Bethesda showed us The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim in Utah last week. If you haven't already, put this on the most wanted list right now.
Bethesda's apparently odd decision to hold its pre-E3 showcase in Utah's Park City ski resort made sense when we saw it: the setting looks like Skyrim, the backdrop to what is undoubtedly the biggest RPG event this year. From what we saw of the game last week, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is nothing short of groundbreaking.
High up in the Utah mountains, game director Todd Howard premiered Bethesda Game Studios' latest epic to the press, with Bethesda PR boss Pete Hines describing the game as the firm's "My Little Pony" beforehand.
Howard started off by saying that Skyrim's concept was first conceived in 2006, the year Oblivion released. Its development was put on the backburner to allow focus on Fallout 3, and re-prioritized after the post-apocalyptic smash shipped in October 2008.
The game is set 200 years after Oblivion, with civil war raging among the Nords following the assassination of Skyrim's king. Most Nords are looking for Skyrim to split from the empire.
The Nord civil war is the last of a chain of events foretold by the Elder Scrolls, which also prophesied the return of the Nordic god of destruction, Alduin, who's now taken the form of a dragon. Alduin has a group of black dragons, known as Jills.
Our demo begins just after the creation area, with Dovahkiin, otherwise known as Dragonborn, being sent to his death. How he escapes is never explained in the demo. Dovahkiin is a dragon hunter appointed by the gods to defeat Alduin and the Jills, and to protect Skyrim and Tamriel.
Guiding you throughout your travels will be Esbern, one of the last of the Blades, who died out due to a lack of heir to the emperor's throne. They were then either murdered, died gradually or just went underground.
Dovahkiin is not the first Dragonborn, according to Howard, but he is the last.
Howard says Bethesda's trying to fill the world of Skyrim, the most northern province in Tamriel and home of the Nords, with "tons and tons of detail." Again, like past Elder Scrolls and recent Fallout games, you can play in first- and third-person views, although he insists it is primarily a first-person game. That said, he says that "it'll compete with third-person games out there."
We're in a forest area: it's just stunning. We're looking at the 360 version. As we explore the forest, we encounter our first enemy, a human, and we get our first look at combat. You control your hands with the pad's triggers - for example, hold a shield in your left hand and it's LT to use it. Hold a sword in your right hand, it's RT.
You can also use a combo of magic and the sword, as well as magic in both hands. You can hold down both trigger buttons for powered magic.
We then see how how to switch spells, demoed by Howard using magic called Frostbite. Facing an enemy, Howard brings up a menu by pressing B, showing four of the game's key categories: skills, magic, map and inventory.
When you go into your items, you can view loot - like weapons, for example - you've come across during play, see information and zoom in and out. You can also set favourites for whatever items and spells you have.
Howard then shows us the skills area, which, obviously, shows how much your skills have upgraded through the game and acts as a system to picking perks as you level up.
We then see the map, which is rendered in 3D. It shows the world of Skyrim and the five cities included in the game.
Systems out of the way, we're off to a small lumber town called Riverwood. Here you can chop wood if you wish, or go down the evil route of sabotaging its lumber site. If you do so, Riverwood's local economy will be affected.
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.
As we approach the ancient Nordic temple that supposedly holds the claw, we see our first glimpse of Skyrim's big ticket: dragon fights.
Todd teases us by attacking a dragon and defending a response before heading inside the temple to find the claw. Howard made a point by saying that the game's dragon fights are real-time.
"The dragons, I promise you, are unscripted. I don't know what he's going to do, I don't know where he's going to go. They are our big boss fights," he says.
The conversation system in Skyrim is radically different from the one seen in Oblivion or Fallout 3.
We head in to the temple and Dovahkiin switches to crouch mode for stealth. Inside we see a female character, and Dovahkiin's creeping skills are shown up as rubbish.
"I know I heard someone," says the NPC as she spots him and takes him on. Big mistake: she's immediately loses. Afterwards, Howard loots a nearby chest, but insists the dungeon crawler bits won't just be based on combat.
Further into the temple we meet Arvel the Swift, who has the dragon claw. He's stuck in a web. Why? Answer: a Giant Frostbite Spider, who attacks, but is no match for Dragonborn. When we catch up with Arvel, he promises to share the dragon claw and show how it works if he's cut down. Again, big mistake, this time on DK's part: Arvel makes off with the claw, but Howard manages to catch up to him and take him down with a bow and arrow.
The Hall of Stories
Dovahkiin grabs the claw and attempts to escape the temple. Using Left Bumper for sprint, we arrive at The Hall of Stories. To access it, we have to enter the correct symbols in the right order, and the answer to the riddle is on the claw itself.
Looking through the items section and using the zooming feature, we see the symbols required to get access to the hall. The Hall of Stories contains something called the Word Wall, which is where you learn "dragon shouts" by combining "words of power," which are based on the ancient writing of the dragons. Howard learns a new shout called Slow Force.
The shouts are made of up to three words, and give skills used for defeating the dragons. The first example given by Howard is Unrelenting Force. You utter the first word by tapping the right bumper. Press it and that's two words. Hold it down and you shout the three words for Unrelenting Force, issuing it at maximum power: that's assuming you've actually learnt the words, obviously.
He then shows Slow Time. He only uses one word for the shout, however, as that's all he's learnt so far.
After we emerge from the temple, we finally get what we're waiting for: the dragon battle. After a three-minute fight, Dovahkiin wins. The combat involves fire-breathing, healing spells, much sword-swinging, magic shouting and more. It's nothing if not dramatic. As Howard goes up to the slayed foe, which bursts into flames after defeat, he presses A and Dovahkiin takes the dragon's soul.
And with that, our demo ends.
The game looks absolutely terrific. After Fallout 3 and Oblivion having been built on Gamebryo, the newly-formed Creation Engine is staggering to look at, but it's also allowing Howard and his team much needed development freedom.
"We used Gamebyro as a base renderer for a long time," Howard told VG247 in a Q&A session following the game's demo.
"The thought was that Gamebyro was actually a game engine. It's not. It's a renderer. They're very different things.
"With Oblivion and Fallout 3, we’re doing a lot of our own graphics work, just not all of it. Now we’re doing all of it."
"With Oblivion and Fallout 3, we're doing a lot of our own graphics work, just not all of it. Now we're doing all of it.
"That allows us freedom. When we want to change something, and we want a new thing, it happens. We get all of that work done: now we want a new spell effect, new spells and shouts and stuff, you can see there's a lot more visually we could do with those."
He continues: "There's a lot of middleware I like a lot - we still use Havok - but by and large, middleware wants to offer one solution for everybody. And at the end of the day, it works best for us if we have a solution that works for Bethesda.
"If we want to change something, it happens faster."
As for the PC Creation Kit, the modset Bethesda announced just after the game's reveal back in December last year, Howard says it'll hopefully launch it day and date with the game, but that "there may be some slack there."
Skyrim is shaping very nicely. The world is a step-change in quality, the story looks set to deliver, the battle system is fluid and it has dragon fights, a no-brainer plus. November 11 can't come quick enough. This is one little pony guaranteed to be wearing the winning ribbon.