I noticed a lot of details about Oblivion. Let's start with the small stuff:
There's no "Save My Ass" in "Team"
The most fascinatingly idiotic choice the Oblivion team made was to make it so you can't give your team mates stuff.
I can understand not implementing a complex team AI thing. But giving your team mates stuff isn't exactly a hard thing to implement!
I play an alchemist. I get a warrior team mate. Awesome! Yeah! Just what I need to support my archer-like lifestyle! Plus, I've got a comedic surplus of healing potions, so this guy can just be my meat shield!
Except... I can't give him the potions. What the fuck were they thinking?
A Horse with no Name
Oblivion has a remarkably detailed face-morphing engine. A bit too detailed, actually: there's a million little toggles to tweak. Despite this, most of their NPC faces end up looking like one of about eight basic types. I think this is mostly because they apparently only have four voice actors, and when you hear the same voice, you tend to drop the difference in faces.
Their emotional visualization is, as I expected, pathetic. First, their faces are apparently limited to two expressions: neutral and pissy. When you're "talking" with them, you get four more expressions, but these expressions have nothing to do with the actual emotion the NPC is feeling. They are simply cues to allow you to play a rather fun but totally immersion-breaking minigame.
Moreover, there's no body language. Their eyes do some neat dancing, but I'm under the impression that the people who made this game have never talked to anyone in their life. People do not stand with their face locked straight ahead, and they certainly don't keep the same expression throughout an exchange.
People tilt their heads. Shrug their shoulders. Lean forward or back. People's expressions move across their face. When they smile, their smile marches between a grin and a little, quirky smirk. Their eyebrows dance. Oh, and people blink.
This is body posture and gesturing aside.
These things aren't tremendously hard to implement. I've implemented them myself.
However, their faces are pretty humanlike. This is the most unfortunate success ever to grace a video game. Why? Because humanlike faces lead us to expect humanlike people. And these people have about as much difference between them as M&Ms.
For Love of Love
Let me take a moment to piss about the culture.
I don't know why, but Morrowind and Oblivion have no sexuality in them. At all. This is bizarre, because until that time, their games had blatant sexuality and, in fact, often had nudity.
Now, I'm not saying that all games should have sexuality in them. But Oblivion is functionally a world. It has a cast of thousands. Many of these people have a history, even a spouse.
Okay. Now I'm going to count the number of children. One, two... zero. There are zero children. I guess that's what you get when there's no sexuality in a world.
The number of (mortal) people wearing attractive garments? Zero. The number of attractive garments? Zero. They go out of their way to make every piece of clothing as boring as possible. There's a million different clothes you can wear, but all of them are boring as hell and nearly identical. Where are my pumpkin shorts? Where are my frilly capes? Where is my "Evil Dead" shirt? Nowhere.
It's not just garments. Nobody thinks about these things. There's no talk of sex. No talk of romance. There's barely even any commentary about people being of the opposite sex. The closest I've seen to talking about sex or romance is people saying that a specific girl is beautiful... but it's always another girl saying it, and it's never realistic.
Oh, and one little exchange with a drow about what the fine for necrophilia might be. I have a feeling that slipped by because the editor thought "necrophilia" meant "necromancy".
Let me hit that again:
There's no romance.
One of the driving forces in every fairy tale, every legend, every myth, is romance. But in this game, not only do you not have a love interest, neither does anyone else. There's a pair of elves that are married, but if you hear them talk to each other, it's "hi!" "Hi." "They charged me five gold for littering! Littering!" "Well, safe travels." "Thanks. You too."
I'm not sure what the developers were thinking, but the lack of romance means that everyone has only two bases for relationships. Only two kinds of tension. Friend-based and power-based. People can be friendly or unfriendly. People can be respect or disrespect the power of another person. That's it. That leads to eight kinds of relationship, nine if you decide "completely neutral" is a valid option. Thousands of people with only eight relationship types? Pretty shallow world!
