The Elder Scrolls series has come a long way since its humble beginnings on the PC back in the early '90s. Throughout the years, these games have gathered a loyal following enamored with their massive worlds and open-ended gameplay. At Bethesda Softworks BFG 2011 press event, located deep in the mountains of Utah, we got our first peek at what's to come for this venerable role-playing series. The hands-off demonstration, hosted by Bethesda Softworks' executive producer Todd Howard, took us through a short adventure centered on the theft of a golden dragon's claw. From combat to character customization, Skyrim is bringing a lot of tweaks and changes to the Elder Scrolls formula, so let's get right to it.
The demonstration opened on a woodland path that was dense with all of the graphical splendor and attention to detail we've come to expect from an Elder Scrolls game. Unlike in Oblivion, the developers have built the game's graphics engine, dubbed the Creation Engine, from scratch to give themselves more flexibility than they had with the previously used Gamebryo engine. The result was a scene packed with tiny details, from the veins on individual leaves of a fern to the rushing currents of water breaking over rocks. Once we had finished soaking in the scenery, our character--who was dressed in the same apparel as in the debut trailer--ventured through the woods until (like in any good role-playing game) a wild bandit appeared.
Howard took this opportunity to break down some of the changes the developers are making to the combat in Skyrim. In brief, you character's left and right arms are mapped to two separate buttons; in this case, the left and right triggers on the Xbox 360 controller because the demo was on an Xbox 360. Pressing the left trigger brought up our character's wooden shield to block an incoming attack, while pressing the right trigger swung our character's sword to attack. Compared to previous Elder Scrolls games, combat in Skyrim seemed much more involved. Our Nordic-looking hero was constantly sidestepping around his opponent to better position his shield against oncoming attacks or to find a way around the enemy's own defenses.
Once the first bandit was dispatched, a second appeared to avenge his friend's death. Against the new foe, our character swapped out his shield for a magical spell. Depending on how you wish to play, your character can be outfitted with different combinations of spells and weapons in each hand. The classic sword-and-shield combo is always an option, but you can also use a sword and staff if you want "to do the Gandalf thing." Or you can toss a fireball spell into the mix and become a magical warrior. Equipping the same spell in each hand allows you to perform a more potent version of that spell; however, your options in combat won't be as diverse.
Against the second bandit, our character used a ray of frost spell, which both slowed and damaged the target. In her weakened state, the bandit could do little to defend herself when our character swooped in for the kill with a stylish execution move, which involved a sword through the chest. With the fighting concluded, we took a moment to explore the upgraded menu system. Going to the menu screen pulls up four categories to choose from: skill, inventory, map, and magic. The inventory and magic screens display a list of the various spells and equipment you have collected. Individual spells may be saved for quick access later on, while different pieces of equipment may be compared to one another within a single screen (a feature the developers are still fine-tuning). The map screen pulls back the game's camera to reveal a full-3D view of the world and highlights major points of interest.
However, the most impressive section was the skill screen. Instead of just being a spreadsheet that comprises names and numbers, the skill screen displays your skills as star constellations in the sky above. As you level up, you can help fill in these constellations by purchasing perks (represented as stars) within your skills. On the topic of character advancement, Howard noted that the eight original character attributes from previous Elder Scrolls games have been condensed into three: magica, health, and stamina. He justified this by stating that the original eight all "trickled down" into each other and that this change allowed players more direct control over their characters.
With our business in the menus concluded, our character headed into the nearby village of Riverwood. We then took a brief tour of this small settlement as Howard explained how the new radiant story system works in Skyrim. Basically there are a number of skeleton quests that have been planned out in broad strokes, but have some of their characters or plot points left blank. The system then dynamically populates these blank areas with people or objects you've encountered during your journey. He also noted that the number of voice actors featured in the game has been greatly expanded, so that players won't run into the same handful of voices time and again. After speaking to a few locals, we learned that there had been a robbery at the local supply store. Speaking with the store's owner revealed that the only thing stolen was a golden dragon's claw.
Our character agreed to help the shopkeeper retrieve his trinket and set off in the footsteps of the thieves. Our journey took us up along a mountain pass where we learned that some creatures--such as a lumbering giant--aren't out to kill and won't attack on sight. Others--such as an angry frost troll--still wanted to rip our head from our shoulders but were easily dispatched with a blast of fire magic. Toward the top of the mountain, we discovered an ancient temple devoted to the worship of dragons. Just as our character passed under a large dragon statue, we thought we saw something move from the corner of our eye. Looking again, we saw that it wasn't a statue--it was an actual dragon.
