Elder Scrolls: Oblivion Hands-On Preview

Every quarter has known us, and none bore our passing except with trembling.

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Jacob "Prederick" Flanagan was pressed into service this week to take one for the team and spend over four hours playing Elder Scrolls: Oblivion on the Xbox 360. I know, I wanted to kill him in a jealous rage too but he did write this very honest and comprehensive preview, so we'll let him live. It's worth noting that while he knows of the Elder Scrolls series, this is the first time he has played a game in it. Call it a very fresh perspective, something you won't find in many places on the net. Enjoy!

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I love New York City. Moreover, up until recently, I'd never even seen a Elder Scrolls game. So, when I was presented with the opportunity to visit a city I enjoy and at the same time, experience a gaming franchise I am wholly unfamiliar with, I opted to do it. Hence, here I am, to impart my experiences with Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion to you.

I've heard a lot of talk recently about the new batch of "true Next-Generation" titles that are eking their way into daylight for the Xbox 360. Along with Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter, Oblivion is supposed to be one of the games that will really prove the things that the 360 can do. That it does, if your definition of "Next-Gen" revolves mostly around a game's graphical showing.

So, I ventured down to the W Hotel in Midtown to take a look at the Xbox 360 version of Oblivion. Imagine my dismay when the organizers, rather than checking my ID at the door and ushering me into a massive conference room with row upon row of glowing screens beckoning for attention, I instead found myself shut up in a smallish room with about eight TVs. On the upside, I was still getting to spend some quality time with one of the year's first big marquee titles, but, on the downside, no swag. There was bottled water from Norway, however, which mitigated some of the pain of not acquiring a free promotional t-shirt.

Those of us invited by Bethesda Software to give their new crown jewel a spin were limited to about four hours of playtime total, and only allowed to progress roughly an hour and a half's worth of solid gaming time into the main story, so, this is, by far, not the be-all-end all word on the title, positive or negative.

The game begins with your character imprisoned, in a tutorial level that reminded me greatly of Baldur's Gate II. You do some dungeon-crawling, the beginning of the plot is revealed, and you begin to personalize your character, both in appearance and in skills. There is a broad selection of races to choose from, each with their own advantages and disadvantages that may benefit you based on which classes and skills you develop later in the game.

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I wasn't thrilled by the character creation system. Given the myriad of options most sports games offer to their players today, I was a bit disappointed that Oblivion (and most RPGs for that matter) have not followed suit. It never really made me feel like I was really customizing my character, more that I was just tweaking a preset base.

Where one really is able to make a character theirs is in the "RPG" portion of the experience. The player is presented with a myriad of classes, from Assassin to Wizardslayer. My biggest disappointment with the demo was that I did not get to spend as much time as I wanted to exploring the classes, their advantages, disadvantages and how they develop over time. That said, the number of skills presented, and the manner with which they developed (want to improve your skill with bladed weapons? Grab a sword and get hacking) is very intuitive and easy to handle.

I began the game with a melee-oriented character, so I didn't delve very far into the abilities and spells that would be conferred on a wizard, but magic is a vital part of the game, even for the more melee-oriented. Scrolls and potions abound, meaning that even the burliest warrior may be able to turn the tide of a battle by using a scroll at the right time.

When the tutorial level has ended and you've got a character you can stand, you enter into the world of Oblivion, and it is, truly, a world. If Oblivion can claim anything, it's that it does a spectacular job of setting the scene. The art direction is highly reminiscent of Isengard and the Lord of the Rings trilogy at times, but Bethesda have done a fantastic job of giving the world a sense of scope, filling it with beautiful, vast landscapes, mountains that rise high into the clouds, and forests more lavishly detailed than I've seen in any previous game. Being able to walk off the beaten path, through the brush and encounter what looks to be an ages-old shrine that has fallen into disrepair, to stand on the stones, overlooking the countryside below, is an experience few other games can match.

Moreover, even with all this size and scope surrounding you, it will be very difficult for the player to get lost. The game provides a compass at the bottom of your HUD which keeps you oriented, along with a large, unmistakable red arrow on the compass that will keep you pointed towards your next major objective.

