Pretty much every openworld game presentation I have ever sat through has included the bit where the developer points to something on the horizon and remarks that you can actually go there. In the old days this used to be a unique and exciting possibility, but over the years the thrill has worn off. Nowadays we just nod politely.
Today Bethesda Game Studios game director Todd Howard is leading us on a magical mystery tour of the early sections of Skyrim, the fifth Elder Scrolls game. He is commenting on how his team ripped up a lot of the previous engine to accommodate the huge variations in scale.
Howard angles the first-person camera down at a flower and explains that stuff like this needs to look good. It does. Butterflies dance around the flower's detailed leaves as they sway gently in the spring breeze.
But stuff further away needs to look good too, Howard says. So he angles the camera upwards, past moss-covered boulders and away from the thick brush covering the ground, and settles on a mountain. Later we'll be told it's called The Throat of the World. One day you will go there, climb the 7000 steps to the top and meet the Grey Beards, who will teach you some more of the language of dragons.
However cynical I may have become, I can't look at this game without wanting to do just that. Skyrim makes adventuring feel exciting again.
Following a brief character-creation process, the game begins with you being led to your execution. You will get out of that somehow, although we don't find out how today. As with previous Elder Scrolls protagonists, no explanation is given for your plight. Instead you can decide what happened for yourself - if you're a good guy perhaps you'll decide you were innocent, and otherwise you can fill your imaginative boots.
Our first sight of Skyrim in action begins on a mountain path. It winds down past The Throat of the World and through a valley towards the small town of Riverwood, one of nine major locations in each of Skyrim's nine counties. (There are also five huge and iconic cities - expect more on those later in the year.)
Skyrim is a rugged place. The northern-most province in the Elder Scrolls world, it's home to the Nords, the original humans. It's also very beautiful. Throughout the demo I'm struck not just by the epic scale but the little details. Salmon leaping upstream. Cobwebs. A man positioning a chunk of wood on a chopping block, then bringing his axe down to split the wood into two distinct pieces, which he deposits in a basket.
Bethesda's games have sometimes been criticised for their awkward character models and arthritic animation, but that should be moot once Skyrim resets your expectations. Switching to third-person (you can play the game in first or third), it's immediately clear that the protagonist's movements hold their own against any other third-person adventure. All the NPCs do likewise. Argument over, hopefully.
All these evolutions are part of a larger push to make the world more convincing. This is really brought home during our experience in Riverwood, where we receive our instructions for the big mission that will be the centrepiece of Howard's presentation.
There's a big lumber mill nearby. A man is hefting large tree trunks into position to be cut down by the mill's mechanism. He puts his hands around the top-most bough on a pile, heaves it over his shoulders and drops it into a groove on the floor.
It's his job. I implicitly believe that before Howard even points out that the key to a believable environment is making sure people and creatures have roles that they perform, and that you can also perform, if you wish.
If you hang around you can watch the guy put the log through the mechanism. You can also sabotage the mill, which takes wood out of the local economy and makes arrows harder to come by. Howard says Bethesda is playing around with variables for this kind of behaviour.
A good benchmark for the quality of a game is how much you wish you were working on it when you sit through a preview presentation. Right about now, I wish I was in a room talking to designers about the ramifications of disrupting lumber production.
Another design challenge which must have been fun to solve is the interface. Forget the spreadsheets and clutter of the past, now you just hit the B button (we're on Xbox 360 today) to choose from Inventory, Magic, Map and Skills on a translucent overlay covering your in-game view.
Select Inventory and the left-most third of the screen is given over to a simple pane with options like weapons and apparel. Pick one and a second nested pane appears, listing the stuff you have. Select an item and a 3D representation appears in the remaining space for you to rotate and examine, along with a few relevant contextual stats.
It's so elegant it's beguiling. You can even flick through books. And every item in the game is catalogued this way.
If you were to select Magic, the same pane-based system would appear on the opposite side of the screen. Both Inventory and Magic allow for bookmarking using the Favourites menu option. (Howard says that comparing items is not yet quite so elegant, but they're working on it.)
Select Map and the camera zooms out to show you a 3D representation of Skyrim from above. You can move around freely, examining fast-travel points and other places you have visited.
That's pretty cool, but the best bit is what happens when you hit the up direction to choose Skills. At this point you look to the stars and your perk trees appear as constellations. The lines in the stars show you routes of progression between specialisms, and the stars themselves represent the variations you unlock.
I strongly believe that if you have ever played a western RPG for longer than 10 hours and do not find that concept sexually exciting, you should close your web browser and rethink your life.
As you wander around Riverwood you may be given a random side mission. All of the objective content in Skyrim is built around hand-written dialogue and events, of course, but a clever bit of programming means the individuals and locations involved are determined by the things you've done.
