For several months in late 2001 and early 2002, I was thoroughly hooked to Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind and loving every minute of it. The games in the Elder Scrolls series are single-player role-playing games with vast maps, a strong central story and the freedom to abandon the central story and develop your character in interesting (and sometimes unexpected) ways in the uncounted side quests. This gives the compelling illusion that the game is open-ended and that your character has a lasting impression on the game world and the computer-controlled people in it.

Morrowind was also one of the first games I had played that had really impressive eye candy for its time. Specifically, the pixel shaders that created reflections on water simply blew me away. The effect can be crudely seen here, however a still image cannot do it justice. What must be seen is how the water ripples and the reflections change in real-time based on your characters movement and viewpoint. The water reflectance changes with the lighting too. It looks EXACTLY like real water should. This effect only increased the immersiveness and for the first little while in playing Morrowind, I simply wandered around the world in awe.

The game can be played from the first-person perspective or from an over-the-shoulder 3rd person perspective. I generally prefer the first-person perspective as it contributes to the immersive feeling, unless I want to see how cool my character looks.

Another great aspect of Morrowind is that the map is HUGE. It can take 20 real-time minutes to cross from one coast to another of the continent (although in reality, this would make it a very small island). This may not sound like a huge map, but remember that's a linear distance only. There are many cities/towns and a variety of different regions (deserts, mountainous areas, swamps, etc), not to mention all the dungeons/caverns/catacombs/sewers that are spread about the land. All this really gives you the feeling that the place is vast. When looking into an earlier game in the series (Daggerfall), I was surprised to learn that the Morrowind map is actually much smaller in comparison. According to Bethesda: "Morrowind is about 0.0001% the landmass of Daggerfall, [but] the way you play it makes it feel even richer".

It's interesting to note that, as Rob points out, this seems to be a trend in recent games: vast areas to explore, the freedom to do what you want (to a certain extent) and removing the burden of having the player physically map out his/her environment or keep track of several quests on paper (there is a journaling system in Morrowind to remember the status of your ongoing quests and to jot down things you have learned).

It doesn't take long to find limitations in any game though. Despite the impressiveness of Morrowind, the character dialogue is usually pretty limited, the many people in Morrowind don't actually do anything other than interact with you (this is a big reality-breaker, this means nobody sleeps, eats, works, plays), and the side quests can be sometimes be pretty repetitive. Graphically, the tiling of large open areas is quite obviously low-res and the animation of characters is primitive (mostly due to the low polygon count).

Nonetheless, the game was enough to give me a feeling that I hadn't felt since the true freedom of pen & dice role-playing back when I was a teenager. And that alone was worth the cost of the game.

Anyway, last October, Bethesda Softworks announced plans for Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Apparently, it won a whole bunch of awards at this year's E3, though a friend of mine didn't even mention seeing it. Too bad I wasn't able to get out to E3 this year...

Some of the exciting items to note about Oblivion (some items from this article):

  • Procedurally generated growth with algorithms governing their growth patterns. What's that all mean? This, this and this. Gallump.
  • Non-Player Characters will have real lives, jobs, goals using a "Radiant AI" system. To quote this page: "They'll sleep, go to church, and even steal items, all based on their individual characteristics"
  • Improved physics using the Havok engine
  • Full facial animations and lip-synching, combined with full speech for all dialog
  • Fully immersive 5.1 Surround sound
  • Larger landmass than Morrowind (but the ability to travel around it faster)
  • Holy crap, Patrick Stewart is voicing a character (ok, in light of the above features, this is not such a big deal).

Anyway, the release date is supposed to be December 2005. We'll just see how many of the above features actually make it into the commercial game, but it looks like by then I'll have to have upgraded my video card and possibly RAM to get my Oblivion on. I might also have to quit my job so I can find time to play the game.

I'll leave this article with a comparison of the graphics technology between Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind and Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion via two screenshots. Click each screenshot for the full resolution version. First, the Morrowind in-game screenshot.


Notice the very obvious tiling effect on the stone threshold to the house. Notice how the grass looks inserted oddly into the terrain. Notice the tree branches in the distance have a planar effect (like two perpendicular polygons with a tree branch texture are intersecting, which it probably is). The way the windows jut out look very polygonal and unnatural (particularly the way the stone texture is applied). Despite all this, it's still pretty impressive, but clearly so a few years ago.

Now the Oblivion in-game screenshot:

The Player Character outdoors in Oblivion

The grass is simply amazing. I really want to see if it moves at all via wind or the passage of a character. I don't notice any mip-mapping of grass in the background as compared to the foreground, it blends quite smoothly. To my eye, there is no obvious tiling effect on any of the stone faces. About the only thing I can criticize is that the helmet edges contrast oddly with the character's face, giving it a polygonal appearance overlayed on top of the face.

§115 · July 5, 2005 · Entertainment, Games, Software, Technology · · [Print]

3 Comments to “Welcome To Oblivion”

  1. Rob says:

    I didn’t see as many PC games as I wanted to. Sounds like you’re going to have to come out to LA next May. 🙂

  2. Oblivion is going to be released on the XBox 360 too. Pff, by May I’ll have my Oblivion and that’s all I’ll need….sweet oblivion…

  3. Brendan says:

    Oblivion Looks so cool i can’t wait till it comes out!! I’m Dieing wit anticipation!!