20 hours in the biggest Skyrim mod ever, Enderal

The best part of Oblivion mod Nehrim was when I turned into a kid. In flashback I explored the village my character was born in from a first-person perspective lowered to child-height, then watched it burn down to rubble. It wasn't even part of the main storyline, just a sidequest, but it was still affected by who I was and where I came from. It's a cliché backstory for a fantasy hero to have, but seeing it play out made me feel connected to it. 

Nehrim was German mod team SureAI's total conversion for Oblivion, released in 2010. Since then they’ve been working on Enderal, a total conversion mod for Skyrim, and it begins with something similar. I'm a kid on a farm and my first quest is “take a message to Daddy”. The sun is shining, birds are wheeling in the bright sky. It's gorgeous. I take the first of many screenshots immediately. Things turn dark after this idyllic start because of course they do, but it's an immediate reminder of Nehrim at its best, making you feel like the world and your character existed before you clicked Start New Game. 

After that I'm a grown-up on a ship to the theocracy of Enderal, choosing my face and race from a selection of half-breeds that will mark me as an outlander for the rest of the game, though none are as exotic as the cats and lizards you can choose in most Elder Scrolls games. The journey from here to Riverville, your typical fantasy starter village, is a tutorial that introduces new characters who then introduce new concepts and quickly clear the deck to make way for the next batch. I get knocked unconscious and wake up in different locations so often it's disorienting, but I guess travelling to a new country should be. It's a trick Enderal will recycle a lot.

These tutorials kick off a game where some things remain standard Skyrim, like the controls and physics, but other things feel alien. Fast travel has gone, although in a nod to Morrowind's silt striders there's a network of giant four-eyed birds called myrads who take you from place to place for 25 pennies. There are also teleport scrolls and within the gigantic city of Ark signposts let you jump from district to district. (Even with those signposts, I see a lot of loading screens whenever I go anywhere in Ark.)

Leveling skills by using them has been replaced with an old-fashioned experience point system. At level-up you earn points that can be distributed into skills by reading appropriate books, which is why I have spent all my money on books about lockpicking. There are also trees of perks to unlock, combining abilities familiar from Skyrim like rolling while crouched with new ones like Focus, which reduces the cost of spellcasting for a duration, and Flashpowder that blinds enemies.

These talents replace Skyrim's dragon shouts. My old favorites sneaking and archery are augmented by a talent that increases my critical chance for a short time while hidden, and a new set of elementalism abilities power up certain spells, turning the fire and lightning that shoots from my hands into a clutch move that can win most fights.

Most, but not all. Like Nehrim, certain parts of Enderal will not be suitable until you're higher level. After arriving at the city of Ark the main quest became too much for my level 9 character and I had to find side quests until I could get back onto the main track. Since each quest is rated out of four stars for difficulty it's easy enough to find simpler missions. 

If you saw Enderal's trailer you probably noticed the main quest's plot has a lot in common with Mass Effect. An apocalypse that came to previous civilizations is returning for yours, but through researching how they failed to prevent it you might be able to succeed. The Precursors are called Pyreans and the Reapers are High Ones, but it's familiar stuff so far. That's OK since it's not like it was a very original plot even when Mass Effect told it, and telling a story well matters more to me than originality.

Other mods that add new characters and quests, like Falskaar and Descent Into Madness, have been a fun way to see strange new places, but their writing and voice-acting remind you they're fan-made works. We criticize Skyrim for re-using voices and only having a few memorable characters, but other mods have made me appreciate how hard it is to get that stuff right. Not every bit of dialogue or plotting in Enderal is perfect, but so far it's better than anything I've heard in other mods. 

Though there's a fair bit of tutorial to push past, now I'm eager for each twist of its tale and invested enough to be worried about the fates of its characters. My mercenary companion has an easygoing cynicism that's charming, the swearing sorceress reacts to each disaster with honest fury, even a passing art gallery owner sounded so genuinely defeated by the disinterest of her cityfolk I was happy to take on a job for her.

I'm playing a pre-release build of Enderal's translation so not everything is perfect. I've met a man in a bar who spoke German, and some of the signs and posters around Ark are untranslated as well. Nehrim was entirely voiced in German with only English subtitles, so a fully voiced English localization is a huge additional task they've taken on. Sure, no one can agree how to pronounce the name of the goaty local monsters the Vatyr, but it feels churlish to pick at individual flaws when the overall standard is so high.

I've done the textbook journey from a small village to a big city, solved a mystery with the convenient visions I've begun having, and earned a riding donkey named Whirlwind whose legs kick out with adorable clumsiness at high speed. The tone is slightly grittier than Skyrim—this is a fantasy RPG where having special magical powers means also having a fever that might kill you, most of the potions you find have turned rancid, and the roads are lined with crucified skeletons. But in spite of its differences, moment-to-moment I feel like I'm playing Skyrim again. 

While Nehrim tried to make a completely different RPG out of Oblivion, one closer to the Gothic series, Enderal seems like a slightly better-looking, slightly more linear, slightly lower-powered Skyrim. It has a desert and there's a grimy Undercity beneath Ark and people swear, but its mountains, spiders, and lockpicking minigame are all pure Skyrim. It's the most ambitious mod I've played—yes, even compared to the one that turns dragons into Macho Man Randy Savage—not because it's different to Skyrim, but because it's of comparable quality. I liked Skyrim plenty, and having more of it is very welcome.

Look for a full review of Enderal next week, and follow the SureAITeam on Twitter for updates on the English release coming soon.