Skyrim – hands on preview and interview with director Todd Howard

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim - orc

The brief tussle revealed a new, streamlined menu. It’s still big, but far less fiddly than Oblivion’s ball-ache. Things are split into more manageable lists of weapons, potions and so on, plus you can assign ‘favourites’ – combinations of things in different hands.

I used mixes such as a sword in one hand and fire magic in the other, or an axe/ice spell combo. It could be anything; one setup I had put a healing spell in one hand and ‘Clairvoyance’ in the other, which created a glowing trail to my next objective. The only downside is that cit’s not a hot-key system, and so pauses the action as you choose.

One of the things I loved in Oblivion was the atmosphere of the world, and Skyrim takes that to a new level. As I wander a mountain pass, the path crunches underfoot and leaves rustle in the wind. I see a stag bolt through the trees and salmon jumping in the river, all to an uplifting swell of orchestral strings. It’s beautiful. You can barely even smell the burning wolves any more.

“From Fallout 3 to Skyrim we’ve rewritten the majority of the engine,” explains Howard. It looks strong, an advancement of tech rather than a do-over. Oblivion’s visual feel is there, but with more detail and fewer rough edges. “It’s still a similar-tech game,” says Howard, “it’s just we can do more on screen. We did a lot of procedural stuff [in Oblivion]. Now none of the landscape is procedural – it’s all created by artists.”

Skyrim PS3 verdict screens

People are prettier this time. This is a good thing.

An obvious improvement is that people look normal – none of the over-thumbed Plasticine faces that used to haunt Oblivion’s conversations. The first person I meet is a blacksmith in Riverwood, a small hamlet of wooden cabins. An apparently very trusting blacksmith, who instantly puts me to work making and sharpening knives, tanning leather and using it to make helmets. Being able to make your own gear feels like a useful survival skill, and ten minutes later I’m able to start my own Viking Primark.

The second person is, in all honesty, a bit of a turd. He’s jealous of a happy couple and wants me to split them up with a fake letter. I can deliver it, or tell either the girl or her boyfriend the truth. There’s clearly a good or bad option here, but according to Howard it’s not that clear-cut: “Instead of a karma number like Fallout, we do it on an individual basis. We don’t track ‘the right or wrong thing’. It’s who you made happy and who you made sad. We do it in terms of towns: how much are you a wanted criminal in this area? Then we have factions: how do they feel about you?”

I decide to tell the girl, who asks me to see her elf BF. He’s so happy he agrees to follow me as a companion. So far, so good. I’ve helped a pretty girl, picked up a bodyguard and learned how to make dead animals into hats.

A poignant little highlight shows just how much there is in the world if you choose to embrace it: talking to the kids wandering around reveals you can play games. I have a quick go at Tag and, in a lovely touch a few hours later, spy ‘Don’t be it’ still in my quest log.