The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Now what have you done? You’re in prison again. Will you never learn?
It’s an established tradition in Elder Scrolls games to start you off as a prisoner, but to never explain what you’re supposed to have done wrong, and Skyrim is no exception. Bethesda likes the idea that, before you’ve done anything else at all, you’re forced to think up your own notions as to how you might have ended up in this situation.
It’s a good way to start a game that’s arguably all about telling your own epic tale, or at least your own version of one. There are other considerations too, of course. Every open-world game needs a launching point of some sort from which to give you a direction, even if it’s not one you choose to follow immediately, and starting you off in confinement makes you appreciate your freedom all the more when it’s granted to you.
So what will you be marvelling at as you emerge from your brief, enforced incarceration this time out? Well, at first, mountains. Skyrim is the cold, harsh, high-altitude homeland of the Nords and, as such, its geography is characterised by monolithic peaks, precarious cliffs and deep, cavernous valleys. This results in some striking visuals, both from your immediate surroundings and from distant backdrops, all of which is enhanced by a graphics engine that’s come on a long way in the four years since Oblivion’s release.
As you’re taking in your first dose of Skyrim’s spectacular scenery, you might also be wondering when you’re going to get to choose a class for your character. What you’ll soon learn is that, while you get to choose a race and that will bring certain bonus stats and abilities with it, Skyrim doesn’t have character classes.
The reason for this is simple: many players, including us actually, got a few hours into Oblivion before realising that they weren’t really using half of their class skills very much at all, and deciding to start again, creating a custom class based around the skills they were using most. It kind of made you wonder why you couldn’t just let your character’s specialisations emerge naturally as you played, and that’s exactly how Skyrim works. The more you use a skill, the better you get at it, and the greater contribution it makes to your overall levelling up progress.
And the more you level up the more you can specialise at a deeper level, thanks to Skyrim’s new perks system. This might sound like a nod to Fallout 3, but it’s actually more reminiscent of the skills and abilities systems in dungeon crawlers like Diablo and Dungeon Siege. Within each of your character’s 18 skills, there are various sub-categories and each of those has its own ‘perk tree’, with each perk leading to further choices of more specialised, more powerful perks.
So if you want to be a fire mage, you can focus on the fire perk tree within the destruction skill, or if you want to be an all-out melee attacker you’d want to go for the axe perk tree within the two-handed weapon skill. The exact nature of these perks hasn’t been established yet, but in the case of your fire mage, for example, expect choices like a ball of fire versus a jet of fire, then a bigger ball versus a hotter one, or a longer or wider jet. You get the picture. The cool thing is you’re getting to do more as you progress, rather than just getting stat increases to the things you can already do.
In order to make the most of the perk system, Bethesda has made levelling up a much more frequent occurrence. While there was technically no level cap in either game, Oblivion was geared to top out at about level 30, whereas in Skyrim you should be able to reach at least level 50. Each level earns you a new perk, meaning you’ll end up with 50 or more perks by the time you’re done. That might sound like a lot, but there are about 280 in all, so you won’t be able to try out the full range in one, or even five, playthroughs.
This perk tree system should reinforce that sense you got in Oblivion that the more you played with a character the more he or she becomes distinct and unique. And you don’t have to tie yourself to particular skills from the off, so your character can adapt as you develop and refine your own style of play. In fact, Bethesda says that the entire character development system was started again from scratch with a rule of thumb that every skill and perk should correspond to and enhance different gameplay styles. Awesome though it was, combat in Oblivion could get pretty samey, with really only three different styles – melee, ranged and magic – to choose from. Now you really can tailor your own style.
Another new system designed to complement gameplay directly is the use of individual hand slots for weapons and spells. Rather than equipping one weapon and one spell, you equip a weapon, spell or shield to each hand, or a two-handed weapon to both. Exactly what limitations there might be to this – whether you can dual-wield or even combine spells on the fly – is still undecided, but hopefully it’ll add a tactical dimension to proceedings, and at least make swapping equipped items in and out less fiddly than in Oblivion.
The character creation tools are less fiddly too. While you’re essentially creating and developing your character as you play through, you do choose a race and set your appearance right at the start. Bethesda has scrapped Oblivion’s multitude of sliders in favour of a mix and match choice of features. The reason for this is that Oblivion’s system made it almost impossible not to make a character who was a bit minging – Bethesda has even admitted this flaw by unofficially changing the name of the random button to ‘the ugly button’. Now it’s actually possible to make a character who looks cool and unique. Not vital in a first-person game, we suppose, but still, it’s a role-playing game, and no one wants to play the role of a proper hose beast, do they?
One of the most exciting features in Skyrim is the ‘Radiant Story’ system, which, to put it simply, means that every quest has a blend of scripted and dynamic elements. So rather than just being a set string of objectives, each quest is designed more like an adaptable template. Certain parts of it might be set in stone, but others will be automatically generated so as to be tailor-made for your character. One pretty clear example Bethesda has given is that if you found a quest where you were asked to rescue someone from a dungeon, it could be set up so that it automatically avoids having you rescue them from a dungeon you’ve already explored.
Other factors will be more subtle, though, automatically tailoring certain aspects of a quest to suit your character and your playing style. The idea is that you find out how different a quest could have been by talking to other players, in what Bethesda likes to call ‘the water cooler effect’. Talking to your friends about what you did in a Bethesda RPG the night before has always been part of the fun, whether you’re chatting at a water cooler or not.
The most important dynamic element of the game doesn’t necessarily occur within quests at all, though: dragons. Skyrim will be the first Elder Scrolls game to have a proper stab at dragons, and by ‘proper stab’ we mean the studio hand-picked some of its best staff and put them in a dedicated ‘dragon team’ that has worked solely on dragons for two years. Dragons can, in theory, attack anywhere at any time and are essentially Skyrim’s boss enemies.
Encounters with them should be much more exciting and varied than those ultimately tedious Oblivion Gates and will be rewarded in a similar, but better way. Instead of a Sigil Stone that probably won’t make a better-enchanted weapon than one you’ve already got, you get a Dragon Shout. These are powerful abilities that you’re able to use because your character is Dragonborn. They make your perks look a bit wussy.
And Skyrim, as a whole, is already making its classic predecessor look like a bit of an old fart. The perks and Radiant Story systems in particular have us convinced that this will be a much more tighter, more focused experience, while still maintaining the huge scope and freedom that characterises the series. And the coolest thing is it’s coming this year, so we’re not even in for a painful wait. Hands-on can’t be far away – you’ll know as soon as we get it.