Wednesday, September 29, 2004

The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion

There is a lengthy article in the new issue of Game Informer about The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Dubious Quality reader Milos Miljkovic asked me to provide a summary for non-U.S. readers (Game Informer is apparently only available in the U.S.). I'm glad to do that, so here goes. Please remember that this article was a preview, so it's not exactly investigative journalism.

Graphics, graphics, graphics. The new engine is stunning--beyond stunning, really. Bethesda made an outstanding decision when they released a few expansion packs for Morrowind but didn't create another Elder Scrolls using the same engine. They went forward, and because of that, Oblivion, like Morrowind before it, will be the most graphically advanced RPG ever made. The screenshots are just absolutely amazing, and Todd Howard (executive producer) mentions that they are focusing far more on outdoor environments this time, now that graphics technology has become more powerful.

Fueling these amazing advances in graphics is the Elder Scrolls construction set program, which will be included in the PC version. This generation of the tool has become a very detailed world builder--for example, a designer can designate an area as 'forest,' then select which trees and bushes grow in the area, then define density, and the tool will populate the area. Even the soil type can be designated. It's quite remarkable. The Construction set also dynamically generates NPC's in a similar way, including both their look and their behavior.

Like I said, the Construction Set will be included with the PC version, so the mods that will be created for this should be nothing short of astounding.

In terms of gameplay, there are comments in the article from Howard that could certainly be cause for concern. He says that the goal is to "...make the game as appealing as possible to mainstream gamers without alienating the hardcore..." That sounds like a Warren Specter quote, and we know how that turned out. However, the ways that Howard mentions changes in gameplay don't sound so painful. For one, skills like lock picking and potion mixing will be mini-games instead of determined by engine calculations. That's a good idea, particularly for lock picking. He also says that combat will be more prominent in Oblivion. Again, I think that's a move for the console audience, but that doesn't inherently make it a bad design decision.

Here are a couple of additional notes about gameplay and the world:
--horses can be ridden
--1,000 NPC's, each with their own schedule
--NPC's will communicate their feelings toward you in their facial expressions (again, dynamically generated)
--third-person view is available, but primarily designed for first-person

Certainly, Bethesda is trying to attract a console audience. That's no surprise, because that's what everyone is doing. However, Oblivion is being developed for Xbox 2 and PS3 (in addition to the PC), and the graphics capability of those consoles will be on par with a high-end PC for the first 12-18 months of the console's lifespan. I also believe that 720p support will be standard on both consoles. So there will be no reason for console development to constrain the graphics on the PC version.

The screenshots in the article, by the way, are supposedly untouched and they are from the Xbox 2 version, not the PC version. There will be no complaints if the PC version looks that good (and there's no reason why it wouldn't).

One other note: this same engine will be used for Fallout 3.

In terms of release date, nothing is mentioned, although I think Fall 2005 is the absolute earliest possibility (to coincide with the release of Xbox 2).

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