The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim E3 Preview

As a fan of the Elder Scrolls series, I was pretty damned excited back in 2006 when our television in Berlin was taken over by an advert for The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. It was the last thing we expected to see on holiday, especially with it being shown in the middle of some dodgy looking video game show, but it had us immediately sitting bolt upright in awe. While it may not have been as grand as Morrowind, there’s no denying that Oblivion’s beauty and charm set the bar ridiculously high for other console based RPGs and, even to this day, reviewers will still throw around the “it’s good, but it’s no Oblivion” line. Regardless of anything else, Bethesda had incredibly large Quicksilver Boots to fill.

With so many slamming their continued use of the Gamebryo Engine, even with Fallout 3 looking considerably more detailed and fluid than previous releases, Bethesda instead turned to creating an entirely new engine in-house: the Creation Engine. This new technology would not only allow for greater draw distances and more detail therein, but also allow for varying weight to be attributed to certain tree types or even specific branches of a single tree, altering how much the wind affects them on a more detailed level.

Being the only one of a five-strong GamingLives E3 team to pick up an invitation to see Skyrim, I made sure that the thirty minutes prior to my 11am appointment were spent in close proximity to the Bethesda booth for fear of being trampled underfoot had I dared to wander off in the interim. At almost exactly 11am, the group was ushered in to the screening room and, being there so early and always craving a clear view of every individual pixel where possible, I took the central seat on the front row. My inner monologue was in turmoil, with one voice sitting excitedly waiting for the presentation to start and the other telling me that it would be a huge disappointment.

I was about to tell both voices to shut up when another boomed over the PA, introducing our host for the presentation… none other than Todd Howard, executive producer on Skyrim as well as both Fallout 3 and Oblivion. If anyone could go into every technical minutae with passion and answer my questions without having ever asked, it would be Todd, and so I relaxed in my chair and watched as he lifted his controller.

The fact that this presentation was being driven by an Xbox 360 was both surprising and yet understandable at the same time, as it made perfect sense to show their latest creation on what is now widely regarded as the lowest common denominator of its brethren next to the younger PS3 and the potential powerhouse of the PC. Before taking us on our journey through the northern provence of Tamriel, Howard explains that the dragons are unpredictable and will do their own thing so, if need be, they would resort to a previous save as a back-up before going on to introduce us to the new engine:

“So when we finished Fallout 3, we had a huge list of things that we knew we could do technically on the current platforms, and we actually considered waiting on Microsoft and Sony’s next consoles. But we decided, you know, that there’s still so much life left in these and we do like to start over for each Elder Scrolls, so we rebooted the technology and we’ve rewritten all the gameplay, the graphics, the interface, facial systems, scripting and we’re calling it the Creation Engine. And what we try to do with our technology is bring to life a virtual fantasy world and make you feel like you’re playing Elder Scrolls for the first time… again”.

Our journey begins shortly after the character creation process, when we first enter the realm of Skyrim. Immediately, Jeremy Soule’s haunting score swells and captivates while Todd Howard swings his crosshairs to the ground and reveals an incredibly detailed texture, pulling around to various flora as he explains that their aim was never to cut down on objects to gain speed, but to increase draw distances and allow for what he calls micro-details in close quarters, using streaming effects, while still retaining detail in the far distance. It was, quite honestly, one of the few times I’ve been impressed by console textures and was happier to accept what appeared to be a lack of all antialiasing in lieu of such meticulous detail, as this would primarily be down to console limitations and be of no issue with the PC version, which is how I would ultimately be playing the final game.

We wander down a narrow winding path, taking in rolling vistas as Todd quickly switches from his original first person viewpoint to third, displaying the character with incredible realism from the veined arms to the natural leather look of the clothing, explaining “We found that with Oblivion and Fallout 3, a lot of people do enjoy playing in third person, whether that’s just running around or in combat, so we have spent a lot more time on it with Skyrim to make that more of a viable option for people to play”. He’s not wrong. I dabbled with third person in Oblivion but found that the lack of detail in my character, Slappi The Wood Elf, ruined the immersion and so I ultimately stuck with first person thereafter.

Still in third person mode, a quick button flick produces a gleaming sword in the right hand as we’re told that they have introduced dual wield, which is something that was never an option in either Morrowind, Oblivion or Fallout 3 unless you were playing on PC and used a mod. For someone who opts for dual swords over the sword and shield combo whenever a game supports the feature, this was more than welcome and I was already considering weapon configurations before even knowing what was available to me. As you’d expect, each hand is controlled by the corresponding trigger, regardless of whether you opt to assign a shield, weapon or even a spell.

