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FCOM: Convergence for Oblivion on Game and Player

FCOM: Convergence for Oblivion

Michael Ubaldi  //  January 15, 2008

Oblivion's best third-party add-ons are marshaled by this beta mod.


rientation to third-party programs designed to enhance or amend the PC version of Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion has four stages: introduction, investigation, participation, and preoccupation. Easily accessible improvements to aesthetics or mechanics overwhelm, and those who use or create know what it means to spend more time modding Oblivion than playing it. After my first try with the hobby, I know that I won't again be dropping the original game's disc into my Xbox 360's drive tray.

Not that Oblivion is a weak title. All but the Jacobins of Morrowind — growing very bored over the last half-decade — recognize the masterwork. Still, nobody applauding Bethesda Softworks thinks the game to be the last word in sandbox roleplaying. Two years on, a community of programmers and players continue to tinker with Oblivion because Oblivion isn't perfect, yet is worth the labor to better it.

For the first time since you
started playing, explore without
knowing what awaits.
What, in Oblivion, didn't please? Criticism accumulates on two points. First, Bethesda traded fineness of appearance for complexity; whatever the logic of matching the staid Imperial people with traditional and beautiful fantasy surroundings, the province of Cyrodiil lacked a variety of places to go, characters to face, and treasures to discover. After twenty to twenty-five hours, patterns were obvious and the suspension of disbelief would begin to collapse. Second, the developers' use of a "scaling" world was meant to maintain a commensurate challenge to a player at any character level. It instead resulted in odd experiences: players found their high-level characters in worlds of unlikely competition (abject bandits in princely armor?), watched as flaws in mechanics were magnified (wolves felled with two-dozen arrows?), or beat the game's satanic incarnation in a cakewalk by purposely not advancing.

Checking the latter complaint is a well-known mod, Oscuro's Oblivion Overhaul. Documentation is as comprehensive as the influence of the mod itself. The author summarizes: "Oblivion reveals new content to the PCs as their level increases," the Overhaul "makes almost all content available at any given time," and "the result is a world with less boundaries, more diverse and mysterious." The Overhaul is joined in the big league by a second alliterative expansion, Martigen's Monster Mod, which addresses the first contention, that perceived sameness; Francesco's Leveled Creatures/Items, an alternative to Obscuro's; and, most recently, a content add-on called Oblivion: WarCry.

None of these four mods are inherently compatible with another. Were they, there wouldn't have been a need for FCOM: Convergence, a set of plug-in modules promoted to eliminate "previous barriers in the Oblivion mod community by letting you play four of the largest Oblivion 'overhaul' mods at the same time." FCOM — "Francesco + WarCry + Oscuro + Martigen" — is available as what is described as a beta release, which is a misnomer. Let me say to all modders in absentia: when has one of your releases ever been definitive? But that is really a compliment: as a beta, tied to release candidates of its subsumed mods, FCOM is quite playable.

My review of FCOM is unique in that I hadn't toyed around with Oblivion before this. Until December, I played the game on the inalterable 360 only. After picking up a PC copy on eBay for a miraculous nine dollars, I browsed for mods and came across FCOM.

Complicated? Very. Problematic?
Not if you read the instructions.
FCOM's design and intended uses are clear enough — installation, however, is complicated, especially for the uninitiated. To use FCOM, one must first assemble the other mods, including correct versions and their required patches; extract them from a number of compression schemes, and then manually place each in proper directories. After FCOM has been downloaded and positioned, a loading order for it and the four namesakes — as well as any other mods you wish to use — needs to be established, so one downloads the Oblivion Mod Manager. But FCOM is a tool, not an operator, and the conciliation of the overhaul mods can only be managed with a utility called Wrye Bash — ah, but Wrye Bash itself runs on two more programs.

For the beginner, this preparation is dizzying, if not daunting. Me? I succeeded on the first try, thanks to meticulous and lucid instructions written by FCOM's lead, "Dev_akm." I could easily distinguish between essential actions and optional ones — for instance, FCOM offers use without the cumbersome Francesco mod, and I accepted. After about thirty minutes of reading and less than five in Wrye Bash, my patch was complete and I was playing Oblivion according to FCOM.

I started with a new character, an enchantress. Changes effected by the mods were apparent as soon as that character, in the Imperial City's dungeons, split off from Uriel Septim and his janissaries. The gameplay resulting from FCOM, largely on the strength of the mods it combines, is arguably Oblivion as it was meant to be. Even alongside several cosmetic mods, leveling shifts and caps, and reorganization of NPCs, monsters, and items are significant and for the most part judicious.

Whereas combat in the original was usually limited to unnatural duels à outrance, enemies are often found in logical groups and, depending on their nature — wild animals, petty brigands, the angry dead — may, if injured enough, retreat in search of meeker prey. Collision with dungeon traps don't merely annoy, they can kill; treasure caskets might be poison-tipped, but their contents are accordingly stranger or more valuable. Magical weapons are lucky, low-level finds made fair play by their expensive repair and recharging. Simple adjustments will be golden to longtime players: your character, when brandishing a two-handed weapon, will fling a lit torch to the ground and defend himself in its fortuitous light.

The difference FCOM makes was no more effectively demonstrated than in the Pillaged Mine, a goblin settlement. The original layout populated the dungeon with about twenty-five goblins — who, scaled, would spell trouble for some character classes at high level. Under FCOM, diminutive goblins seemed to appear from spawn points along the excavation. Individually, the goblins were no match for my enchantress, but there were so damned many of them. Fending the swarms off was challenging at times, but never frustrating. In the deepest part of the subterrane, I found the tribe's chief and his shaman.They were too powerful for my second-level mage, so I loaded a saved game and left with a sense of anticipation — in time, my character could return, win the battle and help herself to whatever riches lay behind her opponents.

Outside the frame: about
seventy-five more goblins.
Of course, the perpetually unfinished state of third-party software leads to conflicts, FCOM notwithstanding. In seventeen hours I had several sessions end by way of bugs that in most cases were not caused by Bethesda's code. Most were lockups; some were amusing, like the rogue wizard who died with a quarter of his life-bar filled and then yelled "Stop! Thief!" when I tried to loot him. Whether a result of my ignorance of each mod's details or not, I can't be entirely sure how complete or equitable the "meshing" of the Overhaul, Martigen's Mod and WarCry really is. Rummaging through data files to identify a new creature helps, but the balance of my technical judgment of FCOM is drawn from evident alterations (i.e., Yes, it's different) and the fact that the game hasn't once crashed to desktop.

Stacked against official expansion releases, FCOM's contribution lacks the dramatic and narrative content of Shivering Isles or Knights of the Nine, but is superlative in that it is more than highly structured variations on a theme. FCOM doesn't bring a different game altogether, but those who played Oblivion until they found it banal will have reason to play for another few score of hours — and at no cost but for the labor of installation.

If the impulse comes to chide Bethesda, we should resist it. Oblivion's developers finished their work two years ago, with older technology and the limited perspective of any collective producer. The modding community is open and without a center, a market in which the experiments of individuals are allowed to run at every pace and in every direction. What comes from the group is pushed by something like Adam Smith's invisible hand — the conceptual entrepreneurs that are modders will always create that which the originator never dreamed of.

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