Known for its ski resorts and the Sundance Film Festival, Park City may also be synonymous with…Skyrim? That’s right. Nestled among Utah’s picturesque, snow-capped peaks, the small town recently hosted Bethesda Softwork’s annual press event, where chapter five of fantasy-RPG franchise The Elder Scrolls stole the show. I didn’t grasp the significance of the venue until a Bethesda PR rep exclaimed “This place is Skyrim!” One look at the demo, then a glance outside, and I got it: The game looks so good, you’d hardly know the difference.
Game Director Todd Howard talked up Skyrim‘s graphical leaps and bounds over 2006’s The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, but mostly let the game speak for itself. The soft white flakes accumulating in real-time on lush foliage and distant snow-blanketed mountains contrast sharply with Fallout 3‘s rust-colored, post-apocalyptic grunge. Howard joked of the art team’s elation when he told them: “Alright, you can use the green channel again.”
While a quick tour of Skyrim’s bosky pine forest had me wishing Smell-O-Vision hadn’t fizzled, there’s more to do in this massive RPG than rubberneck the scenery. You know, like reducing a skeleton army to rib platters, or facing frost trolls that’d make a Hoth-bound Wampa look like a huggable plaything.
Players can now dual-wield weapons, magic and gear by pulling the right and left gamepad triggers (they correspond to your character’s hands). This welcome refinement yields all sorts of inventive ways to silence the many horned, fanged and clawed menaces that’ll cross your path. A traditional warrior-type, for example, could equip a sword and shield, where a magic-caster might opt for double-fisting fireballs. What’s more, you can mix up disciplines, say you want to wield a battle axe in your left hand and a foe-frying lightning spell in your right.
Complementing this straightforward approach to death-dealing is Skyrim’s streamlined character upgrade system. As in prior The Elder Scrolls games, skills level with use, which in turn levels your character, but each level now grants a special perk, Fallout 3-style. Attributes have also been scaled down: magika, stamina and health replace the eight arguably redundant attributes from Oblivion.
Managing stats appears to be less headache-inducing, thanks to an interface that trades clinical numbers and text descriptions for menus that please the eyes as well as the thumbs, and a quick button-press conjures a compass-like interface pointing to “magic,“ “skills,” “inventory” and “map.” Favorite items can be bookmarked for quick access, weapons and gear are rendered in detail-drenched 3D, and the map offers a topographical view of the actual game world. Even boring skill trees have been replaced with constellation-like progression paths: pimp one full of perks and you’ll be gazing at star-points instead of dull skill labels.
The new interface also lets you track and equip “dragon shouts,” special abilities tied to the protagonist’s “dragonborn” heritage. The hero, on his way to an execution (hint: not someone else’s) at the game’s start, has a secret connection to the legendary winged beasts that allows him to speak their language. Discovering new “dragon” words unlocks abilities like “Unrelenting Force,” a power that makes your average Jedi “force push” look like an uninspired shove from a schoolyard bully. All dragon shouts (including one that slows time) offer three upgrade levels, so speaking in dragon tongue can be as lethal as wielding a rune-encrusted blade.
Despite sharing syntax with Skyrim’s sky-eclipsing monsters, you won’t be making small talk with them over tea. They serve as the game’s boss battles, so settling your differences peaceably isn’t an option. Not to worry, defeating enemies capable of barbecuing entire villages has its rewards. While Howard was tight-lipped on specifics, he did reveal that you’ll be able to absorb the soul of a downed dragon (to what end, who knows, but you can assume it involves perks).
In any event, I look forward to going toe-to-claw with fire-spitting reptiles–and learning some of their favorite curse words–when Skyrim launches on November 11, 2011.