One of the moments I was looking forward to most were my appointments with Bethesda, where I’d get some private time with the latest installment in the Elder Scrolls series: Skyrim.
By now you should be fairly familiar with what Skyrim is offering, and so rather than re-hash details we’ve already posted on Platform Nation, I’ll dish out what my experience was like with the 30 minute live demo which was running on the 360.
We began in a forested, snowy area showing off the technology that their new Creation engine (built new for Skyrim) had to offer. The lead artist (on both Morrowind and Oblivion) pointed out a few areas of interest as he took us through the demo, which went from looking at broad, scenic views, all the way down to the tiny details like how all of the plants were fully 3D, cast shadows, and blew in the wind. From what I could see, the world was a lot richer and full of detail not seen in previous entries. Disappointingly, it did not appear to be a huge improvement on the surface, visually speaking, over Oblivion (although it could have been the gigantic projector it was on, and how close I was to it). With that said, however, players will still be absorbed in the beautiful world: from the streams of rushing water, to the sun shining through the clouds above. He even pointed out salmon that could be seen jumping upstream.
He then switched from first person to third person to show off a different perspective, which was noticeably better. As anyone who has played Oblivion will tell you, playing in third person left a lot to be desired. This time around, your character doesn’t appear to be floating around, disconnected from the world.
Something else that stood out to me was the spectacular score. I’ve always been a fan of the music in Elder Scrolls, from composer Jeremy Soule, and it continues in Skyrim. It feels a little more epic and energetic, based on the area we explored in the demo. It also reacts to what goes on around you as well, so when an enemy approaches, you’ll hear the music switch to a combat theme.
The first fight of the demo was against wolves. He used this as an opportunity to showcase some of the combat options available to you. You can dual wield any combination of weapons or magic that you want. This means that you can have a shield in one hand, to block or bash enemies away, and have a staff in the other to cast spells for a ranged approach. If you carry two of the same thing, you can hold both triggers down to deal more damage. For example, combining two fire spells or two staffs will create a more devastating attack when used together.
One of the biggest disappointments for me came when watching the combat. From what I had seen of the game in previews, and trailers, the combat looked to be much improved. Seeing a few fights in person during the demo, however, didn’t represent as much of an upgrade as I’d liked to have seen (if at all). The major problem in Oblivion that once again showed its ugly head in Skyrim was the fact that there doesn’t seem to be any connection with your weapon in relation to the enemy that you’re attacking. It still sort of feels like you’re swinging against air, and the enemy receives damage without any noticeable feedback or reaction animation.
On the plus side, the deeper combat system itself does seem to offer a lot more customization and strategy when figuring out different combinations of attacks, using the new dual wielding options of magic and weaponry. You can pause battles by going into your inventory, which looks a lot like your Finder/Windows Explorer in column view. It’s simple, and does the job to keep an enormous list of options simplified. This allows you to also look through your skills and spells for when you need to use certain combinations, or switch to a different attack style. For instance, if you’ve got a lot of frost-type spells, and you’re fighting against an enemy that would be more susceptible to fire, you can quickly jump into this menu and change up your game plan (or even assign it to a hot-key).
Another very cool addition to Skyrim’s inventory is that every single object is viewable in full 3D. This may seem useless to some, but Bethesda put a lot of work into the mythos of their worlds, and for the hardcore, being able to examine every object only builds a richer world. Plus, they even included little details on items that may help you solve puzzles. For instance, maybe there are markings on a staff you picked up, or words scribbled on a note. By examining the item, you may uncover those clues and have a much easier time at an upcoming puzzle. This screen is also where you can read books you find. Yep, books are back, and there are over 300 of them to collect and read. Again, they appear in full 3D, and you can flip through each page and read as much as you’d like.
Another great element that is making the jump from 2D to 3D is the world map. This may seem like a small feature to some, but I was immediately blown away by how much easier this made traversing the world. Sure, it’s less realistic in the world of Skyrim, but to the player, it’s going to make things a lot easier. The best part is that there’s absolutely no loading when going in and out of this feature; it simply zooms back in on your location when you’re done.
