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Sweet, Blissful Oblivion


budgie
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A NEW DRUG

To quote the April 2006 Edition of UK's PC Gamer, "Once you start everything else just loses importance. Suddenly you've called in sick, your girlfriend has given up on you and all you have left is sweet, blissful Oblivion." They weren't kidding. I've been lucky enough to have a few days off and have spent them hunkered over my desktop. Thank goodness my girl is away this week. I don't know what I'll do when she gets back. Oblivion is certainly the best computer RPG to date and by far the most ambitious, but it also comes with a warning to potential buyers not to rush in just yet. Really, don't.

I first heard of Oblivion in October 2004 and saw the original tantalising screenshot of a knight on horseback overlooking a broad mountain vista. It reminded me of a Larry Elmore painting and took me back to my childhood interest in medieval fantasy and Dungeons & Dragons. It turns out I've been waiting much much longer than the 18 months since October '04 for this game.

Those who know me know I'm an adventurer. It's why I sought work in Japan and Hong Kong; it's why I became a flight attendant. I love to explore new places in life and this is what I look for in games. Rainbow Six and Ghost Recon gave me such immersion and it drove me to mod Long Haul (shameless plug number one); GTA III, Vice City and San Andreas robbed me of many hours of my real life; I played Morrowind on and off for three years and still haven't done everything or even a single quest for some of the factions. Such immersion and adventure can appear in any genre of game if the developers want it to. If you think that RPGs are all poncy magicians and fairy elves, I suggest you drop your rocket launcher (the security blanket of 'leet' thumb-suckers) and try something new.

THE START

Oblivion starts as all its predecessors in The Elder Scrolls series (1994's Arena, 1997's Daggerfall and 2001's Morrowind) with you in a medieval prison on unknown charges, about to be released for a special mission on behalf of the empire. In OB this means an escape through the city sewers which doubles as a tutorial in movement, combat and magic through the medium of Rat and Goblin killing. Just before leaving you are given the chance to choose your class from two dozen variations on the Thief, Fighter, Magician, Healer staples. You can follow the game's recommendation based on your performance in the sewers or choose your own if you disagree. You can even invent a custom class: though they pretty much have all the variations covered so your creation won't be especially unique. What will be unique is the face. After choosing your race and birthsign (each conferring special abilities inaddition to your class) you can use a crude morph slider to edit your facial features. That - and the adventures you'll have - will be what makes the character feel truly your own.

You get an introduction to the basic premise and then are set loose in the world. Whether you choose to complete the main quest or go off on your own is left up to you. Finding your place in Oblivion's world (Tamriel for those who care) - be it as world-saving crusader or apathetic freebooter - is the charm of a freeform RPG. It guarantees that while many people will complete the same quests and visit the same locations as you, nobody will have quite the same game experience. This game in all its variations can take many months to complete. Considering my experience with Morriwind, the inevitable OB expansions and my globetrotting lifestyle I fully expect to still be playing and keep discovering (shameless plug number two) Oblivion for the next couple of years. There is simply that much content.

THE WORLD

If wandering the countryside looking for things to do sounds dull, think again. The world of Oblivion is breathtaking. Deep misty forests fall away to sun glinted rivers and lakes while wooded foothills climb to majestic mountains miles distant. If that sounds too poetic, justtake a look. Those mountains aren't just wallpaper either: you can walk or ride all the way over there and climb them if you like. The world has sixteen square miles packed with towns, villages, forests, waterways and hidden caves and ruins and you can go anywhere. The countryside is alive with fauna and wandering beasts and bandits. All are rendered in exceptional detail and move and react in a lifelike manner. The townsfolk bustle about with their daily chores making the world come alive around you, and the background music is reminiscent of a movie score with moods for towns, dungeons, wilderness and battle. You can even add your own MP3 files to the music folder and I've slipped in a few Celtic treats from Enya and set pieces from the Conan the Barbarian soundtrack. All NPC dialogue is voiced professionally (althouh medieval Tamriel has a bandunce of Americans it would seem) and the ambient sounds of birds chirping and so on draw you deeper into the experience. Sadly all this beauty comes and a price - two in fact and the second is very, very steep.

THE WARNING

First comes the inevitable system requirements. Developers Bethesda Softworks state a minmum of a 2Ghz CPU, 1GB RAM and 128MB graphics card; they recommend a 3Ghz CPU, 2GB RAM and a 256MB card. I say for optimum performance you need a Dual core 3Ghz or higher CPU, 2GB RAM and a 512MB card, preferably two. It was time to upgrade my PC anyway but the desire to see this game at its best motivated me and I forked out nearly 1600 bucks to build a new rig. It worked beautifully for the first couple of days but then problems in the coding began to seep through and I started to suffer serious lag - as though I were running on a system way below specs rather than one considerably above.

