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E3 2011 First Look: Skyrim

Magical fists

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The largest issue with reporting on what Skyrim is like is I’ve only watched someone else play it. While that’s the norm for the vast majority of what’s shown behind closed doors at E3, in this particular case – a vast, elaborate game with an enormous non-linear world – watching someone else play it is a bit like being on one of those kids’ cars at a themepark. There’s a steering wheel on the front, but it’s going to stick to the track. Short of heckling, “GO LEFT, NOT RIGHT!” in front of an impromptu theatre of journalists (Bethesda always have the most elaborate booths), we were along for a prescribed ride. But a damned fine looking one.

Although not damned fine graphically. Skyrim is unquestionably going to be a beautiful game. The PC footage is beyond belief, and just the stills are breathtaking. Which makes their decision to demo it on a vast cinema screen with the 360 code an utterly bewildering one. People turned to each other in confusion and asked, “Why would they show us this version?”

It’s still damned good looking, for 360 code. It’s hard to imagine that anyone will manage to squeeze any more prettiness out of that six-year-old tech. It’s an amazing piece of work. But wow, it would have looked better on PC. We must never take anti-aliasing for granted. We are lucky, gift-laden folk. But even so, seeing a fast white-water stream running through fields of intricately detailed flowers, with salmon leaping out the water as they make their way upstream, is an impressive sight on any format.

So what can I tell you about it? Well, it’s The Elder Scrolls, and we all want more of that (yes, you Oblivion haters, you DO – no one is the least bit fooled by your antics). It’s a beautiful frost-bitten land, and it’s one where players need never let the main quest trouble them as they play for dozens of hours.

Of what we were shown – a trek through green fields, woods, a village, dungeons, and eventually a mountain-top dragon fight – the most exciting feature was the player’s hands. That’s not dismissive. They’re brilliant. Every single-handed weapon can be dual-wielded, meaning you can improvise your own style to some quite impressive degrees. Sword and shield combat looked especially entertaining. Holding up a shield has always been so disappointing in gaming, but here it felt like it was genuinely protective. Obscuring most your view, seeing the edge of the attacker slamming into it felt intense.

But even more entertaining is the magic. There’s all manner of magic types, from Runes to regular spells to Shouts, each of which make your hands glow an appropriate colour. Spells are assigned to hands in the same way as weapons – in fact, this can even be done from the same menu. There’s a “favourites” option, much like a web browser, that lets you opt for your preferred tools and spells to appear in a quickly accessible pop-up menu, letting you quickly assign to each hand in an on-the-fly paused moment. If such a thing isn’t a massive contradiction.

A spell assigned to both hands offers a further advantage. Preparing to cast it creates an orb of magic between the two, which can be violently propelled at much greater power. Also it looks effing cool. I especially enjoyed watching the demonstrator assign Circle Of Protection to one hand, and Chain Lightning to the other. The former causes fear in enemies who run inside the area around you, causing them to turn to flee. The latter than arced between them, doing impressive damage. And the spell can be bounced off walls, which is obviously incredibly cool.

Another nice combo was Detect Life and Frenzy. The first shows up the location of enemies who you can’t see with the naked eye. The second, once they’re visible, lets you make them uncontrolled with fury, maybe turning on each other to fight.

Rune magic acts as traps. A frost rune spell cast on the ground is triggered when enemies run over it, dealing damage that allows you to rush in with an axe, or perhaps let loose some Dragon’s Breath fire columns. And Shouts are word-based spells, each of which consists of three words, combined to create more powerful versions of the spell. Words are learned in a variety of ways, including by absorbing the souls of dragons. As we all already know.

There’s to be 150 hand-crafted dungeons in Skyrim, and the one we saw seemed even more elaborate than Oblivion’s. Packed with some really vile spiders, the combat continued to feel epic, everything seeming to be on a larger scale than the series has previously offered, matching the much more powerful attacks on offer.

Creatures aren’t always hostile. A pack of mammoths accompanied by a ten foot giant plodded through the hillsides alongside us, not minding our presence until the man in charge decided to start hitting them. Poor mammoths. They did nothing wrong. This is why the poor bastards are extinct.

And of course there’s dragons. An infinite number, they said. Which would surely suggest that the screen should just be packed with endless fiery creatures, such that you can’t move anywhere in any direction. This isn’t the case, however. But we saw two in the demo, the defeat of one triggering the arrival of the next.

Dragon fights act as the game’s “bosses”, but they’re not scripted combat. The dragons have their own AI, and will attack according to their whim and their need. A shield proved extremely useful in deflecting the torrents of fire coming our way, in a way that was just bloody exciting. Once most the way defeated the magnificent creatures will crash land, and offer a ground-based last attempt to survive. And once dead, if the right class, absorb that soul.

A particularly spectacular moment during the second fight with the Frost Dragon saw our magic-wielding hero cast a Shout that conjured an enormous thunderstorm. The game’s dynamic weather means climate effects are all a regular part of the world, with even snow’s landing being dynamic, meaning a rock covered in white fluff hasn’t been textured that way – it just landed that way. And the thunderstorms live up to this. A magical one looked gorgeous, the edges of the clouds visible in the sky around you, as lightning arced down and took brutal chunks out of the dragon’s health.

The glimpse of NPC voice acting we heard didn’t quite live up to the promises of having improved this aspect. A daft chat between two villagers about one thinking they’d seen a dragon, the other warning her not to tell anyone lest they think her mad, wasn’t well acted, and made as much sense as a chat between two people with the same voice about the Grey Fox, in a world where dragons are everywhere.

But clearly anyone with half a mind wants to at least take a look. It’s going to be ridiculously big. There’s 300 books to read in here. There’s nine main cities. There’s one hundred and fifty dungeons. There’s infinite dragons! Although at this stage there’s no word on horse armour of any kind.

It’s due on the 11th November this year.

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John Walker

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