Saturday, November 27, 2010

Oblivion Mod Review - Dwemer Skyship

Mod Review - Dwemer Skyship
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Overall: Simple mod, interesting to try. Very interesting "parachute" item.

Why You Would Download This: The parachute.

Although this is an old mod, it's still a very good one. It essentially works, and is very innovative.

This mod has a very basic/token quest to acquire control of a "Dwemer Skyship" -- basically a static ship that floats and has a big balloon like a zepplin. The original mod did not give the ability to actually pilot the ship, but you could have it basically teleport to you (but high up in the sky), and a separate spell lets you teleport inside.

There would be little more than the novelty of a skyship home -- and you can see a number of interior and exterior screenshots of the Dwemer Skyship at The Fantasy Art of Computer Games -- except the skyship also comes with a parachute that really works like a parachute. You equip this light item in the cuirass equipment slot, and it opens automatically when falling.
If you like long drops, like leaping off Frostcrag Spire or Dive Rock, then you have to get this parachute!

We have a little demo clip here. In the clip, the parachute twists in third person view because we also use Colourwheel's Sexy Imperial Legion, which gives a sexy/alluring static animation to all female characters when they are idle -- If you use the same mod, be prepared for this to happen. This does not happen in first person view.

Notice that while the parachute is slowing down the fall, the character can still maneuver left/right, thus moving like a slow glider instead of simply falling straight down.

A newer add-on, Dwemer Skyship v2, apparently fixes the "fire support" of the Dwemer Skyship and allows actual piloting of the ship. If you are keen on using this a lot, this is worth checking out.

Oblivion Mod Review - Verona House Bloodlines

Mod Review - Verona House Bloodlines v12.0
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Overall: Good back-story, okay quest, essentially works fine (but see warning in our review below). Verona Bay is FPS intensive. 2008 house mod that could use some internal updates to things that COBL does much better. Some uber items.

Why You Would Download This: The story/quest. Some uber items.

First, the good stuff in this mod: There's a detailed back story, and over the course of the quest, more of it is revealed to you and you can slowly piece it together. It isn't an epic story, but it is seen through to the very end, with a tidy happy-ending wrap-up after you defeat the boss.

The mod comes with the quaint village of Verona Bay, which would be better if it weren't so FPS intensive as an exterior location. Nevertheless, the layouts, both exterior and building interiors, are nice. The Fantasy Art of Computer Games has several screenshots of Verona Bay.

The quest pits you against a vampire cult. They are small potatoes compared to the Mythic Dawn, and not very challenging overall even if you go solo and decline all the helpful companions. The early quests are quite interesting for the variety of tasks you need to accomplish, and this part is definitely worthwhile playing through.
Later on, the quests become more or less your standard go-there-kill-everything in deep dungeons and starts to drag. The final boss is disappointingly easy, and after a build-up in the back-story bits about him being very charismatic in a Dark Jedi evil-emperor way, it is also disappointing that you don't get to talk to him before he attacks you.

The bad part of the mod is in the scripting. Overall, the mod does work flawlessly, IF you follow EXACTLY what you are told to do as a next step. If not, there is no contingency scripting and you will be stuck until you "follow the numbers" exactly.


Example: At some point you will encounter Berra Gaunt. You find out she was an importer/exporter for an Imperial City company, Hackblett and Gaunt. You are not asked to investigate her Imperial City company offices, but if you take that initiative, you can find out that her partner, Hackblett, is having an affair with a woman while supposedly bethrothed to a foreign duchess.
There's nothing you can do about that right now, which is fine.

Later however, you are tasked to get some dirt on Hackblett in order to extract information from him. You already know about his affair, and maybe have stole the appropriate letters from the duchess, and have enough to at least further your investigation. However, the mod will not recognize any of this. You will actually need to go back into the office and again witness Hackblett and his mistress sleeping together before the mod will give you a quest update.

This sort of follow-exactly-along can cause you to get stuck in the mod if you are skipping ahead in what seems to be a reasonable way.

Again, I must stress that the mod does work flawlessly otherwise. It is version 12 and a lot of bugs have been stamped out. Scripting to cover contingencies can be very time-consuming, which is why Bethesda uses a lot of "requires a key" type doors and makes people un-killable ("essential") in Oblivion in order to prevent you from interacting with places and people and things before critical quests are completed. This is a simple type of contingency scripting, but one which comes across as generally artificial.

In the case of Hackblett, one way to do it might be to lock the Imperial City office and have a note saying that Hackblett is overseas. Then unlock the door and add Hackblett and his mistress later on, with the excuse that he's recently back.
But this is all additional scripting that a modder might not want to have to do and test, especially for an already large mod.

In 2008 the various sorters for alchemy and scrolls may have been innovative and interesting, but COBL came along with superior sorters that weren't reliant on having a container for specific items. For example, it will handle ingredients from any mod, instead of just official Oblivion and Shivering Isles ingredients.

Because of this, the house you get at the end of the quest is essentially just a house with place to store stuff. While it is an extensive house with a lot of storage, for the ingredient and potion sorters, you may want to pick up COBL and either Basement for COBL or Portable Sorters.

Of note is Harold the Steward, who can give you reminders about your duties to various Guilds, such as whether as Listener of the Dark Brotherhood you are due for a check-in with the statue in Bravil.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Oblivion Mod Review - Mystery of Mausoleum

Mod Review - Mystery of Mausoleum
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Overall: All-new graphics makes for a fresh visual experience -- The Fantasy Art of Computer Games has a gallery of extensive screenshots of this mod. Horrible quest design wastes a lot of time. Can't use HDR.

