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Cliffwalker Elder Scrolls Mod Examination, Nehrim: At Fate's Edge
It won't come as a surprise to those who've read my earlier Elder Scrolls examination that I have some issues with Oblivion, the fourth game in the series. While you could say it only had one major flaw, messing up the setting, since that includes the story, landscape, dungeons, cities, and just general art style means that an otherwise quite good game has its only major problem follow you through the entire experience. While this obviously did not destroy the game by any means, it left many Morrowind players with a negative impression of Oblivion, and with little desire to ever return to Cyrodiil. But the wonderful people at Sure AI's modding website recognized that while the land of Cyrodiil was poorly done, Oblivion was actually a solid game, and undertook the enormous task of building a total conversion for Bethesda's enormous open-world. And the result of all of the work is Nehrim: At Fate's Edge, probably the most impressive modification for any game that I have ever played.
Those new to PC modding may be wondering, "What is a total conversion?" A total conversion is a game modification that builds a whole new setting on top of the basic game's systems. You start in a new place, in a new world, and never see the original game's world for the rest of that playthrough. There can be additional systems added in, but the the only required connection between a total conversion and the original game is whatever the developers hard-coded into their game.These types of mods are rarely finished due to both the size, and lack of pay, for those building what is essentially a new game, but despite that Sure AI managed to persist and released this wonderful little gem in 2010.
And I am glad they did, because while I hate to bash Bethesda, in the art department Sure AI managed to surpass not just Oblivion, but also their next game, Skyrim. Nehrim's world is both massive and busy, with none of the seemingly empty forests of Oblivion. Even though Nehrim does include several forests, and in fact you can easily spend the first thirty or so hours wandering about the first heavily wooded area of the game, there is never a point in which you feel like you are back in Cyrodiil. This is thanks to Sure AI's extreme attention to detail and love of landmarks. Nearly everywhere you look, there is something interesting to see of either a man-made or natural sort, and there are clear signs that the people of Nehrim not only built interesting and functional structures, but also planted trees and bushes for the sake of beautifying their world. And unlike Cyrodiil there is a great deal of variety in the landscapes themselves. While you can easily split the world into the three major areas of the Northrealm, Southrealm, and Middlerealm, each one has their own nice selection of subsections, such as the gloomy Fog Tower Island, the Silderan forests, and the grand Eastern Mountains of the Middlerealm.
But the landscape isn't the only part of the world that Sure AI proved skilled at making, they also excelled at building cities and towns. While there are not as many major cities as in Oblivion, each one is large and interesting, with the Middlerealm's capital of Erothin being my favorite due to it being one of the largest cities in the more recent Elder Scrolls, and how painfully obvious the class-war is there. There are also a ton of smaller towns varying in size from tiny little villages with perhaps an inn and a pair of huts, to large farming towns with a fully-manned fortress nearby. And whether major or minor these towns easily surpass the quality of what appears in Cyrodiil thanks to the sheer amount of detail in them. The towns in normal Oblivion were all quite bare and boring to look at, with minimal signs that they actually had people living there. But regardless of how tiny the town in Nehrim the exteriors are absolutely full of small, but important, details such as chickens wandering about, blacksmiths working the forge, scattered trash, and incredibly nasty looking puddles that show that life has not only been there, but also that it may not have always been pleasant.
Dungeons of all sorts also surpass what appears in vanilla Oblivion. Whereas it could feel like you only needed to see four or five dungeons to see all that Oblivion had to offer, Nehrim extends both the average number details in the dungeons and adds a few completely new dungeon types. Additionally it greatly increases the size variety of dungeons, with some such as the dwarven-tunnels in the main quest being perhaps too long, and others covering only a single room. But it does not just take the detail level of dungeons to the level of Skyrim or Morrowind, in some places it outright surpasses them! Some of these dungeons have a level of detail that truly impressive, such as an incredibly cool and completely optional crypt along the Middlerealm's eastern coast.
Beyond the looks of Nehrim, there are also several gameplay changes. The one that will touch on everyone's playstyle is the new experience-based leveling system. While in all of the more recent Elder Scroll's games leveling depends on how much practice you have had with your primary skills, the developers of Nehrim went for a more traditional experience system that moves you towards your next level-up after completing quests, slaying monsters, picking locks, and finding new areas. The ability to raise your skills by use is still in, but trainers are now a key part of strengthening your character. When you level up you are brought to the standard Oblivion level up screen and chose what basic statistics you wish to raise, but you also gain seven Learning Points that can be used to either learn from a trainer or learn from special skill items like hunting books that show you how to extract animal hearts.
