Arriving at Bethesda’s London offices to play Skyrim we were led into a room with a dozen Xbox 360s and a table with twice as many pastries, then told we might get to slay a dragon during the three hours we had to play. It’s fair to say we were excited.
We started about half hour into the game, but were still given the character customisation options familiar to anyone who’s played an Elder Scrolls game. For those that haven’t, characters can be customised in a number of different ways: race, sex and appearance can all be tinkered with as much or as little as you want.
The options available haven’t really been altered since Oblivion, but it’s testament to the possibilities of the character creator that when we had a cheeky glance round the room at what other journalists had created, each was noticeably different.
We opted for a Reguard, but all the usual races are available.
We went for a Redguard, equipped him with an axe and shield and made our way out into the big, wide world. After games such as Fallout 3 and Oblivion that have wowed us with their massive open-world reveals, the emergence to Skyrim wasn’t as jaw-dropping as it could have been.
A grey landscape confronted us, covered in tall trees, with a river running through a large valley banked by mountains on either side. The view was expansive, but not exactly impressive and as we moved through the landscape, grass, rocks and shrubs were popping in to view, breaking some of the immersion. This was on the Xbox 360 version, so we’re hoping that the PC version won’t suffer such LODing issues.
While the game world, or at least that small part of it we saw, may not have looked incredible overall, it was more impressive when explored in more detail. The trees swayed gently in the wind and salmon jumped from the rivers, while butterflies and dragonflies fluttered around aimlessly. These may be minor aesthetic points, and individually didn’t add much, but together they created a world that felt detailed, and more importantly, organic and alive.
It's very... grey here.
Adding to this was a convincing weather system and a measured day/night cycle. At one point when approaching a town the colour slowly seeped from the world. There were big grey clouds rolling in, and then it began to rain. It was so convincing that we picked up the pace to get to town sooner, the advice of our mothers ringing in our ears: ‘You’d best get inside soon, before you catch a chill.’
The way day turns into night is just as good. We’re not sure exactly how long a Skyrim day lasts, and that’s a good thing. There was no sudden change; instead dawn turns to morning, which turns to afternoon, early evening, dusk, then night. It’s a gradual process that doesn’t draw attention to itself, thereby creating a more believable world.
Once darkness had fallen, we looked up and were treated to something we’ve not encountered in games before: a night sky that’s actually worth looking at. Two moons were suspended above us, surrounded by twinkling stars, constellations and a Northern Lights-style ripple effect of dappled green. An NPC actually knocked into us, complaining we were in the way while standing in the middle of the path, mesmerised.
One addition to Skyrim that’s been hyped up is how the NPCs conduct their own lives around you. In such a short time with the game there’s no real way of knowing how well this has been implemented overall, but we still had some unexpected encounters.
Guards escorting prisoners, hunters on horseback, and traveling bards made appearances, all getting on with their own business. The bards sang songs of old and current events in Skyrim, so it’ll be interesting to see if they add to their repertoire with your character’s adventures. For now we were content to listen to the tales of warriors of old, which would no doubt be recognisable to fans of the lore surrounding the Elder Scrolls games.