E3 2011

E3: Skyrim

| 8 Jun 2011 05:47

Skyrim looks like it's going to be worth shouting about.

And lo, a choir of angels did sing, for today was the day I finally got to see Skyrim. My anticipation for the game was monumental, but the demo I saw not only lived up to my admittedly excessive expectations, but also had me itching to grab the controller and play.

If you thought that Skyrim just looked like a prettier Oblivion, you're not too far off the mark. Lead artist Matt Carofano also worked on both Oblivion and its predecessor Morrowind, so naturally the art style of Skyrim is consistent with those games. The extra dose of pretty comes from the Creation engine, the brand new tech under the game's hood.

The demo focused on the mechanics of Skyrim more than the story or setting, pointing out the key ways in which it differs from Elder Scrolls III and IV. One of the most immediately noticeable changes is in how it handles combat. Rather than restrict you to a specific kind of character or class, the game lets you fight however you like simply by choosing what you'd like each hand to do. You can do sword and shield, dual wield two one-handed weapons, hold a magical staff in one hand and an axe in the other, have a spell ready in one and a different spell in the other, or the same spell in both to increase its power - the options are plentiful and easy to swap out at will.

Rune magic also makes its debut. Runes work like a magical trap; lay one on the ground and lure your enemies into it - just be sure they're not immune to whatever you're throwing their way. That giant frostbite spider? Yeah, it's laughing at that frost rune it just ran through. Hope you've got a Plan B.

Skills have, thankfully, also benefited from a revamp, and now every skill you use counts towards your leveling, even if you use it sparingly. There's also a perk tree for every skill, which creates even more options for customization. There's so much choice, in fact, that I almost wonder if Oblivion devotees will fall back on what they know from that game, simply because the bevvy of new options is a bit overwhelming.

The user interface has also gotten a massive overhaul. When you select an item in your inventory, rather than just reading its name and maybe getting some stats about it, you can actually see it. Sometimes, close examination of an item reveals an important secret or piece of information. We came across a piece of treasure in the demo that had the combination needed to open a nearby door. Zooming in on these 3d models is also a convenient way to read one of Skyrim's more than 300 different books.

The map has also been upgraded to be topographical, which can be a handy navigation aid if you're not particularly good with traditional flat maps (like me). We didn't get to see what the map inside a dungeon looks like, but the demo did feature the Clairvoyance spell, which will create a glittering trail pointing toward your next quest event in case you get turned around in one of Skyrim's 150 dungeons.

The part of the demo that I found the most interesting - besides the dragons that kept popping up - was the new shout mechanic. Your character is Dovahkiin - Dragonborn - and can use the shout ability because it's dragon magic. Each shout has three words to it that increase that shout's power. You can find new words on word walls; you can also absorb the souls of dead dragons to learn new shouts. We saw a few different shouts, including Fire Breath, which lets you breath fire as dragons do, and Storm Call, which brings down bolts of lightning.

It wasn't the shouts themselves that I found so interesting - they're functionally not all that different from your other spells, though obviously far more powerful - but rather the way they made your character feel distinct. The main character of the Elder Scrolls games is always some special something or other, but that's reflected in the story, as opposed to your character. There is the hero of the story - the one who's foretold by prophecy, for exmple - and there's the hero that you create by putting in the time to earn the experience and adjust your skills exactly the right way. Though they're the same individual, they don't really feel all that connected. The shouts of Skyrim form a bridge between the customization of your character and the hero that the designers envisioned when they crafted the game. You can mix and match skills and weapons and spells and equipment all day long to get the kind of character that best suits your play style, but the shouts make sure that no matter what, your character still has that connection to the story's hero.

The one aspect of the demo that left me somewhat unsettled was the user interface. It's far less fussy than that of Oblivion, is much cleaner and easier to navigate, but it looks like it was ripped right out of Fallout: New Vegas. It's a little absurd to be bothered by a choice of typeface, but every time an alert popped up to let us know that a stat had improved or that we'd discovered some new location, I was forcibly reminded of Fallout. The lettering looked modern and out of place to me in Skyrim's setting, perhaps because Fallout has such a focus on mechanical and technological things. It seems reasonable to assume that it's the type of thing you'd get used to, though.

Even a lengthy demo would do little more than scratch the surface of a game like Skyrim, so there's still much to be learned.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim will be out on Xbox 360, PC, and PS3 on November 11.

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