Oblivion: Screenshots

By Shamus
on Aug 29, 2006
Filed under:
Game Reviews

For my birthday, I got a new graphics card. I hate spending money on this kind of technology right now. It’s evolving so fast that by the time your graphics card arrives in the mail there is one for sale with twice the power for the same price. So, I got the cheapest card I could find that would still do what I want. Being careful to avoid my previous mistake, I got a GeForce 6200. The card is more or less junk now, so the price was quite low online.

As much as I hate this rapid evolution / obsolesence, the retail outfits must hate it ten times as much. You just can’t turn stuff over fast enough to keep up. I checked out Staples, and they had my GeForce 5500 – for which I paid $50 a year ago – on sale for $100. The speed at which hardware moves is just too fast and retailers can’t operate on that sort of timetable. A card might be introduced and subsequently supplanted within six months. Allowing for the time it takes them to get a product to the store and get it onto the shelves for sale, this means they need to put cards on clearance almost the moment they arrive. (This may be more of a problem in lo-tech western PA than elsewhere. Maybe in high-tech areas they have enough turnover for this to work.)

Wal-Mart and other places had this same problem throughout the 90’s with PC’s. I’d see two-year-old (obsolete) computers sitting there for about the same price they were two years ago, next to a new computer for just a few bucks more. They couldn’t mark the old computer down any more without killing their margin. In fact, I’ll bet the electricity used to keep the demo model running the eternal screensaver for all that time ate up most of their margins anyway.

Now that I think of it, this might still be going on. I wouldn’t know, because I buy all of my computers online these days.

Anyway, I took some before / after screenshots for comparison’s sake. The screenshots are kind of interesting as an illustration of what went wrong with Oblivion. Most of it has to do with the need for 2.0 pixel shaders, which are only available on newer cards.

First off, this is what the game looked like right out of the box:

The default settings
The default settings

Wow. Pretty compelling. It seems we’re right at the edge of the world.

Now, here is the exact same scene after a little messing with the settings:


Better, but it doesn’t work.
Better, but it doesn’t work.

I turned on the “distant terrain” option and got this. I guess by “distant” they mean “more than six feet in front of your face”. Anyway, this was better looking but unplayable. The distant terrain would pop up in places nearby and occlude nearby scenery.

Note the big squares of terrain on the opposite bank, and how the world looks like a big quilt. Ugh.

So then I installed Oldblivion:

Oldblivion makes it work.
Oldblivion makes it work.

Look at that! Lighting! Actual shades of light and dark! Amazing! Note that now we can see that those big ugly squares from the previous images are really a road. We’re still a far cry from the alleged screenshots the game has on the box, though.

I fiddle with the settings a bit more and manage to come up with this:

Not perfect, but better.
Not perfect, but better.

The framerate takes a bit of a hit here, and the game is sometimes choppy like this, but I think this is a nice tradeoff between visuals and performance. I could make it look a little better by turning on the grass, but the game becomes unplayable if I do that.

At any rate, this is as good as the game can look on my GeForce FX 5500, and to get it looking this way I needed a user-made patch and hours of experimental tweaking. Without the user-made fix, I’d be stuck with what you see in the first screenshot.

I install the 6200. After all of my messing with the shaders and tweaking the more esoteric settings hidden in the config files I find the game doesn’t work as it was supposed to with the newer card. I’ve broken it. So, I have to re-install the game. I manage to lose my savegame, so I can’t get a shot from exactly the same location, but I think I found that spot where I took the other pictures. Here it is, as close as I could come:

Oblivion on my “new” GeForce 6200.
Oblivion on my “new” GeForce 6200.

And of course the screenshots in the Bethesda gallery are all fantastic, and look nothing like what I’ve been seeing. You know, like that first image:

Can you believe this is the same game?
Can you believe this is the same game?

The thing is that the shaders in the game are designed for graphics cards which support 2.0 pixel shaders. Most of the effects can be done with earlier graphics cards, but they would have needed to write alternate versions of the shaders for those cards. It might not be as fancy, but it should be able to do the critical stuff. This is how you’re supposed to handle things. From what I can tell, Bethesda just wrote 2.0 shaders and if they didn’t load it would just skip that rendering pass. That’s a sure way to make sure that nothing works right or looks right.

