Shout It Out Loud

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The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim was one of my most anticipated games going into E3 2011. I’ve never bothered to look at my actual playtime in either Morrowind or Oblivion, but I can say with full confidence I’ve spent more time exploring Tamriel than I have my own state.

I was able to sit in on a thirty-minute demo, showcasing some of Skyrim’s core mechanics. If you’ve spent any time with an Elder Scrolls game, you already know thirty minutes isn’t nearly enough time to take in everything the game has to offer, but it was more than enough time to keep Skyrim at the top of my “Most Wanted” list.

Skyrim gets its name from Skyrim, Tamriel’s northernmost providence. The area is a cold, mountainous region, though you won’t spend the entire game slogging through the white stuff. Towards the end of the demo, we saw a grassy plain dotted with crumbling castle towers and a small village in the forest lining the foothills of one of Skyrim’s mountain ranges.

This village was one of our first major stops. As we walked around the village, the game’s new Radiant A.I. system was explained. Every NPC has his or her own daily routines and professions. We were shown the local lumber mill, which is a fully functioning business within the game world. You can purchase items from the lumber mill, which helps push the local economy along. Additionally, you can pick up an axe sitting on a nearby stump and begin chopping wood. You’ll earn money and help generate money for the shop. You can also use the mill's grindwheel to sharpen your weapons.

I thought it was interesting that you can also disrupt an area’s economy. Few details were given on how this is actually done, though I imagine it involves killing shop owners. I usually like to play as a good guy, but you can bet at some point in my adventures the lumber mill’s stock of wood will see a fireball.

The new A.I. system extends to Skyrim’s animal population as well. There are animals that will hunt other animals, including you. However, not every creature you come across will be hostile. While traversing the grassy plains, we ran across a peaceful herd of mammoths shepherded by giants. They were okay with our presence and left us alone, at least until our demo driver decided to take a swipe at one of the woolly beasts.

After walking around town, we entered a temple buried in the side of the mountain range. There are 150 individually-designed dungeons dotting Skyrim. Some are tied to the main quest line, though you’ll have to venture off the beaten path if you want to explore them all.

The temple was once used as a place to worship dragons. However, it has been 200 years since someone last saw a dragon, so the once well-used temple has fallen on hard times. Dragons are important to the folklore surrounding Skyrim’s story. Your character is a “Dragonborn,” a warrior born with the soul of a dragon. This allows your character to speak dragon, giving you the ability to wield powerful “shout” spells. There are number of different shouts in the game, each with three power levels.

During the demo, we saw a few different shouts. One sent a stream of fire towards enemies, while the other called down a storm, showering the area with pelting rain and deadly bolts of lightning. Another pushed foes away with a blast of energy. You’ll also encounter an Ice shout at some point in your travels.

Dragons are some of the biggest foes you’ll face in the game. Even more frightening is they are unpredictable. You never know when a dragon will decide to swoop down. While our character was engaged in a battle with the tribe of giants and their herd of mammoths, a dragon entered the fight and snatch one of the giants. With the giant deposited somewhere on the horizon, the dragon returned to finish us off the same way. Dragon A.I. is, for the most part, unscripted – so you never know how a battle may unfold. Standing and fighting is one option, though running is sometimes the better tactic.

Since we already had some dragon magic of our own, we decided to stick around and fight the dragon. As luck would have it, we were next to a watchtower manned by bow-wielding guards. The soldiers were more than willing to help out (it’s not like they had another option at this point) and we soon forced the dragon to land. When dragons take enough damage they can’t fly, opening them to melee and other close-up magic attacks. They aren’t easier to fight when grounded, but at least they’re easier to reach.

Going back to the temple, we wandered through the first few chambers until we met a group of bandits. One mentions treasure waiting in the caves below, prompting our character to arm his bow and silently take out the leader, kicking off a pitched battle.

The user interface has seen a complete overhaul. It is much simpler and easier to quickly access everything. The new menu is a cross beam with each arm housing different categories, like weapons or spells. Pressing in one of the directions brings up a menu. So, for example, if you choose an item bar you’ll see a column pop up showing all of your items. You can sort the list to show certain items and examine them in 3D. The later option, we were told, would play a role in solving some of the game’s puzzles or finding clues to new quests.

You can assign weapons and spells to either hand independent of one another. Each has its own menu, which looks like a short vertical list over that hand. You can dual-wield weapons, which is a first for the series. You can equip two swords, or even do the Gandalf thing and walk around with a staff and a sword. It’s also possible to equip a weapon and a spell or, if you want, two spells. The second option opens up an entirely new way to fight with spells. You can equip two different spells, setting up a couple of neat magical combos, or use two of the same spell, producing a more powerful spell. Why hit the town’s lumber supply with one fireball when you can slam it with a giant fireball? There’s also a quick-access menu so you can hotkey your favorite spells.

Combat plays out in either a first or third-person camera. Both options were always available, though the animation system wasn’t that great. Viewed from behind, your character looked like a stiff, awkward mess. That isn’t the case in Skyrim. Animation is smooth, with a nice sense of flow between moves. I played the last two games in first-person, but might switch for Skyrim.

The new combat system plays into the new, class-less system, which I think is one of the smartest ideas I’ve heard for an RPG in a long time. When you first start a game, especially one as long and engrossing as The Elder Scrolls, you’re never sure what class you want to play as. You might have an idea, but there is always that “grass is greener” twinge of regret when you see another class in action. Now you can mix combat styles, add certain spells or choose specific perks.

After dispatching the ground of thugs, we heard muffled pleas for help coming from a nearby chamber. After some exploration we found a web-filled room and another adventurer, Arvel, trapped in the webs. Arvel knows about the treasure the bandits were looking for and even has the key to the vault. Of course, he offers to share the treasure if we cut him loose. Before we can swing our sword, a giant spider drops from the ceiling. The fight is brief, but gives Arvel enough time plot his next move. Once we cut him free he makes a run for the treasure. He doesn’t make it very far; we give chase and kill him. After a battle with undead soldiers, we’re finally at the end of the dungeon where we learn our first words of dragon from a stone tablet.

These words – the fire-breathing shout – would prove useful during our encounter with a frost dragon. During the fight with the dragon, another appeared in the skies to join the fight. Seeing two dragons at once probably won’t happen, though anything is possible in an Elder Scrolls game. The fire spell made quick work of the frost dragon, reducing it to a charred pile of ashes. As a Dragonborn, your character can absorb dragon souls, which act as a currency for learning new words.

Even in the short thirty-minute presentation, I was blown away by the amount of content packed into the game. It’s a bit intimidating, but exciting.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim will be available for PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and PC on November, just in time for Thanksgiving and Christmas break, but I doubt that will be enough time to uncover all of Skyrim’s secrets.