I was at Microsoft's X05 event in Amsterdam and had a chance to play Oblivion for almost 3/4 of an hour. The Elder Scrolls pods were quiet, mainly because people were more interested in Call of Duty 2, etc. Not me, though!
Anyway, here's a very short account of my impressions. I didn't take details on character creation because that would have taken too long and I really wanted to get out of the first dungeon before being kicked off the pod. Which I did. In fact, considering the time restraints most other attendees were under, I wouldn't be surprised if I was the only person to do so!
(I will say this, however: character creation is just as in-depth as Morrowind's, from the brief glance I took while making my hands-on character. There were about 20 classes to choose from, including a few I didn't recognise from previous games. Much like Morrowind, you also get to choose a sign; I chose The Lady. I didn't check the races available, but I'm sure they've been announced already. The guy next to me was creating an orc character.)
Right. I won't talk too much about the start of the game, because we've all heard the Emperor bit a hundred times already. My impressions are mainly based on aesthetics, because I didn't have time to test out the actual RPG mechanics. From that point of view, there are good and bad points. Please bear in mind that this isn't the finished product and my memory is somewhat fried from a few days of, ahem, drinking coffee.
Firstly, the basic controls feel *exactly* like Morrowind did on the Xbox. The X button is for sheathing and drawing weapons and the A button picks up or interacts with items. The left trigger is used for block this time around, however, with jump moved to Y.
To be perfectly honest, my initial impression of the graphics (the game was running on a high-def TV) was that they were disappointing. The Emperor and Imperial guard models looked a little rough, especially the former's, and certainly not as impressive as in the screenshots. In saying that, they do convey much more emotion. There was one lovely moment where the Emperor was passing me and he actually turned his head and smiled as he walked by. Very nicely done. As I followed the Imperial troupe out of my cell, they were soon attacked by human opposition. Some of the animation here was excellent, especially in the flickering light of torches, and the armour looked wonderful: gleaming and reflecting with movement. There's definitely more bite and aggression to the combat animations for NPCs, though four or five of them fighting together can look a little over-frantic.
As for player-combat, it has definitely been made more action-friendly, but only in the aesthetics department. There's more 'clunk' and 'shudder' to the attacks, and the blocking feels good, but the real difference is that every attack lands, so there's no swiping at air when you fight the rats and goblins of the first dungeon. The goblins looked pretty weird, I thought, like Arx Fatalis models instead of Oblivion models, but maybe that's just me.
There were a bunch of chests in the first dungeon, and some traps. I killed two goblins by pushing logs down a slope on top of them, pressing A when prompted to do so. The physics engine looks great. (Those chains everyone has talked about are a compelling example). I actually couldn't figure out the lockpick method - though it seems Splinter Cell-like, 'turn stick in certain directions to unlock tumbler' - and so I just used the 'auto unlock' option to open chests. It still requires lockpicks. The combat animations for the longsword, axe and shortswords I used were very similar to Morrowind's, but that might change with further levels. It certainly *doesn't* feel a million miles away from what we were doing in Balmora or the Ashlands, but it is much more satisfying nonetheless.
I rushed my way through the first dungeon, using previous Elder Scrolls experience to sound the way out. I was desperate to walk around those exterior environments. (On a side note, Patrick Stewart does a sterling job as the Emperor; a dreamy, father-like interpretation.)
So I got out of the dungeon and into the wilderness outside of what I think was the Imperial City. (Sorry, can't remember now). The game looked very beautiful, and the music kicked in and seems to be done in much the same way Morrowind's was: that's to say, it was orchestral, sounded like the same composer and was was only ever complimentary, not intrusive. Once I entered the city, the music changed to a mandolin-like plucking, which was very welcome. Here's hoping that variety in present throughout the entire game.
Back to the wilderness for a moment. The first vista I saw, overlooking the sea from a small, cliff-like embankment, was breath-taking. The sea shimmered wonderfully in the sun and the grass and shrubs were a vibrant green. Unfortunately, it was also here that I encountered the most disappointing feature of hands-on time - the draw distance. You know that screenie with the knight looking out over a forest on horseback, and the forest goes on for ages in front of him? Well, what I saw was nothing like that. There was a completely blank fog of war about (rough guess here) 200-300 metres ahead of view. The walls of the city literally popped into view as I approached it, at least as bad as Morrowind did from my recollection. HOWEVER, I must stress that this is just a build version (I assume) and this may be fixed by release, or may even be an exception within the game. It did disappoint me, though.
From a design point of view, the city was also a little disappointing. It reminded a bit of Mournhold, with a kind of hub spreading out into other areas, which included (some *very* gorgeous) Elven gardens and a marketplace. Some of the areas looked amazing - including one with what I assume were statues of the Nine, though I might be getting my lore all wrong there! - while other aspects looked little better than an Xbox game to my eyes. The NPCs, in particular, looked ever-so-slightly clumsy, but don't construe that as overly-negative: they are still a million miles better than Morrowind's.
I didn't have enough time to follow an NPC around and check out the Radiant AI. However, I heard plenty of chatter from them, including a woman explaining to a friend where to get 'the best deals' for something, and others talking about various event and news. This really worked well and added loads of atmosphere (let's be honest though, anything is better than 'GREETINGS OUTLANDER.!' ). My only concern on that level is that repetition would drive you crazy, but I trust Bethesda to get that right.
Conversation trees, meanwhile, used bigger and more pleasant fonts, while the face of the NPC you're talking to is zoomed in upon, up close. Their countenance does change depending on your choices and it's fun to watch!
The compass is completely inobtrusive, thank god, and merely shows the faint image of houses, etc, above the compass directions to indicate where things lie. I didn't even notice it until the end of my play-test.
In summary, Oblivion feels very, VERY similar to Morrowind in almost every *basic* sense. You'll feel right at home if you played ESIII on Xbox. It's unlikely to blow you away based on graphics alone and the engine in motion didn't live up to the screenshots, especially animation (IMO, but bear in mind I had spent the day watching stuff like Gears of War, tough competition!) but the sense of atmosphere has clearly increased tenfold - birds tweeting in the wilderness, scripted events with speech during the Emperor's ill-fated escape attempt, the physics, etc.
Personally, I'm delighted for the most part. I now know that Oblivion *feels* very much like an upgraded Morrowind but clearly has much more to offer.