Gone to Oblivion

I received the box yesterday, played for four hours straight, mostly skipping dialogues and speeding through the initial dungeon to go see things outside so that I could fiddle with the options. I quit the game with motion sickness, a big headache and pissed off about the performance. The thing ran like crap. I was quite deluded.

Today I went for the second try. I started to tune things better, dropped the anisotropic filtering (I usually play at 8x, moved down to 2x). Things improved DRAMATICALLY. It was quite playable.

Slowly I started to sort things out, read the forums, ran around to take more tests. The intro movie was still running awfully, freezing for a second every second, with the audio also freezing (basically the video and sounds play alternatively, one second of video, then the video freezes and I hear a second of sound, then the sound freezes and the video restarts). On the forums I noticed that this problems was quite common and they suggested to go look at the bios and see if the “Fast Writes” was enabled for the video card. I know it wasn’t so I reboted and enabled it.

Now the intro movie plays ok, the main menu is also super-smooth (it was very laggy before) and I gained another 15-20% in performance. Turned on more stuff. Wow…

This games is mostly a tech demo. The main graphic render is the Gamebryo engine also used by DAoC and Civ 4, the vegetation (grass, trees and even butterflies) is SpeedTree, the physics engine is Havok and the character/face generator (also used obviously on every NPC) is FaceGen. Bethesda made the content, though, and it is indeed quite amazing.

This game is a direct improvement over Morrowind in pretty much everything. The only exceptions are that MW felt bigger and more varied. Oblivion is too dependent on the tech stuff and it looks too much as the same wilderness spreading everywhere. MW had completely different environments and felt more detailed and handcrafted. Oblivion is instead technically advanced but directly dependent on the engines it uses, so you don’t really see the scenery completely changing. It also takes place in one big valley and from what I’ve seen there aren’t different “cultures” packed together, with completely different types of villages and “feel”.

For the rest Oblivion improves MW in every aspect, which doesn’t mean that there are still things feeling wonky. The combat is finally enjoyable but it still feels rather clunky, the characters are much better than MW, but the faces look absurd and the bodies badly modelled, the dialogues work better but there isn’t anything deep that could even be compared to Ultima 7 and the animations, which were awful in MW, have more style now, but are still jerky.

If you go around hunting for inconsistences there are plenty. The physics model isn’t so realistic, in particular with the ragdolls, I’ve seen deers getting stuck everywhere and keeping running against rocks and even sink within them, unable to escape anymore. The biggest issue I’ve encountered is that I could shoot at things with my bow from a long distance without the target reacting at all, just sitting there till it died. If this wasn’t a special case it would be a quite significant exploit.

The animations are still awful. The single animations, taken one by one, are acceptable, but the transitions between them are still jerkly and this has a major impact on the game. Both NPCs and monsters just look like robots, switching states roughly with no realism at all. This affects badly even the combat because it makes everything too faked and inconsistent. A monster could switch from a super slow walking animation to a sudden leap toward you. These sudden switches from state to state makes things too jerky, breaking every attempt at “flow” during the combat.

Archery is fun but still subpar compared to “Mount & Blade”. There is no precision involved and if you don’t move you can center the exact same spot from a long distance with every arrow. There is no variance at all and you just need to calculate the bad physics model that makes the arrow slowly fall the longer it flies. The arrows are also too slow but I already noticed a mod that does exactly what I had in mind.

Some things are truly awful and I cannot figure out why they weren’t fixed. For example: if you walk against a NPC or an horse, or every other living thing, you make it slide unrealistically on the ground. You can basically push people around like pins. I guess this was to prevent stuck issues but I wish they had solved it in another way. And the jumping animation. This is still as terrible as it was in MW. Get a horse and the jump thing becomes even worst, it looks awfully amateurish. The worst of the worst. All the controls while on a horse suck, the turning animation sucks, the movement sucks. Just a bad implementation overall.

I also wish the “grab” thing had a stronger effect. It’s really hard even to throw something as light as a skull and if you want to drag around a corpse you have to push it inch by inch.

The persuasion mini-game is silly.