The cities themselves are given the same kind of loving treatment, so that every city really looks like it was built by hand, with some buildings beginning to show the signs of wear and decay, and others standing proud against the sky. I've never seen the thatched roof of a farm look quite so appealing, or looked up at the king's palace and really felt like it had a royal majesty to it.

The landscapes really are a graphical achievement, one that will certainly help players immerse themselves in the world. All of this would be absolutely perfect, if not for one small flaw.

Load times.

Sadly, the beast that has plagued gaming for so long still roams the countryside in Oblivion. More frequently than I'd like, when running through the lavishly detailed countryside, the game will halt for a second or two, indicating that it is loading more of the area before picking up again. It's not a game-breaking problem, and for me, it was not much more than a minor annoyance. However, if you go running through the countryside for five minutes, you will see at least five "Loading Area" prompts pop up.

Where the problem is most pronounced however, is inside of cities. Upon entering a city, and any building within a city, you'll have to wait while the game loads the area. It's not an agonizingly long time to wait, but the load times are comparable (roughly) to those of GTA: San Andreas for the PS2, which is a bit disappointing.

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Thankfully, when you enter these cities, you'll find that they're as alive as those in any other game. This is where the vaunted "Radiant AI" Bethesda has been hyping up comes into play. It manages to give every citizen their own desires, likes and dislikes. You can learn about new side-quests simply by overhearing a conversation on the street. It's not a complete simulation of human life, but it does its best to place you into a world, and the experience leaves the player wondering how much longer it will be before games can replicate the hustle and bustle of walking through Istanbul's Grand Bazaar.

Those conversations that happen on the street are, thankfully, entirely plausible, because the writing, and especially the voice acting for Oblivion are top-notch. The people do sound believable, the dialog isn't too over-the-top (it is a bit, given that it's a fantasy game about saving the world) and there are various accents strewn from region to region.

Conversations with NPCs aren't anything that gamers haven't seen before. You still select from a pre-made list of statements and responses, and the NPCs react based on what you've chosen. You can do some light gossiping and ask about the local rumors, but you'll never get into a meandering conversation with the armorer about superior smelting techniques.

People do react to you, both positively and negatively. While I didn't have enough time to see the full extent of the AI in action, I was a bit befuddled by the new persuasion system. A person's opinion of you can be improved through a minigame that I found mildly confusing. You are given four options of statements (boasting, joking, admiration and coercing) and must select the proper one from a dial in a set amount of time. All the while this is happening, the person's opinion of you drops. I personally found it to be a little haphazard.

The gameplay keeps itself moving along nicely, although the first-person perspective and style of gameplay it imparts did leave me a little disappointed. With a fatigue bar that depletes with every swing, jump or running step you take, you're forced to occasionally stop your attacks and hide behind your shield, but that didn't stop combat from occasionally feeling like a medieval version of Quake. Battle against a multitude of enemies occasionally felt a lot less like parrying and countering the thrusts and swings of your opponents, and more like circle-strafing your way to victory.

Combat is still entertaining, if somewhat shallow. The player is given two attacks, a normal swing, and a power-swing, which you charge up before hopefully delivering a solid shot to your opponent that will inflict extra damage, or stun them if they were blocking. Fighting against equally well armed enemies generally felt good, as I had to judge my attacks and wait for openings before launching into the offensive. Against "lesser" opponents, like Goblins, things had an unfortunate tendency to degenerate into a whirling, button-mashing hack-fest.

In the time that I played, I only had one experience of combat against a magic-user, a Goblin mage, so I didn't really get to see what it's like to fight an experienced wizard. The goblin mage I did fight was obviously designed not to be very challenging and simply charging headlong at him and slicing him to pieces did the trick. I would hope a little more thought is required against other wizards in the game.

