It takes a lot to bring down a thick-skinned, fire-breathing winged monster. Dragons appear at random in Skyrim and, if they spot you running across the snow-crusted face of a mountain, will veer from their course in the sky, drop to the ground, and proceed to do their best to melt you with flame. They’ll swipe at you, take off mid-fight and launch fireballs from the sky, and dive back down at you with high speed. Even if you’re in a town you won’t be safe from dragons.
Many times the best idea is to run and take shelter in houses or crash through the nearest dungeon door. Other times it’s best to go for the kill, since slaying a dragon allows you to absorb its soul for beneficial effects. It seems like this could be a fairly common occurrence in Skyrim, because there isn’t a set cap on the number Bethesda is including. The encounters aren’t supposed to be easy, either, but function in many cases like optional bosses you can choose to tangle with or flee from. If you want to have a chance against these things, you’ll need to be smart about building your character, embarking on quests to gain rewards, clearing dungeons, and more in Bethesda Game Studios’ upcoming role-playing epic.
It all starts with creating your character, a process that’s been trimmed down in Skyrim as compared to previous Elder Scrolls games. You’ll still get to pick from one of 10 fantasy races, customize your physical appearance, and select a gender, but after that it’s right into the game you go. The eight attribute categories from the previous Elder Scrolls game, Oblivion, have been cut out. Now you only have to worry about your Magicka to cast spells, Health for your hit points, and Stamina, which serves as a limiting factor when pulling off axe slashes and mace bashes in combat.
Much of the leveling system you might be used to has been reworked. In Skyrim, all skill increases fill an overall leveling gauge, just as experience points tend to do in most role-playing games. So if you use one-handed swords all the time, your one-handed swords skill will continue to increase and gradually fill the level gauge. When the gauge is full, you level up, which nets you a point to unlock additional abilities — Fallout-like perks — within each skill tree.
If you read that and immediately started daydreaming about taking advantage of the leveling system by bunny-hopping all over Skyrim to boost Acrobatics, then you’re going to be disappointed. Athletics and Acrobatics have been removed from the game, along with a few other skills. Instead, there’s a button to sprint, and the perks you unlock serve to alter the functionality of existing skills. For example, perks can add a slow-motion effect and a zoom ability when lining up a bow shot at an unsuspecting bandit’s head.
Much of the interface has been redesigned for Skyrim to feel more interactive. All items, including weapons, shields, plot items, and plants can be zoomed in on and inspected within the inventory screen. This can be taken advantage of for superficial reasons to marvel at the level of detail on each piece of armor, but also for practical reasons like opening and reading the various books you’ll find in Skyrim or inspecting plot items adventure game-style to reveal information useful in solving dungeon puzzles. Meanwhile, the skill readout isn’t a list but a bright, polychromatic display of star constellations, where each star serves as an unlock node for perks. The overwold map has been given an upgrade too, as it’s a three-dimensional representation of Skyrim presented in a way that’s similar to strategy games like Civilization V and Total War: Shogun 2.
Amidst dragon fights it seems like it won’t be too difficult to get lost in the world and simply enjoy the sights. Compared to Oblivion, Skyrim is a vast improvement on Xbox 360, which is the only version that’s been shown off so far by Bethesda. You can see the detail of the snowpack on mountain ranges far off in the distance as you run along dirt paths flanked by craggy outcroppings of rock and flowing rivers. In a way this is how Skyrim encourages exploration, by presenting these sweeping vistas you know have to be honeycombed with dungeons and treasure chests.
Dragons roam these hills as well, sometimes perched alone atop stone peaks amidst a snowstorm. Sometimes they float over villages like Riverwood, a quiet, hillside town filled with people going about their daytime routines nestled between misty mountain ranges. Some villagers chop wood in grassy clearings, some work in blacksmith shops and saw logs in half, some tend dusty item shops lit by flickering candles set in hollowed horns, while others wander the streets and talk. When you engage in conversation the game no longer pauses – time continues normally, there’s no more persuasion mini-game to worry about, and the overlay of conversation options takes up only minimal space onscreen. By hovering around NPCs while they’re engaged in chatter you’ll pick up bits of information that can lead to new quests that may differ depending on which NPCs are still alive as well as a host of other variables tracked by the game, including whether or not it’s been a while since you’ve fought a dragon.
