It's exciting, to say the least, getting a sneak peak at a hotly anticipated sequel to one of the best single player RPGs of all time. The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind was one of those games that did almost everything right - tight gameplay, good story, near unlimited quests. Morrowind kept this editor engaged for long after his bedtime and long through the morning rise. Stay a while, this is time for Oblivion.
Nine o' clock and all is well
I arrived with Eric Bodrero at the Bethesda showing at 9:00 a.m. with a bunch of questions on my mind. Had they fixed some of the broken issues with Morrowind? Can I still use a jinx blade to simply murder everyone in the game? Questions bounced in my head like Pong-balls. The room was small, but cozy, with hard overhead lights and rigid off-white walls. I sat down. The lights dimmed. The screen illuminated. Executive Producer Todd Howard greeted us and began by introducing his colleagues, some of whom I had the pleasure to talk to about Oblivion before E3 (read that interview here
). Oblivion has been in development for 3 years, he told us as the first in-game screenshot of the game dissolved into the large flat-panel. It looked good. So good, in fact, that I immediately remembered the screen shots of the game; they just cannot capture the beauty of the game in action.
A Cell of a Beginning
We started in a cell. Mr. Howard showed us the layers of texture mapping and the progression by which it was finalized. He showed us the physics engine, the beginning of a story, and the close-up of King Uriel Septim voiced by the multi-talented Patrick Stuart. You all recognize that voice?¯ Howard said with a grin. We nodded knowingly. Oblivion, he told us, has 1000 individually modeled objects (not characters) and contains 50 hours of recorded dialog. Before the small audience had a chance to comprehend what 50 hours straight of dialog was, I noticed Howard, without flinching, continuing the demo out of the cell into a dense forest.
The forests are all procedurally generated, which means that they are grown,¯ in a way, out of code of restrictions set up by the developers. They use a modified version of SpeedTree which does exactly that, it speed-grows trees. And they are more than just trees, at least trees from our Earth - the trees twist and loom over the player in a way that makes them, I thought, come alive in their digital environment. The team at Bethesda all spent time at the University of Maryland studying trees and foliage. The team, it seemed, had to get to know real trees in order to create the ones we saw.
Something old, something new...
New to the series is the enhanced battle system. In the demo, Howard showed a battle between himself and a knight where the force from the swing of a sword knocked him back a few feet. Then he charged in and swung at the knight, who staggered before retaliating. Sound effects of metal crunching on a shield and a sword whipping through the wind made the experience incredibly exhilarating. The battles have been retooled. Blocking is now under your control. And stealth elements have been refined and reintegrated into the battle system: stealth kills are now just as important as brawn. But, like Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, Oblivion doesn't make the player conform to any one type of play. Whether you're a ranged fighter, close-combat fighter, mage, assassin¦or any combination of these (or even those not mentioned) the options are open for you.
The game is a total of 16 square miles and, while that doesn't seem big, imagine this - Oblivion is about 1 and half times the size of the land of Morrowind. The towns are bigger, the forests are denser and more vast. We realized that when we created the forests,¯ said Executive Producer Todd Howard, we just walked around in them and got lost, so we needed a way to navigate through.¯ So now, there is a compass system that points to different locales, towns, dungeons, etc, so you don't get lost. The forests, however, remain dense and disorienting, but now, Howard reassured us, you can find your way.
One of the newer editions to the series is the ability to fast travel around the world. Say you've visited a city before and want to get there quickly. Now all you have to do is bring up the map and click there to go there. This ability seems to replace the old transports¯ that were arbitrarily placed around the game. Oblivion Producer Gavin Carter, who was able to answer a few questions I had about the game, felt that getting places was the most tedious part of Morrowind. Don't worry though, this isn't going to break the game or make it succumb to the same fate as Fable's transport system did (removing a possible five hours from gameplay as a result). Thus, because of this addition, there will be no pack rats (things to carry your belongings) in Oblivion. There will, however be horses to ride, essentially cutting back travel time even more.
The team at Bethesda hand built 200 dungeons for Oblivion and left the overall game, beside the main story, open to the player. The dungeons are now dynamic with moving parts and interactive objects. In the demo, Howard hit a switch which caused a spiky wall trap to spring to action, killing a few unlucky skeletons. Later, we saw the entire dungeon reshape and move; walls rose from the ground to block progress - levels have become puzzles in their own right.
Bethesda's most prized accomplishment isn't the dynamic levels or the enormous world, no, not even the insanely realistic texture mapping or the physics engine. Bethesda's most prized accomplishment is Radiant AI. Radiant AI moderates over 1000 AI characters - it gives them full 24 hour schedules, personalities, likes, dislikes. NPC (non-playable characters) will now read, learn, eat, and level their abilities up just like the main character. We saw a woman practicing archery, then get angry at her dog and torch him with a fireball. The unfortunate dog yelped for its life as it ran downstairs. Radiant AI in action allows characters to remember you. They remember conversations and respond realistically to your questions - depending on who you are and what you've done for them. This amount of detail is not new exactly, it has been implemented before, to some degree in Shenmue for the XBox, and even in games like The Legend of Zelda: Windwaker for the GameCube. But never has an AI system been constructed to allow 1000 characters independent development, likes, dislikes, schedules, abilities, etc. Oblivion is looking to set the bar for single player RPGs once again.
He also confirmed that players will be able to hire mercenaries to quest with you in Oblivion. Skills are once again leveled on a per-use basis. Repetitive action is practice,¯ said Gavin Carter. Essentially the system will remain unchanged except for a few tweaks here and there. When asked which tweaks, Mr. Carter responded that they were mostly balancing issues. They did make it more difficult to level up abilities, however, so expect it to take longer to get that jump¯ ability to 99.
Mr. Carter couldn't comment specifically on the Xbox version of Oblivion, but did give one very important statement: We hope that, when it's done, it will look exactly the same [as the PC].¯
The behind closed doors demo of Oblivion was extremely promising. Of course, we don't expect anything less from Bethesda with their flagship series. Thanks goes to Bethesda for having us, for Todd Howard for his help, and Gavin Carter for his comments. Look for more coverage of the PC Oblivion as well as the Xbox 360 version of Oblivion as the release date approaches.