Most of what OLDblivion did was replace these shaders with alternate versions that will work on older cards.

A great example is the underwater fog. On my GeForce 5500, there was no underwater fog effect, so the water was perfectly clear. (This would look strange in bad weather. It would be foggy, then I’d dip into the water and suddenly I can see for miles!) I guess the water is supposed to be murky, and only allow you to see a few meters. Now, graphics cards have been able to do fog for ages. It really is one of the most primitive, basic effects in the world, and there is no excuse for not having it work on all cards. It’s just sloppyness.

The thing that irritates me about this is that I don’t play these games for the graphics. I like pretty graphics, but the open-ended gameplay is far more important to me. If they had just come up with a simple, stable rendering engine that was on par with Morrowwind I would have been perfectly happy. All I wanted was a new sandbox world to play in. But they put so much of a focus on the visuals that it really harmed the game. Those water reflections are nice, but I would rather the made the thing work right. Leave the bleeding-edge graphics for games like Doom, and build your sandbox world on something more established and stable.

Okay, I’m done. No more posts on Oblivion. Time to move on.

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7A few comments. Call it seven-ish.

From the Archives:

  1. Cineris says:

    That new graphics card took about five years off your game (1995->2000). Of course, even with maxed settings the game still has flat sheets of grass clumps and other relics… But you’re definitely right that having a complex world to explore is more important than having the latest graphics for the game of this type. On the other hand, I think Bethesda was making the gamble that the visuals would draw in lots of people that wouldn’t normally be interested in the game (in the same way that GTA3 largely popularized the modern freeform city/driving game).

  2. Wonderduck says:

    One huge way to make your framerate jump up is to turn off the ‘grass’. The game sure seems to indivdually model the motion of each moving stalk that blows in the breeze… which is really cool to look at, but makes even higher-end GPUs chug and wheeze.

    I’m running a 7600 with a X2 3800+, and other than the grass, I’ve got a lot of settings near max @ 1024×768, and have a framerate around (I’d guess) 30-35fps.

    Beautiful game to look at, particularly on top of a mountain looking at the Imperial City during sunset. Or at night with a clear sky.

  3. Loffle says:

    You need a 360. It looks as good as if not a bit better than your final screenshot with no work on my part.

  4. I’m running a 7800 and other than the grass, I’ve got a lot of settings 1280×1024, and have a framerate around 35-40fps.

  5. Whiterabbit aka Stephen says:

    I do think that your view of Oblivion is colored by your reluctance to buy a better graphics card. If you’re willing only to buy the lowest spec card for your game play, you cannot expect to get the full benefits of the graphics code. I don’t mean to flame you, but just want to point out that using a higher end graphics card such as a NVidia 8600 GT or a Nvidia 8800 GTX which have been drastically reduced in price since they were released, especially since the release of the 9800 card, (I paid over $500 for my NVidia 8800 640Mb card, which you can now buy for about a third of the price)will give you the maximum graphics output, which are the same as the screenies used by Bethesda to advertise the game.

    I agree that with the 360 you can just jump in and not worry about graphics as its almost all there, but not quite. I personally think the PC beats any of the consoles in the graphics department assuming you have a decent card installed. Where the 360 is let down is in the customizability of the game. I believe you can’t use the mods that are available for the PC version of the game. I can’t believe how many mods there are now, that really add so much more to the game; just take Obscuro’s Oblivion overhaul mod, which really ups the ante with respect to the overall appearance of the game.

    I would strongly suggest to Shamus that he bites the bullet and buys a decent graphics card.

    (I do understand how you feel as I did something similar, but with Hi-Fi instead of computers – for years I wouldn’t upgrade my cheap stereo because of the way things were changing constantly – in the end I lost out to years of better listening experiences just because I wasn’t willing to spend just that little bit extra). Life’s for living, go get a decent card and then really immerse yourself in what to me is the best game ever (despite being a Battlefield and Crysis freak), though maybe the soon to be released Fallout 3 may be a near contender to take the title. :)

    Good gaming everyone :)

  6. Nintai says:

    ^ Well said…

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