The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

It's been six months since E3 2017, when Bethesda announced its intention to add a Creation Club to Skyrim and Fallout 4, their massively-successful mega-RPGs known for their breadth of content and emphasis on player freedom. This club would task third-party developers with producing new pieces for the publisher's two marquee games, which players could then buy from an online storefront with real money. While some decried the service as yet another attempt to introduce paid mods to the single-player gaming ecosystem, Bethesda insisted the market for free fan-made content would remain unaffected. "We won't allow any existing mods to be retrofitted into Creation Club," reads the FAQ. "It must all be original content."

Following this, in late August Bethesda revealed the initial line-up for Creation Club, which included the Hellfire Power Armour and the Chinese Stealth Suit, both priced at $5 and inspired by similar items introduced in the various expansions for Fallout 3. There was just one little problem - if you searched the Nexus, the massively-populated home of free mods for Bethesda's games, among others, you'd find both the Hellfire Power Armour and the Chinese Stealth Suit already on offer for the low, low price of nothing.

A mild furore erupted. Press pounced on the revelation, which fed the already-boiling fan frenzy over what were considered outrageous prices for sub-par content. Paying $5 for a piece of armour was bad enough, but when the free alternative is superior, the bad deal starts to seem like an out-and-out ripoff. For Road to Liberty, the mod team behind the two projects, it was a confusing development, and one they worked with Bethesda to try to avoid.

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The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Skyrim's dirty little secret is that it isn't that large. Oh, it remains fairly gigantic by the standards of other virtual landscapes, even next to its youthful imitator and usurper, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. But set against what it pretends to be - a kingdom stretching from arctic wastes to the temperate south, racked by dynastic squabbles and laced with the treasures and detritus of millennia - it's actually pretty dang tiddly, a little over 14 square miles in scope.

14 square miles? That's no bygone, mystery-shadowed dominion rearing its shrines and watchtowers amid sunflashed snow. That's a jumped-up theme park, a country music festival. More to the point, that's approximately the same size as The Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion, a game which has become something of a punching bag for Elder Scrolls aficionados in hindsight - neither as grand as its swaggering barbarian brother, nor as memorably odd as burned-out hippy uncle Morrowind. Steer clear of distractions like temperamental mammoth herds and you can walk from one side of Skyrim to the other in half an hour.

I'm being quite obtuse, of course. If open world games were required to be as large as their inspirations or narrative aspirations they'd never get finished, and in any case, who would have the time to play them? The fascinating thing about open world design is that it's not really about size at all. It's more the art of the deceptive miniature - of making the poky or digestible seem enormous to the point of exhausting, even as distant cities reveal themselves for neighbouring hamlets, fearsome mountains for mere well-appointed foothills. Skyrim is extremely good at this, to a degree I'm not sure any game environment can rival save the corkscrew terrain of the original Dark Souls. It launches on Switch this week, glory of glories, and I've spent a few hours with the remastered PC version to remind myself of its achievements.

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The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim - contact@rockpapershotgun.com (Dominic Tarason)

Daggerfall Unity

My earliest memories of The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall were of fear and excitement at the boundless possibilities of a true fantasy sandbox. Of amazement at the most comprehensive character creation screen I’d ever seen, and of deep annoyance when I managed to fall through the floor and into an endless void in the first minute of the game.

I’ve spent over twenty years waiting for someone to fix Daggerfall, and that dream seems tantalisingly close to being realised. Daggerfall Unity (Daggerfall ported to the Unity engine, shockingly, and something we’d briefly covered years ago) can now be played to completion, and with greatly reduced risk of falling through a crack in the world.

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The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim - contact@rockpapershotgun.com (Alice O'Connor)

Bethesda’s new ‘Creation Club’ DLC microtransaction store has launched for The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Special Edition [official site], following a beta last week and its debut in Fallout 4 in August. It stocks mostly packs of weapons, armour, and bits for a couple of quid each – nothing exciting. Perhaps the biggest bit is Survival Mode, which adds hunger and cold and all those survival things you find in survival mods. To lure people into the Creation Club, Survival Mode is free if you grab it right now. (more…)

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim - contact@rockpapershotgun.com (Dominic Tarason)

Skyrim Survival

After a less-than-successful initial foray into the realm of monetising Skyrim mods, Bethesda are presently rolling out a public beta of their Creation Club – their DLC-esque, more corporate alternative – to the revamped Skyrim Special Edition [official site]. To sweeten the pot, they’re offering early adopters the option to claim a free copy of Survival Mode, a major gameplay modification adding the management of simulated hunger, tiredness and cold to the already-hazardous environment.

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The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim - contact@rockpapershotgun.com (Alec Meer)

fallout-4-vr-pc

A couple of weeks back – when I also went hands-on with both Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus and The Evil Within 2 – I goggled up and gave the upcoming VR version of 2016’s Doom a spin, as well as bearing witness to other folks’ flailing and giggling in Skyrim VR and Fallout VR. Bethesda’s triptych of 3D ultravision spin-offs are due before the year is out, with Skyrim only available on PSVR at least initially and Fallout and Doom only officially> supporting HTC Vive, for obvious reasons. Their arrival is a pretty big event for a technology that so far has leaned far more heavily on brand new things rather than established names.

