Digits & Dragons
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.