Why You Would Download This: You want cool armor and weapons.

Mystery of Mausoleum introduces strongly Chinese-fantasy themed arms, armor, and architecture into vanilla Oblivion. All of it is contained in a few indoor and outdoor locations, and is unlikely to conflict with anything else.

If you are bent on using the HDR video option in Oblivion, you will probably not want to use this mod, or will have to experiment to see which pieces of armor you can use without getting a "black screen error" -- where the world suddenly stops rendering and all you get is a black screen plus your menu interfaces.
You can switch to the Bloom option and things will be fine (at least that was the workaround that worked for us), but Bloom can give a different look (especially for some types of walls and funiture), and you may not like it if you are used to HDR.

The English walkthrough discloses all the issues with the quests and the sidequests, and frankly, they are so ridiculous that one wonders why the mod was released with these issues -- like having to keep checking Rumours until a sidequest turns up.
Some of the so-called sidequests are not sidequests at all, but practically necessary to proceed with the main quest. For example, near the final area is a lake where being even close to the lake (while still being on shore) will inflict 100 Health points of poison damage per second. Having 100% Resist Poison will not help, either, for unclear reasons. An obscure sidequest is necessary to get the antidote for this. Or, you could cheat and use the console command TGM (Toggle God Mode).

Combined with adolescent entries for "Rumours", such as so-and-so modder being sexy and other time-wasting rubbish, the entire mod is irritating and an utter waste of time if not for the excellent suits of armor that can be obtained. Such entries, plus the sometimes over-the-top fan service (such as the melon-chested Elemental Servants in super-skimpy armor) simply reinforce the negative stereotype of Asian gamers being a lot of porn-obsessed geeks.

On the subject of the Elemental Servants, they cause Savegame Bloating more or less as soon as you load a game with this mod, even if you haven't played any part of the mod. You can remove this bloat with Wyre Bash.

If you just want the cool gear, you might as well save yourself frustration and console them in. For extensive screenshots of the gear, architecture, and monsters introduced by this mod, we recommend The Fantasy Art of Computer Games. Here are just two of the hundreds of screenshots available:

Ethereal Hierarch 02

ChiLian Armor 09

If you insist on doing the token quest in Mystery of Mausoleum, here are some uses of the console and other tips that can help you move along in it:

  • Speak with Chun Xiao and Sister Feng for the side quests. As mentioned in the official walkthrough, these are randomly available through the "Rumours", which refresh once a day. To force rumors to refresh in a character, you can select them while the console is open, and then use the "resurrect" command.
  • After you kill the Jade Banshee for the ingredient it drops, you can use "resurrect" on it to force it to immediately respawn so you can kill it five times for the item you need.
  • For the quest to take the beggar villager around the IC, there are no quest markers indicating where you need to go, so you could possibly wander around forever and not find the five places you need to take her. You can skip this quest by using the console to advance the quest to stage 38: "setstage aaaMomMainQuest01 38", but you will miss out on the armour she gives you. Use Wrye Bash to find the FormID and console in the armour if you like. It is the ChiLian Armor.
  • There are three cells in the maze in the Temple of King You where there is armor or weapons to be found in little chests, but there is no guarantee you can enter those cells. The maze, however, is laid out in a 6x6 grid, with the upper left corner being cell aaamazex1y1 (you can get there with command "coc aaamazex1y1". You enter at aaamazex4y6. The exit is the north door in aaamazex3y1.
  • The Cerberus Armor in the poisonous lake obscures a large part of the screen in first person and when using a bow. If you use a bow frequently, you may wish to take this into account when choosing which armor you want to use.
  • When you are fighting the final boss, try to have your back to the moat. The boss likes to move backwards and cast spells, which means he often ends up in the water if he's between you and the moat. He has high speed and a big body model, so he can get out easily, but you can't. There are two teleporters underwater, but they didn't work for us, so if you enter the water, you might be stuck.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Oblivion Mod Review - The Lost Spires

Mod Review - The Lost Spires (v1.4)
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Overall: All-new graphics makes for a fresh visual experience that enhances a simple but well-told story. The Fantasy Art of Computer Games has a gallery of extensive screenshots of this mod.

Why You Would Download This: You want a problem-free story and quest mod that works and gives you a good story experience for your time investment. A fresh visual experience that is not too out of place in Oblivion. Collectable and useful items that make the mod worthwhile to keep in your mod load order.

Probably the first thing that will attract your attention to The Lost Spires is the new artwork, and that will not fail to disappoint. As you progress through The Lost Spires, you will see more of it, either in architecture or items, and that keeps the experience fresh. There are all new graphics and full voiceovers, which already sets it ahead of the vast majority of mods out there.

Without giving too much away, the story in The Lost Spires is essentially a simple one, but the overall pace and structure is nicely told. From just the visual experience of some early encounters you can guess that ultimately you will uncover some ancient evil and from just general expectation you will expect a showdown -- and this is essentially how it plays out.
You may ultimately not find this not particularly interesting after you've played it, but the experience in between is what counts. There are interesting plot twists; and the various quests all come together so that there aren't any superfluous quests, and loose ends are tied up. (Although there are a couple of optional non-journal side-trips like the Malevolent Zinj and The Soothsayer which aren't tied in).
It isn't the overarching story that shines in The Lost Spires -- as said, the concept is very simple and predictable -- it's the journey that is interesting and exciting.

