For all your fantasy RPG do’s and don’ts, developers needn’t look any further than The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. On one hand, Bethesda’s 2006 opus is a technical master class, a smorgasbord of eye-watering aesthetics backed up by a sumptuous open-ended landscape ripe for the picking. Its core narrative—which sees players tracking down Tamriel’s lost heir and driving the dastardly Daedric forces back their fiery pits—serves as a mere toe-dipper in the fantasy romp’s rich, sprawling ocean of ample side quests, level-building and exploration.
Ostensibly, The Elder Scrolls IV is your story; stitched and woven together by a series of irrevocable, life-changing decisions that ultimately concocts the compelling tapestry that is your life. The bifurcation of good and evil lies at your very feet for you to tread as you see fit. Do you adhere to the righteous rituals of a noble Knight or the unscrupulous antics of a slippery Thief? Is fame or infamy the name of your game? Does slitting someone’s throat in the dead of night come as natural to you as helping out some poor sod dispose of a gaggle of pesky Goblins? After dunking yourself in to Cyrodiil’s sprawling sandbox for a few days, you’re sure to find the answer to these questions and more.
Conversely, however, those of you who have racked up considerable time in Tamriel will concede that Oblivion’s far from the polished paradigm of fantasy escapism it could have been. Suffice to say, there’s a few flies in the ointment. From nasty niggles attributed to the game’s engine to repetitive quests, voice-overs and ugly design decisions, Bethesda’s magnum opus could have done with a slight trimming around the edges to say the least. As such, with the announcement of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim fresh on the old grey matter, here’s our pick of five ways Bethesda can ensure the follow-up delivers an even more competent adventure than its predecessor.
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1) Polish the engine
Oblivion’s game engine proved a fertile breeding ground for a myriad of technical hiccups. Not surprising, considering the sprawling RPG marked Bethesda’s inaugural next-gen offering and the team had roughly six months to acquaint themselves with the intricacies of new hardware. Nonetheless, the atrocities committed were less than bearable at the best of times. Games would inexplicably freeze up, slow down would make even the most rudimentary of maneuvering a task in itself, and pop-up and clipping reared its head in abundance. Needless to say, anyone busy pottering away in their little greenhouse of immersion would find their world well and truly shattered. If Skyrim is to enjoy a successful launch, then we can’t have a repeat performance of its predecessor’s tumultuous entry to market. Fortunately, Bethesda has already confirmed it’s been chiseling away on a fresh engine for The Elder Scrolls V, which means a meaty overhaul in all departments—providing they can weed out any potential bugs, we should have a glitch-free ticket to Skyrim come November 11. Sure, there’s bound to be a few nuts and bolts that need tightening under the hood, but as long as the Skyrim sports car isn’t coughing and spluttering along like an old banger, we’ll call it a definitive improvement.
2) Spice up the combat
In our humble opinion, Bethesda did a pucker job with Oblivion’s combat. Intuitive and rewardingly tactical at times, the game offered a fine balance between mindless mashing and meticulously timed mauling. If you liked slicing foes up with pointy-ended objects and serenading them with spells, Oblivion had you covered. However, one area the game was conspicuously lacking in was ranged attacks, specifically of the non-zapping variety. Sure, you had the bow and arrow, but it played a distinct second fiddle to the game’s deafening orchestra of proximity-based attacks, and was only really effective when enchanted. As such, we’d like to see Bethesda incorporate a meaty selection of throwing weapons—spears, lances, crossbows, the works. Furthermore, combat in general could benefit from a little spit and polish; precision targeting wouldn’t go a miss, with players able to score one-hit kills and/or critical hits depending on the area of the body you target. Imagine bagging an instant stealth kill with one well-placed arrow to the back of the head, for example.
Elsewhere, being able to wield a weapon on horseback would alleviate a heap of issues while travelling too, and add a new dimension to combat if your enemies could also take up arms from the comfort of their noble steed. If a short-arsed elf boy like Link can do it, then an armed-to-the-teeth burly Knight who looks like he could chew glass for breakfast should find it as easy as, well, falling off a horse. In short, it’s time Bethesda upped the ante for Skyrim’s skirmishes. Smarter AI wouldn’t go a miss either; we’ve lost count at the number of times a pugnacious peasant or fearsome troll alike have backed off the edge of a cliff to their doom, or seen our allies barrel mindlessly in to an inanimate object while in pursuit of their target instead of opting to circumvent it. Sure, it's somewhat laughable at first, but after a while we were begging for a half decent brawl that didn’t culminate as a result of our foe’s glaring incompetence. Sort it out, Bethesda.
