The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim preview

Sapling sniper

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.

General practice

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.

Looking radiant

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.

Face lift

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.