Thursday, April 14, 2011

Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim - A Story About Volvo-Shitting Dragons

It's December 11th, 2010. I'm huddled up on my living room couch with a six pack and a tray of buffalo wings. On screen Neil Patrick Harris is doing his best to make his actions match the sound cues, which apparently went better in rehearsal. I'm watching the Spike Video Game Awards. The laughs are few and far between, the forced celebrity appearances are awkward, and my wings are soon going to become "too hot to handle" in a whole new way. Then out, of the haze of crappy award show, steps a man who is as a god to us mere gaming mortals. Todd Howard walks across the high tech VGA's stage to a chorus of hooded monks and thunderous orchestrated music. He tells us he's here to unveil Bethesda's newest project. I sputter a piece of half chewed buffalo wing into my beer and find myself on the edge of my seat. Fallout 3 stole hundreds of hours from my life. The Elder Scrolls series has taken up years collectively. I'm not saying this to complain of their addictive nature. Neigh! This is merely a fan boys testament to the complete and immersive worlds Bethesda creates. My mind is racing with possibilities and then the trailer begins.

Max Von Sydow's familiar and talented voice pours out of my surround sound and as he elaborates his narration the screen shows me a teaser that reveals... a carving. I hear key words as he speaks. He says things like "Oblivion," "Skyrim" and then he just balls out says "The Elder Scrolls." As I pick my jaw up off the floor I realize that the awards have been over for half an hour and I'm suffering from what could indeed become a priapism if not properly addressed. As the night rolls on I Google relentlessly, watch the trailer fifteen times and take the most painful shit I've ever experienced.

The release date presented to us was 11/11/11. This year, a new full Elder Scrolls title will be released. That leaves us almost a full year to research and masturbate over the details of this gaming giant with maniacal fervor. Let's take a look at what we know so far.

Firstly, one of the biggest innovations to TES is the complete graphical overhaul. As a fan boy I certainly love the games that Bethesda puts out, but let's face it, they aren't perfect. Point of fact, Elder Scrolls and Fallout games both took so long to produce for next gen consoles that by the time they hit they were dated graphically. Graphics aren't the only flaw that has put tarnish on Bethesda's glimmering reputation. Glitches are the bane of all games, and in massively open world games like those that Bethesda crafts, they are a huge problem. I realize that there will always be glitches in games. There are millions of lines of code, and sometimes you simply can't detect some problems until loads of people have had a chance to do something weird and make it break. Sincerely though, I hope that with Bethesda's new in house graphical engine and attention to detail this game will be both beautiful and far less glitch-tastic than its predecessors. The new engine was indeed manufactured by the team at Bethesda, and although fans may be used to the Gamebryo engine this new one looks fantastic. Initially, due to exclusivity, screenshots and videos were far and few between. Now we are starting to see a little more free coverage of the game as the months role on.

Gamerbyo was the aging engine used for Oblivion, Fallout 3 and New Vegas. Fans can be assured that NPCs will actually look like human being (or Ogres and Khajiit) will look realistic. No longer people appear to be made of chiseled clay, but of flesh. Which is exciting news for a fan who get's kind of sick of starring at the same ten character models for about a hundred hours of game play. In response to a flurry of questions about the Gamebryo system after the announcement of TES: Skyrim, the Bethesda team tweeted, "Seeing lots of speculation about #tesv game engine. It's brand new... and it's spectacular!" I for one, am super psyched about this!

Skyrim's new feature's won't just end with more realistic animations and higher resolution graphics. The lore behind TES games has always been firm about Dragons. They're not here anymore. They were defeated, and they are gone from our world. Until now! That's right, dragons! One of Skyrim's new game play mechanics will revolve largely around big ass, scary, winged reptiles of doom. You will play as the last of the Dragon born. I'm guessing this is similar to the Emperor's blood line from Oblivion. At this point in the lore most of the dragon born will have been exterminated, the empire has fallen apart without a successor to the emperor, and in the land of Skyrim, the king has died and created a political vacuum. Apparently civil war in Skyrim foretells the coming of a huge, bad ass, old god, Alduin, who takes the form of a dragon. He also seems to want to destroy Tamriel and everything else. Kind of an asshole I think.