With no set character class system in place, your character evolves depending on what you choose to do with them. Someone that you’d started off using a sword and shield combo with could easily be given spells in certain situations and, if used often enough, the spellcasting ability would develop along the way. Similarly, if you choose to assign a spell to each hand, rather than using regular weaponry, you will develop those skills faster and have the ability to use both hands at once to produce a more powerful spell.

Much in the same way as Oblivion had the Doomstones and Rune Stones, the rugged landscape of Skyrim has its own Guardian Stones which allow you to further enhance your character’s abilities with temporary customisation, although only one Guardian Stone ability can be applied at any given time. As Todd explains how these affect your character, a pack of wolves rush at him from the surrounding bushes and it is at this point that we get our first glimpse of the combat system.

With the camera moving at elevated speed and being unable to see exactly what Todd is doing to take down his enemies, it’s difficult to comment on how much the combat system has improved on previous Elder Scrolls games. From what I could tell, however, it does seem to be more intuitive and less about aiming the cross hairs at the enemy whilst bashing away on the buttons until their life force drains entirely. I hadn’t ever had an issue with the previous combat system but am aware that many found it to be tiresome, so it may come as a surprise to some that there is more of an athletic approach to combat in Skyrim and the addition of finishing moves, based on weapon type and enemy, certainly make for a more interesting battle. It’s also interesting to note that, at one point we see Todd moving backwards from his foe and it seemed to slow him down considerably which, presumably, is something that has been added to increase the realism rather than the previous model of being able to run backwards at full speed. This aspect wasn’t commented on at the time so this is mere speculation based on observation although, as someone who favours realism in games over superhuman abilities, this would certainly be a welcomed addition and gives more thought to the fight or flight decision.

At one point we were presented with a vast open plain with grass clumps and short bushes peppered around to break up the desolation when suddenly a woolly mammoth breaks into our field of vision, followed closely by yet another and what I presume to be their keeper – a giant. The scale quickly becomes apparent, with the giant actually being worthy of the name. All too often, giants appear in RPGs where they’re perhaps a head and shoulder taller than the main character but, thankfully, the fantasy realism was sustained when, after Todd attacked one of his mammoths with a fireball, the giant came bounding over and stood at least twice as tall as the player.

Something to note here is that, until Todd actually attacked the mammoth, the creatures and their keeper were perfectly docile and going about their regular day to day without so much as a sideways glance towards the player. It wasn’t what I was expecting when I first saw these huge, yet graceful, creatures drift into our field of vision, and was sure that they’d react as almost all RPG creatures do – enter attack mode. It’s not something that was explored in any great detail, but it’ll be interesting to see just how many of the inhabitants are naturally dismissive until such times as you rile them up.

And Rile them up is exactly what happened when that first fireball hit the side of the mammoth. Without hesitation, both creatures went straight to attack mode and no sooner had the first giant came over to see that we “meet with a little accident” than another came into view to offer support to his kin. How the second giant considered for a moment that his friend wasn’t capable of taking out someone almost a third of his size is beyond me, but it perfectly demonstrated the typical pack mentality that you’d expect from anyone threatened by an outsider. Within mere seconds, the first giant appeared to leap into the air and as Todd pulled back we saw that it was in fact being ripped skywards by a passing dragon. This would be the unpredictability of the dragons that was mentioned at the start of the presentation, and it made for some interesting gameplay. With only a single fireball, a peaceful meadow had become a warzone with two mammoths, two giants, a monstrous dragon and the player himself all battling each other and, at times, banding together to attack one foe.

One by one, the enemies fell leaving only the dragon who, by this time, had a damaged wing and went from being an airborne predator to scratching its way across the ground like a cat toying with a wounded bird. It wasn’t until the dragon stretched its neck out as far as possible and spewed flames that I realised the lengths to which they’d gone with the creature meshes, with even the inside of the mouth being incredibly detailed. That this was running smoothly on an Xbox 360 rather than a souped up PC was staggering, and the thought of how much more beautiful it would be on a decent gaming rig sent shivers up my already tingling spine.

While the contemporary style may be out of place, it's certainly very impressive

While trying to avoid death at the hands, or talons, of this powerful and legendary beast, the screen would quickly flicker as Todd switched between weapon types in his quest to hopefully take the dragon down. This was our first glimpse at the new inventory system and was so incredibly unobtrusive that it left me wondering how we could possibly use this as our main menu structure. Imagine your screen split in two so you have a top section and a bottom section, then slice each of these into four separate quadrants. The second quadrant on the bottom is where the entire scrolling inventory was housed, much like a popup quick-access inventory wheel that you’d find in other RPG games but very clear and concise. At first I found it to be rather out of place in a fantasy setting, with it being a semi-opaque black area with condensed white text but, as a graphic designer, I realise that it’s sometimes better to step away from the obvious and go for subtlety instead, and that’s what this did.

