99 Side Quests On Rails

The inevitable backlash against Oblivion has started in earnest. With early reviews proclaiming that the game was something between the second coming and the invention of peanut butter on sliced bread, you can’t be surprised that a few people are deciding to stand up and call the whole thing nonsense. But, just as inevitable are freaks who go overboard.

That review, and others like it, complain about the A.I. and various issues with “realism” and “immersion.” It’s true that the A.I. in the game is pretty pathetic. But this was completely predictable. Any time anyone claims with a straight face that they have built a realistic A.I., I know that what that means is that they’ve built something not quite as fun as the Grunts in Halo. Anyone who actually believed all this crap about “Radiant A.I.” deserved whatever disappointment they received.

People are also disappointed that you can’t interact with the NPCs like “real people”. There are only fixed scripts with fixed options. This is because we don’t live in a world where a “real people” simulator exists. I find it amazing that anyone would expect a game to implement some kind of natural language based dynamic narrative system to generate realistic NPC conversations. Although I have seen it claimed that Bethesda had such a thing and “dumbed it down” before the game was released. Because ya know, if you had actually built the world’s most sophisticated A.I. system, you would not want to actually ship it. I also think these people are working too hard to find complaints. After all, if you want something to complain about the NPCs in the game, just look at the horrible facial models.

Finally, many complaints have been directed at the leveling system. Some hardcore RPG dorks hate that they don’t need an Excel spreadsheet and optimization model to figure out how to max out their stats in the fastest way possible. This makes the system “shallow” and “simplistic”, when if anything the system is too complicated and stupid.

Others don’t like how the world levels with them. Running into bandits and goblins sporting awesome armor and weapons just ruins their gameplay experience because obviously they are the only ones who get to be bad ass. More whining about lost immersion tends to follow.

These people appear to be bitter that they read previews and advance press about the latent Oblivion and thought they would be getting some paradise of a game where completely open-ended gameplay was married with actual Turing- test-passing A.I. and a dynamic plot, thus creating the ultimate sandbox game where the player can do anything they want at any time and always get just the right amount of challenge and bad-assness at the same time.

Of course, the game is not like this. No one knows how to do make a game like that yet, and I don’t think it’s really that important.

What is important is that the game keep you immersed in what you want to be doing. This is what Oblivion does well. The game only seems like a sandbox on the surface. It’s true that you can do the quests in almost any order. It’s also true that you can interrupt the active quest and go do something else for a while, and when you come back everything will be waiting for you. But if you examine each quest on its own and in detail, what you find is that each one has its own small set of rails, and the game puts you on those rails and does not let you fall off until the quest is done. Whether you are traveling across the world to find a long lost artifact or just crawling through a dark pit of a cave, the Dungeon Crawl experience in this game is tuned and tweaked to perfection.

What Bethesda has done in Oblivion is to fit a few hundred linear quests into world that appears to be large and open-ended. You think you can do anything you want, when really you are just on one set of tracks or another. I think they deserve our applause for this achievement. If this is not what you are after, or if you can’t make yourself care about these little tasks, then by all means avoid the game. Meanwhile, every night I can pick up the game, pick a thing to do, and go and get it done without a lot of fuss and worry. I can’t think of any recent game that had this much content presented at this level of polish. You could probably play this game for the next year on the 360 without running out of things to do. Hopefully that’s long enough to bring us to a time when there are other games worth playing on the system. For now, this game is enough. Well, except for the faces.