Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Preview – Into The Dragon’s Den
Written Monday, April 18, 2011 By Dan WebbView author's profile
Welcome to Skyrim, the northern most province in Elder Scrolls’ fictional wonderland of Tamriel and the hunting ground for the upcoming and aptly named Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. It’s apt because the name of the game is the same as the name of the setting... geddit? Anyway! The northern province of the mysterious land of Tamriel is a mountainous region that according to Bethesda Game Studios’ Game Director, Todd Howard, is “about the same size as Oblivion.” In other words, big! It’s a game world and an experience that’s not shy to take your expectations of what you class as true beauty in a video game and beat you to death with it. Luckily we got out alive, but only just.
Skyrim itself is a world ripe with life and brimming with moments that are so epic that it’d bring even the most unflappable man to his knees and render him a quivering mess. It took precisely three minutes – or so... yes, I understand that “or so” renders the word ‘precisely’ completely useless, but who’s writing this, me or you? – before that unflappable man was actually a bit speechless... That’s me if you couldn’t gather. Bit of background first before I tell all.
Built on Bethesda Game Studios’ “Creative Engine,” Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim tells the story of Dovahkiin, one of the blessed Dragonborn who will be called upon to defeat the almighty dragon, Alduin AKA World Eater. That’s all you really need to know for now in all honesty. In short: new engine, dragons galore, pretty looking game... Oh, and we saw it on the 360, not the PC. Stress, not the PC.
The demo that Bethesda brought along to its BFG Showcase in Utah last week picked up with our fearless protagonist stood at the top of a rather large hill, overlooking the vast mountain ranges of the region. Surrounded by towering pine trees, quivering ferns and bright blue Harvest Blue mountain flowers, our hero steps down the rocky path on his way to somewhere we’re not privy to.
Right... “wow” moment number one... As Dovahkiin rounds the first corner of the steep path, he’s faced with a scenic valley, divided only by the icy blue waters of the world which are as reflective and effervescent as they are haunting. But wait, what’s that? In the middle of the powerful current, a small school of fish fight their way upstream, taking in the fresh mountain air as they leave the icy waters with majestic leaps to gain ground and get to their final destination. Insert “wow” here. Sure, they may only be fish, but it’s a good example of the more interactive world that Bethesda is shooting for and it certainly took our breath away... I suppose it took the fish’s breath away too... you know, because they breath in water...
Traversing further up the path, Dovahkiin takes down a few bandits along the way with the new dual handed, mix-and-match combat – left trigger/L2 for the left hand and right trigger/R2 for the right hand – and from that moment alone, it was clear that Skyrim’s combat one-ups Oblivion’s in a heartbeat and with relative ease as well. Being able to mix and match spells and weapons to form various combinations makes for a much more tailored experience, that’s for sure.
Similarly, the inventory and menu system is a huge advancement for the series and the clean and easy menus allow you to not only work out surplus requirements in your inventory in an instant, but the constellation-orientated perk and stats screen is simply marvellous. Then there’s the 3D map of Skyrim, which allows you to pull out and see what’s what in the region. Oh, and fast travel.
From the mountain path, we’re zoomed forward into the town of Riverwood; a small community nestled amidst the snowy pine trees of the region with log cabins galore and friendly mountain folk going about their daily business, whether it’s in the lumber mill or at the blacksmiths on the corner. Even those who don’t add to the town’s economy go about their business, whether they’re sweeping the street or gossiping on the corner; from an immersion standpoint, Skyrim is right on the money. Hearing Howard say “if you can see it, you can go there” and “everything they can do, you can do” are claims that are as almost as ambitious as they are verbose. You could seriously sit here all day and soak up their daily activities and not get bored though, but being able to get involved and strengthen the town’s economy is almost a game in itself. Incidentally, if you’re feeling particularly sadistic, you can even cripple their economy by felling some of its most important townsfolk. You know, if being a murdering swine is what floats your boat.
