On Oct. 11, Bethesda hosted a behind-closed-doors hands-on demo for The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim in NYC. Their hotel suite felt very intimate with only six or so consoles set up as we were allowed to play through an early portion of the game.
With my headset on and controller in hand, I raced against the clock for three hours, delving as deeply as I could into what has to be the most fully realized fictional world in any game ever.
It's hard to describe the feeling of wandering the land, venturing from one settlement to the next, taking in all of your surroundings. The land flourishes with wildlife, clouds and stars reel overhead, and trees and grasses sway as you pass (with virtually no pop-in).
The people and creatures of the world are enraptured in their own comings and goings - essentially living their lives as you run around creating your own adventure.
Characters interact and converse fluidly and with specificity amongst each other as they go about their routines. You're never given the sense that they're just spouting prerecorded dialogue for the sake of background chatter.
Interacting with the world's denizens is equally fluid and lifelike. The camera no longer super-zooms on the character's face as they stiffly deliver their dialogue. Instead you converse from what ever acceptable distance you deem comfortable as they go about whatever chore they are involved in. You can also choose to leave any conversation when you see fit, which is useful since the world goes on about you as you converse and hostile characters may choose to attack as you chat with your new friends.
All of these touches go a long way towards giving the world a real presence. The worlds created in Oblivion and Fallout 3 were inhabited, but Skyrim feels alive.
Not only is the world you explore rich and detailed, character creation and customization has been given even more depth. If you were disappointed in character creation in Fallout 3, don't worry - you'll get lost in this sea of options. Not only do the options and sliders from Oblivion return, you can now add face paint, mix and match eye colors, add scars and adjust your hero's body size. You could easily spend an hour on character creation alone.
I wasted no time creating my avatar and set off on my adventure. My Imperial was a hulking brute with one white and one black eye, a Mohawk with dreads hanging off the side and a mean looking white skull painted on his face.
A lot of care has been taken with game interaction beyond talking to people. Character animation has been improved drastically making playing the game from the third person perspective a viable option. I think one of the marketing reps might have been laughing behind me as I took the time to repeatedly jump, dodge, attack, block and swim over and over as I tested all of my character's animations.
I eventually managed to wander to into a village called Riverwood. Here interacted with some citizens, spoke to blacksmith and learned some basic trades and completed a simple quest for an interesting little love triangle. As thanks, the bard of the three happily agreed to follow me wherever I wish as my new companion.
Thankfully, companions are far less... annoying... than in Oblivion. My new friend intelligently and contextually commented on our environments and situations. He could even follow simple commands. Beyond the usual K-9 tricks of sit, stay and follow, he could be ordered to activate doors, levers and open and loot chests. Most conveniently, he could be traded with, serving as a sort of pack mule.
Even in combat, my friend proved much more useful than expected. Sneaky as my character was, my accomplice never blew my cover or drew unnecessary attention. He did require a bit of hand holding when it came to dungeon traps however. So, as any good leader would do when his follower became more a liability than a boon, I cut my losses and sent him packing. Only later did I realize I had sent him off carrying much of my precious loot - dang. I pressed onward, lesser armed though I may have been.
After defeating a small troop of bandits and countless wolves, it was time to level up. I entered my menu and looked to the heavens and was pleased to find one of the most organic systems for character leveling in any game.
The menu system has been drastically overhauled. By now everyone has heard about the highly detailed map and the constellation systems used for leveling up and assigning perks. Both of these features work remarkably well and feel organic - never like a menu system. The game transitions fluidly as the camera pulls away to reveal the larger area map or scans up to reveal the stars as you create your own personal constellations.
In your equipment menu you can examine and rotate any item you have on you. You can then add these items to your favorites, which can be accessed via up and down on the controller's directional pad and freezes the action. You can also assign two super-favorites to left and right on the d-pad for easy and quick access.
Since my sneaky Imperial liked picking enemies off from afar and setting them ablaze should they wander in too close, I equipped my iron arrows and hot keyed my bow and flame spell with my two-handed battle-axe waiting in my favorites.
As I progressed in level, I began to search the perks available within each constellation. Bethesda has gotten very creative here. I could upgrade the damage my bow inflicts, increase the likelihood of enemies being knocked down, zoom and slow time and increase my rate of fire. It's easy to see how powerful your character could become at higher levels.
When my enemies got a little too close for comfort, I hot swapped for my fire spell which I would wield on both hands. This ain't Oblivions fire-poof spell. Holding the trigger buttons releases a constant stream of flames that sound like a jet engine. Satisfying doesn't begin to describe it.
When my mana would finally drain, it was time for the war axe to come out and play. Close quarters combat has seen a nice face-lift as well. You're not quite using the same hit and run tactics, wildly flailing your weapon as in Oblivion. Here, combat feels a tad more strategic, something like the iPhone's Infinity Blade. You are free to move as you wish of course, but you'll need to wisely decide when it is best to attack, power attack, defend, dodge or, of course, flee.
A bit of visual flair has been added to combat too. Not only are the animations much better for both you and your enemies, the finishing animations are gorgeously brutal.
After making my way through a dungeon and settlement or two, I came upon a castle town called Whiterun. After a quick bit of asking around and investigating, the Jarl of this settlement tasked me with investigating reports of a dragon sighting at the nearby watchtower - FINALLY.
In haste, I abandoned the band of guards the Jarl sent to accompany me and headed to the watchtower. There I came upon one lone remaining and frightened guard who warned me the dragon was still in the area. Not a moment later a huge shadow was cast from overhead, accompanied by the roar of the fire it breathed on the guard, setting him aflame.
Even going on this adventure knowing full well to expect dragons in my path, actually encountering one is more than a bit daunting. With nothing but a single, decrepit tower for shelter, it was important to keep sharp against an enemy who can swoop in from any direction at any moment.
Battling this dragon was intense. Taking pot shots at him with my bow as he taunted my troop and me from the sky. He plunges to the ground to get a little personal action, pounding the earth as he moved, and I move in with my battle-axe at the ready. I slash at its neck and limbs as it (luckily) swipes and chomps on my companions.
Finally, with a wonderful finishing animation that sees me riding the creature's head as I slam my axe between its eyes, the beast is dead. Then, much to my guard friends' surprise, I absorb its soul.
I learn this is because I am Dovahkiin - dragonborn. This means that I can learn the ancient dragon shouts - the same powers dragons use.
I soon learn a new shout or two - one that allows me to dash short distances a flash and another that allows me to knock enemies off their feet. Unlocking and upgrading these shouts require the expenditure of dragon souls. Time to go dragon hunting.
I set off with my newly learned abilities, determined to find my large winged prey and take as many down as possible. Soon after leaving the temple a large shadow loomed from above and a voice came from behind. "Thanks everyone, I hope you all enjoyed our little demo," it said - and my time in Tamriel had come to an end.
Leaving the hotel suite, my peers and I exchanged our experiences. One told of a huge lion he had encountered and was repeatedly killed by. Another spoke of the numerous side-quests he completed and the interesting folks he involved himself with. The differences in our experiences sounded one clear message - as much as I had encountered in my play through - and there was an abundance to take in - it was only a taste of what's to come November 11.