Coded blue.

Monday 27 March 2006

Small screenshot Oblivion RPG

Pic of the day: Looks like somewhere I could like to live. (Actually the nature in this area looks a bit Scandinavian, so I may not need to move after all...)

Oblivion, first looks

Oblivion is the fourth and presumably last in the Elder Scrolls series of single-player role playing games for the PC and, in this case, Xbox 360. All of these games were ambitious to the extreme. The previous game, Morrowind, was jokingly called a "massive single-player offline role playing game", a pun on the MMORPGs (massively multi-player online role playing games) such as Dark Age of Camelot or City of Heroes. But in truth all of the games in this series were like that, it was just that MMORPGs were not commonly known when the first two were launched.

"This game is so large, you can move there to live." This was the way I described the first game, Arena, in the Norwegian gaming magazine Databladet 12 years ago. This phrase was quoted by a reviewer on Norwegian web site VG Nett some days ago, when he gave the latest successor 6 out of 6 points. He also called it "a religious experience". A competing reviewer from Nettavisen compared it to a first sexual intercourse. Evidently it is hard to find words big enough for this game. And indeed, it got almost everything right. Unfortunately, as with its predecessors, it also requires the newest and best hardware to shine that brightly. So while reviewers may drool, common players should think twice about buying it without getting a new PC at the same time. (Or an Xbox 360... it may be the reason you need to buy that machine, although I probably won't since I don't have a TV.)

All my current games run fast and smooth on my PC with a 2.93GHz Intel Celeron, 1 GB RAM, a 7200RPM harddisk and an NVIDIA GeForce 5500 video card. Well, Morrowind does have brief load pauses when you zone from one area cell to another, but apart from that they all shine. Not so Oblivion. When I first found myself in the prison cell where the game starts, it was so slow I could not even move the mouse pointer smoothly. It would not move at all, then jump to another part of the screen and stop there. I had to turn the graphic options down quite a bit. Much later when I first came out in the open landscape, the game slowed to a crawl again. Even with the graphics way down, almost as far as you get, it is dangerously slow. Dangerous for my character at least, since combat is in real time. Hitting the enemy is harder when you only see slide shows of them moving around.

And move around they do. Even more than Morrowind, the enemies in Oblivion have tactical AI. They will dodge, try to circle you, retreat as needed, block when you are on the offensive and attack when they spot an opening. Humanoid enemies are generally smarter than rats and wolves, but they are all worthy opponents. It is said to continue that way, since the game scales the opponents to your level. This is an excellent idea in principle, but if your major skills (which cause you to level) are non-combat, you better not use them too much before you have increased the fighting skills. Otherwise you will be helpless against even random highway robbers , since they spawn at your own level.

On the other hand, combat is not simply waving a weapon around. (And a shield you now have to block manually, but your in-game skill still influences the effect.) Like in Morrowind, you can use alchemy or magic. In the last part of the long tutorial I had access to a spell for summoning a skeleton. At first I did not use it, and was in serious trouble, having lost the high-quality sword I borrowed for the first part. But with the aid of my summoned skeleton, I suddenly stood a much better chance. Being able to concentrate on blocking, I did not take lethal damage while my companion hacked at the opponent. With more serious opposition I had to cast the spell again when the skeleton was defeated or just crumbled after 40 seconds, but I could do that without taking too much damage. Also I had found some bottles of healing liquid. Once I get my alchemist set, I should be able to make better potions myself.

That, however, is unlikely to happen until I have a new PC. I decided to order one tomorrow. The GeForce 5500 is not even on the list of supported cards, and it was the last that would fit into that generation of PC. The new cards use a PCI Express card on the motherboard, which did not exist on my not quite 2 years old machine. I tend to buy the somewhat cheaper models that are on their way out, so your 2 years old PC may differ. Check before you buy.

Once outside the tutorial labyrinth, if I give my computer time to draw the full landscape, it is gorgeous. If anything it is more beautiful than many real landscapes. Certainly it is more colorful than the white & white landscape outside my window... And not only the landscape but also the characters are drawn in exquisite detail. There are also a couple hours of pre-recorded dialog. Of course this makes it somewhat harder for fans to create their own objects in the game, although it comes with free tools similar to those the developers used. But unlike developers, fans rarely have well-known actors to read their lines.

The non-player characters don't just stand there and wait to deliver their scripted lines, either. They have their own imaginary lives to live. They have homes where they sleep, they meet each other in the streets and exchange rumors and other useful information. Most people are not enemies, but reasonably law-abiding citizens traumatized by the death of the emperor and all his heirs, which has left the land open to invasion by the demonic Daedra. Only you can save them by finding the emperor's illegitimate son, who alone can light the magic fire that restores the barrier against Oblivion.

Unfortunately for them, you may not be particularly interested in helping some other guy get in the history books as saving Tamriel. Perhaps you prefer pilfering the houses of the distraught (but well-off) citizens. Or you may choose to spend your times hunting in the woods, where deer roam in the beautiful green glades, feeding on the lush grass and flowers. Or perhaps like my character you have an obsessive interest in alchemy and go off the beaten path looking for rare plants to use in your concoctions.

The great thing about the Elder Scrolls is that the creators don't hold your hand to make sure you follow the script. You only get vague prophecies and it's up to you how to fulfill them, or not. Of course, as long as you don't, nightmarish creatures will continue to come pouring out of the portals. But they give good loot, so why not? There can never be too many Daedric swords in the world, after all. The best a man can get!

But it's quite a while till I can start collecting those. Rats, goblins, the occasional wolf or highway robber, that's all you get at the start. And I shall not advance much further until I have a new computer. And not quickly even then, because this much mousing is bad for my wrist. I suspect that Daggerfall, together with the Workplace That Much Not Be Mentioned, ruined my wrist in the first instance. A year of healthy living has restored some wellbeing to even that part of the body, but it is a fragile peace. And the province of Cyrodiil may look like you can move in there and live, but the truth is that I shall have to stay with my current body here in this world. And Oblivion is not exactly helping with that. If you get this game and a compatible computer, please make sure at least to eat and sleep from time to time...

Yesterday <-- This month --> Tomorrow?
One year ago: Life as I know it
Two years ago: No entry
Three years ago: Carpeted hallway
Four years ago: Songs of the heart divine
Five years ago: Supporting cast
Six years ago: Who art in Heaven?
Seven years ago: War. Religion.

Visit the archive page for the older diaries I've put out to pasture.

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