If it has, the dynamic quest line may bring you face to face with one of the creatures. At this point it’s likely best to take advantage of your strongest armor, magic, and whatever weapons you’re most skilled with, be it a dwarven axe or glass sword, as well as the dragon shouts. These are magical abilities that are not tied to your pool of Magicka. Instead, they’re on a separate cool down timer, and each dragon shout comes in three tiers. Using a tier one version of a shout will result in a short cool down period, but using a tier three version of a more powerful shout will mean you’ll be locked out of shouting again for a much longer span of time.
Bethesda is hinting that the late game dragon shouts will have dramatic effects, though even the more modest versions shown off so far seem powerful. One, called Unrelenting Force, blasts a shock wave forward from your character, and another is capable of slowing time all around you to make attacking and evading a lot easier – useful for when a dragon rears up to breathe out a jet of flame. These attacks are triggered by holding down a button, and the length of time you hold the button determines the strength of the attack.
The number of dragon shouts you learn and the tiers you unlock isn’t a pre-set thing. It’s dependent on how willing you are to explore all of Skyrim’s 120 or so dungeons. In some you’ll find word walls, giant slabs of stone upon which are etched symbols written in the dragons’ language that can be interpreted and added to your dragon shout collection. You’ve got to be careful in these areas though because, as tends to be the case when you combine subterranean valuables and fantasy settings, powerful creatures will try to stop you. You’ll face off against frost trolls, spell-slinging skeleton priests that can summon frost atronachs, as well as Draugr, basically zombified Nord (the original residents of Skyrim) and giant spiders.
Dragons and the more formidable Draugr need to be closely watched since they both can utilize dragon shouts just like you. When unleashed in battle, you’ll actually be able to hear dragons gruffly calling out words in their own language before initiating an attack, and you may even hear some dragons speak English. In these situations it’s usually a good idea to take advantage of the new spell system that allows you to have two combat abilities at the ready at all time. You can mix and match weapons, have one weapon out and one spell, or equip two spells on right and left hands. You’ll see the effects. too, as the magical energies of whatever’s equipped ripple through your hands onscreen like BioShock’s plasmids.
If you’re getting hammered by a particularly tough dragon and want to ensure you won’t run out of health, you can equip dual healing spells and use them one after the other. Or, if you’re in dire need, you can trigger both spells simultaneously to achieve a greater effect. You’ll see the healing energy from both hands pool in the center of the screen into a ball and then set off to trigger a more powerful heal. This applies to attack spells, too, like combining two lighting spells together to launch a ball of bristling electricity capable of knocking an unsuspecting Draugr from a cavern floor clear to the ceiling.
To make managing all these active powers easy, Bethesda’s implemented a system where you can bring up a small quick-select menu to cycle between abilities. Initiating this mode pauses the game momentarily and pulls up a list of anything you’ve labeled as a “favorite” in the main menu. So if you want to switch from Detect Life and fireballs to Chain Lightning, it can be done with minimal time spent fussing with the interface.
It’s clear Bethesda’s spent time working on the animations with its new Creation engine, as the sword swings and mace slams of combat have a more natural look. Bandits stagger and sway and your screen and equipped gear shake as slashes are exchanged. Notifications of skill gains from combat are also displayed with a flashier presentation, as you’ll get a visual notification of each skill up and how that affects your leveling progress, paired with audio cues to make it feel more rewarding. But perhaps the best effect of all is, after you manage to bring down a dragon, how its corpse erupts into flame and slowly disintegrates while wisps of magical energy flow into your character to underline how your skill in battle was enough to silence something seemingly invincible.
Clearly there’s a lot going on in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, which like all Elder Scrolls games is absolutely enormous. From what’s been shown off so far, it looks like a role-playing game fan’s dream come true, and one of the most beautiful virtual fantasy worlds in existence.