One thing that has always been excellent in The Elder Scrolls series is its basic character progression system. In order to become the most excellent swordsman in the land you will have to actually use swords. In order to become the demi god sorcerer nuker you will have to start with your trusty fireball. In order to become the sneakiest invisible nothingness in the room you are going to have sneak past a blind deformed elf or two.
In short, you get what you earn.
However, as a gamer I have two very distinct separate problems with both of the last two Elder Scrolls games. Oblivion doesn’t let me get powerful enough and Skyrim lets me get too powerful.
Now that may sound like I’m just difficult to satisfy, but I actually feel like, while both games accomplish character progression in a way that no one else does, its very easy to tell, in multiple areas between Oblivion and Skyrim, that even the developers are still sort of getting the feel for what they’re doing with the series.
First lets establish a mission statement. This statement is meant, by me, to be the working goal of any and all RPG Character Progression Systems. The statement is as follows:
“The player uses at least two or more various systems of character ability in order to progress from being a weakling at the start of the game to being a relative demigod by the end of the game.”
All of our various systems throughout the years, such as statistics, talent trees, and gear progression, and even the elder scrolls skill system exist for the purpose of satisfying your goal. You get a starting point, say 10 One Handed Skill, and eventually your goal is to get 100 One Handed Skill. When you reach this landmark, your progress is now dictated by other factors.
This is what it means to have character progress in an RPG. You start out with a low score in something, and by raising that score, you become more effective, efficient, and eventually master it. It is now an end-game skill. You used to do 5 damage and now you do 120. And such it is with all aspects of progression.
How does this apply to Oblivion and Skyrim? Simple. Pacing.
Now all things fair, both Oblivion and Skyrim have grace periods where both games maintain a fair and equal balance. For any sort of progression system you have to have pitfalls and trappings that punish bad character building (such as progressing only non-combat skills in The Elder Scrolls) and you have to have rewards for people who dilligently use all of those factors do make a play style.
Both games pull this off effectively. In fact let’s breakdown my complaints about each one individually.
The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion is probably one of the greatest RPGs ever made. It’s grace period is pretty much the entire time between levels 1 – 30.
But only if you’re perfect.
Seriously though, Oblivion is a very unforgiving game.
See in Oblivion part of character generation was choosing a class. The classes were based on which skills you wanted to be your Major Skills (or skills your class is good at) and Minor Skills (skills your class in not good at). This was ultimately a great idea, as it kick starts your character’s progress in seven skills. What wasn’t such a great idea was tying these Major Skills to level progression.
See to Level Up in Oblivion you had to use your major skills. Increasing Major Skills by 10 gained you another Level Up. Now… that may sound fine and dandy, but you may have noticed that I said there are Seven Major Skills for your class. Anytime any combination of 10 Skill Gains are acquired, you level up.
Now maybe you can see the problem already. Here’s the problem: ten increases may be a major factor for a single skill, but it is not a major factor for SEVEN skills. To increase each of your Major Skills to 100 in Oblivion, you needed anywhere between 450 to 550 skill increases.
This is exacerbated by just about every other factor of Oblivion’s development. Character progress in The Elder Scrolls is closely related to Character Level. Enemy Levels for the majority of enemies, and especially for the games main story bad guys (the daedra) your level was the main factor in determining their stats. They matched player level and this worked out as well as it did in Final Fantasy VIII (it didn’t).
As such, by the time you could begin maxing out skills and stats, it no longer mattered because enemies grew infinitely along with you.
However, the thing that really kicks this into the territory of bad design is that it didn’t much matter that the enemies grew infinitely so long as the player did to.
But the player didn’t.
For anyone playing a melee character, the maximum amount of damage they could accomplish with a single power attack was 84. A reference chart to HP totals of most enemies at Level 30 (the start of the end game of Oblivion, and whenever you begin to find the most valuable loot) is usually around 300 or 350.
In the hardest, yet most rewarding, dungeons, The Oblivion Gates, you would fight anywhere between fifteen to thirty-five monsters. This may not seem like much, but when you consider that most of these encounters occur in groups of 3 – 5 monsters, the fact that even with max armor you can be staggered, the fact that you are defending against physical and magical damage from all angles, and the frustrating fact that you are capped in progress by attack formulas that decided 100 was a good max, despite the ability to go above and beyond that within the basic vanilla game, and its understandable why someone could think maybe Oblivion was designed by someone who wasn’t following the above goal statement.
This was my character, a two-handed melee monster that could crush bandits and imps like powder, but any tread into an Oblivion Gate and I remembered why I still had mountains of health potions… because I couldn’t survive without them.
I mean, really? I was sitting on maximum physical resistance, doing at least 28 damage per smack, upwards of 80 magical resistance and even some physical reflection and spell reflection enchantments stacked on me and it would still take maybe a minute or two to finish a fight with two monsters.
Now to be fair this is only one way to play the game, but it wasn’t a very rewarding one. There are a lot of mechanics I tend to leave unused, mostly because Oblivion wants me to level them up, but doesn’t really bother to drop enough of the materials to make the most awesome poisons in the world, and trying to train magic at level 30 is a practice in absolute swiss cheesery.
