The Elder Scrolls 5 First Look Preview Part 1 -- Welcome to SkyrimBy Jake Gaskill - Posted Apr 18, 2011
As The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Bethesda Game Studios' latest iteration in its critically acclaimed fantasy-RPG series, appears on the giant movie screen in front of us, one fact makes the scene all the more poignant: the spectacular, sun-drenched vista laid out before us, filled with countless trees, rolling hills, a flowing river, and towering mountain ranges in all directions has been five years in the making.
“We actually started designing this game right after [The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion] in 2006,” Bethesda game director Todd Howard explained to us during our 45-minute Skyrim demo last week at Bethesda's BFG 2011 media event in Park City, Utah. “And we knew we wanted to do something that has a very different vibe than Oblivion. We wanted something more rugged. We immediately stuck with Skyrim and dragons.”
At that point in time, though, the team was heads down on its post-apocalyptic masterpiece Fallout 3, and wouldn’t come up for non-irradiated air until after the game shipped a couple years later.
“When we finished Fallout 3,” Howard continued, “we said, ‘Okay. It’s Elder Scrolls time again. We really miss this. We’re going to dive right in. Do we wait for a new console cycle? Because with Elder Scrolls, we like to start over.’ But we felt we had a really big laundry list of things we knew we could do on the current generation of consoles. Oblivion came out, and I think we had final hardware maybe four months for that game. So it feels like your freshman year of college, you know? Your like, ‘I don’t know what’s going on yet. Okay, I made it.’ We just felt there was so much we could do with current generation.”
That’s not to say that there wasn’t plenty of work to be done to get the systems in place to create the caliber of game that players expect from this period in the current-gen lifecycle. As Howard explained:
“We wrote the entire renderer. We have full shadows and everything now. We wrote all the pathing, the AI systems, the quest systems, the dialogue, the interface, the animation system. We’re using Havok Behavior, which is one of the most advanced animations systems out there. And by the time we were done, we had rewritten all the gameplay and all the graphics in our engine, enough that we’ve now branded it, the Creation Engine, and our editor, the Creation Kit.”
For PC mod lovers out there, you’ll be pleased to know that Bethesda is shooting to release its editor, aka the Creation Kit, day and date with Skyrim’s release. But, as Howard cautioned, “There might be some slack there.”
From here we jump into our gameplay walkthrough. An oddly peaceful organ chord hums underneath the picturesque setting. We start moving along the winding forest path, taking in the scenery. There’s a crispness to the surroundings that almost makes it seem as though you can smell the pine trees and feel the chilly winds blowing down the mountainside (but that might be because our character’s outfit doesn’t include sleeves). With the rush of the river hissing in the distance, and bugs buzzing nearby, Howard, tells us simply, “So, this is Skyrim.”
The region known as Skyrim is actually the northern most province of Tamriel, the fictional world where the Elder Scrolls takes place, and is the original home of humans. You’re probably wondering what our character’s backstory is at this point, and we’re sorry to inform you that Bethesda has intentionally left the protagonist’s origins a mystery. The game starts out with you being led to your execution for reasons unknown, and it’s up to you to fill in the blanks. Are you a criminal? Too kind and generous for your own good? You decide.
Unlike Fallout 3, which included a fairly extensive character creation system, Skyrim keeps things super simple. We didn’t get to see the actual menu, but we were told generally how it will work. You pick your gender, general appearance, and that’s pretty much it. You don’t assign points to your various abilities, because all of that is determined by how you play the game. Want to increase your sword skill? Use your sword more. Want to be able to cast a stronger fire spell? Use the fire spell. The game keeps track of all of your actions, which makes the RPG experience all the more satisfying and personal, since your actions are determining your abilities rather the other way around.
As we continue along the path, Howard takes a moment to admire a nearby flower, but only partly because it’s so beautifully rendered. He uses it to demonstrate the staggering breadth and ambition of the game's engine.
