Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (part two) – PC, PS3, xBox 360

You will welcome this sight at first, before you have to finish twenty other stages with the exact same layout and objective.

You will welcome this sight at first, before you have to finish twenty other stages with the exact same layout and objective.

I’ll make this short. After two months of play, two or three dozen quests and an equal number of times accidentally nuking my vampire by taking her out in broad daylight, three or four times when an enemy disarmed me and I had to restart because I couldn’t find my sword on the ground, the most epic final boss battle a game has ever permitted me to watch without actually participating in, and one final bug that prevented me from receiving the prize for finishing the main storyline, I have finally finished Oblivion. And I find I have absolutely nothing to say about it. Having spent the final forty hours pretty much the same way as I spent the first sixty, with the notable exception of a nagging feeling of repetition, as though I’d traveled through the same dungeons killing the same monsters for the same meager handful of gold coins, armor too heavy to carry, and weapons too cheap to make it worth carrying them to the nearest shop to sell them for yet another shitty handful of gold coins. Congratulations, Bethesda, you took the time and care in making an RPG with a skillfully crafted world that still somehow feels like a randomized-dungeon crawler.

Once I discovered the Shivering Isles, I stayed there for the next fifteen hours just because it didn't look like the same old caves I'd explored thirty times in Cyrodil.

Once I discovered the Shivering Isles, I stayed there for the next fifteen hours just because it didn’t look like the same old caves I’d explored thirty times in Cyrodil.

As Anne has already suckered me into a good forty hours or so of Minecraft since I finished the Elder Scrolls, I have to admit that the open-world, free-form game play does offer something therapeutic compared to the shorter, more directed games….Don’t expect me to explain it, though, as I just spent about ten minutes avoiding that question hopping from link to link on Facebook. (By the way, no, internet, Haley Joel Osmont did not grow up and become “super attractive.” He looks like a potato swallowing someone’s face like an amoeba.) Games like that, though, don’t need to rely on a well-written story or intricate game play, but with that same logic I could also say that Mega Man doesn’t rely on deep, philosophical introspection and God of War doesn’t rely on an anti-violence message or anger management techniques. You see an enemy? Hack it with your sword until it dies! Or maybe cast a spell on it. Which spell? It doesn’t matter! They all do the same thing! Just pick out the one that does the same thing more powerfully than all the rest!

Yep. Sure looks pretty. Can we try a desert? Or a jungle? Maybe? Something a little new?

Yep. Sure looks pretty. Can we try a desert? Or a jungle? Maybe? Something a little new?

Bethesda, as I mentioned in part one of this series, has made a name for themselves by making the same game at least four times (I haven’t played Morrowind…maybe five). They’ve also made a name for themselves in expansive, open world, hiking simulators and pathetically lame boss fights. Yeah, by crawling through RPG Maker in what little spare time I have, I’ve learned the stool-hardening madness inspired by crafting bosses as interesting battles rather than simply a thirty-second-long random enemy encounter with special music. Still, could we at least ask for a boss with slightly higher stats than the average enemy? A specialized attack pattern that requires more than “run up, hack with sword, back off, repeat” to kill? At least with the Elder Scrolls games, you don’t have to worry about finishing off the battle with a quick glance at your V.A.T.S. system.

Yep. Just chillin in third person. Jake does that sometimes.

Yep. Just chillin in third person. Jake does that sometimes.

Cut out all the inventory maintenance, travel time, consulting the map every thirty seconds, and questionable emphasis on combat, and poorly written quests that generally amount to “go there, get stuff, come back,” and Oblivion boils down to a character void of any personality, exploring a huge open world of trees, caves, and other natural wonders, who enchants armor, brews potions, and carries a sword to fight off obnoxious skeleton archers. Congratulations, Bethesda, you made a high resolution version of Minecraft. Who would have thought that you could have made tons more money if you had only half-assed the graphics?

Fuck you, order! I fight for madness and chaos! Like the freaking Joker! Up yours, shiny metal Batman!

Fuck you, order! I fight for madness and chaos! Like the freaking Joker! Up yours, shiny metal Batman!

Again, not that a game that offers aimless exploration with a handful of fringe benefits has to suck goblin nuggets. Games strive for a simulated experience, and even living on the cusp of the wild, untamed glacier of Northern Minnesota, I often feel way too wrapped up in our modern urban world, yearning, like Tolkien before me, to go “back to trees.” I think that people who read Tolkien and don’t see anything in it beyond “people walking” might not get the value of taking in the world for its wonders, which I think captures the true meaning behind Oblivion. So Bethesda, if any of you read this, stop releasing DLC and get the licensing to do a game set in Middle Earth. And then someone needs to develop immersive virtual reality so you can release your next game on a VR console. And also VR Minecraft.

Hellooooo....imagine meeting a mod like you in a place like this.

Hellooooo….imagine meeting a mod like you in a place like this.

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Minecraft – Windows, OS X, Linux, Android, iOS, Xbox 360, Raspberry Pi, PlayStation 3, PlayStation Vita, etc

Minecraft-360

My list of things to do over winter break included reading and preparing for class next semester, getting through “Catch-22“ and a few other books for my own sake, taking the Jeopardy contestant test, studying for the GRE, and catch up on game reviews so I could post more frequently than once per week. What did I actually accomplish over the last six weeks? Minecraft. Often for four or more hours per night.

Now, nursing an addiction for a video game could easily sound like praise, but with that logic you might say that watching someone do heroin for ten years would offer a sparkling endorsement of opioids. Likewise, I don’t want to compare Minecraft to drug use, although it did have a tendency to leave me looking like I hadn’t eaten or slept in a week. Rather, picture a combination of Fallout, Final Fantasy XII and Legos. I’ll start with the obvious comparison.

