This preview was written by Aequitas, a freelance writer for the Junkyard.
Well, if you are like me, you have already marked off the calendar in advance, stocked up on snacks and tasty beverages (age appropriate, of course), and spent your time thinking up plausible excuses as to why you won't be seen-at all-for a period of a good, solid month or so. Why, you ask? Now, before I smite you for your seeming ignorance on the single most important event of 2005, I will humor you and provide you with a simple answer: TES IV: Oblivion.
Set for a 2005 holiday release on both the upcoming Xbox 360 and the PC, Oblivion is the fourth "official" installment in the renowned Elder Scrolls series. In development since mid 2002 by Bethesda Softworks1, Oblivion is shaping up quite nicely, and promises to take immersion in an RPG to the next level. What's more, making full use of the Havok physics engine as well as advances in graphics rendering, Oblivion looks promising indeed.
For those of you unfortunate enough to have never experienced any of the Elder Scrolls games, a little background is necessary. Each of the series takes place in Nirn (the mortal realm) on one of the main continents, Tamriel. Oblivion takes this a step further and will actually include a trip into Oblivion (hmmm... wonder where they got their title from)-the plane of the god-like Daedra. Oblivion follows the Elder Scrolls tradition in that each one of the games is a complete standalone in its own right, although the developers have mentioned that players of Morrowind should see a couple of familiar faces during the course of the game.
Oblivion starts off with you in an Imperial prison, similar to your starting situation in Morrowind (Bethesda apparently has a prison fetish... what's wrong with having a kinky developer?). Conveniently enough, your cell houses a secret passage that the Imperial Emperor (voiced by Patrick Stewart) makes use of during an assassination attempt. After being told to step aside for the Emperor, who heads down the passage, you are literally thrust right into the action, fighting through assassins in order to catch up to the Emperor, in what essentially counts as Oblivion's "training" session. After dispatching countless assassins, you eventually come across the dying emperor (guess he didn't get away, shucks).
Oh, I almost forgot. You see, there is this small issue of that the Emperor's bloodline being the only thing holding shut the "marble jaws of Oblivion." With the last of his strength, the Emperor charges you with finding his only heir in hopes of closing the portals to Oblivion; a good thing considering the hordes emerging from those portals are not exactly friendly. It is at this point that you interact with a guard who suggests a class / profession for your character depending on how you dealt with the assassins on the way up to the emperor, and interesting way to determine your class. Conveniently enough, this brings us to the class system.
While you can certainly choose the class the guard suggests for you, if the previous Elder Scrolls are any indication, you are perfectly capable of creating your own custom class as well. In Oblivion, a class consists of choosing a primary attribute (amongst Strength, Magic, and Stealth), selecting seven major skills, with the rest remaining as minor skills. Something to keep in mind is that characters do not level up by getting experience points from killing monsters (the traditional route in most RPGs), but rather by leveling up their skills. So, essentially, if you use Destruction magic enough, you will level up that skill. Level up enough skills, and your character will level up.
Bethesda has streamlined the skills section quite a bit from Morrowind, primarily with the purpose of creating balance and allowing true role-playing to occur (as anyone who played Morrowind can attest, it was nigh impossible to play as a pure mage). However, the changes have also given rise to more than a few concerns about the new skill system, with skills being dropped and merged to fuel this streamlining.
Redesigned Combat, Magic, and Stealth
Oblivion is coming out with some new features that promise to truly set it apart from both its predecessors and the forthcoming competition. One of the most promising of these would be the way Oblivion handles combat. Probably one of the biggest changes in the game, Oblivion departs from Morrowind's often frustrating and annoyingly simplistic button-mashing frenzies involving traditional "to-hit" rolls. Instead it implements an all new combat system that Steve Meister, a programmer at Bethesda, promises will fulfill the goal, "...to make combat exciting, violent and fun, while still maintaining the balance between character skills and player skills."
So how does this brand-spankin' new combat system work? Well, it is really quite simple on the surface. Essentially, if you see your sword / axe / fist / etc. hit your opponent, then you hit your opponent. Blocking is now completely manual, with not only a reduction in damage, but also with a chance to throw your opponent back or even knock him / her down. In addition, one can block with a shield, weapon, or just your hands (although I honestly would not suggest this when facing a maniacal claymore-wielding fanatic... ouch).
Now some of you may be saying, "but that just means that Oblivion has become a hack-n-slash adventure game!" Not even close. A weapon's base damage rating will be influenced by a combination of variables including your skill with the weapon you're using, luck, fatigue (stamina! stamina!), combined with the target's various stats such as armor, or whether they're blocking. Oblivion's in-depth use of other rolls affecting the outcome of a block and the amount of damage that will be dealt seems to allay that fear. Combine that with the increased immersion that Oblivion is promising, and the new combat system looks to be an extremely promising feature.
The magic system in Oblivion has also undergone some serious renovations from the system that was present in Morrowind (thank goodness). One of the major changes is that you can now cast spells at any time... say goodbye to the "ready magic" button-so as long as you're packing a free hand, you can slice, dice, and simultaneously slow cook yourself a meal by using a sword and magic at the same time! Enchantment is no longer a skill, due to Bethesda's stress on game balance (in Morrowind, you could have a warrior with an enchanted Ring of Fireball, for instance, that gave him / her all the perks of being a great mage... with out being one). However, enchantment will be a guild perk for those who plan on joining the Mages Guild. Overall, Bethesda has promised to make pure mages a viable class, a veritable boon for those of us who discovered that being a pure mage wasn't exactly a viable option (and no, exploiting alchemy or using a two second soul trap to boost your magic and other stats does not count as viable).
