I love the Xbox One backwards compatibility program.
And yes, I know that a lot of people refer to it as “back compat.” I can’t do that. My brain won’t let me. Shudder.
A handful of titles in the program have received new Xbox One X enhancement patches, bumping up their resolutions and texture filtering dramatically on Microsoft’s more powerful console.
This makes a noticeable difference. But it also exposes the wrinkles and flaws in older games more readily.
The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion is one of my favorite games of all time, and it was the biggest reason I bought an Xbox 360. I had a PC at the time, but buying a 360 was cheaper than upgrading it.
Of course, in hindsight, given how each version turned out, it probably wasn’t the best idea…even though I still loved the 360. Oblivion is one of the earlier high profile examples of a graphical downgrade, where the final game was dramatically different-looking from the footage shown at E3.
Bethesda began developing the game years before the 360 spec was finalized, and they had to guess what the final power of the system would be. They didn’t receive development kits until a few months before the launch of the system, delaying the game into March of 2006 and away from the 360 launch.
And in the end, it turns out their original guesses were a bit too much for even high end PCs of the time, let alone the 360.
Oblivion was originally meant to feature a fully dynamic lighting, soft shading, and shadowing system. Every single object in the game was going to cast a highly-detailed shadow based on the real lighting in the area at the time. Other games of the era had made use of these sorts of shadows, but never quite at the detail level Oblivion was shooting for, and certainly not across such a large world.
It turned out to be too much, and in the final game the shadowing system was dramatically simplified. On 360, further cuts were made compared to the PC version. It has fewer real-time shadows overall, reduced draw distances for foliage and environmental details, and reduced texture resolution.
In 2006, running at 720p on the 360, the game still looked awesome and presented a world that was unmatched in scope and RPG fun. In 2018 running at 4K with amazingly sharp edges and high quality texture filtering it’s…odd?
OLD AND NEW
Oblivion looks both really old and really interesting running on an Xbox One X. The edges of every object are incredibly sharp, performance is more or less rock solid, and the scope of the world and “pile of systems” game design still shine through in something that’s imminently playable.
The reduced draw distances inherited from the older console also make the world look strangely stark and plain. The cleanliness of the incredibly high rendering resolution makes the world look austere and pristine.
A little too clean and devoid of rough edges.
After playing on the console for several hours, I fired it up on my PC, now well beyond the recommended specs of this 2006 game. I was startled to see how much sharper the textures were and how much more overall world detail there was even at 1080p. It was still an “old-looking” game, yes, but the PC version is clearly superior even now.
The newly enhanced Xbox One X version made the differences easier to spot, with the veil of lower resolutions and framerates removed.
In spite of the sharpness of the Xbox One visuals, you’ll see rocks fade into view just a few feet from your character. You’ll see trees morph from weird blobs into detailed wind-affected shapes. You’ll see grass fade into existence as if it’s growing weirdly quickly. You feel a slight pause every time you beat an enemy and the game runs a bunch of physics calculations to make them fall over.
All of these artifacts are gone or greatly reduced on PC, and the lighting system is more dynamic. And character faces are more detailed. And the framerate is much higher.
The game still holds up, no matter where you are. And the Xbox One/Xbox One X are great places to play it if you don’t have a PC. But, like watching a lower budget special effects movie with a new 4K transfer, the newly improved rendering resolution only further highlights the faults of the original console release.
I’m having a blast playing Oblivion again, something I wasn’t expecting when I downloaded it just to check out how it looked on my One X.
I actually enjoy a number of things about its design more than modern Bethesda games, and although Skyrim was able to finally implement those real-time shadows I had craved for so long…it also feels a little bit like a really good mod for Oblivion, when you drill right down into the core of it.
But that is a tale for another time!
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