The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Previews

The embargo floodgates have been thrown wide open on the latest press round for The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, so we have quite a few new hands-on previews to add to the previous mix.

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.

Much of the interface has been redesigned for Skyrim to feel more interactive. All items, including weapons, shields, plot items, and plants can be zoomed in on and inspected within the inventory screen. This can be taken advantage of for superficial reasons to marvel at the level of detail on each piece of armor, but also for practical reasons like opening and reading the various books you'll find in Skyrim or inspecting plot items adventure game-style to reveal information useful in solving dungeon puzzles. Meanwhile, the skill readout isn't a list but a bright, polychromatic display of star constellations, where each star serves as an unlock node for perks. The overwold map has been given an upgrade too, as it's a three-dimensional representation of Skyrim presented in a way that's similar to strategy games like Civilization V and Total War: Shogun 2.

Amidst dragon fights it seems like it won't be too difficult to get lost in the world and simply enjoy the sights. Compared to Oblivion, Skyrim is a vast improvement on Xbox 360, which is the only version that's been shown off so far by Bethesda. You can see the detail of the snowpack on mountain ranges far off in the distance as you run along dirt paths flanked by craggy outcroppings of rock and flowing rivers. In a way this is how Skyrim encourages exploration, by presenting these sweeping vistas you know have to be honeycombed with dungeons and treasure chests.

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.)

Gamereactor UK:
With the first steps Todd Howard takes it strikes me just how stunningly beautiful Skyrim looks. It's a massive step up from Oblivion both when it comes to animation work and the level of detail. He tells us of the immense work that goes into a game like this. Every shrub is given attention, and as we raise over heads up to gaze at the horizon we see massive mountains. Nothing worth writing about if this was just another game, but this is Elder Scrolls, and what looks like a background is actually somewhere you can visit.

One of the reasons why The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim looks this much better than its predecessor is due to the fact that Bethesda still hadn't gotten the final specifications of Xbox 360 just four months before they submitted the game to certification. It was left to the last minute to optimise the game for the hardware, and five years later and the team is familiar with all the nooks and crannies of the current set of hardware and it shows.

So, no digging around in menus to swap gear, no restrictions like (you can only have one spell and one weapon equipped), or (you can't cast spells when holding a shield). You can do whatever you want. A healing spell on the right and sword on the left? Fine. A shield on the left and fire spell on the right? That works too. And dual-wielding is welcome. You want two swords? Have two swords. Want the same spell on both hands? Go for it. In fact, if you set them both off at once, you'll get a larger-than-double combined effect. You can even carry a shield in both hands, although that's going to lead to a very long battle with you not doing much damage.

You would be building up your blocking (and possibly shield bashing) skill, though. Whatever you do, you get better at. So, cast a lot of spells and you'll level that skill up. Swing your mace or sharpshoot with your bow and you'll get better at that. It's simple. Also, each of your 18 skill classes (Blade, Restoration, Conjuration, Enchantment, etc) has its own little evolution tree, so you'll get to choose new techniques as you master the existing ones. Everything you do feeds into your overall experience level and you get perks unique skills that will be familiar to Fallout fans as you claim more and more levels in that arena. Finally, there are only three stats now: health, magicka, and stamina. See what we mean when we say the character development and combat are streamlined, but more flexible?

A mischievous NPC in the town sends us on a quest to see a character called Lucan. He's just had a break-in at his shop. It's here we're introduced to the game's new conversation system, which is radically different from the one seen in Oblivion, Fallout 3 or New Vegas.

Instead of appearing in the box at the bottom, text appears slap in the middle of the screen, along with your choice of answers. You're also able to look around the environment while you're talking to characters, with the text sticking in view no matter where you point the camera. Lucan asks us to go to Bleak Falls Harrow to find a golden dragon claw stolen during the robbery. Lucan's sister then shows the way out of town.
Built on Bethesda Game Studios' (Creative Engine,) Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim tells the story of Dovahkiin, one of the blessed Dragonborn who will be called upon to defeat the almighty dragon, Alduin AKA World Eater. That's all you really need to know for now in all honesty. In short: new engine, dragons galore, pretty looking game... Oh, and we saw it on the 360, not the PC. Stress, not the PC.

