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Bethesda demonstrates how there's no more exciting word in the realms of high-fantasy than Dragons...
Mountains; dungeons; castles; trolls; magicka; Dragons. The Elder Scrolls series has managed to not only be a hugely acclaimed set of role-playing games, but has also been successful in carving out its own niche within the overcrowded fantasy genre. This November will see the hugely anticipated sequel to 2006's Oblivion, a title that kept Xbox 360 gamers happy for hundreds of hours in a period of relative gaming drought.
At first glance, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim doesn't seem all that different. The northerly province of Skyrim offers the same rolling vistas and grassy highlands that we've seen elsewhere in Tamriel, and the flora and fauna around the players feet is similarly familiar. The gothic ruins and murky dungeons are also closely reminiscent of Oblivion and Morrowind, as are the all-too-convenient hints about local missions that you can eavesdrop upon from the dallying citizens.
Nevertheless, it's in the details that Skyrim distinguishes itself. The lush hillsides and snowy peaks in the distance can all be accessed, and the draw distance is wholly impressive when admiring the view from one of the game's many vantage points. The aforementioned snow is also procedurally generated, meaning some areas could be sunny and green on one day, but covered in white powder the next time you return there, without any scripting on Bethesda's part. It's clearly evident that the engine has undergone a major upheaval since its last outing (this one is dubbed the 'Creation Engine'), and that the entire Fallout 3 team have been working hard on this title since that game released in 2008.
Also improved are the NPC interactions. Gone is the nauseating camera dolly zoom, as is the jarring facial animation, meaning people look more natural and realistic than before. The repertoire of voice talent has apparently been expanded [ed. How much more talented can you get than Patrick Stewart?!] hopefully resulting in a game in which players are no longer listening to the same annoying three actors for the entire hundred-hour adventure. Furthermore, you're now granted the freedom to leave a conversation at any point, and Bethesda has somehow squeezed five fully-voiced languages onto the disc too.
Skyrim's terrain is divided into nine distinct districts, split up into five further cities, all with their own unique architectural design and cultural character. The new player animation system is capable of allowing the player to perform any task they see another character do, such as menial tasks like chopping logs, and is far less ugly than Oblivion was when viewing from the largely unfavoured third-person perspective.
Dungeons are all custom-designed by Bethesda's level designers, and the copy-paste culture of yore is nowhere to be seen. With six separate dungeon styles, including mines and sewers, the toolset has gifted the design team with the means to create well over a hundred uniquely crafted caverns to explore, which are supposedly less focused on asset-recycling maze mechanics and more on individual puzzle and combat scenarios.
One of the best new refinements to the Elder Scrolls formula is the visually impressive constellations-based upgrade tree, which now only features three basic attributes (health, stamina and magicka) and eighteen further skills. They are designed to level-up as they are used, so that players that favour swordplay will see their relevant stats rise as they progress through the game, in a natural, believable manner. Such focus on usability can be observed everywhere in Skyrim, most notably when accessing equipment and spells, which have been streamlined to an intuitive pop-up menu. This menu lets players equip an item or spell into each of their hands, so that a sword can be accompanied by a shield, a damaging spell can be combined with a bow or even so that spells can be cast together, to double their effects.
Perhaps the most exciting addition of all is the mysterious inclusion of dragons, thus far only hinted at by promotional materials. In the E3 demo, after unnecessarily slaughtering a mammoth and its accompanying band of cavemen-like creatures, the player was attacked by a swooping, fire-breathing dragon. An epic battle ensued, with local soldiers also rushing to join in with the fight to take down the powerful beast. Healing spells prevented almost certain death, and after a ragged fight the dragon was finally felled with the clever use of a storm-inducing spell, which caused the dragon to dynamically smash into the ground.
So in an action-packed demo that still managed to retain the series' fantasy atmosphere and explorative nature, we saw a beautifully crafted and technically marvellous setting for players to burrow into. With a carefully designed interface, a dynamic quest system and an attention to detail that is rarely seen outside of a Bethesda game, it seems dragons are just the icing on the cake for this long-awaited return to Tamriel.
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