Previews

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim: Fantasy role-playing perfection?

Living the dream. The one with dragons in it...

Few games do atmosphere like The Elder Scrolls. Sure, you come for the elf bothering and swinging axes into orc's faces but you stay because the place feels so real - another world to live another life in.

One where walking into town waving a broadsword won't get you tasered and where you create a flowing, evolving story based on what you choose to do, not what the game tells you do.

For tips and cheats have a look at CVG's Skyrim guide.

In our case we spent a few opening moments of a three-hour playthrough soaking up the views as we wandered through a forest. Deer scattering through the trees, salmon jumping in the river, butterflies wobbling past while leaves rustle and snowy mountains roll off into the distance.

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As introductions go it's beautifully atmospheric and emphasises that this isn't a just game full of objectives to complete, it's a place with its own character and mood.

The mountain pass we explore soon takes us to a nearby settlement called Riverwood, a small hamlet full of log cabins. Like the forest it's alive with character - people in the street are chatting, there's a blacksmith working away and kids are playing in the street with an enormous dog. You can even join in - talk to the kids and you can play hide and seek, or tag with them. There's a lovely touch where 'don't be it' stays in your quest log as an objective long after you stop playing.

We also spend some time with the blacksmith learning how to make our own weapons and armour, a skill that's bound to come in handy but if not, hey, at least we now own a hat made out of fur.

So Riverwood's a lovely place but we didn't come here just to admire the local ambiance, we came here to put swords into things and set fire to other things with magic. It's an opportunity that soon comes along when we go for a wander and find a small farm, the inhabitants of which are trying to fight a huge giant - a gangly limbed towering humanoid swinging a club at the people stabbing his knees. It's about six on one but us joining in tips the balance in the farm's favour and he soon goes down, earning us thanks from the locals and an invitation to join the fighter's guild, called the Companions.

SWING TO WIN
The actual fighting's been improved a lot since Oblivion's occasional mess of unconnected blade swinging. It's now a much more solid and physical affair to heft your weapon into people's faces. There are also some great finishing moves that gut and slice enemies for a messy finish. You can equip different things in each hand and you can save the most useful combinations as instantly selectable favourites - a sword in your right, fire magic in the left, axe and an ice spell, a bow, whatever. You can then switch depending on what you're fighting.

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The undead for example, are really flammable. Dragon's not so much. It's a flexible system and one of our post-fight set-ups is a healing spell to fix up our character and a clairvoyance spell that lights a sparkling path to the next objective to help get our bearings. Those undead we mentioned we find in a massive tomb called Bleak Falls (which was seen at E3). It's a mix of Indian Jones-style traps and angry undead Vikings. Oh, and a massive spider the size of a car. Like the mountain road it's very atmospheric, full of dark, whistling tunnels and crackling torches. Its ultimate secret, though, is a wall written in dragon tongue where we find our first shout, "Fus".

At the moment it's just a word as these magical extras need to be powered up by a dragon's soul. So it's handy when we soon get word of a dragon attack. Joining a group of soldiers we charge like madmen into the night where we find huge swathes of burning grass and bushes lighting up the area. At first it's not clear where the dragon is until we see a dragon-shaped shadow against the stars circling overhead.

All the talk of Skyrim's lizardy enemies don't really do them justice until you actually meet one face to snout. It's huge - like an angry bus with wings. As it tracks our character, it shuffles around on its folded wings, lowering its head to unleash huge blasts of fire across the ground.

It's epic stuff and a long battle, relying on an enchanted frost axe and an ice spell to finally kill the beast. As it dies it evaporates in a cloud of drifting embers and its soul rises up in a swirl of gold threads and powers the shout we found earlier.

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Yelling "FUS!" blasts out a wave of energy that knocks people and objects back. It's a handy trick that on the way to a nearby castle we use to knock attacking wolves flying. Unfortunately the dragon attack marks the end of our time in Skyrim but we're left seriously impressed.

Our brief adventure's been incredible but completely unscripted - a story we made ourselves as we explored. The world's astonishingly vivid and believable - dragons and zombies aside, it feels real and promises a huge amount of stuff to experience.

We all clocked up lots of hours on Oblivion with one save hitting 350 hours. According to Bethesda's Pete Hines this is far denser and more varied than the previous Elder Scrolls. God only knows what that'll translate into in hours but we're sure looking forward to finding out!

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