It has been five long years since we last prowled the fields and scaled the mountains of Tamriel. It was quite literally a genre defining game; it contributed to the initial launch success of the Xbox 360 and even set the precedent for game expanding DLC. But even with the heavy DLC catalogue we have not had any new content since 2007. Bethesda Games Studios have been busy with Fallout and a whole bunch of other AAA games so we can forgive them for this lapse, especially when we now have Skyrim to look forward to.
You know how it is; you are the last remaining Dovahkiin (Dragonborn) who must fight against the massive dragon-god that is trying to destroy the world. Skyrim is set two hundred years after the last game stopped with the world gone to hell with a massive power shift in the ruling powers of the world. Now the Elven nations have taken back a lot of the power the Empire once wielded due to the events of Oblivion. Civil war rages between the Nord people who live in Skyrim. Unfortunately this is the last part of the prophecy as written down in the game's namesake Elder Scrolls. They foretell of the return of Alduin, the Nordic god of Destruction and yes you guessed it... he is the aforementioned giant Dragon. The prophecy says that Alduin will use his servants the Jills (read: dragons) to destroy the world. Luckily you as the last of the Dovahkiin have been anointed by the gods to fight off this threat to the world.
You take on the role of an unknown prisoner on your way to your own execution, as has been the framing plot device for several Elder Scroll games now. You can train in eighteen different skills and in a twist to the genre norm all of your skills contribute towards your character's level. So just by existing and interacting with the world you will be actively leveling your character. The class system that many felt did not belong in Oblivion has been removed in this installment allowing you to forge your own play style as you go. Something that is taking the journey in from Fallout is the perk system. Each time you level up you can pick one of 280 perks or store them up for later when you have a better feel of your character and how to make your life a little easier. There is no level cap but once you hit level 50 you will find a vast reduction in the rate you gain your next level. There is also a lot of incentive to vary your skill set as the more powerful perks will be skill-locked like in Fallout.
While you are scaling the mountains of Skyrim you can enjoy the stunning scenery without a pesky HUD. Any on screen display will only come up when you are actively depleting one of your reservoirs, health/magika or stamina. The menu system has seen a complete redesign and re-imagining in the form of a compass overlay, so your skills are to the North and the inventory to the West in what promises to be a much more streamlined system than the previous games. Also worth highlighting is the map. You go to your compass, you select map and rather than be disjointed from the game you fly thousands of feet into the air and gain a bird’s-eye view of the world around you; making the transition between player input and on-screen output a seamless one. The skills system will have you flying through the cosmos as you use various constellations to track your skills and push in to view the associated perks. However this simplification has come at the cost losing the majority of attributes, coming down from eight to three. Bethesda felt that all they did to gameplay was increase the various pools that you had access to so they chose to streamline this into just three attributes, health, magicka and stamina which increase along with your character's level.
Skyrim is a much smarter game than any Elder Scrolls game before it. Improvements to the various plot holes that have annoyed previously and have made vast improvements to the game's AI. Once you have killed the owner of a property you can even sleep in their bed as if it is your own, a simple touch but one of the things that really removed your sense of immersion previously. You could kill hundreds of people without anyone batting an eyelid but you dare share someone else’s bed and the guards would arrest you.
In an effort to curb the complaints of fans that as the game leveled with the player, making the weakest of enemies over powered in the later game, Skyrim will lock in enemy levels upon entering one of the games 150+ dungeons. This is based on your own level on entering that particular dungeon. So a dungeon that you might get killed within seconds at level 6 will be locked to level 6 permanently, so any effort you put into making your character more powerful will be rewarded with an easy run through when you return. Creatures are also set at certain levels so a mud crab from the early game will not appear in the later game with inflated stats but that is not to say you wont find a mud crab army to make up for their low stats in the later in the game.
The AI is the Radiant AI system created for Oblivion but with some major upgrades to allow the NPCs to do whatever they like but under extra parameters. This allows the NPCs greater interaction with the environment, with them being able to farm, mill and mine in the game world. NPCs can also interact with the player without the need for you to instigate the conversation. If you killed their father they may be after you for vengeance or might be after the long lost ring that they are sure their neighbor stole along with a potentially unlimited amount of other quests. As you progress through the main quest line you gain the ability to use 'Dragon Shouts' which are special abilities that range from running quickly to being able to teleport directly behind your enemy or even being able to call upon the aid of Dragon to help you out in combat.
All in all Skyrim is shaping up to be a game that not only filled the cracks that flawed Oblivion but also build upon them to make a game where choice is at the forefront, where your exploration of the world contributes towards the essence of your character and where every action you take has consequences. Skyrim hits the shelves on 11.11.11 and we can't wait to visit Tamriel once more.