The Elder Scrolls 5 First Look Preview Part 2 -- Trouble in Riverwood, Questing, and DragonsBy Jake Gaskill - Posted Apr 19, 2011
Bethesda Game Studio recently gave us a 45-minute gameplay walkthrough of its eagerly awaited The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim at Bethesda’s annual BFG event. In part one of our preview, we introduced you to the world of Skyrim, how the new combat system works, and some of the development back story that led to the game's creation. For part two, we will dive into town economies, quests, inventory management, and, yes, dragons.
After dispatching a few sorely outmatched raiders along a stunning forest path, Todd Howard, Bethesda game director and our demo driver, takes a moment to run us through the game’s new inventory system. Pressing the B button pulls up four menu options: skills, magic, inventory, and map. What’s rather neat is that each category is mapped to a different direction.
So when you select map, which is down, your character looks down, since the ground represents the path on the map. The map itself is a fully 3D map of the world that you can fly over and zoom into and out of to your heart’s content. What’s particularly impressive about the map is that it’s just the game world with the camera zoomed out above it.
Moving right moves your head right, since that’s where your weapons and useable items are held. When you bring up your inventory, you’re able to flip and rotate each item using the thumbsticks, which, as Howard says, makes finding a new item, “joyful on a visual level and not just, ‘Oh, this is a plus one.’”
“It’s not just an item with a number. You can look at all the items. They’re all fully modeled in 3D. You can zoom in. How is this thing made? What culture is this from?” Howard demonstrates this by bringing up a highly detailed shield and turning it over in space to show off its leather bindings, etchings, and contours.
Looking left brings up magic, and here we get to see how you’re able to set favorites, “like you bookmark webpages,” Howard explains. The spells that you favorite then appear on a quick menu brought up using the D-pad. The spells have also been modeled, so you can actually see them bubbling with energy while you examine their properties.
And looking up towards the heavens lets you look at your skills, since the gods are responsible for anointing you with your powers. The skill management screen is as brilliant conceptually as it is practically. Basically, the menu is comprised of a series of constellations with each constellation made up of a certain number of stars that represent perks associated with that skill. You get to select a perk each time you level up, just like Fallout 3. Beneath the constellations are bars that show you how that skill is progressing. All of your skills influence your leveling; the higher the skill, the faster you will level up.
Continuing on our way we enter Riverwood, a logging town perched next to a ragging river that is one of the first you encounter in the game. Moving into town we overhear a conversation between two townsfolk, over which we can hear a smith pounding an anvil with a hammer. Thanks to the game’s new radiant AI system, everything you see characters doing in the world, you can do as well. So if we want to repair items, we would be able to use the smith’s workbench to do so. Same for the man chopping wood nearby. Not sure about the man using a steel hook to toss giant logs onto a sawing board.
Additionally, each town produces a particular good or number of goods, in this case lumber. Should we sabotage the lumber production, it will affect the town’s economy. The team is still toying with exactly how this will play out gameplay wise, but the goal is to have your actions play a noticable role, whatever shape that might take. Generally, though, giving townsfolk, and your character, stuff to do is also just another way of making the world feel believable and making it seem like people actually live there.
We run into a woman on the edge of town who makes a comment about a local shopkeeper who was robbed recently. A message appears telling us we now have a miscellaneous objective to talk to the shopkeeper. These types of objectives aren’t as robust as full quests, but they can lead to much more substantial quests depending on the circumstances surrounding them. This is one of the key components of the game’s radiant story system, as it will push you towards quests and locations according to your actions and progress in the game.
Talking to the shopkeeper in his cozy, fireplace lit shop gives us our first look at the new dialogue system, which no longer keeps your character locked in place while you chat, but rather lets you move around freely during conversations. It’s a much more natural system than that seen in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and Fallout 3, which put the NPC squarely in the center of the screen for the duration of the interaction.
Through our conversation, we find out that thieves stole a particularly valuable object from the shop, a golden dragon’s claw. The owner offers us some sweet coin if we retrieve it, which serves a dual purpose, since the man’s sister was threatening to go looking for the claw herself, but because he was able to pass it off on me, she can stay put. Still, the woman insists that we need a guide out of town to point us in the right direction of our objective, Bleak Falls Barrow.