This is a known issue has happened to a good few buyers. It may be a memory leak which the developers have yet to patch. It is not a hardware problem because my hardware handled the game just fine indoors and out, with fights going on or not, other characters nearby or absent for the first 12 hours of play. The caveat that comes with this game is a big one. Wait for the developers (Bethesda Softworks) or the publishers (Take2) to release patches for this. If you have a new PC or worse, if you bought one for this game, you'll be sorely hurt to be one of the 5% or so of buyers who find the game unplayable without lowering the graphics settings. Bugs in general seem to be numerous and the message boards at www.theelderscrolls.com are overflowing with tales of woe. It's a shame to see a game with such excellent content marred by a lack of polish in the code. Since my motivation for upgrading was to enjoy the lavish graphics, it bites me hard that I have had to cut back for the time being just to be able to play the game at all.

THE PEOPLE

That said, there is still a lot of enjoyment to be had. What game isn't without it's initial couple of patches? I'm confident that a solution will come soon and in the meantime I'm kicking back and playing low-res missions in town to avoid hogging the system or crying at the blobby scenerey. If this happens to you, go to the city and kill time fighting in the arena while you wait for a patch to make the outside world playable.

Bethesda have developed 'Radiant AI' for the NPCs (non-player characters), a system that provides occupations and motivations for each and every of the roughly 1400 occupants of this world. This means that unlike the previous games, which had them standing around or aimlessly strolling waiting for you to interact, the NPCs will be going about their daily schedules and doing other things that interest them. You'll see the same merchant in a town man her shop during the day, visit a friend or relax at home in the evening, sleep at night or wake up and visit a tavern or even go on a road trip to another town - something unheard of in Morrowind. You don;t have to follow someone around all day to notice they're doing somethin. The whole Idea was to create an ambient world around you and they'll go about their business whether you're paying attention or not. I was once on a quiet woodland path when a courier bolted past me on horseback in the direction of the nearest town and he actually looked like he was doing something.

The immersion extends to scripted moments as well. Quests lead you deeper than ever into the motivations of quest givers and third parties and often unravel multiple paths - even little side quests or odd jobs for factions. My very first mission for the Fighters' Guild had me doing what I thought was a typical fed-ex quest - to take some weapons to a mine for the guards. Expecting to be dismissed when I dropped them off, I was told that the mine was infested with goblins and asked to join in the fight. As soon as they were armed the warriors bolted off to get in a scrap and I found myself joining in. It wasn't part of the job and I would have been paid if I turned right back to town but I wanted to help them.

In another quest I was told that a ghost appeared outside a town every night and though I wasn't specifically asked to help the story was delivered in such a way in piqued my interest. I followed the ghost to a lookout over a bay and he told me that he wanted to be 'released from the teeth of the panther'. I noticed he was looking at a small inlet so I had a rare flash of inspiration and checked my map. Sure enough it was the mouth of the Panther River. Okay I shouldn't pat myself on the back for solving such an easy riddle, but the fact that I had to exercise my brain at all was engaging. In the older games people would just mark a spot on your travel map and tell you to go there - at least I was given the chance to figure it out for myself. I found a shipwreck there which served as a pleasant mini-dungeon in its own right when compared to the generic and empty wrecks of Morrowind. The ship had four levels of cabin and was infested by the ghosts of mutineers, which I had to defeat to unshackle the dead seaman's skeleton. It was there in that shipwreck, finally after ten years of PC RPGs that I discovered a use for magic.

THE ROUGH STUFF

Combat, while simple, is still streets ahead of what it was in Morrowind. Previously melee and ranged attacks were entirely stat-driven. You stand and swing your axe or shoot your bow and your level of expertise according to the character's stat sheet would determine your chance of hitting or missing. This would be modified by the target's agility attribute and the rating of his armor as well as how well he was used to wearing it. All this happened behind the scenes so that fights were very static. Now the stats actually mean something. If your opponent is agile enough, he'll dart to and fro, taking vicious sideswipes. You can raise your shield or sword for a well-timed block and your kill versus your opponents will determine his chance of breaking through, but you'll always be at an advantage if you time it right. Higher skill levels in weapons unlocks deadlier attck moves and not just silly bonuses you can't reall see; better experience with armour means you'll move much more quickly when suited up. The Havok engine even lends a hand, throwing the dead goblins about like well, like rag dolls. It's a step shy of combat driven games like Jedi Academy, but Oblivion balances the necessity of roleplaying stats and the hand-eye coordination of 'twitch gaming' much more effectively than its predecessors.

