Is Elder Scrolls V the best yet?


I’ve played a lot of Elder Scrolls in my day. I’ve topped over 100 hours in both The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind and The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (yes, dear readers, I know you played more and I’m a noob and I fail and all of that), numbers that undoubtedly would have been higher if my job didn’t necessitate pesky actions like “playing other games.” I’ve always loved role-playing games, but the series’ blend of high fantasy and first-person action hooked me like no other games before or since.

With that said (and as you might expect), I was more than a little excited when Bethesda finally announced the fifth title in the much-ballyhooed series. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrimwas shown to members of the press for the first time last week at an event held high in the snowy mountains of Utah, the perfect setting to unveil a game that takes place in the world of Tamriel’s coldest region. After a nearly-two-hour presentation of the game, I walked away safe in the knowledge that not only was the game on track to be one of the year’s best games, but also to be the best Elder Scrolls to date. Why’s that, you ask? Well, let me break it down for you, list-style!

Pretty, Shiny Things

This might seem like a no-brainer, given the fact that we’re now nearly six years into the Xbox 360’s lifecycle (note: that was the platform Skyrim was shown on) — but Skyrim’s visuals are very impressive even when you take the system’s age into account. Oblivion was a nice-looking game and all, but Skyrim features all of the latest graphical bells and whistles that help to make today’s games that much more realistic. If I might get all jargon-y for a minute, I was most impressed by the draw distances, which have been improved to the point that I could see much, much further than I ever could in Oblivion.

The Creation engine (as Bethesda calls it) was essentially rebuilt from the ground up for Skyrim, and features greatly improved lighting and a dynamic weather system that’s perfect for cranking out blinding snowstorms when you least expect them. You’ll definitely be dealing with those from time to time, as Skyrim features a number of different locales (polar tundras, high mountaintops, fall forests, etc.) and a level of verticality never seen in an Elder Scrolls game. Yes, you actually need to cross over those massive mountains, an adventure that will definitely take some time.

First & Third

In the hundred-plus hours I spent playing Oblivion, I spent maybe five minutes in third-person mode. It’s not that I was opposed to that view, as some of my favorite games use that perspective; no, I stuck with the first-person view solely because my character’s third-person animations were simply dreadful. That appears to have been fixed in a big way in Skyrim, thanks to an overhauled animation system. The player-character (and everyone you meet during your travels) moves much more fluidly, to the point that I suspect a lot more people will use this as their default view.

Left vs. Right

Skyrim’s biggest gameplay change is easily the new right hand/left hand system, which fundamentally alters the combat in some interesting new ways. Essentially, you can put any combination of weapons, magic, or shields in either your right or left hand, making for near-endless possibilities. Yes, you can stick with your trusty sword-and-shield combo if you’d like, but now you can dual-wield one-handed weapons or sport magic in one hand while wielding a sword in the other. Mage players should be very happy to hear that similar spells combine to create a super-spell of sorts, demonstrated during the demo when a fireball spell was equipped in each hand. Being able to control what each hand does could make for a really cool mechanic, although it’s tough to say how well it will actually work until I get my hands on the game.

Like Bookmarks, But for Swords

Oblivion’s inventory system was unwieldy — especially once you accumulated dozens of similar items. While it doesn’t appear to be completely final, inventory management in Skyrim looks much more streamlined. Everything in your main inventory view is grouped by type, allowing for easier item management. What really pushes it in the right direction, however, is the ability to set favorites, almost like creating bookmarks for websites.

The Creation engine (as Bethesda calls it) was essentially rebuilt from the ground up for Skyrim, and features greatly improved lighting and a dynamic weather system that’s perfect for cranking out blinding snowstorms when you least expect them. You’ll definitely be dealing with those from time to time, as Skyrim features a number of different locales (polar tundras, high mountaintops, fall forests, etc.) and a level of verticality never seen in an Elder Scrolls game. Yes, you actually need to cross over those massive mountains, an adventure that will definitely take some time.

