Elder Scrolls: Oblivion

Elder Scrolls: Oblivion

Written by Charles Husemann on 2/25/2006 for PC   360  

Coming out of E3 last year one of the games that really stood out of the crowd was Bethesda Softworks’s Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion. The high level of the graphics, the deep gameplay, the realistic physics, and the fact that they have Patrick Stewart playing the emperor in the game easily made Oblivion one of the two standout games at E3 (If you are interested, the other game was Remedy’s Alan Wake).

I was lucky enough to get asked to attend one of the three press previews being held across the country and thanks to a fare sale by Southwest, a lull in work, and a boss who was as interested in the game as I was, I was able to attend the press event in Chicago this past Wednesday.  You know I’m looking forward to a game when I voluntarily fly on Southwest, an airline that I absolutely detest.  I won’t go into my long spiel about the joy of unassigned seats but let’s just say I’m not a fan of the airline (although their TV show is somewhat entertaining at times).

To set the record straight I should admit that I have not had the chance to play an Elder Scrolls game before. I flirted with the first game when I was in college but I never really got that far into it and never really got a chance to play any of the other games that have come out since then. I know this makes me a bad person but with Oblivion I have the feeling I’m going to be making up for lost time.

For the press event I chose to spend the majority of time with the Xbox 360 version of the game.   My experience with Knights of the Old Republic plays into this as after playing the game on the Xbox I had a hard time adjusting to playing the game on the PC.

If you’re worried about the controls on the Xbox 360, then let me reassure you that the controls are exceedingly tight and easy to use.  You have your basic FPS controls of the left thumbstick controlling movement while the right thumbstick controls where you look.  Pressing down on the left thumbstick puts you into stealth mode and pushing down on the right thumbstick switches between first and third person view.  The left trigger blocks, while the right trigger attacks.  The left bumper allows you to grab objects in the world while the right bumper casts the currently selected spell.  For the face buttons, the X buttons sheaths/unsheathes your weapons, the Y button allows you to jump, the B button opens up your journal, and the A button interacts with the environment (push buttons, open doors, etc).

The real magic of the controls is the hot keys which are assigned to the eight directions of the D-pad.  The hotkeys allow you to map weapon sets, spells, and potions to each of the directions giving you quick access to different fighting styles.  This allows you to easily switch from shooting arrows at a distant enemy to a sword/shield combo as that enemy gets closer.  It also allows you to quickly switch between an offensive spell to a defensive one so you can quickly heal yourself and then switch back to hurling fireballs and lighting at your foes. It is a bit tricky to hit the diagonals of the d-pad at times but the game does seem to have a little bit of tolerance built in to handle it.

The controls on the PC version should be familiar to most people as Bethesda is using the traditional WASD standard for movement with R toggling the POV, CTRL switching stealth mode, the space bar for interaction, and the 1-8 keys for the hotkeys.  The mouse controls where you are looking with the left mouse button controlling your attacks and the right mouse button blocking.  

After playing both versions I really have to say that I still preferred the Xbox 360 controls over the PC setup for ease of use.  You do lose a little bit of precision with the console controls but the control scheme is so tight and easy to use that I really didn’t want to go back to a keyboard and mouse to play the game.  That’s a personal preference though and if you are used to playing the series on the PC you are not going to be disappointed.

The screenshots on this page are from the PC version of the game

After getting situated with one of the 360 stations I fired up a new game and got to work.  The game opens with a nice sweep of the main city with some excellent narration by Patrick Stewart that helps to setup the mood and tone of the game.  The sweep ends with the camera zooming in on jail cell windows and that’s where you take over control of the game. 

Before you enter the game you have to setup your character.  You can select the gender, race, and look of your character.  There are ten different races in the game and you have everything from the cat like Khajiit, orcs, a variety of elven races (Wood elf, Dark elf , and High elf), several human races (Nord, Imperial, Redguard, and Breton) , and the lizard like Argonian.  Like most RPG games each race has its own special benefits and abilities.  For example the Argonian can breathe underwater while the Imperials have a special speech ability that allows them to manipulating NPC’s more easily.  Once you have selected your race you then customize the face of your character.  The level of customization is extensive and you can control everything from the size of the forehead to the size and shape of the eyes.  If you really don’t want to deal with the details you can always hit the random button and the game will generate a unique face for you.

