“You’ll be starting about half an hour in, because we’re keeping the opening under wraps.” The Bethesda representative is tantalisingly coy, and understandably so. It’s been an unbelievable five and a half years since Bethesda shattered all preconceptions of what a sprawling console RPG could be with the release of Oblivion, and expectations for the follow-up are suitably high.
He leads us into a darkened room full of huge, blinking TVs, the screens of each already festooned with the unmistakable silhouette of a fellow excited geek wrapped in airtight headphones, immersed in a world that has been a decidedly long time coming for all of us. That wait is nearly over – the game is released on the 11th November.
“Please bear in mind it’s unfinished code,” he adds disconcertingly, recalling an alarming (and slightly unfair) criticism that the company, for all its brilliance, is not exactly renowned for providing bug-free gameplay experiences.
Despite its idiosyncrasies, fond memories of wandering Oblivion’s rolling, verdant landscapes still persist for many gamers, with Fallout 3’s excellence (and, to a lesser, buggier extent, New Vegas’) acting merely as distractions from Tamriel, rather than acceptable replacements for it.
We’re deposited in an unremarkable cave with rudimentary weapons and apparel. Ascending the tunnel towards the piercing daylight above, first impressions are of pleasing familiarity, with the chunky controls having survived intact since the last game in the series. The controls haven’t been revamped, merely tightened, with the most noticeable departure being the presence of two hands in the frame.
The cave opens high on an icy mountainside, a tiny pock mark in a sprawling network of desolate snow-capped peaks. The detail is incredible; the freezing atmosphere palpably conveyed, a vista proving beyond doubt that Bethesda has not forgotten how powerful scale is in instilling a sense of awe and wonder. The draw distance retreats as far as the horizon, and the ramble from the rocky precipice to the small valley village of Riverwood is a long, beguilingly scenic one.
Skyrim’s world is, as the dragon flies, roughly the same size as Oblivion’s. There can’t be many who would grumble at this fact, considering Cyrodiil was just on the correct side of vast. Bethesda claims it’s crammed in much more detail per square mile in Skyrim, and judging by the dynamic detail we witnessed in the tiny fraction of the game we saw, there is no reason to doubt this claim.
On a small scale, it’s immediately apparent. Finely drawn textures and tiny details, like darting rabbits in fields and salmon gamely leaping up a waterfall, are rendered with the visible rise in salience you would expect from a complete engine overhaul, with the sombre new palette being based much more in reality’s moody hues. Water, in particular, looks crystalline and superb, while the landscape in general is awash with the minute detail Bethesda has given the flora of Skyrim.
The smooth surfaces and textures of Oblivion have given way to rough, bulbous terrain, which makes the previous game’s lighter, colourful style seem almost quaint. Individual plants in the foreground rock gently in the breeze, while monolithic peaks pierce the sky in the far distance, and you know that, if you wanted, you could go there. If Oblivion and Fallout gave an illusion of freedom, Skyrim dares you to prove it’s not a reality.
Graphically, it is an evolution, not a revolution, yet don’t let this disappoint you – it’s beautiful, and has achieved it not only through simply throwing polygons at the screen, but through painstaking artistic design. Variety is the key here, with every building, ruin, cave or town possessing distinct character, each giving the impression of lived-in uniqueness.
A cosy, wooden Riverwood tavern is the place we receive our first quest: the retrieval of the bartender’s Golden Claw heirloom from a group of mountain-dwelling bandits. NPCs do still address you a little as if puppetted by a hand up the bottom, yet to infinitely less distracting effect than Oblivion and Fallout’s.
Facially, they are without the plastic-surgery-mishap puffiness that blighted previous titles, and rarely stand motionless waiting for you to grace them with your presence. They go about their business, indifferent to your meanderings, having more interesting discussions amongst themselves.
