pitch-black comedy that is the Dark Brotherhood storyline. It’s a work of horrific, black-hearted brilliance. Each individual assassination mission has its own creative twist: you might have to make one death look like an accident, for instance, or perform another in a specific way requested by the client or without being seen by anyone at all. More elaborate missions have you playing murderous master of ceremonies at an Agatha Christie-esque sex murder party in a spooky mansion or faking somebody’s death then smuggling them out of their family tomb. As you perform these acts of wanton cruelty, you’re encouraged to spend time with your fellow cell-members, who’ll give you advice, sell you equipment, assign you the odd side-quest, and generally act as your twisted little surrogate family. Then you’re given the order to murder every single one of them. The storyline just gets crazier and darker from this point on, ending in a climactic nightmare of gore, horror, and paranoia.

It’s unfortunate but the (surprisingly short) main storyline doesn’t show this kind of creativity or imagination. It starts quite well: early quests have you infiltrating the daedra-worshipping cult that’s trying to bring about the apocalypse. Michael Kirkbride contributes some of his trademark weirdness to the cult’s gospel, there are some tense and entertaining stealth and puzzle sequences, there are even some in-quest branching paths (a rarity in most Elder Scrolls games) such as an infiltration scene where you have to decide how far to go in proving your loyalty to the cult.

Unfortunately, the main storyline has a couple of big problems. The first problem is that you are not the star. The star is some guy called Martin, played by Sean Bean.
Now I understand the writers’ thinking (I often airily claim to understand writers’ thinking in this thread). The PC in Oblivion is, per Elder Scrolls convention, voiceless, offered very little in the way of dialogue prompts or options, and has no official backstory at all. The player is free to imagine a rich backstory for their character if they want but the game won’t provide one. It’s tough to write any kind of story-arc around a character like that. Making the game about someone else, Sean Bean in this case, means that you can still get something like an emotional arc or hero’s journey (though not a hugely original one, it must be said): Martin is a disillusioned and exhausted whiskey priest; he gets confronted with his own destiny; he struggles with it; finally, he embraces it and sacrifices himself to save the world.

But why should we care? It’s not even like we have a sense of getting to know Martin or becoming some kind of trusted counsellor or close friend, even though the game tries to suggest that’s what’s going on: Martin just kind of talks at us and we rarely if ever get any kind of option to respond. Morrowind did this much better, by finding ways to gradually and cleverly help the player transition from feeling like a complete outsider on Vvardenfell (one whose mentors and allies are outsiders too) to feeling like somebody with an actual understanding of and stake in events on the island to full on T.H. Lawrence-type foreign-born messiah. The journey takes place, for the most part, in the player’s head rather than being spelled out in dialogue but it works no less well for all that.

The second problem is the Oblivion gates. The first time you pass through into Oblivion, the hell plane ruled by Mehrunes Dagon, it’s quite a disturbing and also exhilarating experience. The aesthetic is standard Doom-type Hell with rusty spikes and red skies and lava (all the more disappointing given the range of genuinely off-beat and original Hells in the setting’s lore) but it’s still unsettling. Unfortunately, the game’s poorly thought-out level scaling means that every single fight in Oblivion will eventually become an incredibly long and drawn-out battle against enemies with stupidly high health – it’s not tense and exciting, it’s just frustrating and boring. And you have a lot of trips through Oblivion ahead of you. At a certain point in the main storyline, you’re asked to gather troops from every town (also from the guilds, but that’s not possible – material that was cut?). It’s a bit like the bit in Morrowind where you have to get every Great House and Ashlander tribe to acknowledge you as the Nerevarine.

Thing is, in Morrowind, each part of that quest was quite different, reflecting the different culture and priorities of each faction you were trying to recruit. In Oblivion, it is the exact same quest for each of the six or seven towns: you need to close the Oblivion gate outside their walls. There’s no variety whatsoever (well, one of them is a rescue mission as well, but there’s no significant difference to it). Each section of Oblivion has the exact same appearance and the same range of monsters and you close the gate in the same way. Sometimes, you need to progress through a series of very simple lever puzzles but that’s the only real difference from one to the other. It is, admittedly, an optional part of the main quest but it still feels like a huge misstep.

The reusing of resources, an inevitable feature of making such a big game, does become obvious after a while. The game does something canny by placing one of its livelier and more story-heavy optional dungeons right next to the spot you emerge from after the tutorial dungeon. This place, one of the game’s ancient elven ruins, not only introduces you to the setting’s Ayleid civilization but also tells, through notes and letters and enemy and corpse placement, the entertainingly creepy story of a bandit gang who have unknowingly chosen a hide-out right above a necromancer’s secret lair. What’s more, the dungeon will also probably introduce to one of the game’s long-running sub quests in an ingeniously organic way: selling Ayleid loot will get you noticed by a collector of rare elven artefacts.

