Bethesda Softworks has a tough act to follow. Morrowind, the third game in The Elder Scrolls series, made a huge splash a few years back when it released, sweeping many awards and selling extremely well on both PC and Xbox. Now, with the release date for their next Elder Scrolls title, Oblivion, looming, the media was given a chance to try out what they got to see at E3. Up until this point, we had seen the graphics, watched the game demoed at E3, but what did Oblivion really have under the hood, and would it match up to the standard set by Morrowind? Read on.
Oblivion tells the tale of the end of an empire and the incursion of the forces of darkness in the land of Tamriel. As the game opens, you find yourself a prisoner in the Imperial Capitol of Cyrodiil, suddenly "released" as the Emperor Ė voiced by Patrick Stewart Ė and his bodyguards use your cell's secret passageway to escape assassins bent on killing the Emperor. For some reason, the Emperor recognizes you from his dreams, and trusts you enough to let you follow him out, although he foresees his own death before he can escape. As you go through the catacombs of the Imperial capitol, you are actually both learning how to play via tutorial messages and teaching the game about your playstyle, in order to have it suggest a development path for your character.
Eventually, you get trapped with the emperor who tells you that he is about to die and to seek out his long-lost illegitimate son and close the gates of Oblivion, the path to the demonic planes of the Daedra, who have been making incursions into Tamriel of late. He is then murdered by an assassin, and you have the choice of either pursuing the main quest or doing your own thing, ala Morrowind.
From what I got to see of the main quest, it's definitely got promise. It seems as if this situation will become anything but straightforward, with your mission taking you across the empire. Of course, for most people the real meat is in the innumerable side-quests you can do, and in this respect, Oblivion looks to shine as well as Morrowind did. For the four hours I played, most of that was side quests for guilds, random villagers, and even myself.
This time around, though, the quests seem more varied and reasonable than in Morrowind, which often boiled down to either "kill this person" or "find this item." A perfect example of the improvement is one quest where I was asked to keep tabs on where a person was going. I had to be at a certain location at a certain time, and just watch where the NPC went in her day. And with the Radiant AI allowing NPCs to go about their days in different ways, randomly talking to other characters on various topics, the quest isn't exactly scripted the way most of Morrowind's were. Of course, there are still quests where you have to kill a person or fetch an item, but it's refreshing to know that those aren't my only option.
Speaking about the NPCs, there are a lot of them. Over a thousand, if Bethesda's PR department is to be believed. Each of them has their own thing to say, and many will start up conversations with you or other NPCs randomly on random topics. While it may not be true artificial intelligence, it sure makes a nice simulacrum. And of course, there are a legion of books, legends, and other world-defining material in the game for those people interested in the world of Tamriel. And yes, the Biography of Barenzhia is back.
Graphically, Oblivion's visuals are very high quality, with an immense amount of detail in environments, characters, items, etc. While the version I got to play seemed slightly toned-down from what was demoed at E3, the shading, texturing, smoothing, and all the other graphical bells and whistles were in place and humming along with no slowdown on the 360. Characters' facial features and movements, on the other hand, were all very realistic, and possibly better than what I saw at E3, except during fights where there seems to be an issue with backpedaling looking... just not right.
The environments are very malleable as well; if it's not tied down (or sometimes even when it is) you can play with it. Weather effects, water, and structures are all state of the art in visual appearance, and the detail is evident. You can shoot and arrow into buckets, walls, and flesh pods, and most of the time retrieve them individually from the things you have shot. It definitely gives a sense of reality and permanence to many of the environments.
In terms of gameplay, Oblivion is incredibly deep, and in many ways less complex than its predecessor, Morrowind. For example, the character creation system allows you to choose major abilities, advantages, etc. more easily than in Morrowind, with min-maxing being less of an issue. The incredible amount of customization you can do to character portraits is most impressive as well, with nearly every aspect of your character's body fair game for changing.