As the massive beast circled above, no doubt preparing to strike, our character opted to retreat within the temple to avoid the beast. However, we would soon see it again before long. Inside the temple, we encountered two of the thieves who had robbed the Riverwood shopkeeper. We weren't sure what they were discussing, but it mattered little after we blew one of them away with a headshot from our longbow. The second jumped to her feet and began frantically searching for our hiding spot in the shadows. Stealth in Skyrim has been tweaked from previous games so that the transition from the alert state of enemies (where they are looking for you) to their danger state (where they are attacking you) is more gradual depending on what you do. For instance, if our character were to run out in the open and attack, the transition would occur very quickly. However, if we remained hidden, it would be a much slower process. The transition itself was represented by an opening-eye icon in the center of the screen.
Pressing onward, we located and dispatched another member in the party of thieves before coming upon a metal door with an elaborate mechanical lock. Had we allowed the thief to get this far, he would have attempted to solve this puzzle himself, failed, and been rewarded with a swift death for his efforts. After lining up all the symbols on the lock in the correct order, we moved on to another area of the temple covered with massive spider webs. Right on cue, a massive spider descended from the ceiling and attacked. Without a big tissue to crumple it up, our character had to settle for bashing its brains with his sword.
A gaunt, sickly looking man named Arvel the Swift was trapped nearby in the deceased spider's webbing. After tempting us with promises of information concerning the stolen dragon's claw, the weasel promptly took off the moment our character cut him free. While he was swift, Arvel's speed couldn't save him from a well-placed arrow in the back of his skull. From his corpse, we collected both the stolen claw, as well as a journal that contained a few nuggets of lore about the temple. However, we had no time to read as our character was soon set upon by a mob of angry Draugr--undead warriors of the temple's past inhabitants.
At this point, our character decided to forgo melee weapons altogether and rely solely on his magical abilities. In one hand, he equipped the circle of protection, which warded off the undead foes; in the other, he equipped chain lighting, which blasted foes to pieces. Between how they looked and operated, the magical abilities in Skyrim reminded us of the plasmids in the BioShock series. One of the ways our character could learn new spells was by collecting magical tomes, one of which just happened to be lying nearby. Once the Draugr were defeated, our character studied the tome and mastered the fireball spell, which he then paired up with a one-handed axe.
Soon our character arrived outside of the Hall of Stories, the innermost chamber of the temple where the priests bury their dead. Once again, we were faced with another locked door that required us to solve a puzzle to gain access. The answer to this riddle rested in the palm of the dragon's claw that we had recovered earlier. Items in your character's inventory can be viewed as 3D models, from the simplest herb to a shining elven glass sword. Certain books, such as the journal we recovered, can even be read page by page in this mode. With the dragon's claw selected, we flipped the object over to reveal the door's combination inscribed upon it.
Inside was what appeared to be an altar cut from some type of gray stone and inscribed with a language we couldn't understand. As our character approached the altar, we were informed that the writing upon it was in the native language of the dragons and that by learning the words and phrases written upon it, we could adapt them into a form of vocal magic, referred to as dragon shouts. From this particular set, our character discerned the draconic word for time, which he adapted into a shout that would slow down everything around him. This came in handy when an undead dragon priest awoke from its slumber in the ornate tomb in the center of the room (how did we miss that?). Using his new shout, our character slowed the fiend down to a crawl and peppered it with fireballs until it crumbled.
With the priest defeated, our character ventured out to the surface through a conveniently placed exit. Lo and behold, the same dragon from earlier was waiting for us right outside, ready to burn our character to cinders. In Skyrim, dragons act as wondering boss fights that occur randomly and require your whole arsenal to defeat. As the beast sprayed the battlefield with a cone of flames, we could hear it whispering in another language beneath the roar of the flames. Howard commented on this, likening draconic combat to a form of debate. We liked to imagine that the creature was just trying to comment on the recent heat wave in the area, which we responded to by hitting it in the face with an axe. Once the creature was killed, our character--being a dragonborn--absorbed its soul. What this does, or what it means to be a dragonborn, the developers wouldn't say.
As the demonstration came to a close, Howard opened the floor up to questions and was presented with a laundry list of topics, but he couldn't really comment. Will there be mounts in the game? Maybe. How will the guilds function? No comment. Will alchemy be a skill in the game? Yes. Well, how will it work? No comment. Howard then concluded the talk with an open invitation to new players, stating that "We assume, every time, that you haven't played our previous games." From what we've seen, it doesn't look like Bethesda Softworks is trying reinvent everything we know about The Elder Scrolls with this game. Instead, it has listened to the comments and complaints from the community and has crafted a sequel to be more of what fans want. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim will be released on the PC, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3 on November 11.