On the official Lost Spires site, the mod is said to have taken an estimated 1500 hours plus post-release maintenance, making it a very large project for comparatively little story.
What bugs exist are typically obscure and the official site does list various workarounds, but you will probably find that the mod will essentially work flawlessly. There are a few common contingencies that are not covered, but these are generally minor, and you may well not encounter them yourself.
The Lost Spires proves that OBSE (Oblivion Script Extender) and clever scripting aren't necessary for a great mod that delivers a story well told and a great gameplay experience.

For example, it is possible to find the tomb of Aeon IV in the Lost Labyrinth well before you are quested to do so, and if you bring the souvenir to the archaeologist who is interested in the legend of Aeon IV, there will be no response whatsover.
However, if you install the mod and play it right away, this will be a non-issue if you simply follow the (linear) story.
The most common workaround is, of course, to lock an area with "requires a key", but as exploring these areas beforehand is harmless, this is not strictly necessary.

A few typos and possible oversights (e.g., gigantic crabs still yield only one unit of crab meat -- why?) continue to exist, but they do not affect the playability of the mod.

In addition to a worthwhile story to play through, plus key encounters that are quite challenging (depending on your gear and your willingness to cheese), one of the excellent qualities of The Lost Spires is in the usefulness of the items you can get. These aren't overpowered like many mods are tempted to do, but instead aim for sheer usefulness.

For example, The Lost Spires is so far the only mod we have seen that "dares" to use Weakness to Magic in weapons. A weapon that features the magic stacking power of Weakness to Magic can trivialize many encounters, even against creatures with thousands of Health points. Because The Lost Spires can (at a mid to high level) present you with the same (e.g., In the Primeval Hollow), and at high levels you can encounter a similar situation elsewhere (e.g., if you play Martigen's Monster Mod at level 50+), a magic stacking weapon is probably your best chance of getting through these encounters in a reasonable amount of time.
We therefore feel that it is appropriate for The Lost Spires to give you such a mid- to high-level weapon for a mid- to high-level mod. The weapons are themselves not truly optimized so you can still make better ones on your own, but still useful enough that you don't have to and can enjoy wielding their unique models if you prefer.

Other treasures address some of the shortcomings in vanilla Oblivion, such as spellmaking and item enchanting away from the Arcane University. If you have a spell system overhaul like Supreme Magicka, you can have the equivalent in a spell, which makes it not as interesting. But if you don't, then The Lost Spires gives you such handy things, as well as a way to get Varla and Welkynd Stones (which, in vanilla Oblivion, are finite and non-respawning).

Still other treasures have no function in themselves, but cater to collectors and characters who like to decorate their lairs. In short, The Lost Spires has something for everyone in terms of not just loot, but loot that is worth keeping the mod in your load order even after you have finished the storyline.

Here are our own tips for The Lost Spires:
  • Focus on playing the mod through from start to finish. There's very little wait time in between quests, and you can even use teleportation spells (such as SN Mark and Recall). The treasures you get are not overpowered, and useful throughout the rest of your Oblivion play experience.
  • Use the third person view to help you see falling objects. In the later warlock fights and the final fight, falling blocks are scripted to magically appear and fall over you no matter where you are.
  • Get Azura's Star for your magic-stacking weapon. Every Mages Guild has a spell with Soul Trap as an effect.
  • Lord Pratal can be bypassed with invisibility. You do not need to kill him, and you can't loot his body anyway.
  • Pick up rewards from guild members -- especially Teav (hint hint) -- as soon as they become available. You need to use the dialogue topic "Reward" with the quest giver in order to get the key.
  • Feed the Zinj diamonds and pearls (other jewels are acceptable, however). You need to grab the jewel and move it into its mouth. It will drop into the Zinj and disappear with a "swallowing sound". You won't get any feedback until you give it enough jewels.
  • If you plan on keeping The Lost Spires in your load order and using the Archaeology Guild as your base, you may want the third-party AI add-on to further flesh out the characters. This mod gives the various NPCs a schedule so they eat, read, sleep, etcetera.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Oblivion mod review - Return of Shadows part I v1.05 - v1.07

Mod Review - Return of Shadows Part I
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Overall: Needs a lot of debugging. Don't waste your time.

Why You Would Download This: You like a lot of running around, killing things, and getting poisoned excessively.

Warnings: It makes a pervasive change to the levelled lists for poisons that is incredibly stupid.

First, the warning: Once you install this mod, you may start to see poisons like the following on any creature that carries poisons. So, if you are a new character just emerged from the Tutorial sewers, in your first bandit or goblin encounter you may be hit by one or more of the following poisons.

