“With Skyrim, we wanted to make it feel like you’re playing Elder Scrolls for the first time, every time,” said our guide from Bethesda as he walked a group of us through a half-hour, playable but controlled demo of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim at this year’s E3. At first, I thought what he said sounded a little on the cheesy side, but as he played through the demo, it became readily apparent that there was plenty of material to always keep it feeling fresh, and that this was no recycled title riding on the previous successes of the franchise.
At the start of the game, you don’t pick a particular class; it seems that Bethesda thought that would only serve to restrict you. Instead, you simply play the game how you want to play it, and your skills, spells, and weapon abilities are improved as you use each one specifically. So if you like using one-handed swords a lot, every time you hit an enemy with one, you gain XP in your one-handed weapons category and eventually level it up. Some players might recognize this system dating all the way back to The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, where even jumping constantly would build up your physical fitness stat.
Also like the other Elder Scroll games is that Skyrim can be played in the first- or third-person views. I personally preferred the first-person view, mostly because it was more manageable for combat, but every now and then, our guide would take out an enemy via an automatically-triggered finishing move, which would force the camera into the third-person perspective for a cinematic kill. In those situations, third-person was admittedly preferable.
Possibly most entertaining, though, was the two-handed combat system. While it’s nothing new to have the left and right triggers mapped to perform attacks with the respective hands, things got really spiced up when our guide started mixing magic with weapons. After sifting through a quick menu with the d-pad, he mapped a freezing magic power to the left hand while equipping a sword to his right hand. He then ran up to the nearest enemy and shot off his freezing power, slowing and damaging his opponent, before finishing him off with a swipe of his sword. Considering how many spells and weapons we saw as he sifted through the menus, I can safely say that there are going to be dozens of different applications for this system of equipping magic and weapons to each hand.
Of course, dual-wielding spells was just as awesome. At one point, our guide was fighting undead creatures in a dungeon, so he equipped a circle of protection spell to one hand and chain lightning to the other. As soon as they set foot in the circle, they began to take damage and run away, at which point he casted chain lighting and blasted them into the air.
While the regular spells were plenty impressive themselves, Skyrim also has another, more unique take on magic in the form of shouts. Shouts are basically far more powerful types of magic which can be unlocked by finding words written in an ancient language that are scattered around the Skyrim universe. For instance, our guide happened to find a word scrawled on a wall in cave that allowed him to perform a dragon’s breath shout (in other words, shoot a giant cloud of fire). The more words you find that are associated with a particular shout — each consists of three words — the more powerful the shout becomes.
My favorite, though, was when he was fighting a dragon outside and used some sort of lightning shout for which he had unlocked all three words, so it was at its most powerful. Immediately, the previously sunny and beautiful environment became enshrouded in darkness and thunderclouds rolled in, bringing with them torrential rain and forks of lightning. Fighting a gigantic dragon in a violent thunderstorm? If Bethesda was shooting for epic here, it absolutely succeeded.
Speaking of dragons, after slaying them you can absorb their souls, which gives you a sort of token to unlock another word of your choice for any of your shouts. It’s further motivation to tangle with such fierce enemies, and a good way to tie those battles into this new — and in my opinion, brilliant — shout system.
Unsurprisingly, the environments looked great, especially when we were outdoors and we could see the sprawling landscape extending for miles around us. What was really impressive, as our guide pointed out, was that the draw distance was phenomenal. Don’t be mistaken, you can definitely still see certain, smaller elements slowly draw in as you walk forward. But the grander fixtures off in the distance (namely, mountains) are visible from extraordinary distances. All the more impressive is that these mountains aren’t simply backdrops; they’re real, interactive assets that you can approach and eventually climb.
The weakest point with the environments — though that still isn’t saying much, as they were generally phenomenal — was probably the vegetation. Most of the greens and shrubbery tended to look rough and jagged on the edges and didn’t move very naturally. Still, the green added a nice, lush color to the landscapes that apparently Bethesda themselves really appreciated after working on games with such bleak, dreary environments like Fallout. “It felt great when we were told, ‘Hey, you can all use green again!'” our guide said.
