Bethesda’s latest instalment in the long-running Elder Scrolls series, SKYRIM, has wowed audiences when shown previously on PC. We went hands-on with the game to find out if it still makes such a strong impression – and discovered some potential issues with the Xbox 360 version.
We tend to think of The Elder Scrolls as a PC franchise, but the last two entries in the series have been massively popular on consoles as well – with Morrowind the most successful (and first) RPG on the original Xbox, and Oblivion performing similarly on the Xbox 360, then replicating that success on the PlayStation 3. Having seen the stunning footage of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim released so far, we were eager to get our hands on a console version to see how they measure up.
The Xbox 360 platform is the only one being demonstrated at the Eurogamer Expo, which was somewhat surprising in itself. The portion available to play will be familiar to anyone who has been following the title since E3 – indeed, it is exactly the same early level of Skyrim that Todd Howard narrated a video walkthrough of earlier in the month. You begin on a winding forest path, making your way down and past rushing river rapids, encountering a set of Guardian stones that dole out special abilities and slaying a handful of wolves on your trip into the village of Riverwood. So far, so “seen it already”.
Never being one to stick to a prescribed path, though, I topped up at the Guardian Stones and then headed off into the thick of the woods, almost immediately being rewarded with the discovery of an abandoned mine that had become home to a set of brigands. Having disposed of the guard at the door – ending in a pleasingly over-the-top finishing move animation – I disappeared into this early mini-dungeon.
Though only a small area, replete with six brigands packing various melee and ranged weaponry, the mine gave a good taste of how combat feels in Skyrim – and it’s reassuringly chunky and brutal. Weapons feel like they have real heft to them – wielding a longsword feels lethargic and cumbersome in comparison to the medley of axes and daggers also available in the demo, yet when you connect it with an opponent’s skull the animation and controller vibration provides a genuine visceral sense of the sheer unpleasantness of up-close combat.
The dual wielding of weapons naturally fits the 360 controller (and presumably the PS3 Dualshock as well) like a glove, with alternating and combining the left and right triggers quickly becoming second nature. Assigning a different weapon or spell to each hand involved no more a quick trip to the menu screen, and even within the confines of that short dungeon it was clear that the two-handed system enables a tactical approach to combining weaponry and magic in Skyrim that is far superior to Oblivion’s inevitable “run backwards rapidly” combat scenarios.
What also came across was how much more of an option the third-person camera has become in Skyrim – indeed, I rapidly found myself preferring it during melee combat to give me a sense of the environment as well as enjoy the wide range of well-animated attack and finishing moves.
Eventually, having wiped out the brigands and looted their meagre belongings, I exited the dungeon, finding myself back in the bright sunshine right outside Riverwood’s gates. In the remaining time I had with the game, I tried out some smithing – creating a rather fine iron dagger for myself – as well as attempting to parse who exactly was saying what from the torrent of voices in my earphones. Bethesda clearly still need to work on the placing and volume of voices within the environment, because in this version it was almost impossible to follow all the overlapping dialogue coming at me from all directions.
And, for the Xbox 360 version specifically, it’s not all they need to work on. Although Bethesda have claimed that the previous footage shown of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim was from across all three platforms, it was clear within the first few minutes that the vast majority of what has been shown is from the PC. The usual caveat applies that this was pre-release code we were playing, and the game is still the best part of two months out, but the Xbox 360 version was a noticeable step down in graphical quality.
The incredible draw distance remains intact, but object geometry and textures have been simplified – the texture work on your hands and weapons being very rough in particular, and, sadly, literally in your face the whole time you’re in first-person perspective. The environments themselves seemed a bit of a mixed bunch, with some incredibly detailed and pin sharp foliage and forestry contrasting with lumpy water animations and muddy textures in Riverwood itself.
Also a potential issue was the game’s performance. Screen tearing was constant throughout, and exacerbated by any sharp movements in your viewpoint, while the framerate often became choppy during action sequences, plummeting in particular during combat in the mines and directly impacting on my ability to time shield blocks and sword swipes.
Of course, many of these issues may well be cleared up during polishing before release, and shouldn’t detract from the fact that Bethesda have created another mammoth and memorable world to explore. This time, they’ve also married it with an intuitive combat and magic system and easy-to-navigate menus. We can sleep easy: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is still likely to raise the bar once more for western role-playing games.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, from Bethesda, is due for release on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC, on 11th November 2011. Keep up to date with all the latest Skyrim news right here at BeefJack!