This means that a network of relationships can't realistically be more than four or five people. IE, she respects him, he dislikes her, it disrespects but likes him... the web which you can walk into when you saunter up and talk to these people is extremely limited and very repetitive.
Adding in romance leads to around 30 kinds of relationships. Now your network of relationships can be significantly more complex. This is especially useful because, unlike respecting or being friends with someone, romantic tension leads to a kind of ownership. Two people who are friends with the same person are probably friends, as well. Two people who are (or wish they were) romantically entangled with the same person are nearly always enemies (or, at least, their friendship is in danger).
Leaving romance out of a fairy tale is nearly inconceivable. I'm flabbergasted. I'm stunned. I'm agog. It's like going skydiving... while the plane is on the ground.
On that same topic, the whole game is puddle jumping. Every time you get somewhere, there's a wide variety of tasks and quests available. Some of them are rather entertaining, although the dialogue trees frequently don't give me the options I wish I had.
They are all puddles.
None of these things has any effect on the rest of the game. None of these things can get you allies or friends. None of these things is connected to anything. This means that each time you jump into a new town, they discard all the emotional investment you built up from your previous towns and start over. Seems pretty brutally inefficient to me.
I suppose I can forgive the lack of adaptativity. I would have preferred being able to, say, introduce people to each other. Or convince anyone to join my team. Or convince people to move out of their house. Or any number of other long-term effects aside from "kill". I can understand that would have been difficult, so I don't mind that it's not there. Much.
What I do mind is that nothing else is there. Why am I playing this game, if it doesn't matter what I do? I know why I am playing this game: I want to get into the academy of magic and build my own spells and magic items. Too bad all their wearables are so boring boring boring!
It seems sad to me that the primary reason I'm playing this game has nothing to do with the huge world they've built, nothing to do with the thousands of man-hours of NPC work they put in, nothing to do with their dungeons.
To me, that stinks of failure.
So, they tweaked the game such that alchemy was less broken than last time. Largely by making it so that you can't drink more than four potions.
But alchemy is still hideously broken! Absurdly broken!
You walk up to someone - anyone - and buy all their random ingredients. Bread. Apples. Turn it into the completely worthless (for this character) "restore fatigue" potions. What was $4 of stuff is now a $13 potion. That's the sell price, at the beginning of the game. I haven't had less than $10,000 for the past few hours.
Okay, so money is worthless. Good to know.
But that's not all that alchemy does. I walked into Oblivion as level five. The only attack magic I had was fire based. The only weapon I had was a bow. Literally the only one: I had fists, otherwise. Wearing light armor.
But I brought my secret weapon: 105 "cause health damage" potions.
My bow barely scratched the enemies. But soaking every arrow in a "cause health damage" potion was enough to kill just about everything. Even the stupidly overpowered bad guys only took two arrows and a bit of running away to kill.
The cost to build those potions? Zero. Everything I used to make them I either stole or harvested. And it's not like I've spent a significant amount of game time stealing or harvesting, either.
(Actually, it turns out that there are fire daedra in the city, and they are completely immune to potions. So... I had to go off and level up somewhere else. I haven't gone back to finish the mission, yet.)
Maybe this isn't a dominant strategy. Maybe all the strategies are equally game-breaking. But it sure seems pretty hideous.
The only reason I'm really harping on this is because they had the same problem in their last game. Now, honestly! You went through this once already, and you still failed to fix it?
Okay, bitching aside, the game actually is fun. The outdoors are beautiful! The dungeons are repetitive, but the cities are unique.
The reason I'm complaining is because the things that would have made this game awesome are so simple! A few extra meshes or skins for interesting clothes. A writer with some romance in his heart. A simple bit of semi-random animation for the heads and faces. A writer who connects the dots, rather than just putting them down.
I guess hindsight is 20/20, but these are all the same things I hated about Morrowind. Am I the only one who notices?