X05: The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion Hands-On

Finally, an opportunity to plunge headlong into Bethesda's latest fantasy epic. We put the first section of Oblivion through its paces.

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AMSTERDAM--Microsoft is showcasing many fantasy worlds running on the Xbox 360 at its X05 event here in the Netherlands, but perhaps none are as sprawling, nor as adherent to the traditions of the genre, as in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, which we got a chance to try out right from the beginning of the game. Though it's a little tough to get a good feel for a role-playing game in only 20 minutes and with dance music pounding in the background, from what we can tell, Oblivion looks to bear the same winning gameplay features as Morrowind and its other predecessors.

Oblivion lets you begin by creating a player character much as in previous iterations of the Elder Scrolls series--you'll select a male or female, and then choose from a number of human, elven, or monstrous races. From there you'll tweak hairstyle, skin color, and other such peripheral features, and you'll even be able to move an "age" slider that will add wrinkles and sagging skin to your avatar. Finalize your character, select a name, and you'll begin the story by finding yourself locked up in a dungeon with no apparent means of escape.

An RPG set entirely in a jail cell would be high-concept, but it wouldn't be very exciting. Luckily, the plot quickly finds a way to spring you from your imprisonment. It seems you've occupied a special jail cell containing a secret escape route built into its wall. The emperor Uriel Septim (voiced by Patrick Stewart) approaches your cell with two guards in tow and assassins in pursuit. When he and his entourage proceed down the hidden passage, you make your escape right behind them. It probably doesn't hurt your chances of survival that the king mentions to his guards that he's seen your face repeatedly in a dream. But we figure that plot point will be elaborated on later in the game.

The opening sequences essentially have you navigating the catacombs underneath whatever dungeon you've been stuck in, sometimes escorting the emperor and other times fighting against the denizens of the dark by yourself. We quickly came upon a short sword and a torch, which let us make our way through the dank, untamed caverns that housed such hideous creatures as...rats! The fearsome Rodentia quickly gave way to legitimately unpleasant foes, such as zombies and various sorts of goblins who were armed with knives, axes, and other crude implements of battle. As we progressed through the tunnels, the goblin opposition became much more fierce, finally culminating in a wide-open cavern in which a goblin witch was practicing some dark magic.

Like Morrowind, Oblivion controls much like a first-person shooter yet features the statistical trappings of an RPG. You'll fight enemies in real time--you have to hit the attack button to slash that rat, for instance--yet you'll have a ton of stats to keep track of, and you'll select and equip weaponry and magic based on even more numbers. Equipment like new weapons, potions, and gold can be scavenged off of every enemy you kill and can also be found in the occasional treasure chest. You'll even get the opportunity to establish some of your character's less-obvious traits, such as your astrological association, which we were able to name in the midst of a conversation with the emperor.

The game may play much like previous entries in the Elder Scrolls series, but it's sure got a nice new coat of paint. Oblivion looks about as good as all those screenshots have led you to believe, what with its lifelike and expressive characters (who you'll see in extreme close-up during conversations) and its lavishly detailed environments, which we're sad we didn't get to see more of. But that sure was a nice-looking dungeon. Oblivion excels at rendering surface effects, such as glistening dampness on the stone walls of the cavern. As you stumble through the darkness, everything has a dim, dingy look to it, but once you obtain the torch, you'll see the stones sparkle in the light, with your immediate surroundings suddenly bathed in a warm orange glow. We're especially looking forward to seeing if the game handles other sorts of areas, such as forested outdoor ones, with such explicit detail.

We got the impression that Oblivion's storyline and gameplay are a little more focused and constrained than in past Elder Scrolls games, although we did only play it for the first few minutes. However, the linear dungeon path we followed was in stark contrast to the opening of Morrowind, which thrusts you right into a world so open and vast that you hardly know where to begin. Whether or not Oblivion will eventually grant you this sort of freedom remains to be seen--but not for long, since the game is due out in the fourth quarter, along with the Xbox 360. We'll bring you more on Oblivion as soon as we can.

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