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In honour of Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim trouncing the opposition so far in GamingHUD’s site wide poll, which can be found here, I’m going to try and collect and present some of the biggest news for the game in this here post. So without further ado.

Elder Scrolls Skyrim

Everything you’ve done in the Elder Scrolls has only been a prelude to Skyrim..

As with previous Elder Scrolls games, Skyrim begins with the main protagonist an unknown prisoner. The player eventually learns that Skyrim’s civil war is last in a sequence of prophetic events foretold by the Elder Scrolls of the return of the Nordic Alduin, god of destruction. Taking the form of a gigantic dragon, Alduin is prophesied to consume the world. The player assumes the role of the last Dovahkiin (Dragonborn), a dragon hunter anointed by the gods to help fend off the threat Alduin poses to Skyrim and Tamriel. Aiding the player is Esbern (voiced by Max von Sydow), one of the last of the Blades. The main quest of the game currently takes an estimated twenty hours to complete, in addition to the side-quests and guilds also available across Skyrim.

Folklore and Setting</strong

Folklore is commonplace within the game world of Skyrim. Creatures such as mammoths and sabre-toothed cats are encountered throughout the game, and can be slain. The legendary dragons have an especial influence on gameplay and story. They are described as being “fierce beasts” and as a challenging opponent for the player. Different races of dragons will be encountered throughout Skyrim, either alone or in small groups. They can speak directly to the player character, and will attack cities and towns at random, non-scripted encounters. They will “merrily ravage towns without warning”, often nose-diving to the ground before marching through city streets and breathing fire, engulfing, and causing significant damage to, city structures.

Through a course of events, the player character learns that he/she is “Dragonborn.” This allows the player to use dragon shouts. These are powerful skills gained by slaying dragons, examples of which include teleportation, slowing down time, and summoning a dragon to aid the player. Dragon shouts are described as “battle cries” spoken in the native language of the dragons. There are over twenty different dragon shouts to be gained throughout the game, and they become more effective as the player absorbs the souls of slain dragons. A minority of non-player characters also have the ability to use dragon shouts. The game also considers them to be seperate from magic, so any character may use them, even if the have very low magic skills</p

Skyrim’s game world is the eponymous province of Skyrim. It is a northern province of Tamriel, the continent on which all the games in the series have taken place. Skyrim is roughly the same size as Oblivion’s game world Cyrodiil, which is 16 square miles (41 square kilometers) in area. Within Skyrim lie five cities, larger than Cyrodiil’s cities, as well as smaller townships and expanses of wilderness. Much of Skyrim’s topography is mountainous, and dragons are frequently encountered when exploring the wilderness. There are over 130 dungeons scattered across Skyrim, and when the player enters a dungeon for the first time, the monsters within will lock to the player’s level permanently, even if visited later at a higher level. Fast-travelling is a returning feature, allowing the player to instantly travel to any location that has been previously visited

Skyrim Game World

Oh shit.. a dragon!

The Technology

“The big things for us were to draw a lot of stuff in the distance so we have a really sophisticated level of detail, more so than what we’ve had in the past for how things stream in and how detail gets added to them as they get closer to the camera,” explains Bethesda Studios creative director Todd Howard.

Draw distances are great for creating those postcard-worthy landscapes, but the players eyes aren’t always fixed on the horizon. To give the immediate surrounding a more believable look and feel, Bethesda increased the emphasis on the play between light and shadow on the entire world.“Because our worlds are so big all of the lighting has to be dynamic,” Howard says. “That’s something we had a little bit of in the past with shadowing, but not on everything. Now we have it on everything. It just makes the whole thing a lot more believable when you’re there.”

Skyrim is a diverse country, with a more rugged feel than Cyrodiil, filled with steep mountain passes and dense forests, babbling brooks and violent waterfalls, glacier coastlines and snowy tundras. In order create this, Bethesda has gone back to the drawing board every major system powering the gameplay experience. The result is what they have dubbed the Creation Engine and Kit.

Skyrim Landscape

Breathtaking? Yeah, I thought so.

For the last two Elder Scrolls games (as well as Fallout 3), Bethesda employed the Gamebyro engine to power them. The Gamebyro engine was quite outdated (or up to the task) in all reality when Oblivion and Fallout 3 were released and many fans, like myself, feared that they would be making use of this engine once again. Fear not. Bethesda, along with the previously mentioned Creation Engine and Kit, will be employing the latest Havok technology codenamed Behaviour. This newer technology allows for better and more realistic animations, so the stiff NPCs of the previous games are hopefully a thing of the post.

The Creation engine promises to bring a more advanced physics setup to gamers, with wind affecting trees differently depending on their branch weight, as well as determining the flow and direction of water in rivers and streams. It also allows snow to fall dynamically, scanning the game world and then determining where and how the snow falls upon the terrain.

