It’s strange how our feelings about the passing of time can be inconsistent. See, I’ve pretty much come to terms with Doom being released over twenty years ago. While I still greatly enjoy playing the game, it’s clearly the product of a bygone age, as much a part of the mid 90s as britpop and the X-men cartoon. It was released during a chapter of my life that has long since ended.

Oblivion’s 10th anniversary has now arrived, and those ten years are harder to accept than Doom’s twenty-two. Oblivion is somehow still registered in my brain under the “modern games” category. Has it really been an entire decade since I first played Elder Scrolls number four? I think there’s some part of me that anchored itself in about 2011 and refused to accept any further progress into this decade. Is this a bad sign I’m still clinging to my 20s? Surely not, sir, I have a mortgage! I’m married! The mannerisms of young people on the internet frequently baffle me!

Anyway since we humans place fairly arbitrary significance on round numbers, it’s a good time time to look back and reflect. Compared to its predecessor Morrowind and sequel Skyrim, Oblivion is sadly my least favourite of the trio.

I think partially because the world, and the core story to the game, were both a bit bland. Morrowind had that slightly alien feel to it, with the mushroom towers, bizarre wildlife and the concrete minarets of Dwarvern ruins. It only became more fascinating as I  delved into the history of the land, and learned more about quarelling demigods, disappeared civilisations, and the prophecies I was supposedly fulfilling.

The region we saw in Oblivion, the imperial homeland of Cyrodil, was certainly prettier than Morrowind. In fact looking at screenshots I’m reminded just how vibrant and lush its wildernesses were. The issue is, it’s all very generic, a land of standard-issue forests and castles. There’s not a lot that’s particularly memorable here, it’s made up of elements common to many other fantasy worlds I’ve visited in gaming. Then for a story they dropped in something forgettable stuff about the last emperor and demon invasions. The portals to Oblivion do add some excitement and a change of scenery but they show up a bit late,  and I didn’t really care why they were happening anyway.

Okay, that is really lovely.

Okay, that is really lovely.

Then there’s the scaling of enemies to match your own level. I get why they had to try something like this, a common complaint in Morrowind was how unchallenged you might feel at higher levels. Yet the implementation in Oblivion was far too heavy handed. Perhaps the most egregious example was common bandits becoming mighty warriors kitted out in powerful weapons and armour that’s meant to be rare and priceless. It’s a bit like bank robbers carrying anti-tank missiles. You’d think they’d just sell the stuff and retire. Or move onto higher stakes conquests than banditry, at least.

I’ve always thought that in an RPG, at high level, you should sometimes run into foes that you can squash with contemptuous ease. That’s the whole point of leveling up to become a legendary hero. Of course a game should still be providing challenges for you at this stage – mighty dragons or demons or whatever.  Still you should also go back to that quest to clear out a cave full of goblins, one you couldn’t do at level 5, and happily obliterate them.

Yet in Oblivion, I’d retreat from a dungeon full of  skeletons that dominated me at low level, come back many days later, and find some other undead supermonster. It was was just as difficult to kill now as the skeletons were previously. I was, in relative terms, no more powerful than I was when I started the game.

I’d also heard stories of people who leveled up by raising non-combat skills – then found to their dismay they’d hit the trigger for the world to start spawning new more powerful monsters that they weren’t equipped to handle. The relatively manageable wolves of before were replaced with giant bears. You could argue that a good RPG should have moments of panicked fleeing from overwhelming foes, sure, but that really shouldn’t occur just because you got good at alchemy and bartering.

I suppose Bethesda have a bit of a challenge in balancing an open-world game against the basic expectations of an RPG. We’re meant to be able to go roaming any direction, from the start, and that means opportunities for newbie characters must be all around,  not just in a designated little “starter zone”. There must be foes and quests to challenge us at high level too, but these shouldn’t be totally blocking the newbies from exploring, or making too many dungeons and quests impossible. Oblivion’s approach then was to have everything around you reconfigure according to your level, throughout the game.  In doing so took away most of your sense of progression.

Skyrim seemed to make the required compromises a little more successfully. There is still some scaling going on, but, a Giant is the same Giant whatever level you are. Higher levels might mean higher grades of bandit, but there are limits on their power so they’re not carrying ridiculous exotic weaponry. Also I understand it, dungeons have a designated level range, with the level fixed based on the first time you visit. So some dungeons are accessible for your level 5 wimp; others will be too dangerous, but you can come back for them later.

Skyrim still doesn’t find that perfect balance of progression and challenge; I didn’t find much of anything could threaten me at high levels. Still, there are other improvements on Oblivion. Even if it still wasn’t quite as weirdly unique as Morrowind, I found it more compelling a place to explore than Oblivion, and the “Norsemen vs Romans” conflict added flavour. It also had some stand out features like the Dragon attacks that were utterly spectacular, unlike any “random monster encounter” I’d ever seen in an RPG.

Also you can shout at bandits to blast them off cliffs, and that will never stop being hilarious.

Before I sign off let’s bear in mind I am comparing it to games that I’ve dearly loved. To Oblivion’s credit it got some things right. It grealty improved the combat mechanics from Morrowind, whilst keeping a full set of character stats, unlike Skyrim’s heavy simplification. Also, the Shivering Isles expansion seems specifically aimed at those who missed Morrowind’s otherworldliness.

So I certainly sank several dozen hours into it, and had some good times adventuring in Cyrodil. I can’t deny though, that regarding anything Bethesda has done post 2000, this is the game I’m least tempted to replay.