Besthesda has named the new engine underpinning The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. It is known as the Creation Engine.
Let's tackle the graphics first.
"The big things for us were to draw a lot of stuff in the distance so we have a really sophisticated level of detail, more so than what we've had in the past for how things stream in and how detail gets added to them as they get closer to the camera," Skyrim's creative director Todd Howard told Game Informer.
Not only will landscapes look more convincing far away, but now shadows will be cast on "everything" to make scenery more believable up close.
The result? A mountainous Nordic landscape promising snow-touched rocky vistas, ice cold brooks, fierce green forests and clear, azure blue skies. There's even a clever snow engine that tries to realistically blanket objects with sporadic fluffy white downpours.
The foliage system used for Oblivion, SpeedTree, has been dumped. Bethesda's own tools mean artists can quickly build and animate any kind of tree they want. Trees in Skyrim even offer clues about the weather conditions; a leaning copse hints at a windy traverse ahead, for instance.
A big component of the Creation Engine is Radiant AI. This hopes to suspend further the illusion that Skyrim is a living, breathing world - with or without you there. In Oblivion, citizens had five or six daily commands to follow; in Skyrim the population is far more complex and goes about daily work such as jobs at mills, farms, mines and more. People gather raw materials, refine them and then deliver them to a bustling trade hub.
We've mentioned before that engaging an NPC in conversation in Skyrim no longer pauses the scene, but we now also know the camera angle will stay as you had it, and it be possible to pan around, observing the scene from afar while prattling merrily on.
AI will develop feelings towards your hero. A friend, for example, won't mind terribly if you barge into their house during the night - they may even offer you a bed. They'll also be more lenient should you sneeze and accidentally swipe your great bastard sword around their apothecary and smash all their stock.
None of that could be managed without the new Havok Behavior middleware tools.
"We looked at a bunch of [animation solutions], and this is about the tippy-top state-of-the-art stuff out there," said Howard. "I think we're the first real big game to use it."
In practice, Havok's snazzy toolset allows the developer to quickly make new animations and then test them out. With the laborious processes removed, the designers have more time to fine-tune their virtual people. The results encompass little touches like heroes struggling to get free of a spider web or other environmental hazards, as well as a more believable transition between walking, jogging and running.
More importantly, it means Bethesda can really nit-pick with combat animations, which in turn makes visual clues about when to swing and when to block easier to judge.
"We definitely have made a significant jump in how it plays [in third person perspective]," promises Howard.
Monsters, too, benefit from the Havok tools, adding another layer of realism to their dynamic, unscripted being. Dragons apparently look brilliant.
Bethesda won't say anything about mounts for the time being.
Radiant Story, as we've alluded to, plays the role of auto-pilot dungeon master and populates Bethesda's vast Skyrim world with interesting things to do. A randomiser considers your character's skills, location, history and present situation before spitting a side-quest at you. And these should, more often than not, cleverly direct you to new, unexplored areas of the world.
Howard offered an example: "Traditionally in an assassination quest, we would pick someone of interest and have you assassinate them. Now there is a template for an assassination mission and the game can conditionalise all the roles: where it happens, under what conditions does it take place, who wants someone assassinated and who they want assassinated.
"All this can be generated based on where the character is, who he's met. They can conditionalise that someone who you've done a quest for before wants someone assassinated, and the target could be someone with whom you've spent a lot of time before."
Moreover, friendships and grudges alike will be watched by the game as they have the potential to spawn quests of their own. And by doing a small favour you may unknowingly unlock a much more significant quest line. Your NPC friends may also accompany you on certain missions.
Even increasing skills can lead to quests: begin to master your one-handed sword skill and citizens may challenge you to a duel or ask for training. They may also beg for a display of your power. Peasants.
Bethesda, however, won't let the randomiser go bananas - you shouldn't ever feel overwhelmed in Skyrim at the amount of missions you have to complete.
But perhaps most important of all: it won't be too clever. There's still potential for "a wide variety of random encounters". Designer Bruce Nesmith talked of the possibility of running across a mammoth beset by a pack of wolves while en route to a quest.