I was chatting with my boss the other day about Oblivion and discovered that he and I had reached the same impasse with the game. Alex and I are similar gamers; we have similar tastes and play about the same amount. Some would call us "casual gamers" and I won't refuse that label. I like to game, but often find other things with which to occupy my time, like Alex does. He runs a successful media empire, and I'm busy doing ... other stuff ... like ... well, I make a mean jambalaya, for one. But let's not get distracted.
In Oblivion Alex and I both believed we had found the game for which we had been dreaming: It's fun, engaging, gorgeous and handles the fantasy RPG in a way we had hoped many, many other games would have had the strength or focus to handle the genre. It is, as I have often said, a console-seller for the Xbox360. So what's not to love? A "feature" originally touted by Bethesda as a revolution in gaming. They called it "NPC scaling."
The idea is that the higher in level your character becomes, the higher in level the NPCs become, so - in theory - the game will continue to be challenging for no matter how long you play. They were also thinking that it would be better, as a higher-level character, to encounter high-level monsters in the dungeons with high-level loot, than to have to fight your way through a flood of rats (for example) at level 20 and be rewarded with rat-level loot. Sounds reasonable. The problem? It only works some of the time.
The dungeon crawling bit works as advertised (at least in my experience). I'm quite enjoying finding higher-level creatures and more powerful items in the caves I'm entering as a higher-level character. The not-so-fun aspect of scaling is the wandering.
Oblivion is the only game I've ever played in which it is just as much fun to wander aimlessly around the map, picking flowers (literally) and generally just looking at the scenery and seeing what's out there. The world is huge and the textures are incredibly beautiful. Yet as a higher-level character, wandering simply ceases to be fun.
It reminds me of attempting to picnic on the South side of San Antonio - the Barrio. Except in this case the peaceful tranquility is not destroyed by the trunk-rattling bass of the local gang enforcers, but instead by a correspondingly high-level creature who just happens to call that field of wildflowers I'm staring at slack-jawed home.
A typical encounter with said creature (let's call him a boar for the sake of conversation) plays out like this: I'm wandering aimlessly, admiring the way the changing light of day enhances the look of the tiny, red flowers all around that rock outcropping (which is also very attractive), when I hear the tempo of the music shift upwards. This tells me that something has decided to kill me, so I pull my sword and ready my shield. Then the boar shows up and attacks with such ferocity, that not even my raised shield and heavy armor can deflect its blows. Within 30 seconds my health has diminished dangerously and I am now rummaging through my pack to find a healing potion. I find it - it is my last. I am now scrambling wildly, trying to land a solid blow on the boar before he lays me flat, but to no avail. Twenty blows with my Deadric sword later, and the boar is still at it, drawing blood with every attack, blocked or no. Five minutes of this and my magical sword is drained and almost worn down to nothing, my armor is severely damaged and I'm almost dead. I'm now standing atop the beautifully-rendered rock outcropping, lobbing arrow after arrow at the beast, hoping with every breath that the damn thing will just die already so that I can go to town and sell everything I own to repair the damage inflicted to my gear. 50 arrows and ten minutes later, the boar dies. He has no loot. At the start of my play session I was a high-level, accomplished fighter enjoying a moment of rest after days of countless battle and adventure. Twenty minutes later, I'm as broke as I was at the start of the game, felled by a pig.
"What's in there?" asks Luke Skywalker, eyes wide with fear and excitement - he's becoming a Jedi, and in spite of the dark feeling of dread he feels emanating from the cave on Dagobah, he's confident that whatever may be inside will be no match for his newly discovered powers.
"Only what you take with you," Yoda responds, cautioning him against going into the cave with his weapons, or aggression.
As much fun as it was to see Luke confront an image of Darth Vader in the Dagobah Cave, and to see the Sith Lord's head lopped off, then explode to reveal Luke's face, I hated this scene. I mean, dude, he had a light saber and a gun. Why the hell wouldn't he take them with him? If you had a light saber, wouldn't you take it with you? If I had one, I'd sleep with the damn thing. Take it to the bathroom even. Screw you, Yoda. It's a freaking laser sword, man!
The idea that your enemies will become correspondingly stronger as you become stronger is not only a narrative cop out, it's also not fun. Part of the joy of leveling is becoming strong enough to swat aside the tiny, insignificant creatures without breaking a sweat. If you can't do that, how do you "know" how powerful you really are?
But in Oblivion,you train, you advance and you can slay demons summoned from hell with fewer than a dozen blows, but you have to hide in a lake to avoid being eaten by a bear that takes 20 minutes to kill and then doesn't have the courtesy to provide any loot. Right. This is what I call "a reason to stop playing the game;" which is disappointing on many levels, but most distressing because I had been counting on Oblivion to tide me over through the lean summer months. Alas. I went to bed early last night for want of anything fun to play. And I mean like 9pm early. I never do that.
I understand that there's now a mod for the PC version of Oblivion that aims (among other things) to alleviate the absurdity of being a level 20 badass wearing magical armor and swinging a sword imbued with the souls of countless enemies and getting felled by a wolf. Sadly, since I won't be playing the PC version anytime soon, I'm finally beginning to regret my commitment to the Xbox360 version of this otherwise fantastic game.
I'll be conducting an interview with one of the producers of Oblivion for Escape Radio next week. Expect me to ask about this.