When we'd finally breached the queues and managed to make it inside Earls Court for the Eurogamer Expo 2011, we cast our gaze across the hall at the assembled booths, stands and displays. But one in particular caught our eye; in fact, we were looking for it. Skyrim, Bethesda's fifth entry in the all-conquering Elder Scrolls series.
Around a dozen or so 42" displays lined the booths' wall, before twelve comfy chairs with twelve noise-cancelling headphones. Stifling our leering grins and wiping the dribble leaking from our lips, we hustled over to the booth, sat in the chairs and popped on the headphones. "You've got twenty minutes," a Bethesda rep informed us, "so don't waste time on the character creation bit."
Races and Abilities
If you're an Elder Scrolls veteran, you'll know the deal with firing up a new game. You have the choice of ten races, be it the bloodthirsty Orcs or hardy Nords, native to the rugged region of Skyrim. Each race has unique features and abilities, such as the Argonians ability to breathe underwater or the feline Khajiit's night-vision. If you're looking to wade into battle, all swords slicing, then the Orcs or Redguard are your best choice; however, if you're leaning towards a more spellcasting approach, then maybe you should opt for a High Elf.
With your race chosen, you can then tinker with their appearance, from the hue of their eyes and hair, to what sort of nose or brow you want to present to people. It's a deep, powerful system although relatively unchanged from Oblivion sans a face-lift. And I mean that literally; you'll no longer be forced to stare at hideous aberrations of nature when adjusting facial sliders. The possibility is still there, though.
With your race and look duly chosen, you're ready to meet the wide, wide world. And boy is it wide. Stepping out from a cave in typical Bethesda fashion, you're initially blinded by the light. However, as your vision clears, you're greeted by a truly astonishing sight; Skyrim. Sprawling in every possible direction, its a rugged patchwork of pine forests, jagged mountains and endless valleys. You might want to call it 'home', because come November 11th, you won't be spending much time anywhere else!
We all sunk hundreds of hours into Oblivion, the most recent Elder Scrolls game before Skyrim. It, too, was a sprawling epic of simply gigantic proportions, a true RPG classic. However, with that said, it was a bit shoddy in the combat department. In fact, I often found myself avoiding combat encounters not out of fright, but sheer boredom with the clunky, repetitive system.
That's all changed with Skyrim. Instead of simply picking a sword or axe or what have you, you assign weapons and magic to your left and right hands respectively. You could whack an iron sword in one hand and a flame spell in the other, or opt for two swords or two flame spells for twice the power. It's an elegant system with more depth that can be gauged in a mere twenty minutes, but even in that scant space of time it's obvious Bethesda has improved Elder Scrolls combat considerably.
Wandering down a rocky path between the mountains, I stumbled on a group of wolves. In typical videogame fashion, they decided my abrupt appearance was cause for death, and proceeded to leap and lunge for my neck. Whipping out my iron sword and shield, I deflected their strikes with the latter while slashing out with the former. Soon, I was surrounded by canine corpses. I duly robbed them of their hides before jumping in a nearby river to harvest salmon. To put it succinctly; I was in heaven.
Here Be Mammoths, Oh And Dragons
Bethesda has made a big deal of Skyrim's most fearsome and fire-breathing feature; dragons. Yes, the epic wyrms of legend have descended on Skyrim, led by their 'world-eating' god, Alduin. With my inventory well-stocked with wolf hide and rotting salmon flesh, I ascended a flight of stone-carved, snow-flecked stairs to an abandoned church or cathedral. It was beautiful in a majestic, Gothic sort of a way; until I saw the dragon perched atop its spire.
Launching itself into the air, the dragon took flight and began to bank towards me. With but a sword and shield in my hands, I decided it was best to hightail it and run. I managed to make it to a forest before the dragon's fire-breath caught up with me, but the beast didn't relent. Dropping to the ground - the AI for the dragons is particularly impressive and adaptive - it stomped after me, roaring and belching fire.
I kept running, and managed to make it to an outcrop overlooking an immense valley. For a second, dumbstruck by the sight, I simply stared out at the sweeping field, the draw-distance and lighting all mightily impressive. Then I heard the dragon crashing after me, and decided it was best to start running again. I made it to the field, but not before I ran headfirst into a mammoth. The great beast ignored me, until a jet of flame presumably intended for me, not the mammoth, coated the beast in fire and it began hitting me with its tusks.
I wasn't doing particularly well.
Bid Farewell To Your Life...
The twenty minutes was over before I knew it. Ushered away by the Bethesda rep to make way for another drooling, leering journalist, I couldn't help but wish for more. I'd slain wolves, met dragons and incited a three-way battle between myself, the said dragon and a herd of wooly mammoths and their giant shepherds. It was all I expect it to be and more.
And considering the game is still two months off, it was in surprisingly good shape. I encountered no game-ending crashes or particularly bad glitches. Now and again the combat lagged, with sound-effects activating after a successful strike, and other than the dragon AI the rest of Skyrim is pretty daft. But it's oh so big and oh so epic, I don't really care. We'll be there in November; will you?