As the woman leads us out of town, we get to see/hear the retooled “walk and talk” design, which will let players control how little or how much peripheral information about the world/quest/characters/etc. they want to ingest, since at any point during this little stroll out of town, the player is free to run ahead and get to the questing. However, if you want to soak up some local flavor and get some more insight into the situation you’ve found yourself in, you can take it easy and listen to the NPC’s story. Howard listens for a little bit just to drive the point home, before sprinting out of the town limits in the direction of the foreboding mountain ahead of us. Fun fact: this particular mountain is known as the Throat of the World and is the tallest mountain in Tamriel. And over the course of the game, you will eventually travel the 7,000 steps to its top. Better start stretching those calves now.
One of the most surprising “Whoa!” moments for me came as a few seconds after starting our ascent up the mountain path when a towering troll came lumbering around the bend. The sheer unexpectedness mixed with his total disinterest in us made for a joyfully surprising little moment, and I’m looking forward to experience plenty more throughout the game since, as Howard assured us, the world is filled with creatures and characters who aren’t solely out to rip you’re your head.
Continuing up the steep mountain side, Skyrim’s impressive dynamic weather systems start to kick in, as warm, sunny skies are replaced ever so gradually by snow flakes and clouds. Howard stops along the path to bring our attention to a giant rock, which is lightly dusted with snow. As he explains, that snow collecting on the rock is all procedural, meaning that instead of having to build that rock with varying degrees of snow piled on it and then swapping it out in timed intervals to simulate it being covered in snow, the rock is built once and the engine determines how much snow should be on it and where it should fall.
Out of nowhere, a Frost Troll, a massive, white-haired beast charges at us. We’re able to make short work of it thanks to our fire spell. The spell actually causes the gnarly creature to be bathed in flames, before we finish it off with a few large swipes with our broadsword. Further along the path, a tall, stone tower peaks out through the snow. We use our Detect Life spell to highlight the guards standing in front of the tower, which gives us skill points in the process. We then swap to an illusion spell, which turns enemies against each other, and hit one of the guards with it, causing him to attack a nearby enemy.
In the chaos, we switch to our longbow, which can’t be used in conjunction with spells since it’s a two-handed weapon. Thanks to a couple of perks, we’re able to zoom in to line up a better shot on the guards and hold our breathe to steady our aim. The arrows sail and arc realistically and even stick firmly into enemies wherever they hit. After a few choice shots, the guards have been disposed of, and we continue further up the mountain.
We finally reach Bleak Falls Barrow, a massive, ancient temple built by the nords. It was built to honor dragons, which is signficant since dragons have been dormant for thousands of years but have recently and unexplainably awakened. Perfectly on cue, we hear a terrifying roar overhead. We look up, and get our first glimpse of the fire-breathing death bringer circling above. As we move closer to the temple, the dragon swoops in and crashes onto the stairs in front of us with tremendous force and with a startlingly fluidity that makes the beast the most convincing dragon I think I've ever seen in a game.
The beast spits fire at us in a fierce stream, but there’s something slightly strange about the fire breathing, primarily that the dragon uses actual words to generate the fire, a factor that plays in heavily to Skyrim’s overall story, since your character will, over the course of the game, come to learn various “dragon shouts,” which are words and phrases that can be used to generate powerful attacks of varying degrees depending on how long you charge the attack, i.e. how many words of the phrase you use. If you use the whole phrase, you’ll have to wait longer for it to recharge, which introduces a nice bit of strategy to the whole system. But more on that in a little bit.
In the interest of keeping the demo moving, Howard sprints for the temple’s door, avoiding a full out battle with the dragon towering over us, and bringing part two of our first look at Skyrim to a dramatic close. Check back tomorrow for part three to see what bounties, foes, and challenges await us in our first dungeon crawl. We’ll also take a deeper look at dragon shouts, radiant questing, and dragon battles. Glorious, glorious dragon battles.