After creating your character you start off the game like every other Elder Scrolls game; in a dark dank cell.  Being the big dork that I am I immediately went up and started playing with the hanging chains in the room to check out the physics model in the game (re-creating the early part of the E3 demo).  After that I explored the cell a bit and was immediately insulted and taunted by the prisoner in the cell across from me.  I believe the taunts were race specific as he taunted my freshly minted Argonian about the fact that I would never see the water again and a few other things that seemed race specific.  After he got done talking I heard approaching footsteps and down came the emperor and a group of his royal protectors: the Blades.  As mentioned earlier the Emperor is voiced by Patrick Stewart and the voice work in the game is excellent.  It turns out that both of his sons have been killed and that he is probably next on the list.  As luck would have it the secret escape tunnel out of the castle is through my cell so it looks like my stay in the jail isn't going to be as long as planned.  From here you follow the guards out and the rest of the tutorial level starts.

Like most games the first level is there to introduce you to the basics of the game and Oblivion is no different.  Initially you learn how to control your character, equip weapons, cast spells and learn the combat system.  What Oblivion does a little differently is that during this first part of the game it allows you to also select which sign you were born under (which adds certain abilities/weaknesses to your character) as well as which class you want to select.  If you don't like any of the pre-defined classes you can actually create your own where you select which attributes and skills you want your character to have. 

Once you've gone through the first level (I'm not going to spoil how the level plays out even though I'm sure other writers will) you end up outside the castle.  Before exiting the sewer you are given one last chance to change your race, name, and birth sign.  It’s a nice touch as you can see if this is really the direction you want to go without having to play through the tutorial level again.  Once outside the sewer it is up to you to either start working your way through the game or start exploring the land.

The screenshots on this page are from the PC version of the game

The first thing you notice about Oblivion is how stunning the graphics are.  The sad thing is that the screenshots that Bethesda provided look great but really don’t show how well and fluid the graphics move because part of the realism and depth of the graphics is how well things move and flow in the game.  Trees and bushes gently sway in the wind.  The things that inhabit the world are well animated and move as you would expect.  I think I spent about three minutes just chasing deer around to see how well they moved.  There are a lot of subtleties to the graphics as well.  While working through one of the side quests in one of the villages I was about to cross a stream as dusk was approaching and as I entered the water I actually saw the sunset reflected back at me.  The realism of this moment was so intense that I actually sat at the side of the river and watched the sunset reflected in the water, the sun slowly turning from yellow to a burnt red as it worked it’s way through it’s orbit.  Things like this have been done in games before but not at this level of realism and detail.  Bethesda has done a great job of creating a living, breathing world.

The second thing you’ll notice when you are in the game is how big the world is.  It’s almost too big and overwhelming to be honest and there’s definitely that feeling of if I can see it I can get to it in the game.  This feeling is further compounded by the amount of missions, quests, and things that you can do in the game.  You can do just the main quest and call it a day but that’s like going to the Louvre and only seeing the Mona Lisa.  Sure that’s the main piece of the museum but you are missing out on a lot of other things inside the place.  Besides the main quest there are the corollary guild quests, town quests, and over 200 dungeons to for you to explore and purge.   The quests in Oblivion aren’t all going to be gigantic epic adventures as there are some nice shorter quests in there to help you feel like you are making some progress in the game.

Thankfully there are quite a few ways to get around Tamriel.  The most obvious is that you can walk/swim from point A to point B.  In the time honored RPG tradition expect to spend a lot of time hoofing it to destinations.  Speaking of hoofs, Bethesda has introduced horses in Oblivion to help expedite the process somewhat.  As you progress through the game you will be able to get different horses from the different towns.  You’ll be able to buy bigger and faster horses later on down the road.  The drawback to the horses is that you can’t engage in combat or cast spells while you are mounted.  This is a little frustrating as every time you are attacked by a woodland creature you will have to dismount from the horse to kill it, giving it time to get a few digs in at your horse or yourself.  Horses are not entirely defenseless and will defend themselves against enemies but after a few attacks they will eventually succumb to their attackers.  The game does speed travel up a bit with the Fast Travel system where you can just point and click on the map and the game will take you immediately to where ever you want to go.  This only works for areas you have been to in the past so will not be able to Fast Travel throughout the game.

I did have a pretty interesting event happen to me as I was playing the game.  I'm riding my horse to get one of the waypoints of the main quest and I get attacked by a wolf and a rogue woodsman.  It was getting late (just after dusk) so I can barely see the wolf but I hear the arrows from the woodsman landing near me.  I get off the horse to take care of them as you can't attack or cast magic while mounted.  As soon as I’m off the horse the wolf attacks and chases the horse off into the woods.  I break out the sword and shield and chase after him.  I catch up to the woodsman and cast a few flares (light fireball spell) at him while moving closer to finish him off with the sword. The spells help provide some light at night as well.  I take care of him and then turn around to find the wolf heading my way.  After finishing off the wolf, my horse is still no where to be seen so I wander around a bit and eventually find the body of the animal further back in the woods. It looks like the wolf finally caught up to the horse, killed it and then came back to finish me  It was a pretty cool event and showed off a lot of what makes the game so special.  Rather than walk the rest of the way to the town I just pulled up the map and fast traveled to the city I was going to as I was just exploring the countryside to check out the various locations and collect some spell ingredients.

