As with all of the titles he takes part in building, Todd Howard takes the stage to demonstrate the fruits of the last 5 years of labor at Bethesda Softworks – The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.
Our Xbox 360-powered demonstration opens in the forest of Skyrim – the Northernmost province of Tamriel. The jungle is lush and rendered in incredible detail providing a full and complex environment. The ferns have individual blades, the logs are hollow – nothing is painted on here. If you can see it, you can reach it. As we step through the environment we stop to pick a Harvestmountain flower, tucking it into our inventory for later. Switching to third-person perspective we can see that the incredible level of detail extends to the player model as well. The character’s armor hangs around his shoulders and waist with real weight. Veins on the arms and textures on the leather look raised, never looking like some flat texture. Clearly Todd’s team has spent time looking at player feedback and has taken it to heart.
The biggest fear with any sequel is that the next game will be the previous game with a new coat of paint. It took only a few moments of time with Skyrim to prove definitively that this is not the case here. Mechanically, there is a great deal new under Skyrim’s sun.
There are 18 skills in Skyrim, and like previous titles they improve with use. The difference is how the game executes these improvements. Anything you put in your hands raises the associated skill – if you put a fire spell in your hand and a sword in the other you’ll raise both your spell and one-handed skills, giving ranged and close attack skills on the triggers. Putting a fire spell in both the left and right hand raises your spell skills even faster as well as chaining the spells together to make a more powerful version, but leaves you with absolutely no defensive capabilities. A sword in the right hand and a shield on the left gives you a balance of offense and defense. With 18 spells and a multitude of weapons, it was nice to see that you no longer have to visit the inventory screen to change out spells and weapons – that is handled via a multi-tiered inventory tree and a quick-select radial menu. It was time to see them in action.
Before we knew it, there was a pack of wolves at our heels. Using a sword and shield we blocked the incoming attacks and cut down the beasts – the last one felled by a kick to the face and a quick beheading. Our sword and armor was spattered with the blood of our foes. Right behind the wolves we encountered a bandit that stood little chance against our slowing frost spell. Drawing near we plunged our sword directly into his chest with a downward thrust, killing him instantly.
Giving us another look at the inventory (and testing my ability to type very quickly!) Todd showed us how you can easily switch between items and objects in the game. The sections of the quickmenu contain skills, weapons, items, and more. The sorting options broke down into Favorites, All, Weapons, Apparel, Potions, Food, Ingredients, Books, and Miscellaneous. Each item can (and should!) be inspected at great length – more on that later in the demo. The items have weight, value, special properties and more attributed to them, so even the most mundane of objects seem more real. As in previous games, there are over 300 books in the game and you can read all of them.
Magic and skills of the game are always the highlight for me, and seeing such spellnames as bound battleaxe, chain lightening, circle of protection, clairvoyance and more just got me excited to sling some spells myself this November. Skills on the other hand get the royal treatment – you look to the heavens for guidance. Stargazing upon the constellations, each set of stars represents the various subsets with examples including Destruction, Restoration, Alterations, Blocking, One-Handed, Archery, Light Armor, Sneaking, Lock Picking, Soothing, and Enchanting. Pushing further into the constellation map there is a perk on each star, with completion of the discipline completing the star map.
Moving closer to Tamriel, we got a good look at the map. The map is essentially a topographic or satellite map, showing a vast amount of detail for your adventure. Setting our destination, we set our sights on Riverwood – one of the first towns in the game. The town looks like a typical thatched roof cottage setting, with a nearby mill lapping at the water in the background. Each town has its own economy that you can either help or sabotage as you see fit. Stepping into a nearby blacksmith building we are given the option to use his bench and forge, or have the smith craft, improve, or repair our armor himself. Walking through the town we pass the local tavern – a great place to pick up quests and hear rumors. Leaping onto a nearby Clydesdale-sized horse we set off on a much larger challenge.
Before we get to the incredible battle ahead, we got to hear about the Radiant Story System – the new quest engine for Skyrim. Given that there are over 150 hand-crafted dungeons in the game, the developers want to make sure that you get to experience the best they have to offer. To that end, the quests are now dynamic, so you could suddenly find yourself doing a quest in a dungeon you might have missed. This ensures that the game will help you experience the best it has to offer. That isn’t the only dynamic system in Skyrim – let’s talk about weather.
Moving past the Throat of the World (the tallest mountains in Skyrim) we are informed that the Greybeards live there. In the distance is a dungeon called Bleak Falls Barrow – an ancient Nordic temple made to worship dragons. Guarding the temple are two enemies in the distance. Using Detect Life in one hand and Frenzy in the other, we spot the enemy and cause them to frenzy on one another. Snow falls and builds up in the area as our enemies dispatch one another – we mop up the remaining soldier and approach the dungeon.
