Talk about timing. The last time Microsoft launched a console, Bethesda Softworks delivered the first major role-playing game for it. That game was The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, a sprawling RPG that let you explore a massive continent and follow your own path. Now with Microsoft preparing to deliver the Xbox 360 this year, Bethesda looks to deliver the first major role-playing game for that platform, in the form of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Like before, you'll get to explore a massive world and follow your own path, but this time, you'll get to do so with a graphical fidelity that was only dreamed of before. Eye candy aside, there are a lot of gameplay improvements in Oblivion as well, and we caught up with producer Todd Howard for the details being released at E3.
GameSpot: Could you give us an update on Oblivion's progress? What's on display at E3?
Todd Howard: We're in the final phases of development. Most of the content is in the game, and we're trying to polish it all up. We'll show off all the major features of the game behind closed doors at E3. It's a hard game to boil down to a short demo, but I think we've got something people will enjoy and hopefully come away with a good idea of what we're tying to accomplish.
GS: What is the current state of the world of Tamriel in development and production? We know the world will be huge; how much of it is done? What kind of environments will we eventually see beyond the very impressive-looking forests shown in the early screenshots?
TH: The majority of it is built. Actually, the whole thing is built, but we're going through and doing our "clutter pass." That's where we drop in all the stuff, like books, weapons, and thousands of forks and plates. We're big fans of world clutter. Forest covers about half the game's space, but even within the forest we have subregions of more tropical-based stuff going up to colder, more conifer-laden areas.
GS: Now that we're here at E3, what can you tell us about the game's quest system and overall gameplay direction? How will quests keep players from wandering off the beaten path and potentially losing track of what they're supposed to do? How will other features, such as the compass, help with this, and how will they be integrated with quests? Will there be a book-style quest log like the one in Morrowind, as well as hand-drawn maps? Or will there be more-streamlined quest logs and in-game maps that can be sorted by area and modified with player notes?
TH: The game's quest log is broken up by quest, so you see all your active and completed quests and what you have to accomplish next on that quest. It's much more like the systems that are becoming common in games like Jade Empire or World of Warcraft. You can select any quest, and for the most part, it will highlight on the map exactly where you need to go to accomplish the next step. This mark is also noted on your compass. Some quests have hidden goals, such as "find the secret cave," and that would not be marked. So we only mark things we want you to know about. For instance, someone gives you a quest to go to the fighter's guild. The guild is instantly marked on your compass and the map as your quest target, so you can just walk to it without checking over any directions or maps. For the most part, you can follow quests by just following your compass. Again, many quests have alternate paths and secret parts, where nothing gets marked, and that's open for you to discover.
Oblivious OblivionGS: Tell us about the advancements in the combat system. We already know that the game will have an overhauled combat system that will be more reactive to player input for attacking and blocking with a shield (rather than relying entirely on skill checks). What can you tell us about the combat, about how different weapons will work? Will they be differentiated based on how they're swung in battle, as in Morrowind? How will ranged combat with bows and other missile weapons work? And are there new tactics and strategies that will emerge in the game?
TH: Our E3 demo shows all of that quite well. We've fully integrated melee, blocking, magic, and stealth combat (bows) into one system. You can easily switch between all three, and it really makes the combat decisions interesting. With just melee, which we spent forever tweaking, you have different moves you can pull off depending on player skill and the weapon you have. We think we have a nice gameplay balance and feel between daggers, swords, axes, and larger two-handed weapons. Each feel very different to use in the game, the same way a pistol, rifle, or rocket launcher does in, say, Half-Life.
GS: Are there any details you can disclose about the game's loot and item systems? Are there plans to let players enchant their own weapons with captured enemies' souls like in Morrowind, or perhaps through other means, like alchemy? Will the game feature a similar alchemy system that will let players forage for components? Are there any other interesting new crafting features to share?
TH: Yes we have enchanting, alchemy, and the like again. We have always loved those types of things in our games. Especially now with the huge dense forests, alchemy is even more intriguing. We have lots of opportunities to put cool things growing around that you can use.
GS: What can you tell us about the character development system? Is it still a hybrid of both experience levels and advancing character skills? Are characters still defined by their primary skills, rather than by a specific character class? How much variation will different players end up seeing among their final characters?
TH: There are changes, but not as many in this area. I think the skill-based leveling system works very well. It can be repetitive, but it's fun and rewards you for actually role-playing. We've tweaked it, there are different skills and such, and the balance is better, but it will still be a "use-based" system.
GS: Are there any new story details you can reveal to us for E3? We understand that the game takes place in Tamriel in the wake of the emperor's death--an event that allows gates to Oblivion (hell, essentially) to open and allows foul creatures to cross into the world. Can you disclose more information about who the player character is and how the player character will affect the world?
TH: Not at this time; we're keeping the story details under wraps other than that. I can say that each faction has its own story, which leads to a great resolution in each of them and a true feeling of accomplishment when you rise to the head of a guild.
GS: What can you tell us about the game's factions? Which of the powerful guilds we've seen in Morrowind will make a comeback in Oblivion? How will players interact with the factions--will they be gaining standing within them and eventually opposing others, as in Morrowind? Will there be new consequences or a more-dynamic system that tracks your standing with guilds? Will there be any new benefits for attaining a high rank in a guild, such as access to new areas or quests?
TH: We have a number of guilds, highlighted by the big four: mages, fighters, thieves, and the Dark Brotherhood (the assassin's guild). We want each guild to basically be its own game, with a complete story, power arc, and major rewards for reaching the top. Standing in one guild does not affect another for the most part. We like players to be able to experience them all, but obviously certain character classes have an easier go of one or another.
GS: Finally, is there anything else you'd like to add about Oblivion?
TH: I hope all the press get a chance to see it at E3 and everyone checks out the new trailer that's being released. Thanks!
GS: Thank you very much, Todd.