Well well well, I’m not really sure how to start this article, as soon as I start to think about this game my hands just want to type all my thoughts at once. I will however try my best to express my excitement and talk about some of the new features and improvements the latest installment in the ever-expanding Elder Scrolls world will bring. I’m a huge Uncharted fan and Drakes Deception looks set to be the best yet, I always thought it would hands down be my most anticipated game of this year. Then up crops some images and footage of TES: Skyrim and Uncharted is a distant memory, all I think about now is Skyrim and 11/11/11 can’t come soon enough. Oblivion has to be one of my favourite games around, I don’t normally stick to one game (or genre) and play it 24/7 but I’ve played no other console game more than I have Oblivion. For me the perfect sequel to Oblivion would be the exact same game just with a face lift, even some of its floor I love, they make the game what it is.
(SPOILER ALERT, I’m going to talk about the stats and new features I have seen so far, so if you want it to all be a surprise proceed with caution!)
Skyrim, as you probably know, is the location and setting for the new game and it look stunning. The new environment looks amazingly luscious and rich, the attention to detail far surpasses its predecessor. The map is roughly the same size as oblivion according to Todd Howard “even thought the scale of the map is about oblivion size, there is significantly more content…”. The look of everything seems to be just as I wished, stepping out in Oblivion still makes me go ‘wow’ but Skyrim looks like the next level, it makes Oblivion look sparse and empty. It’s not just the environment that has been given an overhaul, your character and NPC’s have been updated too. Gone are the days of the super smooth ‘plastic doll’ looking faces. The improvements have been carried across from the graphics into the animations as well. The characters are much more fluid and natural in their movements. From what I have seen, the actions of your character (blocking, swinging swords and such like) have much more weight behind them and people seem to be a lot more ‘such footed’; I detected a lot less ice skating. I believe the animations suit the level of detail in the environment; might sound like an odd statement, L.A Noir for example in my mind didn’t match animation with graphics, the new facial animation system they used was impressive but they couldn’t continue that level of detail/quality into the rest of the game and for me that made it disjointed. It isn’t just the characters and environment that has been kicked up a gear, the menu’s have been redesigned in a much more visual way. Hundreds of items have been modeled in great detail which you can now view like never before (I’ll talk more about the new menu in a bit) and the map is also 3D. It really does appear that Bethesda are pushing the graphics as far as they possibly can on this one. The only thing I’ve noticed that slightly disappointed me was some static fur on a mammoth, it looked like someone had covered it head-to-toe in hair gel. I’m willing to let that go though, it’s a very small price to pay to have everything else. I also know for a fact that hair or fur is difficult and resource heavy to simulate and render effectively.
As I touched on a second ago, the menu system in Skyrim is a world apart from what we saw in Oblivion. We no longer get the scrap-book style spreadsheet but instead have a much cleaner embedded menu system not overly dissimilar to the PS3’s XMB. First off, everything isn’t on one screen like before, when you hit the menu button in Skyrim you are greeted with a compass style 4 point cross. Left is your MAGIC, right takes you to your ITEMS, up shows your SKILLS and down opens the MAP. If you select ITEMS a small menu list will open on the left of the game screen (you still see your environment behind the menu) with the options, Favourites, All, Weapons, Apparel, Potions, Food, Ingredients, Books and Misc. When you scroll over a category, weapons for example, another menu will expand next to the existing one (you will now have two columns on-screen). This will list all your items in that category and display an interactive 3D model of the highlighted item, along with a small box beneath showing Damage, Weight and Value attributes. Magic works the same way but the menu launches from the right of the screen. As with the items you can now see each spell in 3D too, they appear as different coloured glowing orbs. The way you view your skills has changed the most of all the main menu areas. In Skyrim you “look to the heavens for what your character is”. Skills are displayed as constellations against a mystical starry background (now you can no longer see the game environment). Here you can scroll through all the skills and also look into the new Fallout style perks. Last but not least, the map. Not wanting to leave any area out, the map is now 3D. Once you click the map option the camera pans out to reveal where you are and the surrounding villages and other POI. Personally I think the new menu system is great, I was worried that they would change and mess with the classic RPG style Oblivion menu but now I’m glad they have. Being able to rotate and fully see every item clearly before attaching or wearing will hopefully reduce the unnecessary equipping and un-equipping of items over and over again. The models for all the items look, as you’d expect, wonderful. You can zoom in to have a full screen view look at the fine detail that has gone into these items if you wish. It does feel slightly unnecessary and a little like Bethesda are patting themselves on the back, but hey, I would if I’d created it. I’m also sure I will no doubt spend more time than I’d like looking at a piece of ‘Salmon Steak’ just because I’m a sucker for graphics.
