E3 2011 Preview: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Many gamers experienced Bethesda's brand of RPG and action for the first time back in March of 2006 with the release of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. In truth, they'd been making fantastic games for years before that, including three previous epic RPGs in the series as well as the groundbreaking action game Terminator: Future Shock. Whatever fame Bethesda Game Studios built with Oblivion, they solidified by resurrecting the Fallout franchise and applying their signature formula to a new installment in the series, but in the years since then, they've returned back to their fantasy roots to bring us a fifth major Elder Scrolls game. While Bethesda hasn't shown gamers very much of Skyrim yet, the E3 demo has brought us a wealth of new information, and I've come away extremely impressed at their commitment to new engine and technology - a difficult and risky decision to make so late in a console generation - and their insistence on fixing what was broken in their past games.
Skyrim is not only the name of the game, but it's the name of the province of Tamriel where the game takes place. (Whereas Morrowind took place on one island off the coast of the province of Vvardenfell and Oblivion was in the capital province of Cyrodiil, they finally picked a land that sounds awesome enough to fully become the title of their game.) The Viking-like tribes in this snowy northern land have lost their High King, a leader that had united all the clans of Skyrim, and instead of naming a new king, the tribes of Skyrim have allowed civil war to break out. What's worse is that the dragons, long dormant in Tamriel, have returned.
Dragons are creatures that Bethesda shied away from in the franchise's past, mostly because they never felt like they could do justice to such a fearsome enemy. And to get to the point of killing dragons, you'll have your work cut out for you, because in true Elder Scrolls fashion, you are cast as a nameless prisoner of a race and gender you determine during character creation. And as before, the protagonist is some kind of secret chosen one, brought to these snow-covered lands part by chance, part by prophecy. You're not just playing as the savior of Skyrim; you're also "Dovahkin", the last in an ancient bloodline of dragon-born humans not only knows how to fight dragons, but can also absorb their life force and start using their powers for yourself.
As gameplay goes, most of the skills from Oblivion are back, with a few bits of new streamlining and progression that so far, I welcome - mostly because the skills they got rid of are ones I rarely found useful, and I was always checking the menus for progression that is now shown right in mid-game. They've also borrowed the Perk system they implemented in Fallout 3, and have brought it into The Elder Scrolls universe through the skill system. When you level up, you choose a perk that's based in your skills, and you get to stare up into the heavens to look at an array of constellations. When you choose a perk, that corresponding constellation lights up in the sky and then stays that way, every time you look into the night sky.
The interface has gone through some impressive changes, too, with full 3D modeling of each item in your inventory rather than tiny, ugly icons. You can create "favorite" items and spells to quickly select, and and that's a help, because now you can put almost any combination of weapon, shield, or spell into each hand separately. Or put the same spell into both hands and channel them together for an extra-powerful cast. Want to be a defensive tank mage? Put fire in one hand and a big round shield in the other. Going full offense? Dual-wield swords - a feature making its way officially to The Elder Scrolls for the first time. And don't forget a range of new finishing moves for slicing throats open (really satisfying for you assassin types) or just impaling an enemy on your two hander. Yeah, finishing moves can be annoying in some games, especially if you're allowed to take damage while you're stuck in some drawn-out, canned animation that you didn't ask for, so it remains to be seen whether this will get tiresome or not. Oh, and speaking of two-handers, it's important to point out that if you've got something like a bow or a claymore equipped, you'll have to put those away entirely in order to switch to other weapons. (Dragon shouts, however, can be unleashed at any time.)
The new engine Bethesda developed internally allows for the same wide-open vistas we saw in Fallout 3, but now there are smoother transitions between up-close and distance environments. You'll see new little details everywhere, like spellcasters' frost sticking on trees and the ground, salmon trying to swim upstream in a river, and just a more natural feel in the civilized areas. There are also more lifelike animations for characters' actions both large and small, and everything just feels like it fits into its appropriate genre a little better - medieval swordplay feels more like a combat action game, while RPG systems' influence on how you play and make choices stick out like an even sorer thumb (in a good way) than they did in Oblivion.
Lots of smaller, new additions are in here - you can learn spells from special tomes you loot, you can disrupt the local economy in a village, and possibly most interesting is that your birthsign, once a permanent choice made during character creation, can now be changed at Guardian Stones you find throughout Skyrim. Your world map is now drawn in 3D and is actually just the camera zooming waaaay out, and you can fast travel this way. You can now craft new potions and gear, as well as cook food. We didn't get to see the crafting actually demonstrated to us, so it's unclear yet just how integral it is to Skyrim.
