The most disappointed I have ever been with a video game was about an hour into Oblivion - when I realized, despite trying to persuade myself otherwise, that this was exactly what I had feared when Bethesda announced they would be creating a next-gen Elder Scrolls title for the consoles. The visuals were fantastic. The combat was fluid and exciting. Yet I was bored to tears.
Don't get me wrong. I picked up the game twice in a vain attempt to enjoy myself. After countless character creations and a dozen or so escapes through the sewers into the pristine forests of Cyrodiil, I realized what was missing from Oblivion. Morrowind was missing from Oblivion.
I have spent years of nerd rage-induced conversations discussing the inconsistencies between the two games, and befuddled at how a monolithic game development team with decades of experience could possibly release something I found utterly inferior to a 9-year old PC game.
Then it struck me right on the noggin, like a human who didn't learn the hovering spell correctly falling from the sky (see: Morrowind). There was no life to Oblivion. The first several months of my experience with Morrowind consisted of me becoming lost in the land of Vvardenfell. I did nothing to stop the evil Dagoth Ur or whatever was making everybody run around in a panic, because the world Bethesda had built was endlessly fascinating, offering me more to do than I had ever seen up to that point. It was Dungeons and Dragons without having to strain my own limited imagination or roll the dice every time I wanted to move and attack.
Unfortunately, despite its high scores and general celebration from virtually every publication online and off, Bethesda saw that it was time to move away from PC development, and began focusing on the consoles. I believe that this is when Oblivion took a turn for the boring.
Bethesda knew that with a more twitch-based, graphics-heavy Elder Scrolls title, they could draw a demographic that is less interested in becoming invested in a video game world. Bethesda saw a chance to combine their market with the Halo and Call of Duty gamers who never would have picked up Morrowind. So after three long years of quiet on the Tamriel front, Oblivion was released for mass consumption. And the masses did indeed consume Oblivion, garnering it countless GOTY awards and even higher scores than its predecessor. I figured there must be something wrong with me - to not enjoy this game as much as everyone else.
Then, as one does in times of struggle, I turned to the internet. Once the initial hyperbole had worn off, the naysayers began to show themselves. Sure, the land of Cyrodiil looks gorgeous, but that doesn't change the fact that there is almost nothing exciting to do in its enormity. The towns are large and impressive, but the citizens have nearly nothing to say (and only about five voices to say it with). The combat is entertaining, but the enemies scale to the level of the player, making it easier to get through the game at level three than at level twenty. From what I can recall, most of the fun in any RPG is being able to see a challenge off in the distance, and know that one day your character will be able to conquer it.
And therein lies the problem.
Oblivion is not an RPG. It is an action game with a few minor RPG elements, such as dungeons and skills. Bethesda eliminated the soul of the Elder Scrolls to, I assume, please the crowd that they knew would spend only a limited amount of time with the title. They didn't account for those of us who enjoyed Morrowind's unique atmosphere and exploration-friendly world. Instead we are plopped on a grassy field with nothing to do, and a convenient fast-travel so that we don't get bored of the uninspired scenery.
All of this leads me to my main point... (continue to page 2)
All this leads me to my main point: if the people at Bethesda Softworks can find it in their hearts to listen to the pleas of those of us left unfulfilled by Oblivion while acknowledging the errors of both of the 3D Elder Scrolls, Skyrim could be the best cross-platform RPG of this console generation.
Bethesda has already started giving us some hints that they are willing to take on the criticism (scant though it may be among all the praise) for Oblivion. The level scaling was more than a misstep in my opinion, and just last month, after much baiting, Bethesda revealed that the leveling would be more similar to Fallout 3 than Oblivion. While not ideal, the leveling in Fallout 3 was much more easy to forgive than Oblivion's. But this has always been my problem with, for example, rogue-likes and other randomly-generated dungeon crawlers. I want to be in a world that I can immerse myself in, not one that treats me as a character in a video game. This should be a given, especially for an RPG.
Bethesda also seems intent on making the land of Skyrim much more dynamic and exciting than the endless grassy field of Cyrodiil. Morrowind is now pretty dated, but having recently been drawn back into Morrowind, the towns, villages, cities and encampments still feel more lively than the Radiant AI in Oblivion. Once again, in Skyrim, Bethesda has promised a more interesting landscape and realistic, dynamic NPCs. Plus, we might finally not be wincing every time we have to look one of them in the face.
The most exciting news Todd Howard and Co. have released regarding Skyrim so far, in my humble opinion, is the removal of the old standby of picking a class and sticking with it before you've even had a chance to explore the skills and variety of a game. Had Skyrim turned out to be an MMO, then by all means give us our mages and warriors, but the more I am able to define my role, the more invested I become in the world and my own personal journey. This will play a huge part in my enjoyment of the overhauled combat, taking cues from another console hit, BioShock.
Despite all my hesitation, I am thrilled for a new entry into the Elder Scrolls series. Few, if any developers have ever reached such a plateau that I prefer a 9-year-old PC game to an Xbox 360/PS3 bestseller. If Bethesda continues with their steady stream of fan-service, affirming information up until release, they could finally restore my faith in their ability to balance sales figures and crowd pleasing with rewarding those of us who prefer the old-school RPG. And if all else fails, we've always got the modding community.
Is anyone else worried that Bethesda may once again release a game for the masses as opposed to us Elder Scrolls fans?
We will find out exactly how it all plays out on November 11, 2011, when Skyrim releases for the Xbox 360, PS3 and PC.