Jonas Mäki spent some time in Park City with Bethesda and came away feeling more psyched about Skyrim than we thought possible...
There is hardly a game on the horizon we're more excited about than The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. It's been five years since Oblivion, a time during which work on Skyrim has been ramping up. At Bethesda BFG (Big Fucking Games?) event last week it stood out amongst stiff competition such as Rage and Prey 2. We were treated to a one hour presentation by executive producer Todd Howard, an hour he felt necessary to show us something representative of the game he's creating with his team.
We might as well start out by saying that it looks like all our hopes and expectations of the game will come true. For those of you who have yet to read up on the details the player will play the part of Dovahkiin and go on an adventure on the Northern and viking inspired lands of Skyrim. A land plagued by civil war and even worse, dragons.
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With the first steps Todd Howard takes it strikes me just how stunningly beautiful Skyrim looks. It's a massive step up from Oblivion both when it comes to animation work and the level of detail. He tells us of the immense work that goes into a game like this. Every shrub is given attention, and as we raise over heads up to gaze at the horizon we see massive mountains. Nothing worth writing about if this was just another game, but this is Elder Scrolls, and what looks like a background is actually somewhere you can visit.
One of the reasons why The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim looks this much better than its predecessor is due to the fact that Bethesda still hadn't gotten the final specifications of Xbox 360 just four months before they submitted the game to certification. It was left to the last minute to optimise the game for the hardware, and five years later and the team is familiar with all the nooks and crannies of the current set of hardware and it shows.
The Elder Scrolls series has its origins on PC as you might know, something that you can trace in the complex menus, but it's also apparent in the controls. That said, the series has been more successful on consoles ever since Morrowind, it came as no surprise that Bethesda tried to make Oblivion more accessible than previous titles in the series.
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This development continues with Skyrim, and it definitely looks like the most accessible game in the series to date. This is often something that is mistaken for lack of depth. But you achieve nothing by making things more complex than they need to be. In Skyrim each trigger controls an arm, a bit like Bioshock 2.
Then it's up to the player to decide how to use the system. You may want to carry a sword and a shield, or perhaps a two-handed axe or bow and arrow. You can also equip magic to your hands, perhaps two spells that complement each other or two that can be combined into something even more powerful that will send both victims and furniture flying.
Todd Howard tells us the ambitions they had for Skyrim. The return of dragons 200 years after Oblivion has changed the world. Their goal has been for dragon encounters to have as much of an impact on the player as the dinosaurs had on an audience who saw Jurassic Park for the first time.
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Dovahkiins walk through Skyrim continues through lush environments. Todd Howard adds that it's great to be able to use greens again after Fallout 3. At this point Dovahkiin runs across a bandit who charges at him with his sword. It's immediately apparent that things have progress from the rather crude combat of Oblivion. It looks a lot smoother, and with well timed attacks Dovahkiins sword is gleaming with blood. With combat Dovahkiin gains a level and we're introduced to how levelling works in Skyrim.
Apart from improved abilites, you will also gain perks a bit like in Fallout 3. It's a nice addition to the otherwise familiar Elder Scrolls system, and this will allow you to tailor your character even more, regardless of whether you opt for a Ninja-like Kajiit, an Elven marksman, or heavy handed Nord. The character creation process has also been improved and made more accessible, without giving you less options to customise.
A pillar of smoke appears between the trees. We come upon a village and a simple sign next to the path tells us we have reached Riverwood. It looks like a viking village made out of logs, and massive rocks. A giant saw mill dominates the settlement and Todd Howard tells us that the economic system in the game is constantly changing even if the player isn't involved. This way you will be able to damage Riverwood's economy by sabotaging the mill, and you will be able to do the same thing with farms, mines and other important operations.
There isn't much point in that, however, we're out to complete quests and in typical Elder Scrolls fashion Dovahkiin hardly takes a step in the village before he overhears two people talking about a break-in at Lucan's during the night. You're given a cue at the top of the screen that you might want to head over to Lucan's to hear of what's happened.
This is one of the truly great things in Elder Scrolls, the quests are found everywhere and in a fairly natural and organic manner, you then head out to do the ones you feel like doing. Lucan's store is a cosy place, and the amount of detail is vastly superior to Oblivion.
Unlike previous games you aren't locked in place during a conversation, but you can start talking to a person and then have a look around or just walk away. It's saves us a lot of button presses and it also makes the game more accessible and player friendly. It turns out Lucan wants an object called Golden Claw, and we're off to look for it.
Unlike many other RPG's where everyone you encounter automatically wants to slay you, Dovahkiin can relax as he goes about his business. This really strikes us when we run into a giant with a club resting on his shoulder. He takes a look at you, but he's not aggressive and as long as Dovahkiin doesn't provoke anything, he walks calmly by.
It turns out the Golden Claw is not going to be easy to find and that we have to travel to Throat of the World, the highest peak in all of Skyrim to get in. As we make our way there it gets colder and finally the snow starts coming down. Todd Howard explains that they have created a bunch of different textures for various depths of snow, but that they have developed a system that calculates the amount of snow that falls and then leaves it on the ground. The end result is both beautiful and believable.
At Bleak Falls we run into the first dragon. But it's just a brief encounter as Todd runs into a cave and starts making his way through the cobweb. The lighting is magnificent and the urge to explore grows amongst the audience. Todd Howard says they've tried to make the caves and dungeons more varied than in Oblivion, and the caves will be covered with moss, ice various rock and other things.
This cave is full of things we are used to from old adventure films. Skeletons, obscure puzzles, secret books, undead warriors who rise from their grave, mystic objects, dragon writings and... a dragon priest. One of the new additions is shouts you learn through dragon writing. In total there are 24 to learn, each with three words. These ancient words have a cool down and don't deplete a mana metre or such.
You will be able to slow down time, teleport, get dragons to assist you and much more. Coupled with 280 perks and 18 skills there is a lot to learn in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. This also results in more frequent advancements in level, but these steps will be smaller. The idea is that it should be easy to get going, use your perks and not be forced to perform simple tasks for too long.
The words of the dragons are hidden here and there, and the more powerful they are, the longer they take to recharge. The writings Dovahkiin ran into were guarded by a priest and it results in the fiercest battle so far. Todd Howard shows us how to combine weapons, magic and shouts in a way that makes the wait for the November release almost unbearable.
The main attraction of the demo is the encounter with the dragon in possession of the Golden Claw. We make our way through the cave and follow a small river towards a narrow opening, as we make our way into the sunlight we see the flying beast in the sky. It seems unaware of Dovahkiin who throws a fireball his way, without hitting the target. Dragons don't take kindly to unprovoked attacks and lunges towards the ground with tremendous force.
Bethesda have really managed to make the dragons as terrifying as they intended. The dragon is enormous, looks deadly, breaths fire, stabs at you with its tail, takes off from the ground and dives in towards you. Todd Howard says they have turned down the difficulty for the sake of the demonstration, but it looks difficult enough as it is, and the idea is for the dragons to be the major boss encounters of the game.
After a long battle the dragon has finally had enough. Dovahkiin absorbs its soul and fitting music starts playing as the logo comes into view. A demo that left us wanting more.
During the questions and answer session that follows we learn that the finished adventure will include mammoths, wolves that hunt in packs and that will be just as keen to hunt a deer as they are to hunt you. You will also be able to play as a female Dovahkiin, and there will be supernatural worlds (such as the painting from Oblivion), and that they have made major strides in bug testing.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim tops our list as the most anticipated title of 2011 and we can hardly wait to get out hands on it.