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E3 2011: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim First Impressions

Feature; Jun. 22, 2011; Channels: Video Games; By Jenner David Cauton
Subtypes: Opinion, Preview
Real-time combat with dragons? Coming right up!
Los Angeles, CA, USA

The Elder Scroll series is known for being one of the most epic and never-ending RPG series of all time. Not just in game play, but in sheer scale, too. Players can be anything they want, do anything they want, and go anywhere they want, all at any time. Both Morrowind and Oblivion have allowed for the creation of thousands upon thousands of user-made mods, drastically increasing the lifespan of the already-content heavy games that are still being played widely today.

At this year's E3, Bethesda showed a live presentation of the 360 version of TES: Skyrim and loaded up a typical barbarian character who decided to go for a peaceful stroll in the forest -- at least, as far as peaceful goes for barbarians equipped with shields, armor, and hand axes. Other than your usual prowess of strength, this particular barbarian had a special ability called "Dragon Shout" -- one of the new spells in the game -- which knocked any nearby enemies down.

At a quick glance, it seemed that most of the skills and attributes from the last game make a return here, so veterans should have an easy time getting adjusted to what attribute does what. It also seems that Bethesda may have done away with sleeping in order to level up. Now, when the time comes, players simply have to look to the skies to see their chosen birth sign in the stars, as well as everything else that makes them what they are. In other words, just look up to gain your next level. (Although how to do this indoors was never explained -- that is, if they meant to keep with the constellation theme at all times.)

For an ever-aging (yet adaptable) console, the game looks gorgeous. While the previous TES installments, Oblivion and Morrowind, were more or less designed to be played in first-person view, Bethesda realized that many players liked to play from the third-person perspective. After all, why take hours designing your character's appearance only never to see him/her again? Combat in third-person is now not only much more versatile (and brutal) than before, the animation now looks incredibly awesome and can even include random execution moves. If this wasn't enough, all single-handed weapons can now be dual-wielded. 

Wizard types also get double the fun as well. Spells can also now be dual-wielded, one in each hand. Players can equip two different spells, or two of the same spell for twice the power. Want even more power? Charge it up and blast away. Less-magic savvy players can also use runes, magical stones that (from the look of it; it was a barbarian being demoed after all) don't require any magical aptitude to use fluently. What was demoed was a frost rune that was placed on the floor, freezing any enemy that stepped on it.

The game's interface (on the 360) was very sleek and transparent, usually showing the background at all times, so your view of the world around you will never be completely obstructed. Harvestable plants return, and thus, so has alchemy. In Oblivion, food merely slightly decreased your fatigue, which probably went away the second you swung your sword. Food can now by cooked in Skyrim, which probably means it will have a lot more use this time around. As far as item content goes, the crowd was told there will be more than 300 books and 1,000 different apparel items. (Whether this was actual armor, social clothing, or both was unknown.)

Eventually, the player reached Riverwood, one of the first towns you'll visit in the game. Once again, NPCs will live their own lives and go about their business, with or without your presence. (Although I'm hoping to see more idle animations aside from reading and eating.) The player passed a lumber mill, and it was here when the crowd was told that you could "sabotage the mill and affect the local economy." It's a good sign for evil players or players who are looking for a little more challenge when breaking deals with merchants.

Oblivion (as well as Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas) really wanted you to get up and personal when conversing with NPCs, and this was accomplished by having time magically stop while the camera panned in close, giving the player a good look at some eerie eye-to-eye soul examination  until the player finally said goodbye. This time around, your character has lost his attention-grabbing, time-stopping powers, as well as being able to resist showing how fresh or bad his breath is to people. Conversations now happen in real-time, and this includes dialogue trees.

After leaving town in the demo, the player was then attacked by a dragon. Not a dragon downsized to make combat compatible with dragons. This was a full-sized, flying, fire-breathing nightmare. (Shields have never been more useful.) Dragon fights are entirely unscripted (and hopefully the rest of the enemies as well), which means players should brace themselves whenever they see one. While mages or archers may have an easier time with them, melee fighters will no doubt have the roughest bout, at least while the critter's in the air. Eventually dragons do land, and it's here when fighter types will want to close in. The player wasn't ready to end the fight just yet and ran off into a random cave.

As in the previous installments, caves are filled to the brim with skeletons, ogres, disease-carrying rats, and of course, treasure. New to TES are puzzles in which the solution is beyond just finding the right key. Sometimes objects will have hints on them, but it's up to the player to observe them carefully in the inventory by rotating them. Eventually the player passed cryptic handwriting on the walls, which when observed, taught him new spells. In this case, it was "Clairvoyance," which pointed him to his quest objective.

The player eventually found the other end of the cave, opening onto a wide tundra. It was here when I really saw the scale of the game. The tundra was stretched off into the distanced for miles, possibly farther than in the previous game. Because everything was covered in snow and the previous area prior to the cave was all grasslands, I'm really hoping this says something about the game's scale.

Eventually some random monsters approached the player, but they didn't attack him. New to the series are neutral monsters. Not all monsters (no matter how ugly they are) are hostile and will simply leave you alone if you do the same. Of course, this didn't stop the player, who eventually started to attack the monster's pet. I guess we now know what alignment he was playing.

Unfortunately, the player's one-sided victory was short-lived, when two frost dragons came flying in. The player attacked and eventually took care of one. While the dragon was down, the player then went to the dragon and absorbed its soul, unlocking another useful shout -- the "Storm Call" spell, and casting it ... called a storm. 

What's amazing with this spell is that it made great use of the game's enhanced dynamic weather system. In most RPGs I've played, spells that call storms, such as a blizzard, thunderstorm, or firestorm, usually cover a circular area and provide area of effect damage for a predetermined amount of time. Usually tool tips for this type of spell reveal the spell's radius in meters, but if this new spell did the same thing, it probably would have simply said, "Everywhere." The sunlight within the entire viewable screen turned into a stormy night, almost as if it were a random weather change or a scripted cutscene, not a simple player spell cast in combat. While I'm sure that it's just for show, and no monsters off-screen miles away are actually damaged, this effect was really impressive and gave a personal feeling of immense power. The storm wailed on the dragon, who was eventually bought to his knees. The player then ran in for the kill, climbed on top, and thrust his hand axe through the dragon's head. After a musical interlude, the screen faded to black, and the demo concluded.

One thing that wasn't commented on was enemy leveling. Many players were upset with enemies leveling alongside them in the last game because they felt it ruined the whole aspect of leveling up in the first place. (Even though enemies did have a threshold, it was often too much -- at least in an un-modded game.) The pro to it, however, is that it also enabled you to explore the world at your own leisure without limiting you to always adventuring in the same areas in the same order every time you played a new game, due to the risk of dying from being out-classed. Bethesda didn't comment on this, but I have heard rumors this aspect is being tweaked. If it does stay in, and you are one who doesn't exactly prefer this type of leveling, you might be better off getting the PC version. Oblivion has had many leveling mods which either change it to more traditional leveling, or tweak the game's current system just slightly -- and there's no doubt Skyrim will be the same.

None of the demo was really scripted. The player had a quest, but he didn't really engage it; it was a typical free-roam adventure across the land, fighting random monsters. If this is typical, I can't wait to see what quests are like -- or, better yet, the full game. 

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