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The weapons themselves and their various qualities will really affect the way you approach a battle, as some players will prefer the quick slashes of a short sword to the lumbering swings of a halberd or great sword. However, while being able to recover your used arrows from the corpses of your defeated enemies was a nice touch, the use of archery in the game at all seemed a little superfluous. Anytime an enemy detects you, they generally will come charging at you full-speed, leaving you able to fire a shot or two before whipping out your melee weapons and getting to the evisceration. I understand it's a unrealistic to expect the Battle of Agincourt when it comes to archery, but I just didn't see much use for archery in the game.

This brings me to the stealth system and the enemy detection AI. A special stealth icon has been introduced for Oblivion that turns different shades, darker or lighter as you go from undetected to seen. It's nice, and it allows for some sneaking, but, unfortunately for those people out there who might want to play the part of a stealthy assassin in this game, detection seemed to be an all-or-nothing gambit. Less pleasantly, some of the enemies seem to be rather deaf, as I managed to get into a hand-to-hand battle with two goblins, with a goblin mage no more than 15 feet away, and the goblin mage never even noticed anything out of the ordinary.

Getting around the world is exceptionally easy, thanks to the fast-travel system in the game. Any place in the world that you've been to can be accessed instantly simply by going to the map and selecting that place. It cuts down a great deal on travel time, as you don't have to go running across miles and miles of terrain to get from A to B, but I was a bit disappointed that this method of travel didn't include an occasional random encounter with bandits or wolves to keep things interesting.
With a good law and order system governing the world, the ability to buy houses, join guilds, or grab a horse and just go riding. Oblivion impressed me with the sheer amount of what it presented. Impressed, but it did not really "wow" me.

I left Bethesda's event thinking that I could not see this game being badly received by fans of the Elder Scrolls series. It's more of the same, done better, with more polish and thought going into its execution. The world is vast, expansive, and most importantly, feels to be alive. From what I've seen, Bethesda has created one of the highlights of the year thus far, a title I really can't see letting anyone down. I wouldn't go so far as to say that it struck me as the "next big step" that gaming is going to take, but damned if it isn't enjoyable, which, for my money, is all I care about.

- Jacob "Prederick" Flanagan

Comments

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Nice! Sounds like a great game, but I like how you brought it down from the heavens to more normal expectations. It is an Elder Scrolls game, not the second coming of Jebus.

Dammit Pred, you were supposed to say it's the second coming of Jebus!

Woo.. finally! Well, it was definitely interesting reading this from the perspective of someone not a fan and who had never played the previous games. It sounds a lot like Morrowind, only better. The load times especially since that is basically the way Morrowind worked (hopefully, they'll be better on the PC since we can have more RAM than an Xbox360).

I'm glad to hear the AI stood out enough to make the world seem more alive. It may not be the next coming of Jebus, but unscripted AI is the step forward we're looking for. I would have liked to hear more detail about this part. Any odd behavior from the AI? Anything that made them more real.. made them less immersive? Flaming dogs running down the street?

There was also no mention of the physics. Was it that physics are just expected at this point and were transparent or were they so well done they weren't even noticed? Or badly done so they weren't even worth mentioning?

It seems that perhaps 4 hours isn't enough to really delve too much into the inner workings of this game. I suppose that's good and bad.. good that the game is that deep, bad that it's hard to really get a feel for it in the short amount of time.

Thanks Pred.. it was awesome to hear the views from one of "us" and bring the hype back down to the levels of us mere mortals so we can hopefully enjoy this game for what it is when it comes out!

While I really appreciate Pred's impression of the game from his unique viewpoint, this is not even close to the end of the coverage we'll be giving Oblivion. He's done a good job covering what's important to a new player after a spare four hours with the game, we'll obviously be giving it a more complete review when it's released on both GWJ Radio and on the main page here. As an Elder Scrolls veteran, I'm looking forward to really digging into it

It sounds like for outdoor loading they need to drop the square tiles and go with hexagonal tiles. I was kinda surprised they didn't do that for this game. The take on Oblivion not skewed by the Elder Scroll series is both refreshing and aggravating.

Thanks for the info Pred.

One question comes immediately to mind: since you didn't mention it as something that bothered you, is it safe to assume that there aren't any serious framerate issues? Early batches of impressions seemed to indicate that Bethesda was having trouble getting it smooth, so I am quite curious if the last few months have had a big effect in this regard.