So. Graphically it is amazing. It relies too much on the middleware on which it is based and the environments are maybe too repetitive, but they did an impressive work with the textures and the shaders effects. The dungeons are MUCH better than MW, the exploration feels more satisfying and there’s finally a “game” to care about. The combat is more challenging even if it still has those issues with the animation systems. The characters are both good and bad. The faces are super-ugly but the tech is so pretty that you can easily pass over lots of ugliness and still feel impessed. The equipment has some wonderful textures but the naked body is as bad as it can be. Not on the level of MW but near. There are still obvious seams between the body parts, with the heads too often looking as implanted on the wrong body… Eww.

There is a clash between the super-realism and doll bodies+robotic animations. In a game so pretty as Oblivion the flaws are made much more visible and these contrasts more evident.

I still cannot comment about the story because I just digged the engine for now. After the initial disappointment about the bugginess and the impossibility to make it run in a playable state I have to say that this is a darn good game. Deep, sandbox-y, immersive. It has still plenty of flaws and consistency problems, but it’s a worthwhile experience considering that these types of games are rare.

And I love the textures. Oblivion, even if not as varied, shares the artistic quality of Morrowind and obviously improves on it with all the new shader effects and higher quality render. Things are so pretty and the towns in the game are the best of the best.

Simply put, it’s a Better Morrowind. You can take all the weak points in Morrowind (characters, dialogues, animations, NPC models, AI, combat, pathing etc..) and they are STILL the weak parts even in Oblivion, but much, much improved if considered one by one. Just not perfect and sleek as you’d hope. And what was great in MW (the environments, architecture, mood, immersiveness, freedom) is great even on Oblivion. It shines. Morrowind was a flawed game, Oblivion is still flawed in similar ways, but exponentially better.

About the hardware problems: there are lots of tweak and fixes that you can find around. There’s a technical FAQ that could help solve some problems. Yes, the game has a memory leak, many players are reporting this (and crashing while exiting) and it is true as it was true for every game that is based on Gamebryo. It has been like this for years, so don’t expect Bethesda to push out a “miracle patch”. Gamebryo sucks, I had to deal with that crap for years on DAoC, now all those quirks and problems are exposed to a larger public.

If you have a Nvidia video card I suggest three things (that improved things significantly for me):
– Check if you have the “Fast Writes” option enabled in the video and graphic driver
– Use the coolbit trick
– Drop the Anisotropic Filtering to 2x or below

Right now I’m playing at a widescreen resolution (1088×612) even if I have a normal 17′ monitor (just shrank manually the image to keep the aspect ratio). It is much prettier because it expands the view horizontally, which truly improves these sort of games with a more “panoramic” screen, so I suggest to experiment with that. I also have HDR on even if it hits hard on the performance because it truly enhances how things look, it makes the textures more vibrant and the environments more “alive”. I turned off the shadows completely, with only the trees casting them. The rest is pretty much turned from medium to max, with the grass to 1/4 of the slider. Vsynch and Anti Aliasing off, I hate blurred textures but I don’t mind the jaggies. I love pixels.

I have also the difficulty slider moved up to 3/4. This is something they did really well. Not only it affects how much damage you receive, but also how much damage the NPCs can take. So if you move it up you don’t just get hit for more, but you also need to land more attacks, making the fights lasting more time and feeling more satisfying instead of just a couple of hits.

The only manual tweak I made to the oblivion.ini (which is NOT in the main game dir, you have to go find for it in the “documents” folders) is to increase “fDecalLifetime” from 10 to 120 (how many seconds before the blood splashes vanish) and “iMaxDecalsPerFrame” from 10 to 20 (how many decals/blood splashes in the general area). Then set the file to “read only” because the games overrides the first option as you enter the “video” menu. Then I enabled “bAllowScreenShot” to get the screenies (print screen), but this only with HDR, if you have Bloom on it probably won’t work.

If you want to see the framerates in the game just press “~” and type “tdt”. It’s built-in.

I’m going to experiment with the archery mod I linked above and I’m looking for another to the physics engine (if it’s possible) to make the “grab” command stronger and one that disables the characters sliding on the ground if you bump against them. I also wish the ragdolls were less “tense”, when the NPCs are dead they are too stiff. I wonder if the physics properties are moddable…

Btw, I’m probably the only one out there to love the UI. I just wish there was a way to create shortcuts to the various menus or a quick key to switch the basic modes. But it’s just the detail and I really like how they organized the whole thing. I didn’t feel the need for anything more customizable. The auto-scaling is also very good.

I’m going to get much more screenies. For now I just have… a door.

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