The spell system seems much more intuitive as well, and you get less of a feeling of separation between the arts of magic and the arts of war; you even start out with a couple spells to use to your delight. And with the ability to map different spells to the d-pad, alternating between swords and sorcery is a snap, making any player able to be a de facto battlemage. Magical items also work more smoothly, with charges being somewhat more understandable and easier to regain. Soul gems can now be used either to recharge an item (given that the gem has a soul trapped in it) or for enchantment, which while I didnít get to experiment with, is supposedly as rich as in Morrowind.
Most of the old skills are back, and get upgraded in the same "use it to raise it" style as in Morrowind. All actions are governed by certain skills, and by performing those actions repeatedly, you get better at them. Of course, this does mean that you might wind up jumping all the time to increase your acrobatics.
Although you only level up when you improve enough of you major skills (of which you choose at character creation), improving your minor skills lets you get a bigger bonus in their ability-linked attributes when leveling up. This means that it pays to improve those minor skills after all.
Of course, fighting is really the bread and butter for most players, and Oblivion has that in spades. No longer is swinging one way or another a matter of concern; you swing each weapon one way, and thatís that. Archery, too is very easy; just draw your bow and let her rip. A handy crosshair in the middle of the screen helps you direct your arrows and other ranged weapons. Overall, the combat works very well on 360, using the analogue sticks to move body and view, the left trigger to block, and the right to attack. Despite all of this, Iím sure the PC version can do it a bit better, seeing as how the mouse is an advantage in any first person title.
This brings me to my next topic: controls. As stated before, Oblivion controls very well on the 360. It was pretty evident to me that the game was built from the ground up with the 360 controller in mind; the way weapons and spells can be mapped to the d-pad is way more convenient than mapping them to 1-9 on a keyboard. Similarly, the face button assignments really encompass anything you want to access, menu-wise, with the triggers letting you switch between parts of the menus. The only issue I has was the lack of an option to invert the x-axis; for some reason I just work better that way. Still, itís a minor issue easily overcome. Hopefully PC players wonít suffer from the emphasis on creating the game for the 360 controller setup.
Finally, thereís sound, and this is an area that shines brightly. Jeremy Soule makes a return as composer for Oblivion, and the tracks are even better than in Morrowind. Soule manages to balance atmospheric and epic in order to immerse the player in the world of Tamriel. The main theme of Morrowind once again makes an appearance, albeit with a faster tempo, and really fits the urgent tone set by the gameís main storyline.
Sound effects are also very realistic, with shield thumps and sword strikes resounding with just the right amount of echo for the area. Iíd recommend a full Dolby 5.1 in order to truly appreciate the effects, but to each his own.
Then there is the voice acting cast, led by the aforementioned Patrick Stewart. From what I got to experience, the voice acting is very good, a definite level above Morrowind which itself did an excellent job, but suffered from having most characters talk in a raspy voice due to the setting. Villagers and soldiers range from cheerful to despondent, angry, cowardly, and mad, all of which was executed with aplomb.
In the end, Oblivion looks to be a top contender as was its predecessor. With Bethesda still maintaining a release date of March 2006, and with the game seeming to be completed, it will be interesting to see whatís in store in the next few months. And on a final note, one of the grayed-out options I noticed while playing was a Download feature, presumably for content initially provided by Bethesda, and later the Oblivion community, that can be downloaded and patched into the game, much like Morrowindís modules. When this content will become available is anyoneís guess, but that Bethesda is at least considering letting you play in their world like that is a hopeful sign.
The Elder Scrolls (TES) series has always broken new ground in the video game world from the original Arena to Bethesdaís most recent PC and Xbox title, Morrowind. The seriesí hallmark has always been open-ended gameplay that allows the player to choose his or her own path, including whether or not to follow the main quest at all. And now, with the announcement of the Xbox 360, Bethesda has revealed the newest installment of their award-winning series, Oblivion.
Oblivion places you back in the world of Tamriel, in the Imperial capital of Cyrodill, last seen in the original TES title, Arena. Emperor Uriel Septimís sons have disappeared, and the gates of Oblivion, Tamrielís version of hell, have opened, acting as a portal for Daedra to come through and terrorize the land. The playerís character starts in prison and is soon met by the Emperor himself (voiced by Patrick Stewart) and his personal bodyguards, the Blades, as they make their escape from the palace. As he passes, the Emperor recognizes you as the person from his dreams, and tells you that you will serve Tamriel in your own way in the future, but that there will be great bloodshed before your journey is over. From there, it is up to the main character to find the Emperorís lost son and close the gates of Oblivion.