Norwegian bottled water, FTW!

zeroKFE wrote:

One question comes immediately to mind: since you didn't mention it as something that bothered you, is it safe to assume that there aren't any serious framerate issues? Early batches of impressions seemed to indicate that Bethesda was having trouble getting it smooth, so I am quite curious if the last few months have had a big effect in this regard.

I didn't see anything particularly problematic, but when it comes to in-game chop, i'm generally pretty lenient before I get pissy. On the whole though, things seemed to flow pretty well as far as the framerate went.

Vega wrote:

I'm glad to hear the AI stood out enough to make the world seem more alive. It may not be the next coming of Jebus, but unscripted AI is the step forward we're looking for. I would have liked to hear more detail about this part. Any odd behavior from the AI? Anything that made them more real.. made them less immersive? Flaming dogs running down the street?

No. Nada. Bupkus.

There was also no mention of the physics. Was it that physics are just expected at this point and were transparent or were they so well done they weren't even noticed? Or badly done so they weren't even worth mentioning?

The physics in the game, for me, were exactly what you'd expect at this point in gaming. I mean, I didn't go around pushing every pot, setting up elaborate domino-effect tests with pieces of armor and citizens, but everything seemed fine. Not wonderful, just fine. Creatures and people fell in a believable way when you hit them, arrows had a reasonable travel distance... I mean, i'm not sure exactly what you mean by this question. Physics wise, you're not getting anything you probably have already gotten or seen in F.E.A.R. or something of its ilk.

I know four hours isn't really enough to judge something like this accurately, but what are your impressions of the story, Pred? Are there narrative incentives to finish quests, or are they merely experience vehicles? Morrowind, for all its graphical splendor, felt quite empty at times. I would hate for the same thing to be true for Oblivion...

And thanks for the preview! It's great to hear some unbiased impressions.

The goblin mage I did fight was obviously designed not to be very challenging and simply charging headlong at him and slicing him to pieces did the trick. I would hope a little more thought is required against other wizards in the game.

Hmm...I dunno.. If I had a sword and was faced with a spellcaster thats probably exactly what I'd do.

Awesome down to the earth review!!! As far as you can tell, how are the dialogues in the game? And is there still a load time every time you enter a building? (Like in Morrowind, where building interiors are treated like a different "zone")

thanks

Great preview!

Pred wrote:

even with all this size and scope surrounding you, it will be very difficult for the player to get lost. The game provides a compass at the bottom of your HUD which keeps you oriented, along with a large, unmistakable red arrow on the compass that will keep you pointed towards your next major objective.

I really like this. Along with the generic feel of Morrowind this was what annoyed me the most in the game: lack of direction and goal.

Not too impressed, though: it has all the flaws I was expecting. Your preview did raise my curiousity about the game though, nice!

Lord_Xan wrote:

I know four hours isn't really enough to judge something like this accurately, but what are your impressions of the story, Pred? Are there narrative incentives to finish quests, or are they merely experience vehicles? Morrowind, for all its graphical splendor, felt quite empty at times. I would hate for the same thing to be true for Oblivion...

That's going to end up being kind of subjective, I think. All of the major quests and side quests have a narrative and a point, so to speak, but I think their emotional impact, or at least, the kind you're referring here, is going to be based more on the player than the actual material. Everything is, really, an experience vehicle, at its core, but all of the quests have some story, no matter how small, surrounding them. I said the world seemed alive, and that applies to the story as well, but I can't speak for other people's experience with the material.

TheGameguru wrote:
The goblin mage I did fight was obviously designed not to be very challenging and simply charging headlong at him and slicing him to pieces did the trick. I would hope a little more thought is required against other wizards in the game.

Hmm...I dunno.. If I had a sword and was faced with a spellcaster thats probably exactly what I'd do.

