The director of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Todd Howard, paces around a hotel suite twenty floors above the QuakeCon show floor. He’s buzzing with energy, but is visibly nervous as well. Howard is a small man who bounces whether he is standing or walking, ensuring that he never quite stops moving. Once he begins to speak, it’s plain to see his creative personality and laser focus on the final product.
I first met Howard at the E3 presentation of Skyrim. As he guided us through that demo, he let loose, providing us with an exposition of the world. Understanding Howard’s passion for Skyrim is the key to understanding the game itself. He spoke then of the Elder Scrolls’ world as easily as we speak of our own. Two months later Howard is back. Today is the first time Skyrim will be put into the hands of the press.
The premise of the demo was simple. Attendant press were provided with pre-set skills, armour and weapons that could accommodate a variety of play styles within the limited time available. Although the skills and equipment were preordained, the player character was not.
Exploring the character creator reveals a treasure trove of anatomical choices. To start, players choose from one of ten races and a gender. Beyond these two core choices the options branch out exponentially. There are useful pre-sets for each race that will generate appropriate characters for players with little interest in customisation.
For those inclined to create a detailed custom character, all the curious knobs and switches are there: players will be able to tweak such particulars as nose length, jaw width and forehead colour. The immense suite of options in the creator is certain to satisfy that subset of users who place great importance on such things. Once you confirm the look of your character the camera swings around to his or her rear and the game begins. It only took a moment, but that little flourish elicited a flash of style from a game known mostly for substance. This being a timed demo, we sped through the creator and birthed into Skyrim as an orc of advanced years, with golden war paint splayed across his weathered and scarred skin.
Exiting a shallow cave and stepping out onto a forested mountainside marks our orc’s first intrepid steps into the world of Skyrim. The colour palette is generous: hues of green in the grass and trees create a wonderful contrast to the blue of the sky, and the grey and white of distant mountaintops. A small path winds from the cave’s mouth and begs to be followed. There’s no direction, no objective, just freedom.
That should sound familiar. Skyrim follows the same design motifs as its predecessors. Following the trail for several minutes and taking in the flanking natural beauty is entertaining in its own right.
Abandoning the trail, our orc encounters a burly wolf and dynamic music sweeps up as axe and shield are raised. The left trigger is bound to the shield. Holding it down, the wolf charges and crashes against our defences. Having every intention of replying with equal aggression, pulling the right trigger causes the axe to swing down onto the wolf’s back. The combat feels fleetingly primal; the axe has weight when swung. But as the strike falls, it suddenly feels more farce than force. The actual act of pulling the trigger ably delivers the sensation of swinging an axe; working in tandem with the grunt of the character and the distance the axe crosses as it descends on its target. This part works. The impact of the weapon is lessened because of all of the build-up in the swing. The attack simply registers as a hit, blood squirts, and we reset for another attempt.
Think of it as swinging a bat: It’s satisfying to hear the air whooshing around the bat, but it’s even more thrilling to hear the crack of the bat as it connects with the ball. In Skyrim, it’s as if the weapon becomes an inflatable imitation at the last moment, robbing the player of the visceral payoff.
To remedy this, unique animations for particular combinations of weapons and foes sometimes trigger when the deathblow is struck. These vicious animations can prove satisfying, but as they’re scripted the player is merely witness to the violent spectacle rather than the directing participant.
Scrambling down a mountainside we soon discover the way into a small albeit bustling town. Progressing through its streets, overheard conversations between townsfolk filter into the soundscape. There was talk of dragons and snippets of gossip that tease at potential quest lines.
Naturally, the first establishment I sought was a tavern. Not only are taverns well established in the genre as hubs replete with possible quests, presumably killing a wolf with a wiffle axe is thirsty work.
Sure enough, the barkeep talks of a bandit encampment not far from the town. Having taken on the task of slaying the thieves we set forth from the town and head south. Progress accelerated dramatically with the successful theft of a horse from a ranch, but not before wrangling with a reluctant control schematic that saw our orc mount and dismount the horse several times, an act of sustained buffoonery that also drew the attentions of a nearby constabulary.
Finally making good on our escape, we check the map to discover we’ve set out in the wrong direction. Skirting the town and heading north, we finally close on the elusive encampment. Bearing down on the two guards, we burst through the gate and dismount. And mount. And dismount again. Charging the farther enemy, an archer, and planting the axe in him, we turn to discover more enemies have come to greet us.
Our orc fights his way back towards the horse just as an enemy battlemage sets the steed on fire. This was infuriating, conveniently, as the orc racial talent is a berserker rage ability that doubles damage output and halves incoming damage. We tried to find the button to activate beserker rage, but it was unavailable in this build. Our orc axes down the remaining bandits and makes his way to a dungeon entrance buried in the rear of the encampment.
After making our way through the dungeon we finally dispatch the bandit leader, a night elf swordsman. It proves to be a distressingly ridiculous encounter that involves running in frantic circles while healing and raising the shield until there’s enough time to re-equip the axe and apply it to the elf’s person.
But finishing the fight and exploring the adjacent area highlights what makes the Elder Scrolls series so compelling for so many around the world. We found a book, and upon inspection there was a read option. The book opened, revealing a engrossing history inspired by the mysterious disappearance of the British colony at Roanoke, Virginia. This was the most profound moment with the game. It demonstrates, as Howard enthuses, that Skyrim is a living, breathing world. Here, players will find a history and more importantly, a future to discover and define. Both the literal and figurative depth of the lore and characters is nothing short of an astounding achievement.
Gameplay has never been what sold this series and it appears to remain underwhelming with this iteration. But if poor controller interfacing stymies our interactions with the world, it remains an incredibly immersive one that will provide fans of both the genre and the series with exactly what they’re looking for.
This preview originally stated that a character's racial abilities must be equipped. This is not the case and we apologise for any confusion this may have caused.