The Oblivion team decided to return to Cyrodill because it is a region in the gameís world that lends itself best to a traditional fantasy setting. Gone are the silt striders and Dwemer ruins of Morrowind; in their stead are lush forests and stone-hewn dungeons. Even the enemies are more along the lines of traditional fantasy fare, such as skeletons, liches, and demons.
The first impression one receives from the game is awe at the amazingly detailed graphics. The dungeon cobblestones use every texture imaginable to make them look real, and it doesnít stop there. Forests are all nearly photorealistic, animal fur is textured in great detail, and the mouths on characters are all lip-synched very well. This is not just the work of great artists, however; Oblivionís forests are grown rather than painted in. The crew at Bethesda actually went to the University of Marylandís geology lab to find out how forests are created naturally, and then had a computer simulate all of those things. The result is a forest that feels like a forest, and not simply an artistís rendering of one. And with 16 square miles of terrain in Tamriel, half of which is forest, the level of realism is most welcome.
There are also 200 hand-crafted dungeons, 9000 items, and tons of unique NPCs in the game. And, while the NPC graphics arenít as good as the new generation of consoles will be able to provide (taking Unreal 2007 as an example), they are still a level above the current generation.
The physics engine in the game is also very realistic. Oblivion uses Half Life 2's Havok physics engine to accurately simulate everything from an arrow hitting a bucket to chains clanking to giant spiked cylinders banging together. Characters hit by weapons behave as if they had been hit by weapons, stumbling back or, in the case of skeletons, falling apart.
Speaking about the characters, all of the NPCs in the game follow a special type of programming called Radiant AI. Radiant AI is unique, in that it gives all the NPCs a list of tasks, and allows them to perform them as they wish. For instance, perhaps an NPC needs to go to work; they could take the high road, the low road, or forget all about it and start talking to you as you pass by. NPCs will initiate conversation, interact with the environment, raise skills, and even engage in thievery, all dependent upon their personality and the random factors that govern the Radiant AI. Sometimes they will join up with you and help you fight, other times they will join your enemies or steal from you or from other NPCs. Now the player is not the only one who can be a total bastard.
How does the game sound, though? The version we saw included a soundtrack that used many of Jeremy Souleís themes from the previous title, Morrowind. However, when asked who would be composing the gameís music, the official line was "no comment." But music is just one element that makes up a gameís aural presentation. All NPC dialogue is voice-acted, with half the DVD space taken up by the over 50 hours of spoken dialogue in the game. The sound effects were incredibly accurate as well, with arrows going "thuck" and the clashes and clangs of swords and shields make the player feel as if he or she is in the thick of battle. If this is what we can expect in the finished product, players are in for a definite aural treat.
Although much is new about the latest game in the Elder Scrolls series, there is a lot of familiar ground for fans of the series, albeit with a few twists. The basic aspects of gameplay are all still there; using skills to improve them and leveling up accordingly, participation in guilds, the different schools of magic, the ability to change your attack style based on how you move while you attack, etc. However, there are new features included in each of these areas, which are meant to improve the gameplay experience.
Letís start with the core aspect of gameplay; the skill set. At character creation, you will get to choose your race (all of the old races are still included this time around,) but instead of determining your class at the very beginning, your actions through the early part of the game will be used to determine a fitting class for you. Say you took the stealth approach through the first few puzzles of the game; Oblivion might recommend you be a thief, shadowblade, or other stealthy class. But if you hacked and slashed your way to victory, warrior or battlemage might be up your alley. The option to choose your own class or create a custom class will still be there, but the recommendations are meant to help out the new player who might not know which class best fits his or her play style. So, instead of playing 10 hours into the game and realizing that you picked the wrong class for you, gamers can generally be assured that they will get a character with the right fit for them.
