You're nobody – a prisoner rotting in a cell for some unnamed crime. That's true at the start of every main Elder Scrolls game. But this time it's a cell in Skyrim, the freezing Nordic nation between Oblivion's sunny Cyrodiil and the weird Dark Elf land of Morrowind.
You're released. Why, we don't know yet. But you're released into a nation that's tearing itself apart. It's a land governed by nine holds, regions that are traditionally each controlled by a single ruling family. But the system hasn't lasted – many holds are now governed by elected councils, some have been overthrown, and they're on the brink of war with each other. And as the conflict reaches crisis point, the dragons show up.
That's the setting for the fifth game in Bethesda's open-ended RPG series The Elder Scrolls. It uses a new engine, a new combat system, a whole new kind of magic, and an awful lot of snow.
The Nords aren't the only ones in trouble. The Empire has lost many of its territories in the Dark Elf lands, and a crucial family of rulers have finally died out.
200 years ago, in Oblivion, a prisoner much like yourself saved the world by finding the dead emperor's illegitimate son Martin.
Oblivion was the commercial hit the series always deserved, but it's also a game you can rarely mention without hearing someone's top three gripes about it. A lot of Skyrim's features are direct responses to those complaints, but a few almost seem intentionally defiant.
Martin and his heirs are long gone, and without the Septims – the ruling family around whom all the other Elder Scrolls games revolve – the world is vulnerable to terrible forces.
The Septims are Dragonborns, mortals whose bloodline gives them the power to use dragon magic. The Dragonfires you were trying to light in Oblivion used that magic to protect the mortal realm from the demons of Oblivion. That's why Martin was so important: as the last blood relative of a Septim, only he could keep them burning and the world safe.
When the Dragonborns die out 200 years later, it's not the demons of Oblivion that break through – it's actual dragons. They're already ravaging the world, and they're nothing compared to what's next. Alduin, the biggest and baddest of the long-lost species, is coming. The Elder Scrolls foretold it, and only a Dragonborn can stop it.
Which brings us back to our nobody – you. It turns out you are a Dragonborn, perhaps the only one left. In story terms, obviously, that means any world-saving is going to have to be done by you - once you're done arsing around with sidequests and guilds. In game terms, it means you have access to a whole new kind of magic the Elder Scrolls games haven't given us before.
Dragon Shouts are three-word phrases, uttered in the dragon tongue, which function as powerful spells. For them to work, you first need to defeat a dragon and take its soul: that gives you the potential to learn its shout. But the words themselves don't come easily: they're written in the dragon's own language on the walls of crumbling ruins all over Skyrim. The dragon's soul gives you the ability to spot power words among the scratchy ancient glyphs.
There are more than twenty shouts to learn, from one that's effectively 'Force Push', to one you whisper to teleport yourself silently toward an enemy.
Dragon Shouts are separate from 'conventional' magic, the type any chump with a pointy hat can do. That stuff has been tweaked a bit. The Elder Scrolls games have always split their spells into themed sets called Schools - Destruction, for example, lets you cast all the attacking spells but counts as a single skill as you improve it with practise.
That system is still in, but the schools themselves have changed a little. The school of Mysticism, which has always seemed a little too miscellaneous to count as a themed set, is gone. Its best spells are now part of other schools like Alteration, making that one in particular more worthwhile – its spell set was a little skimpy in Oblivion.
That leaves Destruction (damage-dealing), Restoration (healing and buffs), Conjuration (summoning minions and equipment), Illusion (stealth and confusion), Alteration (utility spells), and Enchantment.
Enchantment is a magical skill last seen in Morrowind, which lets you imbue your favourite weapon or armour with any spell effect you know. In that game, though, it was rarely worth trying it yourself when vendors could do it for you with no risk of failure. Which is probably why Oblivion removed it as a player skill: there's just a pedestal in the Imperial University that does it for you perfectly every time. Since it's always been one of the most powerful and useful abilities in the world, having it as a player skill in Skyrim could be really interesting.
Destruction spells are now more flexible tools: a fire spell is not just a fireball, it can also be used as a flamethrower or to place fire traps on the ground. And Bethesda say they're hoping to let you combine them with one another when you wield different spells in each hand, though exactly how won't be nailed down until they're sure they can do it.
The most important change to magic is that spells are no longer separated from weapons. Oblivion's system meant that everyone, from a pure mage to a brainless fighter, had to wield both a weapon and a spell at all times. Skyrim is much more freeform: you have two hands, and it's up to you whether to ready two spells, one spell in both hands, a spell in one and a weapon in the other, or even dual-wield any two single-handed weapons.
Note: CONFUSED TURTLE IS A JOKE
If Bethesda can make that look and feel convincing in combat, it'll be among the most flexible and interesting equipment systems we've yet seen in a roleplaying game.
The Elder Scrolls' relationship with combat has always been an interesting one – it's never really been an action game, yet the fact that its combat is physical and reaction-based is one of the main things that sets it apart from the more dice-roll and turn-based RPGs.
With Skyrim they're shifting the focus a little: Oblivion's combat model was all about the sluggishness and difficulty of combat with large, heavy weapons. Skyrim's is more energetic and fast – there are gruesome finishing moves for each weapon and enemy type. It's also more tactical: you can no longer run backwards to get away from a fight while still defending yourself. Your reverse movement is much slower, so you have to decide: stay and fight, or turn and flee?
