This time around I chose Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion. Game's almost two years old, which means the hardware you need to run it is now affordable. My console of choice is a 24-inch widescreen iMac booted into Windows XP.
I went in knowing nothing about this game except that it was a single-player RPG. I've never played the earlier installments. Right off the bat you get a voiceover from Jean Luc Picard, so you know this game has a lot going for it. Then the character he's playing gets assassinated. Whoops. And so the plot begins.
After a while of playing, and slooowly getting used to the controls (which are nicely refined and flexible just as they should be in the fourth installment of a series), my first personal response to the game was this: "Well. Ten years later, and they've finally pulled off a decent competitor to Ultima 9."
Hell, not just decent. An excellent competitor. In fact, a few of the features have been bizarrely over-developed. I was stunned to discover that you could customize your character's face. By adjusting well over two dozen sliders in a hierarchy of facial zones like "brow", "nose", "cheeks", and "lips". After about half an hour of messing around (the time didn't feel wasted because the feature was so interesting), I was able to form an easily recognizable 3D facsimile of The La's face. It was so eerie that I decided to name the character "Digital La".
Here's a meandering account of my thoughts while playing:
I can only imagine how incredibly frustrating it must be to play this game on a Playstation, with that damn thumb-driven video-game controller. Being able to use a mouse to look around is what makes this game playable. With a flick of the wrist, I can glance to my left and right in under a second, and return the view to where I had it before simply by relaxing my hand to where it was. Very, very useful.
This tactic has also been greatly enhanced by the invention of the laser-driven mouse. I play with the mouse set on a pillow, with most of my forearm laying on it as well. The mouse is lightweight, accurate, and tracks the cloth surface perfectly. Plus it sinks just a little way down on the pillow, bringing my wrist into the ideal straight position. Playing this game on an old-school wheeled mouse with a flat mousepad would probably give me tendonitis in less than a week, but this way it's a breeze.
Wow, these oblivion gateways are really neat looking. Best effect in the game so far. Seeing them reminds me very strongly of the evil red pillars from Ultima 9. I wonder if this is some sort of homage?
Okay, I simply must complain about the horseback riding. It is just not fun to sit on a 3D horse that can move only on totally flat roadways, and steer the damn thing all the way across the world map, watching the same four textured trees float by for a solid half an hour. Worse yet, your lousy companions keep falling behind, or refusing to get back on their horses when you dismount to kill some stupid forest creature or bandit blocking the road.
No, designers. This is not fun. In half an hour I went from happily immersed in the world to swearing angrily at it, and berating my lunkhead companions, who completely failed to assist me. "Arrrgh, you are so damn slow! What, is your horse made of rocks or something? Are you taking smoke breaks? Do I need to get a leash and yank you along?"
It's good to play a game that understands the power of words. With every level you gain, the game presents a little text blurb of what's running through your mind. For example, "You resolve to continue pushing yourself. Perhaps there's more to you than you thought." These little fortune cookie missives sit on the boundary between first and third person - the boundary a role-playing game is designed to pull you across - and give you something to reflect on as you distribute the new stats you've gained in the little pop-over window. I remember writing about a similar phenomenon in a much older game called Alien Legacy. Just a little scrap of text, but the effect it has is welcome and important.
Well, I got tired of breaking all my lockpicks, so I bought a spell of opening. It only opened "easy"-level chests, so I couldn't use it much. Then I found a spell of opening for "average"-level chests, and bought that, but my skill level wasn't high enough to cast it. "Okay," I said to myself. "My skills improve with use in this game. In a little while I'll be good enough to cast this, no problem."
Well I got all the way through a dungeon in some wilderness outpost, and encountered a locked door of "average" difficulty. I'd run out of lockpicks some time ago, and wasn't good enough at the spell yet to open the door. Annoyed, I turned around and began casting the "easy"-level spell at the walls and the floor, then checking my stats to see if my skill improved with this "use" so I might soon learn the spell. Turns out the skill only improves if you use the spell in the context it was meant for. Okay, fair enough... How about if I zap the "easy" spell at the "average" door? The door obviously doesn't unlock... But ah hah, my stats go up anyway.
So I jammed the 'C' key down on the keyboard and then left my room to go get a snack. A while later my magic points ran out from casting the spell, but my skill level had indeed gone up. So I took the paperweight off the 'C' key and waited for my points to recharge.
In about a minute they did, so I jammed the key down again. Another round of this, and my skill level went up enough so that the spell cost almost nothing to cast. Since then, the key has been jammed perpetually down, and Digital La has been casting the "unlock" spell at a wooden trapdoor in a filthy hallway of some backwater dungeon. Zaa-BOMPH. Zaa-BOMPH. Zaa-BOMPH. Meantime, I've been typing this.
Okay, it's been about 20 minutes and my snack is eaten. I am now a "master" at alteration-class spells. Time to arm the "average" unlock spell and continue.
I find this whole exploit rather amusing.
