For its latest bash at the lush world of Tamriel, Bethesda wants to show you a different side of the traditional role-playing land, and it's one influenced by - wait for it - Jurassic Park. This is according to executive director Todd Howard, who's talking to a room full of journalists and demonstrating an early build of Skyrim at a Bethesda event in Utah.
It's the dragons, you see. The proud winged creatures are everywhere, roaming around the skies with their big dragon claws, teeth, and famous fiery breath. Bethesda wants each encounter with one of the creatures to evoke a similar feeling to when the T-Rex attacked in Spielberg's iconic movie.
But while these dragons are flapping about the game's beautiful environments, you'll probably be shuffling around at the base of a mountain immersed in the game's impressive UI. The menu system is clean and organised, presented as a stylish minimal overlay rather than a clumsy screen. Information and inventory are quick to access and navigate, and you can set favourites to all your preferred items and spells. There's even a lavish 3D view of every item in the game, and you can zoom in and play around with everything - channelling the dormant spirit of Resident Evil, some puzzles in the game even require you to look at items in the 3D view to suss out answers. If you're the kind of person who gets in a hot flush thinking about the innate beauty of Helvetica, Skyrim might be enough to induce a coma.
Why focus so much on the menus? Well, think back to Oblivion or Fallout 3 and recall just how much time you spent plugging away in various nested lists and inventories. It makes perfect sense that Skyrim's UI is absolutely gorgeous, to the point you can just sit back and drink it in.
Take the skill tree (there are no major/minor skills anymore) which is displayed in the game as a set of constellations, nicely mixing world-class design with the game's Nordic theme. The screen zooms upwards to the stars, and allows you to invest points gained from levelling into your various talents while looking at pretty pictures.
Every skill affects your overall level in Skyrim, but the more advanced abilities affect your level far more than low-level ones. There is no level cap, enemies do not level up with the player, and skills like acrobatics and athletics have been removed entirely. Skyrim is going for a concentrated, pared back, and streamlined approach to its technical aspects, yet there's more than enough stuff for people fascinated with the fine details to get stuck into.
These macro gameplay elements seem to combine beautifully with the joy of those fleeing micro-moments; such as walking past a river and gazing as you watch fish bounce upstream, watching a giant lumber past as you scale a mountain, and watching the grass sway in a gentle breeze on a forest path.
The geography is significantly more mountainous than in former Elder Scrolls games, and while the landscape might be a similar size to the one found in Oblivion it's an altogether more complex environment thanks to the myriad of jutting land masses poking up all over the place. At one point we glance upon the largest mountain of the game - dubbed 'the throat of the world' - that consists of 7000 steps to its peak and almost completely fills the screen, despite the character being a considerable distance away.
Weather effects are dynamic, which enables the design team to create more intricate environments because they don't require multiple assets for each rock, twig, and roof. Seasons don't change in the game, however.
Then there's the world map, which is now rendered entirely in-engine and comes with a swishy zooming-out effect when you switch to it. Howard uses it to point out Riverwood, a logging town complete with a water wheel, cobbled streets, external wooden beams, and stone walls.
Riverwood is just the tip of the iceberg, existing as a fringe outpost in-between the five main cities of the region. Skyrim itself is made up of nine districts, each bigger than Riverwood. The finished game will contain over 120 mission-specific dungeons and over 100 points of interest relating to smaller quests.
In the demonstration we stop by a shop to pick up a quest entitled The Golden Claw from shopkeeper Lucan Valerius. Lucan, coincidentally, has a cheese wheel on his counter that's actually bigger than my head.
Talking to Lucan is effortless, and the neat and tidy overlays don't freeze you into position for the length of the conversation - you can wander about, break the conversation, and return to it at the same spot later on. The trader wants the player to head off into Bleak Falls Barrow, a nearby ancient Nordic temple nestled within a mountain, and retrieve his Golden Claw (presumably priceless, of course) from bandits who've nicked off with it.
Leave the shop and Lucan's sister, Camilla, walks and talks with you as you progress up the mountain. These sections, similar to those used in games like Red Dead Redemption or GTA 4, streamline the experience to allow players interested in the incidental details to experience them, while those who just fancy a bit of heroic questing can freely barrel up the mountain and ignore it entirely.
On the way up you run into trolls and bandits, and Howard dispatches these monsters by showing off the game's refined dual-wielding system. Spells can be equipped alongside weapons, or just in each hand for double the effect, and you can also choose to swing a couple of one-handed weapons in place of a traditional shield.
Me? I like being crafty with spells. I take great delight when I see Howard use a mix of Detect Life and Fury near a bandit spire to incite a pack of rogues to fight one another, and then ready a bow to headshot the last man standing - with a few points invested in the archery skill tree, your character can hold his breath when aiming a shot. Part of Skyrim's potential seems to stem from the ability to create balanced character builds by simply playing the game as you like.
When Howard's character reaches the Black Falls Barrow there's a dragon waiting outside, so he flees into the temple while I bask in the ornate fire-lit structures and architecture. Spiders, skeletons, and bandits are fought, including a massive frostbite spider that's dispatched with a few thorough blasts of Chain Lightning, then Howard progresses into a cobweb-infested crypt where he runs into Arvel the Swift - the guy who ran off with the Golden Claw in the first place.
Arvel promises to let you know about the secret of the treasure but he is, quite literally, caught in a web, so you have to cut him down and then kill him when he inevitably decides to backpedal on his promise.
Deciding to investigate Arvel's claims, Howard heads through the crypt, back out into the mountains, and enters a sanctum where he's required to solve a puzzle to get through a locked door. Inside the hall is a Word Wall, which teaches the player a chunk of the dragons' language - with this one allowing you to slow down time. Your character has been anointed by the scaly creatures, and by learning their language can make 'shouts' of up to three words (once unlocked). These are activated by holding down the right bumper, though the more powerful the shout the longer its cooldown.
Heading back down the mountain, Howard encounters the dragon from earlier and uses his newfound ability to freeze time. I'm going to spoil it here and reveal that Todd Howard slays the dragon, and as it dies the poor thing ignites into flames leaving only the skeleton visible before Howard feasts on the creature's soul - presumably for some sweet stat boosts and abilities.
One thing Bethesda is keen to push is Skyrim's Radiant story system, which might subtly affect the way quests play out. If you've killed Lucan Valerius before accepting the quest, for instance, his sister will become the one that tasks you with retrieving the item, and there might be other changes along the way, too - Bethesda isn't saying much at this point. Other quests might turn the villain into somebody you've offended earlier in the game, and Howard also uses an example of one quest involving children randomly abducted from the game's towns.
Even a small taste is enough to show that Skyrim is overflowing with tantalising options and a more refined focus than Oblivion. And did I mention the gorgeous UI? There are a few months to go before the game makes its debut, but this introduction to Skyrim's world has left me so excited that I got through this entire preview without making a reference to Horse Armou-- oh, bugger.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim will be released on November 11 for PC, PS3 and Xbpx 360