Curious about what this means for the technology and for Doom, Skyrim and Fallout, I picked Bethesda VP Pete Hine’s brains about the whys and wherefores, and what it might imply for the future of their own VR efforts. Also below: my own quick impressions of Doom VFR [official site].

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Half-Life 2

Every year PC Gamer's editors and contributors vote on a list of the 100 best PC games to play right now, and every year our Top 100 list is contentious. A game is always too low, and another too high, and another unbelievably missing. Such is the inevitable fate of any List Of Things In A Certain Order.

But this year, we decided it would be fun to transform the heated comment threads under our list into a list of their own—the Readers' Top 100. Last week, I asked you to pick your top two games from our Top 100 list, and suggest two games to add. I then compiled the votes (1,445 of them), weighing the write-ins more highly than the picks from our list, given that it's much more likely that 50 people would chose the same game from a list of 100 than all write in the same game.

My totally unscientific method does cause a few problems, namely: how much more do you weigh the write-in votes? A multiplier of three produced the most interesting list in this case, though next year I may ditch that tactic all together and take write-ins only. The danger is that a write-in-only list might be more easily swayed by organized campaigns (though that certainly happened anyway), and for this first attempt, I wanted to include a baseline to build off of just in case the suggestions were too scattered, or too homogeneous.

It worked out pretty well despite the uneven, improvised methodology—but do think of it as a fun exercise and not a perfect representation of PC gamers' tastes. Caveats out of the way, check out the list below. (Games that aren't on our Top 100 list are in bold.)

The PC Gamer Readers' Top 100

  1. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
  2. Half-Life 2 
  3. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim 
  4. Dark Souls 
  5. Borderlands 2 
  6. Fallout: New Vegas 
  7. Mass Effect 2  
  8. Doom (2016) 
  9. BioShock 
  10. Doom 2 
  11. Fallout 2 
  12. Deus Ex 
  13. Portal 2 
  14. Life is Strange 
  15. Starcraft 
  16. Baldur's Gate 2: Shadows of Amn 
  17. Grand Theft Auto 5 
  18. League of Legends 
  19. Diablo 2 
  20. XCOM 2 
  21. Fallout 4 
  22. Dragon Age: Origins 
  23. The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind 
  24. PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds 
  25. Bioshock Infinite 
  26. Overwatch 
  27. Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2 
  28. World of Warcraft 
  29. Rimworld 
  30. Path of Exile 
  31. Planescape: Torment
  32. Fallout 
  33. Dishonored 2 
  34. Crysis 
  35. Stellaris 
  36. Crusader Kings 2 
  37. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain 
  38. Dishonored 
  39. Half-Life 
  40. Warcraft 3 
  41. Quake 
  42. Factorio 
  43. Prey 
  44. SOMA 
  45. Fallout 3
  46. TIE Fighter 
  47. Elite Dangerous 
  48. Rocket League 
  49. Civilization 5 
  50. Heroes of Might and Magic 3 
  51. Starcraft 2 
  52. Nier: Automata 
  53. Stalker: Call of Pripyat 
  54. Wolfenstein: The New Order 
  55. Minecraft 
  56. System Shock 2 
  57. The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion 
  58. Psychonauts 
  59. Divinity: Original Sin Enhanced Edition 
  60. Knights of the Old Republic 
  61. Age of Empires 2 
  62. Thief 2 
  63. Endless Legend 
  64. Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines 
  65. Titanfall 2 
  66. Warframe 
  67. The Secret of Monkey Island  
  68. Kerbal Space Program 
  69. Europa Universalis IV 
  70. Hotline Miami  
  71. Payday 2 
  72. Battlefield 1 
  73. Dota 2 
  74. Total War: Warhammer 
  75. Mass Effect 3 
  76. Batman Arkham City 
  77. Rainbow Six Siege 
  78. FTL 
  79. Stardew Valley 
  80. Counter-Strike: Global Offensive 
  81. The Talos Principle 
  82. Tyranny 
  83. Civilization 6 
  84. Undertale 
  85. Knights of the Old Republic 2 
  86. Team Fortress 2 
  87. The Witness 
  88. Thief Gold 
  89. Arma 3 
  90. Dying Light 
  91. Alien: Isolation 
  92. Hyper Light Drifter 
  93. Planet Coaster 
  94. Jagged Alliance 2 
  95. Call of Duty 2 
  96. Transistor
  97. Mass Effect 
  98. Freespace 2 
  99. 7 Days to Die 
  100. Ultima Online

For reference, the top 10 games on our list this year were: The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, Dark Souls, Dishonored 2, XCOM 2, Portal 2, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, Mass Effect 2, Alien: Isolation, Doom (2016), and Spelunky. If you want a condensed sense of how our tastes differ from those surveyed, here are a few observations:

We like Spelunky a lot more than everyone else. It was in our top 10, but didn't even make it into the Readers' Top 100.