The demo that Bethesda brought along to its BFG Showcase in Utah last week picked up with our fearless protagonist stood at the top of a rather large hill, overlooking the vast mountain ranges of the region. Surrounded by towering pine trees, quivering ferns and bright blue Harvest Blue mountain flowers, our hero steps down the rocky path on his way to somewhere we're not privy to.

Continuing on his mountain stroll, Dovahkiin finally ran into an ugly baddie that he dispatched easily enough with his sword and shield. After the enemy's health was hacked away, we were surprised when Dovahkiin grabbed the creature's shoulder and ran his sword into its soft belly. Later, I saw another death animation, in which the player slammed his axe into the top of a goblin's skull, and we can be sure there are going to be dozens more of these satisfying and stylish finishing touches.

In a brilliant move, the player's primary battle actions are mapped to the right and left triggers of the gamepad, each controlling one of Dovahkiin's hands. This is reminiscent of BioShock, as one hand can be used for magic while the other wields a weapon -- but the dual-wielding combinations can get more strategic. You can swap out your weapon for a shield to create a more defense-oriented caster, or supercharge your magic attack, say, by equipping fire in both hands to toast the yeti-like ice creature that wants to make a meal of you.

The other side of having no class is the revised skill system. In Oblivion, you had eight attributes and 21 skills -- now Skyrim has three attributes and 18 skills. Before you accuse Howard and his team of babying the game, he points out, "We stripped the attributes to the core health, magicka, and stamina. Before you tell me, 'you took away Intelligence!' I would say, 'but why are you raising Intelligence? Probably to raise your magicka, right?' It was just a trickle-down effect. So now, instead of raising attributes to raise other attributes, you focus purely on the core three you were raising anyway." Additionally, grind-heavy skills such as Acrobatics and Athletics were the ones that were taken out (so no more spamming the jump or sprint keys).

In addition to developing the skills, the player can also add perks to specific skills or weapons. Howard points out example Perks such as the ability to zoom in or slow-time/hold breath when using a bow, or having axes inflict bleeding damage, or having maces ignore body armor. Perks have distinct requirements (most of the time, simply possessing the previous Perk in the tree isn't sufficient), which Howard hopes will motivate players to explore and try out new tactics in order to snag specific Perks. Between Perks, skills, and Shouts (where the player learns words of power, and strings them together into sentences that result in things like, "Unrelenting Force" or "Slow Time" effects).

Giant Bomb:
There are a lot of new aspects to the combat too. One of them is the shout, which is similar to a magic spell but works on a cooldown timer instead of mana. Regardless of which of the 10 races you pick, the story considers your character a "dragonborne," meaning you, uh, have the spirit of a dragon in you or something. What that means in practical terms is that you can read the ancient, forgotten language of the dragons, and you'll discover dragon words of power in various places throughout the game. You can put specific words together to form really powerful magical effects like a massive force push or a brief time slowdown, and you'll be able to stack subsequent related words together into more powerful shouts.

Plenty of the improvements made to Fallout 3 will make their way into Skyrim, of course. I bet you want to know about level scaling, right? Relax: it's like Fallout 3's, not like Oblivion's. That means enemies won't constantly level up with you throughout the game; instead, they'll operate at a fixed level based on when you encounter them on your own leveling progression. There's now no level cap, though Howard speculates that most people will max out around level 50, and the overall leveling speed has been increased to accommodate your progress through these levels.

MTV Multiplayer:
Another big change in "Skyrim" is the trimming down of the number of primary attributes. In "Oblivion," there were eight attributes: Strength, Endurance, Speed, Agility, Personality, Intelligence, Willpower, Luck). In "Skyrim," there are just three: Health, Magika, Stamina.

