I recently played three hours of Skyrim, and decided in my madness that the best way to document this was with three random anecdotes. Of course, if you weren't interested in hypocritical vegetarianism, obsessively playing with the zombie spell or trying to pull off stealth crafting, those might not have given you the overall flavour of the game you're after. So, let Jim be your proxy interrogator about the wider nature and feel of the fifth Elder Scrolls - y'know, combat, openness, voice acting, exploration, all that jazz...
Jim: I suppose my initial question has to be: how good an open world do you think it is going to be? Open worlds are very much my favourite thing in games, but good ones are SO rare! What's the feeling here?
Alec: Well, it's very important to observe that I was a low-level character so only encountered relatively piddling stuff - I don't know what manner of strange beasts I'd encounter in my wanderings. But it was relatively comparable to the start of Oblivion, once you're out of that lousy intro quest, and suddenly there's the freedom to go anywhere.
Jim: Any sense of serious diversity? And also did you get to see anywhere particularly urban?
Alec: I spent quite a lot of time just wandering around, looking in a couple of dungeons, fighting some bandits hiding in ruins, bothering a fisherman sat in an island, peering at a town run by angry elves. O didn't make it to a major city, no, mostly because I was too obsessed with making hats. But the best bit was getting almost to the top of one of the mountains, which takes quite a bit of trekking. I didn't find any beasts up there, but the sight of Skyrim below me, through the clouds, was spectacular. Very much an 'all this is yours, my son' moment.
Jim: that sounds like exactly the kind of thing I like in my games. Is it bigger than Oblivion, in scale?
Alec: from what I've heard it's similar in terms of basic map size, but you've got these bloody great mountains to climb - and explore within, so it ends up being a fair bit bigger. Also the bulked up cooking/hunting/crafting stuff meant there felt like there was more to do, too. I didn't get that 'suppose I'd better hit a dungeon, then' feeling, I was quite happy bimbling around collecting stuff.
Jim: Ok, combat. I think the issue I had with the original was that melee combat was very predictable. Do you think it's going to be a bit more dynamic this time?
Alec: the spells and dual-wielding really mixes it up, I think. It wasn't a case of fiddling to get the right thing up and having that staccato anti-flow, but instead I'm roasting with a stream of fire from the left hand and stabbing with the right. Comparable to BioShock 2, a little, but obviously more melee based.
Jim: BioShock 2? That's an interesting reference. I did like BS2's take on things.
Alec: It definitely felt less pantomime than Oblivion, and also more elaborate. My preferred fighting was having a zombie I'd summoned as a meatshield then stabbing people in the back while they fought it. Oh, and you've got the stealth in there if you want it, so you can get away from trouble in a dungeon and hideout until you're ready to have another go
Jim: are the Shouts just spells? Did you see that?
Alec: I didn't get to try a Shout myself, but yeah, they're spells with long cooldowns.
Jim: ok, going back to the world stuff, how much incidental stuff was going on. The anecdote with the poacher was great, but what about travellers, ambient life etc?
Alec: oh! I fought a giant spider. That was pretty horrible. I mostly roasted it to death, but it charging towards me was genuinely unsettling. That was in a dungeon though. Outside, I saw another poacher - the one whose horse I nicked - but didn't happen to bump into anyone else, bar bandits, but the poachers were chasing animals, and there were some wolves hunting something too I think. Y'know, being all wolfy. I don't think I saw enough though, got too bogged down in crafting and stealthing. Three hours sounds like a long time, but it really wasn't enough to entirely get Skyrim's measure. It did feel a *lot* like Oblivion, but with more incidental stuff and polish - so it wasn't like the jump (for good and ill) from Morrowind to Oblivion, but more a direct evolution from the last game.
Jim: hmm! So. Is it more like Morrowind, really?
Alec: Well, it definitely doesn't feel as fantasy-generic as Oblivion didn't, but it is building on what Oblivion did rather than what Morrowind did. It's clawed some of the strangeness and randomness of Morrowind back in, and sorted out some of Oblivion's presentation issues. I think it's going to be more satisfying and, I think, better, than Oblivion, but maybe not as memorable as Morrowind.
