Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Oblivion Impressions

I've played Oblivion for five hours. Here's what I can tell you: five hours isn't nearly enough time to post thorough impressions.

Here's why: Oblivion is really at least two different games, depending on how you want to play it. You can follow the main storyline, or you can just wander off and do whatever the hell you want.

I chose option #2. Which means I haven't really touched the main plot, other than the introduction and the tutorial. And I think it's strongly in the game's favor that I can wander off and do my own thing.

And there is plenty to do. It took me a couple of hours to fully explore two sets of ruins, and I'm going to keep doing that, just working my way across the country, building my character's skills and exploring the world.

That's one of the games of Oblivion. It can be a huge sandbox, full of things to explore and enjoy. There aren't many games around anymore that allow that--most give you a much tighter, more scripted experience--so I want to take the opportunity.

There are a few things, though, that I can tell you after only five hours.

First, I'm willing to bet that the worst hour in the game is the first hour. I thought the tutorial and the opening section of the game was relatively uninspired, and I was bored. As soon as I got outdoors, though, and just started wandering around, my interest level rose quickly and steadily. So if you're stuck in the tutorial and you're totally underwhelmed, just hang in there, and it will get much, much better.

Two, the interface is not perfect, but it's workable, and you'll be zipping around it fairly quickly. To make it easier, don't forget your hot keys (1-8, go into the journal, highlight an item, press a hot key number, then click on the item to put it into the hotkey slot). Also, you can bind a mouse button to perform the open (and close) journal action, which is very convenient. And if you want to run all the time, use the caps-lock key and you will.

Three, I've looked at both versions. I spent an hour with the 360 version, two hours screwing around with the settings on the PC version to get it to run more smoothly, and five hours playing the PC version. I've got an FX-51 with the Geforce 7800 GS AGP card (I broke down about a month ago, trying to fight off building a new system). So for an AGP system, it's fairly high end. I've got the recommended "ultra high" settings (from the game's analysis program that determines default settings for your rig), but I bumped the resolution to 1280x1024. It gets a little chunky in places, but overall it's acceptable. There's plenty of pop-in for grass and trees, unfortunately, which is annoying but livable. If you have a true high-end rig, though, it should look absolutely stunning, and you can change draw distance in the .ini file to get rid of that pop-in if your system can handle it.

I think the PC version, at 1280x1024 and the ultra-high settings, looks marginally better than the 360 version on the plasma screen. Having said that, I'd probably be playing the 360 version (for comfort and sound), except mouselook is just irreplaceable for me. As much as I like the 360 controller, using that right analog stick to aim instead of the mouse is just a pain in the ass. Plus, you know there are going to be some killer mods, and I'd like to have the option to play them. So if you have an HD set and a low-end gaming rig, I'd highly recommend the 360 version. If you're high-end with both, though, and you have a nice PC monitor, I think the PC version would be a slightly better option. But only slightly.

The world itself has a very vibrant feel to me. The first time you see deer running through the forest is just fantastic. Same thing when you see birds fly overhead. And just like Morrowind, the landscapes in Oblivion have a beautiful and organic feel to them. They look natural to me, and Oblivion's are significantly more detailed.

The Collector's Edition comes with a very nifty coin (I'm a complete sucker for something like that), a faux-leather bound book titled "A Pocket Guide to the Empire and its Environs" (which is excellent reading), and a DVD of bonus material (I have no idea what's on that). All in all, I'm glad I got the CE instead of the regular version. Hell, the coin alone was worth ten dollars to me.

One thing that was jarring when I started playing is that Oblivion is a throwback game. No matter how pretty it looks, it's an old-school RPG. It's huge. There are a tremendous number of things to do an explore. It's not going to be a thrill a minute. It's got a different vibe to it entirely than most of the frantic, scripted games that are coming out now.

And after about an hour, you realize that's a good thing.

The only thing that annoys me after the first five hours are the conversations you have with other characters. There was an unfortunate design decision made to zoom in on the character's faces way too tightly, and they look like hell from that close--great eyes, but the faces are pretty nasty in comparison. If they had just moved the camera position out a few feet in the game world, it would have been just fine, but for now, it drives me crazy.

I can live with that, though, because this is a game that feels like it was crafted. The architecture and the landscape design is just beautiful. It's a world that feels solid. It doesn't feel like tissue paper that will rip if you press too hard. And while it's not revolutionary, there's nothing wrong with taking what's worked and making it even better.

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