Following in the celebrated footsteps of Arena, Daggerfall and Morrowind comes Oblivion, the fourth full-scale instalment in Bethesda Softworks' long-running Elder Scrolls series, and the developer's most ambitious project to date.
Set in the Imperial heartland of Cyrodiil rather than a backwoods colonial province like Morrowind, the game's plot concerns the assassination of an Emperor, an amulet of great power and the opening of a dimensional portal to Oblivion, the titular underworld of Tamriel and home to legions of nasty beasties. The gateway unbolted, these demonic denizens are free to pour forth into the real world and cause all manner of mischief. With a release date still some way off, the developers are reluctant to reveal any more of the storyline, although it's clear that you will be venturing into the hellish realm of Oblivion at some point and that (as with all Elder Scrolls games) you'll be starting the game as a prisoner.
Leap Of Faith
Bethesda is hoping to build upon the massive success of 2002's Morrowind by fine-tuning, tweaking and ultimately perfecting the open-ended RPG style that has become the series' trademark. So, while you'll still be role-playing, brawling, spellcasting and thieving your way across a gigantic game world, you can expect a sackful of new and improved features when the release date finally rolls around. In fact, in the words of Bethesda big cheese Todd Howard, "You can look at the changes we made from Daggerfall to Morrowind and expect a similar jump from Morrowind to Oblivion."
For starters, Morrowind's unrefined, click-heavy combat is out, with the development team working on a far more thrilling system based on accurately timed attacks, the use of skill-based special moves and the addition of satisfyingly visceral consequences like accurate blood spray and bone-crunching sound effects. Behind-the-scenes dice rolling is kept to a minimum in this new action-packed approach, which might upset the RPG purists a touch, but they can take some comfort in the fact that your character's stats will come into play when calculating damage.
A Piece Of The Faction
The rather rudimentary AI in Morrowind is being replaced with the far more dynamic Radiant system (see 'You're Looking Radiant Today, below), while Bethesda also promises that an improved journal, NPC hints and maps will help you keep on track when it comes to completing missions. Of course, as with other Elder Scrolls titles, you are free to take a laid back approach to the main quest should you wish, and there will be plenty of things to get up to on the side. Like Morrowind, there are several guilds and factions operating in Oblivion; these will include the Thieves Guild, Mages Guild, Fighters Guild and the shadowy hired killers known as the Dark Brotherhood. "You can join all of these," says Howard. "Our game is about becoming this other character in this fantasy world, and the factions almost act as an entire game unto themselves for each character archetype to play in. We're trying to make each faction have its own story, perks and rewards for finishing."
But what about the physical size of the world that you'll actually be living in? Morrowind boasted a play area so big that getting yourself lost in the wilds became a real possibility. "Oblivion's big," says Howard. "In some areas it's bigger than Morrowind, in some it's not. I think scale is hard to describe." It seems that there will be less NPCs wandering the land - some 1,000 to Morrowind's 2,500 - but that they will have more interesting stuff to say and do. "Our tools allow us to create so much content that size isn't our concern," Todd continues. "The game always ends up too big! We're more focused on the quality of the interactions we're building."