While Half-Life 2 has lost some stock in our minds, it hasn't in everyone's. It was 11th on our list, but 2nd on the Readers' list.

Everyone agrees that The Witcher 3 is great. It was first on both of our lists.

Skyrim is still chugging along. It was 26th on our list, but came in third in reader voting.

Borderlands 2 wasn't on our list, but came in 5th. Did Borderlands fans came out en masse, or are we just weird for not putting it on our list?

14th place is pretty impressive for Life is Strange. Rimworld ranked pretty high, too. Either these games are more popular than we realized, or the survey happened to be circulated among their biggest fans. Probably a mix of both.

League of Legends fans showed up to challenge our preference for Dota 2. It came in at 18, while Dota 2 was knocked down to 73. Justice?

If you'd like to compare the lists directly, I've put them side by side in a spreadsheet. Thank you to all 1,445 people who responded to the survey! Feel free to suggest new ways to compile this list in the comments, and I'll take them into consideration next year. My skill with Excel spreadsheet formulas is at least double what it was last week, a cursed power that will only have grown by next year.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

During the climax of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the Millennium Falcon crashes through a dense pine forest and skirts toward the edge of an icy cliffside. The trees splinter and pancake as the space jalopy slides to a halt and our heroes emerge unscathed, leaving a shower of splinters and snow in their wake.  

But the trees are not what they seem. The forests in The Force Awakens, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, and an episode of Sesame Street are all hiding something. They’re family. 

A significant amount of Mother Nature as represented in games and film starts life at SpeedTree, a small middleware company out of Lexington, South Carolina. Stranger still is that co-founder Chris King credits Bethesda Game Studios director Todd Howard for the company's success and the eventual deforestation of the Star Wars pines.

Todd Howard and the timber in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion are also indirectly responsible for the alien forests on Pandora in James Cameron’s Avatar. You can blame Howard for the best trees in videogames and even in a rival series, The Witcher 3, with its vast windblown forests. You can also blame him for 3D models of the White House and surrounding shrubbery, likely tossed around the US Secret Service’s network to this day. 

You can allegedly blame him for CG pubic hair in 50 Shades of Grey (but don’t, King is totally unaware if SpeedTree's software was used as a dynamic genital hair generator. There are better solutions, I’m told. Still, it’s enough ambiguity for hope). 

But Todd Howard didn’t make the trees or the alleged pubes or the technology behind them. Howard just gave a small company a big job that helped it keep pace in an industry overgrown with new possibilities.

A seed is planted 

SpeedTree is a middleware solution for videogame developers and, more recently, filmmakers who need to make realistic trees en masse, quickly. That doesn’t mean SpeedTree is as simple as a copy and paste engine, or that it spits out photorealistic trees within perfectly simulated ecosystems. It’s easier to think of SpeedTree as more of a specialized tree canvas, a tool used to generate whole forests of trees that look similar but aren’t carbon copies of one another. 

SpeedTree’s tools also include massive libraries of textures for rendering vegetation, and animation tools that simulate wind moving through branches and leaves. Beyond the time and energy saved making so many trees, SpeedTree’s vegetation is also designed to conserve as many system resources as possible. 

For a simple understanding of how it works, the story of their success, and where SpeedTree is being used today, I talked to King over the phone and through a few scattered email exchanges. He’s a bright, generous character, the kind of person that blends a simple answer into an extended anecdote before coming full circle into a question about me. I get the impression the trees are in kind hands. 

“It’s all procedural, meaning we use curves and numbers to input into an algorithm that will generate this tree, and as you change those curves and numbers so changes the tree,” King tells me. “But once you get a definition, you can just hit randomize, one button, and it’ll make a tree that looks similar to the last, but not exactly like it. And you keep hitting randomize and it’ll keep hitting these different random variation, so you can populate a unique forest with trees very quickly.” 

But it’s important to clear up a common fallacy, he says. “It's a misconception that Speedtree generates these procedural trees on the fly, when in fact, it is an offline procedural tool. The procedural part is there, but it's just a tool that the artist uses to create the shape.” 

Simply put, every time you play The Witcher 3, SpeedTree isn’t procedurally generating a new forest. While a game is in development, artists, level designers, and programmers work together to generate a wholly unique forest using SpeedTree’s procedural tools, then touch up and arrange the final result by hand. Once the trees are in place, SpeedTree is also capable of handling “all the loading, culling, level-of-detail, lighting, and wind effects for entire forests” in real-time.

The Witcher 3 has some of the best trees in videogames.