PC-only features like modding and super-high resolutions will return on what has proven over the years to be Bethesda's favorite platform (even if it's in secret - but hey, modding is a hugely difficult feature to support, and they'd only do it if they thought it was worth the effort). That being said, this game still has to run on consoles, and our 360-based demo showed some limitations like the occasional muddy or oft-repeating texture, which are likely to show up somewhere on the PC version. Bethesda has also confirmed that just like we saw with Oblivion and Fallout 3, some areas like major cities (but not the little villages that dot the landscape) are segmented away from the rest of the outside world and separated by loading screens.
Our demo brought us through the living world of Skyrim, from lush forests, through a small village, and up to the entrance of a dungeon named Bleak Falls Barrow, where a dynamically-generated snowstorm started to procedurally blanket areas in snow, covering them up with powder. I don't think the idea is to have snow pile up eight feet high, as the snow was a flat texture laid on top instead of a thick blanket, but at least that means that areas will look vastly different when shifting from summer to winter. Before we're able to study the ruin outside the dungeon, a dragon attacks! It's hitting hard and the player's not doing much damage, so he quickly dives into the dungeon entrance (one of 150, each lavishly detailed and hand-crafted - and far more impressive to see than the ones in Oblivion) to escape the dragon.
The player mows through a few bandits taking refuge and on to a range of monsters using dragon shouts to stun, fire spells to burn, ice spells to slow and freeze, and weapons to hack and cut. Enemies like spiders, skeletons, Draugr Wights (which get up right out of their little tombs to attack), and Frost Atronachs return. The player rescues a thief who has some special key to something later in the dungeon, but the dude runs, so he gets a battle axe in the back of his skull instead. The player gets the special key, and later uses it to unlock a special puzzle-door further down in the dungeon. After dispatching more monsters and reading the ancient dragon language from a wall, the player learns a new dragon word, and as we learn later, finding all three words of a shout allows one to unleash a more powerful version of that shout.
Exiting the cave on the far side, we're now looking out on a large tundra plain, and the city of Whiterun stands in the distance. (There are only five major cities in Skyrim, but each is much larger than what we saw in Oblivion.) It seems that the dragon from earlier has found us, as he's back, and he's breathing fire all over our hero again. But the player's a little tougher now, so he climbs to the top of a nearby tower and unleashes the three-word version of a shout called Storm Call. It does precisely that as the skies darken and a storm immediately rolls in, complete with lightning, thunder, and rain. The lightning pounds the dragon and the player is able to descend back to ground level and fight the dragon eye to eye. Things go a little better this time, with fire in hand and sword arm hacking away at the dragon, reducing its life bar quickly. When it falls, the dragon's scales decay, the beast burns down to its skeleton within a few seconds right before our eyes, and our Dovahkin absorbs its soul - which is objectively the coolest way to kill anything ever. Ask Shang Tsung. Or anyone that's played Demon's Souls.
And another dragon immediately attacks. Now, this little event was pretty clearly scripted for the E3 demo, but Bethesda's Todd Howard has gone on record saying that dragons are actually a "normal" enemy in the game, so the number of them is technically unlimited, and they're out there flying around, ready to strike when you least expect it. This time, though, it's a frost dragon, and the fire magic the player wields seems to be even more effective. Using similar tactics along with stun-oriented dragon shouts to injure the dragon and bring it out of the air, another ground fight ensued and our young dragonborn got the chance to absorb a second soul only a few minutes after the first.
Other games at E3 gave us sharper textures and more dazzling special effects, but most of those were run on PC. Our demo, being on 360, easily delivered some of the best graphics I've seen on Microsoft's years-old console. The new attention to detail is something that might surprise Elder Scrolls veterans, and while the technical limitations of the current consoles are clearly holding developers like Bethesda Game Studios back, that's no reason for players to leave Skyrim behind. It's got an innovative combination of unique and wide-open setting, powerful equipment, exciting spells and powers, and the opportunity to fight dragons and steal their powers is just plain amazing. You won't have too terribly long to wait, either; many games' release dates are sliding back in to 2012, but Skyrim is still set for launch on 11/11/11 on 360, PS3, and PC.