Elder Scrolls V Skyrim: Epic demo makes our brains melt
8th Jun 2011 | 09:55
In a word: Wow. Before E3 started you voted The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim your most anticipated game of the show. Having seen the very first demo after the doors opened, we can now confirm that the boys and girls at Bethesda's have not let you down.
It's an incredible game - beautiful and vast, yet significantly more accessible than Oblivion - and if it doesn't win a ton of awards we'll eat our own horse armour. Here's everything you need to know...
It could have been a PS4 game
The demo kicks off with game director Todd Howard revealing that Bethesda had kicked around the idea of waiting for PS4 and Xbox 720 to do Skyrim. "When we started we looked at possibly going to the next-gen consoles whenever they might come," he explains. "But coming off the back of Fallout III we knew that we had a really long list of things that we knew we could do on the current generation."
It looks utterly astonishing
The first thing we're shown is one of those signature Bethesda moments in which the hero (they aren't talking character generation specifics yet) steps out into the light and surveys an incredible open-world panorama. Skyrim is the northernmost province of Tamriel, with a chilly Nordic flavour to it. "Our goal is to create the biggest, craziest fantasy world that we could imagine," says Howard. "And we're all about the little details, from plants with full shadows to big macro detail like a mountain in the distance you can walk up to and climb."
Which later on is exactly what we do, and as the snow starts to fall, Howard explains how the weather changes are entirely dynamic. Everywhere you look there's fine detail, like the glowing corona of light on the tip of a mage's staff. And you really can see for miles. For that you can thank the new graphics engine, which like all of the gameplay, has been completely rewritten since Fallout III.
"I think when a lot of people go into engine development they try to figure out how to not draw things," says Howard, "whereas we go in assuming we're going to draw everything." It's also the richest, most colourful world the team has created yet. "Coming off the back of Fallout III all our artists were excited to be able to use the green channel again," jokes Howard.
It's all about how you use your hands
The fundamental decision to make at any time during Skyrim is what to stick in your hands. In this Xbox 360 demo the right stick controls whatever you've placed in your right hand - which could be a sword, a shield, a spell, a staff etc - while the left hand does likewise. Put the same spell in both hands and you double its power. Or you could wade in with a fancy Elven glass sword in one fist and a meaty dwarven axe in the other.
And of course you can keep switching your selection to suit the task at hand. So at one point we saw the hero using charged-up fireballs to torch a vile-looking Frostbite Spider, before using its venom to poison his blade and then brutally knifing the muppet NPC who tried to make off with the quest treasure. The range of spells is predictably impressive too.
During the section set in Bleakfalls Barrow we come up against a bunch of coffin dodgers. They get dealt with by casting Circle Of Protection in one hand (the zombies like that about as much as cats being tossed into the bath) and Chain Lightning, which does exactly what it says on the magical tin.
Other intriguing spells included Clairvoyance, which draws a ghostly line to whatever your objective is (much like the magic path-finding laser in Dead Space), and Frenzy, which turns enemies against each other. In one instance this resulted in an enraged orc throwing his pal out of the window, courtesy of the Havok Behavior physics engine. "I swear I've never seen that!" shouts Howard. "Awesome."
Thankfully, not everything in the game attacks on sight. Out in the grassy tundra we approach a lolloping giant who's wandering about with some woolly mammoths. And, uh, then we attack them with a fireball. The mammoth takes badly to being lit on fire, and cuts up rough with its tusks. With the giant also piling in using his tree trunk club, things started to look properly risky until, from nowhere, a dragon flew down and gobbled up the big lad like an oversized Pepperami.
It's got massive dragons
The return of these scaly mentalists to the world of Tamriel forms a key part of the main story in Skyrim, and also provides your most lethal opponents. "Dragons are like our big boss fights," explains Howard, as the guy controlling the demo desperately tries to use lightning to bring down the oversized blowtorch circling that's overhead.
"They are not scripted, so often when I'm playing it I don't know what they're going to do. We spent a lot of time on them in the last three years. Dragons are something we always wanted to see in the game, and we let them go wherever they want in the world like any other creature. Usually you're going to spend a lot of resources [taking one down]." And so it proves. Having defeated one of them, another, even bigger, beast arrives. It's a Frost Dragon, apparently, and it seems even more pissed off, toasting some nearby idiots who are firing arrows at it and swooping down to earth-shaking effect.
As brilliant as the dragons look, the only slightly bum note struck in the whole demo is that after the initial excitement the actual fight seemed pretty repetitive. Hopefully that's just a balance thing though, because killing dragons is a key gameplay element. As their bodies burn, the hero sucks up their souls - using the power to unlock higher level dragon shouts.
These are essentially super moves with varying effects. So for instance the Storm Call shout blackens the skies and unleashes lightning on all enemies in the vicinity, while the Whirlwind Spirit shout is essentially a beardy version of Bullet Time. You'll be able to learn new shouts by discovering a Word Of Power written on a dungeon wall. Which at least makes a change from finding 'Tracy is a slag.'
It's absolutely bloody massive (and it's got horses)
Lead producer Craig Lafferty told us after the demo that you can expect to sink about 30 hours of gameplay into completing the main quest, but beyond that there's somewhere between 200 and 300 hours of additional content to experience, including 150 dungeons. REPEAT: 150 DUNGEONS. That sound you hear? Every other publisher crying because a lot of folk won't need to buy another game for a long time once they're balls deep into Skyrim.
Here's a comparison for you: Whereas Oblivion only used 14 actors, Skyrim features 70 rent-a-gobs, and they've spouted more than 47,000 lines of dialogue. Howard also describes the five major cities in the game as "hand-crafted", in the sense that they're packed with incidental detail and citizens going about their business in a more believable way. The only one we glimpsed was Whiterun, which was in the distance during the big dragon ruck.
"It's the home of the Companions," says Howard, "which is our fighters guild for warriors. We have three major factions - the Companions, the College of Winterhold for mages, and the Thieves Guild, for, uh, shoemakers... No, thieves." Luckily, you'll be able to saddle up a nag to get around, because just in case anyone is still in any doubt over how blasphemously big Skyrim is, the camera pulls out to reveal the vast world below. The Americans we're sitting with all go batshit mental whooping and hollering. It's hard to disagree.
It's even got menus which aren't a ball ache to use
In the same way the combat has been streamlined to make it as accessible as possible (without sacrificing any depth), so the interface has also been prettied up. "We've tried to move away from classic, spreadsheety, looking at numbers," says Howard. The result is thousands of perfectly-rendered 3D objects which you can rotate, Resident Evil-style, partly because it looks nice, but also for practical purposes. Example: the reward for completing the Bleakfalls Barrow quest is a golden claw.
Examine it carefully and you'll (hopefully) notice the claw features the same symbols found on a previously locked door elsewhere. Because it's actually a key. And if anything, the skill tree used to upgrade your abilities is even easier on the eye. When acquiring new abilities the hero looks up to the sky at the heavens, moving from one skill to the next by drawing lines between stars to form constellations. It's a bit like Final Fantasy XIII's Crystarium, although Lafferty told us that Apple's user interfaces have been a bigger influence.
It's probably going to be game of the year
Because other than Uncharted 3, it's hard to see anything stopping Skyrim right now. Bethesda properly blew us away with their demo, and to be honest it's made a lot of stuff we've seen afterwards seem pretty pale in comparison. Skyrim looks as exciting as being dropped straight into the swords and sex world of HBO's Game Of Thrones. Only without the sex. But nevermind, it's got magic instead. In fact we'll say this: Skyrim is magic full stop.