Oblivion – The Unoblivionated Version
A surprising number of players found that Oblivion somehow seemed a big letdown from what was expected from the successor to Morrowind. The engine made big leaps forward - graphics, UI, variations in NPCs and scenery, weather, mechanics and even improved mod support. But the content somehow was a big disappointment. Guild quests were a clone of the successful Morrowind format and had good depth and variation but the main line quest seemed a big step backwards. Unlike Morrowind, Oblivion seemed to lack any driving purpose or theme. It never captured you and drew you into the story (after all, that is the goal of any RPG.) Instead, the main quest seemed to quickly devolve into one of...close this Oblivion gate, then close that oblivion gate, then close another oblivion gate...
Perhaps it is for that reason that I am one of those who have played Oblivion far fewer times than Morrowind but a couple months ago I discovered that I was completely wrong in consigning Oblivion to the "occasional play" category. I had totally missed something significant and, ironically, it was Morrowind that set me straight.
After replaying Morrowind early this summer with a bunch of mods to improve and add to gameplay, I decided to revisit the state of mods for Oblivion. I was stunned at how much had been added in the couple years since I last looked at them. What really struck me was the wealth of content mods - not just UI, companions, appearance and armor/weapons.
And that led to a fascinating question - Could you get hours of RPG fun out of Oblivion without ever doing a single guild quest or main line quest? How much fun could you have if you never closed an Oblivion gate? Could I benefit from the Oblivion engine but try to get Dragon Age content?
Much to my surprise - and just scratching the surface with seven RPG/Quest mods selected out of literally hundreds - the answer is "yes". With just the mods I discuss below, I estimate you could easily get two or three times the hours out of Oblivion than by just playing the vanilla game.
The Exceptional Six (Plus One)
After looking through literally dozens of "adventure" mods I selected seven to include in my gameplay. Six were user-developed mods. One, added just to use as a baseline comparison, was the Knights of the Nine DLC.
All of these mods are available on multiple sites and some have grown to the point where they have their own websites. All the download sources are excellent. I tend to use TESNexus because of two reasons: it is easy sort through the mods and read all the user comments so I can weed out the ones with problems and TESNexus tracks for me the version I downloaded and makes it easy to find when a newer version has been released. Several readers have commented that Planet Elderscrolls also has a good compendium of mods. (Note: four of the six reviewed mods are not currently found on PES. Conversely, I probably missed good mods that are only on PES.) Some of the standard "free" download sites also carry mods but usually with a much smaller selection, little or no user comment, and often without the latest version.
In the following piece, all the file names and authors are based on the TESNexus descriptions.
Vilja: Author, Emma and DCCooley
AFK_Weye: Author, Dwip
Viconia: Author, SultericDrums
Lost Spires: Author, Leo Gura
Hentai Mania: Author, Hentai
Abandoned Mountain Shack: Author, Vince Bly
Knights of the Nine: Official "for pay" DLC from Bethesda
The Additional Support Mods -- Briefly
Almost all of these mods require additional support mods. There are literally dozens of mods that I needed so that the above seven would run correctly. All such requirements are listed in the installation instructions for each mod. Here are some of the most important ones with a brief description.
DarnifiedUI: (Author: DarN) Major enhancements to the Oblivion UI and lets you customize a great deal. Even the default configuration is a huge improvement.
Apachii Goddess Store: (Author: Apachii) Simply, wow! The work and detail of this "store" in the docks region is amazing. There are at least 1000 armors, weapons, and outfits. Fully half of these are amazing quality and creativity. All are for female characters. (Note: I just discovered that there is also an Apachii Heroes Store for males I have not yet tried.) Several of the screens with this article show the caliber of outfits available.
Underdark: (Author: Underdark Development Team) This is required by the Viconia mod, but probably should have been listed with the above seven. It is an amazing work to recreate the Underdark feel from the Baldur's Gate series. It adds a large underground area to Oblivion. Several adventure mods already have been developed to use Underdark (Viconia is just one - there are four others I found that look very promising for a later try.) Based on the work that went into developing Underdark, I expect even more major new mods will evolve in the months ahead for it.
