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Flying high: Skyrim aims to redefine the open-world RPG

Tuesday, 14th June 2011 07:35 GMT By Keza Macdonald

The next Elder Scrolls game is everything we’d hoped for – based on the evidence of the E3 demo, anyway. Click to find out why it was one of our games of the show.

BETHESDA’S E3

Skyrim: due out November 11.

Rage: id Software’s latest, due October 7 (October 4 in the US).

Prey 2: Mass Effect meets Bioshock meets Blade Runner meets Brink. Due in 2012.

Our E3 Skyrim demo begins standing at the foot of a craggy, frosty mountain the juts up into a grey sky, disappearing into ashen clouds. This being an Elder Scrolls game, you just know you’re going to end up climbing it to see what’s at the top – even if what’s at the top, be it tomb, sanctuary, ancient monument or reclusive creature, is extremely likely to kill you.

Skyrim’s close now – it’s coming out in November, in the same window as about five other enormous games that I desperately want to play. But this tops the list. It’s a slicker, more visually interesting Elder Scrolls game, one that seems to have no shortage of memorable moments.

Combat – with sword, shield, bow and arrow, magic, mace, axe or whatever else you can find – is still a first-person affair, but the addition of finishing moves and kill-cam makes it feel a bit less sterile. You wield magic in your hands, Bioshock-style, with energy fizzing and crackling around your flexing fingers. Equipping the same spell in both hands lets you cast it with twice the power. There’s a familiar sneak mechanism, which thief-like character builds will rely upon for damage bonuses.

As in every Elder Scrolls game, you learn by doing, levelling up your skills passively. Get hit and your armour skill improves; smash things with a mace to become a master bludgeoner; each of the four magic disciplines has its own stat that improves as you practice. The level-up messages and pause screen fonts are clean, simple and modern, not unnecessarily ornate. The interface in general is efficient and clear – a huge improvement on the massive stat lists and unintelligible that have always weighed Bethesda games down.

Climb time

But anyway. Back to that mountain. After working our way through a village, taking in the sights, we end up at the bottom of the mountain path. It’s hear the we learn that Skyrim involves at least one horse, which according to the Keza MacDonald Horse Metric means that it’s basically bound to be a world-changer.

The weather changes as you ride further up the mountain thanks to Skyrim’s dynamic weather system. Snow starts falling as you climb, turning into a blizzard the further up you get. Switching out into third-person, the animation’s nowhere near as awkward as it was in Oblivion, though the character models still don’t look quite at home in their world. Facial animation during conversations is, disappointingly, still a bit wooden and wonky.

The horse walks convincingly along mountain paths, and the armoured character doesn’t noticeably skate over the ground as he walks, but it’s not the tactile, grounded movement of a Nathan Drake or a Lara Croft. Given that this is a game designed to be played in first-person, though, it’s a minor shortcoming that will hopefully be easy to forgive.

About halfway up the mountain, we come across a dungeon. I’ll spare you the details of the ensuing quest for fear of spoiling the the game, but the dungeon is stylistically very similar to many of Oblivion’s. It’s underground, dank, cold, constructed of winding torch-lit tunnels and blueish, ethereal caverns. It’s menacing, and atmospheric.

Loot porn

It’s been a long time since I’ve gotten excited about an inventory, but Skyrim revitalises that, too. Instead of a huge long list of items in a journal or electronic device – a la Oblivion, Fallout and most other developers’ huge RPGs, too – you have a clean, clear interface accessed via the Start menu, all columns of clear grey background and white text. It’s divided neatly into magic, books, weapons, armour and so forth.

Every item in the inventory comes with a fully rendered 3D image, displayed to the right of its written entry above its vital statistics – what it’s called, even who made it. Press a button and you can rotate that 3D model, examining your loot from every conceivable angle. It’s loot pornography.

Here be dragons

Out the other side of the dungeons, the snowstorm thickens as we near the mountain’s summit. The distant beating of might wings confirms what we knew was coming: a dragon. The beast is enormous, landing on the earth with a tremendous, crashing thump and breathing fire in our demonstrator’s general direction. He flees, and the scene changes – we’re back on level ground, following a herd of mammoths across a plain.

Unfortunately, it turns out that mammoths are dragon bait. The great beast returns, scooping up one of the enormous mammals in its claws before coming back to burn us to a crisp. It circles in the air, flapping those enormous wings; guards and townsmen from a nearby city join the fight to bring it down.

Here, we’re shown a hell of an impressive spell – one that darkens the skies, summoning storms and lightning to strike the lizard out of the sky. It crash-lands, shaking the earth; our demo ends as the demonstrator finally vanquishes it, absorbing its soul.

Skyrim could be the game to fulfil the full potential of the open-world fantasy RPG

Skyrim isn’t conceptually or thematically all that different from Oblivion – but mechanically and aesthetically it’s a big step forward. We couldn’t see it in the demo, but Bethesda claims a change in tone, too – closer to the darker, socio-political material of Morrowind than its successors rather bland plotting and characterisation, which stood in stark contrast to the richly well-crafted nature of the world and its mythology.

