Bethesda Game Studios’ Todd Howard doesn’t spend a lot of time preparing us before he fires up The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, he doesn’t need to. The context is in the picture, which they say is worth a thousand words, so that would put Skyrim about on par with the Bible or War and Peace, or maybe both, in what it tells us.
He’s demoing the game on Xbox 360, proof they’re confident the visual overhaul speaks for itself. And it does, the game looks stunning with their new Creation Engine, which visually dwarfs Gamebryo.
The demo adventure begins in the first-person, where our Nord is carrying a shield in one hand and his sword in another. There’s greater detail right from the outset: veins in his powerful arms texture his skin; highly detailed ridges and markings on his weapons craft a story of weary battles and victorious triumphs. There’s a better sense of movement from this perspective as well, compared to previous outings.
As if to mark a definitive full-stop to everyone’s nagging inner question though, Todd switched the perspective to the third-person to show off the Havok Behaviour animation system they’re using, and how it’s changed one of the most nagging - and annoying - things to grace both Oblivion and Fallout 3. Stunningly modelled and now walking with weight and deliberation, the hulking Nord stands strong and proud on-screen; inviting character creationists to salivate at finally being able to play this fantasy series as they’ve always wanted.
Walking along a path, Todd switches back to the first-person because that’s how he prefers to play, but it’s also obvious he’s doing this to give us a better look at the new game-world they’ve created in Skyrim. It’s lush and green, with protruding rocks, myriad plant-life, branching pathways and streams (replete with fish swimming upstream like some fantasy-world salmon). Off in the distance you can clearly see ominous icy mountains reaching for the sky; their peaks covered in cloud and mist; clearly hiding all manner of danger and wonder.
“We actually started designing this game right after Oblivion, in 2006,” Todd reveals. “And we wanted to do something with a very different vibe than Oblivion; something more rugged, and we immediately stuck with Skyrim and dragons.”
He’s right about the game being more rugged. The narrative is set some 200 years after Oblivion, but the world is still entrenched in old-school fantasy (no flying cars here). Skyrim is the northern province of Tamriel, which has allowed the team to focus more directly on the Nord race; who’re more viking-like than other races in the game, and the world, so far, reflects this more. A small town we visited looked rustic; built from lumber, which happend to be its main trade. Todd told us it’s possible to basically perform any job you see NPCs in the game doing, and you can even disrupt their specialist trade to ruin their economy. It’s just one small example of the types of open-world choices you have. He didn’t elaborate on why you might want to do this, though mission objectives between waring towns comes to mind. Still, it’s nice to see definitive dynamics playing a larger role in games like this.
Again, NPCs will wander about the place, performing their daily tasks with meaning. The aforementioned economy is tied to this idea and the AI looked far more robust and intelligent, even in the short time we had with the game. The conversation pauses are now gone, with characters speaking to you while you’re free to move or look about. You can even just walk away while someone is in mid-sentence if you like. Other support characters you might get will often “walk and talk” with you; specifically to just flesh out more of the immediate narrative and to save the player plowing through deep conversation lines.
The game also carries with it a minimal HUD, so as to not obstruct your view of the lush world around you. But this is also a functional component to the game, and Todd tells us one of his big goals for Skyrim was to create an in-depth RPG, sans clutter. So bringing up your menu pauses the game some, and offers up four points of interest: Magic, Skills, Inventory and Map. Interestingly, you’ll notice that when you attempt to move to one of these points of interest your character’s gaze will shift slightly in the direction they’re positioned on-screen. This was done, apparently, because Todd thought about where, on your physical body, you might keep or look for such things, which lead to the team’s focus on making a constellation-based skill-tree, because where else would you look to your inner-self, but the sky.
From here he goes into the game’s new focus on being an actual living person, and therefore, capable of dual-wielding. For example, it’s entirely possible to hold a one-handed weapon in your right hand and charge a spell in your left. You can equally combine the two, or remove the weapon altogether for a whole other spell, to dual wield magic. Not content with two different types of magic? Never mind, why not dual wield the same spell and combine it with itself for an even more powerful charge (resulting in the appropriate cool-down, of course). You can also “bookmark” your favourite spells to then call up on the D-pad or on a space on your keyboard. The menu system for all of this still looked a bit sparse, so it will be awesome to see what they do with it, but if they’re reading, I really did like the minimalism going on here.
