I took thirteen pages of notes during last week’s two hour Skyim demo, but the two words I scribbled near the bottom of the first page probably sum it up better than anything else I wrote: holy shit. Yes, I wrote that in my notes. Bethesda’s newest Elder Scrolls game is just that impressive. While that observation was originally prompted just by the game’s breathtaking visuals, as the demo progressed it became clear that the gameplay will be every bit as impressive as the graphics and overall art direction.
Bethesda’s Todd Howard, who helped make Fallout 3 and the previous two Elder Scrolls games, Morrowind and Oblivion, gave me a thorough tour through the game last week and even answered some (but not all) of my questions. This preview is largely spoiler free, at least with regard to the main story, but I will be revealing some details of a certain quest in order to provide some context for the overall gameplay. It’s nothing that will diminish your appreciation of the game overall, but you will learn a bit about the particular errand Todd took to show off the game.
The first thing you notice about the game is how gorgeous it is. Todd went on about the rewritten renderer and the optimizations and streaming level-of-detail effects, but what it boils down to is this: The game looks good. Better than good, actually. The icy land of Skyrim, the northernmost province in Tamriel, is perhaps the most realistic and impressive game world I’ve seen. From the massive mountains looming in the distance to the ferns alongside the road, everything in this game is incredibly detailed. The streams have salmon leaping up over cataracts, the trees cast dappled shadows on the ground, and the snowstorms actually flow around the towering peaks.
“We want to take you to another world,” says Todd, and it’s clear that the game’s creators have succeeded. Skyrim feels like a real place, and that’s long before I’d even heard about the complex ecology the designers have created. Now not only will you see packs of wolves hunting (and eating) mammoths, but there are also a number of powerful monsters who won’t necessarily attack you unless your provoke them first. During one of our treks up a snow-covered mountain, for instance, Todd met a frost giant going the other way and neither seemed to take much notice of the other.
Still, there is a lot of combat in this game, and Todd showed us how it all works on the 360. Each trigger controls one of your character’s hands, so if you’re armed with a sword and shield, you can use one trigger to block and another to swing your weapon. As in previous games, the right stick can add a little English to your strikes, which should give you a sense of control over your swings and stabs. I watched as Todd made his way through the mountains and took on a few early enemies, from simple bandits to ape-like Frost Trolls, and the whole experience was very visceral.
The great thing about this system is that you can equip whatever you want in either hand. Want to be like Gandalf, with a sword-staff combo? You can do that. Want to rock a two-handed sword? That’s possible too. Want to equip a healing spell in one hand and an armor busting mace in the other? Go for it. The mix and match system seems really versatile, especially with your favorite spells being selectable using the D-pad in the middle of the fight. If you really want to get nasty, you can gain access to even more powerful versions of your basic spells by putting the same spell in each hand. You might not feel so secure wandering around without a piece of steel in your hands, but that double-handed fireball spell might just make up for it.
Eventually Todd’s journeys brought him to one of the game’s first towns, a small place called Riverwood. (Can you guess what two things they have there?) As Todd walks in, he hears an Imperial Guard talking with another NPC named Gerdur. They’re discussing some recent trouble that nearby towns have been having with dragons and wondering why the Jarl, the official in charge of this particular Hold, hasn’t done anything about it. Noticing Todd’s character, they suggest he might find employment at the smithy. On his way to practice his smithing skill, Todd stops to linger at the town’s lumber operation. An NPC is splitting logs on a massive machine, and the wood is piling up outside.
This is just a small introduction to the game’s new radiant storytelling. This new system keeps track of everything that happens to you, essentially creating content based on your character’s current context. Todd could help out here, or he could sabotage a town’s main industry, inflating prices and reducing the availability of goods. Todd and the design team still haven’t decided just how much a player will be able to mess with the economies but there’s a potential to have a lasting impact on the prosperity of the towns, and radiant storytelling is an important part of putting those consequences front and center.
It works at various levels. You might, for instance, intentionally drop a sword while sorting through your inventory. The game tracks that item and, if an NPC comes along, he may decide to pick up that sword. If he knows it’s yours, he’s got a few options. If he likes you, he may track you down and try to return the sword. If he doesn’t like you, he may still try to track you down and return it, but he’s likely to be returning it to your face. The game might also notice that you haven’t seen a dragon in a while and are in a place where that might make sense. Next thing you know, there’s a dragon, appropriate for your level, circling overhead.