When you level up, instead of selecting one of those eight attributes to boost, you're just picking which of those three main attributes to boost.

It would be far too easy to get bogged down in a slavering, endless list of features and improvements for what's hoping to be the ultimate fantasy game fantasy, so let's focus instead on the killing. 'Dual-wielding' is a phrase that conjures up images of sweaty men getting far too excited about pretend guns, but in Skyrim's case it's much more about strategic complexity.

Specifically, it means being able to equip a weapon in one hand and cast spells from another, or better still lob different magic from each hand. Putting the same spell in each hand, meanwhile, offers the option of a mega-spell - double Chain Lighting, for instance, can blast a pack of Draugr (magic zombie Vikings, more or less) aloft and crunch them into a wall a few metres behind them. Meanwhile, another fight with a Frost Troll, an intimidating ape-like creature, sees his grey-white fur set alight with a flame spell, while the player character simultaneously hacks away with a blade. It's a dynamic, murderous fight; not a strange little puppet dance.

The interface itself is clean and uncluttered. For your items and spells, it simply brings up a cascading menu, separated by item types. You'll not only be able to see items and spell names, but attributes as well. Even better, everything you collect is fully modeled in 3D -- from an axe to the flower Howard snatched from the field -- meaning you can closely examine everything you pick up from the game world. Just by looking at it you can see how it's made, and once you get to know the world better, even discern which culture it originates from.

You'll be able to set favorites, too, like bookmarks for your items. By doing this, you'll be able to quickly and easily access the items in real time with a simple press of the D-pad.

Dragons are serious business in Skyrim. They are among the most powerful beings in Tamriel, and fights against them should rank among the most epic in the game. (Dragons and I promise you, they are unscripted in this demo. I don't know what he is going to do, I don't know where they are going to go are our big boss fights,) Howard says. (You have to use a lot of resources to win, and sometimes running away is the best option.) Dragons can fly, swoop at you from the air, and breathe fire laced with dragontalk.)

(Combat is debate to dragons,) Howard deadpans. Skyrim also doesn't have a finite number of dragons, and some can appear as random encounters in the Radiant Story System, so keep a watch on the skies as you explore Skyrim.

The Escapist:
You might, for instance, intentionally drop a sword while sorting through your inventory. The game tracks that item and, if an NPC comes along, he may decide to pick up that sword. If he knows it's yours, he's got a few options. If he likes you, he may track you down and try to return the sword. If he doesn't like you, he may still try to track you down and return it, but he's likely to be returning it to your face. The game might also notice that you haven't seen a dragon in a while and are in a place where that might make sense. Next thing you know, there's a dragon, appropriate for your level, circling overhead.

In our particular case, the radiant storytelling system kicks in and drops a few hints about a recent robbery at a Riverwood shop. Throughout the conversations with the residents of the town and the shopkeeper, the player is still free to move and act. I hadn't noticed how annoying it was to jump in and out of static conversation scenes until I saw Todd carry on a conversation with the shopkeeper while also wandering around and looking at the items for sale in the store. It gets even better as the shopkeeper's sister offers to guide Todd to the path the robbers might have taken. As Todd walks alongside her, she pours out most of the "tell me more" information that keeps the action from progressing in games like Mass Effect.

And VideoGamer:
Leave the shop and Lucan's sister, Camilla, walks and talks with you as you progress up the mountain. These sections, similar to those used in games like Red Dead Redemption or GTA 4, streamline the experience to allow players interested in the incidental details to experience them, while those who just fancy a bit of heroic questing can freely barrel up the mountain and ignore it entirely.

On the way up you run into trolls and bandits, and Howard dispatches these monsters by showing off the game's refined dual-wielding system. Spells can be equipped alongside weapons, or just in each hand for double the effect, and you can also choose to swing a couple of one-handed weapons in place of a traditional shield.