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

I too plan to focus heavily on bows. I'm thinking archer/summoner so I have a meat shield. I can see your point about different races requiring animations for each of them and etc. Also xbows do have much fancier anims than bows, what with the cranking and the shouldering and such. I still hope they add it in an expansion pack or patch though. I love xbows.

Certis wrote:

Who was that masked man?

Anyways, for those of you interested, this article has over 23,000 views.

Isn't this the time to ask for more donations then? Come on Certis unleash the inner salesman inside you!!

Prederick wrote:

My first point was that, as compared to Sports games you'll find these days, the character customization was very stunted. I would've loved to adjust how burly my character was, or made him more lithe and athletic looking, or changed the length of tail my Argonian had, or the type of tail, and so on, and so forth.

I think the effort necessary to get these body modifications in a game like Oblivion is much greater than a sports game. In most sports game it's pretty easy to scale portions or all of an athlete's model, because as the model "wears" different uniforms it's really just a different texture applied to the model.

The equivalent of uniforms in Oblivion is armor which is not just a texture but is a seperate model. But it's not just one model. It's boots, thighs, cuirass, pauldrons, guantlets and helmet. All pieces are seperate yet animated with a minimal amount of clipping. So how do you animate each piece of armor in relation to a body that could be in a range of shapes an sizes? Bethesda's answer was, "You don't." I can only really think of one game that did.

In Fable you couldn't choose how your body looked at first. As you levelled up your body adjusted to reflect your actions. Lanky archers and bulky swordsmen, and the armor kept up. The secret? No secret at all, they just put in the grunt work necessary to make sure it all animated smoothly. It was a tremendous undertaking. Among other factors, this emphasis on body alteration was a reason the game was incredibly short and there weren't many types of armor.

It's all just a question of where you put the man hours. Do you want a seamless gradient of body types with matching armor or do you want sixteen square miles of world to play in? I prefer the latter, but different strokes for different folks.

When someone from the Elder Scrolls forums pops in to suggest that they're not all bad but does so without capitalization, is that a joke?

Danjo Olivaw wrote:

The equivalent of uniforms in Oblivion is armor which is not just a texture but is a seperate model. But it's not just one model. It's boots, thighs, cuirass, pauldrons, guantlets and helmet. All pieces are seperate yet animated with a minimal amount of clipping. So how do you animate each piece of armor in relation to a body that could be in a range of shapes an sizes? Bethesda's answer was, "You don't." I can only really think of one game that did.
In Fable you couldn't choose how your body looked at first. As you levelled up your body adjusted to reflect your actions. Lanky archers and bulky swordsmen, and the armor kept up. The secret? No secret at all, they just put in the grunt work necessary to make sure it all animated smoothly. It was a tremendous undertaking. Among other factors, this emphasis on body alteration was a reason the game was incredibly short and there weren't many types of armor.

It's all just a question of where you put the man hours. Do you want a seamless gradient of body types with matching armor or do you want sixteen square miles of world to play in? I prefer the latter, but different strokes for different folks.

I think it is also worth noting how extremely limited the armor selection was in Fable. They put in the effort needed to make all of their armor scale the different body sizes but they only made somewhere around two dozen armor sets, some of which were little more than pallete swaps of each other, and most were designed in ways that would make scaling easy. This is not to denigrate their efforts, but to further point out the tradeoffs that would be necessary to make armor scalable.

By contrast, Bethesda developers have stated that they are aiming to create over 70 full armor sets and about 100 other miscellaneous armor pieces, all of which must be modeled differently for male and female characters, and must be look right on each of the ten different races (although I'm not sure if they have different body models for each race... but I definitely remember Nords in Morrowind being bigger and beefier than other races, so it is possible). So I think it is pretty safe to say that they already have a monumental task before them without having to worry about making the armor arbitrarily scalable so that the player can customize their body type. So even comparing their body customization features to Fable (let alone sports games!) is a bit unfair, given the massive scope of what they are trying to accomplish with equipment variety.

Also:

Danjo Olivaw wrote:

When someone from the Elder Scrolls forums pops in to suggest that they're not all bad but does so without capitalization, is that a joke?

I'm giving them the benefit of the doubt, and assuming that if they decide to paticipate in other discussions here at GWJ they will read and respect the CoC before doing so. And if they don't, I'm sure that the issue will be properly addressed by the Goodjer Grammar Police.

Wow... The Elder Scrolls community is god damn creepy. You guys think the reaction to this is bad? Give this a gander.

Just to throw a little tidbit out about armor scaling, the bodies were different proportions in Morrowind.
One of my favorite bits of the game was an example of this during character creation in Seyda Neen. When you selected a possible race at the final stage of creation, your viewpoint would adjust for the height of the selected race (which made it entertaining to find the 'right' height).

I loved it when you finally find the right combo of class and race, and it 'clicked' into the character you were going to be for the following iteration of the game.

Umm.. clearly, I enjoyed character creation alittle too much. Speaking of... I think, in the lead up to ESIV, we need a favorite Morrowind character thread...

Sinatar wrote:

Wow... The Elder Scrolls community is god damn creepy. You guys think the reaction to this is bad? Give this a gander.

Yup.

