They’re finally here. After years of anxious waiting, Bethesda has, at long last, graced us with the first look at The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, landing on PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 this November. Game Informer scored the world exclusive reveal in the February issue, and like clockwork the goods have arrived in the hands of subscribers, and then on the internets within hours.

Skyrim takes place 200 years after the events of Oblivion. The king of Skyrim is now dead, and the empire’s lands are engulfed in a 2-sided civil war. Located north of the Imperial City, it is home of the Nords. The ancient prophecy of the dragons’ return is coming true, and the player — a dragon hunter, mentored by Esbern, one of the last Blades — is out to stop the big bad dragon god Alduin.

Arguably the subject most are eager to analyze to death, let’s tackle the game’s graphics first. The first screens of Skyrim show a rugged, gorgeous world full of foliage, snow, ice, water and mountains, and as we’ve heard, it’s all being brought to life on Bethesda’s ‘new’ technology… which is crudely based upon their existing Oblivion/Fallout 3 engine. Overhauls are rampant. All objects cast dynamic shadows, snow falls realistically, tree branches sway in the wind, water has currents, and we’re told to expect “unparalleled fidelity” for an open-world RPG. Par for the course, everything you can see is traversable. Bethesda has even improved the third-person view point this time around, also bringing first-person into the HUD-less era.

Where Oblivion focused on idyllic sylvan glades and imperial cities, Skyrim delivers precipitous mountains, majestic tundras and crumbling ruins,” the mag says. Bethesda say that within the world there are 6 or 7 varied environment looks, five massive cities, caves and underground locations, and all loaded with slews of creatures including saber-toothed cats, were-yeti, woolly mammoths, elk, giant spiders, wolves, zombies, skeletons, trolls, giants, ice wraiths, and of course, dragons.

Combat has evolved from what was in Oblivion, now more dynamic, supporting dual-wielding with weapons, shields and magic. Stamina, while used for magic, can also decrease by sprinting, new to the series and used for tactical movement or speedy adventuring. Note that movement is not as fast going backwards as it is forwards. “The core change is the addition of a two hands/two options approach to combat. Every weapon or spell in the game can be equipped in either hand at any time, leading to limitless combinations of attack options. Dual wield two of the same weapon, or put a dagger in one hand and a mace in the other. Fight defensively with a shield in one hand and a cracking ball of electricity in the other. Set two completely different spells in either hand or the same spell in both hands, letting you combine the spells to extraordinary effect. The choice is yours.”

Taking some cues from Fallout, Skyrim will introduce ”perks during the level-up process. And leveling has been redesigned, no longer making players select a class at the start of the game (but there are 10 races to select from); every skill furthers the overall level, and upon advancing you’ll auto-increase in health, with the choice of advancing health, magic or stamina traits. One of the biggest complaints from Fallout 3 was the hard level cap, something Bethesda fixed in post-release DLC (but Obsidian stepped backward in New Vegas), and addressed here.  Skyrim has a ‘soft cap’ of level 50, after which players will continue growing slowly so you’re ongoing exploration won’t go unrewarded.

As for skills, there are 18 in the game, but some like Mysticism have been removed, while others like weaponsmithing allows you to forge weapons. A player’s skills will try to accommodate their profession (ie: mage, etc.), but also let them organically experience archetypes. The more you use something, the better you’ll become, without having to be stuck as a single class. Moreover, if you stick to using a certain skillset often, you’ll level faster than if you hop around. Do the opposite, and you’ll level slower. For the magic-lovers, know that you can choose between Destruction, Alteration, Conjuration, Restoration and Illusion.

Level-scaling, a notorious issue in Oblivion, makes a comeback, but is more like Fallout 3/New Vegas than the previous Elder Scrolls game. “The game eventually logs a huge storehouse of knowledge about how you’ve played, and subsequently tailors content to your capabilities and experiences. Entering a city, a young woman might approach you and beg you to save her daughter from kidnappers. The game will look at the nearby dungeons you’ve explored, automatically set the mission in a place you’ve never visited, and designate opponents that are appropriately matched to your strengths and weaknesses.

Moving on to conversation and interaction, Skyrim‘s NPC denizens have received quite the visual update, no longer resembling the same 4 character models with blank stares and horrific facial features. Talking to an NPC is no longer a boring face-to-face sequence, either, instead being more dynamic. Characters will move around, proceed with tasks and more. Likewise, Bethesda’s long-hyped Radiant AI finally appears, with quest-sensitive intel able to be gleaned from overheard dialogue, negating your need to directly draw it out of people. Players can also influence the world around them with items, which when dropped, can initiate events that otherwise would not happen. If you drop a knife from your inventory, a local boy in a town may eventually pick it up, and seek you out to return it to you. Alternatively, a band of men (maybe bandits) could happen upon it, and engage in a fight over it. While visiting a settlement, you may also engage in passive activities like farming, or mining.

An RPG is only as good as its quests, and Skyrim‘s are assigned based on how your character is developed. It’s called Radiant Story. An example given is a more magic-focused player receiving quests from a mage, which a melee-focused character might not encounter. Perhaps you kil off a quest-giving  shopkeeper. His sister will inherit and take over the store, but her attitude towards you will change, possibly affecting the quest. Quests will also be dynamically modified, similar to the level-scaling encounters. It’s also said that you can elect to have a duel with another resident in the streets, and towns can be attacked by dragons, as well as other creatures. You will repeatedly have to face the gigantic winged beasts in single combat, too.

That’s just the tip of the Skyrim iceberg, it seems. Definitely seems like Bethesda have learned huge lessons over the last few years, no?

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