Without the ability to summon a forest of wholly unique trees at will and render them in a live environment, developers have to build their forests entirely from scratch. This can be done by spending endless hours making small tweaks to branch structure from the same starting model, or by building an in-house solution to generate their own trees – albeit likely one with fewer features. Now, when peering out into the verdant, swaying canopies of Toussaint, the time saved and focused elsewhere is plain to see.  

Before setting the stage for Geralt, SpeedTree was a loose assembly of good ideas without testimony. Around the turn of the millennium, videogames with massive forests of distinct timber weren’t a common technical ambition, often reigned in by console hardware. For the most part, they were all done by hand, but off the tail of The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind—whose development predates SpeedTree and itself contains many-a-thicket—Bethesda likely wasn’t ready to create a larger space with more realistic trees capable of running on modern PCs and emerging console hardware. They would need help, and that help was just sprouting. 

Counting rings 

Unlike most modern middleware and niche software companies, SpeedTree’s origins aren’t the result of surgical, chartered market research and Silicon Valley capital juicing. King inadvertently started SpeedTree with co-founder Michael Sechrest, the result of modest ambitions steered by restlessness and passion. 

Sechrest and King met as graduate students in the Computer Engineering department at the University of South Carolina in the late 90s. “We were deeply involved with real-time visualization on those huge old Silicon Graphics Unix systems, doing visualizations for the Office of Naval Research and the Department of Energy.”

Coinciding with the release of the original Nvidia GeForce GPU in 1999, King and Sechrest wanted to start a business and bring their experience creating detailed visualizations to the PC, which was finally capable of rendering their work in real time. The pair formed Interactive Data Visualization (IDV), Inc., which King considers “A great name for a company that does engineering visualizations, not so great for vegetation in videogames and films!”

Here's what a modern SpeedTree tech demo looks like in UE4. 

By 2001, the two found steady business creating pre-rendered 3D visuals and animations for a handful of companies, building architectural renders and flyovers day after day. It was good work, but rendering trees for video and stills didn’t challenge their programming skills in the same way videogames would. For King and Sechrest, it was one thing to model a scene and let a powerful computer render it overnight; and another to generate a forest and render it live in the same environment as a little Geralt and hundreds of invisible systems without setting the average household PC on fire.

But during a discussion about the creation of a particular flyover, the client and lead architect was very particular about the trees, requesting that each species be recognizable, a specific height, and to appear wind-blown. 

Without software capable of achieving such effects, King and Sechrest made their own, which ended up as the very first version of SpeedTree. “It consisted of a very rudimentary version of the SpeedTree Modeler and a small 3ds Max plug-in,” King says, “It worked well enough. In 2002, we released it as SpeedTreeMAX.”

More than 40,000 people downloaded the demo, including Todd Howard of Bethesda.

Chris King

It was a useful tool for creating more detailed trees, and in creating a new program entirely, their coding know-how was stretched a bit. In time, King and Sechrest saw an opportunity in SpeedTreeMAX. If properly recycled, the two wondered if the SpeedTree Modeler could be used to make assets for videogames, and if so, whether or not anyone would need them. 

To check, they posted an article on OpenGL.org to introduce developers to SpeedTree’s tech and gauge interest in a version that produces trees for real-time rendering engines. In a stroke of luck, Sebastien Domine of Nvidia read the article and downloaded the included demo, which demonstrated how SpeedTree could be used in a real-time setting. Domine was impressed by the technology, but he also figured a real-time SpeedTree would be an excellent promotional tool for a new Nvidia GPU. He contacted King and Sechrest, they struck a deal, and they started work on SpeedTree’s first true real-time demo.

From a cliched tech demo to Star Wars, SpeedTree has come a long way.

In true videogame form, the demo showed a mech launching and dodging missiles amidst breeze-blown trees, and was put up for download on Nvidia’s developer portal to a fervent reception. Chris tells me that “over the next three months, more than 40,000 people downloaded the demo, including Todd Howard of Bethesda.” Videogames were growing more capable with better technology, and the task of filling bigger, more advanced worlds with realistic, varied trees was growing bigger too. And King and Sechrest now had a major game developer on board to showcase their tech. 

“The only problem was that we'd never sold middleware,” says King. “We had no idea how it should be priced. Amazingly, Todd helped us determine what we both agreed was a fair price and then and there he became our first games client.”

King continues as I imagine an ambling Linklater-directed montage, Howard, King, and Sechrest huddled over a pile of paperwork and tree textures, pinning them to the wall and nodding as revelations dawn one after the other. Emails and phone calls don’t make for a good montage.

“Fast forward to March 2006. Oblivion is released for the Xbox 360. It was a monster hit and the SpeedTree logo appeared on the back of the box,” says Chris, “The perception was that SpeedTree may not be efficient enough to run effectively on a 360 or PS3. Because Oblivion demonstrated in grand fashion that SpeedTree was ready for primetime on any platform, it's probably the single most important title we've ever been a part of. We will always be grateful to Todd.”