Thanks to the Radiant Story System, the game is further tailored to your experience, choosing locations and regions you’ve not explored and sending you there to complete certain quests. Kill a quest giver and chances are a family member or another appropriate individual will step in to give it you. Drop a sword, for instance, and you could either cause a squabble in a street over its ownership or you could have it returned to you. It’s all about creating your world and pushing you into the unfamiliar. After all, familiarity breeds contempt.
The majority of the demo consisted of Dovahkiin’s mission into the mountains to a place called Bleak Falls Barrow – which incidentally is a Nordic temple – in search of the Golden Dragon Claw for Lucan, one of Riverwood’s traders who had recently had it pilfered from his possession. Speaking to Lucan, and his sister Camilla, we get a glimpse of the less wooden and zoom-and-lock-less conversation system that offers flexibility in not only where you look, but allows the character you’re speaking to, to get on with what they’re doing. In other words, it’s a hell of a lot more natural.
Running across a stone bridge and into the mountains – leaving Camilla wandering behind talking to thin air – we come across our next “wow” moment. Howard notes that not all creatures in Skyrim are hostile and some won’t attack on-sight, and as he said that, he proceeded to crouch in the bushes off to the side of the path as an 8-foot tall ogre of some sort rocked past. With the earth quaking under his every footstep, the bushy bearded, tatty ogre stomped past with his huge club resting on his shoulder without a care in the world. He makes Shaq look like a dwarf and truly gives you a sense of scale of the world. As he passes and as Dovahkiin proceeds up the path, Howard points out that the snow that has just started to fall accumulates naturally on the ground as well, as opposed to having two different texture skins for where it falls. Impressive to say the least.
Further up the path, after dispatching a frost troll with a fire spell, Dovahkiin uses a ‘Detect Life’ spell to spot two guards at the base of a stone tower embedded in the cliff side. Rather than attack head on, he uses an ‘Illusion’ spell to make the one guard so aggressive that he turns on his ally. After quickly nipping in to mop up the agitated guard with a few carefully aimed arrows, our brave adventurer continues on. By this time, there’s a thin layer of snow on the ground.
All that stood before our slayer and his intended destination was a temple door... oh, and a huge 50-foot dragon who sat perched on a ginormous stone archway. Dropping down, Dovahkiin sprints – yes, you can sprint now – forward towards the temple door, taking a breath of fire from that pesky scaled creature on the way in.
Into the dungeon we go and what proceeds is a journey through a number of hugely diverse environments in one of the game’s many dungeons. In fact, Howard notes, “We have at last count, some 120 'dungeon' dungeons and then we have another 100-plus points of interest,” so you’ll never be short of things to do.
Your ultimate goal, Arvel, the thief who stole the Golden Dragon Claw, is buried somewhere deep within the maze like passage ways; something you find out when dispatching a couple of bandits at the dungeon entrance. With improved shadow and lighting, the ability to play stealthily from the shadows is now a possibility, but unfortunately, the one blip in the demo happens at this very moment in time. Now I’m not sure what’s in the water in Skyrim, but the reaction to seeing your friend take an arrow in the face should be more drastic than “Hmmm, I thought I heard someone” – I’m paraphrasing of course, but it was a fairly weak AI reaction that was hard to ignore.
Further in, after Dovahkiin solved a simplistic puzzle with his powerful mind and killed a rabid dog who crossed his path with his trusty sword, and not before contracting Ataxia in the process thanks to a nip from the blighter of course, he reached a cobweb ridden cavern, where a Giant Frostbite Spider awaited, with a trapped Arvel close by. Making quick work of the spider and after to-ing and fro-ing with Arvel to give up the Golden Dragon Claw before he cut him down, the inevitable happens... he cuts him down and then... poof! The bugger sets off to escape from our fearless warrior.