Eventually the demo took us to a lumber town called Riverwood. The design of the town was interesting, and he made mention of the economy that they’ve touched upon previously. In this town, you can affect the town’s main resource of lumber by sabotaging the lumber mill. Each character had a job and was carrying about their day, but to what extent we didn’t get to see. The NPCs in Oblivion got some flack from a lot of people, and so I was paying close attention to them in Skyrim. They definitely look a lot better in terms of character design, and you’re able to back out of dialogue at any time, as they’ve done away with the “talk cam” that was in Oblivion. It should be said that at times the NPCs still behaved and came off a tad robotic and forced; it still doesn’t feel as natural as it should.
Nearing the end of the demonstration, the rep decided to show us some dragons, which is what everyone was waiting for. The demo shifted us to a new location: atop a mountain. Soaring high in the sky, a dragon approached. In the actual game they are randomly encountered just like any other enemy in the game. I feel like a lot of work went into the dragons, as the animation (and the entire encounter) felt much stronger compared to the rest of the game. They fly above, throwing down balls of fire upon you. The impact of the dragon landing beside you made the room shake with a thunderous boom, as dirt and dust was kicked up around its feet. It continued to whirl its head around, casting streams of fire all around. Proving to be outmatched at this point, he ran to a nearby dungeon to seek safety.
Once in the dungeon (of which there are over 150), we were shown more combat styles (including some stealth kills with a bow), and how using weapons and performing certain maneuvers advances your character’s abilities. There’s also a new feature called “kill cam,” where certain finishing blows will have the camera change to third-person view, and cinematically showcase your final slice into an enemy.
The dungeons definitely got a noticeable face-lift, as they were much more interesting to look at and navigate through. Traps return, and this time certain traps can be much more easily avoided using magic. He demonstrated a “super-sprint” ability that allowed him to dash through some fast-moving blades. I wasn’t sure if that area was completely inaccessible without that ability, or if it was just made a lot easier with it. Near the end he demonstrated the importance of inspecting items you find, as there was a puzzle in the dungeon where you had to spin discs with symbols on them to match correctly. The solution to this puzzle was actually etched into a character’s staff that was killed earlier.
Before the demo’s end, he wanted to show us the wide-open “tundra” area. It was really cool, and showed off a lot more of the world and the life that inhabits it. To the right was a town, but while looking at it I could hear something moving behind us. He spun the camera around to show two large mammoths casually walking by. He told us that there are many creatures in Skyrim that are not necessarily hostile. Walking next to them was a giant troll. Had he left them alone, they would have all walked by without any harm done, but he wanted to have fun, so he started attacking the mammoth to show how they can turn hostile if need be.
This guy just wouldn’t let the demo end. He really wanted to show us more dragon interactions, so right before the demo ended we were treated to not only one, but two dragon fights. They really seem like they are going to be a lot of fun, and will involve some intense moments, and require quick thinking. He showcased some of the shouts that you obtain from defeating dragons by using them against the dragons. Each shout has 3 different off-shoots that can be unlocked by finding ruins scattered about the world. Perhaps the best part of the demo was coming up, when he used a “sudden storm” ability that literally turned the entire environment into a rainy, thunderous storm. Rain poured down, dark grey clouds formed, and lightning kept striking the dragon until it was too weak to fly. Its body slammed into the ground, sliding to a halt. This is when he ran up to it and started hacking away with two swords, until the kill cam kicked in and showed our hero climbing up its neck, jumping up, and crashing down his weapon on the dragon’s head.
This was one of the most detailed demos I was shown at E3; my notes on this were 4x longer than any other game’s demo. Even with this massive write-up, I’m leaving out tons of details, including the leveling system, the skill trees, and much more.
Overall, despite the great elements I’ve touched upon during my demo of the game, I left feeling a little unimpressed. It didn’t feel like the revamp they’ve been talking about, instead it feels like a direct sequel that would have come out a year after Oblivion (though that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as Oblivion is one of my favorite games of all time). Skyrim will be incredible, it’s just not looking like it’s going to be the massive jump I was hoping it’d be.