The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion E3 2005 Impressions

We finally get a chance to take an up-close look at the next game in Bethesda's long-running Elder Scrolls role-playing series.

We're on hand at E3 2005 and have had a chance to sit in on a demonstration for PC version of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. The new game will be the follow-up to 2002's Morrowind, but according to executive producer Todd Howard, "the key to each Elder Scrolls game is reinvention." That is, with Oblivion, as with the previous games, Bethesda has thrown out all the old content and technology it had previously used and has started from scratch, with an all-new next-generation engine that takes advantage of advanced lighting and shader routines--like high-dynamic-range lighting and specular mapping--to create a highly detailed world. The game has been in development for about three years (production began right around the time the team was finishing up Morrowind), and it looks extremely impressive so far.

We began our demonstration within the confines of a prison cell. Apparently, at the start of Oblivion, you're a nameless prisoner who's locked in a dungeon in the capital of the fantasy realm of Tamriel. The game's lighting and shaders helped create a highly realistic-looking prison cell lined with jagged cobblestone masonry and rusty shackles that rattled realistically on their chains when manipulated. The game will include more than 9,000 physically modeled objects you can manipulate.

However, we were disturbed from fiddling with chains and old bones by the arrival of Emperor Uriel Septim VII himself, the same monarch that players had served in Morrowind. The emperor, voiced by Star Trek: The Next Generation star Patrick Stewart, was escorted to the dungeon by two of his most faithful guards to escape from the palace through a secret passage. (The game will reportedly have more than 50 hours of recorded voice dialogue.) By some kind of fantastic coincidence, the secret passage led right through the cell in which we were imprisoned. The guards curtly barked for us to stand away from the bars as they opened the cell (and in classic Elder Scrolls fashion, they made the unfriendly suggestion that they would not hesitate to kill us if we attempted any sudden moves around the person of the emperor). This sequence will actually determine your character's profession in the final game, whether you choose to fight, use stealth, or other methods to escape. In the demonstration we watched, we meekly complied with the guards' demands and even had a brief audience with the emperor, who claimed he had seen our face in a dream. It was revealed later that, unfortunately for the emperor, his dreams won't do anything to save his life from assassins. Once the emperor is murdered, the gate to Tamriel's hellish underworld, known as Oblivion, is opened, and only by finding the emperor's only surviving son can you hope to save the kingdom from complete destruction.

We then skipped ahead to one of Oblivion's all-new procedurally rendered forests, which model huge and lush woodlands composed of rows of trees, bushes, and grass growing organically around hillsides and rock formations. According to Howard, several members of the development team consulted with the University of Maryland's ecology department to determine how to create forests without requiring artists to painstakingly add each item. And yet, to make sure players don't get lost in the woods (the game is currently planned to include about 16-square miles' worth of areas to explore, about half of which will be forest), you'll also have an enhanced compass that will automatically pick up any points of interest, such as a nearby dungeon built on an elven ruin. Unfortunately for us, the ruin was guarded by a heavily armored soldier who came charging at us, broadsword bared. We dispatched the soldier using the game's new first-person combat system and our own longsword, alternately hiding behind our footman's shield and taking swings at the enemy. In melee combat, you'll have at least two primary attacks: a quick attack executed by tapping your attack button and a heavy attack executed by pressing and holding your attack button. You'll perform different types of attacks and combinations depending on your character's level of skill with that melee weapon, and like with Morrowind, your character's skills will increase with repeated use. According to Howard, the combat system is intended to be fast-paced and kinetic, so you'll also see plenty of blood fly in battle as well.

We then skipped ahead to the dungeon, a dank, stony confine inhabited by shambling, one-armed zombies and skeletal warriors. These undead denizens weren't the only threat in the dungeon. We watched several new and highly appropriate traps in action, such as a sliding grate door embedded with spikes that came hurtling toward us, which we managed to sidestep on its first pass and then watched as it tore through a pair of skeletal warriors on the rebound. Later, we watched another dungeon crawl in which we used the enhanced stealth system (which includes an eye-shaped icon onscreen when you have successfully hidden yourself) to make exceptionally lethal shots with a bow. We also saw a demonstration of the game's physics as we crept up on a pair of goblins standing near a pile of food and a hidden trap. We picked up a nearby pumpkin and tossed it at a few mooring lines that were actually holding back several spiked weights mounted on ropes from the ceiling. The weights came swinging down and sent the goblins flying.

We also had a chance to visit one of the game's towns, which featured medieval European architecture (stony buildings with thatched roofs), lined with cobblestone roads with patches of grass on the sides. We sidled up to a conversation between a human bard character and a dark elf wearing plate armor. The human bard related the dire news that a portal to Oblivion had opened in a nearby town, and monsters were pouring forth from it and slaughtering civilians. After overhearing this news, we had the attack itself added to our journal as a new dialogue topic, which we were then able to ask the bard about. This resulted in the addition of a new quest to our journal. According to Howard, this is the way you'll receive many of your quests in Oblivion, especially since you'll intercept many non-player characters going about their daily business, including having important conversations.

The game's characters might not be highly scripted, but they will, instead, use the game's "Radiant AI" system, which will give them a rough daily schedule, a few specific goals, and some personal needs (such as the need to eat and the need to sleep). Then it will basically turn them loose in the world. We watched an example in which we entered a bookstore and chatted up the storekeeper using the game's diplomacy skill (which has been changed from Morrowind to a circle onscreen that lets you move your cursor between options like joke or threaten; the character you're speaking to will react accordingly with facial animations). The bookkeeper seemed to prefer jokes and smiled when she heard them. She then invited us upstairs to keep her company. The bookkeeper then went about one of her general goals: training in archery by firing arrows at a hanging target in her room while her enthusiastic dog leaped about. The bookkeeper's aim was off, so she voluntarily quaffed a marksmanship potion, which improved her aim considerably. She also tossed her hungry dog a cut of venison, which affected the excited quadruped in much the same way it would affect a player. The dog then got so excited that the short-tempered bookkeeper cast a paralysis spell on her pet, causing it to tumble to the floor. The bookkeeper then attempted to lie down and go to sleep, but her dog recovered and began yapping excitedly again. So the impatient bookkeeper then cast a fire spell on her poor pooch, setting the dog on fire and sending it yelping from the room. After the bookkeeper laid down for the evening and subsequently nodded off, we helped ourselves to the two-handed claymore sword on her table and departed for the besieged town.

We reached the town during the dark of night. Oblivion will model full 24-hour real-time day-night cycles, and it will actually let you instantaneously travel between different hot spots on your map (though time will still elapse as your travel). The town itself was a smoking ruin; its once-proud cathedral was torn in half, and two of the emperor's soldiers stood guard. Then they charged after a newly opened portal, calling for us to follow. We did follow and subsequently hacked our way through swarms of the triceratops-headed clannfear and alligator-headed daedroth monsters (which appeared in Morrowind). Finally we reached the huge, glowing portal, from which a ghostly knight in black armor emerged and cut down the soldiers. Then he turned and came for us.

Oblivion seems extremely impressive and highly ambitious, so we hope it can deliver on its promise of more open-ended gameplay built around autonomous characters and exploration. The game is scheduled for release this holiday season for the PC and the Xbox 360 console.

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