The Elder Scrolls series has always been about stories. Forget all the other guff; in the main quests, the quirky side-missions and even the random events, the team at Bethesda know how to spin a yarn. Or rather, they know how to let you spin your own. I spent three hours with Skyrim recently. Three hours in 2011’s biggest RPG. Three hours to tell my own story. It wasn’t nearly long enough.
Before you emerge into the world of Skyrim from the initial dungeon, you must first create a character from a choice of Races. Each boast their own skills and each has a myriad of physical traits with which to tinker. I was a female Wood Elf, adept with a bow and ugly as all sin.
Clambering into the light, high up a snowy peak I was immediately afforded views down into the craggy ravine below and out across cloud piercing mountains. It was breathtaking, spiked with dark green pine forests and dusted in a thick layer of white snow. As far as Bethesda’s trademark reveals go, this one is unmatched. Your immediate instinct is to explore.[drop]Descending down the mountain I stumbled across a fast-running river cascading over rocks. Salmon leapt against the flow. Celtic-tinged music swelled. A trader had set up a makeshift camp on the shore, with a tiny crackling fire. But I had barely any money, so I pressed on through the thistles and bracken, following my compass to Riverwood, in search of work and adventure.
Riverwood is a small, idyllic little town down by the babbling water. Within it, I decided to spend some time with a kindly blacksmith, learning how to create and upgrade weapons and armour from raw materials, how to tan leather and such. It’s a deep, compulsive crafting system, with its own levelling component. Fun, but I had business elsewhere.
I decided to betray Sven. He was a bard courting a girl from the town shop. But he had a rival; a local archer who also fancied his chances. The archer and I had a chat by the riverside. Though I couldn’t afford his archery lessons (you level up by using your weapon, but can speed up the process with lessons), he seemed like a nice enough chap. So I took a letter from him, forged in Sven’s name, and headed for the shop. Maybe I’ll get some free lessons out of it, I thought.
Entering the store, I found the girl arguing with her brother. Some goods had been stolen by bandits and the girl was intent on getting them back. But her cowardly brother refused. Interrupting the argument, I delivered the forged letter and the girl flew into a rage. “That’s it,” she said. “I’ll never see Sven ever again, not if that’s what he truly thinks.” And just like that, poor old Sven’s chances of love were over.
With the girl seemingly happy with her decision, her action-shy brother made me an offer. Return his stolen goods and a reward would be mine. His sister would accompany me, but only to the bridge at the end of town. Beyond that, I was on my own. It was just too dangerous for her to travel further, he said. So I headed out, but not before visiting the archer to deliver the good news.
What an arsehole. Though he was pleased, he wouldn’t give me free archery lessons and my gold reward wasn’t enough to pay for them. After all I did! Screw him, I thought. I’ll have my revenge.
I took the love of his life to the end of town and called up the game’s swish menus. I assigned a bow to my right hand, accompanied by some steel arrows. I also added them – along with a dagger – to my favourites list, a new system that allows for quick weapon selection from the D-pad. Then I shot the shop girl in the face, finished her off with my dagger, looted the corpse and left her face down on the bridge in nothing but her knickers. Maybe the brother was right to be reluctant after all.
Still, at least I had my petty revenge on the archer.[drop2]I murdered the entire village in the end, including the archer, the blacksmith, the brother and their families. Their flesh seared with a fire spell that burst from my fingers like a flamethrower. I slashed at their bodies with daggers assigned to each hand. I picked the locks of their houses and chests in much the same way as Fallout 3. Then I fled the scene, traversing mountains, dungeons and icy tundra, weighed down with the very best loot Riverwood had to offer.
My journey continued. I tried to rescue a giant who was under attack. I boggled at the frankly astounding skill trees, caught butterflies and farmed herbs. I stole horses and galloped across the rocky landscape in a squall of rain. I fought off wolves and stumbled past mammoths, scoffing stolen food and potions to survive. I never encountered a dragon.
Skyrim is ridiculously huge. Even with a three-hour play time, I couldn’t hope to even scratch the surface. This is a game that will span days and weeks and months. It’s a game to get lost in, to immerse yourself in and be devoured by. It’s fundamentally the same as Oblivion, yet the world and the systems that run beneath it are substantially improved. The hardware it runs on may be the same, but this is a generational leap.
More than anything though, this is an Elder Scrolls game, and Elder Scrolls games are about stories. Soon you’ll have the chance to make your own. Skyrim isn’t just 2011’s biggest RPG, it could just be the best ever. You should be very, very excited.