Before long, the dragon heaved its last fiery breath and the full menu system was introduced to us for the first time. It was clean, it was easy to read and it had fully modelled weapons and artefacts. As you scroll through the inventory, each item is presented as a fully rendered model which can be rotated to better absorb the lengths that the designers have gone to with each of these pieces, of which there are over two thousand. Clicking a button brings up the individual item in full screen mode where you can further examine the detail and admire the intricacies but, at this point, I wondered why anyone would want to do that unless they’d come across a particularly interesting weapon. More on that later. Skipping through the four main sections of the menu system, we landed upon the Skills menu, a beautifully presented area with separate constellations as Todd explained their thoughts behind it…

“It’s like looking to the heavens as opposed to having a menu that is very spreadsheet-like, we wanted to make this more visual, more tactile in terms of looking at your skills. Each skill affects your levelling up – the higher it is, the faster you’re going to level and then when you level up you get to pick a perk. What’s cool here is that each of these constellations is its own perk tree for that particular skill, so when you level up you get to pick one of these and then over time it’s drawing this custom constellation of who you are”

When I was first told that the typical Elder Scrolls character levelling was being altered to a Fallout 3 style perks system and that character classes were all but redundant, I was more than a little sceptical but, having seen it in action, I’m actually quite keen on the thought of the game playing out naturally rather than targeting a specific type of development. Whether I end up fully embracing the system or yearning for a more traditional approach remains to be seen, but I’m certainly not repulsed by it whereas I was at first.

Sticking with the menu system, the Skyrim map truly is something to behold. The Oblivion map was beautiful in its intricacy, and so much so that it hangs on our wall as a one metre square canvas, but the on-screen map for Skyrim is something else entirely. As Todd shifts into map view, the camera pulls back to reveal a fully rendered 3D map which can be manipulated by the thumbsticks to zoom in to particular areas, swing around and select previously discovered locations for fast travel. While this may not necessarily be particularly useful, it’s certainly more than mere aesthetics as it allows you to see paths more clearly and ascertain whether a particular route is viable. The beauty of this map is that, unlike other recent games with 3D overviews, you never have to leave your current game location and travel to a central hub – it’s just there as any other map would be, and it’s stunning.

As we approach the town of Riverwood, it becomes immediately apparent just how different the locations are from those in previous Elder Scrolls titles. The beauty and splendour remain but, with them, comes a very lived in feel where it’s less about how pretty everything is and more about it being believable that people actually live and work there. Todd explained how everyone we see on screen would have their own routines and go about their daily business, and how our character could not only interact with them but also take part in whatever jobs they had. Basically, if anyone in the game world could perform a task, then we could do the same and earn cash.

There was something rather unusual that caught my eye at this point, when one of the NPCs started to chop wood with his axe. Normally you’d expect to see a never-ending wood pile whereby the NPC would reach down to the pile, reach for a log, and when he lifts it away to chop it would be immediately replenished by the same log for the cycle to begin again. This was not the case. The log was lifted from the pile, placed on the block, chopped in two by the axeman and when his supplies depleted he walked up a few stairs to where there were several felled trees staked up… and dragged another one down. As he did so, that pile had one less felled tree. I can’t comment as to what happened thereafter, as we moved on to the next area but I would speculate that he would eventually run out of material and that would be the end of his day, only to start again the next morning. It may be pointless in terms of gameplay, but it adds yet another layer of realism to the whole experience and a further depth of immersion.

Something that was only briefly touched on was the origins of the main Dovahkiin character, his ability to use Dragon Tongue and, with it, the various shout commands. Each command has three separate words, which must be both unlocked and learned before they can be used, and adding each new word to a shout reinforces the power unleashed with its use. Watching it in action took it from being something that I wasn’t overly bothered about, being a traditional melee player, to something that I was keen to try out so I’m looking forward to seeing more of this.

As mentioned before, the inventory system allowed for a fully detailed 3D view of items, with the ability to rotate and investigate intricacies. This was put to good use when, upon reaching a locked door with an odd four-part indentation and three concentric circles bearing various icons, Todd accessed his inventory and selected a golden artefact in the shape of a dragon claw and made an attempt to open the door. While it certainly fit the lock, it refused to open and it was at this point where he further investigated the item, zooming in and rotating it to show three icons on the reverse. Coming back out from the inventory, he selected each of three rings on the door and rotated them until they displayed the same pattern as represented by the claw… and the door opened.  So, rather than being nothing more than a pointless gimmick, the new inventory system allows for a more deliberate style of gameplay in certain areas. Something that is more than welcome to those of us who want to exercise our grey matter rather than hack and slash our way through a game.