  • Hemlock
    • Paralyze 1 second
    • Damage Fatigue 300 points for 4 seconds
      • In Oblivion, having a negative Fatigue is more or less like being Paralyzed; and Fatigue is recovered at a flat rate of 10 per second, not modified by any attributes
    • Drain Fatigue 20 points for 15 seconds
    • Frost Damage 2 points for 300 seconds
  • Hellebore
    • Drain Blade 30 points for 30 seconds
    • Damage Strength 3 points for 40 seconds
    • Weakness to Normal Weapons 30% for 30 seconds
    • Damage Endurance 10 points for 100 seconds
    • Drain Blunt 30 points for 30 seconds
    • Shock Damage 1 point for 400 seconds
  • Deadly Nightshade
    • Drain Acrobatics 100 points for 60 seconds
    • Damage Health 15 points for 60 seconds
      • It normally takes Master-level Alchemy and Shiverings Isles ingredients to make a three-damage-type poison that can do ~900 damage.
    • Weakness to Normal Weapons 20% for 20 seconds
    • Damage Luck 3 points for 60 seconds
    • Burden 40 points for 20 seconds
  • Daedra's Essence
    • Damage Magicka 45 points for 3 seconds
    • Damage Endurance 60 points for 1 second
      • Especially if you use a levelling mod that calculates your maximum Health on the fly and base it on Endurance, this can instant-kill your character.
    • Drain Health 40 points for 1 second
  • Burn Blood
    • Fire Damage 1 point for 20 seconds
    • Disintegrate Weapon 100 points for 2 seconds
      • This results in a bug where you have a Disintegrate Weapon effect permanently on your character, but which does nothing.
    • Burning Blood for 20 seconds
Not all the poisons are of the same immediacy and lethality, but all the new poisons are grossly more powerful than what is typical in Oblivion. Whether you feel the pre-defined poisons in Oblivion are underpowered or not, it still remains that the rest of the game world and probably all other mods are counting on those poisons to be at that level. The introduction of these poisons into the levelled lists can throw off intended results everywhere else.

For example, as the poisons can show on the commonly occurring goblins and bandits, it fundamentally changes very common encounters in a very skewed way, imposing a certain style of gameplay just to survive. If you're not an Argonian or regularly carry Resist Poison and Cure Poison potions (spellcasting is probably too slow for many of these special potions), then most encounters have the potential to be life-or-death, or sudden-death (since archers controlled by the AI more or less never miss as the AI can calculate and account for arching shots or moving targets).

Further factor in the possibility that you might be using a very popular mod such as Martigen's Monster Mod, which can double or triple (or more) monster spawns. Normally not a big deal, but with these over-the-top poisons, suddenly a lot of common encounters become irritating for over-equipped characters, and stupidly impossible for more moderate ones.

The mod authors stand by their decision to put in the poison based on the logic in this mod, but stubbornly refuse to recognize the wider impact it has on the world of Oblivion. It would have been a simple matter to not insert these poisons into the levelled lists, or possibly level them properly, but because they didn't, we recommend that this mod be deleted after play -- if you choose to put up with this change and play it in the first place.

An alternative is to open up the mod with the Construction Set (you need to open the Construction Set with OBSE injected) and edit the script that inserts them into the levelled lists. We tried this and it was enough to simply delete the lines that add it to NPCs.

This mod needs a lot more debugging
There are some mods that receive a lot of positive endorsements at Tesnexus that are wholly undeserved, such as Tears of the Fiend, where the author admits to making some entirely unfathomable and ludicrous choices, such as requiring you to click quickly through dialogue without reading it.

This mod is yet another on Tesnexus which convinces me that the endorsement system is really utterly rubbish and unreliable.

From as far back as v1.05, this mod has had mod-stopping bugs, and yet continues to get good reviews. Some people chance on workarounds and manage to continue, but why certain things weren't reported and fixed until 1.05 makes the whole endorsement system highly suspicious.

For example, the very first thing that happens is Da'Cryon Mesho runs up to you, engages you in meaningless dialogue, then tries to kill you. This starts the mod. The author off-hand dismisses comments and reports by asking players to install OBSE, which is all the more arrogant and irritating because the player already has that installed.
In v1.05, which is quite late as patches and updates go especially for an event that starts a mod, Da'Cryon can show up in the Tutorial sewer and help you kill goblins before trying to kill you -- or he can simply not show up at all. He can appear when you wake up from sleeping and try to kill you without dialogue -- only he can't be killed to further activate the mod, because he is still set to Essential and therefore not-killable. Or, he can be sidetracked into attacking guards in the Imperial City, who can't kill him because he is still Essential, and you can't talk to him because as soon as he wakes up, he either charges a guard or a guard charges him. Or, he can suddenly disengage and go chat with locals.

Finally it appeared these problems were fixed in 1.06, but then the very next quest continued to be bugged.
You are tasked to kill Strongwolf. How it is "supposed" to work is that your attacks cause Strongwolf to cast a spell on you that sends you to a private arena. You start very high up and are dropped (safely) down into the arena. Cinematic and interesting, except once you got teleported, you didn't drop down. Very few people noticed this and reported it (myself included), even though it broke the mod and forced you to reload your game unless you were inclined to use the Console to move yourself down into the arena.
Yet somehow, even prior to 1.06, the mod had gotten a lot of endorsements. How? Why?
The workaround was to kill him before he could complete the spell, and that still works up to v1.07.

Silly delays like this meant we didn't progress past Strongwolf until 1.07, and very serious bugs or oversights continued.

One minor quest available is to find the "Cave of Wonders" for Ethin. Very quickly you realize it is a wild goose chase, but the quest can't be closed. I've had my character go all the way to and beyond the north-western border and return to report, but he keeps saying the same thing. I notice he isn't set to Essential, so I kill him (since I'm surrounded by psychotic idiots anyway). Still no quest update. Typically killing the quest-giver closes the quest, but not so here.
Further, everyone talks about how there should be no killing in the base lest your life is forfeit. Well, no one batted an eye when I killed him in sight of witnesses.