Now, thatís not to say skills end at character creation; far from it. Skills improve with your character. Morrowind focused more on using skills to enhance them, rather than killing enemies and getting experience points. Oblivionís skill system will function similarly, making it so that the player doesnít have to constantly think about how much experience he or she needs to get that next skill. You want to improve your jumping skill? Jump! This system provides a more natural feel to character growth than the traditional scumming system most RPGs use.
But what else is going into game balance? Recall that I mentioned the Oblivion gates leading to hellish worlds populated by Daedra. Those fans of previous Elder Scrolls titles, such as Morrowind, know that Daedra are high-level enemies who can be a threat even to high-level players. Not too far into the game, the main character will be exploring those Oblivion worlds, populated as they are by Daedra, and this is where we can see the mechanisms the team at Bethesda has in place to maintain game balance: the areas level with you. The fundamental philosophy the Oblivion team had was that the player should be able to go wherever they want whenever they want without having to tediously level up first. So maybe when you go into your first Oblivion gate, you will meet low-level Daedra, while a few hours later, when the world inside the gate respawns and you are more powerful, there will be more powerful enemies and better loot. The intention is for the game to grow with the player, allowing them to integrate themselves into the world.
In terms of the guild system, you will be able to join any faction you wish this time around, and all the factions from Morrowind are still there; the blades, the mageís guild, fighterís guild, etc., as well as a new faction: The Arena, which will allow the player to be a gladiator and win fame and fortune. You (and the NPCs) can even place wagers on the matches. In addition, as you rise in the ranks of your faction, the Radiant AI causes some of the NPCs to like you more, and some to see you as a threat to their own power, so you will gain allies and adversaries just because of your status.
As stated earlier, all the schools of magic have returned; thaumaturgy, alchemy, enchantment, etc. However, some additions have been made. The alchemy skill will now allow you to make potions that you can place on your blade, and which will act as poisons, giving you a chance to do extra damage and status effects to enemies when you hit them. Enchantment will also be easier to use, and there will be ancient elven crystals to collect which will allow you to power up your enchanted items even more.
The control scheme has also received an upgrade from Morrowind. No longer does the player have to switch from spells to weapons in order to use them. Spells and attacks will be bound to different buttons, so once you decide to cast, you donít need to put your sword away and take out your hands. Same with defense; you can put up your shield at the touch of a button. This system looks as if it will provide a more fluid combat experience for the player.
Of course, one of the greatest strengths of Morrowind was the construction set included with the game. The tool allowed players to create their own houses, objects, NPCs, items, etc. to place in the game. These community-constructed areas, items, and quests resulted in some classic plug-ins that have become a staple of the Morrowind experience (the fletchers being my favorite.) Fortunately for the players, Bethesda is including a new, streamlined, easier-to-use Construction Set that will allow players to create whole new regions of the game.
Much like in Morrowind, this construction set is similar to the one the programmers used to create the game world, and thus promises to be very powerful. Quests will actually be treated as objects this time around, making it much simpler to implement new ones. Written and spoken dialogue can be added, the latter simply by using a microphone to record speech and adding in the MP3s. And with the world-zone nature of Oblivion, players will be able to create new dungeons which can be nested in castles which in turn can be nested in new world areas, etc. Each area can even have its own climate, giving extra realism your new creations. And with Xbox Live support, players will be able to download new content on the fly from Bethesda. Theyíre even working on ways to allow players to more easily trade their creations online.
Now, in a game this large and complex, one might expect even more quests than in Morrowind. However, this is not the case, exactly. There will be fewer quests than were found in Morrowind, however each of the quests will have multiple paths that will branch as the player progresses in them. The deeper complexity of the plots for each quest is intended to make the player really connect with the tasks given to them, rather than just treating them as fetch missions.
With powerful, next-generation graphics, a dynamic skill system, improved AI, and greater support for the fan community, Oblivion is positioned to provide an even better experience than Morrowind. And while it wonít have the boots of blinding speed, Oblivion certainly will give other games a run for their money when it comes out this Christmas.