Obviously, if all you've got is a sword and you're facing a spellcaster, you must slice him into bite-sized pieces. But the methodology of how it went down just felt boring and uninventive to me, perhaps partially because of how Quake-like I found the combat. It really felt like the Mage wouldn't miss, I couldn't take any cover, or wait for his Mana to run low, or think about the encounter at all, I just had to charge headlong at him and hack and slash until someone was dead.

I am appalled that you get PAID to WRITE. Your grammar, punctuation, and frequent disregard for using complete sentences is ridiculous! If you were just some kid in the forums, I would understand, but you are someone who was actually given money to write this. Insanity.

Errr... Ever heard of the phrase "if you have nothing good to say, don't say it?"
We should all be gratiful that Pred took his time to give us a good report, why the nitpiking?

Back on Topic: maybe the goblins are supposed to be dumb like that I mean to have realistic AI in the game, one cannot expect all creatures to be as intelligent as Einstein right?

TapaRRR wrote:

I am appalled that you get PAID to WRITE. Your grammar, punctuation, and frequent disregard for using complete sentences is ridiculous! If you were just some kid in the forums, I would understand, but you are someone who was actually given money to write this. Insanity.

Hi! Welcome to Gamers With Jobs, hope your visit is a short one!

Back on topic, Pred, did you get to spend much time between the PC and 360 versions? Any notable differences between them in performance? Is the 360 version notably scaled down from the PC version or are they pretty comparable?

TapaRRR wrote:

I am appalled

This is passive voice [form of "to be" verb + past participle (generally an "-ed" verb) = passive voice]. To make your writing more exciting, please try to use active voice in your writing, such as "This appalls me."

that you get PAID to WRITE.

Proper use of capitals include: the indication of proper nouns (such as days of the week or game names), the announcement of the beginning of a sentence (example: "You suck." not "you Suck."), and the indication of names. Capitals are not used in the middle of a sentence (unless regarding the above), nor are they used to spell out entire words.

Your grammar, punctuation, and frequent disregard for using complete sentences is ridiculous!

Here, the parallel structure of your list is weak, since the last element does not match the first two, rhythmically speaking. Try "Your grammar, punctuation, and disregard..." instead. Also, try not to end your sentences on an exclamation point, as these punctuation marks should be reserved for moments of great emotional stress (such as if your cat dies). Posting on an Internet forum does not count as a moment of great emotional stress, unless you post about your cat dying.

If you were just some kid in the forums,

Your descriptor of 'some kid' is vague. What kind of 'kid' would he be? Is he a nice kid, a bad kid, a purple kid, etc.? (Also, I'd suggest you should better know your audience.)

I would understand, but you are someone who was actually given money to write this.

Your use of 'actually' here is disjointing, and it doesn't add much meaning to your sentence. Also, your secondary clause might be tighter if you edited 'but you are someone who was actually given money' down to 'but you were given money'. Ah, but then you run into passive voice again. I'll leave it up to you to rewrite this sentence accordingly.

Insanity.

This is a sentence fragment. Please do not disregard complete sentences. Consider revising so that you also include a verb.

I am appalled that you get PAID to WRITE. Your grammar, punctuation, and frequent disregard for using complete sentences is ridiculous! If you were just some kid in the forums, I would understand, but you are someone who was actually given money to write this. Insanity.

Good lord. Thanks for registering to deride a volunteer article posted on the front page of a free gaming site. Also, for the record, your post has been graded by Katerin. Please note that school is in session.

Pred - Forgive me if it is in there, I read everything, and even did a search to make sure I wasn't missing it, but what were the hardware specs you were using? I assume the XBox 360 had a hard drive? I'm curious if they gave you any indication how the load-pauses would be without a hard drive (if your's did in fact have one)?

Also, I assume you were playing on an HDTV? How big?

sheared wrote:

Pred - Forgive me if it is in there, I read everything, and even did a search to make sure I wasn't missing it, but what were the hardware specs you were using? I assume the XBox 360 had a hard drive? I'm curious if they gave you any indication how the load-pauses would be without a hard drive (if your's did in fact have one)?

Also, I assume you were playing on an HDTV? How big?

The 360 did have a hard drive, but I did not ask about load-times without one. Wish I had.

