To put it mildly, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is one of GameSpot's most eagerly awaited games of 2011. Skyrim is the latest in Bethesda's line of open-world role-playing games, and we're expecting it to be one of the biggest, most engrossing games of the year. Speculation over which direction Bethesda might be taking the Elder Scrolls series in came to a welcome end back in April when we got our first look at the game and its rugged Nordic frontier. Now, with the Electronic Entertainment Expo on the horizon, we've been treated to another look at what Skyrim has in store, courtesy of game director Todd Howard.
The demo began with some overlap with what was already covered back in April. Your character, living a renewed life after avoiding execution at the beginning of the game, faces a descending pathway leading down to a river in a heavily wooded area. Surrounding you are imposing mountaintops dusted with snow that immediately let you know that Skyrim is a different world from its predecessor. It's a harsh, northern frontier populated not only by dragons, but by giants and woolly mammoths as well.
The revamped game engine powering Skyrim is an impressive bit of technology. Whether it's a massive view of a distant mountaintop that you can actually go off and climb--one such mountaintop houses a race of men called Greybeards, who have become masters of communicating with dragons--or the ability to wander through the woods and simply pick berries, Skyrim is a game that concerns itself with the big picture as well as the little one. "We're trying to build this complete virtual fantasy world," said Howard. "And we're all about the little details that make it a believable place."
The demo moved from the wooded pathway running along the river into a waterfront lumber town called Riverwood. Howard says that each town or city you encounter in the game has its own economy and job system, which you can see in regular non-player characters going about their day-to-day lives chopping wood, sharpening axes, or what have you. In fact, Howard even pointed out that there are now children in the game to add more believability to the gameworld. But it's believability with one minor compromise. "You can't kill them," joked Howard. "Someone already asked in the last demo."
From here, the demo moved on to the dungeon that we detailed in our first preview of Skyrim. We already talked about how combat has been reworked for this latest entry in the Elder Scrolls series, covering subjects such as dual-wielding a spell in one hand and a weapon in the other, as well as the new "dragon shout" system that lets you manipulate the world around you using your innate abilities as a dragonborn. So instead, let's talk about something that really shouldn't be overlooked: the interface.
The user interface is one of the most common pitfalls of any role-playing game, what with the amount of skill progression and item management the genre throws at you. Bethesda's solution? "We're big Apple fans at Bethesda," said Howard, and the clean, minimalist game interface was designed out of an attempt to create the sort of menu system Apple might make if it decided to build a fantasy game. You can navigate the majority of the menu system using only directions on the analog stick, never having to press a single button until you get to an item you want to use. Skill trees are depicted not as abstract lines on the screen, but as constellations in the sky that you must move from one star to the next as you upgrade your skills.
And then there's the quick favorite system. "You can bookmark items like you bookmark Web pages," said Howard. This system then lets you use the directional pad to pull open a quick list of bookmarked items on the fly, whether it's weapon configurations, dragon shouts, or a hunk of salmon meat for when you get hungry. It's essentially a progression of how the directional pad worked in the console versions of Oblivion and Fallout 3. Though instead of eight directions, you've got a fully customized list of the items and abilities you care most about, divorced from the main item interface and viewable on the go.
After finishing up in this dungeon, Howard emerged in a new territory that wasn't shown in the earlier demo. Contrasting with the dense wilderness at the beginning of the game, this was an open tundra on the outskirts of Whiterun Hold, one of nine holds that make up the game. This particular location happens to be the home of the Companions, which, according to Howard, are one of the three main factions in Skyrim. But Howard kept outside of the hold, because he was more interested in showing off the local wildlife than the politics of the cities. A group of mammoths and giants were walking peacefully across the tundra, unthreatened by Howard's character. That is, right up until Howard shot a fire spell at one of the mammoths to illustrate that even peaceful fauna can get violent when provoked.
The mammoths and giants went down relatively easily, but the dragon that showed up right after was a substantially harder fight. Howard's strategy for taking this guy down was to focus on the dragon shout abilities, particularly the stormcall shout that immediately summons a torrential downpour and flashes of lightning focused directly on your enemy. Once you take out a dragon--no easy feat even with a character Howard admitted had been substantially leveled up for the demo--you're able to absorb its soul, which becomes a sort of currency for unlocking new dragon shouts. To hear Howard describe the system, it's as though you and your enemies are speaking a common dragon language as you exchange shouts of fire and frost. And as the game progresses, you become more and more in tune with your status as a dragonborn, learning more of the language in order to unlock the powers of the dragons--the beasts that the ancient Nordic inhabitants of Skyrim once worshipped before they mysteriously disappeared from the world. That's all a little too abstract for us to fully wrap our heads around after such a brief demo, but we can certainly say that some of the abilities these dragon shouts offer are pretty cool.
With the dragon slayed and its soul absorbed, the demo came to a close. We're happy to say that Skyrim continues to be one of our most anticipated games of 2011. You can expect to see more on it as we get closer to the game's November release.