As we approach, a large dragon takes flight from the top and breathes fire on our position. Using our bow we try to halt the creature, but there is no doubt that we can’t stop it with a flimsy bunch of arrows – we bolt for the temple and leap through the door.
In the dungeon we find some enemies sitting around a camp, slow roasting some rats over the camp fire. Using our stealth we sneak up on them and dispatch them both silently and quickly. Opening the nearby chest they were guarding, we find a Glass Sword. Equipping that sword and a steel sword that we already had in our inventory, it was time to dual wield.
Switching to a Frost Rune in one hand, we cast it on the ground to make a trap to stop the rats. We only saw the example of this one Rune, but clearly they are used to create traps in the environment. Hacking through some spider webs we encounter a Giant Frostbite Spider. In this case, flames are the weapons of choice and we dispatch the creature quickly using exactly that. The spider was preparing a meal named Arvel the Swift. Pleading with us, we free him from his sticky web bonds and he does exactly what we expect – he makes a break for the dungeon room declaring that he won’t be sharing the loot with us. A quick arrow to the back changes his mind and provides the dirt nap he so desperately deserves. Grabbing a Golden Claw quest item from him, we make our way into a mausoleum. Drogr undead warriors rise from the nearby caskets and shelves and we quickly find ourselves surrounded. Using a Circle of Protection spell causes the enemies to flee, pushing some of them into a nearby set of traps to dispatch them. Using Unrelenting Force (a Dragon word – we’ll get to that in a moment) we shove the remaining enemies around and take them apart. With the help of a spell called Whirlwind Spirit we bolt past some slower traps, zipping through them before they can trigger and harm us. Switching to dual lightning and a slow time shout we take out a tougher enemy called a Draugr Deathlord.
Equipping a magical staff in one hand and a hand axe in the other, we use the staff to light up the area with a ball of light that seeks and sticks to the nearby wall. Pushing further into the cave we find a new spell – Fireball. This spell is a charged spell, requiring that we hold our hand in place to build it before unleashing it on our enemies. Taking on a Frost Troll we find this new spell timely and useful. The fire in the room really showcased the new lighting engine in the game, casting realistic shadows that danced against the cave walls as our enemies continued to burn.
Our enemies destroyed, we enter a placed called the Hall of Stories. This place is the Skyrim equivalent of Valhalla, but admiring the decor isn’t in the cards – a nearby puzzle beckons us. The journal we recovered from the corpse has clues on the puzzle solution, but the solution is also found if you took the time to inspect the claw. On the claw itself is a map of the three door locks, allowing us to quickly spin the tumblers to the appropriate positions. With the puzzle solved, we use the claw to open the door. Inside we find an even larger catacomb flanked by waterfalls and a Wordwall in the center. Containing Dragon Writing, these walls can only be read by Dovahkiin – the Dragonborn. Absorbing the third word in a sequence, we obtain a shout called Storm Call. We only needed a Dragon Soul to fully unlock the power for ourselves…it was time to head back outside to obtain one.
Using the Clairvoyance spell to highlight the path to our nearest objective, we make our way outside. Heading out into the Skyrim Tundra, we see the city of Whiterun in the distance. The city is just one example of a large city that houses the various guilds of the game. The tundra stretches out in front of us and is currently inhabited by mammoths with giants shepherding them. To show off more of the combat, we attack the otherwise docile creatures, causing the giants to attack us as well. Their fight would be short-lived, though, as a massive fire-breathing dragon swoops in and snaps up the giant in her claws. We seem insignificant in the face of these beasts, so running for a nearby tower seems prudent. As nearby archers try to defend their home from the beast, we switch to Chain Lightning and a sword to try to take down the beast. Determined to eat us whole, the massive monster lands and belches fire at us. With deft combat (and likely God mode) we dispatch the creature, obtaining its soul as the body burns up like so much tissue paper.
The dragons in Skyrim are not scripted. Rather than controlling them directly, the team has built up a bank of behaviors and they’ve been turned loose in the environment – this became apparent when we spotted the second dragon observing the proceedings. With the smaller fire-breather dead, the frost dragon began strafing runs on our position. Swooping down with her claws and teeth, we narrowly avoid her assault. Charging up to the top of the tower we prepare to face the beast with our new shout – Storm Call. Holding down the button to unleash all three words of the language, the once beautiful sky is covered immediately with clouds, lightning, and a torrential downpour of rain and wind. The dragon is unable to maintain flight, spiraling into the ground with an enormous thud. Charging upon the wounded beast, we switch to a mighty battleaxe and swing it heartily in the face of her electric breath. The beast defeated, we climb on top of her head and plunge the axe directly into her skull. Absorbing the Dragon Soul, the demo ends with thunderous and deafening applause. Yea…it’s that good.
Look for more on Skyrim as we move closer to 11-11-11.