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Shiver at the Sight of the Cold North: Skyrim

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I was glad to be off my feet as I sat down at the Skyrim demonstration. I'd only just arrived at the floor for the day but I already felt exhausted; I had spent the entire previous day trudging all over the massive convention center with very little to show for it. A few things had looked good, but for every decent looking title there were ten trailers with no actual gameplay footage and a handful of unimpressive demos with hour long lines. Where was the 'wow' moment? Wasn't this E3, the place where Ocarina of Time and Metal Gear Solid blew everyone away in the same year? Had the golden age of videogames come to an end?

 

After a long wait, the Skyrim logo faded to black and the live demonstration began. There were many exciting things about it; at least 3 dragons were fought, a fluid and powerful spell system was used, a dungeon puzzle was solved, and the combat and item systems were deeply exposed. Those were all interesting, and I'll get to them later--but they had nothing on the first 10 seconds of what I saw on the screen.

 

Todd Howard walked us along a path in what has become the signature Bethesda reveal of its worlds: down a hill, overlooking a collection of distinct terrain features. It was nothing inherently exciting compared to the rest of the demonstration, but it was the most exciting thing I had seen since I had mistaken early footage of Gran Turismo 3 for actual, real world racing footage. That had been at E3 2001, exactly a decade earlier.

 

It was a constant tingling, the inability to do anything but lean forward and smile as yet another game had taken a giant leap forward closer to reality, closer than anyone expected or thought possible. We all imagine that one day videogames will be indistinguishable from reality, but do we really believe it? Not until we see it. It seems to happen not smoothly but in giant steps of innovation. Skyrim is one of those steps.

 

I had been frustrated with an industry that had yet again become obsessed with hardware, promising endless lists of features and upgraded specifications, but putting nothing on their giant screens other than dopey, stuttering executives. They seemed to forget the purpose all that hardware was supposed to serve; without a Super Mario 64, it doesn't really matter how many bits your console has.

 

Along comes Bethesda, not forgetting that brilliant graphics, brilliant games, and brilliant art in general comes from attention to detail, from painstakingly creating every subtle aspect of the most realistic environment possible. Technology can certainly be a limitation in this aspect, but it can never be the first mover. It cannot and will never be able to do the work of the developer,  artist, and human pulling the strings.

 

There is probably no better demonstration of this fact in existence than Oblivion and Skyrim, which, mind bogglingly, run on the exact same console. We used to define 'generations' of gaming by the hardware, but now that can no longer be the case. Our technological advancements have outstripped our artistic ones, and now it is the developers that must catch up to the technology. It is only now, on the eve of the next console generation, that someone has shown what this 5+ year old hardware can actually do.

 

About the game itself, what else can be said? The gameplay looks even more elegant and fun than in Oblivion. Combat seems simultaneously simple and entirely customizable, with most combinations resulting in powerful surprises. It is the first game I have ever seen do justice to that holy grail of all fantasy, the dragon. Todd fought off three of them, each swooping around him organically, performing unscripted bombing runs and frontal assaults. At least one spell caused a storm to erupt into existence as far as the eye could see and shocked one dragon with lightning until it became too weak to fly and crashed into the ground, sending impressive dirt effects in all directions and shaking the demonstration room with powerful sub bass.

 

My biggest gripes with Oblivion—the ugly, repetitive terrain and boring, awkward NPCs— seem to have become Skyrim's biggest strengths. The terrain is bigger than life, reminiscent of images from the Lord of the Rings movies. The NPCs perform actual jobs in their towns, working in forges and lumber mills to contribute towards a genuine economy. Real enough so that the player can participate in any of the jobs as well for extra cash or tamper with them to sabotage the economy.

 

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is so highly anticipated that it would sell well regardless of my opinion, or even its actual quality. Those who are going to buy this game already know it. But it's nice to know I don't have to wait for the Xbox 720, PlayStation 4, or upgrade my PC with a $2,000 video card. The next generation of gaming has come early. It's Skyrim.

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