We’ve been lucky enough to be given the chance to have a look at Bethesda Softworks’ latest Elder Scrolls effort. The last from the series, Morrowind, was considered by many as a standard-setter for 3D fantasy RPGs and struck a somewhat mystical chord all over our realm.
The latest chapter opens with a close-up of an majestic and ponderous aged emperor. Uriel Septum is set amongst a plain-black backdrop, voiced by Patrick Stewart, and seems troubled to say the least. Solemnly, he grasps at the pendant around his neck and looks to the camera as if somehow we can bring something to ease him of the pain so obviously present in him. He explains that he’s been a ruler for 65 years, and throughout been plagued with nightmares of the gates of Oblivion.
After this momentous display of digital emotion, we get a quick cut to a shot of what I’d presume are said doors of Oblivion, they’re opening and coming through them is some dark battering ram dragged by a legion of knight-like beings and ghoulish creatures. The scene’s set amongst a temple-like structure, encapsulated by fast-moving red clouds and a massive vortex of sorts; it can be described as little other than hellish.
Immediately after the terrifying glimpse into Oblivion we’re treated to a cinematic sweep through a portion of the densely populated, lavish landscape of Cyrodiil, Patrick Stewart’s Shakespearean-trained voice still providing narration. The camera slowly swoops round to bring forth a view of what’s presumably a large city. The location is built around a building that’s as exhaustively well-rendered as the landscape’s tree-filled rolling hills, truly a rather beautiful building. The title “Oblivion” fades onto the screen, and after a tad more exploration of the land, a zoom through a window brings us into the game.
We’re brought to a close-up of your potential character, tasked to perform the most basic bits of customization, firstly the oh-so-basic of choices between male/female option. Next comes race, a choice in Oblivion that’ll affect a multitude of different factors, and these are briefly explained to assist with your choice. After picking these details, we’re asked to enter a name, choose hair and eye color, age and then complexion. This gets deeper and within the “Face” menu you can really get down to some serious cranial customization.
You’re then allowed to wander as we choose, well, to an extent, as you’re about to find that you’re banged up in a cell. Fortunately, after an exchange with some knights and Emperor Uriel Septum himself, who happens to be taking passage through your cell, you’re let out through a secret passage. Apparently this is most likely how the Gods intended events to play out, and has seen you in his dreams.
I won’t give too many spoilers, but what I can reveal is that there’s a little while of dungeon exploration, which acts as a tutorial of sorts. Here, you’ll get to grips with basic combat, battling giant rats, a zombie and a few little goblins as you make your way through murky passages.
Combat is fairly simple at this point, with, as you’d expect, the low-level creatures that are dotted about being rather easy to defeat. Though you can play through the game in third-person it seems more designed to be experienced straight through the eyes of your character. Your right hand holds the equipped weapon whilst your left grips a shield.
Magic is assignable to custom keys in order to make things easy. Immediately you’ll notice certain skills increasing. A simple click of the left mouse button will attack with your weapon while a right will block or parry.
The game’s use of the Havok engine is immediately striking, with enemies toppling to the ground in a display of physics set to make the last game look more dated than it really is. Bethesda have really attempted to push the boat out visually here.
Along your way you’ll have the chance to pick up various different bits and bobs as you slaughter on through. Most of it seems like junk but it’s worth remembering that stuff can be eaten, traded, worn or turned into something via alchemy and at this point you’re in jail and thus not too well-equipped.
As you progress through the level you’ll be given more chances to customize your character, there’s a whole load more beyond that race choice at the beginning. Birth signs, character classes and specializations are what define your character’s particular skills here. The level of customization is unlikely to disappoint even the most hardcore of role-playing gamers.
Leaving the dank and dirty stone corridors of the dungeon has you treated to such a vast, enthralling landscape that it brings about a contrast that’s so striking it almost hurts your eyes.
Oblivion’s draw distance is unlike much I’ve seen before, there are mountains in the distance literally miles away, and they’re quite obviously not flat, mapped images. The flowing stream found just outside the dungeon upon exit is accompanied by some really quite pleasant aural ambience.
The aforementioned background noises really help deliver the immersion here and all the while accompanied by a score that’s obviously had some serious musicians involved. The music is appropriately grandeur in some moments, with well-timed instances of huge orchestral motifs, while in less dangerous or dramatic times, delicate strings and piano melodies stir up tension and emotion to create a suitably eerie and mystical backdrop to the visuals.
It’s possible, tempting, and actually rewarding to simply wander through the game’s expansive landscape battling random foes and admiring the swaying undergrowth. You’ll find yourself picking fruit, mushrooms and other plant matter as you amble about, and there’s something really quite pleasurable about the freedom given to you to do this in what’s clearly about as open-world as a game can get, plus all the organic matter scattered about can be used for alchemy.
Bethesda claim there are more than a thousand individual NPCs in the game, which makes the various cities, villages and towns feel properly inhabited, with characters bumbling about and randomly sparking up conversations amongst themselves.
Travel from city to city needn’t be at walking-pace as you’re given the option of traveling by horseback or fast-travel. Plodding about on the horse is lovely though, and distinctly reminiscent of the wanderings of Ocarina of Time.
Within the game’s various destinations you’ll find, much like in Morrowind, a whole host of guilds and various side-quests should you choose not to simply push on with the main story. Let’s face it, the element of discovery-by-chance in open-world role-playing games is at least half the fun for many, and this is another area where Oblivion certainly shines. Joining Guilds as always will bring benefits in the form of both quests and chances to develop skills. There’s something distinctly appealing about becoming part of the seedy underbelly of the world of Cyrodiil; it’s like joining some kind of mythical mafia.
Opinions aside, Bethesda Softworks certainly have at the very, very least, a massive technical achievement in their hands.