The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim hands-on - "The most realistic game environment ever"
- The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
- The Elder Scrolls
In part one of his Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim hands-on report, James Bowden discussed how having dedicated level designers has improved the Elder Scrolls experience no-end. In part two, he discusses how Skyrim's eye for detail makes it feel like a virtual world with a living pulse.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is the most realistic game environment ever created.
Next time you're walking along the road pay attention. Look everywhere. Notice the birds flying in the sky. Watch the trees swaying in the breeze. Consider the inconspicuous steam rising from the drains. Admire the people you pass with their spontaneous sounds, their coughs, their mumblings. Notice all the ingredients that make life real.
These are all ingredients that the developers of Skyrim have noticed, as my recent hands on time with the game revealed.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim realises that life is made up of more than a little bump mapping and some rays of sunshine playing on castle walls. Skyrim realises that people do more than just speak when spoken to.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is the most realistic videogame environment ever created.
It's all about the details.
Is that the Whomping Willow from Harry Potter in the foreground there or what? Or what, probably...
As anyone would expect from an Elder Scrolls game, Skyrim is big on detail. But even so, no previous Elder Scrolls title has been quite this huge.
We've seen those gorgeous, gigantic dragons with their exquisite movement and delightfully rendered bodies scorching both the sky and the pretty Viking hat on our character's head.
We've seen hundred foot high waterfalls cascading into a sumptuous mist that is carried off by the land’s wild winds.
Oblivion nitpickers will be pleased as well. We’ve noted that trees come in varying heights and varying types, from malting ferns to towering Redwoods.
Towns are packed with detail too. Whereas every location in Oblivion had a similar feel, each major town in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim feels completely unique, and this is down to Bethesda’s dedication to making its universe utterly believeable.
I was fortunate enough to catch a few words with art director Matt Carofano after my time with the game and he revealed that each town had one dedicated artist moulding and shaping it over the course of two years. Two years! That's an amazing commitment from the artist, and from Bethesda, but it pays off in spades.
Each town feels unique. Unique in architecture, in feel, in location, and they are all characterised by little ideas and tweaks that bring each of them alive. It’s clear that this was only made possible thanks to the love and care - and hence development time - granted to them.
No corners have been cut in Skyrim's production to ensure it's the biggest, most diverse fantasy gaming world ever devised.
We weren't given any new screenshots of towns for you to look at. Sorry. But this screen's nice, right? RIGHT? Good.
The god of small things
However, attention to the bigger details should be a given for a game of Skyrim's budget and calibre, and while Skyrim does indeed excel in terms of the big picture, it's the little details that truly make it stand apart from the competition.
It's the way foxes scamper along, fleeing into the undergrowth. It's seeing a legion of wild trout trying to swim upstream. It's noticing birds circling overhead. (Birds, in case you were wondering, can be shot down and their feathers and beaks looted for use in alchemy).
More? Underhanging moss sprouts by rock formations in damp areas. Signposts look handmade rather than copied and pasted from the developer's image bank. Loose snow billows from pillars as you climb old ruins.
But wait, the details get even finer. Butterflies - of which there are at least four varieties plus one type of moth, according art director Matt Carofano - flutter in glades and land on flowers. Dragonflies hover in the twightlight over lakes. A tiny army of ant-like creatures circle a treestump. If you walk right up to a Moose you can hear its wet, harsh breaths.
"Our artists were adding things right up until [Todd Howard] had to say stop. But even then I had to keep making sure they weren't adding more things," said Carofano when I quizzed him about how many little additions were tucked into the game.
From dragons to ants, no corners have been cut.
There may be no corners cut, but with throats it's an entirely different matter.
Human after all
One aspect of Bethesda's more recent games that many people have had issues with is their representation of humans, and how the Creation engine will offer improvements to the portrayal of Skyrim's fleshy avatars has been a much-discussed point.
And yes, humans have more believable actions in all departments. Talking to them is a much better experience with the creepy, intense-stare-zoom camera absent. Overhearing idle conversations about birthday presents and other arbitrary nonsense adds a believability to NPCs that can't be understated.
Oh and yes, actually being taken to my room by an innkeeper was a gaming shock I was still getting over the next day.
The biggest improvement, however, is as follows:
People cough! They have spluttering moments, short sharp hacks, guttural throat clears. They cough! Now either Skyrim has a major plot point revolving around a serious flu outbreak or it's one of the best minor design details ever.
Walk around a world of characters making off-the-cuff comments and, no matter how good the script, they will start to repeat their lines and the spell is broken. In Skyrim coughing is random, spontaneous and believable. There may not be actual irritating particles in Skyrim's air, but you'll think there is.
The people cough. No. Corners. Cut.
"I'll just *cough* do me a nice bit of *cough* alchemy while *cough* the wife's watching Eastenders." Cough.
Deep, deeper, deepest
But all this attention to detail in Skyrim's game world would be for nowt if the gameplay wasn't treated with the same meticulous degree of craft, so I feel very relieved to be saying that it absolutely is.
For starters those dungeons, caves and ruins that started to get a little repetitive in previous Elder Scrolls games are now all individually created by teams of artists and dedicated level designers.
Matt Carofano told me that each individual dungeon in Skyrim was made by a team and that we will find that each hostile location has a purpose and often a climactic encounter. No more 'well, that's that then' feelings of sigh worthy ‘conclusion’ a la Oblivion or Fallout 3. Every cave has a purpose and that is brilliant.
Raw gameplay has been improved as well, particularly in the choice department. I needed a key, for instance, and my options were nicely varied. I could intimidate the innkeeper if I thought I was threatening enough. I could bribe him to hand it over. I could pickpocket him. Or I could bypass the gentleman altogether and try to pick the lock myself. This objective was optional but shows a deeper quest structure at play than in any Bethesda game that has come before.
Like throwing some popping candy in his face is going to have any effect...
Quests are also far more ‘in your face’ than before. One example sees you walk into a town and see a crazy man set fire to a market stall before getting chopped down by guards. Cue being approached by a mysterious stranger with a mysterious note. Skyrim is a more theatrical experience and feels better for it.
Walk around the world and see a Fire Mage and an Ice Mage duking it out in a battle of the elements.
Notice that bandits haul a wagon with a crate to carry their spoils about rather Invisible Backpacks of Infinite Capacity.
Hear a Khajiit bandit singing to himself because he hasn't noted your presence yet.
Find a secret treasure stash because you read a note left on a table that offered hints about where to find a key.
I could go on in similar vein for far longer. Skyrim's is a world with more to it than the mind can even begin to comprehend, and all the separate ingredients blend together to make one of the most gorgeous gaming broths ever.
And then, Skyrim's engine even finds the time to track completely inconsequential stats, just for those that like a good giggle. Stats like 'diseases contracted', 'stories read', 'ingredients eaten' and 'bunnies killed'.
Detail is what adds believability to a movie scene. Details are what add life to a painting. Details are what help solidify a novel and add realism to even the most fantastical fantasy. Details are life, and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is breathing.
Words by James Bowden (Twitter: @Dalagonash)
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