The next main quest after Strongwolf is to find Creal. Once you get the lead to go to Skingrad (after interminable running around trying to find everyone in the convoluted base, or trying to find a squire to help you find them), you end up in a room and can pick up a note for the next stage.
Here, the script is incredibly buggy and I had to reload about 5 times before I could get unstuck.

Once you pick up the note, your character is frozen and a winged person named Ryuk blathers what sounds like nonsense to you. Some dancing lights with about 9000 Health (yes, 9000 Health) also appear, and trigger combat with you. Ryuk runs off to cast spells at them while they wander around generally being punching bags.
Meanwhile, you are still frozen. And a Dragon Knight (a new type of guardsman introduced by this mod to all the cities) appears and starts attacking you. You can access your inventory to change gear, drink potions, etcetera, but you are otherwise frozen and cannot block, cast spells, attack, or even turn around (but you can switch between first and third person views).
If you don't have Damage Reflection and healing potions, you're dead -- and the probability of you having enough Damage Reflection and healing potions to outlast a guard attack is unlikely unless you normally carry around an excess of gear. If you do survive and the Dragon Knight kills herself, there's still a good chance you will need to reload because you are not unfrozen.

After several reloads, my character is unfrozen after the Dragon Knight kills herself from my Damage Reflection. Ryuk is still floating about trying to kill the dancing lights so I help him (with a perfectly legit weapon that has a combination of magic damage and Weakness to Magic; otherwise, this would take forever).

When they are all dead puddles on the ground, Ryuk talks to me and mentions Mirage and wanting apples.
I pull out some apples and talk to him. No, he doesn't take them.

I sneak out of Skingrad to avoid guards (I somehow got a 1000 bounty even though the Dragon Knight attacked me unprovoked), pay off my bounty with Armand Christophe, and go back to Mirage to ask her about Ryuk.
There is no dialogue about him. Instead, there is a chain of dialogue that starts with her being upset that I am talking to her without having completed my task, but concludes with her happy that I have completed my task.
I check my journal -- No quest update.

Was something bugged somewhere during the sequence where I had to reload a half dozen times? I don't know, and I don't care anymore.
Honestly, I have given this mod way more chances than any other mod seeing as it had (as of September 21/2010) 160 endorsements, but enough is enough. A mod this buggy is utter rubbish and needs a lot more work before anyone can properly enjoy whatever story there is -- assuming the story is actually worthwhile playing through, which is hard to tell at this point.

As for Tesnexus, take all endorsement counts with a large dose of salt, since they are likely to be rubbish as well. Read the comments and ignore anything that does not have a specific reason for endorsement or criticism.

Side Note: If you are getting sudden blackscreens from seeing Mirage, try removing her Greaves via console (find the ID using RefScope and then use the removeitem command) or just editing it out in the Construction Set.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Oblivion Mod Review - Realistic Leveling v1.13

Mod Review - Realistic Leveling (v1.13)
Requires Oblivion Script Extender.

Overall:Takes over skill and attribute leveling in an intuitive way. Many options for customizing. Uses in-game resources (Global Settings that already exist in vanilla Oblivion) to control many aspects, resulting in very little scripting load.

Why You Would Download This: To stop worrying about levelling efficiently and just get on with playing the game.

This review is separated into four parts: Introduction, Warnings, Features, and Static Oblivion Experience.


In many ways, Realistic Leveling is one of the most intuitive and least complicated levelling mods. The core of it is very simple: Skills control attribute gains. When all skills related to an attribute are at 100, that attribute reaches a cap that you decide (typically 100).
This is essentially the only author-controlled aspect that you need to worry about, and it replaces how attributes are gained in Oblivion. If you don't like how this part works, and you can't tweak it with the settings in the INI file, then this mod isn't for you.


Because Global Settings are changed, and changes to Global Settings are not permanent within any savegame, Realistic Levelling must re-set them every time a game is loaded. There are consequences to this which we will detail as we examine various features, but for the moment, probably the most important things you need to know are:
  • Do not save while your character is in motion. Athletics and Sneak increase when you are moving, and Acrobatics can increase when you jump and land. If you gain experience in these skills before Realistic Levelling changes the necessary Global Settings, you may gain more experience than you mean to, and abruptly gain skill levels.
  • Do not immediately take any action when you load a savegame. You should wait about 1-2 seconds if possible to let background scripts -- including Realistic Leveling -- finish running, for the same reason as above.
EDIT (July 14/2011): Per mod author's notes in the Comments -- "Thanks for the very informative and flattering review of my mod :-) Note that the warning about unexpected skill advances from actions on loading savegames only applies if you have changed skill advancement game settings. The default RL settings if you install with OBMM do not change any skill advancement settings, and will thus not have this problem. Only if you edit the settings manually and change the advanced skill experience settings as you describe that you risk experiencing this problem. Also, this problem will probably affect any mod that changes skill advancement settings from a *.ini config file, including progress."

You can probably use Realistic Levelling straight out of the box, but there are some features you may wish to consider:

Maximum Level
The recommendations for a character who has brought all 21 skills to 100 is a level of 65 and attributes of 100. The maximum possible level under vanilla Oblivion is closer to between 45 and 53, and mods like Martigens Monster Mod claims to have challenging monsters for characters level 40+.

