Role-playing games have underpinned the history of computer games, even more so perhaps than the first-person shooters that reign today. Long before the first gamers fired at their virtual enemies with a mouse-click, lone disciples of the genre had already been wandering through text-based dungeons, which then formed the basis for increasingly complex game worlds. Complexity is the key word here: the success of every RPG rests in how accurately worlds from the infinite imagination can be reproduced in a video game.
Bethesda has proved time and time again that they are easily up to the task with their Elder Scrolls series, and during an hour-long gaming session we were again convinced that the latest installment, Skyrim, would deliver high-end RPG entertainment.
Who let the dragons out?
I won’t give too much of the story away; the main plot was actually disabled for our demo so we were only allowed a glimpse into a side-quest. However, it was still clear that the mystical world is again infested with dragons, so we had to launch into some pretty humungous battles.
But in spite of this uncertainty, we encountered many tried and trusted features. We could create our hero from a mix of all the famous Elder Scrolls races (there are a few rumours about other races that we were unable to see) and started our journey without any more ado. From the outset, we’re captivated by an inviting, bright woodland environment where a few harmless animals occasionally skip past and a stream rounds off the perfect rural idyll. We set off in a happy mood, in the first-person perspective, and the third-person view is of course available. (Many sections of the game, i.e. riding a horse, can only be played in third-person).
Real manual labour
Why buy an expensive designer product when a cheaper product can deliver the same functionality? You could hire a few specialist and professional level designers for the main quest, but if the game is to contain dungeons sprawling with side-quests, it could be tempting to simply throw together some preset building blocks to create 100 different dungeons.
But Bethesda resisted the temptation in Skyrim, because each side-quest has been meticulously designed by the right designer. And that makes a huge difference for the game experience. It is the incredible magic from the hands of the game designers that makes the level construction feel so right. You feel that the level is simply more fun; an impression that was confirmed after our little trip through a cave populated by thieves and priests.
Creation engine: revolution at its core
For Skyrim, Bethesda have taken the Gamebryo engine seen in such titles such as Oblivion and Fallout: New Vegas, and have expanded on it for the Creation engine. The development of the new basic structure was chosen specifically for Skyrim, and players will notice it in many large and small improvements. So for example, the level of detail and the resulting distance visibility is greatly enhanced. A somewhat minor detail is the animated snowfall, which can be counted flake by flake as it falls on objects in the game world.
These are nice details, but for true RPG players the visual aspects are never as crucial as the content, and this is where Bethesda scores the most plus points. There is a larger number of intelligent NPCs in the virtual cities, which, besides creating a much more vivid game world, also ensures that the game and dialog flow seamlessly, so a smith no longer has to stop work at his sharpening stone when you address him.
Additional features of the creation engine:
A new mission system ensures that the quests match your actions; e.g. if you accidentally kill your original quest giver (these things happen…), a replacement is soon found for him. However, this could be problematic, because you have slaughtered your original contact.
Randomly generated missions are tailored to the previous game events to make sure you aren’t always visiting the same dungeon.
The intelligence of the NPCs is so advanced that enemies can detect the glint of a drawn weapon.
Bethesda’s next big hit
Bethesda has ticked all the boxes to give us a wonderful gaming experience. While we were only able to see a small demonstration of the visuals and the time-honored combat system during our presentation, the real hit potential of the game lies primarily in the capabilities of the new engine. The game depth it provides and the meticulous attention to detail that Bethesda has invested in this project will keep many role-playing game fans busy for seemingly endless hours.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim will be released on 11th November, 2011.