Of course, when you compare his impressions to those of others (such as our very own Prederick) it seems as though he might be exagerating a little bit about how much of a show stopper the pop-in, draw distance, loading, and framerate issues are. From the other impressions I have read and listened to those problems are clearly real, but perhaps not nearly as noticeable or damaging to the game experience as he makes them out to be.

It certainly doesn't call for the kind of reaction witnessed in the comments at that link (I think there are at least a few death threats in there). However, it is possible that his critiques were overly harsh, and perhaps even intentionally so... after all there is nothing like trashing a highly anticipated game to bring in the page views.

Some writers feel that "keeping it real" means going to the opposite spectrum of being overly positive about a game, instead they use hyperbole to over-state smaller issues. You see it all the time and it's no better than glossing over issues in favor of singing praise. Given that Pred says he didn't notice these issues nearly as strongly as the Wired guy did, I'm pretty sure he's letting his ego get the best of him and going for attention.

I'm pretty sure he's letting his ego get the best of him and going for attention.

And for the record, is anyone surprised by that fact?

This is why it's important for the review to not only talk about the different individual aspects of the game, including any technical issues, but also to give a holistic statement on whether they had fun with the game in spite of any flaws, and whether they intend to spend their own money on it. Often, when I read that a game has "issues" like load times or the kind of slowdown that Pred talked about, what I really wonder is whether or not I will still enjoy the game, or if the "issues" will be so heartbreaking as to ruin the experience. This is especially relevant with a game like Oblivion, where I'm trying to figure out whether to buy it for the 360 or the PC. (Pred's answers on page 4 were that he might buy it, but not right away, and if he does, that'll be on PC. Not sure if he owns a 360, now that I think about it...that little factoid is critical in viewing his statement that PC would be his preferred platform).

Why did I put that last bit in parentheses? I don't know; I'm obsessed with them.

Fedaykin98 wrote:

Why did I put that last bit in parentheses? I don't know; I'm obsessed with them.

Don't worry; you're not the only one who loves to abuse parentheses (I too am guilty of it, as you could probably gather from reading any of my posts in any thread).

Wired vs. Gamepro

Fight! Fight! Fight!

Sinatar wrote:

Wired vs. Gamepro

Fight! Fight! Fight!

What kind of world do we live in where Gamepro is called upon to be the voice of reason? Or is it simply that my impressions of the magazine from the last time I read it (roughly 1995) are outdated?

Your post was poorly spelled, incomprehensible and lacking capital letters. Try again please, we expect better efforts if you're going to contribute to a conversation. - Certis

BOOM! Goes the dynamite. Chin up, me. I've been corrected a number of times (never for my English though). Try, try again.

Anyone a little suspicious about the comment he made earlier on the threads about the cpu being better even the cpu were not done setting when he left? But he still managed to catch a glimpse of the screen. From that glimpse he concluded the cpu ran the game better than the 360. I have lost trust in this web site because of that poorly backed comment.

PS

Fedaykin98 wrote:

BOOM! Goes the dynamite. Chin up, me. I've been corrected a number of times (never for my English though). Try, try again.

It didnt delete it for any spelling or english. just because i pointed out this flaw in their information.

me wrote:

Anyone a little suspicious about the comment he made earlier on the threads about the cpu being better even the cpu were not done setting when he left? But he still managed to catch a glimpse of the screen. From that glimpse he concluded the cpu ran the game better than the 360. I have lost trust in this web site because of that poorly backed comment.

PS

Fedaykin98 wrote:

BOOM! Goes the dynamite. Chin up, me. I've been corrected a number of times (never for my English though). Try, try again.

It didnt delete it for any spelling or english. just because i pointed out this flaw in their information.

3...2...1...0? Hmm.

I'm very glad you posted again, me, because Certis edited your earlier post before I got a chance to see it. I now see just what he was talking about. In case you didn't know, your grasp of written English is very poor. If you like, I would be happy to help you with it. Seriously, I majored in English at college and I'd love to help.

As for your conspiracy theory, I doubt that is the case, because it is impossible to figure out what you are alleging. Honestly, I have no idea what the flaw that you are trying to point out is. I doubt Certis does either.

I think he's suggesting that this little quote in one of Pred's replies is a discrepancy of some sort, invalidating everything he wrote.

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.

He was scheduled to play on the PC version but the boxes were delayed and he was there first thing in the morning on the first day. The PC's arrived later in the day as he was getting ready to leave, a reasonable person would assume he saw someone playing the PC version as he was packing up and he thought it looked a little sharper than the 360 version.

Is that what you meant, me? Because it's a pretty big reach to suggest he was stating definitively that the PC version was better when he clearly states he just glimpsed it.

And thank you for putting more effort into this post, it was much more readable than your first attempt and we do appreciate it.

Certis wrote:

something comprehensible

You, sir, should be in Egypt decrypting hieroglyphics.

Danjo Olivaw wrote:

A very good argument.

Oh, I hear you man. I would not want those changes I noted if it meant losing a lot of the things that Oblivion offers, for sure. But for the future, I hope they'll start thinking about stuff like that. It probably was a matter of one or the other, and i'll always take gameplay over graphics.

That said, the character creation still didn't light my fire. 'Tis all I mean.