For example, the mission may involve rescuing a child from some bandits. That's all preset, but the game will try to make sure that the specific child, bandits and dungeon you enter to take on the quest will be acquaintances you haven't made yet and locations you haven't visited, or at least some that you have not encountered for a while.
The mission we get to see starts as you wander past a woman doing some sweeping. She remarks that there was a robbery at the general store recently, but says the proprietor, Lucan, doesn't appear to have lost anything. Your interest piqued (and the quest opened in your log), you enter the store to see what's up.
Inside there's a roaring fire. Ivory horns are scattered around as candle-holders. (I know I've banged on about how pretty Skyrim is already, but it's worth adding that it's also fantastically and consistently well-lit. The interior of the store is appreciably warm - there's an ambient glow and the flames cast flickering shadows. Outdoors the spring air is as crisp and fresh as an iceberg lettuce.)
Lucan is behind the counter arguing with his wife, Camilla, about the robbery. He apologises for their feuding once he spots you, and explains there was a theft - a golden dragon claw ornament of some sentimental value.
There's a new conversation system in Skyrim. You still listen to someone and then choose options from a list, but the selections are nicely arranged and you can look around the shop while you listen, rather than staring intently into each other's eyes in the tunnel-vision fashion of Fallout. (There's no persuasion wheel, although a speech skill remains.)
So you express an interest in retrieving the claw for Lucan. He then reluctantly saddles you with Camilla, who will guide you out of town and point you in the right direction - up a nearby mountain. As you set out there's a bit of West Wing-style walk-and-talk. Camilla explains she doesn't understand why the claw was targeted because it's not really worth much, and Lucan has never explained its significance to her.
As you ascend the mountainside, the dynamic weather system kicks in and snow begins to fall - lightly at first, dusting nearby boulders and shrubs, and then more heavily. On the way a giant appears on the path. He has a club on his shoulder and is about three times the size of you. His footsteps boom and shake the screen slightly as he passes by without incident. (He, along with plenty of Skyrim inhabitants, have no real beef with you unless you start something.)
As you climb further, there's a huge stone tower stacked over a precipice, guarded by soldiers. You don't approach it, but it's there. Everywhere you go in Skyrim there seems to be something that belongs to a process - industrial, military, natural, whatever - that is just left to speak for itself. The surety of these presences and the implications they embody breathe depth into the world.
Eventually, as the falling snow becomes more fearsome, you close in on the summit and reach the dragon temple where the robbers supposedly took Lucan's ornament. The temples were built by the Nords, who worshipped the dragons. The main story of Skyrim focuses on the return of dragons to the world, and as a Dragonborn your fate is tied into that.
In the here and now, though, we're mostly concerned with the very real and actual dragon perched on top of the temple arches.
Dragons are the game's bosses, effectively. There aren't a finite number of them, they do what they want (at least according to the logic Bethesda has built for them), and some of them have more narrative significance than others. This one leaps into the air and swoops down to attack. Wisely, we flee into the temple interior rather than taking him on.
Inside, two robbers are having a chat by a fire. You approach them quietly (and stealthily - an on-screen eye icon indicates your level of visibility) through shafts of light filtering in from outside, which highlight snowflakes being swept around on air currents. As you move further into the dark, the lighting graduates beautifully to shadow. The two robbers are discussing how their colleague Arvel grabbed the dragon's claw and raced deep into the temple.
Skyrim's combat is as elegant and varied as everything else about it. On console at least, the triggers control what's in each hand. Equipped with a sword and shield, you could hold down the right trigger for a powerful attack or bash with the shield using the left.
You could also switch to a two-handed weapon like the bow and arrow and attack from range. Or you can mix it up by throwing spells in there. Perhaps a nice fire spell on the left hand and a healing one on the right. Or vice versa. Or both hands doing fire, because as well as certain spells being chargeable, dual-wielding yields even greater effects.
In this case we just shoot them in the head with arrows (using a bow perk to zoom in and steady our aim). They crumple. Further along there's another dude, and this time we get up close. The physical combat is really visceral, especially in first-person - blood splatters the screen, each strike visibly and audibly hurts the recipient.
This robber starts cursing as his demise becomes imminent. The coup de grace is a contextual finishing move - a charged-up sword blow translates into a grab and upward thrust into his midriff. The whole encounter - a throwaway, of course - feels stylish and weighty.
Had we not killed him, we could have observed him wandering into the circular chamber further down an undulating round tunnel, where moss-covered stones with symbols lie strewn about ahead of a portcullis. There's also a lever, which he might have pulled, demonstrating that the wrong configuration of nearby symbols results in a volley of poisonous darts to the face. Instead we get them in the face ourselves. The puzzle is easy to solve, it turns out - the order of symbols is hinted at elsewhere in the room.
