I’ve always been a huge fan of the Elder Scrolls series. Bethesda has shown, time and time again, that they make games that I really enjoy when they keep to their formula…and I’m talking games made by the company, not just produced by them. Morrowind, Oblivion, and Fallout were all very strong titles that showed a very clear progression of effort and technology, and each brought out new things to love (while, admittedly, producing some ardor about changes made to the game system that some players despised). After seeing (and yes, briefly playing) Skyrim for the first time, I can say that this latest game will be no different.
At its core, Skyrim benefits from the same basic construction that made the previous Elder Scrolls games so fun to play. The world remains completely open-ended, featuring an incredible number of side quests and stories for each player to engage in as they wish. The main story can be followed immediately, or left to spice things up between moments of exploration, and the expansive world may make it hard for some players to stick to only the main story. As was the case with Oblivion, Skyrim provides a massive increase to the detail and attention given to everything seen visually in the world: the terrain is absolutely stunning to behold, and it was hard not to just sit and stare at everything around me at times. Meanwhile, NPCs and mobs in the world benefit from vastly improved visuals and behavior, making them much more lifelike and interesting than they were in Oblivion.
Walking through a town is an incredible experience the first few times; players of earlier Bethesda games will recognize some NPC behavior, such as people stopping in the street to converse about events as the player passes. However, unlike Oblivion, the dialogue is a lot more interesting and unique if you keep moving. Only by hovering around the same NPCs over and over will you hear them start to fall back on generic dialogue, and they get new topics as things happen in the world, which is a nice touch. One of my favorite moments was talking to a blacksmith as he ground an axe on a wheel; rather than put it down and stand just to talk to me, I was able to watch as he continued his work while indulging my need for conversation. Again, a small detail that really got my attention when it happened (incidentally, the same blacksmith is shown in one of the preview videos on the ES site, posted above, if you want to see his behavior).
Combat is something that has especially improved with the long-awaited introduction of true dual-wielding abilities! You can wield two weapons, a weapon and spell, two spells, or go sword and board with a shield if you like. Generic combat has faded away with Oblivion as well, as you learn to do things such as shield bash, charge up and hold spells, and other neat effects. You can even dual wield the same spell in each hand for increased effects. In addition, there are now more effective special maneuvers for melee weapons; this leads to occasional impaling of enemies, or other special animations that really look cool when they happen. It also makes the combat feel more “real”, which helps create better immersion into the game system. While I eventually got bored with Oblivion’s combat due to the ease of being able to fake out the AI of most creatures, I never had that feeling in Skyrim. Each enemy attacked in a way that made them a genuine threat if not taken seriously. The left vs right hand system has been done well, and I think most people will enjoy it…it certainly impressed me!
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to draw down with a dragon during the 1 hour demo limit when I played, but watching the videos they are obviously a major part of both the story, and the open world. Personally, I can’t wait to go hunting once I get the chance (and the equipment).
Alongside the visuals are, as always, the auditory effects, and once again I have nothing but praise. The music provides a nice, continual backdrop to the world of Skyrim, and everything from ambiance to combat sound effects sounds a lot more natural than they did in previous games. The dialogue I heard is all pretty well recorded, and I didn’t come across any cringe-worthy, Resident Evil 1 type voice acting in my time with the demo. It’s clear that Bethesda didn’t skimp in this area, and you will really be able to tell the moment you load up the game.
Character creation is, as always, a lengthy process, but unfortunately I don’t have much information on it yet! My 1 hour time for the demo counted the time it took to make my character, so I had to blaze through pretty quickly. I can say that the Argonians (lizards) and Khajiit (cats) both looked very similar to Oblivion, but with a slew of graphics upgrades that really made me wish I had time to really fiddle with all of the modification tools. That said, I was able to quickly make a Khajiit and jump into the world, so you don’t have to take much time with creating your player if you don’t want. Skills work the same as Oblivion and Morrowind anyway, so anything you accidentally don’t boost up at the start, you can eventually practice to perfection later.
Speaking of skills, that’s the next big thing: talent trees! Well, I guess they’re called “perks” this time, but it amounts to the same thing. As you level up the various skills, you can select how they level: for instance, by leveling the One-Handed skill, you can specialize perks in axes, maces, and swords based on which ones you want to have more skills with. This lets you put more of a personal touch on your character’s abilities as you make them stronger, and take the perks that will be most beneficial to your character, instead of just getting generic upgrades like Oblivion had. The change is a welcome one, and I have yet to find any negatives with it: every experience I had, was a good one when it came to perks during the demo.
There are, of course, some cons to all of this. The rig that we were allowed to play the demo on was a fairly stellar piece of computer, and odds are, a lot of people are not going to have something with that much power sitting on their desks. For those who do, the game should run like a dream, but the others will most likely face compatibility issues and low graphics settings until they give in and decide to upgrade. The exact system specs haven’t been released by Bethesda yet, but I would count on needing some fairly expensive machinery to be able to run this game anywhere near high graphics settings. For those who outright can’t run the game, that means either buying it for a console (which will have all the same DLC, but no mod support for obvious reasons), or upgrading their rig. Those who can’t afford a new PC, or a console, will be SOL unfortunately. This may change later on thanks to the mod community, as there were some modders who helped make compatibility packs that reduced certain graphics requirements for lower end PCs back in Oblivion and Morrowind. Such a thing may happen to Skyrim as well.
The price of the game will also be an annoyance to some, even the PC game will retail for $59.99 according to most websites selling the game (instead of being the usual $10 cheaper than console versions). Notably, direct2drive.com features a preorder discount of 10% for the game, so currently they have the best deal. While no retailer is currently offering a presale bonus, there is a special collector’s edition of the game which will include a 200-page art book, a making of DVD, and a 12″ Alduin dragon figurine. The collector’s edition is only for hard copies of the game (so no special CE for digital download versions yet), but it retails at a hefty $149.99 on the release date, which is certainly more than I want to spend, even if I do want that art book.
Overall, my impression of the game is fantastic after only playing for 1 hour on the demo. Even that incomplete version was wonderfully refined, and everything simply felt “right” about the game as I played, and watched others do the same. I spent the entire hour repeating “that’s so cool” every minute or so, and laughing to myself as I did, which should be the hallmark of a good game experience.
Release date: Currently 11/11/11
Durandal is a well-known sarcastic jerk; he’s not always a sarcastic jerk, as sometimes he’s asleep.