If you haven't heard already, Nehrim: At Fate's Edge is a free total conversion mod for The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. It's a completely stand-alone game with its own original world, characters, and quests so impressive in ambition that it rivals the scale of the vanilla Oblivion experience. And in most ways, it's actually better than Oblivion, which is either a heaping bit of praise for Nehrim's developers, SureAI, or a scornful derision of Bethesda. I'm going with both. After all, it's kind of sad when a group of volunteer modders can make a better game than a multi-million dollar studio of (supposedly) industry-leading professionals.
I'm somewhere between 20 and 30 hours into Nehrim and I've only just finished the first of (I believe) five chapters. I'll be writing a full review once I've finished the game, but since I'm still only a fraction of the way through it, and I'll almost assuredly be distracted by Risen 2 when it launches, I figured I'd go ahead and publish my early impressions of the game. So far, I've been really enjoying it. It feels far more like Gothic 2 with an Oblivion skin, which makes it a far more compelling experience, even though Nehrim can't quite escape some of the inherent problems of Oblivion. More of my impressions after the jump.
Nehrim's first key difference from Oblivion is the lack of enemy level-scaling. Every enemy has a fixed level with fixed stats, meaning that some enemies or areas will be too strong for you to handle. This makes every single level-up feel rewarding because you know you're progressing through the game and working your way up to bigger and better challenges. You're free to explore ahead of where you should reasonably be, and if you're crafty enough you can come away with some great loot or a lot of experience points. Or maybe you get killed and realize you're not ready for that challenge yet, which gives you a concrete objective to work towards.
The second key difference is Nehrim's inclusion of a more conventional leveling system based on experience points. You receive experience points for every enemy you kill, every quest you complete, and every location you discover. Each level-up requires an increasing amount of experience points, with stronger enemies or longer quests granting more experience than average. Combined with the above-mentioned lack of enemy level-scaling, this compels you to experience as much as you can, because every little bit of experience you earn puts you one step closer to a level-up, which is one step closer to facing new challenges.
The third key difference is that, in Nehrim, you have to level your skills by using skill points (gained upon each level-up) with trainer NPCs. Skills still increase with use, like in Oblivion, but they improve at a much slower rate, and you can only train your skills up to a maximum of 90, at which point you can only increase the skill with use. This adds extra weight and significance to each level-up, because those skill points are absolutely crucial to improving your character. Consequently, the leveling system encourages you to experience as much content as possible, instead of encouraging (or in some cases, demanding) skill grinding like in Oblivion.
Those three things go a long way to making Nehrim exciting and remarkable, but I also find the design of its world and its quests a lot more interesting. Whereas Oblivion felt kind of shallow, bland, and repetitive, the landscape of Nehrim feels more organic, detailed, and unique. The world is just laid out in a more logical manner that makes it more interesting to explore. Say you get a quest to visit a mine: in Oblivion, you'd have no way to find it, besides wandering around aimlessly until you accidentally stumbled upon it, except to follow the map marker or quest compass -- in Nehrim, you look around and discover a set of over-grown railroad tracks leading out from town, which you'd think might be used for transporting ore carts between town and a mine. And lo, they lead you right to the mine.
Unfortunately, I don't think Nehrim quite reaches the level of Gothic 2 because it is held back by the Gamebryo engine. They improved the effectiveness of archery and magic combat, but melee combat is still a really shallow button-mashing affair where you just spam left-click while backing up periodically to stay out of your enemy's attacking range. If you're fighting a humanoid opponent, you just block with your shield until they hit you, and then you follow-up with two quick attacks while they're recoiling, and just repeat that overly simplistic pattern until they're dead.
They also wind up using the old RPG trope of recycled enemy types. When you first start out, you encounter Young Wolves, and then you get a little stronger and you start fighting Wolves. Then you get stronger and it's Forest Wolves, and then it's Rabid Wolves, and then it's Shadow Wolves. They're all the exact same model with the exact same behavior patterns, just with higher stats. In fact, every enemy type in Nehrim is still much like typical Elder Scrolls enemies, where instead of having each enemy with unique attack patterns, they all just come straight at you and require the exact same strategy to kill, so there are practically no differences among any enemies.
Even though they improved the design of the world relative to Oblivion, much of the exploration still relies on discovering isolated ruins, mines, caves, or fortresses and clearing them out. There are two reasons I dislike this. First is that these areas exist completely separate from the main game world -- there's a physical and psychological disconnect from the rest of the game that tends to pull me out of the experience slightly. Second is that, much like in TES, once you've explored a couple of them you basically know what to expect for every subsequent one, so they get a little repetitive and aren't very interesting after a while.
So Nehrim is a definite step up from Oblivion, but even though it begs the comparison to Gothic (it specifically references the Gothic series a number of times in its official FAQ), I don't find it as good as Gothic 2. But still, if you enjoyed Oblivion then I think you'll find a lot of enjoyment in Nehrim, and if you didn't like Oblivion, then you may find that Nehrim addresses and fixes a lot of your complaints, so I think it's the kind of game most everyone should try. And if you like it, then go ahead and give the Gothic games a shot.
Nehrim of course requires a working copy of Oblivion to run, but other than that it's completely free. Visit the official site to learn more about it and for download links. I'll have my full review up once I finally finish it.