Youâ€™re a convict in a strange freezing land, nabbed for something you didnâ€™t do, and subsequently sentenced to death. Thereâ€™s snow on the ground, and blood still pools on the block from the person beheaded only moments before you. The headsman gestures to you, and people in furs with strange accents watch coldly on as you are lead to the block. As you kneel down, you think you hear a strange roar...
Then everyone sees the dragon and all hell breaks loose.
Thatâ€™s the beginning of Skyrim, the fifth title of the Elder Scrolls series, which sets you down in the cold northern region (also called Skyrim), which is home to the Nords, and far to the north of the regions Cyrodiil and Vvardenfell, where the earlier games Morrowind and Oblivion were set.
Like the previous titles, you begin the game in rags, homeless, friendless, and with no idea of the great destiny that awaits you. In the case of Skyrim, your character is one of a rare few Dragonborn - a person with the ability to harness The Voice, a language-based power used by dragons. With the land in serious political upheaval after the High King is assassinated, choices that you make over the course of your adventures will affect the outcome of this landâ€™s internal struggle.
In terms of character creation, there are ten different races to choose from - including various flavours of humans and elves, as well as the cat-like Khajit and amphibian Argonians. Once the hard choice has been made (each race has different strengths and weaknesses), from this point you can choose from a wide range of cosmetic customisation options, such as sex, facial features, hair, warpaint, and scars. Youâ€™ll notice right away that there has been a massive leap forward from the huge blocky faces of Morrowind and Oblivion. The updated character design system is fantastic.
Thereâ€™s also been a considerable change to the skills aspect in that - unlike previous Elder Scrolls titles - you donâ€™t choose a class when you create your character. Bonuses to skills are instead bequeathed on players by way of â€˜sign blessingsâ€™, which are activated at ancient standing stones that youâ€™ll find dotted across the land. Initially you can choose from a blessing from the warrior, mage or thief, which gives you a 20% speed to learning the chosen classâ€™s skills, but later youâ€™ll come across others and can change your blessings as you like.
From this point on, the development of your character is completely up to you. This is one thing I have always enjoyed about the Elder Scrolls games (and if you have never played them before it may come as a surprise): you can develop your character in any way you like. You can play as a mage in heavy armour, a barbarian who likes to pick flowers and make potions, or a fighter who likes sneaking and pickpocketing. Whatâ€™s more, leveling up doesnâ€™t come from earning experience points, but instead through the gradual acquisition of skills, so working on your blacksmithing will bring you nearer to the next level just as quickly as hacking through skeletons will.
Levelling has also had some streamlining. In the past when you levelled up youâ€™d be allocated a set number of skill points, which you could then use to further increase different skills. However this time around, when you level up you select from either Magic, Health or Stamina to increase your capacity in that area by ten points. You also are given one perk point, to assign to the skill perk tree of your choice, assuming you meet the requirements. You can save up your perk points and allocate them later on for one specific area, or spread them around to make the overall gameplay more interesting.
While initially these options felt a bit dumbed down, I changed my mind once I had a good look through all of the different perk options. Thereâ€™s so much here, from perks to increase your basic blacksmith skill so you can work with more exotic materials, to one that gives you better chances to pickpocket sleeping NPCs. Itâ€™s different, but it works.
Shouts, a new type of character ability, are special dragon-voiced commands that youâ€™ll pick up as you progress through the game. They are essentially â€˜super abilitiesâ€™, that can grow in power as you learn extra words that you can then string together. Some can be quite devastating, such as the shout that will knock your enemies to the ground, stunning them in the process, while others have more specific uses, such as the shout that will calm angry animals. They work pretty well in regular battle, but dragons seem to be particularly susceptible to their powers.
Skills aside, where the Elder Scrolls games really shine is in the opportunities they give the player for exploration. Like the other games, Skyrim boasts a huge map, populated with all sorts of interesting people and places to discover, and with no railroading to your gameplay or travel choices.
Continue reading on page 2.