The screenshots on this page are from the Xbox 360 version of the game

No preview of Oblivion could be complete without talking about the RadiantAI system that controls most of the characters in the world.  Rather than having set scripts for the characters in the game each NPC is controlled by a schedule and a series of wants and needs.  Characters will eat when they feel hungry and go to sleep when they are tired.  During the day they will report to work around nine in the morning and shut down around six in the evening.  It was actually kind of interesting to watch the characters go about their daily lives, interacting with each other as they walked through towns.  This of course makes them a little easier to predict so you usually know when and where they are and can act accordingly.  For example if you wanted to rob one of the stores you know that there probably won’t be any one there at 2am in the morning.  The game does have a wait feature that allows you to progress through the game in 1 hour increments so you don’t literally have to sit in one spot while time moves on. Although you have to think it might be weird for the denizens of Tamriel to see someone standing in place for 12 hours straight while you wait for something to happen.

Interacting with the NPC’s in the game is one of the most important parts of any RPG as they are usually critical to the plot of the game.  Here Oblivion takes the existing dialog tree model and breaks some new ground.  When you first talk to someone you are given the typical dialog tree of interactions.  However you can also try and persuade them.  This brings up a circular diagram that is broken into four quadrants with a number in the middle.  Each of these quadrants (Joke, Admire, Boast, and Coerce) will elicit a different response from the person you are talking to.  They will either like the response, like it a little less, not like it, or not like it a little less which you can tell by the look on their face.  When you start the actual persuade mini-game, each quadrant will be filled with wedges of different sizes.  The wedges are in one of four sizes (small to large) with each representing the effect of the quadrant it is currently in.  When you invoke an action, the wedges move clockwise so the trick of this is to try and have the big wedges act in the quadrant they respond to the most and have the small wedges in the quadrant they like the least.  The number in the middle represents how likely they are to give you more information and it goes up when you activate a quadrant they respond to well and it goes down when you activate a quadrant they don’t respond to well.  The amount is determined by the size of the wedge currently occupying that wedge so the trick is to try and get the big wedge in the positive action and the small wedge in the most negative one. You can only click each action once.  It’s something that takes a little bit of getting used to but once you get the hang of it, it is quite fun.  If you don’t want to play the game you can also just bribe the person.  As you gain experience in the Speech craft skill the losses for picking a negative choice will go down and the increases for a correct placement will go up. 

Once you reach a high enough score you will gain access to additional dialogue options or even be able to get past certain limitations.  An example of this was that in one of the towns I visited the Count who oversaw the town wouldn’t let just anyone buy a house there so I had to work my way through the game just so that I could buy a house in his town.

The screenshots on this page are from the Xbox 360 version of the game

Of course there’s another way to interact with the NPC’s of the world and that’s with a sword, bow, or spell.  You can get away with occasionally killing an NPC while no one is around but if you attack kill someone while in a town expect the guards to bring the thunder down on you.  What’s great about Oblivion is that killing everyone in a town is an option if you are so inclined.  While you can’t kill every single NPC in the game you can come pretty close to it. There are certain ones that are critical to the plot that you can knock unconscious though and they are market with a crown sign when you put the crosshairs on them.

Writing all of this now I’m trying to cover every single thing that I saw during my four hour period with the game and I know I’m missing a lot of items like talking about the excellent journal system that tracks your quests, the cool map UI and way that you equip/unequip items, or the different types of classes and skills that are in the game.   There’s only so much that you can really cover in one preview.

The one thing that I know about Oblivion is that after playing the game for a scant four hours I know that I feel a little differently about gaming now and that Oblivion has the potential to be one of those games that changes things; one of those games that you will judge other games by for years to come.  To qualify that statement, I’m not sure if it’s just because this is my first experience with the Elder Scrolls series or because Oblivion is such a big step forward in the gaming world.  Either way I’m looking forward to spending a lot of time in Tamriel whenever the game is released. I’m guessing that the game will be on stores by the end of March unless something dramatic happens.  The game feels so deep and wide that you could probably play through the game three or four times and not see everything that there is to see. 

* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company for review.

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About Author

Hi, my name is Charles Husemann and I've been gaming for longer than I care to admit. For me it's always been about competing and a burning off stress. It started off simply enough with Choplifter and Lode Runner on the Apple //e, then it was the curse of Tank and Yars Revenge on the 2600. The addiction subsided somewhat until I went to college where dramatic decreases in my GPA could be traced to the release of X:Com and Doom.   I have been a Microsoft Xbox MVP since 2009.
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