Thusfar, my 2011 has been spent almost exclusively with open-world RPGs. While I've spent some time dabbling with Forza Motorsport 3 and also went through a brief addiction to Viva Pinata: Trouble in Paradise, January has been dominated by two veritable juggernauts of gameplay - Fallout: New Vegas, and The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. While both have been incredible experiences in their own rights, New Vegas stands out for me as the better of the two games. Something about it just seemed better fleshed-out, more immersive and more entertaining than Oblivion has been up to this point. After pulling myself out of my most recent Oblivion session, I think I've finally managed to put a hand on what that something is.
Back in the summer of 2009 I played through Oblivion's predecessor - The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. I'm not here to start any kind of discussion which claims that Morrowind is a better game than Oblivion, or vice versa. For what it's worth, I think Oblivion made great strides of improvement over Morrowind in a lot of areas, but I also think that there are some aspects of Morrowind's design which remain superior to its successor to this day. One thing that Morrowind did infinitely better than Oblivion in my opinion was its implementation of factions. I spent a lot of time in Morrowind working for the Fighters' Guild, who had an ongoing rivalry with the Thieves' Guild. I soon reached a point where my affiliation with the Fighters' Guild meant that the Thieves' Guild refused to allow me to join. A similar relationship exists between three main Dark Elf Houses in Vvardenfell - you may choose to work for one, at the expense of employment by either of the other two. Beyond acting as an incentive to experience the game with multiple characters, the inter-faction bickering of Morrowind actually made me feel like my actions had repercussions in the game world. Oblivion features no such choices, and I feel like it's a weaker and less immersive experience because of it..
I could draw a similar comparison between 2008's Fallout 3 and New Vegas. In my eyes, New Vegas is a much better game than its predecessor, mainly because of its approach to how the player is viewed by the multiple factions that inhabit the Mojave Wasteland. The game must feature at least ten different factions, both major and minor. Getting friendly with one of them could well raise your standing with their allies, but is likely to harm your relationship with at least one opposing faction. New Vegas even takes it one step further than Morrowind, making sure that the player's allegiances have a marked impact on how the final stages of the main quest pan out. Reaching that point where I'd cultivated a promising relationship with two or three of the game's four main factions and having to choose one of them over the others was one of New Vegas' highest points for me, and resulted in some incredibly bitter-sweet reunions with former allies as the last third of the game played out.
This is the main point I'm trying to make:
Well-implemented rivalries between factions, and weighty consequences for choosing sides, makes for a more immersive and more entertaining experience for the player.
The effect that a well-implemented set of factions can have in an open-world RPG is immense. For a start, it adds an extra level of depth to goings-on in the game from a gameplay perspective. Being a part of a dynamic game world that's constantly changing on the fly is never a bad thing, especially when wandering around in an open-world game like the ones I've been talking about. In Fallout: New Vegas, a player's faction allegiances and reputation are paramount in determining whether that encampment just over the hill is a friendly rest-stop or a gunfight waiting to happen. Another point to consider is the high replayability value it adds to a game. Both Morrowind and New Vegas feature entire quest lines that can be completely missed depending on the player's faction allegiances, meaning that jumping back in and choosing a different path can feel like playing a completely different experience. Finally, it encourages the player to become even more invested in the choices they make, heightening that sense of immersion in the game world. In the open-world RPG, where 'freedom' and 'choice' are the developers' favourite buzzwords, nothing is more important.
There's an old saying that goes, "No matter how hard you try, you can't please everybody". Nowhere is this more true than in the games industry, where player entitlement and developer ambition frequently collide with unpleasant consequences. You only have to look at the number of gamers who consider Oblivion a massive step backwards from Morrowind, or the fans of Black Isle's Fallout games who feel betrayed by the mere existence of Fallout 3 and New Vegas, to understand that. With The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim currently pencilled in for a late 2011 release, my excitement for it couldn't be greater. My love for the open-world RPG format has already confirmed my purchase, and I know that I'm going to love the game to pieces no matter how it pans out. I just hope that Bethesda take a leaf out of Obsidian's book and attempt to recapture those faction relationships and interactions that were so noticeably absent from Oblivion and Fallout 3. After all, a more immersive and more entertaining experience is never a bad thing.
Thanks for reading, guys. I'll see you around.
Currently playing - The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (X360)