Hands-on with The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Bethesda’s iconic RPG fantasy epic makes its second outing this generation and looks set to redefine the RPG genre. I went hands-on to see if Bethesda’s newest RPG lives up to the high standard of its predecessor.  Those of you who were early adopters of the Xbox360 will know that Bethesda’s The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion was the standout game of the system’s first year.  An RPG that has had many imitators and no equal, Oblivion still stands to this day at the very peak of the RPG genre, with an engrossing story, thousands of side quests, robust character customisation, great graphics and satisfying combat.  All of these defining aspects are set in a stunningly detailed world that feels like an extra character in your quest – one that can turn from your best friend to your harshest mistress, with one step off the beaten path.

Don’t get me wrong though, Oblivion is one of those rare games that invites you to get lost in the details.  It’s as enjoyable when you’re slaying enemies and progressing through the main quest as it is when you’re enjoying a stroll through a sunlit meadow, picking the various ingredients you need to brew a potion.

You may be able to tell that I love Oblivion – and so I should! It’s a game that I’ve put over 300 hours of gameplay into, and the only game that I’ve ever felt the compulsion to unlock every achievement in.  So, as you may be able to guess, I was like a kid at Christmas when it was revealed that I would be able to go hands-on with the follow-up title at this year’s EuroGamer Expo.  That being said, I was a little apprehensive.  After all, Oblivion for me is the best game ever made; Skyrim has a lot to live up to!

The 20 minute demo offered at EuroGamer gave a taste of what we can expect from Skyrim, and what I recognised was the distinctly delicious flavour of a magnificently crafted game that somehow manages to improve in every way over Oblivion.

I wanted to get straight into the gameplay, so I opted to skip the opening cutscene that sees your character being led to his death for reasons unknown, which brought me to the character creation screen.  From the outset, you can see just how hard Bethesda has worked on upgrading Skyrim’s graphics. Where in Oblivion certain races looked washed out, in Skyrim they look darker and rugged, and have an aged feel to them.  Dark Elves have a demonic quality, Argonians have individually rendered scales, and the native Nords finally have that Viking look that gives them a real presence as opposed to their counterparts in Oblivion that had a slightly dopey look to them.  It’s the Orcs though, that have benefited most from the graphical upgrades.  Where the Orcs in Oblivion looked like green Imperials with a dental problem, the Orcs of Skyrim look dark, dangerous, and like they will finally live up to the billing they receive in the character descriptions.

I opted for a Dark Elf, my favourite race, and got into the game.  Starting in a cave, that was surprisingly pretty for a simple staging room, I made my way outside and was given a vista that was truly breath-taking.  Cyrodil, a province of Tamriel, that Oblivion takes place in, is no eyesore, but even the most stunning views that can be found there don’t match the view you are given as you leave your cave.

Skyrim is beautiful, there’s no other way to put it.  From the mountain that sits silently over the world to the colours and patterns of the grass, Skyrim is as gorgeous on the grand scale as it is in the smallest, most intricate details.  It’s a potent combination that transports the player from a seat in front of a TV screen into the boots of the game’s protagonist, and it is done in such an elegant way that you don’t even know it’s happened.  After taking a second to absorb the vast visual splendour, I set off down the path with the same sense of wonder that I felt after leaving the sewers of the Imperial City in Oblivion.

Although visually stunning, graphics are not the only element in Skyrim that has undergone a radical overhaul.  The most prevalent improvement is player movement. Vastly improved over Oblivion’s rather blocky and awkward mechanics, movement in Skyrim feels fluid and lifelike, making exploration a simpler and more rewarding pastime. Bethesda has also included a sprint mechanic that is activated using the LB/L1 button, giving your character a limited period of faster movement. It’s a masterful inclusion, as anyone who has played Oblivion knows crossing Tamriel on foot was much more time consuming than it needed to be.  From the time I had with the Skyrim, it seems that the improvements to movement will make navigating the vast expanses of the game a pleasure rather than the chore that traversing the rugged, mountainous terrain could have been.

After a short walk, and jump, around I realised that I hadn’t equipped armour; since I didn’t know what might be waiting for me around the corner, I decided to remedy my attire. This gave me the chance to take a look at the overhauled user interface. Gone is the cumbersome and inept U.I. of Oblivion, replaced with a slick, crisp and clean interface that makes everything from equipping armour and spells to looking at items and levelling up much simpler. This easy-to-navigate system is split up into four sections: items, magicka, level up, and map which are mapped to the left, right, up and down buttons respectively. After equipping some armour, a sword in my right hand, and a fire spell in my left hand, I continued down the road and was greeted by the town of Riverwood.

