Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is arguably the most anticipated RPG of 2011, and Bethesda certainly treated it as such during their E3 demo showings. The closed demo was held in a larger-than-average room, where the screen practically took up an entire wall. Lead artist Matt Carofano was present to talk us through everything; for those who weren't aware, he also worked on Morrowind and Oblivion.
We all have rather high expectations for Skyrim's story, but the demo centered around the mechanics more than any other aspect. The visual style of the new Elder Scrolls still bears a notable resemblance to Oblivion, but from a graphical standpoint, Skyrim is a massive step up. That was immediately apparent, thanks to the new Creation engine. In addition to more dynamic weather effects, every layer in the environment just looks prettier in Skyrim, from the grass at your feet to the mountains in the distance.
A New Look for Elder Scrolls
The user interface has been completely overhauled for a much simpler appearance. The main menu now appears as a compass, with each direction being a separate category like Items or Spells. Selecting one brings up a column menu, and each sub-menu expands to a new column. Under Items, for example, you can search through apparel, consumables, and other subcategories, while previewing every item from food to books as a detailed 3D model. It isn't all for show, either, since some items can be examined to reveal clues and solutions to puzzles.
Combat menus have also adopted a vertical design and appear along the lower corners of the screen, well out of your way. For easier access to spells and skills, players can hotkey favorites from the main menu, so you won't have to do as much scrolling during a fight for that one spell.
The map has also been revamped with a topographical appearance, which should make navigation slightly easier for folks who struggle with traditional flat view. We didn't get to see a dungeon map, but Skyrim does have the Clairvoyance spell -- a ball of light that reveals a trail to your quest point -- to make dungeon trawling less confusing for the directionally challenged. You'll find over 150 dungeons around Skyrim, all "handcrafted" and unique to themselves, so that spell might actually come in pretty handy.
Thar Be Dragons, Giants, and Spiders
One of the most exciting features Bethesda has implemented may be the two-handed weapons system, which lets you map each hand to a different weapon or spell. What this essentially does is break down class restrictions seen in previous Elder Scrolls titles. Now, if you want to be a battle mage, then dammit, you can. Just stick a sword (or some other melee weapon) in one hand and assign the other to any spell of your choosing. Alternatively, you can equip the standard sword and shield combo, dual wield two one-handed weapons, or carry a staff and a one-handed weapon.
In addition to the usual fireballs and such we're used to seeing, Skyrim will include new Rune magic, which offers a less direct alternative for magic users. Runes are basically magical traps that you can lay on the ground ahead of time, then lure enemies into for devastating results. Certain enemies will, however, be resistant or immune to specific spell types, so you'll need to pick and choose your magic carefully for every foe.
There are plenty of new and bizarre creatures in Skyrim, and not all of them are automatically hostile. Dragons, on the other hand, will probably always try to kill you, as evidenced by the three seen in the demo. The first encounter was cut short by escaping into a Nordic dungeon, but the last two gave us a better idea of what dragons are capable of. Not all are equally deadly; the fire dragon presented less of a threat than the frost dragon, for instance. Luring the dragon into more populated areas will attract added support from guards and the like, but NPC aid is little more than a distraction for these beasts.
Dragons boast different AI than other enemies, making dragon encounters much less predictable. As you weaken them, they'll eventually drop from the sky, moving the fight to ground level where you're at less of a disadvantage.
As Dovahkiin, you will have more than just spells and martial prowess on your side. Your trademark ability is a form of dragon magic called "shouts," and they really are incredible to see in action. These shouts are learned by absorbing the essence of downed dragons or discovering ancient transcripts carved into ruins, hidden away somewhere. By piecing together new words, you create shouts, and we got to see a few during the E3 demo.
Fire Breath lets you breath fire like a typical dragon, and Storm Call gives you the ability to summon storm clouds, which send down lightning at your enemies. Another shout we previewed didn't have particularly exciting visuals but created a shockwave that knocked opponents off their feet.
From what we saw, there is a ton of potential for character customization in Skyrim, and we haven't even seen the actual character creation system yet. No, we're talking about building your ideal warrior, mixing combat styles and picking up skill perks in any combination. The whole idea of playing as Dovahkiin is tantalizing enough on its own.
Combat looks brutal yet smooth, and the interface has been dialed back for an overall sleeker appearance. The demo also gave us a pretty good idea of how badass players will feel stepping into the shoes of a legend in the making, and we honestly cannot wait to get our hands on this game. Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim will be out for PC, Xbox 360, and PS3 on November 11, 2011.