Starting from scratch
You’ve played well over a hundred hours of Fallout 3. And you’ve lost track of how much time you’ve sunk in to Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. You love both games; The Capitol City Wasteland and Tamriel are practically second homes to you. But you’ve spent so long in those worlds that your list of nitpicks about them is a mile long.
Game director Todd Howard and his designers at Bethesda Game Studios know exactly how you feel.
When Oblivion came out in 2006, Howard’s team had only been in possession of the final Xbox 360 hardware for four months. Which, Howard says while holding court at a recent event for the game in Salt Lake City, Utah, made working on the game, “feel like your freshmen year in college.”
But this time, with years of experience making games on PC, PlayStation 3, and Xbox 360, Bethesda have the confidence of upperclassmen. So the first thing Bethesda did was start from scratch. “By the time we were done,” Howard notes, “we had re-written all the gameplay and all the graphics in our engine.”
Yet despite all the changes, Skyrim still feels like a sprawling Bethesda-style role-playing game. “We’re just trying to fill this world with tons and tons of detail,” Howard says. That means populating the Northernmost province of Tamriel with five major cities, 120 dungeons, and more than a hundred points of interest. Boasts Howard, “The game is just too big.”
In Skyrim, players take on the role of a dragonborn. “We don’t want to explain it too much, like Midichlorians,” Howard says, though he does add that, thanks to your dragon’s soul, you’ll be able to learn and say the same words of power that the deadly serpents speak when they breath fire. “Combat,” Howard offers, “is debate to dragons.”
Just don’t expect to be talking your way out of encounters with them. “They’re our boss fights,” Howard says of the giant scaled beasts. “You have to use a lot of your resources to win.”
Said fighting is tied to the controller’s triggers, one for each hand. “It’s a lot more visceral, the way you bash and knock guys around,” Howard explains. And your character’s skills develop depending on how you play. “What we’re trying to do is really define your character by what you’re doing,” he continues, “and not some arbitrary menu choice you make in the beginning of the game.” That meant streamlining the way Skyrim begins.
“When you start the game in character [generation],” Howard explains, “the only option you are given is what you look like. You pick your race, and races come with certain benefits. They come with certain racial powers.” But from there, you shape your character’s abilities as you play, growing the game’s three main attributes and eighteen skills as you play. Hack away at enemies with an axe or chill them with a frost spell, for example, and you’ll level up those skills while also filling up the bar that earns you a new level. And with each level gained another perk is earned from a pool of hundreds.
These and a myriad of other tweaks, such as randomly generated side-quests, all serve the ultimate goal of injecting Skyrim with the same addictive special sauce that gave Fallout 3 and Oblivion so much staying power. “You’ll have these objectives,” Howard explains, “and we kind of want to nudge you to them, but really we’re trying to show you two or three new things before you finish the thing that you’re doing.
“Our goal,” Howard concludes, “is that you never, ever get to this point where you go, ‘I’m good for the night. I’m going to stop.’”
PARTING SHOT: There’s a lot to live up to after the raging success found with Oblivion, but Bethesda’s willingness to scrap the bulk of the core technology while developing a bigger, bolder adventure gives The Elder Scrolls V a fighting chance at Game of the Year honors. What do you guys think?
Source: EGM, Vol. 249