Towns and cities in Oblivion were strange, to say the least.  They were always busy and there was always lots going on, but they felt overly scripted. After playing Oblivion for more than a few hours you begin to see the repetition of the townspeople’s actions. However, Riverwood seemed more organic and natural, as a result of the Radiant AI systems, with people going about their business, having conversations, and doing their jobs.  In Riverwood, I also got the chance to see the improvements Bethesda made to facial animations.  While those in Oblivion were impressive, they never seemed to sync up with the voice acting.  Conversely, in Skyrim, you get the sensation that you are actually having a conversation with a complex A.I., rather than a scripted bot.  With time ticking away faster than I wanted, my stay in Riverwood ended with a quick look to the sky, showcasing the silhouette of a mountain and what looked like a giant’s cracked rib-cage in the distance.  I wanted to climb that mountain!

After leaving Riverwood, it was time to give Skyrim’s improved combat systems a workout. Combat in Oblivion was satisfying enough, but it lacked the bite you expect when plunging a sword into an enemy.  On the other hand, Skyrim’s combat is visceral and brutal.  Swordplay is vastly improved; You now feel like you’re actually hitting your enemies.  They react to blows and you can see the pain on their faces.  The dual-wield mechanic flows naturally with the control scheme.   The right trigger serves your sword hand, while the left trigger controls the shield – or, if you really want to dish out the pain, you can wield a sword in each hand!

Where swordplay is improved, magicka has been completely upgraded.  While magicka in Oblivion felt like a passing parlour trick, Skyrim’s magicka is an ethereal, mysterious, and powerful force that flows through you and is every bit as devastating as melee combat.  The fireball spell could be used with a single tap of the Xbox360 controller’s left trigger for a simple, small fireball or as a flamethrower that streams from your hand and lays waste to enemies.  It’s a satisfying and oddly pleasurable way to do away with enemies, empowering you in a way that weapons can’t.  This sense of power is only increased when you realise that you can dual-wield spells too, meaning that the use of magicka is finally a viable way conduct combat.

After a short hike I took the opportunity to use weapons and magicka in conjunction ( oh yes, you can do this) on a group of bandits, and with a sword in one hand and a fire spell in the other I made short work of them.  It’s almost a surprise to see how elegantly these two combat mechanics work together; you can switch from magicka to swordplay on the fly without any slowdown. It really is quite an impressive technical achievement that is sure to give rise to hugely creative ways to approach combat.

Once I had finished mopping up the rag tag group of bandits and looting their corpses, I continued up the mountain trail and was rewarded with the site of an ancient Nordic ruin, ominously named Bleak Falls Barrow, and the activation of the ‘Golden Claw’ quest. The resulting XP boost raised my level, giving me a chance to see how Bethesda has established the character development system. Where Oblivion was a simple numbers game with points allocated depending on level, Skyrim opts for a skill tree setup that allows players to make a truly unique character.  Various skills are located in different constellations in the sky.  You actually look up to the heavens when you level up, and you create a personal constellation with all your skills contained.  It’s a great interface that changes character building from a laborious exercise to something that keeps the players thinking about how to progress.

Feeling emboldened from my increased skills, I ventured inside and began to explore. This dungeon felt a lot more deliberate in its design, without the feeling of randomness that dungeons in Oblivion had, and it was all the better for it.  After making my way through the stony corridors, I encountered more bandits who were soon barbecued and skewered.  A little more exploration brought me to a corridor where an NPC could be heard shouting for help.  Upon finding him trapped in a spider’s web, I was set upon by a giant spider.  Making use of the excellent dual-wield system, I was able to keep myself healthy while still dealing some huge damage.  Both the movement and combat systems were put to the test, and both passed with ease. Movement, swordplay, and magicka now behave like they are working together, whereas in Oblivion they felt like separate mechanics that struggled to work in tandem.  Sadly, I was unable to finish the battle as my time with the demo had come to an end, and I was quickly ushered away.

My allotted 20 minutes was up almost as soon as they began.  After playing Skyrim, you suddenly realise the main difference between it and Oblivion: Skyrim feels more dangerous, more lonesome, but more alive. The tried and true formula of Oblivion has been given an upgrade that is more like a generational leap than a sequel. Radically different, but reassuringly familiar, Skyrim is another Bethesda-made masterpiece. If the little kinks are ironed out –which I’m sure they will be – Skyrim will continue to defy superlatives and reaffirm that The Elder Scrolls is the definitive fantasy RPG series.

Editor’s Note: Thanks to JM1228 for noting the correction needed for Cyrodil and Tamriel.  We’ve made the update!

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October 7, 2011 - 2:15 pm