Body/Hair: Anytime you add a mod that includes a character (Vilja and Viconia, for example) the mod will specify additional mods required for the appearance of your characters. Some of the most commonly required ones are body replacers (HGEC, Female Eye Candy, Roberts, Mystic Elves, etc.) and hair replacers (Ren's, Moonshadow Elves, etc). I do not detail them here as the ones you install will be based on your preferences and the requirements of the major mod.
It is easy to forget that the primary goal of an RPG is to draw you into the story so that you are invested in it - you feel a part of it. To an RPGer, your imagination to picture what is going on still is far more important than thumb-speed to whack baddies faster. If you look at those "best RPG lists" that show up so often, you might notice one common denominator for them. All the best ones involve the player, capture you, and make it easy to picture the environment or quest in a way that makes you a part of the story.
A huge part of this potential "immersion" is the depth of the characters that are part of the story. Even years later there are NPCs that we remember - such as Kelghar, Vi Domina, Minsk, Viconia, Neeshka, and (perhaps, in time) Morrigan. Sadly, most others have faded away and are long forgotten.
And in the hundreds of characters I have enjoyed over decades of RPGs, Vilja is the first and only character that somehow became "real" - a "person" you can picture that becomes an integral part of the story. I can think of no higher praise an RPGer can give a character mod than to say it became as real as a game environment can allow. And it is for that reason that the Vilja mod for Oblivion is the best character mod I have ever enjoyed.
Technically, Vilja is "just" a companion. But that is sort of like saying a phoenix spouting fire and swooping down on a battlefield is "just" a bird. What separates Vilja from any other companion I have ever played - mod or part of an original RPG - is her fully-developed "personality."
Companion skills: Vilja is exceptionally well-designed. I especially appreciate being able to set Vilja to be non-essential (so she will die if you just sit back and expect her to do all the heavy lifting) and an attack setting that has her sit out and not assist you unless you are in deep trouble (you can also set her to be an indestructible attack force and have her slog into every battle if that is your preference). Inventory control, wait/guard, and "go home," and changing clothes depending on the situation (casual, armor, swimming, sleeping…) options are solid. Perhaps the one technical issue that will disqualify Vilja for some users is that she does not use magic other than self-heals.
Quests: Built into the Vilja mod is a minor quest that is a lot of fun. It evolves over time and involves saving her sister (back in Morrowind) by finding the components to a potion. Please realize this quest is not even in the same league as Viconia or Lost Spires (below) but it is engaging, fun, and a nice diversion as you attack the other major quests. And a couple of the side characters you will meet as part of Vilja quest are worth the price of admission all by themselves! (OMGoodness the author must have laughed as she developed and voiced outlandishly eccentric Heneri - the one with the green hair in the picture!)
Personality: If all that Vilja offered was the companion skills and the quest cited above, I would just call this a "good" character mod, but probably would have selected one of my old companion standbys like Clair or Raewyn. But it is "personality" that raises Vilja to the top. Vilja has nearly 3000 lines of original voice acting built into this character. Vilja chats with you as you adventure.
The voice acting is professional and consistent. For those of us who have conducted multiple-session voice recordings, you will recognize how difficult it is to have consistent intonation and timbre over even a couple days, let alone the weeks it would take to record 3000 lines of text. To put this into perspective, if single-spaced on a standard word processing page Vilja dialog would fill at least 60 pages of typing.
And what is most engaging about the chatting is that perhaps two-thirds is specific to the quest or area you are doing. She will remind you of promises you have made. She will comment on people you are passing. Yes, a chunk of the chatting is about generic things (such as her abnormal fascination with mudcrabs and secret desire to date Azzan in the Avril fighter's guild) but most is directly tied to the plot and to what you are thinking. You will soon be struck by the amount of research and thought that went into all this dialog. There is precious little "filler" here. I remember one time when I got a quest to look for something (Imp galls, perhaps?) and as I exited the house I was trying to remember where I might find them - when Vilja commented "Now where will we ever find those around here?" I laughed out loud as she mimicked what I was thinking. That is a tiny example of how the carefully thought-out commentary is tied to the specifics of the events you are undertaking.
Recommendation: Vilja is the first and only NPC I have discovered in years of RPG play that becomes someone you can picture and know. She becomes a person. Amazing. If you do not like the chatting, it can be reduced. If you need a magic user, she will not be the right companion. But if you are a true RPGer at heart, please give Vilja a try. This is an astounding mod in terms of development and effort.