At the time, an open world game at Oblivion’s scale running on a console was unheard of. And while the final Xbox 360 version is widely considered a buggy, nearly unplayable mess, SpeedTree demonstrated that it could manage to render trees on 16 square miles of land on hardware that predated even the most average of gaming PCs in 2006. It worked, and that was enough to draw industry-wide attention to SpeedTree.

The exchange went both ways, too. Would Oblivion have captured imaginations like it did with boring and repetitive forests? It doesn’t look great by today’s standards, but at the time, streaming in diverse stretches of vegetation on the relatively meager Xbox 360 specs was a technical breakthrough, proving that open world games could work on lesser hardware at a high fidelity. It set a trend and games with even denser forests followed suit, evidenced by games like The Witcher 3, which would look very different (or wouldn’t exist at all) if not for SpeedTree. 

Branching out 

A snippet from White House Down featuring SpeedTree. 

By today’s metrics, Oblivion is an old game. Now we get thousands of new games every year, a good chunk of which use SpeedTree, and some of which want a little more than a procedural tree tool. What about modeling the life of a tree? When I ask King whether simulation of arboreal biology is a priority for them, I’m told no in the best way possible: an extended anecdote from the left-est of fields. 

Shit, we'll make it 8,000 feet high, we don't care. It makes no difference to us, we're not bound by these botanical rules. What do you want it to be? Do you want it to be White-House-shaped?

Chris King

“One of our competitors was based in Europe, and the US Secret Service, believe it or not, is a customer of ours, and they put together simulations of the White House grounds, or at-least they were talking to us about it.”

It turns out that spending resources on creating systems that consider the laws of nature would only sequester SpeedTree to an even smaller niche. 

“So they call the European people and told them what the problem was and they said, ‘Well, our stuff is botanically accurate and Southern Magnolia's don't grow 80 feet high, so our software won't do that.’ King gets a little louder, “And they called us and we were like, ‘Shit, we'll make it 8,000 feet high, we don't care. It makes no difference to us, we're not bound by these botanical rules. What do you want it to be? Do you want it to be White-House-shaped? We can do that as well.’”

The Secret Service weren’t even the first clients to request similar detailed models of the White House lawn. King says it’s requested so often that it’s become a running gag in the company. The amount of games and movies that feature it as a setting is surprisingly high, and the request for technology that can emulate the nearby vegetation is in equal demand. Filming there is prohibited, and so the the more often SpeedTree becomes a requested tool, the easier it is for future film crews to turn to them.   

From Oblivion to the Secret Service, SpeedTree has since branched out into generating vegetation in general. King and his cohorts are also currently prepping the full release of SpeedTree 8, which is a big leap forward in physically based rendering (PBR) tech, and showcases their new material scanning hardware and software used for an ever-growing database of megatextures and models. To create such a deep library, King even employed a specialist whose job is to literally scan as many plants as possible. Imagine that, strolling about the planet looking for pretty plants to immortalize every day. Noble. 

Prior to placement in a game or film and removed from the discerning touch of an artist, the trees and shrubs and cacti look serene, eerie. They’re nature’s aesthetic devoid of context, cleaner and healthier than any plant will ever be, the Stepford wives of common ferns. They look real, and to someone looking up at the prominence of a potential mountain of work creating their own assets, SpeedTree’s prices are a much more appealing alternative. Still, as useful and seemingly advanced as SpeedTree’s tech might seem to developers, it has plenty of room to grow.  

 “You could say we're currently near the center of the spectrum of digital fidelity in tree models.  We look good from the distance players typically view trees in a game situation—on or near the ground and maybe 10 to 100 feet away.” says King, “So, in ten years, hopefully we'll be zooming from space to a vein on a leaf seamlessly!” With more games like Star Citizen and Dual Universe looking for the same scale and adaptability, King knows they have their work cut out for them. 

 SpeedTree was even used in the 2015 Oscar Winner for Best Picture, Spotlight. 

In the meantime, with every wave of new games, we get a firsthand look at how it’s changing. King can’t disclose everywhere you’ll see SpeedTree used next, but Destiny 2, like the original, will make use of SpeedTree. He also tells me that Industrial Light and Magic has more or less standardized SpeedTree, and that barring any breakthroughs in vegetation generation it’ll be used in most of the upcoming Star Wars films. 

Ubisoft also brokered a deal with SpeedTree in 2016, agreeing to use it as their standard vegetation modeling tool. Given the size of Assassin’s Creed: Origins’ map, SpeedTree makes perfect sense. Since Avatar, SpeedTree has been used in nearly 100 films and well over 1,000 games, making it the industry standard. It's everywhere. 

Rogue One’s beachside battle on Scarif, arguably the series’ best battle ever, used SpeedTree. Whenever you slap a new player into a tree in Absolver or make a hasty getaway through the forest from an irate honey badger in Far Cry 4, SpeedTree is there. So the next time you take cover behind a big hardwood in PUBG, remember who generated its bulletproof bark, and in turn, set the table for this chicken dinner and many more to come. 

