Developer: Bethesda Game Studios / Publisher: Bethesda Softworks / Price: $59.99 / Rating: Mature [Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Strong Language] / Played on: Xbox 360
When speaking with fans of Oblivion, it’s not uncommon to hear that their hours-played number is somewhere in the triple digits range. This is with good reason. The Elder Scrolls series (and the current generation Fallout games, for that matter) has consistently succeeded, more so than many other franchises, in offering an actual role-playing experience. Each aspect of these games feels deliberately designed to provide players with the tools and freedom required to craft a wholly unique and, in some cases, almost unhealthily immersive experience.
We recently spent three hours doing what we pleased with the soon-to-be-released fifth installment in the series, Skyrim. Everything you’ve come to expect from the franchise is here in spades: a huge open environment littered with settlements and dungeons filled with friendly and not-so-friendly NPCs, a robust character creation system, and a near limitless amount of side quests to complete. But in other areas, the game may exceed expectations. A greater attention to story-specific set pieces (an aspect of previous Bethesda RPGs that has been criticized as seeming like an afterthought) and UI design will catch the eye of Elder Scrolls veterans. Additionally, Bethesda has totally reworked the character progression and upgrade systems in a way that’s been wonderfully streamlined without sacrificing any depth.
There are no character classes in Skyrim. Rather, each race has specific passive traits and skill point biases that can help direct your play style. For example, my female Dark Elf started off with extra points in the Destruction (offensive magic) and Stealth skills along with a permanent bonus to fire damage resistance. However, I wouldn’t have been locked into being a stealthy magic user if I didn’t want to be. Your individual skills level up the more often they are used. On top of that, each time you reach a new player level, you are given the option to increase your health, magicka, or stamina AND unlock new abilities in the trees that are associated with each skill. If this sounds confusing let me put it like this: the more often I use the fire blast spell, the more powerful my Destruction skill becomes. Additionally, when I earn enough experience to reach a new level, I can unlock perks in the Destruction skill tree (every single skill has a perk tree) like causing all Destruction spells to cost less magicka or increasing the power of the dual-wielded fire blast. This progression allows players to develop their characters naturally, rather than being locked into a particular specialization at the onset of the game.
While your character will no doubt be at the center of your Skyrim experience, it’s the game worlds of The Elder Scrolls series that are always the stars of the show. It’s tough to say just how big Skyrim’s world is compared to the other games, but even in our short play session it’s obvious this is quite an expansive slab of land. The small area I was able to explore was packed with plenty of small towns, bandit fortresses, and wandering merchants. Exploration is always satisfying because there’s always something to find no matter which direction you head.
But at some point you have to latch on to the main quest line. A civil war has broken out between two clans and big-ass dragons have returned for the first time in years and are wreaking havoc on the citizens and towns of Skyrim. I’ll avoid getting bogged down with story specifics (for the sake of spoilers) and just say that our time down this quest path culminated in a long, epic battle with a significantly-sized dragon. It’s the kind of moment you’re not used to seeing in the early stages of an Elder Scrolls quest line. Big open worlds with player freedom are integral to the experience, yes, but more impactful, meatier storyline moments are a welcome and needed addition. Here’s hoping Bethesda can continue that pacing through the entire game.
It may sound strange to say it but the overhauled UI design in Skyrim ends up being the largest improvement to the game’s combat. You have the ability to go into your inventory and set favorites. Using the d-pad at anytime allows you to flip through and quickly switch to (or in the case of potions, use) any of the items or spells you’ve set. Switching from your frost-powered axe to your bow and arrow, to your Restoration spell, all on the fly, not only lets you circumvent clunky inventory management, but also encourages a faster-paced, and more importantly, strategic combat.
There’s so much we saw in our short time with Skyrim that we haven’t gone into: the new enchantment and blacksmithing mechanics, the companions and side quests, and Jeremy Soule’s (once again) stunning soundtrack. It all feels built in favor of letting players create their own adventures. And I’m sure this only begins to scratch the surface of what Skyrim will offer. Fortunately, 11/11/11 is fast approaching.