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

My eyes popped Tex Avery style when I saw there's actually a poll going on about whether to take this preview seriously

About half the board reactions were negative, other half rational. Seeing vinegar pissers are more likely to post than constructive fans, it seems pretty ok to me

Congrats Pred, on the official forums the thread about your preview is 11 pages long. I really enjoyed your review. I read this last night so I'm not sure if you mentioned it but did you play the game in the 3rd person perspective at all? If so, how was it?

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.

Gotcha.. I guess its fairly difficult to get "real time" combat right in such FP type RPG games.. you risk going to far "actiony or fpse" or to static and out of place. I never felt at ease with the combat in Gothic 2 or Morrowind so I'm probably going to be fairly critical of this game also.

Unless my memory is foggy (and that could be) I get the impression that Ultima Underworld 1 and 2 really got combat pretty well.

Like you said.. Range/Bow combat always seems to be fairly pointless in these types of games.. other than getting that initial pot shot in.

Vector wrote:

Congrats Pred, on the official forums the thread about your preview is 11 pages long. I really enjoyed your review. I read this last night so I'm not sure if you mentioned it but did you play the game in the 3rd person perspective at all? If so, how was it?

Not really. I tried it once, got confused and didn't really like the way my character looked running (a nitpick, I know), went back to First Person, and everything was gravy. As with just about everything in the preview, YMMV.

TheGameguru wrote:

Gotcha.. I guess its fairly difficult to get "real time" combat right in such FP type RPG games.. you risk going to far "actiony or fpse" or to static and out of place. I never felt at ease with the combat in Gothic 2 or Morrowind so I'm probably going to be fairly critical of this game also.

Like you said.. Range/Bow combat always seems to be fairly pointless in these types of games.. other than getting that initial pot shot in.

It's probably just a matter of preference, I think. My background is in Party-based RPGs, where you can have an archer, because he sits back and takes shots while your fighter goes ahead and engages the enemy in melee combat. With just one person, you've got the time for one try or two, and then it's over.

I think my staement of the combat as "Too Quake-Like" is a little harsh, and i'll try to restate it. I found Oblivion's style of combat to be a bit disorienting, and a little fast-paced for my tastes. Bethesda is obviously trying to strike a very fine line between "Action" and "RPG" with the combat, and it just didn't feel right to me. I'm not sure what i'd have preferred though.

EDIT: God, i'm looking over what i've said in this thread and i'm always pointing out my dislikes. Let me state this then.

My dislikes are vastly outnumbered by my likes. I liked the character interaction. I liked the story. I LOVED the voice acting. I liked the classes. I liked the skills. I liked how they improved. I liked how intuitive almost everything was. I liked how beautiful the world was. I liked how the sun rose and set. I liked how the town garrison actually enforced the law. I liked how people said "Hello" in the streets. I liked the sensation of defeating an enemy in combat. I liked smashing my opponents sheild with a mace and watching them go reeling backwards. I liked a lot about this game. A lot. If you like Elder Scrolls, buy it. If you've never played, and want to, buy it. If you're ambivalent, wait until the price drops, then buy it. If you're looking for a good RPG, buy it. This is a good game.

zeroKFE wrote:

If you want a laugh, you ought check out the official Elder Scrolls forums (here is a link, but their boards move fast, so it probably won't work for more than a few days). They are seriously freaking out because you gave your honest impressions of the game.

Here is a sample:

Some crazy dude wrote:

the guy is just a douchebag he doesnt know what he is talking about and the devs are pissed now because its gonna make think oh so its not a good game now. id give the reviewer a visit and him,just kidding i just disagree with most things he said. The other reviewer should of went and had a look at this game.Though the reviewer di comment on the game on the end.

I'll take "Things that make me thankful to have GWJ" for $800, Alex.

I am actually on that forum a lot but in this case I agree with you. If you look I actually submitted a post defending the review. People there get a little too worked up sometimes.

I bet all this drama is carefully orchestrated by Elysium and Oblivion preview is just a cover. In fact it`s just a social art project, designed to uncover the inner world of fanboy. Read the thesis on the front page two weeks from now!

Not really. I tried it once, got confused and didn't really like the way my character looked running (a nitpick, I know), went back to First Person, and everything was gravy. As with just about everything in the preview, YMMV.

That was my biggest beef with Morrowind. I guess they decided not to try and fix the 3rd person animation at all. If I get a new computer I'll probably pick up Oblivion, if for nothing else other than the Sean Bean factor.