What Oblivion needed was no cap on their potential. If you are going to give me the ability to enchant my strength past 100 I should see the pay off somewhere other than just carry weight. If I have maximum heavy armor, maybe I shouldn’t be moved by enemy attacks. And maybe, just maybe, there should be some form of instant death I can inflict on an opponent that doesn’t require a million strikes to the head.
Amendment to Mission Statement Post-Oblivion:
“As a rule of thumb, required attacks against enemies to kill should only increase if someone isn’t maxing out their attack stats. If they are, it should probably be less than ten, unless that character is a significant boss.”
So what happens when you over compensate for the flaws of your previous game? Skyrim happens that’s what.
And frankly, that wasn’t a bad things. Legions of the problems with Oblivions Character Progression system was solved with Skyrim. Not only that, but we got randomized quests (okay they weren’t that impressive), non skill related magic spells (dragon shouts), crafting systems (kind of wish they’d done more with Cooking), and hell yeah, this is all the setting of a great experience, rife with difficulty that will take planning, skill maxing, and some damned strategy beyond whack everything to death.
So… did I really just kill that Dragon in two shots?
First, I would like to thank the developers of Oblivion for absolutely making Melee an appreciable category of play style come Skyrim. But I would immediately turn around say that I probably shouldn’t be able to kill the ever respawning random bad guys with two shots on the noggin.
What’s really unfortunate about Skyrim is that every now and then you do get a real boss. What’s also unfortunate is that every single one of these real bosses is not one of the well crafted, well designed, and repetitive endless dragons that the game is really fond of.
However, why is it that I have spent several sessions of gameplay doing the following: load game, buy metal, craft daggers, enchant daggers, sell daggers for massive profit throughout skyrim, buy more metal, craft more daggers, rinse, wash, repeat, until I have enough skill or money or both to craft the greatest armor set that ever lived and immediately be scared by nothing.
Skyrim did so much great stuff with the skills and the levelling that I don’t want to harp on them instead I want to harp on this: why aren’t there statistics?
Seriously, things like Strength, Agility, Intelligence, all are great bases for intertwining different game mechanics. If I want to be a bad ass warrior smith, I shouldn’t be able to get the most powerful enchants unless I’m willing to power level my intelligence also.
The main problem with Skyrim is that Skills are Everything. While you need gear too, they completely subvert the loot, grind, boss chest, discovery mechanic from Oblivion and most RPGs into literally create-your-own win button.
Here’s the sad truth: the most fun I have in Oblivion comes from whenever I ignore the fact that I can smith and enchant my own items and live off of the land.
They made so many huge steps forward though, I really think Statistics are important to have, and if you are going to have crafting you should require something besides a few measly skill points to unlock the most badass crafting recipes. At least in Enchanting I had to find each and every enchant I wanted to use before I could make it, and I had to grind for those grand soul gems.
However there’s something more I want to get at that’s unique from either game also.
An End Game
Both Skyrim and Oblivion are at a complete lack of the same thing: a satisfying end-game.
This may sound silly considering how great just about all other parts of these games are, but the fact that a player who abuses these game elements isn’t given the juicy enticing reward of something at the end of all this is disappointing.
In ways, you could say that Oblivion had this. All that stuff I was complaining about up above was in relation to the fact that Oblivion had an end game that did consist of getting the best enchantments from the hardest dungeons in the game.
But it wasn’t a true end game, and the reason for that was I was not able to further increase those skills I had maxed out to make myself viable for the end game. There were scant few pieces of equipment that I could find that were leagues above everything else in the game.
I guess as a player I like one thing in my end game to be true: the best equipment comes either from the end of long quest lines, or from random dungeon loot. Both of these things were sort of there in Oblivion. The guild questlines provided great bonuses to the player character. There are at least five or six really good items that are only provided by random boss chests in dungeons.
In Skyrim however, while a couple of questlines have worth while rewards, the very best thing the game ever gave me were houses. There weren’t any pieces of equipment better than what I could craft on my own, with the exception of the Dragon Priest Masks.
While the Dragon Priest sidequest represents the End Game of Skyrim, it isn’t helped by the fact that these enemies are at fixed locations full of enemies that aren’t challenging.
When I was playing the game I came across one boss, and only one boss that satisfied me. In the DLC Dawnguard, near the end of the quest line that gets you sun-hallowed arrows, there is an ice magician that you battle. He has several stages that progress, you have to beat off minions, you get frozen, then he basically blows up the arena, and you get to do battle in the sunlight. Its a wonderfully staged well executed fight that’s probably the best in the game.
I still killed him with five shots, five amazingly epic shots.
I felt like I’d disappointed him. I sincerely did. This was supposed to be the long held struggle, the battle of desperation, and I was hardly phased. I may have had to drink a potion or two, but I was an unstoppable badass, and here was the best the game had to offer me.
So while Skyrim did great, the next installment needs to focus on that: end game. It’s okay if a game has broken mechanics or combinations so long as it has something within the game that really tests the limits of that exploitation. Maybe Bethesda should look up a little game called Final Fantasy VII. It has a few things that could help them out…