What is there to say about The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion? What can possibly be left to say about a game that came out about a year ago, wowing the critics (with average review scores of over 90% and a rare 10 out of 10 from Eurogamer), winning about a gazillion game of the year awards, and selling over 3 million copies? That's the problem facing anybody writing a preview of the forthcoming PlayStation 3 conversion of Bethesda's RPG masterpiece, which is due to be released in March to accompany the launch of the console (in advance of a PSP title set in the Elder Scrolls universe which is set to appear later this year, hopefully).
One obvious strategy for anyone stuck for something to say is to provide a brief summary of the game, in case prospective PS3 owners have somehow managed to steer clear of anything about the Xbox 360 or PC version. So here goes: Oblivion is an utterly open-ended, first- or third-person RPG that is set in a game world that consists of about 16 square miles filled with over a thousand NPCs, each one benefiting from a sophisticated AI system that provides a daily schedule of interactions. It features a star-studded voice cast including the likes of Patrick Stewart, Sean Bean, Terrance Stamp, and Lynda Carter, and an epic plot triggered by a chance encounter between the player and the Emperor Uriel Septim VII, who is fleeing for his life from assassins of the Mythic Dawn. But while the game's main quest sees players restoring the heir to the Septim throne, the great strength of Oblivion is that the main quest can be absolutely ignored. Should you so choose, you're entirely free to join a guild instead, or participate in the gladiator arena, or dabble with alchemy, or just develop your umpteen attributes in any direction you'd care to imagine, and generally just explore the almost limitless potential of what is basically the dictionary definition of a living, breathing game world.
Another strategy for any self-respecting previewer to fill up the word count is to consider how nice the new version looks in comparison to the old version (though this will inevitably throw fuel onto the my-console's-better-than-yours forum flame wars). The problem with such an approach is that the graphics in the PlayStation 3 version of Oblivion are essentially indistinguishable from those of the Xbox 360 version. Although Ubisoft, who will be publishing the PlayStation 3 version, has helpfully provided some comparison screenshots that suggest the PS3 version boasts superior textural detail, the game actually looked a bit more pixelated on the TVs that the publisher used for Eurogamer's recent hands-on. Maybe Bethesda can provide a definitive answer as to which version has a better variety of technical visual effects, but you know what? Put the two versions in front of the average gamer and while they might be able to spot the odd difference (the odd bit of superior geometry over there, a more detailed texture here), they probably won't be able to decide which one looks better. So let's forget about the infinitesimally tiny visual differences between the two versions.
Instead, let's enlist an expert to talk about the technical details of creating a PlayStation 3 title. What about the fact that the PlayStation 3 has got bigger discs than the Xbox 360, for example? "Well capacity would matter if we were having trouble with capacity but since it all fits on [one DVD] disc there was nothing we were doing that suddenly we needed gigs more space," says Pete Hines, Bethesda's vice president of PR and marketing. "For any drive, not just the Blu-Ray, the speed of that drive is the bottleneck for how much data you can stream off it at any given moment. So what we actually do is use a lot of space on the hard drive. We can cache stuff off the disk and have it there ready to use in the game, so that when you're on horseback, riding from one end of the world to the other, we've got the assets necessary so that you're not stopping and pausing and it loads nice and seamlessly as it should. So I'd never dishonour the guys who are making it by saying it was easy: working on any console is hard work. I know they've put in a lot of hours and a lot of hard work to make it happen. But the plus is that it definitely looks and plays really good. And you know it's our first really big triple-A game for any Sony platform. It's the first really huge game that we've ever done, so we felt like if we were going to do it with this one we've really got to do it right, it's really got to be excellent, and I think we've gotten there."
Indeed, to judge by the few hours that Ubisoft allowed Eurogamer to mess around with it, they certainly have. Oblivion on the PlayStation 3 is basically identical to Oblivion on the Xbox 360. "For the most part our goal was to take this game that we had done really well with on 360 and simply bring it to a new audience, to bring it to PlayStation 3," continues Hines. "So in terms of features and content and all that, it has everything in it the same as it was in the 360 version - we didn't take anything out, we didn't change any of that stuff. We did add Knights of the Nine, which is content that we had actually initially developed specifically for the PS3 but ended up already releasing for the 360 and PC as a download you can buy, but it comes with the standard version on the PS3. And then beyond that it was really just a lot of customising and tweaking for the PS3 - it's a different box and it functions differently, and so we just did a lot of things to work with the way that console works so that the game loads and runs as fast as possible."
There are a couple of differences though. As Hines mentions, the PlayStation 3 version will contain the Knights of the Nine expansion, which allows players to establish their own order of knights over the course of the quest. And it's still not clear what form any downloadable content will take. "We do plan to look at offering downloadable content that we've already put out and making it available for PS3," explains Hines. "When that's going to be and which ones we're going to offer, I still don't know, but it's definitely something we want to do. And honestly, we've just started looking at it seriously, where you can start to test that content with a game that's pretty close to final and get some ideas of whether or not there's going to be any issues that we have to address with that stuff." And with a PSP title in the pipeline there's obviously the potential for some crossover there (although this is still unconfirmed: "Right now any cross-functionality with the PSP is TBD," says Hines).
But yes, this is basically the same game as on the Xbox 360, which is perhaps why it's been so well-received in advance of its launch: "Honestly, the response has been really good," remarks Hines. "What surprises me - and maybe it shouldn't - is how many folks played Oblivion, and how many folks played Oblivion for a really long time and how impressed they are with the PS3. We've got people saying, "Wow, it really looks great." I don't know if they thought it wouldn't work right or if we couldn't quite pull it off, but yeah, we've really got a lot of really positive feedback on the PS3 version. That's gratifying, particularly because we're really close to being done, so if they had problems with it [laughs] there ain't a whole hell of a lot of time to fix it."
So yeah: what can possibly be left to say about a game that came out about a year ago, wowing the critics, winning about a gazillion game of the year awards, and selling over 3 million copies? Well, since Ubisoft allowed Eurogamer a hands-on session with the PlayStation 3 version of the game, there's perhaps one important thing to say. Playing through the opening sections of the game in the catacombs beneath the Imperial Palace, and then skipping forward to a selection of highlights and being allowed to wander and roam at will made this previewer feel like playing the game all over again. Which is surely a good sign.