Snow, on the other hand, was quite remarkable because it’s not an asset that’s drawn by the game’s artists. Rather, each individual flake is generated and textured by the game itself, making it look all the more realistic. That was part of what gave the game such a genuine feel, along with things like over 150 hand-crafted dungeons, and unscripted dragon behavior. “It’s all about making the world come to life,” our guide told us.
When our guide said that, I couldn’t help but think that they had succeeded. As he walked out of a cave and into the outdoors, he was passed by a couple of lumbering wooly mammoths and a giant just meandering along. “Not all creatures in the game are aggressive,” he explained as they wandered past us. Indeed, it created the sense that we were walking through this world that was full of people and creatures that led their own lives that had nothing to do with us at all. It was all very natural.
The same goes for the humans in the game; at one point we walked into a small town to find all of the citizens walking around and going about their daily lives. People weren’t just standing in fixed areas, waiting for us to talk to them or trigger quests or request wares. They were having conversations with one another, participating in everyday, mundane tasks like cleaning or sharpening their tools.
Everything in the town was interactive, too; aside from being able to pick up any random object, you could also use the sharpening wheel yourself, or smith weapons or armor. Creating such a hands-on environment in which you can engage with virtually anything or anybody makes for an extremely immersive experience.
That being said, the one thing that took me out of that immersion was the quality of the character models. And when I say that, I really only mean the humans; many of the creatures in the world of Skyrim, like the trolls, giants or dragons, looked exceptional, it was just the humans that looked kind of sub-par. Their animations were a little stiff, and their faces looked too plain, too smooth and featureless to really be believable. But in the grand scheme of things, it’s not that big of a deal since almost everything else about the visuals was well-executed.
Bethesda’s efforts to make a world come to life aren’t just restricted to the gameplay, though. Even the menus opened doorways into the Skyrim universe; everything in your inventory had an interactive, 3D model that you can inspect from all angles (which actually comes in handy for solving some of the game’s puzzles) and books can be read in their entirety.
As a side note, the menus are well organized and broken down, with the main start menu displaying sub-menus for skills, map, inventory, and magic, and each of those meticulously broken down into categories. When I first saw our guide using the quick menus in-game via the d-pad to assign spells or weapons to his hands, I thought that it was a poor set-up to just have one giant list of everything, but then I realized that only the spells or skills he had marked as “favorite” via the real menu showed up on those quick lists.
Probably the coolest part of the menus, though, is how the perk and skill trees are displayed. Rather than just a generic looking diagram or tree, your character looks to the heavens and sees their trees in the form of constellations. As perks are gained and skill trees are expanded, stars are added to eventually make complete constellations. It’s mostly just an aesthetic addition, but a clever and pleasant-looking one that contributes to that feeling of being in a living, breathing universe.
In another attempt to create a realistic world, and an interesting take on the ongoing quest (no pun intended) to create a game world that changes based on your decisions, Skyrim features what Bethesda calls “radiant quests.” These quests can be modified in parts depending on what you have or have not done in the game world. In other words, the main objective of a quest may remain the same, while secondary or tertiary objects may be tweaked based on your previous decisions. Customizable quests are a great idea, and one that is a little more refreshing than the usual black-and-white setup where if you’re a bad guy, you’ll do one thing, and if you’re a good guy, you’ll do another.
There’s a middle ground to be found here, and radiant quests aren’t just about good and evil, it seems that they’re also about what you simply have done or not done. Have you talked to the right people? Have you explored certain areas? Do you have a particular item? It’s all about how you have interacted with the world — on more than just an alignment level — that determines how radiant quests unfold.
Unfortunately, we didn’t really get to experience any of the games’ quests first hand, as our guide was mostly just roaming and dungeon crawling to show off the game. He did happen to kill some bandit in one of the dungeons who apparently was in possession of an item that pertained to a modified quest objective, but that was all we got to see.
For a game as overwhelmingly large as Skyrim, I’m not sure a 30-minute demo completely did it justice; I’m sure there’s plenty more to this game that we have yet to even see. But even with just the little slice we got to preview, I was still wildly impressed with what I saw. An immersive world is important with RPG epics like this one, and Bethesda really nailed it, what with the environments, the radiant quests, and the inhabitants of the universe. Add in some genuinely fun combat and magic abilities, and I think The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim has a shot at being something really special.