Underdark - Viconia
In any list of characters RPGers will always remember, Viconia DeVries must be one. The enigmatic drow from Baldur's Gate is remembered by most of us a decade after "meeting" her.
The Viconia mod for Oblivion takes that image and idea and with remarkably accuracy moves it to Oblivion. Their work and detail that went into this mod is several times the content of Knights of the Nine or any comparable DLC I might use for comparison. I cannot think of a single "official" DLC for games like DA, Oblivion, ME or Fallout 3 that comes even close to Viconia in terms of content, length and challenge. Only mods like Lost Spires and AFK_Weye are at the same level.
You first meet Viconia in Bruma. She becomes a companion as you work on whatever quests you are doing. Slowly, your relationship grows as bit by bit she reveals more of her history and needs. It takes time for her to trust you at all, until finally you reach the point where you can elect one of two paths - be her friend or be her lover. At this point the quest line for her moves to the Underdark.
With one exception (noted below) this is an outstanding work. The plot line works well. The relationship growth seems natural and totally consistent with the mysterious drow from Baldur's Gate. Somehow the developers have captured the odd mix of aloofness, sensuality, mystery and angst that is Viconia. There is a good mix of quests, battles, interaction, and creativity.
While you meet her first in Bruma, and spend the first half of the adventure with her above ground, the second half is centered in the Underdark and requires that mod. Some of the most fun I have had with Oblivion were exploring the darkness of the Underdark with Viconia. There are few quest "markers" and so you really need to figure out a lot on your own. Viconia is a companion - but she is also a full quest line the equal of any mage/fighter guild quest line Oblivion can offer.
Viconia and Vilja share a great strength - the high quality of the voice acting. I believe that the first half of the quest used a professional voice actor - the same one used for Viconia in the original BG (I might be wrong on that - but I believe that was "confirmed" in a number of posts by the author). The second half was voiced by an "amateur." Yet, ironically, as good as the first half voice is, the second half is even better. Whoever they used has the sultry, somewhat edgy reserve that exactly fits Viconia. It does not match the extent of Vilja's 3000 lines, but is absolutely at the highest levels of professional quality.
One caveat though. While I expect it to improve, the Viconia quest is fragile. Sometimes, it is too fragile. By that, I mean that it is quite easy to break the quest and come to a dead end unless you either reload or use the command console to "fix" the sequence. I think this is changing as further revisions roll out. However, at the risk of being overly cautions, I would make two strong recommendations to you should you install Viconia. First is read the long list of warnings in the install readme file. It has many important warnings - including making sure you enter one specific entrance to the Underdark and tells about certain NPCs to avoid killing. The second is to suggest you do not enter the Underdark at all until Viconia specifically tells you to do so. I was excited to explore the Underdark, so took Viconia (and Vilja) there early to poke around. 10-15 gameplay hours later I ran into a dead end in the Viconia Quest because of something I had done days earlier. I had to start the game over.
Recommendation: This is a no-brainer - install and enjoy it! Be careful, and watch for the latest revs. The authors have created what should stay at the top of a "best" list of Oblivion mods for many years to come.
Lost Spires has earned the right to be the patriarch of all Oblivion mods. On TESNexus, alone, it has been downloaded more than 50,000 times before downloads were largely moved to its own website. Add the TESNexus activity to downloads from Lostspires.com and other sites, and I would not be surprised to find this mod is approaching 200,000 downloads. Even at half that number, and using the retail cost of Knights of the Nine as a baseline, Lost Spires has given away more than $1,000,000 in "DLC" to users around the world.
Compare Lost Spires to almost all recent commercial DLC and the difference is stunning. This totally free product that clearly took many man-months (or even man-years) of development would easily command a price tag comparable to a full game expansion if it was released commercially. One of the most disappointing trends in the past couple years has been the quality and price of commercial DLC. With all too few exceptions DLC has been grossly overpriced (compared to the original game) for a shallow, short addition.
