Bonus for people who don’t like reading: new footage and some video comments from Todd Howard also await you below.
Elder Scrolls games have many, many merits, but being a great spectator sport perhaps does not number amongst them. While I am personally very excited to see an hour of Skyrim being played as it is intended to be played – from the start, exploring and making it up as the player goes along – it’s a stark difference from the massive fights with massive dragons and crazy spell combinations I’d been shown previously. What I’m seeing today is Bethesda’s Pete Hines rummaging through corpses’ pockets for loot and doing mental arithmetic about weapon stats – demonstrating that Skyrim is at least as much about calculation as it is about combat. Watching someone compare swords sure isn’t as much fun as watching someone shoot a dragon out of the air. It is, however, more important – because here he’s playing Skyrim you or I would play it, showing off its proudly nerdy roleplaying heart rather than its crowd-pleasing flashy face.
“This is not some polished demo with scripted battles,” he promises. “This is me starting a new game, kind of playing through and showing some new stuff.” It’s… well, as purely a spectator here, to be honest it’s almost a little boring. When he gets a new axe with better stats, it’s meaningful to him but it means nothing to me. Because that’s the nature of this game and its heritage – finding a better axe would only be meaningful to me if I was the one playing.
So, in fact, seeing Skyrim at its quietest and most inward-looking is a huge relief. While Skyrim has looked mighty impressive from afar, there was a fear that the nuts and bolts of Elder Scrolling had been subsumed by all that impossibly epic combat and shouting at sky-lizards. In fact, there’s plenty of the number-watching and cave-exploring that we so yearn for. In many ways, it seems incredibly familiar – there’d be no mistaking it for any other game series. On the other hand, the spit and polish on top of it is wonderful. Most especially in the inventory.
Oh! The menus. Oh! With every single pick-uppable item rendered as a full, 3D, rotable object, everything tiered into neat categories and smart features such as tagging favourites for instant access, right-clicking stuff in a looting screen to immediately equip it and a tiny, discrete icon denoting which item is the best of its sort in your bags, it seems to have kept all the good stuff of inventory management while making it far more efficient and look exactly 17 times better. Maybe even 18.
The main game-screen itself gets a similarly minimalist makeover. Magicka, health and stamina bars only show if they’re not full; when you’re in tip-top shape, they fade out to present you with the most uncluttered possible view of Skyrim’s world. Stealth, meanwhile, is denoted by a line-art eyeball icon around your targeting reticule, which incrementally opens or closes depending on how are local enemies are of your presence. Everything seems to be present and correct, but there’s been a clear focus on making it all discretely fit together and be as visually un-fussy as possible, rather than clutter the world and the interface with everything at once.
We’re wandering into one of Skyrim’s dungeons, having just gone through character creation. Picking a race and appearance is pretty much all that’s involved here – the rest happens as you play. Hines appeals to the room for what race he should play as. Silence. I crack and call ‘Khajit!’ but pronounce it wrong and start blushing furiously. Undeterred, he creates himself a catman character, picking through a vast raft of visual options such as scars, dirt, warpaint, piercings and facial hair. His catman ends up wearing a fine Fu Manchu moustache. Also, a tail. “Argonians and khajit have tails,” Hines reassures us, having apparently been nagged half to death about it on Twitter. “Please spread the word so people will stop asking.”
What we don’t get to see at this point in the game’s opening quest or anything at all to do with the main narrative. Bethesda don’t want to talk about that stuff until the game’s out, so instead we’ve skipped straight to free-roaming adventuring. In this case, we’ve wandered straight to a nearby dungeon, but there are other options. At the start of the game, you (or rather your map) know roughly where Skyrim’s cities are but you can’t fast-travel straight to them yet. You can wander that way and hope for the best, or you can pay for a carriage there – a la Morrowind’s Silt Striders. Once you’ve been somewhere, you can then fast-travel to it, if you want to.
While wandering around, icons pop-up on the slim, subtle top-of-screen compass to denote nearby locations of possible interest, which is how we find ourselves in this dungeon. “There’s a crazy amount of dungeons,” claims Hines, “all hand-crafted” by Bethesda’s new phalanx of level designers. The idea is that, as well as being a more characterful, designed adventure, each dungeon has an undertone of incidental backstory, conveyed by decoration rather than exposition. In this one, we find a crucified skeleton hanging over a shallow lake. A knapsack waits at its feet, containing a journal. The journal tells of a fisherman who’d been having trouble catching much in his usual stomping grounds, so he’d roamed further afield. Top tip for fishermen: don’t roam into necromancers’ dens.
