On Friday 11th November,Bethesda released Elder Scrolls V and like I knew I would, I spent my entire weekend exploring Skyrim and seeing what the new world had to offer, and it’s a lot. I’ve been waiting for this game for many months now, maybe even years and I was keen to jump straight in and play it.
I popped the Game in my xBox 360 and waited for the system updates to install. I know it’s going to be graphically sexy if I am forced to update my system before I can play it. I installed the game to my hard drive to cut both loading times and disk-whirring noises, and then selected ‘Play Game’.
Three button-presses later and I was starting a new game. I was sat on a cart with three other prisoners. My hands were bound as we ware taken into a village. At this point there was nothing else I could do except listen to what they were saying and look around at the beautiful countryside.
When I reached the village I was asked to step off the cart and after a brief introduction I could design my new character. The number of races is the same; there are still the various elves, human races, Argonians (lizard people) and Khajit (cat people). The number of options for personalisation has also increased, you can shade and colour the various parts of the face . Though Elder Scrolls is a rare game for me in that I don’t really care how the character looks. I spend most if not all the game in 1st person perspective so I don’t actually see anything of my character except for a pair of hands. Though it didn’t stop me faffing and playing around with my character until I had created my female wood-elf, and it was not long before she had her head on the chopping block just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The arrival of a large and rather unfriendly dragon interrupted what could have been the shortest game ever, and the tutorial/intro part of the game began. As tutorials go, it was alright you were taught how to move, fight, sneak, pick-locks all of that type of stuff, but I have to be honest, I didn’t care. I didn’t even care for the storyline, which I am sure is good”¦ hopefully, it’s better than the repetitive nature of the gateway destroying Oblivion. All I cared about was getting to the point where I can do my thing, and as soon as you leave the cave the guy who helps you escape promptly leaves and tells you where your next step could be. Finally, I was on my own and I could do whatever I want.
Like Oblivion, and the Fall-Out games before it, Bethesda have once again shown they the masters of the Sandbox games. The main quest line is always there for you if you want it. Though it usually remains as nothing more than a reminder in your quest log, and it wasn’t long before the myriad of side-quests took over my journal, and sent me all over Skyrim. Oh, it’s worth mentioning that like Oblivion the major cities are shown on your game map from the beginning of the game, unlike Oblivion you can’t fast travel to them until you have been to them. You won’t be able to fast travel to a place until the ‘Discovered”¦’ message pops up. I found that out the hard way, I entered a city by a rear tunnel which bypassed the ‘discovered’ message and then had to make the same long and familiar walk back here again once I realised. Not that the walk wasn’t beautiful, the detail and life of Skyrim is breathtaking.
(Update: Outside all of the major cities, a caravan can be paid to take you to any other major city.)
I’m not going to go on much about the graphics though, they’ve been improved and that’s all good of course It’s the sandbox element and the changes in gameplay that I want to mention here.
My potion mixing, kleptomaniac battle mage is now level 13, and I haven’t even began to experience everything that Skyrim has to offer, but these are a few things I think are worthy of noting.
The first and most obvious change is the way that skills and perks work. Gone is the rather dodgy way of choosing major and minor skills, now whatever you use most increases most. Cast plenty of destructive spells and your skill increases, switch to a two-handed sword and watch your skill increase there too. Your level increases when you have raised any skills by an amount of points. It’s easy and flexible. Nice.
This brings me on to perks. For every level you gain, you are given 1 perk point which you can use to increase your abilities for your skills. Every skill has a tree; the more your skill rises the more perks become available to you in that tree. The perks usually have a skill requirement, but your Perk points can be saved up so don’t feel like you have to use them straight away. If you’re looking for a character highly skilled in one skill rather than a jack-of-all trades, I recommend you leave them until you have the skill level required to use them in a tree of your choice.
There are still guilds and company’s to join. The Thieves, Mages and Fighters Guilds of Oblivion have made it into Skyrim albeit with different names, and there are new additions such as the Bards college. All these guilds they follow a similar format. If you do really well, and help everyone you can with their quests that often involve you risking your life, then you rise within the guild/college etc.
Aside from the guilds, there are a lot more quests to pick up. Sometimes just from overhearing someone in a bar or overhearing a casual conversation can end up with you being asked to steal Argonian wine from a pub, for some penniless drunk. I also read that in effect there are infinite quests; no matter how long you play there will always be quests to do. I suspect that these quests will involve nothing more than being asked to risk your life for some lazy bugger who can’t be bothered to get something for himself. I’ve also heard tales that you can become a werewolf but I haven’t found that quest line yet.