Well, if the other two main attributes were given upgrades, where does that leave us with those characters that would like to use Stealth? First off, I must admit, I'm not a stealthy kind of guy. I like to have my enemies tremble in fear of my annoyingly loud, imposing footsteps that are getting closer and closer. However, for those of you who would rather slip poisons into meals to kill someone (it's confirmed, you can mix ingredients to make your own poisons according to a recent OXM), or sneak around in the dark to attack someone from behind (or snipe them, or shock them... although I should note that shocking someone isn't very stealthy, what with all the crackling and blinding light and all-but I digress). Folks will be happy to learn that Emil Pagliarulo, the man who worked as a designer with Looking Glass Studios (Thief anyone?), is at it again-this time designing the stealth game play and Dark Brotherhood missions. That should say enough for the value Bethesda has placed on the stealth aspect of the game. If not, check out more with his developer diary entry.
One of Oblivion's, and in fact all Elder Scrolls games, greatest strengths, is their almost unlimited replayablity. Bethesda puts an insane amount of effort into providing the player with options that give this game its replayability factor. To begin with, there is the breadth of the game itself, with ten unique races to choose from (Orcs, Dark Elves, Wood elves, Altmer / High Elves, Redguards, Nords, Bretons, and Imperials, Argonians, and Khajiit), each varying from the other in both aesthetics and abilities. Combine this with the differences in playing as a fighter as compared to a mage or a thief, along with all the countless gradations in between (thanks to Oblivion's class system), Oblivion promises to be a different game with each different character you make.
Now, if that alone wasn't enough, Bethesda is shipping their developer tools-The TES Construction Kit-with the PC version of Oblivion. With an extremely active modding community, already experienced with Morrowind's dev kit, expect everything from new weapons, buildings, and locales to projects providing countless new quests. Several mod communities have also announced intentions of creating total conversion mods for Oblivion; suffice to say, "beating" the game is only the beginning.
Non-Playable Characters (NPCs)
Now, where would you be without NPCs to give you quests, worship you, or to provide moving targets in your most recent killing spree as Maleficius the Terrible (*sigh* memories...)? This time around, Bethesda is introducing its own brand of AI that it's calling Radiant AI. Bethesda is promising that the Radiant AI will bring NPCs, towns, and enemies to life. First off, all 1200+ NPCs will follow their own unique 24-hour schedules regardless of whether you are in their vicinity or not. NPCs need to eat, have various interests, and various goals that they must complete. All of their various tasks rely directly on their "responsibility level" (which should lead to some mighty interesting results). For instance, if a character with a low responsibility rating is hungry and needs something to eat, he / she might decide to go "borrow" that delightful looking apple tart that Madame Innocent left on her windowsill to cool. Alternatively, NPCs will make use of whatever skills and items they have, so if an NPC with a higher responsibility level was hungry, he / she might go out and buy, or even hunt for their food instead.
NPCs have all of the same skills as the player, and can make use of anything the player can. In other words, they can use potions, cast spells, and pick up items that you drop on the ground (although it's been confirmed that NPCs can not pickpocket you, the developers have mentioned that they will make use of whatever is available in accomplishing their goals). So, if you tick of an NPC and they run away from you, don't jeer too much, because he might have just run off to get that fiery war hammer that you were eyeballing at the pawnshop earlier.
NPCs also play a major role in quests; rather, they actually give you quests depending on what you might have heard in town. For example, if Lovely Lucille got herself kidnapped by Rusty the Rogue, you might hear a group of townspeople talking about it excitedly, and upon further questioning, you'll find yourself with an optional quest. With 1200 different NPCs (far more if you include guards and bandits who respawn) utilizing Radiant AI, Oblivion will most certainly look and feel alive.
Well, let's just say I put this off to last because while the graphics are absolutely awe-inspiring and definitely help with the immersion factor, I don't consider them that important in the scheme of things. I'm still playing Starsiege, despite it being a 1998 release (OK, so I haven't played it in a while, my CDs are broken, and I'm too lazy to go online and buy one from Ebay, go figure). The couple of screenshots that are included here, and there are plenty more at the official site, should give you an idea of what the game will look like. Oblivion makes full use of self shadowing and multiple forms of mapping and dynamic soft shadowing for every object in the game.
All in all, Oblivion is shaping up to be the RPG for the upcoming year. With superior game play, graphics, utilization of the Havok physics engine, Radiant AI, and the inclusion of the TES Construction kit for the PC, Oblivion looks to be the best out there in terms of freedom of choice and immersion. Combine that with the absolute breath-taking beauty of the new graphics engine, and I suggest that you bring a change of pants and briefs when you first play this game.
1Editor's note: It has been brought to our attention an error in this preview; Bethesda Softworks did not publish the Fallout series. It was developed by Black Isle Studios and published by Interplay. Also, it was Looking Glass Studios that was responsible for Thief, not Lion Head Studios. Thank you to the many who have pointed this out. And once again, the Junkyard apologizes for these errors.