E3 2011: Dragons and Dual-Wielding: Impressions of Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Perched overhead as Todd Howard climbed to the top of the frozen mountain trail, looming on ruined piles of stone that had once been great pillars, was a huge black dragon.

It stretched its wings as Howard drew his bow and fired an arrow — pissing it off, really. The steps of this ruined…fortress? Temple? were no kind of place to engage a brute of its size. Flames rippled through the air and engulfed Howard as he scrambled back.

“We’ll deal with him later,” he remarked slyly, slipping through the heavy doors into Bleak Fall Barrow.

Howard, director of Bethesda’s upcoming The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, showed off a lot of interesting gameplay mechanics and engine capabilities in the company’s next RPG, due on Nov. 11. But of all of them, two elements stood out above all others: the weapons the player could take into battle, and the fiery menace of the dragons.

When Howard emerged from the Barrow on the other side of the mountain some minutes later, having passed through dungeon and solved a puzzle along the way as he felled bandits and undead warriors, he emerged onto a snowy Skyrim plain. Already he’d demonstrated some of the interesting aspects of Skyrim — a fully 3-D modeled inventory, the ability to quickly change between weapons and spells, and a dynamic dialog system that allows players to choose their words without the world coming to a hard stop as it waited for a decision.

Now we were seeing Howard’s dragonborn warrior emerging back into the open, beautiful world of Skyrim. The sky stretched low and muddled gray overhead, reaching all the way to distant mountains and a city off to one side. A trio of woolly mammoths lumbered just ahead, herded by a giant. None paid Howard any mind — until he used magic to set one of the mammoths on fire. Suddenly it was a big fight, with the mammoths engaging the warrior until they turned tail and ran away scared, leaving the giant to continue the battle.

As Howard fought on, he mixed and matched his approaches to each situation. Skyrim allows the player to define what weapons or items she or he carries in each hand, and as many players have already seen, this leads to the ability to dual-wield blades and other weapons. But in practice, the system is so much more robust than just having two swords at once. Howard started off with a shield in his left and and a sword in his right, but before long he was mixing in magical spells, which are assigned to one hand, the other, or both. Inspired by Bioshock 2, the system is familiar and yet so much more intuitive — place a cure spell in your left hand and a Destruction spell in your right and you’re ready to go to work; combine two cure spells for a more powerful reaction. Howard used shields, axes and even a magical staff as part of his dual-wielding, and it gave him unlimited options for every combat situation into which he entered.

Wounded but by no means defeated, the giant reached back, preparing another heavy strike against Howard — when it suddenly was hauled into the sky as if it weighed nothing. It was the dragon from the ruins, and it dropped the giant to its death on the plain not far ahead.

According to Howard, dragons in Skyrim are a big deal, and they’re boss-level enemies. Tough to kill and super-strong, they aren’t encounters to be taken lightly. They also don’t just hang out in caves or at the end of quests, either; instead, dragons are dynamic enemies that will move around the world as they see fit, Howard said. And they’re hostile not just to the player, but to everyone, as that unfortunate giant discovered. Dragons really are a scourge on the land in Skyrim, and killing them is no easy feat.

The dragon banked toward a distant ruined tower, where it seemed bandits had taken up residence. Three archers loosed arrows against the dragon as it wheeled and strafed them, spraying flame all over their stronghold. One fell from his injuries while the other two continued to fight.

Meanwhile, Howard sprinted across the field toward the men, sheathing his sword to put chain lightning spells in either hand. Pulling both the trigger buttons on his Xbox 360 controller, he combined the might of both spells and unleashed it for a more powerful attack. The dragon circled back as Howard lets loose bolts of lighting and flame to try to hurt it. As he did so, a notification about his Destruction magic leveling up appeared on the screen — the more Howard used that magic, the more powerful it became.

In fact, Howard’s play is directly influencing his character all the time. He didn’t choose a class at the outset of the game, because Skyrim has done away with such choices. Instead, the player upgrades skills and becomes specialized, basically, through practice. Archery, single- or double-handed combat, magic, dialog skills — all are determined by how the player chooses to go through the game, and during the demo, it was Howard’s magic spells that were getting the workout.

Suddenly, the dragon dropped with a rumble that shook the earth, landing beside the archers and tearing into them with its jaws. Sprinting into the fight and drawing a sword, Howard attacked it, alternating between slashes and magic, and using Dragon Shouts whenever he could. Shouts are special abilities available only to the Dragonborn, of which the protagonist is one; they’re unlocked by discovering words in hidden places in the world, and they can each be upgraded three times by collecting the souls of dragons by defeating them. There are several different shouts, and during the demo, Howard made use of one that let him breathe dragon’s fire, another that slowed time and still another that sent enemies flying with a burst of wind and sound.

The dragon slashed at Howard and snapped at him, but slowly it begins to dissolve from the inside: dying.

Just as another dragon, this one breathing icy blasts on the field below, joined the battle.

This second dragon was ignored for a moment while Howard absorbed the soul of the dragon he’d defeated. That let him quickly bring up the Dragon Shout menu to upgrade Storm Call, another of his Shouts. At its third level, Storm Call is at its most powerful: it literally allowed Howard to create a thunderstorm all around him, which enveloped the battlefield and made the dragon its personal target. Flying around Howard and trying to hit him with its frost breath, the dragon was continually struck by lightning as realistic, full-fledged rain poured down all around.

The frost dragon chased Howard as he ran toward a pair of giants standing near another ruin. These seemed to be more territorial than the other and attacked him, but quickly found themselves distracted by the frost dragon. Meanwhile, Howard pulled out all the stops after explaining that dragon fights would be a major investment for players and consume a great deal of their resources. He alternated between bolts of charged chain lightning and the fire breath Shout, which left the frost dragon careening through the air with flames licking its back and lightning buzzing its face.

Finally, the frost dragon dropped, landing nearby, and Howard got in close with his sword for the kill. A few more bolts of lightning and bursts of flame, and the battle was over — as was the demo.

We saw a fair amount of what Skyrim will have to offer, but nothing seems as interesting or as immersive as the revamped combat and dual-wielding abilities. Warriors in Skyrim are given every option for dealing with every situation; how players approach anything they come across in this new Elder Scrolls world is entirely up to them, and the game will reward their play by making them more skilled in their favorite areas of combat.

Taking on dragons as part of character progression for the Dragon Shouts and undoubtedly as part of the story, warriors in Skyrim are going to need every advantage they can get. Luckily, it seems Bethesda is endowing Skyrim with a robust inventory and weapon-switching system that will make getting the right tool for the job quick and easy every time.

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