I took thirteen pages of notes during last week's two hour Skyim demo, but the two words I scribbled near the bottom of the first page probably sum it up better than anything else I wrote: holy shit. Yes, I wrote that in my notes. Bethesda's newest Elder Scrolls game is just that impressive. While that observation was originally prompted just by the game's breathtaking visuals, as the demo progressed it became clear that the gameplay will be every bit as impressive as the graphics and overall art direction.
Bethesda's Todd Howard, who helped make Fallout 3 and the previous two Elder Scrolls games, Morrowind and Oblivion, gave me a thorough tour through the game last week and even answered some (but not all) of my questions. This preview is largely spoiler free, at least with regard to the main story, but I will be revealing some details of a certain quest in order to provide some context for the overall gameplay. It's nothing that will diminish your appreciation of the game overall, but you will learn a bit about the particular errand Todd took to show off the game.
The first thing you notice about the game is how gorgeous it is. Todd went on about the rewritten renderer and the optimizations and streaming level-of-detail effects, but what it boils down to is this: The game looks good. Better than good, actually. The icy land of Skyrim, the northernmost province in Tamriel, is perhaps the most realistic and impressive game world I've seen. From the massive mountains looming in the distance to the ferns alongside the road, everything in this game is incredibly detailed. The streams have salmon leaping up over cataracts, the trees cast dappled shadows on the ground, and the snowstorms actually flow around the towering peaks.
"We want to take you to another world," says Todd, and it's clear that the game's creators have succeeded. Skyrim feels like a real place, and that's long before I'd even heard about the complex ecology the designers have created. Now not only will you see packs of wolves hunting (and eating) mammoths, but there are also a number of powerful monsters who won't necessarily attack you unless your provoke them first. During one of our treks up a snow-covered mountain, for instance, Todd met a frost giant going the other way and neither seemed to take much notice of the other.
Still, there is a lot of combat in this game, and Todd showed us how it all works on the 360. Each trigger controls one of your character's hands, so if you're armed with a sword and shield, you can use one trigger to block and another to swing your weapon. As in previous games, the right stick can add a little English to your strikes, which should give you a sense of control over your swings and stabs. I watched as Todd made his way through the mountains and took on a few early enemies, from simple bandits to ape-like Frost Trolls, and the whole experience was very visceral.
The great thing about this system is that you can equip whatever you want in either hand. Want to be like Gandalf, with a sword-staff combo? You can do that. Want to rock a two-handed sword? That's possible too. Want to equip a healing spell in one hand and an armor busting mace in the other? Go for it. The mix and match system seems really versatile, especially with your favorite spells being selectable using the D-pad in the middle of the fight. If you really want to get nasty, you can gain access to even more powerful versions of your basic spells by putting the same spell in each hand. You might not feel so secure wandering around without a piece of steel in your hands, but that double-handed fireball spell might just make up for it.
Eventually Todd's journeys brought him to one of the game's first towns, a small place called Riverwood. (Can you guess what two things they have there?) As Todd walks in, he hears an Imperial Guard talking with another NPC named Gerdur. They're discussing some recent trouble that nearby towns have been having with dragons and wondering why the Jarl, the official in charge of this particular Hold, hasn't done anything about it. Noticing Todd's character, they suggest he might find employment at the smithy. On his way to practice his smithing skill, Todd stops to linger at the town's lumber operation. An NPC is splitting logs on a massive machine, and the wood is piling up outside.