Something you can do here is deliberately increase this amount to x2 or even x5 of the calculated amount. The concept of "level" in Oblivion is actually a very vague one, as a character with major skills in Security and Persuasion may have inadvertantly reached a high level (and triggered correspondingly high combat challenges in the world around them) without having increased their odds of combat survival. The use of Fast Travel will avoid unnecessary fights, but there will still be quests that require quite a lot of combat.

Conversely, once you start using Realistic Leveling and are no longer concerned with which skills level at what time, you may find that a combat-intensive style of play causes you to increase in combat ability a lot faster than the levelled creatures around you.
What you can then do is artificially increase the levelMax setting in the INI file by a factor of x2 to x5 or even more. You might have a calculated level of 10 but the resources of a level 50 character (through efficient magic or inventory cheats). Now you can also have the increased challenge by artificially assigning your character a level of 50.

With RealisticLeveling, unless you use leveling mode 4 (Sleep levelup) or 0 (don't change anything), you cannot simply use the console command "setlevel" since this mod will periodically recalculate your stats and reset your level.

If you do increase this, remember to slow your Health down to your "actual" level by the inverse factor. So, if you used approximately a x4 factor and set levelMax to about 200, you will want to consider changing fStatsHealthLevelMult from the default of 0.1 to 0.025.

Calculated Health
Realistic Leveling uses the average of your base Endurance and your current Endurance (increased by skill level gains) to calculate your Health. Try a default factor of 0.125 to simulate using current Endurance.

Skill Experience Gain

Some mods like Francesco's directly change the per-use experience. Realistic Leveling does not change individual skills, but instead makes global changes to all skills by using different Global Settings. This means it will stack as long as those mods don't change the same settings.

The easy way to slow down skill progression is to change fSkillUseFactor, as suggested in the INI. Basically, this means you learn less per skill use.

The other way under "Advanced Settings" may actually be a more intuitive way to do it. By increasing fSkillUseExp (normally 1.5), you make increasing skills harder as you get better. Vanilla Oblivion already does this, but you can magnify the effects.
The advantage of changing this setting is that it won't take forever to get to Apprentice level when your skill starts at 5 even if you do slow down your skill gains.
By increasing this setting from 1.5 to 2.0, It takes an additional 145% skill experience to move from skill 5 to 6, but +900% experience to move from 99 to 100. Overall, to get a skill from 5 to 100 will take +736% experience.
The slowdown factors (considering moving a skill from 5 to 100) are:

XP multiplefSkillUseExp

If you remember the earlier warning about not saving the game doing anything that might get you skill experience, or starting a loaded game using a skill, here's the reason: If you have changed the skill experience rate, Realistic Levelling needs to change the Global Setting first and the game needs to refresh that data. Before it gets a chance to do that, a skill might be sitting at over 100% experience necessary to gain a level, and any skill gain will trigger a skill level up. Once that happens, Realistic Leveling no longer has the necessary information to de-level your skill.

Example: You have slowed your skill gain by a factor of 5 by using fSkillUseFactor, and at the time you saved your game, your Athletics skill was 50% to the next skill level.
When you load your game, if you look at your skills before Realistic Levelling has updated the Global Settings, it will show 250% to the next skill level. But the way Oblivion works, you will not immediately get a skill up -- the game only checks for that when you gain skill experience. Any gain in Athletics skill will cause you to get a level.
You need to wait a bit for Realistic Levelling to update your character. Once it has done that, you will see the correct reduced amount at 50% to the next skill level.

Static Oblivion Experience - Minimum Level

There is the possibility of setting your minimum possible level with the levelMin setting. This essentially works like a flat level offset, and there is an interesting possibility here for a Static Oblivion Experience.

Various mods like Sagerbliv's, Francesco's, and Martigen's use tweaked levelled lists so that weaker or less-well-equipped NPCs are not dropped from encounters when the player advances past a certain level.
Other mods like Quest Award Leveller make sure you are not penalized for doing quests too early by swapping out lower-levelled rewards for higher-level versions once you are of an appropriate level.

These are examples of trying to get a more static Oblivion experience -- That is, the world simply exists, and doesn't magically become a more dangerous or more rewarding place simply because you became more proficient. Goods of a better quality do not simply magically appear.

Also consider that by the time you are around level 10-15, depending on your resources and fighting skill, you may find you have reached a certain plateau where even NPCs that are levelled to be 10 or 20 levels higher than you do not present a significantly harder challenge unless they are given more gear (e.g., healing potions) or specific irritating abilities (e.g., spell reflection), or they happen to exploit a particular weakness you haven't covered (e.g., altmer or Apprentice birthsign Weakness to Magic).

In order to do this, you will want to set levelMin and levelMax to the same value, and at least 30 -- the minimum level that will get you the best Levelled Quest Rewards.
If you set it to about 50, you will also see the full array of creatures available in Martigen's Monster Mod.
If you do set the level to 50 or 60, change fStatsHealthLevelMult to 0.05 so that you are for practical purposes no more than level 25 or 30.

You will also probably want to use Francesco's or Martigens because they tweak the levelled lists so that you will not always encounter the strongest foes decked out in the best gear. Not every Marauder will be level 50 and in Daedric Armour, for example.
There will still be an excess of good gear, but for practical purposes limited by your ability to haul it.

You can do this at any time, but it is best if you start a new game for the initial challenge and grow into it. If you do start a new game, set levelMin to 1 until you are past the character generation stage, then exit and tweak the .ini file.

