Skyrim preview – Abandon all hope, ye who expect to have a life once this dragon-born epic arrives

Staggeringly vast and bone-jarringly visceral, the master of open world gameplay is back

Hands and mountains. Those are the two things that immediately caught our attention when we first laid eyes upon The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim – the craggy, jagged peaks that dominate this open world’s realistic topography, and the main character’s own two hands. But that’s okay, because hands and mountains are the perfect symbols for the improvements Skyrim makes over the last Elder Scrolls game, the epic Oblivion. We’ve got two hours of details to walk you through, but here’s the summary: Set 200 years after Oblivion, Skyrim’s world is more rugged and visceral, yet also more majestic and beautiful. Its citizens are more realistic. And both combat and your character’s evolution are deeper, but vastly streamlined. Oh – and also, there are dragons and you eat their souls.

We’ll start, as our demo does, with the world itself. Skyrim is not only the name of the game, it’s also the name of the game world, the northern-most province in Tamriel, the continent upon which all the Elder Scrolls games have taken place. It’s a rugged land, and an often frigid one. You can expect everything from dungeons carved out of glaciers to mountaintop aeries to caves to tundra to volcanoes to pine forests. There will be more geographical variety than there was in Oblivion’s province Cyrodiil, and although Skyrim is roughly the same size, the mountains make it seem larger because you can’t just zoom over them while traveling – you’ve got to go around, through, or over them. You can, too; the tallest mountain in the game (one of the tallest in all Tamriel) is the Throat of the World, and you can walk right up to the top – assuming you can make it up the 7000 steps to the temple at its peak (thank God this isn’t a Kinect game).

Skyrim is no frozen wasteland, though – at least, not all of it. The area we’re seeing in the beginning of our demo could be ripped right out of one of those “tap the Rockies” beer commercials. The sky is bright blue, there’s a postcard-perfect mountain in the near background, and we’re treading a rocky path along a cascading river, with fish jumping upstream to spawn and green ferns and pine trees lining its bank. Seriously, we’d go here on vacation.

And we’d probably also end up skewered, if the bandit who leaps out from behind the rocks has anything to say about it. Skyrim is home to the Nords, the Elder Scrolls universe’s earliest humans. They’re big, strong, rough-hewn folk who favor horned helmets, epic beards, and non-nonsense weapons like heavy axes and maces. In short, they’re basically Vikings. The brigand before us is a textbook example of one, and he gives our demoer, developer Bethesda’s Todd Howard, the perfect opportunity to demonstrate the new battle system. Which brings us to your character’s hands.

Your hands are actually controlled separately in Skyrim. Your left hand can hold a shield, wield a weapon such as a sword, or ready a spell like fireball or frost. You use whatever it’s holding by pulling the left trigger, holding down for a more powerful attack. Your right hand can also wield a weapon, a shield, or a spell. You use whatever it’s holding by pulling the right trigger, holding down for a more powerful attack. You can change these configurations on the fly simply by holding a single button and selecting something else to hold from the scrolling list that appears.

Above: We didn't actually see any orcs during our demo, but we weren't about to not show you this screen because of that.

And that’s all there is to it. So, no digging around in menus to swap gear, no restrictions like “you can only have one spell and one weapon equipped”, or “you can’t cast spells when holding a shield”. You can do whatever you want. A healing spell on the right and sword on the left? Fine. A shield on the left and fire spell on the right? That works too. And dual-wielding is welcome. You want two swords? Have two swords. Want the same spell on both hands? Go for it. In fact, if you set them both off at once, you’ll get a larger-than-double combined effect. You can even carry a shield in both hands, although that’s going to lead to a very long battle with you not doing much damage.

You would be building up your blocking (and possibly shield bashing) skill, though. Whatever you do, you get better at. So, cast a lot of spells and you’ll level that skill up. Swing your mace or sharpshoot with your bow and you’ll get better at that. It’s simple. Also, each of your 18 skill classes (Blade, Restoration, Conjuration, Enchantment, etc) has its own little evolution tree, so you’ll get to choose new techniques as you master the existing ones. Everything you do feeds into your overall experience level and you get perks – unique skills that will be familiar to Fallout fans – as you claim more and more levels in that arena. Finally, there are only three stats now: health, magicka, and stamina. See what we mean when we say the character development and combat are streamlined, but more flexible?

We recommend