Part 4 - Graphics
Oblivion's graphics are touted as one of it's biggest selling points. However, in reality, I found the graphics to be repetitive and dull. Just because a game is photo realistic does not mean it has good graphics.
1.The graphics engine is bloated and unoptimized. It takes a herculean computer to be able to run Oblivion with any decent settings. A game does not need photo realistic graphics to be good. This latest trend in computer gaming, the trend of releasing computer games with insane system requirements just to show off a few shiny graphics, is what is driving people to consoles (and I might add that the console version of Oblivion, in order to run at a good speed, uses a lot of shortcuts and optimizations that are not available in the PC version such as FP-10 blending vs FP-16 for HDR).
Half-Life 2 and the Source Engine are an example of how to properly write a graphics engine. The Source Engine (and by extension Half-Life 2) can run with a DirectX 6 graphics card. For those who don't know what that means, it means that a computer with a nVidia RiVA TNT (a 3D accelerator from 1998) can run Half-Life 2. And yet, at the same time, the engine supports such things as Shader Model 3.0 and HDR Lighting for those computers that support it. And it scales beautifully to a wide range of computers.
Oblivion on the otherhand won't run on anything less than a Geforce 6 series card or a Radeon 9600+ Series Graphics Card. And neither run the game anywhere near it's full potential. Common excuses include the amount shaders Oblivion uses and the procederal content generation (e.g SpeedTree). But the fact is, shaders are not required in order to render a 3D scene. And the amount of shaders and/or the complexity of them could have easily been made scalable.
2.Despite the so-called state-of-the-art graphics that Oblivion possesses, facial textures are a meager 128x128 in size. Character faces look like artifical blobs. There are mods on the PC version that fix this but one would think that, for all it's claims of Oblivion being state of the art in graphics, Bethesda would have included better facial textures.
3.Graphics are bland and repetitive. Everything outside is a giant forest. The only difference between the various regions are the colors/varieties of the trees and the color of the ground. Morrowind, in contrast to Oblivion, had a much wider variety of environments. In Morrowind, environments ranged from the lush Ascadian Isles Region complete with giant mushrooms and exotic plants, to the West Gash Region, a region of rugged hills and hardy plants, to the rolling hills of the grazelands region. In Oblivion, it's forest, forest, and more forest, an obvious attempt to show off SpeedTree.
Interior environments are equally bland. Caves are grey. Mines are grey with some brown. Ayelid ruins are grey. Forts are grey. There is very little variety in the color palates between various dungeons. In Morrowind, dungeons were much more varied.
4.Photorealistic does not equate to good graphics. World of Warcraft, a popular online role-playing game, has a graphics engine with technology equivalent to that which would have been state of the art 4 years ago. Yet, at the same time, despite the fact that it's not using a so-called state of the art graphics engine, many people think the graphics in World of Warcraft are great.
The key to good graphics is the art direction and attention to detail. Despite World of Warcraft's "Outdated" graphics engine, it has things that Oblivion doesn't. Things like footprints in snow, sand and other soft surfaces. Things like visible breath in cold regions. Things like butterflys and other flying insects and birds. Things like ambient animation.
The sad thing is, none of the above would be hard to implement. Footprints are just decals (2D sprites laid on a flat surface) and the breath is a simple fog effect. Birds and insects are easy enough, the fact that there are player-made mods that add them is a testament to how easy it would have been for Bethesda. Bethesda spent so much time on making Oblivion photo realistic and using as many shader effects as possible that they overlooked many minor details that would have boosted the graphical experience of Oblivion much more than an extra shader effect or two.
5.The physics engine is pointless. There is no gameplay value to having it and the only thing is does is consume valuable resources. The physics aren't even realistic! You can strike a glass vial with your sword and it will bounce around like it's made of rubber. Bodies will float down like they are on the moon. And arranging items in your house is a nightmare thanks to the vaunted physics engine. One wrong move and you can end up knocking everything over like dominos.
6.Shadows are still broken. Just like in Morrowind, I've encountered instances where, in a two story building, someone has cast a shadow through the second floor down to the ceiling of the first floor. Granted, the problem isn't as bad as it was in Morrowind, but one would think that such an issue would have been resolved this time around.