The AI

In Oblivion, the AI the NPCs used was greatly improved over it’s predecessor, Morrowind. If you followed an average citizen throughout their daily life, you’d likely witness him or her eating their breakfast, setting out for work, heading for a pint at the tavern after before heading home to sleep. In reality, the AI wasn’t all that good. Bethesda could only assign five or six tasks to the townspeople without a lot of nuances in Oblivion, Skyrim is set to change that.

You won’t find townspeople loitering aimlessly in town squares anymore. Each denizen performs tasks that make sense in their environment. To impart the towns and cities with a greater sense of life, Bethesda has populated them with mills, farms, and mines that give the NPCs believable tasks to occupy their day. In the forest village we visited during the demo, most of the citizens were hard at work chopping wood, running logs through the mill, and carrying goods through the town.

The improved Radiant AI technology is also more aware of how a citizen should react to your actions. As you perform tasks for them or terrorize them by ransacking their home, the NPCs develop feelings about you. If you’re good friends with a particular NPC and barge into his house during the middle of the night, he may offer you lodging rather than demand you leave the premises. “Your friend would let you eat the apple in his house,” Howard says. If you swing your weapon near an NPC, knock items off their dinner table, or try to steal something of value, they’ll react with an appropriate level of hostility given their prior relationship to you.

Skyrim Dragon Language

I'm told this is the language the dragons use.

Radiant Story

Before they started planning missions for Skyrim, Howard and his team reflected on what they liked about their older projects. They kept returning to the randomized encounters in Fallout 3 and Daggerfall. To build off the success of those models and improve the experience so the random encounters feel less forced or arbitrary, Bethesda undertook the ambitious task of constructing a new story management system dubbed Radiant Story. Many quests are still completely governed by Bethesda, but the Radiant Story system helps randomize and relate the side quests to players to make the experience as dynamic and reactive as possible. Rather than inundate you with a string of unrelated and mundane tasks, it tailors missions based on who your character is, where you’re at, what you’ve done in the past, and what you’re currently doing.

“Traditionally in an assassination quest, we would pick someone of interest and have you assassinate them,” Howard says. “Now there is a template for an assassination mission and the game can conditionalize all the roles – where it happens, under what conditions does it take place, who wants someone assassinated, and who they want assassinated. All this can be generated based on where the character is, who he’s met. They can conditionalize that someone who you’ve done a quest for before wants someone assassinated, and the target could be someone with whom you’ve spent a lot of time before.”

The Radiant Story system also helps deal with untimely deaths. Predicting player behavior in an open world is tough, as many often stray from the main quests and get into trouble by murdering quest givers. In Skyrim, if you kill a shop owner who had a few quests to offer if you spend the time to get to know him, his sister may take over the shop and offer the quest that was formerly ascribed to him. The quest logic automatically picks up with pre-recorded voice work because Bethesda already assigned her that contingency role. Tread lightly though, because she’s not oblivious to your dastardly actions. She will still recognize you killed her brother and perhaps even try to exact revenge later in the game.

Radiant Story is also smart enough to know which caves and dungeons you’ve already visited and thus conditionalize where, for instance, a kidnapped person is being held to direct you toward a specific place you haven’t been to before, populated with a specific level of enemy. This helps Bethesda avoid repetition and usher the player into areas the team wants you to explore.

Elder Scrolls 5 Skyrim Hunting

Here, deer, deer.

The story manager is always watching you, which can leads to strange random encounters as well. If you drop a sword in the middle of town, someone may pick it up and return it to you, or two guys may get into a fight over who gets to take it. If you’re really good at a particular skill, like one-handed weapons or destruction spells, a stranger who knows of your reputation may ask for training, challenge you to a duel, or beg you for a favor that will require you to show off your skill.

Skyrim also tracks your friendships and grudges to generate missions. Do a small favor for a farmer and it may eventually lead to a larger quest. Some NPCs will even agree to be your companion to help you out in specific situations.

Radiant Story doesn’t limit these new missions to encounters in towns. Like in Fallout 3 and Red Dead Redemption, a lot of random events occur while you’re exploring the wilderness as well. “There are a wide variety of these random encounters,” says design director Bruce Nesmith. “Many of them are things the player can interact with, some are not. You might save a priest who then tells you about a dungeon where there are people trapped that need saving. You might run across mammoth beset by a pack of wolves.”

Some open world games go overboard with these side activities and stray too far from the main storyline. Bethesda is aware of this pitfall and is actively engaged in preventing the feeling of being overwhelmed by the Radiant Story missions.

Skyrim Dragon Screenshot

Oooh, you're a girl dragon.

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