In our particular case, the radiant storytelling system kicks in and drops a few hints about a recent robbery at a Riverwood shop. Throughout the conversations with the residents of the town and the shopkeeper, the player is still free to move and act. I hadn’t noticed how annoying it was to jump in and out of static conversation scenes until I saw Todd carry on a conversation with the shopkeeper while also wandering around and looking at the items for sale in the store. It gets even better as the shopkeeper’s sister offers to guide Todd to the path the robbers might have taken. As Todd walks alongside her, she pours out most of the “tell me more” information that keeps the action from progressing in games like Mass Effect.
I won’t spoil the particular elements of this mission but the shopkeeper wants you to retrieve the item from the robbers who have fled up to the region’s largest mountain, the Throat of the World. The mountain is home to an ancient Nordic temple and carries some secrets of the Way of the Voice. This unique ability allows Dragonborne to use their voice to convert words into physical effects. It’s essentially what the game’s dragons are doing when they use their fiery breath on players; it’s basically their way of saying “Hello. I hate you.” Todd gets just such a greeting as he reaches an elaborate barrow near the top of the mountain. The dragon itself is a fantastic looking creature, but rather than stay and chat, Todd runs into the barrow where the dragon can’t follow.
The old Nords used to worship dragons. I say, “used to” because the dragons in Skyrim are returning after being gone for thousands of years. No one knows where they’ve been or why they’re returning now, but it’s a sure bet that the game’s larger story will address some of those mysteries.
Inside the barrow, Todd overhears two guards talking about the man who stole the shopkeeper’s item and they mention that he’s gone deeper into the barrow. Todd fights his way past the guards, solves a few interesting puzzles, and uses Frost Rune spells like landmines to defeat a giant Ice Spider before finally confronting the thief. Again, I’m not going to try to give away any of the story here, but let’s just say that things go bad and the player is left alone to face a handful of undead warriors skilled in the Way of the Voice, a swinging pendulum trap, a troll, more undead warriors and another challenging mental puzzle. At the end of it all, Todd learns some of the secrets of the Way of the Voice and finally has it out with that dragon waiting outside.
With all the encounters he’d been through, Todd had used a wide range of abilities, from long-range bowshots, to indirect magic attacks, to dragon shouts, to straight ahead melee strikes to defeat his enemies. The demo was obviously unbalanced so he could show us all the variety (and not get killed), but it seems as if the designers want players to try out all these different systems. Since this is a classless game, you’re not restricted in how you play. In fact, you’re not really going to be making any hard decisions about who or what your character is before you’ve had a chance to explore the world and discover how you like to play.
Like previous Elder Scrolls games, you start this one as a prisoner with no scripted backstory. All you know is that you’re being led to your execution, and it’s up to you to supply the context. Maybe you were falsely accused or maybe you had it coming. Either way, the game doesn’t care what you’ve been; it only cares what you do next. Character creation has been simplified considerably. Now you’ll simply select your gender, your race, and your appearance before jumping right into the thick of things.
From there your character advances according to the way you play him or her. The only way to improve a certain skill, like archery or magicka, is to use it. (Most of the other attributes that existed to feed into a skill ranking are gone now.) As you gain levels in a skill, you contribute to your overall character level. Each time you gain a character level, you’ll have the option to buy whatever perks your skills allow. For instance, if you really focus on using your bow, you may unlock a perk that allows you to zoom in to aim your shots. Keep at it, and you might also unlock an additional perk that slows time while you aim. Go for axes and you might unlock a perk that causes additional bleeding damage each time you hit an enemy.
As cool as all that is, the real star of the skill system is the overall presentation. Normally that kind of thing wouldn’t warrant a mention from me, but that’s only because I’ve gotten so used to spreadsheets. Skyrim puts all yours skills against an astronomical backdrop. It sounds a bit cheesy but it really works and reinforces the whole “destiny” angle. Even better, your perks are stars in various constellations, so if you unlock all the perks for a given skill set, you’re rewarded with a very compelling visual. Like I said, it might sound lame, but it’s a great alternative to the character sheet model.
Unlike Oblivion, the enemies and encounters won’t level alongside the player. I think most of us who played Oblivion remember what it was like to hit a hard fight and leave to level up, only to come back and find out that the fight had become even harder in the meantime. In Skyrim difficultly levels are locked in place once you visit an area, so you’ll have a chance to go out and get stronger before coming back and facing a challenge that’s been getting the best of you.
With as much as we saw, there are still loads of questions still to be answered. Can players ride mounts? If not, can we still buy horse armor? How will crime and stealth work? Will you finally be able to sleep in the beds of the people you murder? What are the guilds like? Speech mini-games? Alchemy? There are plenty of unknowns in Skyrim but Bethesda still has a bit of time to answer these questions before the game is released on November 11.
Steve Butts wants to eat a dragon. He wants to eat its soul.