Magic is now both more impressive visually and more flexible. A similar arrange of spells from Oblivion is available in Skyrim, Flame, Spark, Ice, Raise Zombie etc. and these have all had the graphical boost you would expect. One welcome addition for me is that some destructive spells such as flame, spark, or ice work as cones of effect and not as balls of magic you throw at enemies. This makes enemies easier to kill but this magic is ineffective for enemies at long-range. This is all subjective anyway, but a change that has definitely altered the way magic-users function is dual-casting. You can equip a spell in each hand, and can use both hands at the same time. Giving you the flexibility to see which combination of spells work best, or by using the same spell in both hands increasing the damage you cause. Healing yourself while you simultaneously toast enemies to a crisp is certainly handy.
A word of caution. Don’t think that Skyrim is going to keep all the big-bad nasties hidden away in some far-flung corner of the land so you won’t accidentally come across them. Although they won’t be charging at you every opportunity they get, but trying to go man on man with a woolly mammoth (or elf on mammoth, I suppose in my case) is going to end with a dramatic tusk related death. Likewise, if you see a couple of giants minding their own business by a nice cosy campfire, don’t walk up to them leave them be, they don’t need to have their evening ruined by having to kill you in two hits. Just be careful, even on ‘Apprentice’ difficulty level it’s still dangerous out there.
Finally crafting. Oblivion had alchemy and armour repairing which was nothing more than hitting things with hammers. Thankfully Skyrim has improved and really opened up the crafting options available to you, which is why it gets a whole mini-section of its own in this post.
Alchemy has been neatened up but you can no longer make potions on the fly (at least I haven’t found a way to.) You have to use an Alchemy lab which are dotted around the various towns. There are now far more ingredients for you to use from butterfly wings, and crab shells to the more mundane but plentiful plants growing around Skyrim. Food can no longer be used in Alchemy as it’s now used in cooking (more on that later). Each alchemy ingredient has four traits. You learn the first trait by eating the ingredient. You feel the effects but they are so minor for it to make very little difference. The remaining traits are learned by mixing ingredients together.
Armour and Weapon Smithing
Repair Hammers are now a thing of the past. Skyrim has taken Smithing and opened it up in a big way, so big in fact it’s difficult to know where to begin. Firstly raw ingredients can be harvested by killing animals for their skins or by finding ore deposits around the land and mining them with a pick axe. The blacksmiths in most towns have a variety of equipment you use to turn these raw materials into something more useful. A tanning rack can turn your hides into leather and leather straps and a smelter can turn your ore into metal bars. Moving along to the Blacksmith’s forge; this is where you make the items and if you need to give you items a little more oomph than the grindstone or the workbench can be used to make those swords sharper or that armour tougher.
If I had to choose a negative side to this, I would say that it doesn’t go any deeper than that. There is no mini-game to crafting, you simple press a button and your item is made. You can’t fail to make an item or make a perfect one, but as an improvement on Oblivion it’s very welcome.
Enchantment, in a similar way to Alchemy is now performed at specific points; at Enchanting desks. It’s also been tweaked. First you need to destroy a magical item to learn its enchantment. Once you’ve learned it nominate an item you wish to enchant and then select a Soul Gem in your inventory to power the enchantment.
Cooking is the element of crafting I am least pleased with. Simply stand at a cooking spit, and use it. Then a list of recipes you can make will be shown to you. Select the food you want to make, and assuming you have the right ingredients you’ll automatically make the food. When you eat food, you are given a temporary buff. I was really hoping that cooking would allow me to experiment in the same way that Alchemy does, but unfortunately not. The recipes have all been pre-made. It’s a shame really when you consider just how much food seems to just be lying around. In Oblivion I’d steal all the food and use it to increase my Alchemy skill. There isn’t a related skill for cooking, so I don’t really see the point in it being there.
There are many smaller, more subtle difference things like”¦
Occasionally in combat you’ll perform a flourish (In either 1st or 3rd person perspective) that will finish off your opponent in a cool way”¦ or that pick-pocketing someone while they’re asleep is now easier and much less prone to failing”¦ or that when you use fire, nearby objects will catch on fire for a little while”¦ you get the point.
Are there any bad-points? Well not really. There are three possible niggles, and they are nothing more than minor things I thought of while playing.
The loading screens are a little long, even just entering and leaving a house you could be waiting for 10-15 seconds.
When you are under-water there is no sign of how much air you have left, until your health starts going down.
Some of the texture mapping in the snowy areas is a little dodgy.
None of those detract away from the best Sandbox game I have played in a while. Metaphorically speaking it bends Oblivion over and gives it a darn good seeing to. I can’t wait to get back to Skyrim to carry on”¦ well, to carry on doing whatever the hell I want to”¦
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Jim Franklin is a freelance writer, living in Derby UK with his wife and his player 3. When time allows he likes nothing more than losing himself in a multi-hour gaming session. He likes most games and will play anything but prefers MMO's, and sandbox RPG's.