Lost Spires in an excellent RPG/Adventure mod for Oblivion. The author has added a new guild to Cyrodiil - the Archeologist Guild. Like the Fighter's and Mage's guilds, there is a long series of quests involved once you become a member. The quests are well varied - ranging from investigating murders, to clearing out dungeons, to finding artifacts. There are many hours of gameplay involved. To put content into perspective, Lost Spires adds roughly the same level of content as the original fighter or mage guild quest lines.
But the best part is that Lost Spires does not lead you by the nose. Clues and prompts are often vague. You have to suss it out on your own. As one example (slight spoiler follows) a quest has you go to meet someone and you find that person dead in a burned-out house. So - what do you do now? There is no "take-your-hand" guidance. A guard is blocking entry to the area. Your quest log does not change and give you a hint. There is no cheat guide available. I really like that. It forced me to go in RPG mode and figure out what I would do if I were actually there.
That vagueness can be frustrating, at times, though. My own biggest problem with Lost Spires came in one of the first quests. I was told to go clear out a cave and find a secret passage while not touching any artifacts I found. I did that - and no update. I went back to the quest NPC and was told I still needed to clear out the area. I went back and searched every passage for a mob I had missed - none. I even set Vilja to "attack anything" because Oblivion companions set to attack act like bird dogs - they draw weapons and stare through the walls if a mob is anywhere near. Still nothing. Back to the quest NPC - still not done. Finally, on a hunch (I saved first in case I was wrong) I went back and this time picked up an odd looking crystal that I had avoided before (remember - I was told to not touch any artifacts). Instant quest update. The scripting was slightly different than the quest NPC's instructions.
As with Vilja and Viconia, this is a no-brainer to try. It is an outstanding and well-designed mod.
This mod was the sleeper of the group. I cannot recall what it was in reading through the description or user comments that hooked me into trying it. But it was a great choice. AFK_Weye is nearly at the same level as Lost Spires and Viconia in terms of content, quality and challenge.
The basic concept is simple - as you exit the capital, you might notice one small change to Weye compared to earlier playthroughs - there is a large mansion NW of the inn. Other than that, you might not even realize there is a major questing opportunity here. However, if you happen to interact with any of the people wandering around Weye it will trigger the start of a long series of quests.
You start by helping villagers. There are rescues, kill the rats (wolves), major cave clear-out battles, find items, duel the baddie, etc. All the quests combined take many hours of gameplay to complete. As you proceed, you end up taking over the mansion as your own home. Additional people are drawn to join your service. The village grows. It is a tad like the NWN2 Crossroads Keep concept in that a series of quests result in your village growing and prospering.
Another no-brainer to try!
I need to admit my naiveté in that I had no idea what the term Hentai meant until I researched this mod. The research sent me to some sites I wish I had never discovered. However, for those already more knowledgeable about the term than I was, I have to emphasize up-front that this mod has nothing to do with the mainstream use of the term Hentai. The only overlap with the Hentai concept is that your adversaries in this mod all look like innocent, harmless, young Japanese schoolgirls. But trust me - when you start to battle them, they are about as harmless as Hurricane Katrina.
(Note: Since writing this piece a new version of Hentai Mania has been released that adds a quest line. I have not yet tried V2.)
The mobs in Hentai Mania drop two items other than the keys. Some drop equipment that improves as you move up in dungeon levels. The equipment is reasonably scaled, by the way - it is nice to see that no "god items" fall. The best drops seem to be rings and amulets rather than super weapons and armor. The second drop is runes that you use in a Horadric Cube. Yes - the same Horadric cube we all remember from Diablo 2. Even the runes have the same names as Diablo 2 (the cube is a rare drop, much like the keys). Combinations of runes in the cube let you create the best items.
But it is not the drops that make this mod fun - it is the battles. These are the toughest fights you will ever face in Oblivion. One enemy is tough. Two can be beaten if you are at the top of your game and use every trick you know. Anyone who claims they can beat three at once either cheated, was equipped in god armor, sent in "essential" companions, or lies! I could beat two only if I was extremely careful to concentrate on one at a time and keep moving to try to keep the one I was fighting between me and the other. I was never able to beat three at once.
However - you usually get three or more! Sometimes you can get 5-6 at a time. So tactics are the key here. You need to carefully move in and try to pull 1-2 away from the crowd. You need to try to run away far enough to split them and be left with just 1-2. Forget about sending a non-essential companion in - they will die quickly.
