E3 2011: 10 Thoughts on… The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (PC, Microsoft Xbox 360, Sony Playstation 3)

The Elder Scrolls is a series that has managed to keep its general luster, largely because Bethesda doesn’t rush out and release new games in the series every year or two. The last game in the series, Oblivion, came out in 2006, and while we’ve seen games based in its engine, like Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas, the point is that Bethesda has mostly kept The Elder Scrolls quiet in the time since Oblivion came out, patiently letting anticipation build for the next game. Well, this being their major internally created franchise, that’s not really surprising, but it’s still surprising that, in an age when developers are always looking to shove the next big thing out the door half dressed, Bethesda has managed to be so patient with its next game in the series. Well, we’ve finally been given the chance to see the newest game in the series, Skyrim, first hand, and from what they were showing off at this year’s E3, the wait has clearly been worth it.

1.) The demonstration starts off post initial character creation, right where the game essentially begins, and you can tell that the developers have been investing a large amount of time creating the visuals in their world, because good lord is this game pretty. The presenter notes that Bethesda generally approaches a game, not with the mentality of “what can we avoid drawing”, but rather “we’re going to have to draw everything”, and the visuals show that nicely, as they come across as very vibrant and lively. The presenter also notes that they’ve made an effort to make the third person view animations and such better, as they found that many players enjoyed that view in Fallout 3 over first person, and the visuals do look very nice in third person, though, much like the presenter, I’m likely to stick with the first person view. The music and audio effects are also superb all in all, as the combat noises are very powerful, the music is ambient and haunting, and the voice acting, from what’s shown in any case, is very well performed.

2.) The presenter notes that the left and right triggers control the left and right hands, as one would likely expect, and then notes that the game doesn’t have the player create a character class so much as it just lets you customize up a basic character and play. It’s noted in general, in fact, that performing actions is what gets you your benefits, as you’ll get better with one-handed swords by braining things with one-handed swords, or you’ll improve at running by running, or whatever. This is more akin to how Morrowwind and Oblivion handled things, with leveling up being more about doing things rather than arbitrary leveling up, and the presenter notes that if you want to go in a particular direction, skill-wise, you’ll just have to use the particular things you want to use. He points out here that, for instance, if you want to be a better spellcaster, equip one, and then shows how if you equip the same spell to both hands, you can cast more powerful versions of that spell and such. He then smites a wolf, and notes that, yes, he’s improving by doing so, so… this is apparently kind of a big thing for the developers.

3.) The game puts the inventory on the main screen more directly than before, instead bringing up a semi-transparent screen showing your inventory, spells and such instead of the wholly separate menus from before. It’s noted here that the equipment you’ll find is based less on a “Sword of +1 to Pwnage” concept and more on a “Where did this come from and why is it here?” sort of mentality, though equipment will be obviously noted as being better or worse than one another, of course. You can select your spells, items, books and other such things from these same menus, and the presenter makes a point to explain the variety of items and such you’ll find and how much effort the team put into trying to differentiate things from one another.

4.) Earlier in the presentation, it had been noted that you can find stones that will allow you to associate yourself to a star sign, which will, in turn, bless you in specific ways, though you can only have one active at a time. This then ties into the skills system, which literally involves your character looking to the constellations and filling out skills in the constellations. As you increase your skills, you increase toward a level, and once you get a level, you can then buy a perk from the constellation in question. The presenter notes that there are somewhere around two hundred and eighty perks in the game at this point, so you’ll have plenty of variety for how you want to level up.

5.) We look at the map at this point, noting that yes, it’s huge, and yes, you can fast-travel to visited locations by using it, before we enter a town proper. It’s noted that the members of the town have a functional AI and a working economy going, and there are little jobs they all do throughout their day. This, further, translates into allowing the player to then do these jobs, like sawing logs, forging weapons, and so on, so if you like to goof around and make stuff on the side, you can completely rock out. It’s also noted that the quest system is now no longer rooted to a particular location; with a new dynamic quest system, the developers have found that they can now assign a quest wherever the game needs to do so, so if you somehow see a dungeon before you get the quest you’d normally take to see it, you can be assigned to visit a new dungeon instead without the game sending you backward. The quest elements can be totally changed up as needed by the engine as needed, so if anything that needed to be done has already been done somehow, the quest can change up things on the fly.