Jim: One of my bugbears with Bethesda games is UI and menus. They're ALWAYS horrible. Always. I mean there's a degree to which we can't know this till we get the PC mouse menus
Alec: oh, that stuff's so much better. They've really worked on it. They've redone it from the ground up, and now it's genuinely about how to present lots of stuff rather than stuff everything into a scrolling box that fits on a TV screen. I mean, they may well cock it up on PC as they always do, with supersize fonts meant for 720p that require mods for anyone with a monitor that's less than ten years old, but on the console build it felt really quick and deft to find what I wanted. And the favouriting system, an instant, one-click drop-down menu in the main game of whatever you'd tagged as preferred items, be it weapons, spells, potions, whatever, really eased things up. So if you have certain attack styles, combos, it's going to make it a lot less stop-starty.
Jim: Juh, that sounds useful. How much of the story did you actually get to see? And what did you make of what you did see?
Alec: I saw the quest where you enter a Draugr dungeon in search of a golden claw and your first Shout, including a boss fight against a mega-skeleton with a big horned hat, but that was about it. That kicked off nicely, by overhearing a shopkeeper and his wife arguing about how the claw had been robbed and ultimately offering to help. The dialogue sounded a lot less forced and trite than Oblivion and Fallout 3, too.
Jim: thoughts on voice-acting? I know that was always a bugbear for you (oddly I never minded that much)
Alec: In fact, I interviewed the dev after and he said Bethesda have completely changed how they record dialogue now, as well as getting in new actors. Whole different agency for it too.
Jim: it's interesting than they knew it was bad. I think devs are increasingly realising that man in a room saying the lines isn't enough.
Alec: It didn't strike me as an amazingly-written game, but I didn't get any Brother Jauffre-style wincing. Yet, anyway - I mean, I largely avoided storyline stuff as it's not really why I play TES games anyway.
Jim: Yeah, and I think that's the exciting bit: the freedom to wander and to buy houses and stuff. I guess there's no way to measure that from a quick preview, but it's the bit I am most interested in, just exploring, making the world mine.
Alec: I was levelling up fast just wandering around, doing my own thing, bit of sneaking, conjuring, crafting - didn't feel like there was any need to go and have enormous fights to progress
Jim: That's the stuff. I do so get grumpy when an open-ended game funnels me down its story.
Alec: No sense of that all, it felt far more hands-off in that regards than Fallout. My only real disappointment was climbing to the top of a mountain and finding nothing there, apart from a great view. But maybe once I'm higher level I'll get chased by dragons and giants and things
Jim: how much is going to do that dynamic world-levelling up thing?
Alec: hard to say; it's in there but they've said it's improved. I think I'd need a good 12 hours in the game to get any sense of that. Tell you what though, even after just three hours, leaving the game and knowing my character would cease to exist was heartbreaking. I was entirely invested in my strange, minute story of crafting, poacher-bothering and zombie-summoning, and how I'd made a character and an internal fiction to suit that. I didn't get that dread sense of 'oh god, I just don't really care' I did with Fallout 3. I was entirely into this.
Jim: that thing you are talking about - actually giving a damn - is what matters most to me with Skyrim. I've really struggled with the last two Bethesda games, and didn't complete either. On paper they should be ideal Rossignol games, but I never quite get on. I genuinely hope that come November, this will be the one for me.
Alec: yeah, I think there's a chance you might get on with this. It feels less contrived, I think. Less I Am A Roleplaying Game, These Are My Systems. More organic.
Jim: Man! Fingers crossed. If they've nailed it... I'll have to take the rest of the year off.
(Disclaimer from Alec: I played this on an Xbox 360, as PC code was not available on the day and I am fearful will not be so before the game’s release. So, very possibly the only chance and all that. Damned shame, but there you go. If we can get PC hands-on time before release, you can be sure we'll tell you whether they've done The Right Thing or not.)