The Necromancers themselves aren’t far off, nor are they pleased to see us. We dispatch the first one sharipish with a fire spell – each and every new Skyrim character starts off with basic fire and healing magic, but from there it’s up to you what you use (and on what you find or buy, of course). Fire isn’t a shot-by-shot fireball, but a steady steam of flame that makes short work of these cloth-wearing dead-botherers. As one falls, another immediately turns and starts resurrecting him. His body lifts off the ground, his back arching, surround by blue energy. We pepper the would-be resurrector with shots from our newly-found Orcish bow (I couldn’t tell you what its stats are; Hines looked at them briefly, muttered something positive to himself and immediately equipped it), and as he falls his undead servant dissipates into a shower of ash. Meanwhile, another Necro starts resurrecting the one we downed with the bow – as his body rises in the air, we can see the arrows we filled him with sticking out of him, almost comically.
The fight continues, and dramatically so, with one Necro summoning spectral wolves to fight us, the big cheat. The game dynamically comes up with kill moves depending on context, but they’re quick and part of the ongoing fight, not the disruptive slo-mo of Fallout 3. We start dual-casting spells too – at the moment, it’s just one in each hand, fired separately, but there is a perk available that lets you combo both hands into one mega-spell.
As the fight moves on we face Falmer, “twisted, evil creatures that dwell in Skyrim’s deepest reaches” and which basically look like goblins wearing spider’s faces as helmets, we move more into melee. A blade in one hand, and in the other a torch to light this dark place. Oh, and also to block and bash, plus set enemies on fire for extra damage. They’re not mere light sources any more.
The fight winds up, which means it’s rummaging time. Hines dredges up a small mountain of loot, which he peers at, equips or discards according to numbers in his head. I want to be the one with those numbers.
It’s also time for lunch. Not for me – this is at Gamescom, after all. Lunch isn’t possible at Gamescom. Our character, however, has collected various bits of meat and vegetable on his travels, which he could consume now for a minor health restoration bonus, but a spot of cookery would achieve far greater things. Oh – Skyrim features auto-recharging health, stamina and magicka, but the former a whole lot more slowly. You won’t get far by hiding behind a box for ten seconds then charging back into a fight. Food and potions remain vital. So, let’s get one of those rabbit legs we collected earlier and stick it in a nearby cookpot. With the right ingredients, it’ll provide temporary bonuses to other statistics, much like potions. You’ll also stumble across spits in the game. When you activate one, you’ll be told what you can cook on it and what ingredients are needed.
Also in there is mining and crafting. Find a pickaxe and an ore vein and you’re away. Find a forge and you could, for instance, construct an Iron Shield from two leather strips (obtained by skinning creatures, then taking their hides to tanning stations) and four iron ingots. Or you could use a grindstone to improve your existing kit. For instance, tempering a longbow makes it more powerful. There will be a limit on how many times you can do this, however – this isn’t Two Worlds and its ludicrous infini-upgrade system. You’ll be able to improve Smithing in the same way you can improve other skills/perks – which will let you use better materials. For instance, upgrading something with glass will achieve far better things than upgrading it with poxy old iron. On top of this new crafting, old TS faves Enchantment and Alchemy return, in similar but updated forms.
What I didn’t get to see in this demo was anything of Skyrim’s cities or faction system. There’ll be four of the latter: the Companions (essentially the fighter’s guild), the Mages’ Guild, the Thieves’ Guild and the Dark Brotherhood. As before, joining the latter requires an invitation, based on sinister forces observing your less-than-pleasant behaviour. As a whole, the game is “an order of magnitude bigger than Fallout 3 in terms of number of quests and dungeons.” And, I’m relieved to see, in terms of stuff.
I want to be doing what Pete Hines is currently doing, silently worrying to himself about whether this axe is better than that axe, where I can find a bigger Soul Gem to enchant it with, whether I’ve got enough leather to build a new shield. Dragon-questing, or whatever the hell it is that’s going on in the main story? Lots of fun, I’m sure. But me, I’m much more about my own interests, not the world’s. Primarily, that involves scouring dungeons for stuff and making more stuff out of it. Skyrim, I am very pleased to see, appears to have stuff in spades.