If you do this in the early game, you will probably need to amass resources doing non-violent quests first, and use Fast Travel to skip past unnecessary combat on the roads, which will be deadly to a character not properly equipped. Your Health (even at fStatsHealthLevelMult 0.05) should be adequate that you won't die from one hit by anything.
Potions and poisons will probably figure prominently in early survival until magical gear catches up.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

10 Tries to get past Samantha Swift and the Fountains of Fate

If you're a fan of hidden object games from Big Fish Games Homepage, you may have noticed that some of their third-party partnership games have been buggy. I have just done the match-2 crate puzzle in Samantha Swift and the Fountains of Fate about ten times. Each time, I encountered a "negative time delta" error message and crash to desktop. Finally, it seemed that switching to full screen fixed it.

Apprently the previous games were similarly buggy, although I did not experience it as severely as others have (possibly playing in full screen does help in general).

If you're not keen on struggling through intermittent crashes, you may want to hold off buying a game and instead keep an eye on the Big Fish Games forums. Here's the technical issues forum for Samantha Swift and the Fountains of Fate.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Oblivion Mod Review - The Halls of Fortitude

Mod Review - The Halls of Fortitude
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Overall:Interesting sights to see. Layout designed to waste your time. Use a teleport-spell mod like SN Mark Recall.

Why You Would Download This: Curious sights here and there give interestingness to an otherwise tedious dungeon. Adventure design elements can be interesting if you are in the mood for the challenges that it provides, otherwise just tedious and you are best to skip it.

The mod starts in the classic way some adventures do in order to provide a challenge for high-level adventurers -- You take away their gear. In a game like Oblivion, you really need to be in the mood for it (or happen to be the right build for it) for this to work. For example, if you are a proficient mage, you can possibly breeze through it because your resources are innate rather than inventory-based.
If you can get past this stage -- That is, you are in the mood for this sort of stunt -- You will find a dungeon that actually has a wealth of resources once you get past the first few monsters.

Depending on the mods you use, the Halls of Fortitude may actually present little or no challenge. You can also stealth it if you can sustain enough invisibility magic to get you through hotspots and the sheer amount of running around this mod will require. This is quite rare as mods go, as typically bosses will hold the necessary keys, making combat inevitable.

There are many good points in this mod. First, there are curious things to see to keep your experience fresh (at least on your first time through each location). The overall structure is, if think about it, pretty boring: Monsters amid Ayleid style architecture and you go around killing things. What lends the locations "interestingness" is the assorted random things you will see, such as giant carrots or a sudden fungus garden.

Another good point is that the resources are varied (for a change, a modder has put in repair hammers and soul gems aplenty, plus Welkynds to support Atronachs) so it's viable for the extended expedition it's supposed to be. At the same time, it doesn't necessarily change the innate challenge in this mod, which is that you start with basic resources, and the core enemies have outright immunities to certain types of attack.

(TIP: Although the mod suggests there are four main types of attack -- weapon, fire, frost, shock -- There are more. You can get around having to think by using mind-affecting spells from Illusion, poison, and "pure magic" spells like Drain Health or Damage Health.)

In fact, you will more than likely come out of this mod with a haul of magic staves, Welkynd Stones, and Varla Stones. If you're not paying attention (or if you already amassed a lot of resources) you may think the whole dungeon crawl to be a thankless one.

As dungeon crawl, Halls of Fortitude does very nicely except for its layout.
Before I get into this, I should explain my point of view on these things. If you don't agree with my direction of thought at this point, you may not necessarily agree with my assessment of the mod's dungeon layout.

A lot of people don't like the concept of Fast Travel because it lets you skip all travelling in between. I feel this is very flawed thinking. While I rarely use it because I do want to do some harvesting for alchemical ingredients and exploration to find locations, the concept of Fast Travel is really to get you to the action and skip the boring bits.
If you look at the history of entertainment, the best of them don't waste your time. If they show you anything, it is because there is a reason for it, usually a plot-related or character-development reason. If there is neither, you won't see it.

In keeping with this paradigm, you will notice that most of the vanilla dungeons in Oblivion have a handy short-cut to the exit (prominent examples being Vilverin and Fort Blueblood) once you have gone the length of the dungeon.

With Halls of Fortitude, none of the doors are marked except to say you are entering the Halls of Fortitude. You'll need to take notes about which one you've gone through. After that, you will probably notice that there are a lot of dead ends. Some of them have a useful resource like a mortar and pestle. Others seem completely useless except for you to haul in more Welkynds.
The problem isn't that you don't do anything except collect loot. The problem is that there is a tedious amount of backtracking to try another exit, sometimes through multiple areas. Assuming you've completely cleared the path and no new enemies spawn, you could still be wasting several minutes going back and forth until you find an area you haven't gone through. It's even worse if you didn't kill everything and are choosing to stealth it -- So much so that killing your way through will probably save you time in the long run.

My problem with this is that it wastes time. Real-life time. Instead of time spent actually progressing through Oblivion doing interesting or exciting things, this mod took much longer than it really should have, much of it filled with a lot of nothing.

You might argue that the mod thrusts you into a nightmarish place constructed by Vaermina and the aimless running around is part of it.
But that is very risky mod design. Would you go to a movie where they spend a third of it rewinding the film and showing it to you again and again? Oblivion is a GAME. It is meant to be entertainment. Wasting my time isn't entertainment.

