Guests waiting to enter the Skyrim presentation were herded into a room within the Bethesda booth and challenged by a representative to make sense of the wall with dragon scrawl all over it, the same one gracing a GameInformer cover which has already been translated from Dragontongue to the decidedly more intelligible:
by his honor is sworn
to keep evil forever at bay,
and the fiercest foes rout
when they hear triumph's shout,
Dragonborn for your blessing we pray.
And the Scrolls have foretold
of black wings in the cold
that when brothers wage war are unfurled,
Alduin bane of kings,
ancient shadow unbound,
with a hunger to swallow the world.
Dark stuff, eh? Well Matt Carofano, Art Director, was on hand to cheer our souls with some great gameplay footage and the brief exploration of a village, dungeon and dragon(s) battle.
Built on their new proprietary engine, Skyrim features new renders and new scripting language. Even so, Elder Scrolls fans will immediately get that homey feeling in this strangely familiar world - and, as we expect and demand, if you can see a mountain in the distance, you will be able to climb that mountain. The demonstration took us to the town of Riverwood, where passing the Blacksmith we saw that the player can make use of both his grinding wheel and forge. Molyneux's notions about toiling away in game as well as real life are catching on, because at the nearby lumber mill players have the option to work for cash. If you're a bit more enterprising than just chopping lumber, the game has an economy and sabotaging the mill will purportedly affect prices in game - imagine the possibilities if you buy futures in sawn lumber!
Inns like those in Riverwood are a good spot to pick up info, wares and of course, quests! The nonlinearity of some of the questing may have to be proven to the skeptics, but the location of quests and even plot points will supposedly alter based on player choices and encounters. This means that Skyrim will locate a quest in an unexplored area instead of a previously traversed dungeon.
If the Oblivion interface drove you to distraction, I understand, but more importantly Bethesda understands. The menu is handled extremely well with a four point compass approach that has Skills, Items, Magic and Map in the NESW positions, respectively (you can even set options as favorites for quicker navigation). The Skills are arranged in groups like constellations, pulling up items allows you to inspect them in 3D, and books can be turned page by page - and that would be each of the 300 books in the game. In addition to the Map and with a serious touch of awesome, the in-game camera can pull up and back to show the surrounding world, with locations labeled. It's all about perspective, and Bethesda again gives players the choice between first and third person. Feels like a confession, but I play Elder Scrolls in third person. This may be a minority decision but I find it really helpful in exploration and how I approach the world, and I'm grateful that Bethesda continues to include this option - even if it's a bit unpopular.
The character played was that same horned hat wearing guy, and the character customization was not shown in the demonstration, but you are going to be able to pick your appearance and your race, then develop your character as you play. The idea is that race is the primary decision and carries with it different skills and spells, and encountering Guardian Stones offers additional opportunities to develop your character. Oblivion tried this approach in a more rudimentary way, and it's gratifying to see that same idea more fully realized in Skyrim.
Combat permutations are experimentation-friendly: you can can wield weapon and shield, weapon and weapon, weapon and magic, or magic and magic, with different spells assigned to each hand if you want. A staff can be equipped, axes can be perked to do bleed damage over time, poisons can be applied and casting with the same spell in both hands and at the same time grants more spell power.
The first combat encounter was with a couple of wolves that had the misfortune of dying a little funny, more or less looking as though rigor mortis set in abruptly and the death blow left them quite literally dead on their feet. As that little quirk might imply the graphics look like they need polish, however the art itself is very good and there were environmental details to delight, from the flora to some fish jumping in the water, and as we progressed further up the mountain to a more wintry clime the fully dynamic weather system got to strut its stuff.
For transportation alternatives, horses as mounts were on display in the demonstration. The horse model taken for a test drive was a big, hefty, draft style breed that to my equestrian eyes seems to be modeled after the Belgian. This is a truly great horse model, not only a break from the stereotypical generic horse, but one that is well-suited to the environment being shown in the game - this particular equine is perfect for a town that deals in lumber and is nestled in the mountains.
With over 150 dungeons, it's hard to feel spoilered seeing just one in the demonstration. On our way we used magic to detect life (two human enemies behind a tower) and then cast Frenzy, which set the poor saps on each other. Maybe it's a bit dark, but I enjoy this sort of opportunity - set the stage, sit back and watch the destruction! Sure, it's a teensy bit passive but it has the makings of con-artistry to me. Encountering a thief gave the opportunity to show off more spell work, with a Frostbite spell that deals damage as well as freezing the victim. The Frost Rune spell, on the other hand, acts as a magical trap: you toss one on the ground, then watch as a rat crosses it and gets frosted. Hot on the Frost Rune's heels came the discovery of a spell tome that taught fireball, which charges over time and was effective against a big yeti-looking Frost Troll - and should all this exploring, fighting and magical mayhem get you turned around, the clairvoyant spell points to the nearest objective.
Next we were given an introduction to Shout Magic, which can be learned from the masters and gives us some pretty fancy powers. The Word Wall, written in dragon language, has words of power that teach you Shouts, comprised of three words with each word making the Shout more powerful. Shouts make the magic at your disposal even more varied, though they did have the photographer and I practicing some rather Xena-like war cries to see if we could call down Chain Lightning (no luck so far). Yes, shouting garbled stuff is (quite literally) pretty silly sounding, but I'm willing to endure a little silly for the ability to breathe fire and summon a giant storm. Not all Shouts are for combat, though, and the Whirlwind Shout was cried to get past swinging axes.
With some non-combative Shout Magic, it follows that not every creature requires combat. On our way out of the ruins we went for a stroll through a group of mastodon looking things that turned out to be Mammoths accompanied by Giants. Just because you don't have to fight them doesn't mean you can't, and after some undeserved provocation and the beginnings of a brawl...a dragon swoops in and snatches a Giant right off the ground! Dragons are not scripted, are very unpredictable, and have become a boss feature in the game. Suffice it to say, the dragons do not mess around: they fly, they flank you, they breathe fire. With foes so formidable, it's no small wonder we make a hasty trot over to a nearby castle to see if anybody is home - and hopefully armed to the teeth. With one dragon weakened yet another dragon arrives, one that was more handily defeated after absorbing the soul of the first dragon to unlock a Shout. Yes, dragon soul absorption is a critical activity, yum yum!
Mmm, dragons! Did you know Skyrim has unlimited dragons? On one hand, this may be frightful in the extreme to my fellow completionist – on the other, unlimited dragons! It’s almost like they have a dragon giving its scaly middle finger to games with “Dragon” in their name that have fewer dragons than unlimited. Skyrim is really driving home what RPGs are all about, like fighting a bazillion dragons, developing a character across hours (and hours) of gameplay, reading more books in-game than we will over the course of our real lives, and climbing every single peak on that horizon line - just because we can. So much of what was shown of Skyrim was precisely that: "just because we can" - and we're so glad that you did.
We'll be Shouting on 11-11-11.