Putting items, spells, or weapons in your favorites list allows you to quickly cycle between them using the up and down buttons on the d-pad once it’s brought up, then equip them to whichever hand you’d like. If you are the type of person that likes to spend a lot of time looking at your loot, rest assured that every item in the inventory menu is fully rendered and can be rotated and ogled to your heart’s delight.

Keep Watching The Skies

The inventory system isn’t the only thing that’s streamlined, though; Skyrim’s developers went to great lengths to make everything flow as naturally as possible, while cutting down on the number of menus. Pressing up on the d-pad brings up the beautiful new character menu, which consists of constellations in the night sky. The birth signs from previous Elder Scrolls are gone, in favor of a system that allows you to look to the stars to see who you are. This is where you choose your skills and perks, determining your character type. The leveling system is still a little bit cloudy, but it sounds like you still level up your skills by actually using them (after all, practice makes perfect). As you hit certain levels, you earn perks, each of which has different ranks. And no, you can’t level up your Athletics skill and overall level by jumping constantly — the developers decided to do away with that skill category altogether.

Living Just Enough For The Village

Anyone who played Oblivion probably has memories of following a non-player character around to see what they did in their off-time. The answer was typically “nothing much.” According to Bethesda, this isn’t the case with Skyrim; NPCs behave more realistically, going about their business whether you’re around or not, thanks to some new-and-improved A.I. What I was most interested to hear about, however, is the fact that you can take jobs in Skyrim, directly affecting the amount of resources in each town and the global economy as a whole. You can earn money by chopping wood or mining gold, or head to the blacksmith to learn how to craft your own weapons. I didn’t get a look at how this system works, but it certainly sounds interesting.

Dealing Death With Flair

Although the combat in Skyrim appears similar to previous games, the new animation system makes it feel much more realistically brutal. Combatants (including the player) grunt and swing wildly, pushing each other away in an attempt to create space for their attacks. Some weapons (particularly axes, if perked correctly) deal bleeding damage over time — which comes in mighty handy when fighting higher-level enemies.

Coolest of all, you can occasionally perform a finishing move that provides a gloriously violent flourish at the end. Running an enemy through with your sword or burying an axe deep in his head with a satisfying, sickening crunch definitely gets the blood a-boiling, and I’m really looking forward to discovering more of these techniques.

Dungeons…

One of the big knocks against Oblivion was that the dungeons seemed nearly identical — something the developers obviously took to heart when designing Skyrim. During one extended dungeon crawl, I noticed several different environments, from fairly standard stone/rock corridors to large antechambers encased in ice. Holes in the mountain’s walls let light and snow stream in, creating some truly dreamlike visuals. I was also happy to see that booby-traps make their return, and they can still be used against unsuspecting enemies (provided you notice them before tripping them yourself). Additionally, some of the environmental puzzles require a bit of thought and an attentive eye. It’s tough to say if everydungeon will be wholly unique, but this is definitely a step in the right direction.

…and Dragons

Much has been made of the fact that Skyrim will feature dragons (basically occasional boss fights) in a big way, and for good reason: They’re downright terrifying. I got my first glimpse of one of these ancient creatures just outside a mountaintop temple (leading into the aforementioned dungeon), and even though I wasn’t controlling the demo, I wanted to yell “Run!” after it spied the player and took to the sky. After circling a few times, the dragon began to dive, and the player character got inside just before it landed. Once the dungeon was complete, well, it was finally time to fight and kill said dragon. So what changed?

Shout It Out Loud

As a “dragonborn,” your character has the ability to perform shouts, which are akin to magic, except they draw from a different pool than your standard spells. As you play through Skyrim, you learn words of power that are used on their own or combined into shouts. Fusing three words into a complete shout provides the ultimate level of damage, as was the case with the Unrelenting Force power that literally blew enemies away. The coolest shout I saw was Slow Time, which did just that, slowing everything around the play to a crawl… including that pesky dragon. Once the dragon fell, his soul was absorbed by the player just before the demo ended. What does that provide? Bethesda’s keeping quiet on that front (as well as many others) — so hopefully, we’ll find out in the not-too-distant future.

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