The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Preview

By Garnett Lee, Apr 21, 2011 3:30pm PDT

From the moment the Skyrim announcement trailer debuted at the VGAs the questions came to mind in a rush. As the successor to Oblivion and fifth game to carry the ‘Elder Scrolls’ mantle, we immediately expect nothing short of the most expansive fantasy land yet created filled with hundreds of stories waiting to be told.

I got a glimpse into that world watching the game's director Todd Howard play Skyrim for nearly an hour. Though many questions were answered during a Q&A session afterwards, the experience fueled as many or more new inquires, and made a convincing argument that role playing fans should start clearing out as much time as possible around the November 11 release of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.

"We intentionally don't give him [the character] a backstory," Howard would later explain. "The Elder Scroll games you start in prison and I always like to think it's up to you to figure out why, and if you think you're a good character then this is obviously a mistake. We set it up that you've come over the border into Skyrim and the Imperials captured you." Though the premise may be the same as ever, it immediately became clear that much has changed since Oblivion as Howard walked his character down a mountain path giving me my first tour of Skyrim.

As he strolled along he called attention to the fruits of their work developing the new "creation" engine powering Skyrim. The northernmost province in the Elder Scrolls' game world of Tamriel, Skyrim offers some spectacular vistas. Howard paused to look at some of the flowers on the side of the path and then looked off to the mountain peaks on the horizon. "You can walk to the top of that mountain," Howard noted. It's an impressive display of how versatile this engine they've created is, conveying everything from close-up detail to the furthest thing the eye can see.

He wastes no time running into a bandit on the road, which offers the perfect opportunity to show off the new combat system. It's a straightforward approach that maps the left and right trigger to the corresponding hands of the character on screen. From there it's simply a matter of what you want to use in each hand. Howard starts with the classic sword-and-board of a shield in one hand and a blade in the other. Pulling each trigger results in the expected block of a shield and swipe with the sword, but moreover, combat has become much more active. Like two gladiators going at it, Howard trades blows with the bandit that packs a real wallop.

The combat is much more physical than any Elder Scrolls game before this. Combat isn’t two characters standing face-to-face swinging wildly; it's a real fight, with each blow felt and the combatants violently pushing each other back and forth. Spell casting works in a similar way. Spells are equipped in your hand and then cast by pulling the corresponding trigger. One quick way Howard showed this off was keeping his healing spell in his left hand while fighting with his sword. Equipping the same spell in both hands let Howard cast a more powerful version of the spell, complete with a two-handed conjuration animation to sell it.

Though the highwaymen attacked on sight, not everything in the world of Skyrim is inherently hostile. During a later part of the demo Howard came across a towering frost giant on a mountain path. Unprovoked, he carried on with his stroll, disinterested in Howard's character and what he might be up to. This reflects the overall effort put into making the game world more believable. Everyone encountered in Skyrim goes about their daily business with purpose. They get up; go to work, and everything they do there is a real task. "The characters live here," as Howard puts it.

Like previous Elder Scrolls games, Skyrim is primarily a first person game, and that's how Howard says he prefers to play it. Skyrim, though, will also "compete with the other third person games out there," according to Howard. Sure enough, when he switched the camera to show his character on screen, it moved smoothly and looked on par with modern adventure games. The upgrade doesn't appear to have made its way to faces yet, which still look uncomfortably unnatural.

Underneath the skin, though, lies one of the most significant overhauls to the game. Gone are the classic role-playing set of attributes like strength, intelligence and wisdom. The only three such stats in the game are health, magicka, and stamina. Character development now leans heavily on improving skills (there are 18 in the game) through use. Wield a one-handed weapon and that skill will gain rank, cast destruction magic and that skill improve, and so forth.

Gaining ranks in skills in turn leads to leveling up, which earns points to buy perks. These perks then provide the boosts for detailed specialization. In one of the more gee-whiz moments of the presentation, Howard showed off the perk trees, which are represented by constellation, which the player looks up to the heavens to see.

It sounds more complicated than it is. Take that mace-wielding warrior for example. With each mace attack, their one-handed skill goes up. Knowing their weapon of choice, they will then choose perks to enhance it. For the mace they would target bonuses to things like crushing damage, or maybe a stunning impact effect. One key benefit to the system is the versatility it introduces. By making use of a skill the driving force, all one need to do to change things down the line is start doing them. So when the mace warrior decides to add healing magic to their repertoire, it quickly improves through use up to the level of the character.

One of the more interesting wrinkles of the game is that the player character is dragonborn. Howard refused to offer much on what exactly that means except to say that it signifies being anointed by the Gods and born with the soul of a dragon. It also imbues the ability to use magic-like shouts, which add another layer to a character's powers. These shouts come in the form of three word phrases, each word of which constitutes a level of power. With something like two-dozen shouts in the game, the system promises to add both a significant option to combat and ample reason to go adventuring in quest of the individual words.

From the powered-up character Howard used in the demo, the combination of weaponry, magic, and shouts makes for a lethal character, but don't think it will make the game a cakewalk. Skyrim includes a number of new enemies, not the least of which are the dragons who have returned to the land. Dragons will figure prominently in the game and they are not just individual boss fights. There's no finite number of dragons in the game and in fact Howard related a story of inadvertently drawing the attention of a trio of dragons he ran into while out adventuring. It didn't end well for him.

So, adventuring around a massive mountainous region, wielding exotic weapons and casting dramatic spells, using power shouts to turn the tide of battle, interacting with a dynamic, living world, and facing dragons in battle--yeah, sounds like Skyrim is pretty well on track.

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