[E3 2011] Here Be Dragons

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is coming, and it is jaw-dropping.
Author: Sam Bishop
Published: June 17, 2011
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Bethesda Game Studios has never been shy about showing off huge chunks of their games. Way back in 2007, they flew a small group of us out to their Rockville, MD headquarters to witness a massive hour and a half presentation that was more like watching a friend play while you sat on the couch than a grandiose (or worse, cunning) smoke and mirrors showcase for the game. The studio simply knows what they have, and they're all too happy to show it off in full.

Of course, when talking about the sheer scale of a Bethesda open world RPG, "in full" is something of an impossibility. Still, we have to give the team props for being so open about their titles even as they're being developed. With that kind of forthcoming nature, it's not a huge surprise that the E3 demonstration for The Elder Scroll V: Skyrim was so awe-inspiring, then. There's something amazing about sitting down in a chair and having an entire world spill out in front of you -- a world, Bethsoft head cheese Todd Howard is quick to point out, that is freely explorable. The location picked for the demo was a snowy crag that felt like a molehill next to the tallest mountain in Skyrim, and, of course, should one find their way to the Throat of the World, they can scale it. It's really there.

Simple little revelations like this aren't by themselves all that amazing, but when taken with observations like "the snow on these rocks here isn't a texture, it's generated dynamically by the weather" and "we created all these jobs for NPCs and it wasn't much more work to just make them available to the player too" and suddenly things become quite a bit more striking. More than any other open world game before it, Skyrim seems absolutely teeming with life. The old Radiant AI system that would put non-player characters near you into a kind of passively aware going-about-their-day state when you wandered into town has been given a massive injection of steroids. Now, people live out entire days, go to work in more than just manning a shop and actually contribute to the world.

You do too, by the way. The increased attention to the role the player has in the overall scheme of things has been boosted. Now, even small accomplishments or reprimands can follow you around, and greater accomplishments or evil deeds will echo across all of Skyrim. You are no longer in a bubble, and as a result, the consequences promise to be far more wide-ranging -- at least we hope.

For the E3 demo, however, things were fairly fixed. That mountainside start allowed for demonstration of the new third-person camera (yes, you can play the whole game that way now thanks to animations that don't amount to a stick waving its arms), but also the game's new combat system. Now, any weapon or spell can be mapped to either hand independently, allowing for something as mundane as a sword and shield or a more visually impressive act like putting the same spell in two hands and then bringing them together for a more powerful version of that spell.

Speaking of visuals, we should probably stop now and just get this out of the way: Skyrim is gorgeous. Sure, little bits like dense foliage and close-up flowers that can be plucked for crafting is nice, but it's just the sheer volume of the world that's splayed out, the idea that any and all of that is something to be explored that had us giddy. Dynamic weather and carefully juxtaposed environments help sell the idea that there's much more to discover, but really it's just the level of detail everywhere that makes the game pop so much.
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