My initial character was a lady Nord (my favourite race in Oblivion, so it’s nice to be in their home province) named Asgerd Njalsdottir. I focused upon a primarily warrior approach with a sword and shield. When I write the proper review (which will also cover factions, wider ranging exploration, how the game feels at higher levels and so on) I will also have some experience with a stealthy character and a mage.
Mostly an improvement, although given Oblivion’s character creator was amongst its weakest points this doesn’t mean much. They’ve shifted to a more Dragon Age type system where you get to choose various eye, nose, mouth etc presets and then fiddle with them.
Pleasingly, the spray-on beards have gone. Particularly nice are the options for scars and war paint. However, it’s not all for the better as gone are the RGB options for hair (you get a number of preset colours now), hair length changes (must admit this doesn’t bother me much) and skin colour, where you also have just a few preset options. I’ve not fiddled extensively with all the races, but I’ve got to say that the Argonians and Khajiit have very nice ‘skin’ tones, with the cats able to look like Siberian or Bengal tigers or very dark, almost like black panthers. It’s also great to be able to choose weight/muscle.
Because stats have been thrown overboard, and encumbrance and speed are equal across the races, the racial option is largely cosmetic.
User Interface (menus, conversations, first/third person)
The menu’s pretty user-friendly, although the removal of the ability to see your own character in-menu as you equip or remove items is a step backwards. This can be gotten around by going to the third person and then fiddling (the menu is transparent, so you can see what stuff looks like on your character).
I would’ve preferred a menu that wasn’t quite so generic, however. It’s functional and pretty intuitive, but Oblivion’s was instantly recognisable as a fantasy/historical game menu.
Conversations work in a similar way to Fallout 3, with options to try and intimidate or persuade people, or just beat the crap out of them until your fists make them see reason.
I did play with the third person briefly, and it’s clearly a lot better than Oblivion. Personally, I prefer first person, because I think it fits the game better, but the alternative is now a reasonable option.
The worst thing about Oblivion was the damned levelling system. From what I’ve gathered in a day or two of playing, Skyrim’s is much, much better. Levelling depends upon skill increases, which occur when you use a particular skill or get it trained by an expert, or when you read a skill book. Higher skill increases lead to faster levelling, I think, so a narrow character (like Asgerd) levels more rapidly (she’s level 10 right now).
It’s quite hard to choose between different perks even with an archetype warrior (my only non-Combat skill is lockpicking, which is identical, basically, to Fallout 3). Some have multiple levels (usually 3 or 5) and most require a certain skill level to be acquired. There also appear to be very few ‘dud’ perks. The first time I levelled I didn’t take a perk, because I pressed the ‘back’ button and it closed the menu rather than returning to the constellation list. The use of constellations, incidentally, is simple but excellent and dovetails nicely with the destiny theme of the Dovahkiin.
Combat and crafting
I was surprised by how different melee combat felt compared to Oblivion. As I wrote in an earlier piece on Skyrim, it’s essentially unchanged (except that you can dual-wield now, if you want to). However, you can only really tell the difference when you play the game. Everything’s a little slower, and at first it feels clumsy, but later it becomes more enjoyable because it’s rougher round the edges and more realistic because of it.
There’s been much talk of the finishing moves (which come in first and third person regardless of which you use for playing). Occasionally they can be irksome (like when you’ve got six more people to kill) but sometimes they’re a very satisfying end to the fight, particularly when it’s been close and difficult. There’s nothing better than a miniature scene of you ramming your sword through someone’s torso and reminding them who the Dovahkiin is. On the whole, I think they’re a decent addition.
Being a good Nord, Asgerd’s very into ye olde smithing. It’s the Combat crafting skill and can be used to both improve weapons and armour and create your own, as well as making bits and pieces that can be useful (leather and leather strips, for example). The system’s easy to learn and enjoyable, and really can improve your gear. At level 7 or 8 I improved the damage of my weapon from 11 to 15 using the grindstone, and used some components I had to make a shield that was 5 points of defence better than the one I had equipped.
I haven’t fiddled with alchemy or enchanting yet, but imagine that they’re also not too hard to learn and of great use (my second character will be a Khajiit rogue, so I’ll learn about alchemy then).
Better than Oblivion, basically. The biggest difference isn’t with the landscape and plants, better though they are, but with faces and water. Faces are now more varied, especially between races (admittedly, Imperial and Bretons are bloody hard to tell apart) and realistic. The water was a pleasant surprise, and looks great (with the slight exception of rapids, which look not quite so good).
Level/landscape design is greatly improved. Even within the first hour or so it’s clear that the game has more varied regions, with lots of mountainous areas, flat tundra and so on. It’s also worth pausing occasionally and just looking around at the jagged mountains piercing the clouds. Regarding dungeons, they’re distinctive and (on average) larger than those of the predecessor game.
The world is much more alive and active than Oblivion. There are wild goats, deer, rabbits, foxes, fish, chickens and probably more. Wolves are back, as are rather vicious sabre-toothed cats.
The music is very good, as might be expected and sound effects have been improved upon. Voice-acting’s harder to assess without many hours of gameplay, but I’d say it’s a bit better than Oblivion. What jars is that, initially, there’s a nice effort to go for a Nordic accent by many characters, and then someone appears with a blatant American accent. It’s like The Hunt For Red October where everybody has a Russian accent except for Comrade Connery. However, generally, voice-acting is better than Oblivion. A special mention is deserved by the wizard in Whiterun whose voice actor sounded like he really couldn’t be bothered. I’d like to think the character’s meant to be disinterested (it would fit, as he’s haughty and a pratt) but even the very nice Asgerd wanted to murder the bugger.
Bugs, quibbles and other things that fit nowhere else
After six hours, I had a freeze. Obviously, this was not to my liking, but, at the time of writing, I haven’t had another (touch wood). Occasionally the frame rate could be a little better and there’s sometimes a little tearing, but these two points aren’t major negatives (for me, anyway). I’ve briefly read about others’ experiences and it seems that the freezing has been more common for others, so it might be that the fat 40GB model is luckier (I’ve also turned off auto-saving, as this irritated me and I’m a compulsive saver anyway, and it seemed to work for Dragon Age 2). Incidentally, the first auto-save lasts longer than most and may make you think it’s frozen. It hasn’t (unless it has, obviously. Ahem).
Encumbrance is much much much better. All characters have 300 to start with which is plenty for quite a long time, and increases by 5 every time you improve your stamina at levelling up. Furthermore, weapons and armour seem to weigh a bit less and the absence of degradation means you don’t need spare shields or sword, or repair hammers.
The freeze pissed me off, but if it’s a rare occurrence or a one-off I can live with it. The game’s enormous, combat feels more dangerous and exciting, there’s a huge range of possibilities and I like it a lot. On the downside is the freeze, some lacklustre voice-acting and, er, I think that’s it.
If the freeze is rare or a one-off I think the game will end up being 9/10.