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Jun. 16th, 2010 @ 01:00 pm CRPG Musings: The Elder Scrolls

This is the first in what I hope is a weekly series of musings on CRPGs. They're part critique, part analysis, part gushing, part bitching, and all musing. First up is the Elder Scrolls series. Future topics include Chrono Trigger, Baroque, and the Breath of Fire series. So I don't run out of topics, I'd like readers to suggest other games for me to cover; I'll do my best to get a hold of them and play them, then write about them.


I acquired The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind for the XBox a few years ago. I found it very painful, and only played it for a few days. The enormous list of skills broken down very minutely, the variable weapon stats for different strokes (slash, thrust, etc.), piecemeal armor system, a character system that pretends to be class-based but really is skill-based and nothing else, and other such things were very familiar to me -- after all, they were prominent features in earlier versions of the game that eventually mutated into The Rustbelt. That doesn't make them any less painful, though. Other detrimental factors included the voice acting, which, while somewhat rare, was bad, and the fact that all the appearance options for characters looked UGLY. Also, I'm so tired of "generate a character by answering questions," because the questions are always stupid.

All the little details about the setting, with the implication that learning about the setting was rewarding, left me cold. Yeah, yeah, the Dark Elves call themselves "Dunmer" and the Wood Elves "Bosmer" and so on, and I'm supposed to care why? I would have much preferred that "Dark Elf" be totally and unilaterally replaced with "Dunmer." As you know by now if you keep up with my blog, I am SO TIRED of elfy-dwarfy settings, and "adjective elves" in particular; if you can give them a different name and at least pretend that they're not something you think you stole from Tolkien but actually stole from D&D, I can at least swallow it. At least there's no dwarves in this game -- OH WAIT there's dwarven armor. Geez. How about some reflection and critical perspective on the genre, huh?

And MAN do you start out as a weenie! I got my ass handed to me by a mudcrab the first time I played. Yes, being ineffectual is FUN! Except, wait, no it's not.

And the dungeons? Dead boring. Navigation is simple. The vocabulary is limited: doors (with locks and or traps), containers, tunnels, rooms, water, darkness.

One shining light was the advancement system. You mean I don't get EXP from killing monsters, but from increasing my major skills? That's pretty darn cool. (But read on...)

What I saw in general was a design built by detailed-simulation-minded (small "s" on simulation) people without concerns for its actual impact on gameplay. I can empathize with the mistake, but that doesn't stop it from being a mistake. I don't know how anyone managed to slog through the low levels in this game, during which you can only do things like boring-assed courier-type quests without getting smacked down (you can't even explore without getting killed all the time), in order to get to the point where you get to do fun stuff. This hunk of junk got Game of the Year? Wha'?

Then I got to try the fourth game of the series, Oblivion, on the XBox 360. Character generation turned out to be far more fun -- I can make my guy actually look kinda cool! Whoa, and it assigns a default class based on the approach I used up to this point! That's far more interesting and far more fun than answering questions -- for one thing, you're actually doing something. I was pleased to see that the skill list was pared down significantly; it made me happy that admire, coerce, etc. were a single skill, for instance.

As for starting effectiveness? I got out of the tutorial, entered a dungeon, and killed a bandit with one shot from my bow. Finally! I can DO stuff!

The majority of dungeons suffered the same limitations as in part III. (I should mention, however, that traps now became actual things, with actual physical presence; tripwires, pressure plates, holy crap that is way cooler than just some spell effect hitting you when you try to open something). I do rather enjoy the Ayleid ruins, however. Their system of hidden doors, deadlier traps, switch-activated stairways, and other such things made them far more fun. I felt like I was solving problems and learning things that increased my effectiveness, which is what dungeoneering needs. A stand-out feature: in one ruined fort, I discovered two locked portcullises right at the get go, with no switches in sight. There were, however, two statues, with two silver arrows laid on an altar before them. After a more thorough investigation, I noticed that the statues had little jewels in their foreheads, which was different from other statues that I had seen. I tried hitting them with magic, shooting them with my steel arrows; no effect. Finally I tried shooting them with the silver arrows, and it opened the gates. THAT IS TOTALLY FUCKING COOL. The game needs more stuff like that.

There were, however, some things that I missed from part III. The setting in part IV is so white-bread fantasy -- castles, forts, caves, blah. I miss the giant mushroom forests, and bizarre creatures like the nix hound and vetch. I'd like to see Morrowind revamped with Oblivion's mechanics and graphics.

I was greatly disappointed to discover that, by the time I could acquire high-class gear like glass armor, everyone and their dog also had glass armor. I would have much preferred that advanced gear remain rare throughout the game, such that by the time you're high level you've found some, and only high level enemies will have it. Not bandits. You can increase the bandits' level relative to mine, fine, but can we keep them in bandit-appropriate fur, leather, and iron please?

The enchantment system also disappointed me when I discovered that I'd only be able to put one effect and use only one soul gem on each item. I put in a lot of work to get these black soul gems! I want to make cool gear that has multiple effects, like some of the items I've found! Instead I have to make and schlep an assortment of rings, shoes, etc. in order to have at hand all the effects I want available.

Extended play revealed something horrible: the advancement system is badly broken. As I started to pick up on the math of the game, I realized that if you choose your major skills based on what you want your character to be good at, you end up borked at the higher levels. Your attribute gains per level are based on how much you advanced skills in general -- and if your major skills are the ones you like to use, you level up too fast and receive pathetic attribute gains, leaving you weak in comparison to the power curve of the enemies. So if you want to be effective 50 hours into the game, you need to pick major skills that you don't use often. Which means that, in the areas you want to be good at, you have to start out as a weenie and work your way up. Grrr. Figuring that I could enjoy a bit of challenge at the higher levels, I went halfway with it and picked a few of my preferred skills as major. I'm advancing half as quickly as my first character, but I've already accomplished five times as much stuff by level 10.

Oblivion features a great number of design decisions aimed at improving gameplay. But right at the heart of it is another simulation-minded decision that detracts at worst, contributes nothing at the best. On the whole, I rather enjoy Oblivion and am still currently playing it, but I'm getting bored with a lot of its features.

But you know what my biggest gripe is, with both of these games? I WANT A FUCKING HAT. Pretty please?

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