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What sort of thoughts does the word (Oblivion) conjure up? Mind-numbing eternity, endless nothingness, lots of black, perhaps? The word isn't exactly the sort of thing that you would expect to see in conjunction with the latest episode in an award winning role-playing series famous for its open-ended worlds and huge playing spaces, is it? Despite this, that is the name given to Bethesda's fourth installment in the Elder Scrolls series, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Fortunately for all involved, Oblivion doesn't take place in its namesake (although it does come into the plot), but instead in the homeland of the series' most populous species: the Roman-esque Imperials.
Although Oblivion still has a long way to go before it is ready to be released, the screenshots that have been published and comments from members of the development team all give a more than satisfactory explanation for this. The Oblivion team aims to create such an impressive and powerfully built game that they are purposely going straight ahead and designing it for the next generation of 'next generation' consoles, with the website's FAQ citing that it will be released on consoles that either aren't available yet or haven't even been announced. Of course, if Bethesda released it only for consoles the hordes of fans screaming for blood would eventually change their mind, and so they are doing the obvious thing and designing it for the top of the line PCs that the series is native to.
If the screenshots on Bethesda's website are anything to go by, then the system requirements really will be as high as they claim due to the released screenshots showing some of the most realistic in-game visuals ever seen on monitor or screen. Grass that actually protrudes from the ground like a carpet and sways in the wind, caves that drip with stalagmites and weigh down with age, forests that are thick enough to get lost in, the list goes on. As of yet, the only things that haven't appeared amazing in the screenshots is the color of the monsters -- every critter that has been exhibited in a screenshot thus far has appeared an unsightly shade of brown or grey. I probably over-exaggerate, and I know that it isn't really a measure of how good the game is, but so far it is the only thing that jumped out at me as being a possible shortcoming (although not very much of one).
Besides the huge leaps in graphics quality from Morrowind, Bethesda is totally restructuring the entire game experience in what sounds like it is for the better. In Morrowind, the vast cities were filled with people. Now, these people all had something to say, or something to sell you or help you out with, but it seemed that their social lives were severely lacking. The ideal day of a Morrowind NPC was standing around, then talking to the player, then saying something out loud to themselves, then standing around, and last but not least, walking to that tree over there and back. Sure, the NPCs fulfilled their function, but they were missing an element of life. Bethesda acknowledged this and in Oblivion have taken steps to counter it happening again. In the world of Oblivion, each and every non-monster NPC has its own agenda, its own motivations, and even a favorite thing to do. The people of the cities and towns will now walk around on actual business, have conversations with other characters, attend Church, go to bed at what they consider a suitable hour, and if they're down on their luck might try their hand at a little bit of shoplifting. All of these actions, and more, are all decided upon by the NPCs themselves and the individual characteristics of each one. Not only this, but the game will include lip-synching and full facial animations, allowing the NPCs to actually speak, saying goodbye to the text responses of tradition. This new AI system is called Radiant AI and goes that one step further to creating a world that truly lives, reacts and breathes.
Another feature of Oblivion that was not found in Morrowind is the greatly expanded and improved combat system. Featuring all manner of attack combinations, strategies and features that just weren't possible in the older game, Oblivion promises to take the realism of the combat system up a few notches from the simple click and hit of yore. In Morrowind, all weapons had three different attacks: the chop, the slash and the thrust. In general, most weapons had two of these attack types that were roughly similar in the amount of damage that they did. Unfortunately though, some weapons only had one mode of attack that was even worth bothering with, as the other two were both so pitifully useless. Recognizing that the Morrowind combat system just would not cut it in Oblivion and fuelled by suggestions from the forums, Bethesda's new combat system will, with any luck, avoid any of the repetition that came with the Morrowind system. In Morrowind, the combat system was limited by the rudimentary arrangement of holding down the attack key while moving in a certain direction. Moving forward would mean that the attack would be a thrust, for example. In Oblivion, though, the method of attacking and defending appears to work in a style much more reminiscent of a traditional fighting game. Click the mouse button to attack, after which you selectively click again to perform an additional attack in tandem.
A possible issue of contention in the Oblivion combat system is that of shields and blocking. In Morrowind, blocking was just something that happened when you had a shield equipped, one of those facts of life that there isn't a thing you can do about. There have been a few Morrowind modders that figured that this wasn't all that much of a good idea and ended up making mods wherein a player needs to hold a certain button to block, and while they are blocking it is impossible for the blocker to attack. This is much the same thing that the developers are implementing in Oblivion: press a button which causes you to start blocking with either a shield or a handy weapon and said shield or handy weapon will absorb some of the damage that you would otherwise have received. It was not clarified whether it will still be possible to attack while blocking but in all likelihood it will not be, as otherwise you could just block the entire time and never take full damage.
Besides the obvious reduction of damage, blocking does have another benefit that may not have come to mind straight away. If the player successfully blocks an attack then it will cause the opponent to recoil, as you would expect of someone that has just put all their strength into cutting you into little pieces only to find that someone put a shield between you and their weapon. Recoil gives the defender an opportunity to take a number of actions such as attacking again, casting a spell, running away, or even using the new power attack. A power attack is a special attack that takes longer than a normal attack but can be performed in many different ways with presumably different effects. It is even possible to get new power attacks as you progress through the game. These are just a few of the new features being implemented in the combat system; the others include an extension of the new AI which enables different critters and NPCs to have different combat styles, or the ability to yield to your opponent in combat to get another chance of survival.
The last addition to Oblivion that had me quite surprised was how much detail Bethesda is going into with the stealth system. Even though I don't usually go for stealth games, this aspect of the game has me excited! The effort that Bethesda is going through to make the stealth system more than simply good luck and high stats is shown by the fact that they now have the additional skills of a designer who last worked on the infamous Thief series. The Thief games are possibly the most well-known and well-executed stealth games currently on the market, and Bethesda is trying to up the ante with the new stealth sections of Oblivion. After all, the Thief series never had the sheer openness of behavior and actions that Oblivion is capable of. Additional factors, such as the amount of light in the area and whether you are standing in the shadows or not, will come into play and affect your ability to sneak in the game. Oblivion will even feature factions almost entirely dedicated to stealth (did I hear Morag Tong, anyone?). At this stage of development, there really aren't as many details for Oblivion's stealth system as there are for other features, but what we do know looks promising nonetheless.
Taking into account all of the information that I've absorbed about Oblivion since I saw the very first screenshots, there really isn't anything that I can portray in an unfavorable light. The graphics are shaping up to be second to none, the combat sounds like heaps of fun, and I for one can't wait to see the Radiant AI in action. If you liked Morrowind, or open RPGs of any kind, then you owe it to yourself to keep an eye on Oblivion. There is still no set release date for the game and unfortunately it may require a significant PC upgrade, but Bethesda can be sure that by the time it finally arrives on shelves there will be a significant market waiting for it. For the Emperor!