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

We're still a ways out from VR becoming Mancubus-mainstream.

I’m not an athletic man, but in Doom VFR, the upcoming VR version of 2016’s hit reincarnation of id’s classic shooter, I am Death Himself. As a possessed soldier tries to shoot me, I point a teleport marker and watch as everything slows down. I duck his bullets, teleport close, and shoot him in the face with a shotgun.

After a few shots, a Mancubus starts to flash, indicating it's ready to be torn asunder. I point my cursor into the center of the Mancubus and release the trigger, teleporting myself into the center of the obese demon. The Mancubus explodes and his immense body sags to the floor, the corpse so large that I have to step out of the empty shell to move on with the fight. Clearly, VR is cool.

But even for a relatively young technology, there have been very few major game releases for virtual reality headsets. It makes Bethesda’s all-in approach a confounding surprise, but by bringing Skyrim, Fallout, and Doom to VR, the company is in a good position to change the pace. In associating some of the biggest names in gaming to VR, Bethesda is trying to set itself up as a leader in VR development, build its own internal expertise, and help jumpstart a technology that has grown in fits and starts.

“If you believe something is going to be big, you can't just say, ‘oh, this will be big in six or eight years, so let's ignore it until it's big, and then we'll jump on the bandwagon,’” Doom VRF executive producer Marty Stratton tells me at Quakecon this year. “There's so much to be learned, and there's so many opportunities to be leaders. We want to be technical innovators, so when we see something we believe in, we want to be at the forefront.”

Of the three VR prototypes heading for release this fall, Doom is by far the best. The closed-in spaces of the UAC’s corridors look sleek and sci-fi inside a VR headset, and teleporting up and down hallways to blast imps and shotgun cacodemons feels spectacular, fast, and smooth. Time slows for teleportation or switching weapons, so I always felt able to react faster and be more badass than my weak, fleshy mortal body could ever allow. No matter which weapons I used, pulling the trigger of the controller felt as natural as aiming down the sights.

Shooting for the Skyrim

Sadly, all of these reasons are exactly why Skyrim VR, which is coming to PSVR first in November and PC sometime in 2018, is the weakest of the bunch. The wide-open vistas of Skyrim look pixelated and low-res running on the Playstation headset, and the 180-degree motion detection of the PSVR meant that I had to constantly use physical buttons on my controller to rotate myself and change direction. 

Descending one of a Skyrim dungeon’s many spiral staircases was dizzying as I used a teleport button to hop down a step or two, then tap-tap-tap-tap-tap to rotate my body, teleport, then rotate again.

Instead of feeling bold as the Dovahkiin, legendary hero of Skyrim, I felt like a child playing Fruit Ninja on a Nintendo Wii.

None of this compares to how disappointed I was when I first heard the call of an enemy bandit. I readied my sword only to find myself waving a wand in space, awkward and unsure if I was even making contact. I wiggled it around a few times and the bad guy fell over. Both of us looked embarrassed about the whole thing. Instead of feeling bold as the Dovahkiin, legendary hero of Skyrim, I felt like a child playing Fruit Ninja on a Nintendo Wii.

“Everybody says that,” says Pete Hines, VP of Marketing for Bethesda, when I complain about how the melee weapons feel. “The problem is that when you do this [he pulls a trigger on a gun], you don't detect the funkiness of the action because it's on a predestined path.” The gun behaves like a gun, in other words, and you’re pulling a trigger just like you’d pull a real-life trigger. “But when the sword swings however you move it, you notice it a lot more, now it does feel more like Fruit Ninja.”

Even though Skyrim will be coming to VR mostly unchanged, with all its quests, dialog, and NPCs in place, Hines expects that players will change how they play the game based on what feels good. In particular, he expects more players to become mages. “Because of the nature of VR and magic, it works exactly like you'd expect it to, because you're not missing the feedback.” Dual-wielding magic, in particular, works better in VR. Being able to move your hands independently gives you the chance to shoot fireballs in two directions at once, or hold a shield against one enemy while you shoot lightning at another.

Waiting for the Fallout

I enjoyed Fallout VR more than Skyrim VR at least, because the world running on a PC looked a lot better and my ability to turn in a full circle was unrestricted. Though I had the option of attacking raiders with a baseball bat, Fruit Ninja Skyrim style, I could easily ignore it since Fallout has a huge array of guns that feel good to use. Launching a mini-nuke at a Deathclaw and watching the blast in VR was every bit as fun as it sounds.

Still, it wasn’t quite right, and I’m not sure if the trade-offs are worth the momentary wow-factor of stepping into VR. Can I explore the Commonwealth Wasteland for hundreds of hours in this gear, or will I always start to feel green like an irradiated ghoul after half an hour?

These are limitations that come with taking an existing game and bringing it into VR. Problems with movement and feedback just aren’t solved yet, and these problems wouldn’t exist if a game was built for VR from the beginning. I can’t help but compare my time with Skyrim VR with Lone Echo, an incredible game that was built to showcase everything VR can do right now, and nothing that it can’t.

