There’s something deeply warming about Skyrim. It’s familiar, not just because it’s set in the Elder Scrolls world and canon we’re used to, but because it doesn’t look or play a million miles away from Oblivion – sure, it’s prettier, and sports some lovely new gameplay mechanics (which we’ll come to) but it’s clear that although the engine has been revamped and the art refreshed for Skyrim’s more glacial locale, it’s hardly going to surprise anyone.
That warming feeling, of course, is based on a prior engagement with earlier titles in the series – coming into Skyrim as a freshman, unaware of the epic scale of the overarching plot or the inter-connectivity of the various races, places and faces isn’t a problem per se, but it was obvious that as creative director Todd Howard showed us the game behind closed doors at E3 last week, Bethesda are pitching this at the hardcore. If not in terms of difficulty, then in scope: Skyrim is massive.
First things first: the detail. Foliage is considerably richer, the horizon notably more visible and the animation, once Todd shows us Skyrim’s third person toggle, is hugely improved. Elder Scrolls has always been a first person adventurer, but at least this time the team have used more than one or two frames for each action for anyone that prefers playing from a different perspective. In short, Skyrim looks great, although I’m personally one of the few that thought Oblivion was (and still is) something of a looker.
It’s also rather beautiful, the black boxes overlay the screen nicely and the text is presented slickly, without fuss or lag. It means that picking out your desired choices is simplicity itself, and the new favourites tool lets you jump quickly to a set of options too. Todd shows off Skyrim’s duel wielding, each trigger is assigned an arm, with just a few taps of the menus. Duel wielding extends to magic, too, or a combination of both magic and steel, which proves useful a little later on.
As if to show off all this, a brief battle ensues, sword and shield making way for some powerful magic to finish off the low level bandit attacker out in the open. Enemies are no longer level with the player – Oblivion’s greatest flaw – and Todd tells us that some areas will have high level enemies in right from the start; welcome words to an audience hungry for some challenge.
Attributes too have been tweaked – the total number has been reduced, with the extraneous ones combined with others or discarded (like athletics). A central XP bar sits atop the UI, gradually filling with each successful action, whilst ‘level up’ messages litter the screen as individual skills rank up. There are 18 skills in total, with their own skill trees, perks and leveling decisions to be made; and just three attributes: health, stamina and magicka.
Todd continues his tour of the area currently granted exposure. We move from dense grassland to a small town, complete with functioning workforce and economy, and then upwards into one of the mountain ranges that defines the game. Snow (and potentially other elements) are handled with the engine and are fully dynamic – artists don’t need to paint snowed-up textures, the game simply applies shaders to make rocks and paths look snowy. It’s a smart idea, although it’s a little ugly and blocky just now.
And then there’s a dragon. These creatures are feared in Skyrim, and rightly so – attempting to combat one at this stage would be foolish, says Todd, and so instead we head inside a nearby dungeon for safety and, hopefully, a way to battle the beast outside. We’re safe from the dragon, still swooping overhead but out of sight, but not from the inhabitants of the cavern, dimly lit and packed with danger. After dispatching a few guards, we meet up with an NPC caught up in what looks like a web.
This is Arvel, a thief, and he’s asking for help. We oblige, but are betrayed – nothing a swift poke with a sword won’t fix though and we don’t waste any time looting his body for the item he was here trying to steal. It’s a claw, which, like all objects in Skyrim, can be examined in 3D – this one in particular has to be, its markings crucial to a small puzzle a little further into the dungeon.[drop]Ultimately we arrive at a Word Wall, where the player can learn new words that form Shouts, the most powerful and decisive types of magic in the game. In this case we learn the ability to slow down time, which proves immediately useful when attacked by surprise by two more enemies. And then, outside with the dragon, the fact that we can get up close and personal with a blade in slow-motion (after downing the dragon with fireballs) makes the trip through the darkness absolutely worthwhile.
Skyrim will be filled with moments like this – it’s a more open adventure than previous Elder Scroll games but one with a storyline that promises to be vastly superior. Bold claims, but ones that seemingly start to fall into place as Todd rounds off the demonstration – the landscape may be vast, but the action is stronger and the way other characters interact with the player and each other is considerably better. For those reasons alone, excitement is already at fever pitch.
We leave the session feeling like the game has stacks of potential – it’s clear we’ve only seen a tiny portion of the game but it was one with great combat, a truly impressive sense of scale and some brilliant interface decisions. Skyrim won’t be for everyone, sure, but action RPG fans will, from what we’ve seen, be in heaven. I mean, dragons, what more do you need?