Skyrim fulfils that Elder Scrolls mythology – the return of the dragons has been written into these games since the beginning. It could also be the game to fulfil the full potential of the open-world fantasy RPG, now that Bethesda has learned its current-generation development lessons through Oblivion and Fallout 3 . It’s not the conceptual leap that Morrowind was, nor the technical innovation that Oblivion was, but it’s nonetheless the most ambitious game in this ceaselessly ambitious series.

I’m going to have to take a week off in November. I’m sure I won’t be the only one.

Skyrim releases on November 11 for PC, PS3 and 360.

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30 Comments

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  1. Johnny Cullen

    You really – and I do mean re-ahhee-ahhee-ahhee-lly – should be excited for this. This is all kinds of amazing.

    #1 3 years ago
  2. alterecho

    I didn’t need to see E3 to be excited for this game!:)

    #2 3 years ago
  3. Lutz

    No joke, I *have* booked a week off of work. I’m tempted to book more.

    #3 3 years ago
  4. Schindet Nemo

    Bethesda is great in creating beautiful landscapes and great gameplay but their main weakness is and always was the story. I hope they do better this time, Oblivion was pretty bland in that regard.
    I’ll definately skip a week of uni for this though.

    #4 3 years ago
  5. Blerk

    My number one game of the show, I think. I’m actually properly excited. For reals!

    #5 3 years ago
  6. Edo

    Actually,Prey 2 is Mass Effect meets Mirror’s Edge meets Blade Runner meets Red Dead Redemption but you we’re not too far off :).

    #6 3 years ago
  7. Blerk

    I saw nothing of Prey 2 from the show itself, but then people have been saying how great it looked in the various podcasts. I need to go and hunt some footage out.

    #7 3 years ago
  8. BraveArse

    @Blerk – excited? Are you mellowing with age? ;)

    There’s some good Prey 2 footage out there actually. From being suspicious of it ( I loved the first one ), I’ve gone to looking forward to it quite a lot.

    I shall fill Blerk’s traditional role re: skyrim, I’m actually not that excited by it yet. What I saw, didn’t look like much of a step up from F3. but I haven’t seen a huge amount yet. Will have a rummage for E3 footage.

    #8 3 years ago
  9. Blerk

    Seems that way! I love the look of Infinite’s world, it’s so lush and colourful and detailed, yet wrecked and sinister and…. awesome!

    I didn’t think I would like the original Bioshock, but I loved it. More of that but dialled up to 11? They’ve already got my money.

    #9 3 years ago
  10. Erthazus


    Loot porn

    and that is absolutely RETARDED. Because the inventory that is made of a list aka smartphone is a lazy thing to do. For consoles it is ok, because there is no Mouse to search for an items or F1, F2 and etc…

    but if that type of inventory will be in the final game on the PC, i’m sorry no matter how the game is, it’s not going to redefine the open-world RPG.

    Also, i just hear too much about Combat which won’t be on par with Dark Souls thats for sure, no puzzles means that it’s not going to trump Dark souls and Zelda.

    I don’t see any talk about dialogs and Roleplaying System. Where is it?
    They showed us only a perk system which looks very nice. I like how they combined stars and perks (but somehow this reminds me of Final Fantasy XIII linear character progression. I hope it’s not like that)

    If it’s not even close to Morrowind then sorry, it’s not going to be the best open world RPG. No way.
    Because even Morrowind is not the best open world RPG to date.

    #10 3 years ago
  11. Schindet Nemo

    @10

    The best open world RPG is and always will be Gothic 2 – at least for me. Skyrim won’t change that. Even Morrowind while great didn’t reach the Gothic level of awesomeness

    #11 3 years ago
  12. Erthazus

    @11, absolutely. It’s a fact.
    I’m not sure if someone can trump it, maybe Piranha bytes themselves only :D

    they returned the rights for making a Gothic game, so maybe after RISEN 2 :D

    #12 3 years ago
  13. Schindet Nemo

    I doubt it. Gothic wasn’t very popular outside of Germany.
    The rest of the world is very console centric and Gothic just wouldn’t work on a Xbox.

    Besides that, PB doesn’t have the manpower or the money to develop two games, let alone two franchises at once.

    #13 3 years ago
  14. Erthazus

    @13, i said about development AFTER Risen 2

    Risen 1 was on the xbox 360, so i think after the Risen 2 they will do it. they have manpower to do one game, so lets wait and see.

    also, it’s very popular outside of Germany. It’s very popular in Europe and Russia, Belarus, Baltic countires. it’s not popular in the US, because well… Better to play HALO and Call Of duty all night then…

    #14 3 years ago
  15. Fin

    @14

    Ya, probably because Halo and CoD are better games.

    #15 3 years ago
  16. Schindet Nemo

    The Risen Xbox port wasn’t very good tbh. PB are a PC developer after all.

