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Skyrim Is Looking Like The Elder Scrolls, Evolved

Bethesda is bringing years of experience with Fallout and a host of improved tech and interface design to its next sprawling fantasy epic.

Just to state it upfront, Skyrim still looks very much like the Elder Scrolls games you know and love. Bethesda has been talking all kinds of game lately about working with a new engine and improving its dialogue system and stuff like that--and yes, the graphics and dialogue look noticeably better, among many other obvious improvements--but the fundamental look, sound, and feel of Skyrim will be unmistakably familiar to anyone who spent a few (or a few hundred) hours traipsing around the world of Oblivion.

I got to see an hour-long demo of Skyrim last week, driven by Elder Scrolls big cheese Todd Howard. An hour is a long time to look at any game, but an hour with one this dense with atmosphere and activity yielded so much information I barely know where to begin. Let's just itemize the important parts and go from there, shall we?

The World 

Skyrim takes place in a rugged northern environment skewered by towering, craggy peaks covered with snow. Given that setting, it's not surprising that most of the people you encounter look sort of like vikings, and the architecture and surroundings have a distinctly Nordic feel to them. The province of Skyrim is about the same size as Oblivion's Cyrodiil, but Howard mentioned that the presence of so many impassable mountains will direct and govern your travels in a way that Oblivion's gentler terrain did not. Skyrim is broken up into nine "holds" (similar to counties), five of which contain larger cities. It's a nice touch that you can pull the camera out to a map view--which is actually just a sky-high perspective on the existing world geometry--to get a quick and evocative sense of how Skyrim is laid out and just how big everything is.

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== TEASER ==The other four holds will feature much smaller and more rural settlements, one of which was the remote logging town near the demo's starting point. Howard talked about the evolution of the game's ambient scripting system (called Radiant AI) that governs the way NPCs go about their business, interact with you, interface with quests, and so on. You could see various characters going about their daily labor, and I got the sense you'd be able to affect things like the town's overall economy by, for instance, interfering with (read: killing) some of the key townspeople supporting the logging effort.

But Bethesda is also working to make the consequences of your world interactions more dynamic and fluid. For all the semblance of life in its residents, Oblivion still had a stilted feel to it, like all of the characters were locked into walking along rigid, invisible tracks. By contrast, many of Skyrim's key characters, such as quest-givers, will act more dynamic and in some cases will even be somewhat replaceable. The sample quest Howard showed us involved a shopkeeper who wanted the player to pursue a group of thieves into the mountains and retrieve a precious artifact they'd stolen from the shop. 

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In our demo, the shopkeeper's sister accompanied us to the edge of town to point us in the right direction after Howard accepted the quest. In the past, if that shopkeeper had somehow been killed, you might have been simply unable to pick up that quest at all, but Howard pointed out that in Skyrim, other characters will be able to assume important quest-related roles when necessary. In this specific case, the shopkeeper's sister would be able to dispense that quest to you instead, and there's even some replacement dialogue being recorded in cases like this to ensure a seamless transition when quest duties transfer from one character to another.

The Questing 

Bethesda appears to be making a big effort to diversify the content and activities involved in Skyrim's quests. Before he even got to his destination, Howard's trek up the mountain involved squaring off against several ice trolls, hiding off the mountain path from a gigantic ice giant that was passing through, and using a befuddle spell to make two guards turn on and kill each other.

That was all before Howard breached the ancient catacombs where the thieves were hiding out and made his way through all manner of dank tunnels and musty tombs, fighting a bunch of zombie viking warriors, evading various booby traps, and squaring off against one hideously massive spider. The design of this dungeon was a little more intricate than most of the generic caves and ruins that you saw in Oblivion, though, with a couple of specific symbol-matching puzzles scattered here and there to test your noggin in addition to your sword.

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Howard sort of copped to the generic feel of many of Oblivion's dungeons during the demo, and mentioned that while the lesser points of interest in Skyrim will still be built out of toolkits containing generic artwork, the team has effectively quadrupled the size of its level design staff in order to give each of those locations a more intelligently handcrafted feel. Skyrim also keeps track of which locations you've already visited, and later on will do its best to funnel you toward places you haven't seen yet. If you were to pick up a side quest to rescue someone's daughter from a group of bandits, for example, the game will set that objective inside a cave or dungeon that you haven't explored yet, just to keep things fresh.

