Bethesda's epic Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion was expected to bolster the PlayStation 3's launch lineup last November, already eight months after the game's release on the Xbox 360 and PC. But then the game was pushed into 2007, and now the PS3 port of last year's best role-playing game is finally ready to see the light of retail shelves in March...right around the same time the Xbox 360 and PC versions of the game will be getting the first full expansion pack, Shivering Isles. Based on what we've seen recently of a nearly finished PS3 build of Oblivion, at least the game will end up looking noticeably better for all this waiting.
To clear up any confusion, the PS3's Oblivion is the original game that hit the other platforms last March, plus performance improvements and bug fixes that were made to those versions after release. The game will also contain Knights of the Nine, last fall's fairly sizeable content update that added an entire new faction to the game. Bethesda hasn't determined if smaller content updates such as the Orrery and Mehrunes' Razor will hit the PS3 version at a later time--but then, Oblivion was already an enormously humongous game to start with, so newcomers to Cyrodiil will have plenty of gameplay to chew on regardless. Controlwise, Oblivion is essentially unchanged from the Xbox game. In fact, coming straight from a hands-on session with the 360 version of Shivering Isles, we were able to start playing Oblivion on the PS3 with nary a tutorial or explanation of the controls.
The real enhancement is in the visuals and, to some extent, the loading times. The game seemed to have a slightly smoother and more consistent frame rate than it did on the Xbox, though the difference wasn't enormous, and it seemed to us that the textures looked just a tad sharper. More obvious (and confirmed by Bethesda) was an improvement to the game's texturing over large distances. Remember how the original Oblivion had a line set an arbitrary distance in front of the player beyond which ground textures turned into kind of a muddy mess? That's all taken care of now, thanks to a new custom pixel shader. The effect is only noticeable outdoors--though it's more accurate to say the effect is not noticeable if you've never played a previous version of the game--but it's a nice addition nonetheless.
Oblivion will make extensive use of the PS3's hard drive by caching multiple gigabytes of data, which seemed to help with load times from what we saw. Bethesda's Pete Hines also commented that recent reports of data duplication on the PS3 Oblivion disc have been exaggerated, and this technique isn't different from the similar strategy that was employed in the creation of the Xbox 360 game last year. Lastly, it's unclear if or when the PS3 will see the Shivering Isles content that's on the way to the PC and Xbox, though with a burgeoning PlayStation Network and plenty of unfilled hard drive space, it's not hard to imagine the expansion can be made available to PS3 owners somewhere down the road.