E3 2011: Skyrim trailer analysis

Tom Francis at

Skyrim E3 2011 - 7 Mammoths

Here's my summary of E3 so far: blah de blah Far Cry 3! de blah Hitman 5! blah SKYRIM. There's a full stop after Skyrim because that's when I started humming the theme tune too loudly to hear anything else.

Bethesda showed 7 minutes of in-game stuff while Spike TV asked some rather TV questions of exec Todd Howard. It showed the game in a much more candid way than they have before, including a lot of systems they've previously only talked about, so I want to go through and pick apart how it's all looking. I'll embed the video below for anyone who hasn't watched it yet, then my analysis.


 

1. Scenery

 
Breaking: Skyrim still looks lovely. Up close the scenery looks pretty angular - I wouldn't call it a generational leap on from Oblivion - but the vistas are fantastic. I think a mountainous setting was a really good way to make the game's views exciting. Todd says you can go to the top of that mountain, which is not news, but in Skyrim I want to. Look at it, it's huge!

Also huge: that compass at the top of the screen. I don't know if everyone realised how useful the compass was in Oblivion - not just for quests, but to highlight interesting places you happened to stroll near. It was an exploration tool. You can see they've kept that feature on this one, and made it harder to miss.

2. Third person

 
They said the third person view was a step up from Oblivion's rather stiff one, and now we see it. The new animation system is a generational jump - every muscle shifts with his step. Our player also takes a few sword-swishes in third person - they actually look more natural than they do in first person.

Todd emphasises you can be male or female - he doesn't mention that you can also be a lizardman or a cat, in case the skittish TV audience becomes confused and frightened.

3. Dual wielding

 
I love that the way they show off Skyrim's mix-and-match weapon and magic system is by having the player dual wield a healing spell. Come at me, bandit! Am I gonna heal myself with this hand? Or this hand? Pzeww!

What's interesting is that when you do equip something like a fire spell in each hand, it's up to you whether to shoot them off one at a time for more rapid attacks, or do both at once to initiate this special charged-up version. They still haven't decided what happens if you have different spells in each hand and activate them both at once - I'm still holding out hope for a ridiculously intricate combinatorial spell system.

4. Snow

 
Whoa. The fact that Skyrim has some snowy bits has, I think, been covered - but this is a proper blizzard. It has that fierce, wild feel that game weather rarely does: you can hardly see.

5. Archery

 
In the blizzard we find a dungeon, in the dungeon we find bandits, and in the bandits we put arrows. Another thing they've talked about without showing publicly: lethal archery. Both shots fired here strike the torso, not the head, and both kill in one hit. These aren't special arrows, either - a counter in the bottom right says "62 Iron Arrows" remaining.

I'll be really, really interested to see if they keep this up throughout the game: the ability to take enemies out with sudden strikes from the shadows. Oblivion's combat got a lot less fun at high levels, because everything had so much health - I hope they stick to the concept they're showing here throughout Skyrim. Later we see the player character is level 34 at this point, so that's very promising.

Notice the second bandit doesn't magically spot the player as soon as it friend dies - in fact, he rather dopily just stands there, alerted but not hunting for an attacker. That might need some tweaking.

6. Combat

 
Now comes the fighting. Hmm. Magic is definitely sparkier and more responsive than in Oblivion, making it feel like a proper attack. But the proper attacks - with swords and shields - still have that slightly unconvincing feel they had in Oblivion. At one point the player slashes his sizeable sword right across this bandit's exposed neck, a perfect strike, and there's no reaction. He just brings up his shield.

I don't want to kill everyone in one hit, obviously, but there's something wrong when hitting a guy's shield staggers him, and cutting his throat has no apparent effect. Oblivion's combat needed to be more reactive, and what's shown here is only a marginal improvement, to me.

Finishing moves look satisfying, but I'd like them to happen because I outmanoeuvred my opponent, rather than steadily wittled an abstract hitpoint counter down.

At one point we see the player's 'One Handed' skill increase - it's true, all one handed weapons are governed by the same skill now. But there are still weapon-specific talents you can get by choice, in the form of perks.

7. Magic

 
That sparkier magic is on proud display in the next fight, in many shapes and sizes.

Fire: flame-thrower hands! Skyrim doesn't limit you to fireballs.
Dragon shout: wow. I don't know the name for this one, but it's probably dragontongue for GTFO. It sends your enemies flying. This is what high-level magic should be like.
Turn undead: the player casts an area-of-effect spell that makes all the nearby undead turn and run, so I'm going to guess that's Turn Undead - an Elder Scrolls mainstay.
Lightning: oh man, zapping zombies as they run from you looks like amazing fun. I love that when it kills them, they're sent spasming across the room.

8. Mammoths

 
Mammoths! These lumbering things have a lovely feel to them in-game: they're trudging along in their own little posse with two giants, clearly heading somewhere in no hurry, and with no ill will toward you. It has a sense I sometimes miss in fantasy games, of being amongst strange and powerful creatures in a context other than combat. Just observing this world.

So naturally the asshole playing this demo has to whack one with his bladed mace. It's interesting that the giants are friendly at first: there's even a prompt to talk to them as the player first walks by. And it's also interesting that they attack when the mammoth is harmed - they're obviously good pals.

9. Giant theft

 
Then a dragon... did that dragon just steal the giant we were fighting? Come back with that! We weren't done!

Todd says they don't script the dragons. I have a hard time believing they never script the dragons, since the whole freaking plot's about dragons, but I guess he means this type of dragon attack. That's awesome, I hope they pick their victims pretty much at random.

I remember an assassination quest in Oblivion that I mysteriously completed without even finding the victim. When I eventually got to the quest marker to take something from his body, I found a dead horse, a trail of blood, the corpse, and a very angry bear.

If the equivalent experience in Skyrim ends with a well-fed looking dragon, that's going to be fun.

10. The dragon

 
I wasn't really looking forward to meeting these guys, because I almost never like boss fights, and dragons are the most traditional fantasy bosses ever. But I have to say, if this really is all unscripted, that's a hell of a boss fight.

The lizards themselves look amazing - fluidly animated, flexible, and clearly very free to stomp around and fly. When they walk on their wings, there's something genuinely frightening about it.

I can still see it being a little awkward to just keep waving a sword at them, if you've chosen a melee character, and slaying something that big by attrition feels a bit arbitrary. But at least they've created these traditional creatures in a very non-traditional way.

11. The other, bigger dragon

 
Actually I don't want to talk about the other, bigger dragon so much as how the player takes it out: a dragon shout that changes the weather to create a thunderstorm. Weather-changing spells were something modders added to Oblivion, it's nice to see Bethesda catching up. This one seems to focus the storm on the area it was cast: when the player's down on the ground later, the dragon flies over the tower where he originally cast it and is struck again.

Again, the dragon shouts look like the spectacular stuff that high-level magic should be, but rarely is.

Once the dragon's down, the player's melee attack triggers a finishing move in third person. Those are unique to your weapon type, so it's going to be fun to see how a dagger, for instance, works for dragonslaying.

The demo ends, and a presenter reads out a question from Twitter about whether the 'fractions' will return. No, your health is now measured in whole numbers only.

We have a much clearer picture of the game now, and I'm still ridiculously excited and humming the theme-tune near constantly. But I am starting to realise this is more of a continuation of Oblivion - with lots of welcome tweaks - rather than a dramatically different game. The combat sequences here made it seem like the game will feel pretty similar, just slightly more violent.

So long as combat is still fairly quick at high levels, I'm happy with that. Oblivion with most of its niggles fixed, in a frosty new land, is a phenomenal prospect.