The navigation bar returns, with illustrated points of interest highlighted in specific directions. And that’s not the only thing that has returned. The music is still very much the same (read: awesome), and encounters still have that drum charge reminding you you’re about to get into a fight. You’ll come across many a random, emergent character in the world of Skyrim, though Todd is quick to assert the idea that this time around, not everyone is your enemy (ala Oblivion). Our first taste of combat was in the first-person, and I did feel that more work needed to be done on contact animation and hit detection - it just looked a little laggy, or out. I’m sure this is something that can be broached by the time the game is released in November, but it'd be remiss to preview the game and not bring it up.
Speaking of combat, and getting ahead of the overall demo, your tactical options in Skyrim are amazing. Not only do you have the ability to dual-wield; serving up all kinds of combat recourse, but you now also have “Shouts”. These are basically active in-game “perks” to utilise whenever you like, kind of like secondary superhero powers. You learn Shouts through the ancient Dragon tongue, by finding words scattered about the land. There are also three tiers of each shout (obviously making them stronger as you progress) and in Todd’s words “around a dozen” to collect in the game-world. Yours truly asked if there were a chance you could combine different words to create new, unique Shouts, and Todd told us it’s something they toyed with at the start, but became too convoluted to continue pursuing; resulting in the active “dozen” or so in the game proper.
We only saw two active Shouts: Unrelenting Force, which was essentially a Force Push and another that slowed time. If you think then about the combination possibilities in battle with the addition of both dual-wielding and Shouts, the game’s skirmish moments become clear, and free-form. So, for example, you could easily perk a weapon to a specific power (ie Fire), set a runic trap (again, Fire), dual-wield with a fire spell in one hand and your perked weapon in another, and then, at the time of impact, attack an ice enemy with slowed time thanks to your shout. This then gives you the freedom to get up close and personal with your target, only to then move away once your shout has worn off; watching your traps spring to ensure even more damage is dealt overall. And that’s just one conclusion I drew for myself based on what I saw and what we were privy to. The opportunities in this department of the game are, seemingly, endless (or at the least open to varying play-styles and tactical planning).
Combat isn’t the only thing in the game though, and Todd assures us there’s a heady amount of puzzle-solving throughout, along with exploration. Anyone who has played a Resident Evil game will be aware of the “examining” items system that game offered, and how that played into working your way through impediments and puzzles. But for those who haven’t, every item in the Skyrim game-world is fully rendered in 3D, and each one you collect can be examined in free-space; turning it 360 degrees to see every polygonal ridge or hidden texture. The idea here is to find clues to solving certain puzzles, such as combination locks etc. We didn’t get a full look at this, but here’s hoping there’s also a combination component to the free-look item management system, to really push the puzzle portion of the game, but honestly, so far, so good.
We quickly grab a quest from one of the townsfolk, whose sister walks us to a bridge just out of town to demonstrate the “walk and talk” narrative delivery. Todd tells that if the quest-giver dies during our attempt at its completion, his sister will take over his role; creating a persistent and believable world that allows for the outcome of dynamic events to remain. In other words, the game never resets (unless you die), and there are consequences for ever decision you make in-game, so as to create higher level of engagement, morality or opportunity.
Our quest leads to the foothills of a giant mountain, and as we ascend the creatures we face become increasingly more difficult. It’s not an overt scaling system, where the game’s difficulty levels adjust to your own XP or the like, but there are areas you basically won’t survive, and these are logical, like higher up in mountain ranges, Todd tells us. But again, this is where the combat comes heavily into play in that, utilising what you have at-hand, can seriously save your hide if you’re smart about it. The character he’s playing is slightly adjusted for demoing purposes (basically he didn’t want to die during the presentation and be embarrassed), but it did look very challenging, regardless.
