The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Preview

The sky between Morrowind and Oblivion.

Only two months have passed since I last saw The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Bethesda, in a flash of inspiration, invited an international crowd of journalists to an exquisite lodge several thousand feet above sea level in Park City, Utah. We were enraptured in the panoramic landscape of the jagged mountains and the coniferous trees springing forth from the quiet and deceptively deep sheet of snow, a majesty meant for us to recall the kingdom of Skyrim itself. It was in this setting that I was shown an epic hour-long hands-off demonstration of the game. So it was difficult to be as impressed with the 15-minute hands-off demo at E3 2011 in a booth with strategically placed enclosures, walkways, and plastic podiums.

However, it was not all for naught. The short E3 showing essentially confirmed, in a single shot of the experience bar on the screen that showed the Dragonborn main character at Level 34, that there is no level cap and that leveling up is a simple matter of earning experience points. This is a sigh of relief for anyone – myself included – who loses motivation after reaching the highest character level or who finds the Oblivion system of (okay, take a deep breath) deliberate skill-building for not more or less than a +5 modifier for specific attributes which are only earned after sleeping (whew!) much too complicated. Along with removing the Acrobatics and Athletics skills, so that players are not encouraged to jump and run like rabbits on crack, the number of attributes have been reduced from six to three: Health, Stamina, and Mana. It's a simple case of fine-tuned editing.

At the same time, building skills remains intuitively streamlined. Use Creation spells frequently and you'll become more powerful in the Creation branch of magic. Whack enough enemies with a longsword and you'll gain bonuses to One-Handed Swords. Near the roadside, you may also come across a circle of three stones essentially representing the Warrior, Rogue, and Mage archetypes, and you can activate one of these stones to gain an experience bonus to the skills associated with those archetypes. Upgrading and earning skills is simple; just by peering at the sky, you can view each of the eighteen skills as a constellation with each star representing an ability or perk and each line representing the branches of the skill's tree. Not sure if there is a more ingenious interface than that.

The Elder Scrolls series has always been about heading off in an indiscriminate direction and exploring the sweeping environments with an open mind but a weary eye, and Skyrim is no different. The central story revolves around the return of the dragons, the evil god Alduin, and how that ties into your character's Dragonborn heritage, as well as the pressing need of the kingdom to recognize a new High King (whether you can fulfill this role remains unknown), but the intention of the series is still about making the player feel so immersed in the world of Skyrim that the given underlying plotline fades into the background.

Much like playing another open-world Bethesda series, don't be surprised to find yourself eight hours later not knowing how you ever got yourself wrapped up in eleven incomplete quests. In a twist, some of these are created by the developers through what they dub the “radiant” storytelling system, where the game constructs quests based on what you have and haven't completed. If you receive a request in town to find, say, a missing daughter, the game will place her in a nearby dungeon you haven't explored, from among the more than a hundred dungeons scattered throughout Skyrim. This ensures that each playthrough remains unique and that the player consistently discovers new areas.

Completing quests, of course, requires a keen sense of awareness and a steady hand in combat. You have more than several weapon configurations at your disposal: bow and arrow, sword and shield, two-handed sword, and magical spells. You can even mix and match, with a sword in your left hand and a Frostbite spell in your right hand for balanced setup, or one spell in each hand for an aggressive magical stance where you can charge both into a deadly spellwoven hybrid. Sneaking in low light is still favored for critical hits. Along the beaten paths, you can pick flowers and herbs for alchemy, turn salmon into salmon steak while next to fire, and choose to avoid battles with mammoths and giants who are not normally hostile.

Both demonstrations showcased the same dungeon with the golden claw, obviously at different speeds but equally as insightful. After climbing a totally planned seemingly random mountain and discovering a pair of towering, semi-circle stone doors near ancient ruins, the Dragonborn encounters a fire-breathing dragon at the entrance, immediately prompting him to enter through the doors (how convenient). It then becomes clear from overhearing a pair of bandits, if they aren't killed quickly, that they are searching for a golden claw that might be the key to a load of treasure. This leads to slaying spiders, casting a Circle of Protection to ward off skeletons, finding and using the golden claw, and finally vanquishing a dragon priest near the end of the dungeon.

Beyond standard loot and learning new spells through books, you can as a Dragonborn learn devastating shouts, much like the killing words in Dune. Each shout can be charged to three distinct levels depending on how many words you find of that particular shout and how many dragon souls you absorb by defeating your winged brothers. Instead of relying on a mana source, it only takes a short amount of time for your shouting power to recover, whether your shout is a simple sonic burst or a spell that slows time.

Much of Skyrim is still under wraps – crafting systems, guilds, quest management, lockpicking, speech, character generation. I did see horses as a mount and a 3D map that can be accessed simply by zooming out at any time, though the full features of the mount and the map have been left unrevealed. But if what I saw is any indication, I have nothing to worry about. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim will be arriving on 11/11/11 for Xbox 360, PS3, and PC.