Next page: Archery, leveling up, and generating story .
If you did a lot of running backwards in Oblivion, you probably played an archer. Bows felt good to fire in that game, but after level one they would never actually kill anyone in a single hit. So players made mods to address that, most notably Better Bows, tweaking all ranged weaponry to be more deadly without becoming entirely unbalanced.
Bethesda played those mods, and ate humble pie. Lethal archery works, and they couldn't ignore it. So bows in Skyrim are balanced like sniper rifles – or more appropriately, like the Huntsman for Team Fortress 2's Sniper class. One or two shots kill, but arrows are generally in short supply. It's a more thoughtful and satisfying combat option for tricky situations, rather than a shot-spamming way of life.
One problem with Oblivion's combat was to do with the way you built your character: you had to guess which skills would be most useful, and your rate of leveling up would forever be tied to the ones you chose. If you picked non-combat skills and used them, you levelled up quickly and so did the world around you. Soon you faced threats you couldn't fight. But if you picked non-combat skills and didn't use them, you could easily become too powerful for your level - your sword skill could sky rocket without your level, or that of the world around you, getting any higher.
Skyrim's system is much simpler and more forgiving. You pick nothing, you just get better at whatever you do. All of it counts towards levelling you up, so you'll progress at a similar rate whatever you spend your time doing. And you don't have to guess what's going to be useful or suitable for your play style: you just try everything and stick at what you like.
The series has always toyed with this learn-by-doing system, but it's previously hedged its bets slightly: each game couples it with some form of intentional player choice, which is the tradition in RPGs. Skyrim's only nod to that is a choice of whether to boost your health, magicka or stamina when you level – the three basic resources you need to survive, cast spells and fight.
It's balanced so that increasing your Blade skill from 70 to 71 gets you much closer to your next level-up than levelling Destruction from 1 to 2. In other words, it's weighted towards acknowledging your strongest suit: it reflects that someone who's amazing at one skill is more powerful than someone with the same amount of experience split over a dozen of different abilities.
Making your character-level reflect your power is important, because like all Bethesda's open-world RPGs, Skyrim adjusts some of its content to your current level. If you hated that in Oblivion, don't worry. There it was widespread and heavy handed, which sometimes felt artificial. Bethesda say Skyrim's scaling will be used more like Fallout 3's: that game was much subtler when it tailored enemies to your abilities, and most areas weren't tailored at all.
Another thing Skyrim takes from Fallout 3 is the concept of perks. You level around twice as quickly as in Oblivion, and each time you do, you can choose a single unique improvement to your character. Fallout's perks included the ability to silently kill anyone who's asleep, extra manipulative dialogue options with characters of the opposite sex, and the ability to paralyse with your unarmed attacks. Given that the maximum character level is now 50 rather than 25, you'll be picking a lot of these. Skill progression doesn't even stop there – it only slows.
So Skyrim won't scale everything to your character level, but it will tweak its content in a different way as you play: to your choices, rather than your overall power. If you've already explored the cave complex that would normally be the setting for a sidequest you get later on, the game will secretly change the setting to a dungeon you haven't been to yet. Conversely, the target of an assassination quest might be picked from the characters you've spent most time with, rather than a perfect stranger, to make the decision to kill them more interesting. If it works, you'll have no idea this stuff is happening, you'll just be having a more interesting experience.
The system is called Radiant Story, which ought to raise an eyebrow for those with long memories. Radiant AI was the routine- and need-driven AI system for Oblivion that sounded like a nerd fever dream before release, then seemed to have very little relevance to what we got up to in the game once it was out.
Radiant AI is still in, and supposedly improved, and Radiant Story is there to configure exactly how quests interact with the characters governed by it. But it's not meant to generate the whole game's plot – the main quest and even most elements of the side quests are hand-written, prescripted stuff. It'll just be tweaked to make it more interesting for you.
The more tangible improvement with Skyrim's characters is how they look and talk – as you'll see in the screenshots, the tragic epidemic of Puffy Monkey Face is over at last. There's nothing stunning about the way humans look now, but just being believable and somewhat handsome is a big improvement. And even the ugly ones shouldn't bother us too much – you're no longer terrifyingly sucked into someone's face in extreme close-up when you speak to them. They'll just keep talking to you as they go about their daily business.
That daily business is something you can even join in with. You can head down the mines with the locals to chip out some ore, then head to the forge and smith it into your own homebrew weaponry. You can farm, do woodwork, or if you're feeling particularly adventurous, save the goddamn world from the goddamn dragons, asshole!
That part is what we won't know until we play it – is the main quest actually going to be compelling? It all sounds epic in the traditional sense of the word, but the Elder Scrolls games have sometimes struggled to make the prophecy-waffle feel personal and engaging.
Nothing they're talking about so far suggests Skyrim will change that, but I'm not worried. Oblivion's main quest had its moments, but it's not what the game was about. It's the irrelevant stuff, the tangential stuff, and the personal stuff that excites me about The Elder Scrolls. The idea of doing all that in a frosty new world, with overhauled combat and magic, is irresistible.