Skyrim's E3 presence was a breath of fresh air and a tour de force of substance over style. Rather than relying on blaring rock music, blatantly scripted QTEs and gaudy explosions to lure in weak-minded fools, Bethesda's presentation was a meticulous technical demonstration of the new inventory system, dual-wielding mechanics and the Creation Engine's advanced capabilities. Many of my peers found the demo "boring" and used it as an opportunity to catch up on their correspondance (and their sleep, if a little snoring from the back of the theatre was to be believed), but for Elder Scrolls fans, it was nothing short of beardy bliss.
The demo level started out in a deep, snow-covered gully, where Skyrim's lead artist was keen to show us the true power of the Creation Engine. Running on the Xbox 360, the visuals were crisp, detailed and ambiently jawdropping even on the big screen. A bubbling, rippling river showcased improved water effects, and the stonkingly vast rendering distance and clipping plane allowed us to take a good look at the epic mountain ranges that form the backdrop to the action. These soaring peaks aren't just a skybox or prerendered texture, and being an Elder Scrolls game, we'll be able to ascend to the very top of the Throat Of The World if we so choose. Doing so will allow players to visit a powerful clan of Shout Magic users... but more on that later.
Snow started to fall, coating the scenery in a light smattering of white. Apparently weather effects are dynamically created by the engine itself, meaning that assets can be recycled and textures don't have to be switched out when the weather changes. This, in turn, makes the feeling of immersion even more palpable as the weather intensifies and the ground gradually builds up with a layer of snow.
These large-scale features are supplemented by smaller, yet equally important, graphical flourishes. Plants and objects cast their own dynamic shadows and filter the light as it passes through their leaves, and the new Havok physics engine will provide even more realistic animations. Bethesda has gone on record to state that graphics are important for maintaining a sense of immersion... and from what we could see, the Creation Engine will be more than capable of grounding players in Tamriel.
A few wolves and bandits obligingly agreed to sacrifice their lives so that Bethesda could show off the dual-wielding combat system in action. Any combinations of weapons, shields and spells can be hefted in either hand, providing a flexible framework that's vaguely reminiscent of Bioshock 2. New bashes and melee moves make combat more visceral (and shields more exciting) this time around, and a huge variety of new spells present opportunities both in and out of battle. For example, the brand new Frostbite blasts out a persistent beam of stamina-draining and damage-dealing ice, and wielding the same spell in both hands allows players to exponentially increase its effect.
Rune Magic (replacing Mysticism, I believe) can be used to place magic traps on floors or ceilings to debilitate pursuers, but it pales in comparison to Shout Magic. This primal form of spellcasting is unique to the Nords, who combine terrifying Draconic power words into some of the most devastating spells in the game. The twist in the tail, however, is that these phrases have to be infused with a Dragon's Soul in order to use.
But hey, who cares about visceral combat and mighty words of arcane power? In our heart of hearts, we're all about inventory management here at Dealspwn (no, really), and Bethesda were happy to oblige with a lengthy tutorial. D-Pad shortcuts and a streamlined on-screen menu lets players swap weapons, items and spells around with speed and precision without breaking the flow of the action, but hitting the menu key brings you into a glorious realm of pure information. Every one of the countless items have been rendered in full 3D (and can be scrutinised at length from within the menu), and you can expect an entire library of books and scrolls to be readable from here. As a fan of depth and customisation in RPGs, I was in seventh heaven.
The best was yet to come, though. The rep revealed the new skills and upgrade menu, set in an achingly beautiful scrolling interface designed around the constellations in the night sky. Each and every skill improves as you use it, and this time around, they also have their own individual upgrade trees that will allowed us to tweak every part of our character. Finally, the map screen zooms the action out into the heavens above the map area, showing off the entire realm of Skyrim at a glance. You'll be able to seamlessly zoom into the fully-rendered play area or fast travel around the locations - all without breaking the immersion more than absolutely necessary.
Skyrim will be more streamlined than ever before... and yet, manages to deliver even more depth where it counts. Bring. It. On.
Passing through a small town provided Bethesda with the perfect opportunity to discuss the new NPC and social mechanics. Each inhabitant has their own jobs and roles within their communities, and each town provides many ways to earn money beyond engaging in quests or bartering for resources. A lumber mill, for example, can earn the player a few coins a day for chopping wood and engaging in hard manual labour... or can be sabotaged and stripped by more nefarious players. Every major town will also have a Fighters and Thieves Guild headquarters, along with the potential to sign on with the Dark Brotherhood or journey to the Mages' tower. You'll never be short of ways to earn money, but naturally, the best heroes will find the best loot and gear in the myriad dungeons and caves dotted throughout the world.
It wasn't long before we were delving through one such dungeon. A swinging pendulum trap was easily negated using the new Whirlwind Sprint spell (which is going to get its own hotkey, mark my words), and the venom glands of a freshly-killed spider was smeared onto a sword for insidious poison damage. Undead Draugr, cultists, thieves and puzzles will all make an appearance in these subterranean grottoes, making each and every one unique.
After emerging from the depths onto an expansive grassy plain, a herd of mammoths led by a stoic Frost Giant lumbered slowly past. Not all animals and factions will be hostile to the player (and may even come to their aid)... but there was simply no time to enjoy the scenery. The frost giant was snatched up into the sky by a marauding dragon who scattered the herd and began a furious attack on the player.
Fighting against dragons will be a core focus of the experience, with advanced AI allowing the wyrms to engage in bombing runs, devastating melee attacks or snatching unwary players up in their talons. Luckily a small group of allied archers were on hand to help out with the beast, which was quickly slain thanks to some delibitating ice magic... but the victory was short-lived. A larger, more powerful Dragon screamed into the battlefield; incensed by the death of its kin and lusting for blood.
Our Nordic hero, however, had one last card to play. If you remember, Shout Magic requires a Dragon Soul to energise, and there just happened to be one on hand. Consuming the freshly-slain monster, our hero bellowed out his new Storm Call power word, which triggered a terrifying thunderstorm that pelted the airborne menace with lightning bolts. Hunting dragons for their souls is going to be an incredibly important way to improve your Shout Magic - and a lot of fun to boot.
The demo ended, and we were in no doubt. The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim is going to cement Bethesda's reputation as the kings of the open-world RPG when it releases this November... and thousands of Dragons will die. We can't wait.