Will Mass Effect 3 be the game of the year? Not if Bethesda has anything to say about it. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim takes the bracing freedom of the studio’s previous work, and reworks practically every other facet of the experience. Oblivion’s identikit dungeons, confusing menus and hollow-eyed NPCs are hereby consigned to the dustbin of history. 

Skyrim will be massive

The fact that the new Elder Scrolls game is set in a vast open-world won’t be news to anyone, but Bethesda is really pushing for the next level here.  Skyrim is the northern-most province of Tamriel, and an altogether more rugged landscape than that in Oblivion. It is the home province of the Nords, the first humans to appear in the Elder Scrolls mythology, and contains five major cities, nine smaller “holds”, and an assortment of smaller towns and villages.

Beyond that, not much is known about where Skyrim will take us. The player character seems to be the typical Bethesda cipher, but we do know that he/she is “dragon-born”, meaning that he/she has the soul of a dragon and access to some of their powers. This is particularly handy for Skyrim’s residents because, 200 years after the climax of Oblivion, dragons have appeared in Tamriel once again. It falls to your hero to sort the problem out, and though Bethesda’s Todd Howard compared Skyrim’s dragons to game bosses, he also hinted that not every dragon is necessarily an enemy.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Skyrim will be beautiful

A lot of fuss was made about the supposed loveliness of Oblivion’s game-world, but I could never understand it. Sure, it was green and bright and all that, but it lacked life and personality. Skyrim is a major step forwards in this regard, the Bethesda art team running riot with colour and detail after the mud and rust of Fallout 3.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

However, Bethesda has pointed out that graphics alone will not make Skyrim a believable place. A great deal of emphasis is being placed on ambient details and flourishes: butterflies dance around flowers, fish leap from the water while swimming upstream, and the world’s inhabitants can be going about their lives in far more noticeable ways – jobs were the example offered by Howard, but there will be others. The animation on the character models will also be more convincing: you are no longer locked into position during conversations, and the third-person view is a world away from its shoddy execution in previous Bethesda games.

The only real remaining question is about how reactive the game world will be. Howard confirmed that you will be able to buy property more freely than before, and claimed to be toying with a number of possible ways for the player to influence the economy and infrastructure – sabotaging a lumber mill leading to a scarcity for arrows, for example.

Skyrim will be user-friendly

The all-fronts streamlining of Dragon Age 2 suggests that the major players in RPG design are sick of clutter. Menus, maps, spreadsheets, hundreds of barely distinguishable items; in all honesty, I’m happy to see the back of it all, but not everyone is so convinced. Fortunately, Bethesda seems to be taking a more restrained approach to Bioware, catching the baby’s leg as the bathwater sails out of the window.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

On console, a single button press summons a translucent menu listing Magic, Map, Inventory and Skills. If you select inventory or magic, a further menu appears from the left or right-most thirds of the screen respectively, with more menus sliding in as you go deeper through the options. When you select an item, you will be treated to a 3D render of it that can be rotated and examined – studying objects will often play a role in completing quests.

The Map and Skills functions are even more impressive: selecting the Map will cause the camera to pull back to reveal a top-down, generously annotated 3D representation of Skyrim; selecting Skills points the camera towards the heavens, where the various specialism trees are laid out like constellations of stars.

Skyrim will have combat that isn’t rubbish

Fallout 3 was a competent shooter, but with so much else to offer it didn’t need to be anything more. Oblivion, on the other hand, was a fairly terrible when it came to action, which really hurt the overall experience. Bethesda won’t be making the same mistakes again; this time the melee combat will have weight and impact, not to mention a host of satisfyingly gruesome, context-sensitive, scripted finishing moves.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

You can also dual wield weapons, with the left and right triggers corresponding to your character’s hands. There’s sword and shield, obviously, but Bethesda wants to reward experimentation, so it will be possible to carry a sword and a spell, or two different mage staffs. You could have a healing spell in one hand and a fire spell in the other, while carrying the same spell in both hands will create a super-charged version.

More mysterious are “shouts” – powers that can be summoned with a brief sequence of words, a manifestation of your character’s link with dragon-kind. There are more than 20 of these shouts to ear or find, and they will give you access to unique powers like the ability to slow down time.

Skyrim will feel more personal

Bethesda has whittled the skills down to a more manageable number – something Oblivion sorely needed. But if anyone out there really doesn’t think that’s a good idea, have no fear: Skyrim will be a more personal and reactive experience than any game in the series.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Rather than just give you control over your character’s stats and key decisions, individual missions will have dynamic elements that change to suit your player. So, if you need to find a lost child who encountered trouble while searching for a valuable item, the identity of the child, the people giving him trouble, and the location of the item will be dictated by your track record.

The mission structure remains the same, but the texture and flavour of it will change – to guide you to a new area, perhaps, or force a meeting with a character you haven’t seen in a while. It will take some seriously clever programming to make it work, of course, but the fact that Bethesda is willing to take on the challenge is proof of its desire to make Skyrim the best Elder Scrolls game yet. 

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim will be released in November.