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Meanwhile, your inventory, your map and your spell list are always accessible from a cross-shaped interface available at the touch of the B or Circle buttons. You can scroll through either using the analogue stick, and the map is nearly tied into the quest log (accessible using the Start button) so that you can quickly see where to head for the next objective. You can fast travel to areas you’ve already discovered, and at no point do the game or its systems stand in the way of going where you want to go or doing what you want to do.
Some might call this dumbing down, but for us Skyrim is the next stone in a path that began with Ultima Underworld nearly twenty years ago. It's an RPG that immerses you right in the world and the action, and never pushes you out for more than the second or so it takes to manually save your game (still a smart idea if you want to make progress).
The experience system has seen some changes. You still develop skills for simply performing actions, so if you spend a lot of time fighting with one-handed weapons while wearing light armour and casting destructive spells, then you’ll rapidly level up in those areas. At the same time, experience is constantly dripping into a central levelling pool, and as you gain new levels you can select which of three attributes – magicka, health or stamina – will go up, and assign points to a perk that will give you extra bonuses when using certain spells or weapons, or give you useful new skills or abilities. It’s a system that provides a perfect balance between accessibility and choice.
The levelling system is also important because it ties into one other big change for Skyrim. In Oblivion the difficulty level of any given area – the toughness and number of its monsters – was linked to your current level. Now it’s set when you enter a dungeon or hostile area for the first time, so if you find one part too tough, you can come back later when you feel more ready to conquer it. And you will find portions of Skyrim tough going. We’ve had battles we’ve only won through the application of a handy fireball scroll, and some we’ve been unable to survive except through pegging it. Things ease up with the addition of a new system of ‘shouts’ – powerful chants in dragon language that can hurl your foes off-balance or help you speed through traps – but Skyrim rarely feels too easy or too hard.
Finally, it would be a disservice to Skyrim if we didn’t mention the dragons. These awesome beasts – the central focus of the plot – aren’t dished out willy-nilly, but when they are they make a suitably dramatic high-point. They’re not always quite as formidable as they might look, but each provides its own memorable fight. In fact, Skyrim is a game that comes thick with epic moments, which is impressive given the sheer scale of the game. As an idea, we’d finished half of this year’s blockbusters in the time it took us to just uncover the main storyline of Skyrim, and we hadn’t taken every side-quest or raided every tomb along the way.
In a way, Skyrim takes the RPG back to its roots, with its dungeons and dragons, its tunnels and its trolls. There’s something about its eerie tombs and nordic landscapes that reaches back to Tolkien, Poul Anderson and even Wagner without ever feeling like a rip-off. For anyone who has ever wanted to explore those fantasy worlds, Skyrim is nothing short of a dream come true.
The fifth Elder Scrolls game is a worth successor to Oblivion, and one of the best RPGs ever made. Technically, it’s not a huge a progression from Oblivion, but it’s a game where all the elements – graphics, sound, art design, music and gameplay – combine to make one incredibly immersive whole. Clear your diary, take a break and cancel Christmas if you have to: unless you have an allergy to sword and sorcery, you'll need every spare second to play.
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