26 August 2010

Thoughts on computer gaming:Oblivion

Oblivion is a sister game to the Morrowind series. Morrowind is a fantasy, first person game, and I should probably like it more than I do, but it's one I quickly gave up on despite liking the name of it. I also liked the way the character was introduced by being processed through a prison facility answering a bunch of questions like what your name is, your race, and so on. However, once outside the prison, Morrowind proved to be a murky world to look at, and there seemed to be a lot of pointless walking around and I quickly gave up on it because I rarely have time for this sort of game and when I do I want to be able to get into it quickly. At least Sacred started quickly with a life and death struggle to get you on your toes right away.

Oblivion is set in a land next to Morrowind, the hues are grey and not as dark as Morrowind's. My saner half suggests that the monotony of the landscape makes it easier for players to keep watching their character for hours on end. In any case, I find the greys, being lighter, much easier to look at. That said, I should also add that there were a couple of things about Oblivion's landscape that I really loved. The first was the night sky. Being in a kind of fantasy medieval world, the cities do not throw out much light and so, of course, the night sky can be seen in all its glory. Maybe the moon, planet, or whatever, in the sky sometimes looked a little fake compared with the starscape, but on the whole I liked it. The other thing I liked was the plants that waved in the breezes.

The story of Oblivion is that the Emperor and his heirs have been assassinated, but before he died the Emperor gave you an amulet and told you that there was still one more heir, a secret bastard who might still have the power to wield the amulet and keep the realm safe from the evil about to pour through the gates of Oblivion. You are told to take the amulet to a certain person, and that is your first mission.

You don't actually have to hurry on this quest, though.

Before beginning the game, you get to choose gender (male or female), race - the usual Human, elvish races, and Orc, plus couple of others, one being a kind of lizard alien and the other a cat alien, and you can adjust their colour and appearance somewhat.

The game opens with you in a prison in the very cell through which the Emperor and his guards have an escape route. The sequence in the prison is a tutorial session that introduces you to some of the fundamentals of playing the game - how to steer your character, pick things up, sneak around etc. However, there were a few things that I found I really needed the kids to teach me. For instance, if you press escape you get your menu from which you can save and/or exit the game, but if you want to quickly save a game you can press F5. The game tells you to press Tab in order to see your items, but it took the kids to tell me that clicking on various parts of the resulting screen gives you all sorts of information. Click on the little circle that shows what weapon you are holding, and you can see a list of everything that you are currently holding. Clicking on various symbols will show a short list of different things in your pack eg, click on the shield symbol to see only what armour and apparel you have, or the potions symbol to see only potions and ingredients. If you click on the little circle, next to your weapon symbol, that contains your spell symbol, you get a list of the spells and magic you can do. Click on the metre that shows your health, endurance and magica strength, and you open a screen with a new set of symbols which will each show you something about your character and its abilities. Click on the compass section, and you can move between a world map and a local map, or click on the goblet symbols to see and/or choose from among your quests. The good thing about all this information is that no time passes in the game while you are consulting it. This means that in mid fight you can press tab and look for, say, health potions, which can be drunk during this time out so that you return to the fray stronger than you were, and maybe find a handy spell which would be really useful right about now. It's kind of cheating, but as in many games dying and having to repeat a chunk of the action gets kind of boring so cheating is probably the better option. The game is meant to be entertaining, right?

Now here is a thing that is part of what makes Oblivion potentially more interesting than a lot of games: While in the tunnels, the choices you've made effect the kind of character you will be. Did you sneak past enemies or try to kill them? What weapons did you use? Did you open locked chests? Well, of course you did. And you often killed the enemies because you couldn't get past them otherwise, even sneaking, and you used the most effective weapon available because it would be stupid not to, and you've unlocked and taken everything of value you could find, and you've looted all the bodies because even a newbie to the game knows that there is going to be some point at which you can sell all this stuff in order to raise the funds for something useful. Even the rats you kill can be sold for a gold each. As I understand it, the idea of the tunnel section is that you will find a class and birthsign that suits the style of game you are comfortable playing. I'm just not convinced that this actually happens, though.

However, once you leave the prison and sewer tunnels section of the game, the tutorial is over, and you find yourself entering the market section of a city. This is where you can sell all the stuff you picked up in the tunnels. To map out the city, walk or run (shift key, or capslock to run) all through it. However, I found the game was more interesting outside the city, particularly if a stayed off the roads and cut through the countryside exploring any abandoned forts I came to. If you like dungeon crawling, you'll probably like exploring the tunnels under the old forts.

In theory, you don't have to do the dungeon crawling/level grinding thing. You can wander through the country side collecting plants which can either be sold for a gold a piece in a town, or made into alchemical potions to be used or sold. Potions fetch more gold than a mere plant.

Sooner or later you might get around to delivering the amulet, and maybe even go off to find the heir who can use it. Despite the urgency with which computer characters speak of these things, the kids tell me it doesn't matter what you do or when you do it. It turns out that later in the game your mission will be to close portals. Even after the heir is rescued, there are something like fifty portals to be closed. It sounds boring.

Experimenting with the different characters and classes is one thing, but I don't think I want to close fifty portals. What I want in a game is find that the story is resolved in a satisfying way.

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