Monday, September 12, 2011



I certainly wasn't planning on doing a post in here (The Video Game Tome) today, but after watching plentiful footage for my most anticipated game I knew I had to.

Today the fine folks at Bethesda (one of the great high-budget studios in the video game industry today) posted over 20 minutes of gameplay video for their upcoming epic, "The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim." Here is Part 1 of the demo as seen at E3, QuakeCon, and PAX featuring commentary from the Game Director and Executive Producer, Todd Howard:

Go check out the Bethesda Blog for Parts 1 and 2.


The demo begins in first-person on a beautiful mountain trail. It looks like a brisk morning and we hurry along while appreciating the beauty all around us. After switching to third-person we realize we are playing as a Nord (a human built like a Viking and typically white as a Russian), one of the ten races you can choose from when you create your character at beginning of the game. It is only fitting that for this first tour of the game we play as a Nord. Skyrim is very much the land they hail from, much as Vvardenfell (where "Morrowind" is set) is native to the Dunmer (Dark Elves). A fox, or some similar woodland creature, realistically darts across the trail on its morning run. Had I been playing this demo I would have given chase, whatever lucky chap was in control of this demo chose to stick to the trail.

Soon enough we learn the awesomeness of the dual-wielding. Todd Howard explains that we can put any weapon, shield, and spell combo in either hand. If you put the same spell in each hand you can cast an ultra-powerful version of that spell. After dealing with some a thief it becomes very clear that the combat in this game is much more realistic (thus much more brutal) than past games. The first-person mode makes for an extremely visceral experience. The sound design goes a long ways to aid each and every fight.

The menu system is a work of art all on its own:

- From the item section you can look at each and every thing (and if you have played an Elder Scrolls game you know you can pick up nearly everything from flowers to battle axes) in 360 degrees with an option to zoom-in. It all looks intricately detailed and adds to a living, breathing world that is in fact lived-in. Howard tell us, "Each of the thousands of objects you can find can be zoomed-in, rotated, and looked at in high detail."

- To check out your stats your look to the heavens above where the constellations are symbolic of your skills and abilities. There are trees for progression where you can gain perks and increase your character's functionalities in a vast variety of avenues. It all looks so very pretty too.

- Opening the map actually serves as a zoom-out and we see where the player is in proportion to all of Skyrim, which looks like a winter wonderland. Keep in mind that Skyrim is just one province, and a Northern one at that, in the Elder Scrolls universe. I know some people were more fond of "Morrowind" than "Oblivion" in terms of diverse climes and climates. Yes, "Morrowind" really did have a lot of variety. However, keep in mind that not all places really are that way, even in video games. Skyrim looks to be harshly cold, a place where it will be a struggle to survive as a wanderer.

To be sure, this in unlike any menu system in any RPG ever. I rather liked how it was employed in "Oblivion," which was a sure improvement for organizing and navigating. What we are seeing for "Skyrim" is both simple (just look at the item section) and creative.

After disposing of some aggressive wolves, we reach Riverwood. It is a small mountain town where woodcutters and blacksmiths are already out working to make ends meet. As we stroll down the main road we pass an older woman exclaiming to a younger man about having seen a dragon. "What?! What is it now mother?" he asks her rather annoyingly. A couple months ago Bethesda officially announced that for the first time you can get married in their game. Families are going to play a larger role than ever before in this Elder Scrolls entry. Among other townsfolk we see a woodcutter busy at is job. He tells us that if we're here for work we ought to get an axe and start.

We leave the town on horseback, eager to explore more of this incredible realm. We fall among bandits who we have no trouble disposing with a bow. Up a fierce mountain we ride with snow falling toward us. As we near the summit we reach some place called Bleak Falls Barrow. Just as we arrive we experience a new kind of terror in an Elder Scrolls game, a dragon! We sparse briefly with the fire-breathing leviathan, but seeing we are no match we enter the Barrow itself (ending Part 1).

As the player flees this initial dragonic encounter they enter the first dungeon. Todd is quick to inform that it is just 1 of 150 hand-crafted dungeons to be found in the land of Skyrim. Right before we enter another door into a complex cave system a message wipes across the screen saying we've started a quest called The Golden Claw. Down in the dungeon's cave we find opponents aplenty! It was during some combat there that I really started noticing the stirring soundtrack composed by Jeremy Soule, who has been along on the Elder Scrolls ride since "Morrowind." He created beautiful full-orchestra themes for the earlier games and other iconic tunes that play for exploring and combat respectively. Herein he seems to be at it again, while integrating the Dragon shouts (particular of Skyrim) into his tracks with a epic choir. (See the end of Part 3 for a sample of the game's now iconic theme.)