The gameplay has been updated to and for the vast majority it seems all good. Some things on face value might seem a tad disappointing but I don’t think they will be greatly missed in the long run. You now have 18 skills instead of 21, it’s never great when the numbers decrease and many developers like using the word ‘streamlining’ to justify these omissions. You now have; Destruction, Illusion, Conjuration, Restoration, Alteration, Enchanting*, Smithing*, Heavy Armor, Block, Two-Handed*, One-Handed*, Archery*, Light Armor, Sneak, Lockpicking*, Pickpocket*, Speech* and Alchemy. The absentees are; Athletics, Acrobatics, Mercantile and Mysticism. The first two really don’t bother me, I’ve never spent time in Oblivion thinking “Dam! really need to improve my Athletics (or Acrobatics)” they are just stats that ping on-screen every now-and-again that I don’t really care about. Mercantile and Mysticism however are a bit different, Mysticism hold probably the best spells in my eyes, Reflect Spell, Reflect Damage, Soul Trap and Spell Absorption. Having a character with a spell or constant effect 75% Reflect Spell was awesome, I really hope these magical effects aren’t completely absent from the final game. For Mercantile its a so-so absence for me, I could never get my character to expert or master level but I liked the idea of shops having more money and selling items back at a good rate. It was never a big stat for me but I’d still rather not see it go, it will be interesting to see how Bethesda has programmed the selling of items in Skyrim. Some other skills have been renamed or reorganised by the looks of things, Smithing looks to take over from Armorer, Two/One-Handed seems to combine Blade, blunt and Hand-To-Hand, likewise with Lockpicking and Pickpocketing replacing Security, one would image Archery is a straight swap from Marksman and Speech replacing Speechcraft. This reshuffling is ok with me and personally I think One-Handed and Two-Handed is better than the old Blade and Blunt anyway, it’s also more fitting for the new combat. Enchanting really intrigues me, hopefully this skill will enable us to create some of the effects we used to get from the Mysticism skill in Oblivion. Creating some unique and awesome armour or a sword was one of my favourite parts of Oblivion, so hopefully Enchanting will fill that void. A new feature for Skyrim is perks, Bethesda are obviously learning from the success of Fallout 3. Just like Fallout when you level up you can pick a perk, ‘Shield Wall’ is the first perk for the Block skill, its effect is ‘Blocking is 25% more effective’. Originally I did worry about these perks, I thought they might unbalance the game but from the several I’ve managed to see my worries are now gone. The races are the same for Skyrim as they were in Oblivion so Altmer, Argonian, Bosmer, Breton, Dunmer, Imperial, Khajiit, Nord, Orc and Redguard should all return. How each race will differ skill wise, I’m not sure (don’t think anyone does outside Bethesda), a small change from Oblivion might be nice to keep things fresh.
The combat in Skyrim from what I have seen from the QuakeCon video and others dotted around the net, has been greatly advanced upon since Oblivion. The main new feature is dual wielding, Bethesda have really given the player a lot more freedom. Staffs, swords, axes, spells and shields can now be combined in a variety of new destructive ways. Dual wield swords, staffs and spells, the right trigger will control the right hand and vise-versa for the left. I can’t wait to hold a staff and a sword (Gandalf anyone?), blast someone from afar with the staff then run head long into battle with my sword, unleashing blasts from my staff again when needed. The new possibilities dual wielding brings for spells is the best part. It opens up great scope for new and inventive tactics, being able to quickly fire off two accompanying spells could be invaluable. At QuakeCon Todd Howard showed how a Detect Life and Frenzy spell could be combined to find an enemy (Detect Life) and get it to attack another enemy (Frenzy). A good example of how this new left and right hand system could work. But, the icing on the cake for many a budding wizard (no tiny wands needed here potter) will be when you pull back both triggers at once while hold the same spell in each hand. The spell will combine in front of your character and you can unleash a ‘supercharged’ more powerful version of that spell at your unfortunate foe. Oh and it also looks like you’re doing a Hadouken. Sword combat has also received a new little bonus, in some cases when your about to defeat an enemy the game appears to go into slow-mo to execute what looks like a finishing move or kill shot. It’s reminiscent of Fallout 3’s slow-mo deaths, when the camera follows a bullet through the air to kill your enemy. All the new combat additions Bethesda have made look sure to make Skyrim the most enjoyable Elder Scrolls ever for brutally or ingeniously destroying your enemy.
I don’t know much about the story besides you’re a ‘Dragonborn’ and must save Skyrim from the aerial dragon assault. It apparently doesn’t continue as an Oblivion sequel (didn’t think it would) but I’d imagine it will pop up in the story somewhere along the line. Bethesda and Todd Howard have mentioned the radiant story and AI a lot and apparently it can adapt the game and the story around your character, so you might get more quests that favour your playing style, whether that’s a mage or a warrior. This all sounds very impressive but I’ll reserve judgement unit I actually get me hands on the game. What is confirmed though is the inclusion of all the factions from Oblivion, the fighter guild returns as the ‘Companions’, the mage’s guild is called the ‘College of Winter’s hold’ I believe, thieves are back along with the dark brotherhood. Hopefully I have been able to fill you in on some Skyrim goodness and throw in my thoughts to. Let me know what you think about Skyrim in the comments below, cheers