Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Digits & Dragons
  by Greg Allen
April 2006

The Elder Scrolls: PC RPGs at their Finest

Of all the role playing games I've played on a PC, the Elder Scrolls games by Bethesda are consistently my favorite. While I have enjoyed other single player RPGs like Lionhead's Fable, these games just don't hold a candle to the size and depth of the games in the Elder Scrolls series. With Oblivion, the fourth and latest in the series released on March 21st, I have been remind again just how awesome a fun game can be!

Daggerfall: A Huge and Lonely World

My first experience with the Elder Scrolls universe was with Daggerfall, and I have been hooked ever since. The first time I played I was amazed at the character creation choices and the amazing graphics of the rats constantly attacking my feet. After I made it out of the opening dungeon (a common beginning to Elder Scrolls games) I found myself in a rainy and open wilderness. For hours I wandered around, passing through forest and swamps, sure that I would soon hit the limits of the world. Finally, I stumbled into a town where I was again amazed at how many people there were to talk with and how many different items were available. It was while I was meandering around town, taking in the sights, that I accidentally hit the 'F' key and the world map popped up. What I saw blew me away. The area I had spent the last few days exploring was not even a thousandth of the map. Daggerfall remains to this day the most ridiculously huge world I have ever entered.

Daggerfall was a little clunky but it was BIG and clunky

This huge world, however, was really not as big as it seemed. Despite the thousands of towns, dungeons, and places of interest, very few were unique. Every town in a particular country looked nearly identical and the dungeons were created randomly from a small tileset. Now, despite the blandness and déjà-vu feeling of just about the entire world, features like readable books, or weapon and spell customization, made for a really great game.

Morrowind: A Tight Game

The developers at Bethesda are a clever lot who took the problems of Daggerfall seriously. While the next work in the Elder Scrolls series, Morrowind, was a fraction of the size of the land mass in Daggerfall, its creators managed to pack just as much, if not more, into a very rich and immersive island.

It wouldn't be an Elder Scrolls game without dungeons full of skeletons!

Unlike many RPGs, there's nothing forcing you to complete a certain mission or follow the main storyline. Sure, there is a tale to be told but when and how you progress along the storyline is really up to you. In Daggerfall, this didn't work out so well in practice: even though I played if off and on for years I never really figured out exactly what was going on.

Morrowind, however, fixed this issue by having a more accessible and more compelling plot. You still aren't forced in any predetermined direction but you are given lots of information and reminders about your goals if you choose to follow them. With the tighter story and denser world, Morrowind was an excellent evolution from Daggerfall.

Oblivion: The Wait is Over

After nearly a year of anxious waiting and a number of painful delays, the era of Oblivion has arrived. I have never been as excited for a game as I was for this one; I was so eager to get my hands on a copy on release day that I cancelled my Amazon.com preorder and ran to my local Best Buy just so I didn't have to wait for shipping.

When I got the game home (after reading the instruction manual at red lights), I was literally twitching with excitement (there is no denying my inner nerd) as I installed it and watched the opening sequence. The real question was, after all the buildup, could Oblivion live up to my expectations?

Well, after a couple days of fairly intense play, I can definitely say it has. Oblivion will blow your mind. The AI, the graphics, the music, and the immersiveness are simply untouched by any game I know. I'm not one for superlatives and hate to make sweeping statements, but this is the best game I have played in years, if not in my life!

A Feast For the Eyes

One of the major attention grabbers for Oblivion is the amazing graphics. Trees and grass sway in the wind, water ripples and reflects and light bounces off surfaces creating a gorgeous fantasy world. The Elder Scrolls series has always pushed the boundaries of visual performance and Oblivion is no exception. While it is true as a general principle that form without substance is hollow, Oblivion's gorgeous form excels at drawing you into the substantive world of Tamriel.

While the dungeons, fields, and cities of Oblivion are stunning, a weakness of the Elder Scrolls series has always been the human artwork. In Daggerfall all of the people were two-dimensional paper cutouts. Even though they have been fleshed out in Oblivion, there is still a slightly odd look to the human inhabitants of the world. Despite this shortcoming, the graphics are simply amazing.

My character is pretty ugly but the view is gorgeous!

These visual wonders come at a price, however. If your system was not built for gaming, you can just about give up on playing with any of these gorgeous effects turned on. The developers have been kind enough to provide a lot of options for adjusting performance, but to really enjoy the game you may have to upgrade. Historically, it has been first-person shooters which have pushed the hardware to the limit, but Oblivion definitely pushes computing power to the limits. Even with a new graphics card and more RAM, my system still has a ways to go before I will be able to turn all of the visual effects on.

The Little Things in a Big World

Not only have the folks at Bethesda created a rich and engrossing world but they have used the latest and best tools for physics and AI. The Havok physics engine has been used in a number of recent computer games and really gives the world depth. Pushing a pile of logs or boulders down a hill to kill an unsuspecting foe may not sound like much, but the physics that go into creating that action are amazing and are well implemented. Whether it is chucking furniture around the room or setting up traps for foes, Havok has created the rules; it is up to you how you govern your world.

Just about every role-playing game out there uses pre-scripted patterns for how non-playing characters go through the world. This is fine for a few minutes but gets old fast and makes a world seem empty. To solve this problem, Bethesda has created what they term Radiant AI, an engine to bring non-playing characters to life. Radiant AI works by giving characters a set of goals such as resting, eating, training, and leisure, but leaves when and how they do this up to them. In my playing so far, Radiant AI seems to be pretty convincing. Listening in to characters' conversations or following a shopkeeper as he goes to bed for the night is pretty cool and helps alleviate some of the loneliness felt in many single player games.

Even the enemies of Oblivion seem pretty intelligent. When I stumbled across a necromancer's hideout and attacked the first guy I saw, instead of trying to pit his fists against my sword he ran away, summoned a zombie, and then came back just close enough to start lobbing fireballs at me. As I chased after him the fiend would take off and stop just far enough away to launch something from a distance. Faced with this kind of strategy I actually had to start doing some thinking myself, so I kept up this chasing game until I chased my foe down a hallway filled with Indiana-Jones style swinging blades. Needless to say, the Havok physics ended the chase, at which point I picked up his bloody pieces.

An underground, foggy, moonlit graveyard - How creepy is that!

There is probably a good story in Oblivion, too, but I'm too busy exploring the world to get started on it yet. With a world this beautiful and rich it is going to be a long time before the Oblivion DVD leaves my machine. If you are any kind of RPG or adventure fan, there really is no question that you should try this game. Once the few bugs are ironed out with patches this will be, I am sure, a game for the ages.

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