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The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Speculation: What We Know, And Want, in This Huge RPG
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Speculation: What We Know, And Want, in This Huge RPG
As usual, it's been a fairly long wait between releases in The Elder Scrolls series, so long as we don't go by Duke Nukem Forever's timetable. Since The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion's release in 2006, the team at Bethesda took an interesting break by applying its open-world RPG craft to Fallout 3 before heading back to Tamriel (the continent where the Elder Scrolls series takes place within) with The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. So it's safe to assume that Skyrim continues the Elder Scrolls formula that's been established with The Elder Scrolls: Arena: Stick players in a huge fantasy world, let them go wherever they want, and do whatever they want. From other Skyrim coverage to date, we can already see that combat is much improved, the engine has been given an overhaul, and NPCs are more realistic than ever.
What We Know
Set 200 years after Oblivion, players are brought to the extreme north of Tamriel in the titular snowy lands of Skyrim. In typical TES fashion, you start out as a nondescript prisoner. Much like the most recent World of Warcraft expansion, Cataclysm, an enormous dragon (in this case called Alduin) is threatening to destroy the world along with other dastardly dragons -- all which are capable of speaking a new language that's been built from scratch for the game.
The non-player characters who populated Oblivion -- while certainly more interesting to follow around than Morrowind's -- still led incredibly dull lives. If they weren't eating or sleeping, chances are they were walking around somewhat aimlessly or standing in place doing nothing. In Skyrim, the Radiant A.I. system has gotten a big upgrade. NPCs now react to their surroundings and do what makes sense in that context; examples given include working at a mill or farm. Either way, they also won't stop what they're doing altogether just to have a chat with the player. They'll continue to go about their business, occasionally glancing over to look at you rather than standing in place like a statue as you stare at a close-up of their face, as was the case in Oblivion.
NPCs will also grow to develop feelings about you depending on your actions. Entering a friend's house late at night might garner you an invitation to spend the night. "Your friend would let you eat the apple in his house," as game director Todd Howard told Game Informer. Doing something inappropriate -- stealing an item, for instance -- won't provoke the same kind of response from a friendly NPC as it will from someone who already hates your guts.
Although Skyrim doesn't randomly generate dungeons for you to explore like the pre-Morrowind games in the series did, the new Radiant Story feature creates randomized side-quests for you to complete. And like NPC reactions to you, these side-quests will be custom-fit for your specific character: It takes into account what you've done before, the places you've visited, the type of character you're playing, and so on. Howard offered an example of how assassination missions can be customized so that they are ordered by, and target, characters you've already met. And given that Radiant tracks where you've been, it won't march you right back into a dungeon claiming that something has started happening there since your last visit. Instead, Radiant will nudge you into new areas that you've yet to visit.
Almost like building up your reputation with a faction in an MMO, helping characters can lead to new, otherwise inaccessible quests. Likewise, specializations can do the same thing; become good enough with a particular skill, and that might lead to a situation you might not experience in another play-through, such as someone asking you to train them. Game Informer also cites the possibility of an NPC acting as a mobile lost-and-found: A weapon you drop somewhere could be picked up and returned to you by a do-gooder.
Not everything is necessarily designed to benefit you, however. One of the fun bits of freedom in The Elder Scrolls games is the ability to kill almost anyone in the game. Unlike MMOs, where slain NPCs eventually respawn, dead TES characters stay that way. In so doing, you can potentially screw up quest chains by eliminating the only person capable of assigning you a quest. This gets resolved in Skyrim as, for example, the relative of a slain shopkeeper can take up his or her stead and hence allow the quest chain to go unbroken. That's all well and good, but your help won't necessarily dissuade the relative from later trying to get you back for killing that poor merchant in the first place.
The minute-to-minute stuff in Skyrim -- combat in particular -- has also been improved dramatically. You're free to assign whatever you want to each of your character's two hands -- whether that be a sword in each, a two-handed weapon that takes up both hands, a shield, a magicka spell, and so on. Subtle changes, such as the speed at which you backpedal and the timing needed to pull off a successful block, will hopefully make combat a much more interesting affair than what you could get away with in Oblivion (which is to say, repeatedly run forward, clock your opponent with your weapon, and then back up to avoid his or her attack).
The inability to quickly backpedal makes ranged combat more interesting, as you'll need to actually turn around and run in order to put some distance between you and an enemy. This tweak came about supposedly due to Bethesda seeing a mod for the PC version of Oblivion which made ranged combat worthwhile. Arrows are now more powerful, but can't be fired nearly as quickly as they used to, which is just as well because they've now become a much more precious and scarce resource.
Magicka is also much different in that it needs to be assigned to one of your hands -- just as a weapon or shield would need to be. That presents an interesting series of decisions as you need to decide between what combination of physical weapons, defense, and spells you'll have equipped at any given time. Different types of spells yield different types of benefits (for instance, fire does more damage while frost can slow enemies down). They've also got different uses; Game Informer notes a fire spell could be used in the form of a long-distance ball, a close-range flamethrower, or a ground-based trap.
What We Want
The interesting thing is that much of my wish list is already being fulfilled. Or at least, Bethesda is aiming to fulfill it. A world of shallow, lifeless NPCs has long been one of the more distracting, immersion-breaking aspects of the series. It was difficult to buy into the game's world when faced with the unnatural conversations, bizarre patterns NPCs follow throughout the day, and the disconnect between your relationship with characters and the way they act. Radiant A.I. sounds like it's addressing each one of those concerns, but one has to wonder just how deep NPC relationships will go. If I come into a friend's house while being chased by an enemy, will they help me fight or just offer me a place to sleep? Can I enlist their help to follow me around as a companion that will do whatever I want -- acting as a distraction when I need to steal something or kill someone, for instance?