Having enjoyed piecing together this dungeon’s little story, I made a point of exploring the various caves, elven ruins, and forts I came across but the reality gradually became clear: most of them weren’t much more than a step or two away from procedural generation, much like the crowded cities and towns of Daggerfall two games earlier. And that dulled my appetite for exploration a little bit: how much point is there to it when everywhere just offers variations on a theme? The reuse of resources sometimes undercuts even ‘story’ dungeons connected to quests that do offer lore and real environmental storytelling: an archwizard’s wizard’s tower is clearly just yet another ruined fort; a long-lost Akaviri military outpost looks suspiciously Imperial in lay-out and design. Of course, as with Daggerfall, this is just the price you pay for having your games games as gigantic in scope as the Elder Scrolls.

I bought Oblivion’s Game of the Year edition, which includes all the game’s DLC and expansions. I dipped in and out. I decided that the Knights of the Nine story expansion didn’t sound like my vampire assassin PC’s cup of tea, and never got around to most of the others. I’d heard good things about The Shivering Isles, which many fans considered a welcome injection of Morrowind-style creative flair and eccentricity but, after beginning it, decided that I was a bit burned out on Oblivion and wanted to move on.

Nevertheless, and somewhat unusually for the games on this list, I am keen to replay Oblivion at some point. I feel as though, even after completing the main storyline, the Dark Brotherhood and Thieves’ Guild storylines, maybe a quarter of the daedra quests, and perhaps two thirds of the various side quests and little adventures dotted across the map, I still haven’t seen the majority of Oblivion’s content. Despites the best efforts of the writers and Messers Stewart and Bean, I didn’t really feel like I’d been part of an epic saga by the end of the main storyline. But I did feel, every time I played it, like I’d entered and lived in another world and that’s quite an addictive sensation.
 
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BarefootHobbit

psychic dog-walker
Validated User
That's an excellent review of Oblivion. The main quest is absolutely awful, but there really are a lot of enjoyable side- and faction-quests.

I definitely recommend the Shivering Isles.
 

Phantom Grunweasel

Situation Normal Oll Korrect
Validated User
Fallout 2

“Your world’s about to get a whole lot bigger.”

That’s what Jesus (the fictional zombie-fighter, not the founder of Christianity) says to Rick and his friends in the sixth season of The Walking Dead. It’s an exciting moment, one that makes an explicit promise to the viewer: this is no longer just a story about a single group of survivors travelling across a deserted world, encountering the occasional entirely isolated pocket of humanity. This is now a story involving multiple factions, a story that can feature things like war, trade, espionage, and diplomacy.

And that’s also the same promise Fallout 2 hangs out. Eighty years on from the first game, it takes place in a much larger geographical area and features far more content: more settlements and wasteland to explore; more guns, drugs, and tech; more recruitable NPCs with much more to say for themselves; more wacky special encounters; more combat moves; more sidequests; more uses for neglected skills; more perks and reputations; more stuff.

It’s the game’s great strength and also the source of most of its flaws. It seems as if Black Isle were as surprised as anyone else by the success of their quirky, violent post-apocalyptic CRPG. Interplay immediately called for a sequel, a bigger and better sequel, and applied considerable pressure for it to be completed in time to still be able to capitalize on the first game’s popularity (people who worked on Fallout 2 have described the rush to get it done within Interplay’s deadlines as a ‘death march’). To make matters worse, three of the original Fallout co-creators, unhappy with Interplay’s interference, left the project halfway through.

That combination of time pressure and the lack of a clear central vision is quite evident in Fallout 2. It’s evident in the game’s many bugs, ranging from harmlessly amusing to game-breaking. It’s evident in a general lack of polish, in the areas and subquests that somehow seem to be missing something. Most of all, it’s evident in the tone, that veers wildly between the terse, moody Western stylings of the original to broad and cartoonish slapstick to nihilistic, despairing noir. There’s a cacophony of voices in Fallout 2, a mass of ideas both brilliant and terrible being thrown out all at once in a confusing and hasty barrage. Different writers colonized different areas of Fallout 2’s version of northern California and often don’t seem to have talked to each other a whole lot.

The premise isn’t a radical departure from the first game. It seems the PC of the first game (typically, the game at first goes to some lengths to avoid defining their gender, then abruptly and arbitrarily decides they were male), after being kicked out of the Vault, made their way north into the wilderness and founded a tribe. Two generations later, this tribe is in trouble. Drought and pestilence are destroying them. Their only hope lies in the legendary Garden of Eden Creation Kit, a pre-War technological marvel supposedly capable of terraforming infertile land. Your character has been sent in search of this G.E.C.K.

