QuakeCon 2011: Skyrim First Impressions

The man, the myth, the legend Todd Howard jumped on stage to deliver the first public demo of Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Before starting the presentation, Howard had a few words to share about the Texas heat. “Its either 110 degrees outside, or 60 degrees inside. Can’t we find some sort of middle ground?” I agree. After 34 straight days of over 100 degree weather, Texas could use some middle ground. Now if only he could cast Storm Call (one of the Dragon Shouts in the game) to give us some rain…

Howard stated how proud he was to be able to show off Skyrim at QuakeCon since he believes “Texas is the heart of video games as far as creativity.” That was met with a big cheer from the fans in the crowd. After his short speech, he sat down in a chair and pulled up a 360 controller. Boos filled the ballroom, why I don’t know, and Howard stated it was the reaction he was expecting. He said not to worry, the PC version looks “way better” than what he was showing.

As he dives into the game, the first thing we see is the expansive world, full of features and full of adventure. Howard talks about the level of detail in the game, they have micro detail for the plant life making the foliage around you feel real, as well as the macro detail for the expansive mountains and large draw distances. The lush plant life sways in the breeze and the formidable mountains tower over you as you move through the world.  Water flows naturally, even down to the formation of eddies and rapids. Hopping into the water, after the screaming fans in the audience pester him to, the water ripples and waves form, giving it a more natural feel.

Howard pulls the camera back into third person and we see the new animations for that perspective. One person in the audience has a very large nerdgasm and whispers afterward, “Oh it looks so much better,” and I tend to agree. Third person may finally be a viable way to play a Bethesda game! Combat works well in both perspectives, but first person may still be the one most gravitate towards. Either way, Fallout 3 style finishing moves are present in the world of Skyrim. These violent and exciting action pieces feel natural in the flow of combat and give a sense of satisfaction for defeating an enemy. The finishers will appear in both perspectives, one of which had the player grab an enemy, pull him closer and stab him in the chest.

You can equip a weapon or spell in either hand, making for almost limitless combinations. Dual wield axes? Sure. How about a healing spell in each hand? Yes. On top of that it’ll make the spell strong if you combine them. More intuitive than Oblivion, spells can be equipped in either hand and used by pulling the trigger associated with it, same with weapons or shields.

Dragon Shouts are a new feature to Skyrim, a unique spell that only the Dragonborn are able to use. Your character is one of the long lost Dragonborn, able to wield these breathtaking powers. From ‘Slow Time’ (which slows time), to the previously mentioned ‘Storm Call’ (which calls on a great storm that shoots lighting at enemies), these powers are some of the strongest and most fun to use, or at least see; I couldn’t actually play the game myself.

In the menu, you are able to put spells, weapons and Dragon Shouts into a “favorites” menu to quick select by scrolling with the D-pad. If you select an item while in a menu, a model of that item appears. You are able to rotate and view that item in 360 degrees of awesomeness. All of the books you pick up in the world are in 3D, just like the weapons, and are able to be read. Some items that you receive in quests may even have clues to dungeon puzzles that you can view in that mode. More nerdgasms are summoned from the audience.

But this is an RPG, and with every RPG usually comes a skill tree. Skyrim is no different. However, unlike past Elder Scrolls games you are not locked to a certain set of skills at the beginning of the game. Players can chose which skills they want to level without any other restrictions. The skill tree is laid out in a series of constellations. Each constellation represents a different skill such as jump, or one-handed weapons. Diving in deeper we find out the more you level up a skill, the more perks are offered to you. Having each perk from a skill being an individual star in that constellation shows how the menu is presented, sort of like the Crystarium System from Final Fantasy XIII. While it may seem complicated, once you actually see the menu in action it feels very natural.

The world of Skyrim isn’t just about taking quests and killing enemies; there is a job system in place. If you want, you can work in the lumber mill and make a little extra money. Howard stated they took some time figuring out the depth of the economy in the game. You can speak to any NPC in the game, without the camera centering on their face and zooming in. At any moment you can just leave a conversation, hearing their voice trail off as they go back to whatever it is they were doing.

While economics in a game is all well and good, there is more to see and do outside in the world, or by aligning with a faction. Howard announced there were three main factions in the game: The Companions, which acts like the Fighter’s Guild, the Thieves Guild, and the College of Winterhold. Howard also let slip the Black Hand of the Dark Brotherhood was returning and has a very epic quest line to it; nerdgasms ensue.

Dragons are the main threat of Skyrim, and what a spectacle they are as well.  They move gracefully along the sky, confident in their glory. Their AI is not directly controlled, and this makes them very unpredictable. At any moment a dragon could swoop down and grab someone, or be perched on a high tower looking over their vast territory. Dragons are not just of the fire-breathing variety, and during the demo Howard faced off against an ice-breathing dragon as well (which is apparently more powerful than the fire type).

If you manage to bring a dragon’s health down low enough, they crash to ground level unable to fly. This is the time to strike, the dragon may be slower to move around but he is no less fierce. Taking down these beasts is no easy task; they are resilient as they are powerful. However, once you fell a dragon you absorb his soul and are able to use that soul to learn one of the “words of power” that control your Dragon Shouts.

The demo was over far sooner than I would have liked, but I enjoyed every second of it. The beautiful land of Skyrim is going to be one of those that will make time seem like it just flies by as it did with this demo. Before the end of the presentation, Todd Howard had one final announcement: A very limited collector’s edition of Skyrim that includes a 1 foot dragon statue, a map, an art book with over 200 pages, and a Making Of DVD for the game all for the low price of $149.99. Regardless on what edition you are salivating over, look for Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim on PC, Xbox 360, and PS3 on November 11, 2011.