But for Bethesda, getting experience is worth it even if the end product isn’t quite perfect. They’ll put out the best version of their games that can exist in VR right now, and they’ll gain valuable internal experience with VR design. I can see how it’s a win-win for Bethesda to take a risk with these experiments, but I’m not as confident that buying these experiments offers much to long-time fans of these games desperate for a familiar experience in their seldom-used VR gear.

Skyrim VR is only scheduled to come to PSVR in November, with a PC release possibly coming in 2018. Fallout VR is coming to PC on December 12, and Doom VFR is coming to both platforms on December 1.

Borderlands 2

Damage dealing is the most selfish of gaming roles. It's not about mending the wounds of your buddies or taunting off the bullies attempting to harm them in the first place; it's about the ecstasy of climbing to the peaks of damage meters and watching ever-larger numbers splash the screen. If gaming in general is a power fantasy, a strong DPS build is the wet dream.

And sometimes they gets out of hand. Some builds are so powerful that developers pull the plug, worried that they're damaging the game itself. This is a celebration of those builds that have achieved or come near those marks: the most famous, powerful, interesting builds that disrupt a game's conventions as violently as the power chords of an Amon Amarth riff at a Chopin recital.

We know we've barely scratched the list of great builds here—almost every game has one! If there's one you think we should have included, tell us about it! 

Skyrim: Sneak Archer with Slow Time (2011)

Subtlety isn't really the first thing that comes to mind upon a first glance at Skyrim—after all, it's largely a game about some rando shouting dragons to death. But for years nothing struck fear into the hearts of giant flying reptiles and creepy Reachmen quite like Skyrim's Sneaky Archer build. It's still quite beastly, but YouTuber ESO describes it in its most broken form.

The build's cornerstone was the Slow Time shout, which you could extend by 20 percent with an Amulet of Talos and up to 40 percent by visiting a Shrine of Talos. Slap some Fortify Alteration enchantments on your ring and swig a Fortify Alteration potion, and you could push that over a minute. That's longer than the shout's cooldown. Pick up the Quiet Casting perk in the Illusion line, and you could wipe out a whole band of Stormcloaks before they even knew you were there.

Combine that with plenty of points in the Sneak line, Fortify Archery enchantments on every bit of gear, and paralysis or fear enchantments on your weapons, and you might be tempted to ask the fur-clad denizens to worship you in place of Talos. Unfortunately, Bethesda killed the fun with last year's Special Edition. Slow Time now slows down time for you as well. But even without it a Sneak Archer remains a force to be reckoned with.

The Witcher 3: Alchemy and Combat build

Most crazy damage builds feel as though they're breaking with the lore of their parent games, but The Witcher 3's combination alchemy and combat builds tap into the very essence of what it's mean to work in Geralt's profession. You're a badass swordsman thanks to 36 points in Combat, and 38 points in the Alchemy line see you chugging potions and decoctions along with making sure you're using the right oil for the right monster.

YouTuber Ditronus detailed the best incarnation of this monster setup, which focuses on stacking everything that gives you both critical hit chance and critical hit damage. Ditronus claims he can get hits that strike for 120,000 damage for the build at Level 80 and on New Game+. 

The tools? Pick up the steel Belhaven Blade for its crit potential and the Excalibur-like Aerondight silver sword for its damage multiplier. Use some other crit-focused gear along with two key pieces of the Blood and Wine expansion's alchemy-focused Manticore set and use consumables such as the Ekhidna Decoction. Toss in a few key mutagens and frequently use the "Whirl" sword technique, and Geralt becomes the spinning avatar of Death herself. It's bewitching.

World of Warcraft: Paladin Reckoning Bomb (2005) 

World of Warcraft has seen some crazy damage builds over the course of its 13-year history, but none has reached the legendary status of the Paladin class' "Reckoning bomb" of WoW's first "vanilla" years. It wasn't officially a damage setup, but rather an exploit of the Reckoning talent from the tank line that some Retribution (damage) Paladins would pick up. Originally, Reckoning gave you a charge for a free attack whenever you were the victim of a critical hit, and in 2005, you could stack this to infinity and unleash them all at once for your next attack. Build enough stacks, and you could one-shot other players in PvP.So how imba was this? In May 2005 a Paladin named Karmerr from the guild PiaS (Poop in a Shoe, if you must know) got his rogue friend Sindri to attack him for three whole hours while he was sitting down, guaranteeing critical hits, until the stacks reached a staggering 1,816. Their mission? The Alliance server first kill of Lord Kazzak, one of WoW's first 40-man raid bosses. Knowing their plan was controversial, PiaS asked a Blizzard Game Master for permission, and the GM claimed it couldn't be done. But Karmerr popped his invincibility bubble and, boom, killed Kazzak in a single shot. Alone. The devastation was so intense that it locked up Karmerr's PC for 10 seconds and the system was so unprepared by the 1,816 attacks it could only register the blow in second-long ticks until Kazzak died. PiaS posted a video, and within 24 hours Blizzard nerfed Reckoning from a 100 percent chance to a mere 10 percent chance and limited the stacks to five.