Anyway, Skyrim is right on the brink of civil war, and out of the woodwork dragons start tearing shit up as a precursor to Alduin's coming. As it turns out, a big part of the next game will be battling dragons. Which is simultaneously awesome and terrifying. TES has always been a single player experience, and although it's had it's share of large villains to square off against, this new entry will feature more realistic combat. Take a moment to absorb that. Not only will we be fighting dragons, and yes that's plural. But we will also be fighting them while not being able to run backwards as fast as forward or while continually hiding behind a shield waiting to use a charged attack. I'm all for an added layer of difficulty, and frankly the fights in Oblivion and Morrowind tended to become tedious acts of repetition. However, I am a little frightened of fighting big, angry, flying, fire breathing crocodiles with a more "realistic" combat system. Mostly, because I know realistically a creature that size would shit Volvos and fire breath would only have to get close to suck the air out of your lungs and leave you a screaming mess of melted meat. So let's hope that "realistic" is a relative term for the new combat mechanics. Fortunately in a risk/reward type scenario defeating dragons will unlock dragon shouts. These new powers will be combat related from what I understand. They will be useable by all characters regardless of magical ability.

Bethesda has taken another leap forward in the field of combat updates with other news about spell casting and some archery facts for all you tree hugging hippy wood elves. Apparently The guys and gals at Bethesda liked Bioshock 2 so much they decided to take their dual wielding plasmid and weapon approach and run with it. Equipping a spell now will be just like equipping a weapon or shield in Oblivion. You choose your spell, and here comes the twist, you pick which hand you want to equip it to. So say you want to run around with a shield and a fire spell, an axe and an ice spell, a shield and a sword, or even two swords, now you can! That's right. Dual wieldable blades and spells or however you may combine it. You can finally dual wield Elvin short swords. Your Legolas tribute character can live! Speaking of Elvin characters, big news in the world of bows and arrows. Supposedly, the arrows in Skyrim will be much more powerful than previous titles. However, they will also be more scarce. This sounds like a pretty fair balance to me. Even more exciting was the news that the arrows will be more affected by distance adding an extra level of strategy to aiming and using them effectively.

Stealth has always been a popular option in Bethesda RPGs, and Skyrim will be no different. In fact the dagger, which was almost completely useless in Oblivion will now be the rogue's weapon of choice. Sneak up behind someone and strike them and they will receive bonus damage. This is how the world of Bethesda has worked for some time, and that remains intact. Sneak up behind them with a dagger and strike and the damage bonus is apparently going to be pretty noticeable. That is definitely new and cool. Lighting effects will also play a new role in the sneaking aspect of game play. New character AI is also being implemented for sneaky characters. Now when detected there are different levels of detection. For example, in Oblivion if you get noticed the guard will charge into the shadows and start swinging at you. One could only assume that he was swinging randomly at shadows which may have been in the vague shape of a person. Bethesda is taking another stab at realism here. If you're heard, or your motion detected by the enemy AI, they will wander the area searching for you until their initial level of detection subsides. This means that sneaking around in the shadows just got a hell of a lot cooler. I'm really hoping for a Manhunt-esque type of move where I can shoot an arrow at a wall and some poor unsuspecting goof will go investigate the sound so I can put a dagger in his liver.

I'm just as excited about this game as anyone else, but I certainly do have some high expectations. As I mentioned, this game needs to have some serious bug testing before release. A lot of people have said the bugs in New Vegas were in place because it wasn't done in house by Bethesda. This may be true. However, it was created on Bethesda's tech with Bethesda's code. Fallout 3 and Oblivion both had their fair share of glitches too. Cougar ladies in Red Dead Redemption is one thing, but corrupt saves, invisible enemies, getting stuck in walls, etc. are unacceptable for a next gen game. If you expect us to shell out 60 plus dollars for a game make sure the damn thing works properly. This November 10th, barring release delays, I'll be at GameStop at 10:59 waiting to pick up my preorder special edition. In fact, I'm even planning on scheduling my vacation for that week so I can really sink my teeth into the game. Don't let me or any of the rest of us down Bethesda. You keep hitting RPG gold, and it seems obvious you're working hard to keep TES relevant and up to date in an ever changing field of gaming. I'm behind you as long as you keep producing games of the caliber and quality of the last several.

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