Faces now convey expressions, which is of surprising significance when trying to engage with a character’s plight, while also lending the world and its inhabitants a welcome impression of tangibility. We’re not talking L.A. Noire here, but the NPCs now hold their own against other modern games, while conversations also benefit hugely from a leap in acting talent, and the ability to disconnect from the verbal clinch while still allowing the discussion to continue is a huge improvement.
The bandits’ hideout is pinpointed on the map, and we begin our ascent. Initially opting for the longbow over the sword, the ability to dual-wield is to be a huge part of the Skyrim experience, with the respective triggers controlling each limb. It’s an intuitively simple system, opening up a vast range of tactical options, and obvious signs of this feature being a late addition to the game are conspicuous by their absence; the prospect of not having dual-wielding, after ten minutes of play, seems absurd.
Choosing to assign magicka to the left hand comes at the expense of defence, as you’ll be relinquishing any use of a shield. With options of hostile and restorative magicka this shortfall can be balanced, while two-handed weapons such as the longbow preclude any use of magicka whatsoever. This feels very much like a game that wants you to play it as you wish, without providing any foolproof, invulnerable options, as you can assign attacks to the D-pad for quick changing mid-bout.
The levelling-up system has been streamlined to match. Agility is gone, meaning any leaping while travelling will be strictly recreational, and will not bolster your stats in the slightest. The system here is set up so your avatar improves at the activities undertaken; use your sword in every encounter, and that skill will improve. It’s an elegant system which will not be to the liking of all Elder Scrolls fans, but it removes some of the inherent design flaws that came with the last game’s ambitious open-endedness.
The stealth system remains intact, the eye reticule as the ever-reliable gauge of your sneakery, as we spot a sentry bandit on a gnarled stone ledge amongst the beautiful Daedric ruins. A couple of quickfire arrows, let off while in sneak mode, arc lazily through the air, and he’s down.
This breaking of cover has alerted the other guards to our presence, which gives ample opportunity to try out melee combat. The sword/shield dynamic is excellent, using the left trigger is used to block and parry with the shield, opening up your foe to attack with the right trigger’s sword. Time this right and you’re treated to one of many fatality animations unique to each weapon – a pleasing way to end bouts that feel noticeably snappier and more deliberate than in previous titles.
The bandits’ hideout begins in a cavernous hallway, before a series of symbolic puzzles bring you to the poor wretch who has the golden claw itself, pleading for assistance, suspended, as he is, from the ceiling in spider silk. The spider responsible – a hulking, Shelobian monstrosity – makes its appearance, and the ensuing battle is taught and tactical, a combination of cowardly, distanced conflagration, hastily released arrows and panicked sword attacks.
The lair eventually descends to a cavernous, ancient chamber, the hieroglyphs on one of the walls holding the key to one of the game’s 24 Dragon Shouts. These are powerful, arcane spells passed through the ages, and serve as powerful accompaniments to the standard repertoire of sorcery. These include teleportation and telekinesis, and quite how integral these spells will be to the main quest was not apparent in the all-to-brief playthrough we had, but their presence indicates yet another layer of complexity in an already omni-tiered adventure.
This single quest took well over an hour, and if the previous titles in Bethesda’s catalogue are any benchmark then this has barely scratched the surface of the larger game. A good sign, since as sidequests go this one was challenging, entertaining and surprising, feeling much more orchestrated than some of the cookie-cutter caves of Oblivion.
What Bethesda has seemingly pulled off with Skyrim is something quite remarkable. It’s taken a formula it, itself, invented, and polished it to an unbelievable degree, creating a game that feels simultaneously familiar and absolutely revolutionary.
We’d love to be able to either confirm or refute some of its claims, yet on the real-time in-game economy, the Radiant AI which adapts the game to each individual player, horseplay, alchemy, and the myriad avenues you can doubtlessly choose to explore, and the greater emphasis on story, we will just have to take Bethesda at its word.
This is because time, unfortunately, was not on our side. No sooner had we delivered the golden claw to the bartender (before waiting for him to fall asleep, breaking into his house and robbing him, obviously), then the lights came up, and the Bethesda rep informed us our time was over.