Diablo 2: Hammerdin 

Overpowered Paladins are something of a Blizzard tradition. One of the most infamous overpowered DPS builds of all time is the so-called "Hammerdin" from Diablo 2. The Blessed Hammer skill was the heart of the build, which shot out a spinning floating hammer that smacked any monsters foolish enough to get near. 

Hammerdins had been around in various incarnations for months, but the build came into its own in 2003 with the introduction of synergies. With Blessed Aim, Paladins could increase their attack rating; and with Vigor, they could boost their speed, stamina, and recovery. Damage, too, got a boost with Concentration Aura. But nothing made the build so broken as the Enigma Runeword, which sent the Paladin immediately teleporting into huddles of nearby enemies and clobbering them for up to 20,000 points of damage each. Watching it in action looks a little like watching a bugged game.

The catch? Almost everything needed to complete the build was outrageously expensive. But as the obscene number of Hammerdins dominating Diablo 2 came to show, that was never much of a deterrent.

Borderlands 2: Salvador

Forget specific builds for a second: Borderlands 2's Salvador is kind of broken by default. His class ability—"Gunzerking"—lets him fire off two weapons and reap their benefits at once, all while taking less damage and constantly regenerating ammo. Nor does this kind of destructive divinity come with any real challenge. If you've got the right weapons equipped, all you really need to do is sit still and fire away. Dragon's Dogma had the right of it: divinity can get kind of boring.

The right weapons push this already preposterous setup to absurdity. Pick up the Grog Nozzle pistol from the Tiny Tina's Assault on Dragon's Keep DLC, which heals Salvador for 65 percent of all the damage he deals out. In the other hand, equip a double-penetrating Unkempt Harold pistol, which hits enemies as though seven bullets had hit them twice. Then pick up the Yippie Ki Yay talent that extends Gunzerking's duration for 3 seconds for each kill and "Get Some," which reduces Gunzerking's cooldown after each kill, and you'll always be firing, always be healing, all the time.

Elder Scrolls Online: Magicka Dragonknight Vampire (2014)

Ever wanted to be a raid boss in an MMORPG? You could in 2014, not long after the launch of Elder Scrolls Online, if you were a magicka-focused Dragonknight who'd become a vampire. You were both DPS and tank, able to take on dozens of players in PvP at once and kill most of them as well.

The root of the problem was the vampire tree's morphed "ultimate" ability, Devouring Swarm, which sent a swarm of bats down on everyone else in melee range while also healing you for everyone hit. But every class who became a vampire had access to that.

Dragonknights, though, could also use their Dark Talons skill to root all those players in melee range while roasting them with fire damage at the same time. A huge magicka pool made it even deadlier. Then a passive ability called Battle Roar factored in, allowing the Dragonknight to replenish health, magicka, and stamina based on the cost of casting Devouring Swarm. And it gets crazier. If you were wearing the Akaviri Dragonguard Set, you enjoyed a 15 percent deduction in ultimate ability costs, essentially allowing you to spam Devouring Swarm.

This was already hellish with regular Dragonknights, but players who earned the "Emperor" title in PvP might as well have been Daedric lords. Being the current emperor granted buffs like 200 percent ultimate and resource generation, leading to situations like the one in the video above. 

The easy way to stop this nonsense was always just to stay out of range (although the DK's charge ability from the Sword and Shield line complicated that). Within a month, though, ZeniMax Online nerfed it to hell.

Diablo 3: Inarius Necromancer 

How do you bring interest in your four-year-old dungeon crawler back from the dead? With a Necromancer class, obviously! At least that's what Blizzard Entertainment was apparently thinking when it introduced the class to Diablo 3 in June 2017.

That makes the Necromancer the "youngest" entry on this list, but it's no less deserving of the honor. The damage Necromancers have been dishing out this summer is so crazy that the "best" broken builds change every few weeks. Not long ago the top dog was the Bones of Rathma build, which basically let the Necromancer kick back while an army of skeletons and undead mages did all the hard work. 

Nowadays it's the Grace of Inarius build (which YouTuber Rhykker calls the "Bonestorm" build), which centers on the set's six-piece "Bone Armor" bonus that smacks enemies who get too close with 750 percent weapon damage and boosts the damage they take from the Necro by 2,750 percent. Then the Necro goes around whacking everything with his Cursed Scythe skill with the help of another bonus that reduces his damage taken. Choose the right complementary skills and weapons, you'll soon be tromping through Level 107 Greater Rifts as easily as a katana slicing through yarn. Getting the set pieces will take a bit of grinding, of course, but it's worth it for the payoff. Until, you know, Blizzard nerfs it.

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