Like many others my age, I spent an inordinate amount of time learning my ineptitude at engineering through these plastic Danish building blocks. My creations, subject to the terrors of my grand imagination, grew larger and more complex as the weeks went on until gravity popped her ugly head in to see my accomplishments as they shattered into pieces under their own weight. Minecraft offers the same sort of appeal as Legos without the nasty clean-up and inevitable three days of locating errant pieces with your feet. The world consists of an invisible cubic grid, and most objects found in the game can either fit into this grid or combine into other objects or mechanisms that you can build with. Gravitational force shows up every now and then like a know-it-all friend, offering horrible advice–“I think that pile of sand should come down here!”–or unexpectedly dropping a flow of lava on your head, then laughing hysterically as you lose your supply of rare diamonds, tools, and the blocks you spent the last three hours harvesting, but for the most part it stays out of your way so you can build your dream castle-slash-mansion-slash-dungeon-slash-pornatarium a hundred meters above the surface of the earth.

Each new game randomly generates a world full of specific geographical features–mountains, deserts, oceans, forests, etc–animals, monsters and other dangers, and minerals for you to mine. Beginning with nothing, I set myself immediately to the task of ripping down a nearby tree with my bare hands, then shredding the log into planks to build a crafting table, which let me work with some real tools. From then on, the game makes a little more sense, although not much. Different tools work best for different jobs; the axe cuts wood better than stone, while the shovel digs dirt, sand and gravel better than the pickaxe, etc. Unfortunately, after about three days of playing I realized I didn’t need anything except a strong pickaxe since the shovel and the axe managed to dig dirt and chop down trees only a little more effectively than a slice of watermelon (or any other random object found in the game). And since tools degrade over time until they shatter, the watermelon has thus far proven more effective.

The game offers a simple tutorial, but otherwise the player has to figure out their goals on their own. It doesn’t take long to figure out that you need to dig to find better minerals to make stronger tools that can mine the stronger minerals, all the while dumping the pile of stuff you pick up into whatever grandiose object you chose to blight the landscape with by making. It really amounts to an experience akin to building with Legos, except instead of searching through a giant tub of blocks, you search though the heavens and the earth, hoping to find whatever you need before something explodes behind you, emptying the contents of your pocket onto the ground and sending you to some random location to respawn in hopes of not getting too-lost before the time limit expires and your stuff vanishes from the game forever.

So after about two or three weeks of this, I realized I had found a smattering of most of the items in the game, built most of a castle, and splattered both my innards and several hours worth of progress all over the surface of the earth due to monsters sneaking up on me (more times than I care to admit), when as a character I had a mid-life crisis of sorts and seriously questioned my life’s path. I had a castle, diamonds, electricity…and planned to use it to mine more stone for castles, diamonds for pickaxe making, and electricity…so I could build more and mine more minerals…for the purpose of mining more…

You get the point.

As I enjoyed Final Fantasy XII more than most games, I played through it once with a completionist mindset. Once I had collected every trophy and found almost every item, I turned my sights toward the Wyrmhero blade…only to get an hour into the fishing minigame before I realized, “I have no reason to ever use this sword.” I had destroyed every challenge in the game. A super-sword would have no benefit other than a useless trophy. I went on to the final boss battle barehanded, hoping to salvage some shred of challenge.

I hadn’t experienced this feeling again until I realized the futility of Minecraft. Sure it kept me busy, and I sunk a lot of time into it, and yes, having my own flying castle satisfied me…much in the way that watching Indiana Jones satisfies my desire to travel…but I just couldn’t justify continuing in a game where I could accomplish all the major challenges within a few hours. Only the monsters and natural dangers offer any real degree of challenge, but since the game doesn’t focus on combat, they would fit in just as well in Sim City, Katamari, Trauma Center, or Wheel of Fortune.

Several platforms have versions of Minecraft, each one of them slightly different from the others. I played primarily on the PS3, but also checked out the Raspberry Pi edition, while Anne spent some time getting killed on the Mac version–that’s right, in addition to natural game dangers, online players have to worry about minor wars destroying all their accomplishments. We agreed that the PS3 played the easiest, since using a console controller limited the concentration we needed to devote to complex coordination tests–and also the Pi edition has no feature to save your progress…kind of a theme with the game, I’ve noticed–but you may have noticed this review lacking pictures.  Apparently the developers of this game, which fosters creativity, didn’t feel the need to include a function to take screenshots, so it won’t let you record in malleable form any progress you happen to make despite the game’s best efforts to ruin you. While I usually search for images online to insert in my posts, the only thing that pops up are the accomplishments of those who can take screenshots. Google it for yourself. I don’t need to root through their pictures for you.

Honestly, the game has the best of intentions and a unique concept (although the pathetic inclusion of combat aspect kind of ruins that concept), but one other aspect not only breaks the camel’s back, but crushes the camel and grinds its viscera into the sand beneath it: inventory management. With a limited number of inventory slots and a maximum of 64 items per slot (only if it lets you stack them), you quickly find yourself with half a planet’s worth of material in your pockets. Storage chests don’t offer a lot of relief, and pretty soon you notice yourself spending half the game just collecting, moving, sorting, and looking for all the items you’ve already collected. Just like in Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas, the game offers over a hundred hours of play time, but less than half of that feels fun, while the other half makes me feel I would use my time better by cleaning my apartment.

The game does give a sort of unexplained sense of satisfaction, but has some issues to work out. For starters, the list of bugs and glitches–including the randomly corrupting data files for anyone who plays split-screen–don’t really belong on a console game, and shouldn’t have seen a PS3 release until they could iron those out (save the glitches for PC games, guys!). Other than that, yes, theoretically the game has an end boss, but without orienting itself toward combat, you really can’t claim any achievement other than that you’ve hollowed out an entire planet.