The two-hand system for combat also sounds like a marked improvement over Oblivion, and it opens the door for some interesting possibilities. When asked if you could combine magic spells, Howard answered, "We're not talking about that. We're not sure. We'd like to; it'd be awesome." Indeed it would, as Magicka has shown us. If you're only able to equip two spells at a time, then that would limit the number of possibilities as compared with Magicka's offering; though that's expected given that magic combos are that latter game's foundation.
Even so, mixing different spells to find new and interesting combinations could become a little game in and of itself. Heck, rip off some of the ideas for combos that Magicka features -- combine a shield spell with offensive spells to lay down different types of traps on the ground, or combine fire and water to create steam. It'd be especially neat if there was a puzzle in the game that, say, required you to produce steam to proceed. Those who specialize in magicka could then get away with a shortcut of using the aforementioned spell combo to avoid an otherwise lengthy process of generating steam.
Like spell combining, Bethesda is also staying tight-lipped about mounts. Although no one would argue that Oblivion's horses would rival the dog in Fable 2 for companionship (at least not without the purchase of some Horse Armor, in which case that damn horse better be your best friend), said horses did make for a pleasant way of getting around. After several dozen hours of playing Oblivion, I fell into the trap of abusing fast travel to move around the world. That ended up eliminating a lot of the aimless travel I did in Morrowind that resulted in stumbling upon cool stuff -- say, the talking mudcrab merchant or Creeper. While I don't want fast travel removed altogether, I would like some middle ground -- like a combination of horses (or maybe even flyable dragons?) and Silt Striders.
Assuming that mounts do make the cut, mount-based combat would be a fun addition. I'd rather not jump off my horse each and every time I come across an enemy that needs its ass kicked, and Red Dead Redemption showed that killing enemies from the back of a horse -- inelegant control scheme or not -- is a heck of a lot of fun. It could also open up the opportunity for intense chase sequences where you ride on the back of your horse firing off magicka or arrows at a dragon you're chasing.
If the developers at Bethesda are taking influence from mods for how Skyrim handles ranged combat, then they should also look at upgrading stealth combat. From the sound of it, things are remaining largely the same, except NPCs will now go into an alert mode instead of only switching between "oblivious to your presence" and "trying to murder you" modes. Bethesda is playing around with the idea of dramatically increasing the damage of daggers when used on an enemy you've successfully sneaked up on, which is an excellent idea. But you should be able to go all out with the Sam Fisher-style kills seen in the Deadly Reflex mod for Oblivion that make stealth combat more gratifying.
For some people's tastes, Oblivion's land of Cyrodiil was a bit bland as compared with the more eclectic style of Morrowind's Vvardenfell. Howard even admits as much, having told OXM, "[W]e sacrificed some of what made Morrowind special; the wonder of discovery," also describing Cyrodiil as, "a place that you instantly understood." The Shivering Isles expansion's zaniness went a long way in returning to that Morrowind feel, and was much appreciated by those like myself who preferred what Vvardenfell brought to the table. Bethesda is trying to find a happy medium between the two extremes, or as Howard puts it, a situation "[w]here it's at first familiar looking, but has its own unique culture and spin on it." Hopefully that won't only be limited to the occasional dungeon, as was implied. Some unusual architecture and the occasional completely crazy NPC in the main world of Skyrim would be more than welcome.
As interesting as Radiant Story's randomly-generated side-quests sound -- assuming they remain satisfying and don't begin repeating very similar formulas -- Skyrim must bring back the most interesting side-quests from the previous games -- namely the Thieves Guild and the Dark Brotherhood. Amusing as the other content is, quests that send you out to steal one of the Elder Scrolls, or has you murdering people in creative ways, are arguably the best part of Morrowind and Oblivion. More of the same would be nice, but just imagine even more intricate assassination missions where you have multiple options for how to take out a target (think about the Dark Brotherhood mission where you sneak into a house and loosen a mounted head to fall down once your prey was in position). Throw in a new, optional version of the werewolf/vampire quest line from previous games, and you've got a substantial amount of content that is much more nuanced than your standard quests.
And lastly, Bethesda could take a page out of Obsidian's book, and mimic Fallout: New Vegas' hardcore mode. While it works better in a post-apocalyptic world where resources are limited, it could still be a fun twist for more advanced players to be saddled with a need to routinely eat, drink, and sleep throughout their adventure.
What We Think
Skyrim looks to be very promising. Even if chunks of the aforementioned wishlist end up left out, there's a lot of potentially compelling ideas in the works, particularly the way relationships can develop with NPCs and how randomized quests can be generated that force you to explore new locales. But we've been here before, at least with Radiant A.I.; Oblivion's NPCs were supposed to make decisions and go on about living their lives, and instead they did incredibly little. How well it works in Skyrim remains to be seen. If it's fully fleshed out, and the Radiant Story quests prove to consistently be original, well, those would be incredibly exciting features to see in a single-player RPG.
Seemingly every complaint about Oblivion's fundamentals is being addressed. Promised improvements to the interface, while sounding nice on paper, can only be properly evaluated after spending a significant amount of time with the game, so we'll see about that. By all accounts the graphics look to be much-improved, particularly the animations and formerly fugly NPCs. Should everything across the board end up as polished as Bethesda is hoping, it looks as if Skyrim will be the latest Elder Scrolls title that warrants dozens, if not hundreds, of hours of time spent playing it.