You see, these "innocent schoolgirls" are tough! They slash and double strike and parry better than any AI I have seen in the game. If you want to picture a typical fight - please do this. Close your eyes … imagine you are a piece of celery … grab a toothpick as a weapon … now drop yourself into a blender and set the blades to high. That is about the feeling when a couple of these "harmless innocents" move in with blades whirling. And these girls can trash talk at the level of any schoolyard pickup basketball game! "Have you ever seeing anything that looks this good, be this bad?" "If you touch me again I will cut out your heart."
As a bonus, the mod includes two "secret" ruins to explore. I only found one of them so far. It was an amazing challenge. The front end was a normal large shrine filled with the schoolgirls. Next you find a maze that has you pulling out your hair to find the path through. Now you enter a puzzle area where finding the needed switches takes careful searching while fighting even more of the girls. Finally you exit into a secret area with a massive cathedral filled with more mobs than anyone can handle without superb play and lots of reloads.
Hentai Mania adds a level of battle challenges that is tougher than anything I have yet seen in Oblivion. It is not an RPG or quest or adventure - but is more like the Diablo 2 dungeons that obviously inspired part of the idea. Install it and have a ball!
Abandoned Mountain Shack
Okay - this is a tiny mod and will take up perhaps an hour of your time. But it is something anyone should at least try. What attracted me is that the concept is relatively unique. It is highly creative. It is fun. It is a small puzzle that has few, if any, clues. When done you will have another home that can be the target of a fast travel for rest and recovery. It can be the home base for a companion. Your abandoned shack will not even be in the same league with all the other great home mods. It does not hold a candle to the mansion in Weye, or Frostcrag. But you will still like it a lot.
The idea is simple. When you first discover it, the shack is a wreck. Everything is filthy and broken. It is up to you to find the items to fix things up. Some of the fix-up is obvious - like clicking on spider webs or weeds to clear them away. Others take more effort - like finding the items needed to repair a hole in the floor. Anything you need to "fix" is set up as a container. To invent an example (so as to not have a spoiler) you might need to repair a ripped cloak by "opening" it and inserting a needle, a roll of thread, and a patch of cloth.
Simple, fun and makes the point about mods that we all appreciate. There are creative people out there that find unique things to add to games we like. I always expect (and rather get bored by) the endless armor and weapons mods. But there are people out there that choose to just change the way trees look, or the shape of potion bottles, or what sounds you hear when passing a lake.
And there are creative people who envision and build something like the Abandoned Mountain Shack. I think you will enjoy this small mod.
Knights of the Nine
I am not going to "review" KotN … I just played it again to have a baseline to compare the "largest" commercial Oblivion mod with the best of the independent modders (I am actually in the minority of people who enjoyed Knights).
But I was truly surprised when I made the comparison. Vilja, Hentai, Viconia, Spires and Weye all blow KotN away in terms of value, content, challenge, and scope. If KotN was worth $US 10 to purchase, then the above mods were worth double or triple that amount, each. The other "official" DLCs for Oblivion (Frostcrag, Orrery, etc.) are barely at the level of the Abandoned Shack.
The Bottom Line
When Dhruin introduced my piece on Morrowind last month I was at first taken aback when he referred to it as a "… love letter to the mod community." Huh? But then I thought about it and realized he was right. Just the mods l list above would easily command $100-plus were I to buy them from a commercial source but I was able to enjoy them for free A handful of authors invested months, even years, of their time to deliver to me content better than Bethesda offered for Oblivion. They did so with passion and creativity that stuns me.
Oblivion was a disappointment. But Oblivion with these mods is exceptional. Please try them, and enjoy! Best of all, even if you personally hate these mods, there are hundreds more waiting for you to try.
Information aboutElder Scrolls IV: Oblivion
Developer: Bethesda Softworks
Play-time: Over 60 hours
Regions & platforms
· Platform: Xbox 360
· Released at 2006-03-24
· Publisher: 2K Games
· Platform: PS3
· Released at 2006-03-24
· Publisher: 2K Games
· Platform: PS3
· Released at 2007-03-20
· Publisher: 2K Games