Off like a dart, Dovahkiin sets off on foot after Arvel until the passageway opens up, and making use of two perks for the bow and arrow – a slow down time perk and a zoom perk – our feared dragon slayer is able to dispatch him with an arrow to the head. A quick loot of the body – and a glance at Skyrim’s 3D book system; a unique way to represent the in-game text if we say so ourselves – and Dovahkiin decides to venture further into the dungeon to learn of the lost treasures in the Hall of Stories.
Using a ‘Circle of Protection’ spell – which stuns foes – along with a ‘Chain Lightning’ spell, Dovahkiin rips through the dungeons with relative ease, wiping out many Draugrs – undead skeleton warriors – along the way. In this short passage of play we get to see the effects of a double-handed and charged Chain Lightning spell – clue: it threw a foe tens of feet into the air – as well as hear about the effects of axe wounds over time – clue: they cause wounds that cause damage over time – and even see Dovahkiin chop down a pot of boiling oil onto a few pursuing foes. Magical stuff. To top things off, seeing a few kill executions that are merely down to luck – right place, right time, right weapon, right enemy basically – was the icing on a cake chock full of plentiful goodness. Incidentally, the enemies in Skyrim level up like those in Fallout 3, rather than Oblivion... thankfully!
It’s worth noting as well, that in the space of this 20 minute dungeon, we get a glimpse at its misty caverns, its tree-root ridden passage ways, cobweb-infested alleyways, claustrophobic tombs, wide open caves with waterfalls and stone bridges, as well as a few ice crevice passageways. Diversity at its finest. “That’s the kind of experience you’re going to get in a dungeon,” said Howard, talking about environments and the sort of gameplay, which consisted of the odd glyph puzzle and plenty of combat.
After using the Golden Dragon Claw and its inscriptions to open the door to the Hall of Stories, the final room of the dungeon saw Dovahkiin learn a new “Dragon Shout” – specifically, Slow Time – and defeat its protector, a Dragon Priest who awoke from his slumber. Dragon Shouts, of which there are currently 24, come in three flavours according to Howard which relate to the strength and sustainability of the effects. For instance, Unrelenting Force – which is like a Star Wars Force Push – can be weak, medium and strong, depending on how many of the words you have. With 3 for each spell, that’s roughly 72 to seek out and master. At this stage, each of the Shouts use one regenerative meter supply and for the stronger effects, it’s just a longer button press – this is subject to change though – but it does use up more of your reserves.
So yeah... Dragons! Let’s talk about them, right? After all, seeing as Dovahkiin’s next opponent upon leaving the temple is that pesky reptilian he met previously, it’d make perfect sense. According to Howard, the dragons – aside from a few key story ones – are all random and the game uses the Radiant Storytelling system to determine when and where you’ll see them. Yes, they are tough and yes, they are meant to drain your resources, so be prepared, but the payout is often worth it. In this instance, thanks to the Slow Time Shout, it’s that little bit easier and after swiping at him numerous times with his Elven Sword – made of a green tinted glass – and blasting it with Chain Lightning, the dragon is soon crashing to the ground, almost certainly damaged from the abuse he just received. Unable to take flight now, which is when he’s a pain to hit, Dovahkiin darts in to make quick work of him, devouring his soul in the process and ending the demo.
The rather lengthy game demo that Bethesda brought across to Utah for its BFG Showcase was, for want of a better word, epic. It’s like Christmas come early... well, it should be when November rolls around. Aside from the odd AI issue as previously mentioned, the one-hour long demo was pretty damn flawless and almost certainly provided more “wow” moments than I’ve had in a demo for quite some time... yes, it had even more than I had with Battlefield 3 recently! And that’s saying something. Not only is the game a treat on the eyes, but the gameplay refinements do the title a world of good and the whole immersion factor is incredibly high. I know it’s a little early to be lining titles up for that coveted Game of the Year award... so we won’t, but you know the score... You can read our minds, right?
Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is scheduled for a November 11th release worldwide this year.
Note: If you have any questions – that I can answer – feel free to post them in the comments and we may do a follow up piece.