Watermark wrote:

I've played Morrowind and despite the fact that what you say is true, all of this was barely noticable. The only interesting interaction with the NPC where the issue of gender played a significat part was with the perverted member of one of the guilds who wanted the player to take their clothes off to complete a quest. I'm wondering if there's a more deep interaction. Say, female NPCs flirting with the male PC and so on.

I don't think your gender played a part in that quest at all. A couple Morrowind NPC's play for both teams.

Prederick, you mentioned that the customization was a bit lacking compared to newer sports games. Are you talking about body shape/size customization? From the screenshot above with the ogre's face it appears to have a great deal of head options. Is that an old screenshot that doesn't apply anymore?

Yeah, I am talking about body shape/size. The screenshot is entirely applicable, but, like I said, it never quite felt like complete customization. It felt like you had a single base face, and while you can do a bunch of stuff to it (some categories didn't feel like very much), you were still working from a single base, rather that allowing you to construct one from the ground-up or so.

I'll put it this way. There was a "Random Face" option in the customization menu that you could use, which would, obviously, randomize the effects of your face. Now, i'm reasonably sure that it went by certain guidelines to prevent you from having the Anime-Eyed, Big-Lipped Barbarian, but even randomized, you could still see a lot of the face you started with. I hope i'm being clear enough.

Hunter_88 wrote:

I am actually on that forum a lot but in this case I agree with you. If you look I actually submitted a post defending the review. People there get a little too worked up sometimes.

From what I saw, a lot of the criticism stemmed from the fact that I am wholly inexperienced with the Elder Scrolls saga. And I am. If I could say anything there, i'd reiterate, that this was my experience with the game. The experience of a person who has never played a ES game, and mostly played Isometric Party-based RPGs. My opinion would be different, so, take it with a grain of salt (or ten, if you think i'm full of it) and make your decisions accordingly.

illum wrote:

I see this preview is still rather a hot topic on the official forums. I'm a Morrowind nutcase as most of you know and I actually rather like the fresh breath of air a little bit of critique brings to the pre-launch hype.

Cheers Pred.

P.S: This statement

some players will prefer the quick slashes of a short sword to the lumbering swings of a halberd or great sword.

has caused not insignificant confusion in the forums as the devs were confirmed to have removed spears/polearms from the game. I assume you actually mean a double handed axe and not a halberd. Any chance you can clarify?

Holy crap.. I read a few pages of that thread and I felt like bashing my head in.. it was like stumbling in on a few hundred guys that are like that comic book guy from the Simpsons..

"worst previewer evar!"

This article is nothing more than a GWJ marketing attempt to attract attention. Why use marketing plants in forums when you can use on article.

I kid, I kid.

Okay so I got back from work, and seems things just exploded... More the reason to stay away from Oblivion Forum...

In my observation, it seems that ever since TES is introduced to the X-box crowd the quality of the official forum just went to hell... Not to say that X-box owners are bad or anything, but it just seems that a lot of childish type people got introduced to the Elder Scroll world because of it.
Props to you guys that try to have a rational voice on that forum. If it is me, I go mad...

Sorry to side track again.

TheGameguru wrote:

Holy crap.. I read a few pages of that thread and I felt like bashing my head in.. it was like stumbling in on a few hundred guys that are like that comic book guy from the Simpsons..

"worst previewer evar!"

I do sometimes wonder how these fanboys get so worked up over a game. The comic book guy similarity is good, but I always imagine the haters looking and sounding like Walter and Perry from Home Movies.

If it had been Statler and Waldorf I'd really have been honored.

That forum is like a train wreck. I just can't look away...

Like you said.. Range/Bow combat always seems to be fairly pointless in these types of games.. other than getting that initial pot shot in.

Ummm...Amulet of Levitation, and a bow. Fly up to the top of a building or rock, and fire away. Works for spells, too, if their range is long enough.

Sheesh Pred, you're supposed to jump when you fire your bow, or run backwards while firing (actual suggestion from the TES forum, sounds rediculous if you try to picture doing that, but I bet it works in the game) Oh and dont forget to teabag your enemy when you kill him.

polypusher wrote:

Sheesh Pred, you're supposed to jump when you fire your bow, or run backwards while firing (actual suggestion from the TES forum, sounds rediculous if you try to picture doing that, but I bet it works in the game) Oh and dont forget to teabag your enemy when you kill him.

Dive while shotting I hear works best for head shots.

"Where do you think TapaRRR came from?"

Goldshire.

Damn, eight hundred pages of angry feelings across the Internet and I'm the only one who zeroed in on the Norwegian bottled water? I ought to write my own article. With blackjack! And hookers! In fact, forget the article!