One quick fix might be to have a door at the end of various routes leading back to your gravestone, and making that location a hub from which to explore outward until you find the exit.

At the very end, you get all your gear back plus some loot, if all the Welkynds and Varla Stones and Soul Gems you're hauling around isn't enough reward already. You also get a somewhat disappointing glowing green orb as a trophy.

I personally thought a small 0-weight Vaermina statue (e.g., from the Black Cat collection) discretely tucked in among the rest of the adventurer's gear, might have been a better choice. That way, they'll probably pick it up without even knowing it (with the "Take All" button) and find this "pleasant surprise" later. It could be scripted so that Vaermina spanks the player if they drop it, or gives a brief blessing if they pray to it (activate it).

Oblivion Mod Review - Frostcrag Reborn

Mod Review - Frostcrag Reborn
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Overall: Nicely fleshes out FrostCrag Spire. Disappointing quests and tedious dungeons.

Why You Would Download This: To flesh out Frostcrag Spire if you are committed to using it as your base.

Hundreds of high-quality screenshots of Frostcrag Reborn here.

Frostcrag Reborn has two parts to it: Expanding on the official add-on Frostcrag Spire, a short quest to unlock some areas, and a longer dungeon crawl into "Avalon".

As a Frostcrag Spire expansion, this mod does very nicely with some eye candy and interesting additions, such as boosts to your Alchemy and Armorer skills at the appropriate stations (which may or may not work depending on what skill levelling mods you have). I feel it still needs polish and updating, however. For example, the housekeeper could have been given dialogue to acknowledge you, give you directions, or just talk about the Spire.
Also, the Female Students area could have been cleaned up after that particular quest (one wonders why the area hadn't been cleaned up before, and why the dead bodies there weren't rotting corpses yet).

The first quest to unlock some of the areas in Frostcrag Spire is extremely boring. There is some cosmetic backstory that doesn't all add up and mixes in with a story of ambition and betrayal. It would have been better if the author chose just one of the two instead of trying to weave in both, which come out quite separate and somewhere along the way, the first story about storing items in the realm of the dead simply gets lost.

There are also tons of quite powerful items to simply pick up here and there in Frostcrag, all with no risk. Then you go into a long linear dungeon and fight basically the same enemies over and over. This is a theme of Frostcrag Reborn: Repetition. We'll touch on it again later in Avalon.
(Note that you can actually enter that area without going through FrostCrag Spire at all, if you can find the mountainside entrance).

The implausibility of Frostcrag Spire just happening to sit on an obscure series of tunnels and a very long spiralling staircase with a side door to a magical realm called Avalong is just too much. But if Jauffre can buy your story about the Emperor handing over the Amulet of Kings to a no-name prisoner, I guess we can handle this too.

The Avalon quest starts after you get past the liches and unlock the rest of Frostcrag. The initial areas look very promising as an epic landscape laid out in interesting ways. Subsequent areas have a "Star Wars" feel to it and worth a look (extensive screenshots here).
However, it all becomes extremely boring extremely fast. Here's why:

1. There are lot of medium-large dungeons in which you need to enter and get keys from bosses. The enemies are the same. They are ALL THE SAME. From start to finish (except at the very, very, end), you fight the same mix of enemies, wearing the same thing, over and over again. I tried it with a character at level 10 and a character at level 50. And it was the same monsters with the same gear.

2. In the second half, there is a lot of running around and not a lot of direction. There are places to go, but you might end up spending hours running everywhere because you have no idea where to go or what to do -- if you are even supposed to do anything in particular other than just walk around.
The places are epic, but without a sense of direction or purpose, you're really just looking for the exit.

3. Finally, you meet the uber boss. You're supposed to have a special ring or as soon as he takes damage, you are scripted to die. Once he's dead, you get a suit of heavy armor. Great. Did I mention I got Frostcrag Spire, a.k.a. The Wizard's Tower Official Plug-in because, uh, I'm a wizard?

My recommendation is to activate FrostCrag Spire and just use it as your base. Unless you're extremely bored and have time to waste, don't bother with Avalon. For the liches, just use the console to blast by them so you can access the rest of FrostCrag Spire.

Oblivion Mod Review - Wells of Cyrodiil

Mod Review - Wells of Cyrodiil - Cities
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Overall: Interesting idea for an otherwise overlooked aspect of the game. Horrible execution.

Why You Would Download This: Uber items for comparatively negligible risk.

If this mod were done better, it would have made an excellent addition to Oblivion, on par with Let The People Drink, which truly adds something to the atmosphere of the game. Instead, the guts of this mod are really badly thought out. For example, you have highly implausible "wells", like the one in Leyawiin, which was, literally, someone's basement. And the one in the Imperial City Bastion/Prison, which look like a partially flooded cell block that has actively used living space (furniture, tables with food, etcetera).

Also, for very little risk (except for a tricky encounter in the first mission in Anvil), you start getting some really uber items. Some missions are no more than no-risk "Fedex" quests where you go to the well and pick up something. An example of an item you can get in the later missions:

Shield of Wells (heavy armor) - Armor Rating 20, Armor Health 2000, Weight 5, Reflect Spell 20%, Reflect Damage 20%, Resist Normal Damage 20%, Feather 100, Shield 20%.

You might possibly play through this mod for the novelty of short episodes of underwater adventuring, but otherwise, it's a badly thought out series of Fedex quests with uber rewards. If you want the godly magic items, using ToggleGodMode is easier.