6.) At this point we address the basic gist of the storyline: we see “The Throat of the World”, which the Greybeards, a group of people who can talk to dragons, live on. The purpose here is that you’re dragonborn, and as such, can use the language of dragons to cast spells like they do, and the goal is for you to learn these skills. After slaughtering a few random grunts, we address more of the lore of the game, as we’re introduced to the Nords, a race that worshipped dragons, which have returned to the land. We then encounter a dragon, and the presenter more or less messes with it for a moment before high-tailing it out of there and into the dungeon (of which there are apparently about one hundred and fifty), where we assassinate the guards and move on with our day.

7.) A bit deeper into the cavern, we end up having to kill off a gigantic spider and freeing the random putz said spider managed to trap, and as thanks, said putz runs like hell, claiming he doesn’t see why he should share his treasure. Well, we soon see, as said putz finds himself backstabbed, and we find ourselves in possession of his treasure, a gold claw which is used a ways afterward to open up a puzzle on a door. This ends up summoning up the dead, which allows the presenter to show off some more involved spells and “shout powers”, IE the spells we learn from the dragons by learning their language. He shows off “Whirlwind Sprint”, which allows us to run quickly through a trapped hallway, before unleashing “Slow Time”, which does exactly what the name implies. A few random points of interest, such as learning spells from books or dual-wielding weapons, later, we find The Hall of Stories, which is more introduction of the lore of the land, and then we solve the puzzle tied to the claw and move on.

8.) At this point we acquire a word in the dragon language, which is tied into learning the shout powers. Basically, each time a word is found, it can potentially be added to the words we know, and by assembling a series of words we earn a new shout power. Holding down the button when casting said shout power apparently determines the power of the shout power to be used, so you can say all or part of the phrase and that, in turn, determines how powerful the shout is. We can’t build the shout at present for some reason, but our presenter isn’t phased by this at all, as he simply whips out his fire breath shout and, well, belches fire all over the ice trolls that get in his way to move on with his day.

9.) So at this point we finally attempt to bring down a dragon. The battle itself is rather complex, involving using the bows of nearby NPC’s, our own bow, flame breath, and a few other spells and attacks, and it takes a bit of time. The presenter notes that by killing dragons we get their souls, which we learn can be used to accurately learn the words we acquire and, ultimately, the shout powers. So, kill a dragon to master dragon words and cast spells. Got it? Okay. So we get attacked by another dragon and our presenter learns that last word we picked up, which allows him to summon a storm that strikes the dragon multiple times with lightning, and then, after grounding it, he brains the thing with his axe. Now, that? That was a pretty involved battle.

10.) Look, between you and me, I think we know Skyrim is going to be pretty good, yeah? I mean, it’s Bethesda, it’s an action RPG, it’s been in development for a while, it’s a safe bet, right? Well, the thing is that I really wouldn’t have questioned that assessment at any point, and I still don’t, but after seeing the game presented as it was, I think I’m pretty convinced. Now, the game looks pretty, and seems like it plays fine, and all of that, but the key thing here, for me, wasn’t so much looking at the game as it was listening to the presenter, because, well, here’s the thing: he had been doing this hour after hour for days, and he was no less enthusiastic about playing this same section, no less excited to tell the people assembled every single thing he could think of about the game. When you’ve played a game probably somewhere around thirty or forty times, over and over, reiterating the same things over and over every time, and you’re still enthusiastic to tell someone about it? Well, you know you’ve got something special and you’re convinced that everyone needs to know about it. That? That’s the deal sealer here.

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