The reality is that we are barely scraping the surface of what Skyrim has to offer, even from a reasonably lengthy thirty minute demo. With over 150 dungeons and a reported three hundred hours of gameplay, no preview could possibly do it justice and, I suspect, no review either. Being an Elder Scrolls title, it was always going to impress those who lean towards that particular genre but, with so many developers pushing the envelope at the last stages of the current console generation, it’s becoming more difficult to create a stand-out title that’ll run on anything other than a PC. Skyrim is one of those stand-outs. The changes to the engine and inventory system will no doubt anger some die hard Elder Scrolls fans while pleasing others, but it’s impossible to deny that Bethesda have, once again, put everything they possibly could into a game and their passion is abundantly clear in Skyrim.

As someone who tends to shy away from games offering less than fifty hours of decent gameplay, and a graphic whore at heart, Skyrim checked more boxes in that one half hour than most games do in ten.  If the next five months prior to the release are being used to add polish to the game, then I may just explode with delight when I finally get my hands on it.  Then again, I may still yearn for simpler times with Oblivion and its standard character classes and typical RPG inventory.  Only time will tell… 147 long days from the time this article was published, to be precise.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is due for release on November 11th, 2011 and will be available on PC, Xbox 360 and Playstation 3.

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  1. Mark Mark_S says:

    Oh when I saw the trailer for this on the cinema screen I said to my mate, “Only word to describe this game is epic.” My inside voice was saying, “HOLY FUCKBALLS LOOK AT THAT!”

    Fucking 50 foot dragon on the screen. I shall be having this. Great job man, as always.

  2. Edward Edward says:

    I have to admit, while I’ve held no interest in the series before, your preview of it’s making me consider picking up Skyrim. The fact you’re so enthusiastic about the series and could easily note all the additions and the little things makes it much more refreshing to read about and I have to admit, an RPG that size has my interest piqued. I’m not sure I’d ever be able to give it as much time as it’d need, or explore as much of it as I could, but it sounds like a mighty achievement if it can all come together as well as it sounds like it should.

  3. Ben Ben says:

    The biggest preview for this was watching the smile beam across your face after you got to see it. There be dragons here, I like it.

  4. Chris Toffer says:

    Sounds very good. Really need to finish Oblivion!

  5. Knikitta says:

    Oh hell yes!!! I am so excited about this I am positively bouncing in my chair! There will be much /squeeeeee and shopping for many many Haribo and Coke Cola when this is released.

    (note to self: Book a babysitter)

  6. Adam Adam Freeman says:

    Can’t get enough of reading about Skyrim. So seriously excited for it. There are parts of it like the ‘daily routines’ that make me go all cynical like as was promised with Oblivion that didn’t quite pan out as they promised but there’s still so much to be excited for in this one.

    Really passionate preview Chief, loved it.

  7. Tania Tania says:

    Excellent preview. I’m SO looking forward to this! WANT!

  8. Samuel Samuel says:

    I knew this would be special, but I had no idea it would be THIS special. Just stunning. That realism is especially welcome… been playing Fable 2 lately and giggling at the way you can keep forging new daggers without the water barrel overflowing with the things, or the way you can chop wood all day without being up to your arse in bits of wood, or ever run out of logs.

    If it wasn’t for the release date of November (I’m going to be somewhat busy this November), I’d be absolutely cock a hoop over this game. And if that’s how it looks on an Xbox, I can’t wait to see it on a decent PC. Fuck me, those are some of the best screenies I’ve seen from any game on any system.

    Spectacularly good preview dood.

  9. Lorna Lorna says:

    Your passion for the game is undeniable, though I’m still actually more on the fence than I expected to be at this stage. I suppose I’m fussy about a great many things, and an RPG’s inventory system is one of them – I’m not convinced by what I’ve seen of the screens. Also, as beautiful as some of the vistas and scenes seem to be, they just seem a little… I don’t know… plain? It is a mountainous region though, so a colder palette should be expected. I suppose I’m used to the charm and colour of places like Skingrad or Cheydinhal. Still, I imagine it will be absorbing enough, and many of the features sound interesting, (like you, I’m not sold on the perks) but I’ll still need some convincing I think. :)

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