And levels are important in Nehrim. Unlike most games in the Elder Scrolls series, all of the areas in Nehrim are separated by level, and going into an area past your skill level will bring you into contact with monsters that you are often not ready to handle, especially not in the larger packs common to Nehrim. Fortunately, the level of the monsters does not actually mean the average level you need to be to handle them, and as long as you are roughly half of the listed area level, and are willing to have the occasional rough fight, you can usually do just fine. But for those still worrying, all of the areas and dungeons are worth exploring fully enough that you can easily keep up with the levels listed if you wished to, and the only time I hit a point where I felt I needed to go grind experience was after attempting to rush through a several hour-long part of the plotline.
And exploring all of those caves and forts is well worth doing, as there are a number of new item types that show up in nearly all dungeons that can help you a lot. My personal favorite of these are set items which give stronger bonuses for each part of a set you equip, and completing one will upgrade both the look and statistics of the armor set. There are also skill books that give learning points or use those points to level your skills, runes that let you use special abilities, and various gems that can be used to enchant your armor and weaponry.
All of the combat you will have to do is helped by a number of tweaks to Oblivion's various systems. Your stamina is now key for survival, and weapon damage drops massively between a swing at maximum energy and at near-zero. Stamina is also now used to change the efficiency of spells, and casting a spell when you are tired will only give you about thirty percent effectiveness. Another rather strange change though is that magic power is actually amplified by roughly fourty percent as your magical energy drops, which can partially counter the stamina debuff, and makes using a powerful "finisher" spell a decent choice. Spells themselves are also better, and generally deal more damage and come with an extra effect like a chance to freeze enemies struck by frost magic. Buffs also last longer, teleport spells such as Mark and Recall are back, and there are even a handful of new spells like Voodoo Eye, which shows your target's level.
All of these systems are supported by a solid story that helps flesh out the world while giving you plenty of reasons to keep at it. You start out in a mine system after receiving a mysterious letter, and after a dungeon that far surpasses anything in Oblivion you end up learning your are a mage, and are then essentially press-ganged into a rebellion. Before long you are sent traveling across the land of Nehrim supporting the rebellion in their attempts to rescue an imprisoned hero and take down a group of living gods known as the Light-Born. The plot rarely manages to surprise, but it still does a good job of questioning the morality of both sides and is roughly four times the length of the main quest-line of Oblivion. And as good as the minor dungeons are in Nehrim, every single one that you visit in the main quest far surpasses what any Elder-Scrolls game has had in both the events and design. The only major flaws related to the main quests are how linear those quests can be, and that it is simple to become either too weak to handle the enemies, or so strong that they become too easy.
But while there is a lot of good in Nehrim, there is also a number of problems. The majority of these are actually issues carried over from Oblivion, such as the poor user interface and a large number of glitches. But there are a few new issues, and many of these are dialog related. While there are some interesting characters and memorable lines, many of the non-quest related NPCs in Nehrim all share about three lines between them. This is the biggest problem, and the desire to search out people to barter with or do quests for has to beat out the players growing urge not to hear the same line about those "Thieving, murderous Aeterna" for the millionth time. There are also several cases where the English translation is incomplete, and while this is mainly just tied to notes and books it still kills immersion every time it occurs. And the final issue with the dialog is probably another translation issue, but there are several lines in the quests and elsewhere that can be a bit confusing.
Unfortunately the dialog is not the only issue. Several glitches were carried over from Oblivion, ranging from floating weapons to body-less quest givers. There are also two new immersion killing glitches that cause NPCs and creatures to either not register the presence of enemies, stand still without attacking them, or continuously charge into their opponents without actually doing anything. And while Sure AI worked hard to make sure all of its quests were excellent and varied, some of their quests are simply irritating, such as a long escort quest that disables fast travel spells, or a downright horrible quest were you fight several golems that you have to first beat up, swap to a lousy dagger and hit once, then beat on some more, and finally swap to a specialized golem killing spell to finish them. Those above glitches can also be combined with the escort type quests for some extreme annoyance, such as getting to the town you are traveling to and being locked into a cutscene that cannot be done because your partner is a mile back down the road letting a mob headbutt her for an hour.
But Nehrim's greatest flaw is that the game it was built on was made for older computers, with large, single-core processors, so many modern computers will have frame rate issues in quite a few places. This is primarily a problem in outdoor areas, and most dungeons will run perfectly, but some of the areas where the frame rate drops can be downright horrid to play through. The worst offender by far is the Dark Forest, a short, but excellent-looking area with several interesting dungeons that I had to almost completely skip on this computer due to receiving single-digit frame rates in several parts of it. There are a number of ways to deal with the issue when it arises, but it still might be enough to push people away from Nehrim.
Which is a shame, because despite these serious problems Nehrim's strengths still often shine through. It reaches both highs, and lows, greater than that of either Oblivion or Skyrim, and is worth considering as its own game rather than just an Oblivion mod. So if you like exploring every corner of a world, enjoy intriguing and morally ambiguous plot-lines, and crawling through hundreds of well made dungeons, Nehrim might just become your favorite part of the Elder Scrolls series.
For anyone who still needs a copy of Oblivion, this will be probably be the cheapest complete version that one can buy.