At one point in the dungeon the player faces a threatening hallway of swinging axes. They timed it just right and then - to my surprise - employed some quick dash ability and sped through the obstacle. I'm guessing this is some perk they were able to unlock, no doubt from the agility constellation. I haven't seen anything quite like it in a Bethesda game, but I'm sure there is more where that came from in this entry. Not long after a tribe of zombie warriors (called Draugrs? am I getting the term right?) are awoken and must be dealt with. To finish off one, the Nord casts a spell that slows down time for all around him and then shot another blast-of-a-spell toward the undead humanoid and sent him flying up to high wall in glorious slow-mo. People, magic rules!

We also face a giant spider while down there. We are cries for help and for a moment I thought the spider was talking! No, it is actually some poor sap who spelunked the Barrow before us and managed to get tied up in the spider's web. After killing the arachnid we set about cutting him loose. Once freed he runs off, insulting us and saying something about having the treasure all to himself. So we kill him and take the mysterious Golden Claw.

Water is running through the caverns and we follow it to a massive tunnel where we send a burst of light flying through the area showing off both the size of and the fierce attention to lighting and shadows that the Creation engine (made just for this game) boasts. The water leading to a massive pit where it fall below into the dark. Above we can see the Skyrim sky where another waterfalls enters in. It is a spectacular sight, but we find another cavern to head through where we solve a puzzle and open an ancient door using the Golden Claw. There is some very special encounters on the other side, I recommend you finish watching Part 2.

Part 3 is what we were all salivating over after E3. After exiting the dungeon we come across giants who are herding wooly mammoths across the plains. For whatever reason we decide it would be a good idea to pick a fight with these monstrous creature and begin a small-scale battle. The fight is interrupted by none other than the spotlight creature itself, another dragon! This time there is no dungeon door within reach. He swoops upon us, grips the giant we've been fighting in his claws and carries him upward in a rush before letting him go, no doubt falling to his gianty death! Some nearby men rush to our aid to fight the dragon. One serves as a nice snack for the creature before we finally fell the winged lizard. Only then do we discover that another dragon (same breed? maybe they were brothers...) has discovered our position and longs to keep the battle going. It is a fantastic sequence that is as good as any demo finale I've ever seen. I'll let you watch it for yourself to discover what happens, but let me just say the dragon shouts we've been hearing so much about are finally employed. It is a superb finish to one of the most satisfying and gratifying demos I have ever beheld. Watching the 20+ minutes (the most that has ever been released to the public thus far for the game) today has more more excited than ever before to play it myself.

If any one of us were playing the game, even if we started the demo at the exact same spot, we would have wildly different experiences. As I said before, I would have chased that bloody fox and observed how he lived. Then I would spent a significant amount of time in Riverwood. I would found the stores in town and cased the joint and planned my midnight burglaries. I would have asked that woman where she saw the dragon and see if I couldn't hunt it down, or maybe even convince her to join me and watch her face the flying infirmity. I'm sure I would have gone about chopping some wood for the lumberjack to earn a decent day's wage. Had I made it to the Bleak Falls Barrow I would have never rescued that jerk in the spiderweb and yes, I would have attempted jumping off the waterfall into the unknown below. What might you have tried? We only need talk about this for two months more...


Gaming has taken quite a backseat in my life lately, but there are always exceptions and I always knew the latest and greatest in the Elder Scrolls saga would always be one of them. Back in 2003 when I first played "The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind," video games as I knew them completely changed. I sill fondly refer to it as my favorite game. There was a freedom (an agency) at work in this digitally crafted open-world that was unlike anything else I had heretofore experienced. It was more than an entertainment, it was not just an escape, it was a whole new world with horizons I could actually venture to and untold actions I could actually take. There is learning to be had in such simulations, which is one reason gamers keep gaming and why non-gamers will never know why (unless they devote a significant amount of active time into them).

I may never grow out of video games because there is more the meets the eye (and much more than meets the word). Perhaps some day the terms will evolve. When you play a game like "The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind" and its sequel "Oblivion" and its upcoming sequel "Skyrim," you realize the necessity to call it something different. They are not just games. They are worlds, they are story mines, and they are tools - all of which you can experience in a unique way, personal to your free will. I love the thought that I have a plastic bin of worlds under my bed (and more in my closet at Home Base). Each offers something special, but I especially like the Elder Scrolls.

"The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim" hits store shelves on 11.11.11.

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