    I fear that , should PB return to Gothic and make a pure PC RPG like they used to make, they will suffer the same fate as those Drakensang devs or Jowood. PC centric development combined with a franchise that is only popular in very few areas won’t net them enough profit to break even.

    #16 3 years ago
  17. Espers

    this will be my first time playing elder scrolls, I saw the old ones and didn’t like them but this one looks promising. so is a good start for me ?!
    I am usually a JRPG player but I saw the gameplay for this one and I really liked it. Please advise

    #17 3 years ago
  18. Bloodyghost

    @Espers, It is a good start. There is some lore behind the Elder Scrolls but since each new game is in a new area, and questionably in a new era of time, its fine to start out or just jump from game to game.

    This is a GREAT start to the franchise, seeing how Oblivion was questionable and now its really has aged badly. I say, GO FOR IT!

    #18 3 years ago
  19. Bloodyghost

    @14 Its really because Risen really didnt get a PR campaign out here in the States. I literally heard this game as one of those titles you just see releasing around with other Major Titles.

    If there is a PR for this game, they are bloody terrible and need to the US audience seeing how the US LOVES games like Demon Souls and Elder Scrolls.

    @15 I would agree with this statement. No matter which demo I tried of the game on both of the platforms it was not fun at all.

    #19 3 years ago
  20. Blerk

    That’s weird – I was just looking up through the old comments and my reply @9′s got a load of text I wrote about Bioshock Infinite in it as well as my reply to BraveArse. :-D

    /shakes browser

    I’m not too worried about how Skyrim will play, it sounds from the previews like they’ve learned a lot from their first console outing – I’m especially glad at the talk of the menus and inventory being kept in memory so that there’s no waiting whenever you pop them up. That was a real bind in Oblivion at times, even with the game installed to HDD.

    But I still really liked Oblivion despite the glitches and faults (it’s one of the few games I’ve got ALL of the achievements for, including the DLCs). Hopefully they’ve learned all the lessons they needed to learn from that game and can apply those lessons here.

    The videos all looked great!

    #20 3 years ago
  21. LOLshock94

    have they said what the 10 races are???

    #21 3 years ago
  22. Schindet Nemo

    @21

    If they haven’t changed the lore since the last TES you can assume they’ll be:

    Altmer (High Elf)
    Argonian
    Bosmer (Wood Elf)
    Breton
    Dunmer (Dark Elf)
    Imperial
    Khajiit
    Nord
    Orsimer (Orc)
    Redguard

    #22 3 years ago
  23. Lutz

    I wish they’d release full details about the characters now… I want to build my first character. :(

    #23 3 years ago
  24. LOLshock94

    argonian foreverrr

    #24 3 years ago
  25. UuBuU

    The only thing I REALLY don’t like about Skyrim so far is the combat. I hate the finishers.

    And lol… Gothic 2 the best open-world RPG? Dear oh dear.

    I would say Nehrim: At Fate’s Edge is the best. But that’s just my opinion.

    #25 3 years ago
  26. Erthazus

    “I hate the finishers.”

    I think finishers are just for a critical hit animation.

    #26 3 years ago
  27. UuBuU

    I hate them though. I like to be in full control of combat and don’t want to see the game performing fancy moves for me.

    What annoys me the most though is I always play in first-person, and Skyrim sometimes pulls you into third-person to perform a finisher move. :|

    I just hope it’s going to be optional.

    #27 3 years ago
  28. OrbitMonkey

    Loot porn? Fap Fap :D

    I like the sound of finishers too *button mash, button mash… fancy animation, so’s I think i got skillz* sweet ;)

    #28 3 years ago
  29. Schindet Nemo

    @ 25

    The best part of the Gothic series was the exploration, but only because it was rewarding. There was a sense of foreboding when entering high level areas, like the forest, in Gothic 2. Even though the danger of death lurked around every corner, it was possible to explore and still come out alive. You just had to be crafty.

    For instance, there’s that cave with the two skeleton warriors standing guard over a glowing sword stuck in a stone. Even with no chance of victory in direct combat, you could still swipe the high end weapon at a low level if you were able to pull off the perfect bait and switch and then run for your life all the way out the forest.

    The lack of reward is what kills the fun in TES. No danger, no risk, and probably minimal reward.

    NOT being able to wander anywhere is what has endeared me so well to the Gothic series. Having to slowly eke out your territory, being resigned to the beginner areas not because of fake designer-implemented impasses or invisible walls but because you aren’t sure you’re up to the task.

    That being said. I’ll give Nehrim a try.

    #29 3 years ago
  30. UuBuU

    @29 – I would agree with you there. The TES series has always lacked a sense of danger. Hopefully that’s something which will be fixed in Skyrim, with the player able to enter areas or dungeons beyond what they can handle, and gain rewards that aren’t automatically scaled to their level.

    I’ll be really disappointed if they make dragons easy to kill right from the start of the game. When i’m a low level, I want to see a dragon and think certain death unless I run and hide. Early on it should be about survival.

    #30 3 years ago