Then, with a shield in one hand and a sword in the other, Howard prepares to defend himself. The left trigger controls his left hand, and the right trigger his right. Once again, the direction of movement modifies action, so that he can control the angle of his slashing blade. It’s a violently kinetic battle, the collision of blade and shield more acutely felt than in Oblivion, shield barges creating Havok-enhanced stumbles and successful blows splashing your weapon with gore. Howard pulls back, selecting a healing spell in both hands to double its effect, a ball of energy fizzing between his outstretched fingers. Dissimilar spells currently cannot be directly combined, Howard tells us later, but there’s nothing to stop you dual-wielding them – as he demonstrates by switching one healing spell out for frostbite, which slows and damages his opponent. Howard closes in, delivering an execution move – a flourish which activates depending on the convenient placement of the actors within a scene – which sees him grip his opponent by the neck and plunge a blade deep into his guts.
As the bandit’s body crumples to the dirt, Howard takes advantage of the lull to show Skyrim’s revamped system of skills. Oblivion had at its core an intuitive mechanism – you got better at things by doing them. Skyrim carries this on, but strips out many of the elements which made the fine detail of Oblivion’s levelling opaque.
“In Oblivion, you had your eight attributes, then you had 21 skills,” says Howard. “Now you have 18 skills and the three main attributes: magicka, health and stamina. What we found is that all of those eight attributes actually did something else. In Oblivion, you had to raise your intelligence, knowing that your intelligence would raise your magicka, to cast more spells. We found they all trickled down to some other stat. So we just got rid of it. Now when you [want to level up your magicka], you just raise your magicka.”
Also gone are skills that Bethesda felt had no real value to roleplaying. Acrobatics and athletics are out, because such skills should be a given – as Howard says: who really wants to roleplay a character who can’t run? Blessedly, this means that players will no longer have to spend the entire game jumping in order to more quickly propel these stats – although we will shed a tear for our beloved hero, Tubsy the cat-man, and his game-breaking ability to leap out of Oblivion’s levels. Now, the relationship between skills and attributes is more transparent.
Bethesda creative director Todd Howard – you can read our full interview with him here
“Every skill affects your level,” says Howard. “You’ll notice every time I get a skill raise there’s a level-up bar that moves, no matter what skill I’m using. So skills become like our XP – the higher the skill, the more it pushes your levelling. This allows you to change course; you can be level ten, and have focused on magic the whole time, and then find this great sword and start using that.”
Meanwhile, a system of skill-specific perks (awarded at a rate of one per level) provides the granularity with which players impart distinct powers to their character. They offer dramatic advancement of an often very visible kind: archery perks, for example, might allow you to slow down time, or zoom as you take aim. The visualisation of the perk trees themselves is almost sublime – a succinct and beautiful display that takes the constellations as its inspiration. Each skill has its own astrological sign (an extension of the birth signs used to define your character in Oblivion), illuminating new stars within it as you select perks.
“I think the idea that you make your own character and that you can then do whatever you want in a really big game – that’s The Elder Scrolls,” says Howard after the demonstration. “It needs a certain size, not to make it hundreds of hours long, but so that you feel there’s enough opportunity to do what you want. Even if you’re gonna play it for 20 hours, those 20 hours are different to someone else’s. I think that’s kind of the hallmark.”
The freedom to define your character’s abilities is matched by the freedom to choose where you go and what you do there. Although Skyrim offers an explorable area much the same size as Oblivion’s, its degree of simulation has been considerably expanded. Everything you see a character do, you can do as well, Howard explains, as he stands beside a lumber mill in the town of Riverwood, where a man is busily piling logs. These professions are part of a simulated economy, too. Sabotage the lumber mill and wooden items, like arrows, will become scarce. The degree to which the player will be able to plunge the province into financial crisis is yet undetermined, however.