Developer: Bethesda Softworks
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
ESRB: Rating Pending
Release Date: Winter 2005
The Search for the Lost Heir
by Jennifer Bradley
In 2002, Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind took the PC and the Xbox markets by storm, earning praise from RPG enthusiasts and mainstream gamers alike. Now after a three year intermission, Bethesda Softworks is ready to give their ES series another grand debut with the soon to be released Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Tamriel just can't seem to stay out of trouble, so players get yourselves ready once again for wonderful, new crisis of epic proportions.
But just what exactly has gone wrong this time around, you ask? Well the setting for the game is Tamriel’s capital province, Cryodiil, where the emperor governs from inside the great walls of Imperial City--or at least where he used to. As part of Oblivion’s beginning, players will run into him briefly inside the depths of the imperial dungeon. The game will start characters off as imprisoned criminals, by the way; but if players show some initiative, their incarcerated status won’t last long.
When the emperor shows up, it won’t be for a friendly visit. He’ll actually be fleeing for his life from a team of assassins that had just killed off nearly everyone in the royal family. His guards won’t take kindly to your presence, with you being a scumbag criminal and all, but he will stop them and pardon you before things get ugly, saying that he has seen you in his dreams. Unfortunately, the man never makes it to safety, and when word spreads that the imperial throne is unexpectedly vacant, the world of Tamriel succumbs to chaos. The gates of Oblivion (Tamriel’s version of Hell) open up, releasing a tide of demons onto the defenseless public, while a sinister plot unfolds to reshape the empire to another man’s dark design. But wait, there’s still hope! A lost heir exists in hiding somewhere. Players, your mission, should you choose to accept it, is this: bring the lost heir safely to the imperial throne and unravel the mysteries behind the former emperor’s assassination. The future of Tamriel hangs precariously between your failure and success.
The character creation system in Oblivion flows along the same lines as its predecessor in Morrowind. Players will be able to choose between Tamriel’s ten races: Bretons, Imperials, Redguard, Nords, High Elves, Dark Elves, Wood Elves, Orcs, Argonians, and Khajits; and out of these racial choices further customization will be available through gender, skin complexion, and hair style options. As an added bonus, though, Oblivion has also made room for players to age and stretch their characters’ features for an even greater variety of unique looks.
"The graphics component of Oblivion was completely designed with the next generation of consoles and computer hardware in mind, and it really shows. "
Speaking of characters, a brand new AI system will be premiering with the release of Oblivion. The system’s name is Radiant AI, and it is designed to revolutionize NPC actions by removing the heavily script based models of previous games and replacing them with an entirely interactive system that allow NPCs to make dynamic decisions based on their environment and individual characteristics. For instance, if one NPC steals something, another might call for help; or if something gets knocked over or dropped indoors, a servant cleans it up. At night, shopkeepers physically close their shops and on certain days the devout go to church. Such pseudo-sentient NPCs will probably go a long way in working to create a totally immersive environment for gamers to get lost into, especially since Oblivion is an entirely single player experience.
The in-game physics engine will go through extraordinary lengths to weave the laws of gravity and thermodynamics within the rendered environments. When objects fall and land on the ground, every little movement that you might see in real life is mimicked, and actions committed against objects will permanently change the status of those objects. In one hilarious demonstration at E3, a game rep even showed how attacking an annoying dog in a bookshop with fire, led to several of the books displaying damage later on when they were picked up for reading. Oh, and by the way, books will play an important role in influencing social interactions. The game will contain over 400 of them, each one readable by both players and NPCs alike.
As in previous Elder Scroll titles, players will be able to tackle Oblivion entirely at their leisure. The main quest will, of course, always be lurking in the shadows, but also up for grabs will be the opportunity to explore Cryodiil at a non-linear pace. One of the primary ways for players to do this will be to align themselves with a guild. Several kinds will be available throughout the game, including the Dark Brotherhood (assassins), Mages, and Thieves guilds to name a few. Each guild will offer its own storyline to work through via questing, and if players keep at it, they will open increasingly tougher challenges, greater rewards, and even the chance to reign supreme as a guildmaster.