Beyond the chamber we're rewarded with treasure, including a soul gem, which is relevant for enchanting - buffing items, effectively. There's also an Elven glass sword and a Frost Rune. The Frost Rune can be used to create a sort of proximity bomb on the ground, which is bad news for any enemies who wander over it. Later on we also find a Staff of Magelight, which fires little balls of light into the darkness. You can dual-wield staffs. (Hubba.)
Arvel is in another cavernous area down some spiral wooden stairs. We can hear his voice. Ominously, cobwebs accumulate and thicken the further we go, and predictably but in no way disappointingly, Skyrim's own little incidental take on Shelob emerges and has to be put down before you can reach Arvel, who is caught in her web.
You can interrogate him about the dragon's claw, and he says he knows how it works and the incredible Nord power it unlocks, and that he'll cut you in if you cut him down. Obviously he then does a runner. "You fool," he says, running away. "Why should I share the treasure with anyone?" Because otherwise I'll fire a slow-motion arrow into the back of your head and steal your claw and journal anyway. Bye bye, Arvel.
The next few minutes are a series of testing encounters with Draugrs - undead warriors from ages past, buried down here to protect a special place where the Nords prepare their dead for their passage to heaven. They're skeletal warriors who are pretty basic hackandslash fare, but the way they slip out of berths in catacombs and emerge from shadowy enclaves is quite unsettling.
Fortunately you can use chain lightning on them, or take advantage of the environment to skewer them on spikes or drown them in burning oil.
After several more Draugr showdowns, rooms full of spinning blades and a pleasant trip through a cave with a stream (running water is often used as a visual cue to guide you forward in dungeons, apparently), you make it to the Hall of Stories, where the dragon's claw can be inserted into a locking mechanism. But it doesn't open the door. The trick, it emerges, is to examine it in your inventory, where you discover that it has a sequence of runic inscriptions on the reverse that give you a clue how to use it.
The door slowly opens and you go up another tumbledown stone staircase, through a cave - startled by floods of bats - and into a beautiful cavern where shafts of light and bustling waterfalls surround an altar, of sorts, where some ancient writing is illuminated.
This is one of Skyrim's Word Walls. As a Dragonborn, you are able to command Shouts - words spoken in the ancient dragon tongue. At the end of certain quests, at other logical intervals and when you visit the Grey Beards up The Throat of the World, you will learn some of these. There are around two dozen distinctive three-word Shouts.
The words alone are like powerful spells - this one allows you to slow down time - and as you gather more words and create entire Shouts, you can deploy them as another dimension in combat or exploration. So you can wield a combination of spells, weapons and whatnot and also Shouts at the same time. To receive one feels like a worthy reward at the end of a long, hard quest.
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We're off to see the lizard.
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As we emerge into the Skyrim daylight a few minutes later, the presentation concludes with a battle against the dragon from earlier on a hillside. The dragon uses his own Shouts, of course - breathing fire is a form of speaking for dragons - and you fight back, slowing time and clobbering its face with an Elven Mace, while dodging its attacks as it swamps you with fire and tries to drive you onto unsafe terrain.
Eventually the dragon is dead and the corpse immediately bursts into flames, leaving nothing but a skeleton. "Because you're Dragonborn, when you take down a dragon you devour its soul," says Todd Howard. He won't elaborate on that yet. Fade to black.
During the Q&A that follows, it's funny to observe how much we still have to hear about Skyrim and how much is still being decided. Right now Shout usage is based on a cooldown timer but it could be resource-based, for example.
There's no decision yet on mounts or difficulty levels. Inquiries about guilds, factions, alchemy and crime are all batted away. We do at least find out that you can buy property, and Howard hints that some dragons may not be your enemies.
We also learn there is no set level cap, but levelling is faster in Skyrim than in either Oblivion or Fallout 3, so you accumulate more perks. (Don't worry though, you won't max out too quickly.) A new take on the skill system means that every skill effects your levelling, which Howard says will encourage you to use a broader range of them - although the slick interface already does a neat job of that.
Despite the gaps though, it's been an electrifying first taste of a world where we'll all very probably spend a significant chunk of time later this year.
Bethesda has been making Elder Scrolls games since 1994 and an outsider might imagine they are becoming samey. But an hour in Skyrim's company reminds you that while they have common themes, they really are not getting old.
Even as a first impression, Skyrim hooks you in with its majestic environments. It holds you with the conviction of its understated background details. By the time you start engaging with the content, using those wonderfully elegant new systems, you're completely won over. And to think, this is only the beginning...