Interplay first showed their hands by insisting the game start with a lengthy tutorial area, the Temple of Trials. The writers hated this idea and one can see why. Not only is the Temple a long, dull slog, it’s also a terrible introduction to the world of the series. It’s a generic, linear dungeon with no real in-game justification for existing in a setting that’s all about freedom of choice and layered, engrossing details. After this, however, the early sections of the game are extremely compelling. It introduces you step by step to the complicated and dangerous world beyond Arroyo, your tribe’s village. The G.E.C.K’s trail leads you through a range of colourful post-apocalyptic settlements, all of which are linked in a network of trade as well as the struggle for political and cultural capital. There are rural farming outposts such as Klamath and Modok, mining towns like Redding and Broken Hills, and the region’s three real powers: the ruthless gangster warlords of New Reno, the high-tech elitists of Vault City, and the New California Republic, a democratic federation of settlements that isn’t quite as peace-loving and egalitarian as it makes itself out to be. As per the now-established Fallout tradition, your actions in these places will have consequences, listed for you in the gravelly tones of Ron Perlman in a post-game slideshow. Even more interestingly and more ambitiously, many of your actions will have consequences for the entire balance of power in the region, sometimes in unforeseen ways.

I decided to play the game as a kind of technology-themed character, specializing in repair, science, and energy weapons, and giving myself an additional edge with every kind of gadget, robot servitor, and pre-War body modification suite I could get my hands on. I also decided that I was going to avoid using Charisma and speech, the diplomatic skill. I’ve often used it in the past and I was curious to play a character who was forced to find other solutions to the game’s problems and obstacles.

In the early stages of the game, I found that this worked perfectly well, in keeping with the series’ design philosophy. My tech-nerd’s lack of charm sometimes caused difficulties, but other things compensated for it and there was (generally) an alternative route. However, my resolve started to waver in the game’s later stages. If one doesn’t take the disguise-and-infiltration route, these are very combat-heavy and, as I mentioned before, high-level combat in the original Fallout games is very tedious. For a start, you have to wait for every single one of your horde of opponents to move each turn. There’s also the fact that every one is most likely decked out in power armour, meaning that combat is mostly about ineffectually firing laser and plasma beams at one another until somebody lands a critical hit and melts the other person’s face. After fighting my way through the first Enclave outpost, Navarro, in this way, I just couldn’t face doing the oil rig in the same way and so I invested heavily in speech and ended up completing the game via the mostly diplomatic route after all.

High-level combat might have been more interesting if you had control over your companions in battle but they’re still stubbornly independent and their judgment, particularly when it comes to automatic fire-arms, is still terrible. Companions this time round are much more memorable, with a much larger amount of dialogue, more evident personalities, and even a couple of rudimentary side-quests: there’s Sulik, the hot-headed tribal with a collection of spirits occupying his bone-piercings; stoic, world-weary wasteland veterans like Cassidy and Marcus the super-mutant; and, of course, the exquisitely obnoxious Myron, the game’s amoral, abrasive, dorky, sex-obsessed scientist, by turns arrogant and needy, a teenage scientific prodigy and a pathetic little monster.

Myron was, of course, the creation of Chris Avellone. Avellone is also responsible for Fallout 2’s New Reno. New Reno is a remarkable accomplishment. I’ve mentioned before a particular appreciation for a well-crafted CRPG town: New Reno is one of the best representations of the Big Bad City that I’ve ever seen. Controlled by four rival Mafia families, it’s a seething cauldron of vice and villainy, equally fascinating and repulsive, with a huge range of things to do and explore and opportunities to get into trouble. From the moment the PC sets foot in town, there’s a pervasive feeling of grime and danger, like a thin layer of filth you just want to scrub off.

Avellone also brought his extraordinary work ethic and attention to detail when it came to the design of New Reno. It is by far the most dynamic and complex town in the game, with even random throw-away comments from nameless NPCs changing and updating as events in the game progress, and it’s stuffed full of secrets and Easter Eggs and complex inter-locking side-quests. There are hidden options for every kind of character and combination of stats imaginable. Considered purely as a piece of game design, New Reno really is in a league of its own, a labour of love and giddy, gleeful creation.

But there are also some problems with New Reno. One is that it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense as a Fallout settlement. Don’t things like casinos, porn studios, formal boxing tournaments, drug-dealers, even gangsters, all need the support of a regular, functioning non-nuked society and economy? Another is that it’s not integrated very well into Fallout 2’s larger story. Following the main quest will only bring you there briefly – you can accomplish everything you need to do within the city within ten minutes or so and be back on your way.