The game’s map system is now essentially just a theatre-of-war pull back on the persistent game-world. So you’re getting a full 3D map of the land, hills and all. It literally is the game-world, shrunk down, Todd reveals, and allows for a greater sense of direction and exploration. However, dungeons are still as ambiguous as you’d expect, and after our first encounter with a dragon outside, Todd runs (a tactic he implores we utilise when we play the game, to fight another day) into the depths of a set of ruins. Inside we come across thieves (part of the active mission we’re on), and a stealthy take-down of one enemy with a bow reveals two current things about Skyrim: Stealth returns in great form, and the enemy AI still needs some work (because the death of one enemy resulted in the one standing next to him to just say “who’s there?” with no alarm).
Your skills are still levelable
through active use, in that performing said skill will advance it. However, you can’t just spam them now, as the active levelable
skills require specific use. So, essentially, you can’t just stand on the spot and spam jump to level your Acrobatic skill, because it no longer exists. It’s a great system that requires consistent and active play and engagement with the game, which is something the team strove for from Day One. Moreover, skills are now actively tied to levelling your character, and not the other way around. It’s slightly complex, and Todd explains it better than I could, but we have a Q&A transcript coming today, so stay tuned, but it makes much more sense than the system in Oblivion, with the perk system basically pulled from Fallout 3 to create what seems to be the most logical character-levelling and progression system ever created.
We saw much of this in action through the one dungeon Todd lead us through, and it looked to work very well. Unfortunately we didn’t get an in-depth look at item and inventory management, though we did see that there’s still a weight threshold and a lot of arbitrary junk you can
collect, if you so choose. Item drops are essentially random with only very specific items existing in specific places (as part of the game’s narrative, or for exploration and scaling purposes). You can obviously then still loot dead bodies, raid chests and steal. Todd wouldn’t go into the morality specifics of the game, or how the “law” reacts to crime, but it’s nice to know it exists in some form, and that, at the very least, through his tied tongue, it’s also obviously different to anything that has come before it.
Our demo culminated in the collection of a new dragon word for our character who is a Dovahkiin (Dragonborn), or hunter of dragons. We saw a mini-boss battle emerge at the collection of this new word from an ancient “Word Wall” where a Frost Atronach came to life from a nearby coffin. Prior to this we’d been fighting reanimated dead Nord warriors called Drauger, and clearly this Atronach was the cream of the dead crop. The battle saw Todd utilising the myriad combat tools I spoke of earlier in many different combinations, but all of this lead me to assume Shouts won’t be easy to come by, or gain.
However, for demo purposes, Todd emerged triumphant against the mini-boss and left the ancient Tomb armed with a stronger addition to his Shout arsenal; leading to the final portion of our journey, a dragon.
I mentioned in a news post recently that dragons had been added to the game-world in much the same way other animals had. They’re abundant and consistent; emerging randomly for battle, but as a functioning part of the game-world’s rich ecology. Obviously there are going to be specific dragons relative to the game’s narrative you need to fight, but largely, it’ll be possible to face many of them in the game. No word on riding them, though Todd’s reluctance to definitively dismiss such an idea means we might be in for a wild ride down the track, however, one thing we do know is that killing a dragon awards you their soul. Again though, this was a mildly touched-upon topic and there was no clear answer as to what a dragon’s soul might offer a Dovahkiin, such as yourself.
The dragon battle, specifically, was over a little too quickly for my liking. It’s obvious Todd was buffed measurably for our presentation, and it looked like a tough fight, but I’m hoping these encounters will be longer and more epic. Like the Atronach battle though, he used everything in his arsenal to bring down the giant, who crashed to the ground in spectacular fashion. When it died, it disintegrated as if on magical fire, with its soul-infused ashes circling us; entering us - making us more powerful, more driven and more Dragonborn.
And just like that, a mere taste of what is going to be an obvious Game of the Year contender was over. In fact, it wasn’t even a taste, but rather a whiff; a smell from a kitchen cooking the gourmetest
meal of your life; a last supper, if you will. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is everything you’ve ever wanted from the series, and the team know this - it’s the culmination of years of Elder Scrolls heritage, in one neat technologically advanced package - the game they’ve always wanted to make, and the game you’ve always wanted play.