The combat system in Oblivion can be accessed in both the third and first person (actually the whole game can), and the same Radiant AI system that gives the town NPCs their own dynamic personalities and actions will also enhance creatures and opponent NPCs in battle. During a fight, an opponent’s behavior will vary according to his, her, or its individual stats, as well as the field’s surroundings and the player’s stats. Aggression levels, confidence levels, and personal dispositions towards the player can all affect how many times opponents will attack, block, evade, or position themselves in a battle. If a confidence level is particularly low, an opponent may even choose to turn tail and run, instead of sticking around to face injury.
To aid players in battle, more than 700 pieces of armor and weaponry will be scattered throughout the game. An item that resurrects defeated opponents into slaves and vampirism are two other tools that can be utilized, and if players are clever they can also use their surroundings to their advantage as well. Dungeons, for instance, will be full of traps that can be triggered by characters and enemies alike.
Skill advancement in Oblivion can be said to follow the same progressive system of its series predecessors, if players rely mostly on melee attacks their characters will develop increased strength and weapon proficiency, allowing them to become powerful members of the warrior class. Likewise, using magic a lot will send a player over to the wizards' camp. Every class will have its own sub class for emphasis on specific talents, and it will also be possible to create mixed class characters by balancing out the different styles of attack used in battle.
The graphics component of Oblivion was completely designed with the next generation of consoles and computer hardware in mind, and it really shows. When players start the game out in a dungeon, they will quickly notice how convincingly the bricks in the walls look like cold, glistening stone. Shadows shift to match movement in the flickering light, and the weapons are not just composed of smooth, monochromatic steel but textured, reflective surfaces with intricate runes engraved into the surface. For the game's outdoor environments, the developers at Bethesda Softworks actually went to the University of Maryland to study the ecological mechanics of soil formation, plant growth, and meteorology. Their plan was not to create an incredibly detailed series of fixed surroundings, but an engine that literally generates terrain based on natural environmental factors. Much of the game’s territory will consist of forests for instance, if the climate is regularly wet then there will be abundant plant life, if dry then the land will be parched.
Within the game, Tamriel's size will actually encompass sixteen square miles--an extensive length to travel by foot at the very least--but luckily Bethesda decided to show mercy on players by bringing back the "quick travel" system that was featured in Elder Scrolls: Daggerfall and Elder Scrolls: Arena. Once players visit an area it will show up as an icon on the overworld map; a simple click on that icon will instantly transport them back to that area.
The TES Construction Set, featured in Morrorwind, will also be drafted into Oblivion, but only in the PC version. For those new to the series, TES is a program that gives players the ability to completely rearrange any aspect of the game’s content. Mod enthusiasts will get a kick out of using Oblivion’s TES to create their own richly textured environments and character skins. Meanwhile, those of us who are less programmer inclined will probably get a kick out of downloading their work once it's posted online.
The vocal support behind many of Oblivion's characters is set up to be yet another means by which the game will make a huge splash on the market. Patrick Stewart (Capt. Picard from Star Trek: Next Generation and Charles Xavier from X-men) will be the voice behind emperor Uriel Septim. Sean Bean (Boromir in Lord of the Rings) will lend his talents as the emperor's lost heir. The voice of the game's main villain will be provided by Terrence Stamp (Supreme Chancellor Valorum in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace and General Zod in the Superman), and just recently it has been revealed that the actor behind the 1950s Wonder Woman, Lynda Carter, will also have a script.
Award-winning composer, Jeremy Soule, will act as the mastermind behind Oblivion's soundtrack. His accolades include the British Academy of Film and Television Award for Best Score, concerning the video game version of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, and two nominations for Outstanding Achievement from the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences for his work on Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
With such an extensive list of dazzling, top-notch features, Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion is shaping up to be the definitive game of 2005. The PC version of Oblivion is currently scheduled for a Winter release this year in North America. A Xbox 360 release is also on the horizon, though no specific date has been announced yet.