3) Give our hero a voice and revamp the conv system
Perpetually silent protagonists may have been the rage a few years ago, but these days we want developers to inject a little more personality in to our heroes. Indeed, even the likes of Call of Duty has managed to venture off the beaten path, as it were, giving players a face and voice with Black Ops’ rough and ready grunt, Alex Mason. Compared to the likes of Mass Effect’s comprehensive chinwag fest, however, Oblivion comes up rather mute, with your character’s contributions limited to text-based nattering only. In fact, the whole conv system is a little stiff and lifeless. Talk to an individual—be it a nobleman, peasant or guard—and they’ll happily stand there flapping their gums while doing their best impression of what we can only assume to be the only known living case of rigor mortis. Sure, they’ll raise an eyebrow and squint every now and then, but that’s about as good as it gets. Even Yu Suzuki’s mighty Shenmue accomplished this much; a game that launched seven years prior to Oblivion and on inferior hardware to boot. To top it all off, these issues are further compounded by the fact Bethesda appears to have cast the entire populace of Cyridol based on the amount of people who voted the Monster Raving Looney Party in the last UK election—all six of them. As such, after hearing the repetitive greetings of generic town guard #6 and the snooty, aristocratic drone of the Dunmar’s for god only knows how many times over, chatting to NPC’s stars to become as enjoyable of a past time as grating one’s nails down a chalkboard. More voice actors, an overhaul of the entire conversation system and a protagonist who actually talks would undoubtedly augment Skyrim’s storytelling efforts. And frankly, with Mass Effect 3 on the horizon, it’d look pretty tame in comparison if Bethesda didn’t chomp down on a bit of humble pie and take a leaf out of BioWare’s book.
4) More variety in environments
We love plundering Oblivion’s numerous dungeons looting caskets and Ayleid coffers as much as the next grave robber, but not when we’re skulking through the same generic cave/ruin/fort for the umpteenth time. The same applies to the game’s eponymous, lava-filled dimension itself, with Bethesda seemingly regurgitating a handful of fiery realms to explore, making for some monotonous exploring. Indeed, such aesthetical atrocities pretty much sucked all fun out of looting and conquering the ubiquitous Oblivion Gates strewn about Tamriel—a crying shame, considering the amount of rare gems players can accumulate in doing so. Yes, we know there’s a heap of dungeons to explore, and we tip our hats to Bethesda for cramming as many of them in the game as they managed to. However, when it comes to Skyrim, we would gladly accept a reduced number in exchange for a more varied design palette. As the old saying goes—it’s all about quality, not quantity.
5) Sort out the leveling system
As expected in an RPG of Oblivion’s magnitude, leveling up is a bread-and-butter component throughout your journey. Rack up enough experience in any of your major skills, take a quick snooze, and presto, you’ll level up and get to increase three main attributes to boot. Fair enough, right? Not quite. Your foes also strengthen as you do, making the whole system somewhat pointless depending on the circumstance. For example, you stumble across a crumbling ruin ripe for the picking, but can’t deal with the insurmountable odds that face you within the bowls of the structure. Evidently, you’re a little too weedy to deal with your foes in your present state, and need to toughen up. So, you scarper out of the ruins for the time being, spend some time vanquishing foes out in the wilderness, level up, and return some time later. Problem solved? Nope. Your enemies haven’t spent all this time twiddling their thumbs, and will also have leveled up to match your skills. Fair enough, it’ll provide a challenge, but that’s beside the point; it nullifies any hardship you have endured, rendering the arduous dungeon crawling and brawling about as useful as a pair of sunglasses on a bloke with one ear.
Now, we’re not suggesting you should be phenomenally overpowered in comparison to all your foes—quest-related baddies are intrinsically level specific, and rightly so. However, in a game such as Oblivion, where you’ll likely to revisit locations multiple times, it makes no sense to have your enemies constantly on par with your own capabilities. If you haven’t yet visited a location, then we of course concede that your foes will mimic your own level. However, if you come back to the same place, it kind of defeats the point of leveling up in the first place if your opponents have miraculously beefed up too. With Skyrim, we hope Bethesda balances out the scaling a little more. Instead of having generic enemies level up with you, how about introducing rare, location-specific foes? Or even better, don’t have bog standard enemies level with you. Keep them the same, and save the leveled adversaries for quest-related shenanigans.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is penciled in for release on PS3, PC and Xbox 360 on November 11, 2011.