The Combat 

Melee combat in Skyrim looks largely unchanged from Oblivion, in that you sort of bluntly hack at your opponent when you attack, though you will get scripted execution animations from time to time depending on how the fight is going. Blocking and bashing with shields also looks pretty familiar. The spell system, frankly, looks pretty awesome. You can assign spells to either hand, of course, but then you can combine them on the fly, almost Magicka-style. At one point Howard was using a sword with a heal spell in his off hand, then quickly switched his sword hand to the same heal spell, and you could see the character visibly channel the energies from each hand into a glowing orb that resulted in a massive health boost. In another instance, he put together a fire spell with an area-of-effect shockwave to add a fire effect to the radial blast. I didn't get a sense of how many different spells will be compatible with each other, but this looks like a pretty fun system to play around with.

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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.

Fallout-style perks are here in force, so as you level you'll be able to pick style-specific bonuses such as adding a bleeding damage-over-time effect to your axe attacks (which is the only perk Howard mentioned). Attributes have been significantly condensed down to simply strength, stamina, and magic, which Howard says will still trickle down into the same character buckets they did when you were managing more than double that many.

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Oh yeah, dragons! The whole premise of the game is that dragons have returned to the world of Tamriel after a long, long absence, and despite being spiritually related to the dragons in some way, you're going to end up fighting a bunch of them. To hear Howard tell it, you should basically treat a dragon as a mega-boss that you'll want to avoid completely unless you're absolutely sure you can take it down--and even if you can, it's going to consume a lot of your resources. Based on the example in the demo, these encounters are going to be big and epic, with the dragon soaring overhead to rush you from the air, breathing fire all over the place, and so on. The dragons aren't scripted story encounters, so there isn't a finite number of them and (like everything else) they'll populate the world at random during your journeys.

The Interface 

Bethesda was showing Skyrim on the 360, so I can only speak to what the new interface is looking like on the consoles--and I can tell you that it looks highly streamlined to work on a gamepad. Pretty much every major game function--skills, magic, inventory, the map--can be accessed instantly from a pop-up radial menu that appears over the game world. You can also pop up hand-specific lists of weapons and spells to change what each hand is holding in a matter of seconds. The inventory list has been condensed and streamlined to let you scroll through more equipment more quickly than in Oblivion, and the team is emphasizing a 3D view of each item within the inventory that lets you examine all your gear in fine detail. This view will actually be necessary for gameplay reasons from time to time; that symbol-matching puzzle in the catacombs required the player to view the artifact you'd retrieved in the inventory up close to see which symbols he needed to use.

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Also, third-person! Bethesda has been including an optional third-person camera in its RPGs for a while, but in the past that view was so poorly implemented it was next to useless. Not so anymore. Now the camera movement has been properly adjusted to make it easy to see your surroundings in third-person, and the proper animation blending has been applied to your player character to make his or her movements not look terrible. Howard did assure us that Skyrim is still primarily a first-person game, but I suspect there will be a lot of people (especially on consoles) who will opt for the third-person view, especially since it's the best way to see all the snazzy gear you've been picking up.

The Tech 

For Skyrim, Bethesda has abandoned the old Gamebryo engine in favor of its own technology, though Howard was quick to point out that Gamebryo simply acted as the renderer (the part of the engine that handles processing and drawing graphics to the screen) in conjunction with all of the other game systems that the studio has built itself. In practice, the new game looks noticeably more detailed than Oblivion and Fallout 3, but it's not a generational leap or anything, at least on the 360. Bethesda didn't show the PC version of the game, but Howard noted it will use DirectX 9-level shaders, though you'll see a performance increase by running the game on a DX11 card.

Also, there is no Speedtree. Repeat: NO SPEEDTREE. Bethesda has built its own tree and foliage system. They look like pretty nice trees. Take that as you will.

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I perceived only one major flaw with Skyrim, which is that the game isn't finished and playable by me right this moment. That hour gave the impression that Bethesda is inching closer and closer to realizing the role-playing ideal they've been chasing for years now, and I'm perfectly willing to sink several dozen hours into the game to verify that impression when Skyrim is out this November.
Brad Shoemaker on Google+