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E3 2011 first look: Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

It is hard to ignore Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim at this year’s E3. Partly because there is a giant poster featuring the game that spans the face of a massive building right outside the convention center. But even if Bethesda weren’t paying a millionaire’s ransom in advertising, the game would still be omnipresent, and on the minds of many a’ gamer. And if it isn’t, it should be.

In a closed session, Bethesda previewed roughly 30 minutes of the actual gameplay, and explained a few of the things that made Skyrim unique.  The setting will be familiar to fans of the series, but the game is not a sequel to Oblivion, but rather another story set in the world of Tamriel. So people that haven’t played the previous games in the series won’t be at too much of a disadvantage.

But the details of the story are almost secondary to the gameplay. Skyrim maintains the open world setting of the previous games, but it uses the Creation Engine, which allows for a totally new user interface. Magic and weapons are both available, and the variety of options if nearly overwhelming as you dual wield. Each hand controls either a spell or a weapon, and if both hands have the same spell, they can combine to make a more powerful magic, while certain mixtures of spells have special effects.

The detail is also a major feature of Skyrim, and everything from the plants to the fish swimming in the stream are fully rendered. No corners have been cut, and everything you see is explorable. If there is a forbidding mountain in the distance, you can scale it and reach the peak—although it might take a long time to reach the summit.

Dungeons and cities are littered through the 16 miles of ground you can cover. Five major cities dominate the landscape, while 150 dungeons await.

In the demo we saw, there was a great deal of combat. It looks similar to Oblivion, but is much deeper and more robust. But in the simplest of terms, the combat in either first or third person (you choose) looks like it did in the previous game—right up until the first dragon attacked. Dragons have been absent from the Elder Scrolls series, but they return in a big way for Skyrim. Your character is the last of the dragonborn, so with each dragon slain, you grow more powerful. Easier said than done.

The dragons in Skyrim move and act in a totally random way. Sometimes they will fly over you, other times they will attack. You can lure them into a fight, but their attack pattern also varies. In many ways they resemble the Big Daddies from BioShock.

In the example we saw, the developer was showing us a group of giants herding wooly mammoths. He explained that your reputation was an important factor, and if you work towards a good reputation, creatures like the giants will leave you be, while a bad rep will make them fearful and move to attack. In the clip, the character’s rep was good, but he attacked the giants anyway for fun, becasue why not. After the battle raged a minute or so, the mammoths suddenly turned and ran, then so did the giants—or at least they tried until a dragon swooped down and carried one off before coming after the main character. He then made his way to a stone keep where others came to help with the fight.

Things were going well, and the dozens of possible magics were being used to good effect. Then another dragon surprised everyone, including the developer, and the fight got much more frantic. Some of the higher level magics were used, including one that turned the sky to clouds and summoned lightning, which crippled the beast, and allowed the player to move in to swallow the dragon’s soul and gain its power..

As with all the Elder Scrolls game, leveling is huge, and you earn points for everything you do. If you use a bow and arrow, you earn archery points, dual wielding weapons makes you improve in that skill class, and you can also join particular guilds, who will assign you missions. So the motivation to risk it and fight a dragon is always there.

Skyrim won’t be due out until November, which may be a good thing, because it will give families plenty of time to say good bye to their loved ones before they lose themselves for weeks or months in the incredible world of Elder Scrolls: Skyrim.