So after going up four levels at once (due to becoming an instant master in "alteration"-class magic), the critters on the map and in the dungeons suddenly got a lot harder. On my next walk between towns I ran into a bear, a troll, and a minotaur. Each one was just standing there, weaving slowly side to side in that I'm-alert-but-have-no-purpose way that all the bit players in 3D games do. Just killing time between beatings.
The bear took two dozen hammer blows to keel over. As I fought, I admired the skill of the game designers in modeling the creature. There was no way I could have run from it, and any single one of the dozens of blows it dealt to my character was clearly enough to incapacitate even the toughest linebacker in real life. It gave me a new respect for the bears I had seen up close in Alaska. I later found myself thinking the same thing when I encountered a mountain lion. "Yeah, they pounce," you think to yourself. "I could just dodge that and then shoot the thing." But fighting a mountain lion in this game is terrifying. It creeps slowly up to you, low to the ground, way out of reach, and then leaps straight at your head, faster than you can swing any weapon, and if you're lucky enough to sidestep the whole flying barbed-wire projectile, it simply lands behind you and jumps again, before you can turn around and figure out where it went. You see one of these in the woods and there are three outcomes: 1. It's too far away, 2. You scare it off, 3. It eviscerates you.
But we're here to play fantasy games, not think about reality. So, from bears and lions, we come to trolls.
The troll was just too much for me to handle. It pursued me and I had to run backwards across open country, casting healing spells, swinging my hammer to knock it back every time it lunged. A few times I blundered off the mountain and got jammed up in some rocks, and the troll fell on my head and scratched me to death. Ah, the outdoors.
Finally I went around a bend in the road and got the town gates in sight, and standing under a nearby tree was an enormous bull creature with a breastplate and a hammer. I summoned lesser creatures and shot it with lightning from a distance until it keeled over with a long brassy-sounding groan and slammed into the roadway, sending its hammer clattering into the bushes. (In this game you even get tailored sound effects for each item dropping onto each surface. It sounds fantastic.) So much for the minotaur. Then thirty yards further on, a brigand came sailing out of the undergrowth and took a swipe at me with an even larger hammer, of a kind I'd never seen before. It was shiny, emerald green, and remarkably painful. I had a mace, which I could swing faster than the brigand could swing the hammer, so I clubbed him to death. I wanted to take the hammer into town and sell it, but I couldn't carry the damn thing.
This gave me two bright ideas: One, I could earn a lot of money - more than I'd ever scrounged up before - by simply killing these new-fangled well-armed brigands and selling their loot at the blacksmith. And two, I could cast conjuring spells just like I'd cast the "unlock" spell earlier, and increase my skill at conjuring even when I didn't really need the assistance, and even when I wasn't in combat at all.
So for the next four hours the pattern was the same: March out into the woods, to some god-forsaken temple or infested cavern, clout some hapless robber or mage to death, strip him naked, and hock his crap back in town. And every step of the way, summon creatures.
You can only have one summoned creature at a time, so I couldn't litter the landscape with them... But I got real good at making them. A couple times I would summon a Dremora (a toasty-looking demonic fellow in black and red armor) and just leave him standing in the blacksmith's shop, glancing nervously around like a party guest who's just realized that he's the only one who showed up in a costume. Yes, if you get close, you actually can see his eyes darting around.
If you summon the Dremora - or any creature, really - in a room with no enemies, the poor thing has no idea how to proceed. The skeleton stands there and creaks for a while, then starts creeping around the room and bending over to peer at things, like some macabre Groucho Marx. The Flame Atronach stands stock-still and emits farty campfire sounds. The Dremora looks nervously around. Then if you turn to face it, it turns to you, with that twitchy expression you get on a chicken in a barnyard when you get up close. ("b... rraawwwk?") Utterly confused and unsure how to proceed, but waiting for you to make the first move.
All summoned creatures will follow you as far as they can. All try to appear nearby when you summon them. But sometimes they make poor choices, and sometimes the deck is stacked against them. I've been summoning Dremora as I run cross-country, so occasionally they appear halfway over cliffs. Or they appear right in front of me and I smack into them at full gallop. Or I encounter some menacing wildlife with no items to steal, and abandon the Dremora as bait, only to summon it out of combat and back beside me like a yo-yo, just to burn the mana points and keep practicing. No wonder the Dremora looks confused. And nervous. If any of the townsfolk in this game were really human, they would consider me a lunatic and a public nuisance.
So now the game has really his its stride, for me. I get to act crazy, and just mess around with things, and it's still detailed and large enough to completely surprise me. Like the time I hit a floor panel and opened a secret door, and got my first encounter with a wraith - essentially a floating shower curtain and a skull with a wicked sword attached - and it went "SKREEAAW!" and took a swipe at me, making me shout "What the crap is that!!". This exploring is so much fun that I've decided to ignore the main plot of the game for as long as possible. I still haven't found even a third of all the temples, forts, mines, caves, and dungeons on the map.