Of course, that was the case with many other settlements throughout the games. You didn’t need to involve yourself in local affairs in Shady Sands or Junktown, Klamath or the Den. You could just stick to the trail. But the game often lured the typical PC in by the promise of doing some good while they were in town, helping and defending the deserving, ending conflicts, killing raiders and thugs. With admirable consistency, New Reno outright rejects appeals of this nature. The four factions that rule the city are simply different flavours of vile; your only real motive for joining with any of them is if, like Henry Hill, you’ve always wanted to be a gangster. There are no innocents or good guys in New Reno, no sense that you could ever make things better here. Perhaps it’s not surprising that one of the possible post-game endings for New Reno reflects the consequences of the PC simply going all Travis Bickle on the town at large in an orgy of cleansing violence.

And maybe this is why, despite deeply appreciating New Reno’s brooding, sweaty noir atmosphere and the masterful complexity of its sandbox design, I’ve always tended to dip into it rather than ever taking a full-on plunge. I’ve never, for instance, fully explored all the different possibilities for discreetly killing every gang leader, for all the combinations of sex, spying, lies, and murder that becoming an enforcer for the Bishop family requires you to juggle. It’s all so much, so overwhelming, and there’s no ‘hook’, no objective you’re set or clear reason you might have for getting involved in the first place. Likewise, Avellone’s penchant for creating a range of content that only people with a certain combination of stats will see: I love the idea in theory but in practice I’m not going to replay the entire game however many times it takes in order to explore all of New Reno’s stat-based possibilities. As such, New Reno is a part of the game I admire much more than I find I actually enjoy.

Earlier in this thread, I was musing on whether I’m judging many of these long games unfairly because of the different way I now approach playing them and the time-frames I have to do so. But the truth is that Fallout 2’s late-game content always kind of lost me. Part of it, as I mentioned before, is the lackluster nature of high-level combat. At the beginning of the game, there’s a visceral thrill to the combat: the careful positioning, the need to make every blow and bullet count, the satisfyingly gory death-throes of your enemies. That fades or becomes tedious as the game goes on.

Likewise, the early game is just inherently more interesting because you’re more limited in terms of resources. You need to carefully husband your little stock of weapons, ammunition, drugs, and medicine. You need to make tough decisions in both terms of cost/benefit analysis (is it worth fighting tough opponents and potentially irradiating yourself to gain access to the hoard of goodies in some underground pre-War ruin?) and morality (will you steal from and murder non-hostiles to obtain the things you need?). But later in the game, you’ll find yourself showered with resources and so the choices are less interesting.

I also just don’t like the final areas of the game very much. It feels like a Fallout-style take on a city as colourful and interesting as San Francisco should practically write itself but instead we get a limp and predictable parody of Scientology; an equally dull and stereotypical version of Chinatown populated by the descendants of Chinese nuclear submariners stranded in San Francisco Bay; and a remarkably beige and glum portrayal of a Haight-Ashbury style collective of artists, hippies, and punks who are squatting in a derelict oil tanker. None of these factions really fit together in a clear and logical way and San Francisco itself has no ties at all to the larger world of the wasteland. After the detailed world-building and imagination of places like New Reno and Vault City, it falls very flat. Hell, even the game’s less successful areas, like Broken Hills or Gekko, still have a shameless, go-for-broke energy and gonzo humour to them which SF is lacking. Apparently, San Francisco was meant to contain more content, which was cut. That’s definitely the right decision. While expanding on the San Francisco material might have made it more convincing, most players are only going to encounter it at the very end of the game, when their focus is supposed to be on the Enclave.

Which brings us to the final problem with the end-game: the antagonists. Like the original, Fallout 2 features a twist at the end of the original main quest. After the PC retrieves the G.E.C.K, Arroyo’s citizens are kidnapped by a group called the Enclave. These turn out to be the remnants of the old pre-War government, hiding out on a fortified oil-rig off the West Coast and waiting to reestablish their control. As far as they’re concerned, every living thing on the mainland has been mutated by exposure to fallout and the FEV virus, so they’re just going to wipe them all out before starting again. It’s an okay premise but the Enclave just don’t do it for me. They’re neither as creepy as the Master and his cultists nor does their plan have the same kind of twisted but viable logic.

For all of these reasons, and despite my initial enthusiasm and enjoyment, it was really something of a relief when I finished Fallout 2 this time around and closed the book on this ambitious, sprawling, fascinating mess of a game.
 
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