Sunday, 20 April 2008

Welcome to Cyrodil, population: Me.

I got The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion for my birthday, but haven't been able to really get into it until the tail end of this week - and, good god, what a brilliant game.

Like the rest of the Elder Scrolls titles, it's set in a region of the same country, Tamriel - this time it's Cyrodil, and peace is threatened by the assassination of the king and the opening of portals into Oblivion. And, in typical fashion, it's up to you to save the world.

And, when I say 'you', it really can be. The character creation systems are as baffling as they are powerful - every little nuance of your face can be tweaked, prodded, pulled and manipulated once you've picked from the dozen or so races. And it's not just varieties of human: dragons, elves and myriad other creatures can be picked for your own nefarious desires.

Your first introduction to the world doesn't really hint at what's to come. It's a typical dungeon run, except with a hint of Star Trek - as the voice of Emporer Uriel is provided by one Patrick Stewart. Criminally, his part lasts all of half an hour. It's a total and utter waste.

Make your way out of the dungeons, though, and be prepared for some serious taking of breath - you emerge, blinking, into the daylight, to a scene of pastoral idyll (yes! pastoral idyll! I used my degree!) that's a stark contrast to dark, goblin-ridden tunnels. A lake stands before you, water lapping at the shore and cascading around a wooden jetty and fishing boat bobbing beside it. Beyond the lake - with the water only beaten by Uncharted: Drakes Fortune and Bioshock in gaming terms - there's rolling hills, covered with trees, stretching off to the horizon. Forests are silhouetted against the blue sky, dappled with clouds, and in the middle distance you spy the ruins of an ancient fort, expert masonry reflecting the bright sunlight.

And that's just one view.

Another I remember - crossing the huge bridge from the prison across to the Imperial City. Jump up onto the ledge of the bridge, on either side, and the view is like that described above - but ten times bigger, on either side.

At the moment I've barely even touched the main story arc because I'm too busy exploring everything that the City and the surrounding areas have to offer. I've barely touched any of the crafting or combat - a few quests have kept me sated so far. I'm also ashamed to say that plenty of my excursions have been at night, rifling through papers and cupboards, looking for things to steal, nice little items I can sell on for a healthy profit. So much so that I'm not a member of the Thieves' Guild and most of the shopkeepers keep an eye on me when I'm in their establishments. They don't look too happy when I chat with them - and I know why. I've robbed most of them.

The wonderful, brilliant thing is that this is just one city. The Imperial City is full of quests, characters, conversations. Houses, shops, merchants, bars. Hotels with rooms to rent and food to eat, and The First Edition - a bookshop - is stocked full of tomes, each of which is actually full of stuff to read. Backstory, history and folklore from this world that Bethesda have spent decades developing. It's so deep and so, so clearly a labour of love, which makes it even more fun to play, knowing that someone cares about this as much as I could end up caring about it. After hearing a few stories of people losing hundreds of hours to this game, I can certainly see why. It happened with Morrowind, happens with World of Warcraft, Guild Wars, Final Fantasy - any Final Fantasy - and Tabula Rasa.

And one, amazing fact that I couldn't really comprehend when I heard it. The world in Oblivion is staggeringly big. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas took pride in creating a state - The Elder Scrolls IV renders an entire country in gorgeous next-gen graphics. Plenty of regions and cities, dozens of towns and villages. Enough to explore, marvel and just enjoy for dozens, hundreds of hours.

The amazing thing about this, though? The second game in the Elder Scrolls series, Daggerfall, also takes place in a region of Tamriel. Except this particular region is over 60,000 square miles in size.

About two Great Britains, in other words.

The programmers are quick to point out that a lot of Daggerfall was randomly generated compared to the dedicated labour that went into creating every inch of Morrowind and Oblivion - the third title had about six square miles of terrain to explore, and Oblivion has about 16.

Even so, Daggerfall still takes the biscuit. 750,000 characters to interact with - a quarter of a million! - in 15,000 towns, villages, mines and settlements. I daresay there's some intrepid gamer out there with a 1996-era PC who's still plugging away, enjoying that world, and still discovering new things on every trip. It's worrying and awe-inspiring at the same time. I sort of want to shake his hand.

Anyway. Enough of that. Back to The Imperial City for me. I've just picked a pocket and need to find which house this key fits into.

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