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