Edit: Just been reading through the third anti-Goojer thread at the TES forums and found what has to be the biggest bucket of cold water thrown on all the mock ire. Kudos to this cat and the cat he quotes for the following:

GreatGreen wrote:
LizardMan101 wrote:

I don't get what everyone's problem with it is.
He's never played an Elder Scrolls game before. So what? He still said...
"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."

no no no... you're making the mistake of using reason and logic to base your argument on. you see, these things are forbidden here at the TES forums. you'll accomplish so much more by just screaming about what you hate for seemingly no apparent reason.

Robear wrote:
Like you said.. Range/Bow combat always seems to be fairly pointless in these types of games.. other than getting that initial pot shot in.

Ummm...Amulet of Levitation, and a bow. Fly up to the top of a building or rock, and fire away. Works for spells, too, if their range is long enough.

But now there aren't anymore levitation or jumping spells.

Looks like it's time to start stacking chairs.

Finally had the time to read this... Great preview! It was really nice to get a perspective on Oblivion from someone who had not actually played Morrowind. Of all the articles that got released today about this game, I found this one to be a lot more interesting.

As I won't be getting the game until this summer (thanks to lots of term papers), I'm really interested to see what people think of the game after its released and they are able to play it for awhile.

TY for the reveiw. I hope the initial loading times aren't as bad as morrow wind, although from your review it sounds like they will be.

either way Ill be picking this one up on day one =)

By the by, here is a a great quote from the official boards that might help assuage some concerns about the usefulness of archery later in the game. Actually, it gets me pretty excited about the possibilities. He is talking about the tactics he uses with the character he is currently playing, who specializes in archery.

MrSmileyFaceDude, a Bethesda developer wrote:

My current character uses Marksman almost exclusively for damaging attacks. I'll start off sneaking into range of an enemy, and fire off a poisoned arrow at them. My sneak skill is high enough and I'm concealed enough that I get a sneak attack bonus, so they're hurting from the start. I then cast a powerful summoned creature (usually a Daedroth), and let him go after the opponent, while I circle around & pepper my enemy with arrows.

Sometimes I'll forego the summoning, and just move around quickly, trying to avoid melee blows and fire arrow after arrow into my opponent. A few Shield potions bump up my armor rating so that any incoming damage is reduced.

Oh, and you can poison enchanted arrows, too.

I honestly don't see what is all the fuss about Pred's preview. Looking around the internet, its as if Pred insulted everyone's mother. Ouch...

Good hands-on preview, Prederick.

Nothing new to add, just wanted to say "thanks" Pred for a great, fresh review. I'm hoping my PC doesn't encounter the same load time issues as the 360, but either way I know I'll be enjoying the game about a month from now, barring any catastrophes at Bethesda Softworks between now and then.

I echo previous responses here when I say that your article was the best read out of all of today's coverage. Kudos (as in praise, not the candy bar, though you deserve one of those too).

Wow... I can't believe how much Anti-Pred sentiment is out there. Pred, Thanks for being honest and doing your best.

I got an email question I thought was worth sharing with the class. Care to chime in on this one Pred?

Hi, I'm a big fan of your site and have been reading some negative comments about Oblivions graphics on some other sites that had hands on time. In particular, the forest scene. One person who says that he was at the same event that you attended said that buildings were popping up out of nowhere in front of him while out in the wilderness, that the game would pause to load very frequently (especially on when on horse back), and that grass and foliage was only drawn in about 10 feet in front of you and that areas ahead of you were barren and plain.

Are these things true? Did you notice any issues such as the ones I mentioned? Any info in regards to this is appreciated. Thanks in advance.

Prederick wrote:

If it had been Statler and Waldorf I'd really have been honored.

Statler: Shakesphere would have hated that!
Waldorf: You should know, you dated his sister!
Both: (laugh)
Statler: Boy, was she ugly.

My fav.

Firstly, I'm an Elderscrolls fanboy and occasionally post on the official forums..

Secondly, fantastic preview!

Seriously, it's probably the best one I've read so far, so thanks for that Pred, and thanks for the follow up comments as well. You've successfully helped us see the game as you honestly experienced it, which I think has to be the goal of any objective review.

Please ignore the trolls that are swamping the official forums at the moment, they'll go away soon hopefully. As a fanboy it was pretty certain I'll be buying the game anyway, but it is nice to get a good impression of where the game is at right now. None of the previous TES games have been perfect and I'd much rather know in advance which aspects of the game aren't as good as others - it will ultimately increase my enjoyment of the game if I don't go in with unrealistic expectations of perfection in every department.