Magic is also revamped and many offensive spells require the same coordination. Stuck without a magical or silver weapon with which to fight the shipwreck ghosts, my rogue resorted to a weak fireball spell he knows. I was giddy at the sight and sound of my flame bolts wooshing across the room and slamming into the floating dead. Likewise the effect for healing and other minor tricks are much flashier than in previous games of the series. Furthermore you'll find even a poor magic-weilder such as barbarians will get more mileage from their spellcasting: your magicka or magic-meter refills much faster allowing you to cast minor spells more frequently. Gone are the days when you'd get just one shot at an enemy, see them shrug it off (or worse, miss) and then be forced to fight hand to hand with nothing but a robe and a staff. I was lopping firebolts left right and center in that wreck and when my magicka had finally depleted for the day, I'd spent about 13 of them - all of this as a level one rogue. If you miss, you get a second and third shot. I say to the 1337 crowd, "We got your rocket launchers right here!" (rude gesture ommitted).

THE VERDICT...AND BEYOND

Bearing in mind the caveat about graphics and patches above, I'd recommend Oblivion to gamers of all stripes. It has enough action if you're hankering for a fight. It has interaction if you want a believable world and dare I say, likeable characters. It has an engaging story - no scrub that: several engaging stories if you need a good fantasy book. Let's just hope that Bethesda get this game fixed so it can be what it was meant to be.

Twelve years ago I first saw DOOM in action - on a PC in a pub of all places - and it kindled my interest in a medium of entertainment that I'd previously thought was for kids (I was 20 at the time so do the math). If I hadn't been in the pub that day might never have become a gamer. I marvelled at the 3D environments and the rich colors. I'd had no idea games were capable of creating worlds but that was what I saw before me. Well almost. Stuck inside the moonbase I would often stand in empty courtyards and look at the prettty mountains surrounding it. I longed to be able to leave the base, walk up to those mountains, climb over and find out what was on the other side. Now I know. Oblivion is the adventure I've been waiting for my entire gaming life.

Edited by budgie
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This looks like my cup of tea, but looking at the system specs I would probably just get frustrated at frame rates and chugging It would spoil it :(

No PC upgrade for me for a while, I meet the minimum specs but lets face it what they quote to have it running realy well (which I would want) ... is a pipe dream for me at the moment.

Any kind of demo coming out at all? (didnt see anything on that link) ... then I could at east test it and see.

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I've heard about a ton of glitches, overal lack of polish (speedtree and facegen everywhere) and annoying autoleveling elemens (you'll never run into a weapon or enemy too far above or below your strength :(), and a few other things.

However, by all accounts it's still an amazing game.

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speedtree and facegen

What is that? (sorry to seem dumb)

Both 'art' generating programs. Speedtree makes trees, facegen makes faces. Taking the artist (and with that, a lot of the polish) out of both your enviornment and human characters.

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@Budgie, well done.

@Crowie, you and me both, I'm lovin' it.

@ Sup, there are modders out there taking care of alot of the little things already.

@Calius, I'm running below recommended specs and it's still worth the price I paid for the game and the new vid card to come later after fishing season.

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This looks like my cup of tea, but looking at the system specs I would probably just get frustrated at frame rates and chugging It would spoil it  :(

No PC upgrade for me for a while, I meet the minimum specs but lets face it what they quote to have it running realy well (which I would want) ... is a pipe dream for me at the moment.

Any kind of demo coming out at all? (didnt see anything on that link) ... then I could at east test it and see.

You could always check out ESIII:Morrowind. :thumbsup: Look for the GOTY Edition since it already includes both the Bloodmoon & Tribunal expansions. The graphics are circa 2002 but there is a lot of good gameplay there and that's before third-party mods. Don't know if you get Computer Games magazine (www.cgonline.com) in the UK but they gave writeups in this month's edition (April 2006) on about 20 various Morrowind mods in their Mods & Ends section. Hope the info helps. Aloha.

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Calius, the kids have it running on my old pc mate, XP3000+, GF6600GT 128, 512meg ram and it runs pretty well, all settings on medium and its only the outdoors areas that get a bit jerky when you're on a horse belting through the scenery, the game really really sucks you in, you could spend months in it without even looking at the main quest, the creatures level up as you do too, so to start with you'll meet bandits and wolves in the outside world then later on you'll meet timber wolves and wild boars and it never feels like its easy, once you meet up with a few you have to play it careful or you're dead meat, I think you could probably spend the better part of 3 months just burgling the houses in one of the towns and if you've joined the thieves guild you've got somewhere to offload your illgotten gains ;) mind you theres always a chance that you'll get changed into a vampire....

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This sounds well cool ....

Those screens look amazing! .. So does the minimum spec ..

I have a 2.1 AMD athlon 1GB RAM & a GF6600GT ..

I could get away with it with just setting the GFX to medium ..

I had the 1st morrowind .. Never played it, just once .. Kept on crashing ..

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