“A lot of engines are optimized not to draw things,” Howard explains. “We go into this knowing, we’re going to draw all of it. So we really messed with a lot of level of detail on things, lots and lots of streaming. This is where a lot of our particular technology comes into play, so we do deal with massive changes in scale, from this plant right here and the detail on that and all of the shadows to this mountain up there, which is real. You can walk to the top of that mountain, and the weather systems will go by it…So we’re just trying to fill this world with tons and tons of detail…we want to take you to another world.”
Howard switches to third-person to not only show off his character but more importantly to show off the game’s new Havok-based character animation system, which is instantly affecting as you see the character’s arm and neck muscles pulse realistically as he strolls with a rugged sense of purpose. The improvements made to the character movements and animations aren’t just cosmetic either.
“It behaves a lot better than you’ve had before as a third-person game. It’s going to compete with third-person games out there,” says Howard.
We continue along the forest-lined mountain path, with towering, snow capped/circled mountain ranges looming imposingly in the distance. When we reach the river’s edge, as if on cue, several fish leap upstream, trying to reach a higher portion of the river. Even though at this point we have only been living in the world of Skyrim for about four minutes, it is already abundantly clear that this a world percolating with life across all spectrums, from the smallest of planst to the massive dragons that we will encounter later on in the demo.
As Howard goes on to explain, we aren’t the only ones fascinated by Skyrim’s unmissable beauty.
“It’s kind of nice for our world artists coming off of Fallout 3 when I tell them, ‘Alright, you can use the green channel again.’ Believe it or not, we get into these kinds of things. There’s a certain beauty to it that you obviously don’t get in a game like Fallout. We like the downtime. We like the moments of watching the sunset and staring at the water.”
Howard then introduces us to the first-person control layout, which will be instantly familiar to anyone who’s played BioShock, as it places a weapon in your right hand and your spells (or a shield) in your left. Where Skyrim sets itself apart from Irrational Games’ beloved Plasmid-fueled dual-wielding is that you can actually put weapons or spells in both hands if you want. So if you’re a warrior, you can hold your shield in your left hand, and the left trigger will let you bash enemies with it, and hold a sword in your right, using the right trigger to hack and slash. Or if you want a warrior mage, hold a sword and put a spell in your other hand. Or if you want to go full wizard, you can put spells in both hands, so that when you pull both triggers, you unleash a doubly powerful version of the standard spell. As Howard explains, it’s “a really nice, slick kind of, mix and match, very elegant, very simple” system driven entirely “by what you put in your hands.”
Suddenly, strong, deep violin notes pull us from our sightseeing, and focus our attention further up the path where a foolish raider has decided he’s lived a rich and full life, and is now charging at us with his sword unsheathed. Time to put our newly learned combat skills to the test. When he gets within striking distance, Howard slashes him several times with his sword, causing blood to splatter on the ground and across his blade. The raider gets in a few slashes of his own, knocking our hero back. To give ourselves some space, we bash the fool with our shield before hitting him another wicked sword strike, which puts him down for good.
“Combat plays a big role in the game,” Howard continues. “It’s a lot more visceral in the way you bash and knock guys around. We did a lot of [pre-visualization] for what a fight should look like when you have a sword and shield, and when guys are really trying to kill one another.”
Further along, another raider attacks. This time, Howard demonstrates one of his spells, Frostbite, which coats the enemy in ice, slowing them down and chipping away health in the process. This buys our character precious time to deal some deadly damage, and to pull off one of the game’s new finishing moves. In this case, our character grabs the enemy’s shoulder and pulls him in close and runs him through with his sword with a sickeningly squishy crunch. While you'll be able to trigger these finishing moves fairly regularly, depending on how the enemy is position and if you've dealt a power attack, Skyrim won’t feature anywhere near the level of violence seen in Fallout 3. Although, the team is debating about whether to include dismemberment, so there's still time.
Continuing along the path, we reach our first destination, the logging town of Riverwood. And here ends part one of our first look preview of Skyrim. Check our part two where we take a look at Skyrim’s new interface and skill system, character interaction, town economies, quest givers, and, yes, dragons.