The Curious Case of Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion on PS3

The Curious Case of Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion on PS3

Remember The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion? It’s everyone’s favorite 360 launch game that actually launched six months after the 360, and helped coined the ridiculous term of “launch-window.” It also set the bar for what an Xbox 360 game could be.

A lot of folks loved its predecessor, Morrowind…but that game never totally grabbed me. I know, what a horrible thing for me to say. I’ve done better at enjoying it when revisiting it more recently, but when Morrowind first came out, I just couldn’t get into it.

My personal hype for Oblivion was immense however. It looked like it was going to offer everything I wanted out of an action RPG, and it had some amazing graphical effects that I couldn’t wait to experience for myself.

I bought not one, but two copies, because I had to have it on both 360 and PC.

It fully delivered, at least to my 22 year old self. But it didn’t quite reach the heights its E3 videos. Do you remember these videos? I must have watched them at least 100 times.

Some folks might call the disparity between these videos and the final version an outright marketing lie, but at least in the case of this game, there’s a much better reason than that.

Oblivion spent most of its development time without a concrete hardware spec to shoot for. Both Microsoft and Sony were racing against the clock to develop their new machines, and final development hardware didn’t get out to studios until after E3 2005, allegedly. Bethesda spent a lot of time on Oblivion aiming for a moving target of future console and PC hardware…a target that never really materialized.

As a result, those E3 videos have all kinds of effects going on that the final game doesn’t have, along with a poor framerate. The soft shadows shown in that video look better than some of the shadows in current video games, and every single texture is extruded with multiple passes of different effects work.

The final game retains a lot of the underlying spirit of that original vision and the same core artwork, but it’s clear that sacrifices were made in the name of realistic performance goals. The shadows are largely gone. The textures are lower resolution and with fewer effects, with character models suffering the most in this transition. It’s a much plainer game. Still ambitious for 2006, but far more “this is a real product” instead of a full-on pipe dream.

Oblivion has a strange look to it today as a result of this forward-thinking development effort. Parts seem just fine, like they came out of a game released yesterday, and parts look positively ancient.

When the game first came out six months after its intended launch in March of 2006, it was published by 2K and it was rated Teen, in spite of being filled to the brim with medieval violence and adult themes. It’s like the ESRB didn’t even watch the footage sent to them. The rating was later changed to an M after mods added further adult content, even though the base content probably warranted that rating in the first place. That’s why I’ve used the tiny image as the header for this story. It’s wild that at one time it was rated T and published by 2K. I remember being delighted that I still had the original boxes and discs with the T rating on them when this happened, even though that didn’t really mean anything.

Now, we finally get to the reason for this article.

Bethesda self-published a new version of the game one year later on the newly-launched PlayStation 3, missing its hardware launch by six months just as they had done with the 360. Expectations were curiously high. People expected PS3 games to look better than their 360 counterparts because of all the hype behind Sony’s hardware. It had a strange multi-core CPU that could support graphical tasks, yes, but its GPU from Nvidia wasn’t so much better than the 360’s as it was different.

Regardless, the thought persisted that Oblivion must look better when it comes out on PS3. Maybe it would get those shadows back? Maybe the framerate would be higher? Maybe it would run in 1080p?

It did none of those things. But Bethesda still put some effort into the port. In a way.

Load times were greatly improved. A new level of detail system was implemented to make far away textures look much sharper (that would eventually sort of come to the 360 and PC, but in a blurrier “more refined” form). And the entire post-processing pipeline was tweaked a little bit, resulting in changes to lighting and the look of certain graphical effects. The result is a…different-looking version of the same game that still has some framerate issues. But at least people could point to the different visuals and say “see it looks better on PS3.” Ugh.

Controller vibration was completely removed because the original PS3 controller, the SixAxis (Shudder), didn’t support the feature thanks to a protracted lawsuit with Immersion, a company that spent years holding people’s feet to the fire over vibration motor licensing agreements. I used to be a defender of the SixAxis in spite of it having a cheap weightless feel and clearly just being a DualShock 2 with the vibration motors ripped out and replaced by an accelerometer. And Bethesda didn’t add any fun motion control nonsense to balance out the lack of vibration, even though that was all the rage. Nor did they ever patch vibration back in once Sony started paying for a motor license again.

Similarly, the game never got trophy support once that feature rolled out on PS3, robbing it a little of the completionist fun of getting extra shiny things that don’t mean anything in addition to regular game things.

Post-launch support, in fact, was practically non-existent. It kinda makes it seem like we were lucky to get a new version at all. The only extra content the game has is Knights of the Nine, an “exclusive” mini-expansion…that was eventually ported to the other two versions of the game. And Shivering Isles, the full expansion, did also eventually come over to PS3, before Oblivion was put to rest entirely in favor of Fallout 3 and porting Skyrim to everything.

I’ve been revisiting PS3 Oblivion this week thanks to PlayStation Now, and it’s a weird experience. I played the game for about 20 hours when it first launched, but then drifted back to the 360 and PC versions I was more comfortable with.

Looking at the PS3 version now, it’s easy to see all the differences in the post processing. A light here, a changed texture there. Sometimes this looks better than my burned-in memories, and sometimes it looks worse, but it’s still surprisingly playable. The game looks good overall, although its stubborn insistence on using Vsync throughout means that the framerate drops are more noticeable than they could have been. I’ve been spoiled by the dynamic vsync and resolutions of modern games.

It’s weird not having rumble. It’s weird seeing how overly-crunchy and speckled the far away textures look, made all the more prominent by the slight video compression of PSNow. I think I miss the original distant blobs from the launch 360 version.

A lot of the sound is badly compressed, something I noticed on many other PS3 titles in their original forms too. Bink videos in particular suffer from this issue, like the opening intro video in Oblivion and its title screen. The music in both cases is a warbly, artifact-filled mess, something that’s only exacerbated by PSNow.

When Oblivion first launched on PS3, it was arguably the best way to play. It offered a slightly refined graphical experience that didn’t require an expensive PC. And you could play it with a cheap light-feeling controller!

Now though, with the 12-year-old game easily crushed by even a modest laptop’s graphics chip and the Xbox One offering a 4K backwards compatible version, this PS3 edition is clearly the worst version. It has some unique visual features and fast loading times, but it feels far more like a quick port with some meaningless visual tweaks now than it ever did in 2007.

I would love it if Bethesda re-released Oblivion as a “remastered” game on modern machines. Even as a budget release using the base visual featureset from the PC version, I’d bet that folks would enjoy revisiting it. It has just enough of the accessibility that allowed Skyrim to sell a gazillion copies on 25 different platforms, but with a sprinkle of the old-school hard edge that made a lot of PC fans fall in love with the earlier entries. In a Dark Souls-dominated landscape, Oblivion weirdly stands the test of time.

I hope that Elder Scrolls VI is able to capture a little of its fiddly magic. I want to worry about stamina and weapon durability and class specialization again. Skyrim is a fantastic open world action game that I’ve played to death numerous times, but Oblivion was the last Elder Scrolls that really scratched my inner RPG itch. I know we’ll never get a version that has those cool shadows, but I’d buy Oblivion again in any form if they gave me the chance.

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