A rough guess on the screen's size would be, say, 20-24 inches or so. Probably closer to 20. I did not bring tape measure.

TapaRRR wrote:

I am appalled that you get PAID to WRITE. Your grammar, punctuation, and frequent disregard for using complete sentences is ridiculous! If you were just some kid in the forums, I would understand, but you are someone who was actually given money to write this. Insanity.

Erm...

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Farscry wrote:

Pred, did you get to spend much time between the PC and 360 versions? Any notable differences between them in performance? Is the 360 version notably scaled down from the PC version or are they pretty comparable?

I was originally slated to play the PC version, but, thanks to inclement weather all they had when I arrived was 360s, so I had to make do. They were setting up the PCs as I was leaving, and from the glimpse I caught, they did look better, but I made the mistake of not asking the specs of the rigs that were running the game.

That was cute. You put quite a bit of effort into making weak, tongue-in-cheek arguments against things you subjectively considered faults in my writing abilities. For the most part, you seem to know what you are talking about; I admire that. The problem to which I am referring, though, is a matter of whether or not someone deserves monetary compensation to write. I never stated that I am of the opinion that I deserve payment for my writing, but that it is pathetic that someone of the author's writing abilities recieves his wages through writing.

Your writing is cumbersome. I grow tired of your incessant quasi-intellectual grammer-snobbery. I could write more sharply worded sentences with commas and semi-colons but I shan't. Rather, I would like to point out your relative uselessness to society at large. I shall now make a declarative statement which sufficiently covers my view point on the strife of human existance.

I like cookies.

Peace, I'm out.

Haha! I enjoy spotty internet connections!

Hehe, you're awesome.

I'm done being a jerk; I think I got it out of my system.

And to Pred, I admit I appreciated your review as by someone who is new to the TES series. It was honest, straightforward, and refused to feed the fanboy-base. It has been the most helpful review out of all the new ones that have sprung up in the last 24 hours.

A question, if you don't mind. The water has brought up a lot of whining and speculation in the Oblivion forums. Is it that the screens do not do it justice, or does the water really suck as much as it seems?

TapaRRR wrote:

That was cute. You put quite a bit of effort into making weak, tongue-in-cheek arguments against things you subjectively considered faults in my writing abilities. For the most part, you seem to know what you are talking about; I admire that. The problem to which I am referring, though, is a matter of whether or not someone deserves monetary compensation to write. I never stated that I am of the opinion that I deserve payment for my writing, but that it is pathetic that someone of the author's writing abilities recieves his wages through writing.

Pred didn't get paid to write this. Neither does Certis. Or Ely. Or any of the staff here. The radio program is recorded and edited in the spare time of the creators. This is a hobby site, not a commercial ad-driven site.

So you look pretty foolish right now. Go away.

Pred, your impressions rocked. Thanks.

Pred - Thanks for providing a new perspective on the game! I get tired of reading posts by frothing fans who would love the title even if it ran at 10 fps with 25 minute load times. Thank you for taking the time to share this information with us.

TapaRRR - There is no need to be unkind. Whether you are right or wrong in your assessment of Pred's writing doesn't even matter. Pred did us a service by sharing his impressions of the game. Please spare us the unnecessary, and mean-spirited, criticism.

Demiurge is correct, GWJ doesn't have a paid "staff". This is pretty much run by people who just love games and a site that is supported by an annual fundraiser. If it doesn't suit you, then go play somewhere else.

Cartoonin99 wrote:

Demiurge is correct

I'm sorry, hold on a second. I wanna savor this moment. I've waited years for someone to say that.

*satisfied sigh*

Alright, thanks. Let's continue.

Pred, I really enjoyed your take on the game. It's refreshing to hear something which isn't hype-driven now and then

I know that this ground has been pretty much covered by now, but I was sleeping while all the fun was happening, so let me just say:

Katerin wins.

The loathesome troll did bring up an interesting question, though, after he stopped making personal attacks. Did you have any impressions one way or the other about the water rendering? Was it pretty much on par with water effects in other games these days, or did it stand out as extraordinarily good or bad?

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