The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Preview

We take an extended tour throughout the world of Bethesda's upcoming open-world RPG 'The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim,' and live to tell the tale another day.

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From the moment the Skyrim announcement trailer debuted at the VGAs the questions came to mind in a rush. As the successor to Oblivion and fifth game to carry the ‘Elder Scrolls’ mantle, we immediately expect nothing short of the most expansive fantasy land yet created filled with hundreds of stories waiting to be told. I got a glimpse into that world watching the game's director Todd Howard play Skyrim for nearly an hour. Though many questions were answered during a Q&A session afterwards, the experience fueled as many or more new inquires, and made a convincing argument that role playing fans should start clearing out as much time as possible around the November 11 release of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. "We intentionally don't give him [the character] a backstory," Howard would later explain. "The Elder Scroll games you start in prison and I always like to think it's up to you to figure out why, and if you think you're a good character then this is obviously a mistake. We set it up that you've come over the border into Skyrim and the Imperials captured you." Though the premise may be the same as ever, it immediately became clear that much has changed since Oblivion as Howard walked his character down a mountain path giving me my first tour of Skyrim. As he strolled along he called attention to the fruits of their work developing the new "creation" engine powering Skyrim. The northernmost province in the Elder Scrolls' game world of Tamriel, Skyrim offers some spectacular vistas. Howard paused to look at some of the flowers on the side of the path and then looked off to the mountain peaks on the horizon. "You can walk to the top of that mountain," Howard noted. It's an impressive display of how versatile this engine they've created is, conveying everything from close-up detail to the furthest thing the eye can see. He wastes no time running into a bandit on the road, which offers the perfect opportunity to show off the new combat system. It's a straightforward approach that maps the left and right trigger to the corresponding hands of the character on screen. From there it's simply a matter of what you want to use in each hand. Howard starts with the classic sword-and-board of a shield in one hand and a blade in the other. Pulling each trigger results in the expected block of a shield and swipe with the sword, but moreover, combat has become much more active. Like two gladiators going at it, Howard trades blows with the bandit that packs a real wallop. The combat is much more physical than any Elder Scrolls game before this. Combat isn’t two characters standing face-to-face swinging wildly; it's a real fight, with each blow felt and the combatants violently pushing each other back and forth. Spell casting works in a similar way. Spells are equipped in your hand and then cast by pulling the corresponding trigger. One quick way Howard showed this off was keeping his healing spell in his left hand while fighting with his sword. Equipping the same spell in both hands let Howard cast a more powerful version of the spell, complete with a two-handed conjuration animation to sell it. Though the highwaymen attacked on sight, not everything in the world of Skyrim is inherently hostile. During a later part of the demo Howard came across a towering frost giant on a mountain path. Unprovoked, he carried on with his stroll, disinterested in Howard's character and what he might be up to. This reflects the overall effort put into making the game world more believable. Everyone encountered in Skyrim goes about their daily business with purpose. They get up; go to work, and everything they do there is a real task. "The characters live here," as Howard puts it. Like previous Elder Scrolls games, Skyrim is primarily a first person game, and that's how Howard says he prefers to play it. Skyrim, though, will also "compete with the other third person games out there," according to Howard. Sure enough, when he switched the camera to show his character on screen, it moved smoothly and looked on par with modern adventure games. The upgrade doesn't appear to have made its way to faces yet, which still look uncomfortably unnatural. Underneath the skin, though, lies one of the most significant overhauls to the game. Gone are the classic role-playing set of attributes like strength, intelligence and wisdom. The only three such stats in the game are health, magicka, and stamina. Character development now leans heavily on improving skills (there are 18 in the game) through use. Wield a one-handed weapon and that skill will gain rank, cast destruction magic and that skill improve, and so forth. Gaining ranks in skills in turn leads to leveling up, which earns points to buy perks. These perks then provide the boosts for detailed specialization. In one of the more gee-whiz moments of the presentation, Howard showed off the perk trees, which are represented by constellation, which the player looks up to the heavens to see. It sounds more complicated than it is. Take that mace-wielding warrior for example. With each mace attack, their one-handed skill goes up. Knowing their weapon of choice, they will then choose perks to enhance it. For the mace they would target bonuses to things like crushing damage, or maybe a stunning impact effect. One key benefit to the system is the versatility it introduces. By making use of a skill the driving force, all one need to do to change things down the line is start doing them. So when the mace warrior decides to add healing magic to their repertoire, it quickly improves through use up to the level of the character.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim helps Bethesda usher in a new game engine.

One of the more interesting wrinkles of the game is that the player character is dragonborn. Howard refused to offer much on what exactly that means except to say that it signifies being anointed by the Gods and born with the soul of a dragon. It also imbues the ability to use magic-like shouts, which add another layer to a character's powers. These shouts come in the form of three word phrases, each word of which constitutes a level of power. With something like two-dozen shouts in the game, the system promises to add both a significant option to combat and ample reason to go adventuring in quest of the individual words. From the powered-up character Howard used in the demo, the combination of weaponry, magic, and shouts makes for a lethal character, but don't think it will make the game a cakewalk. Skyrim includes a number of new enemies, not the least of which are the dragons who have returned to the land. Dragons will figure prominently in the game and they are not just individual boss fights. There's no finite number of dragons in the game and in fact Howard related a story of inadvertently drawing the attention of a trio of dragons he ran into while out adventuring. It didn't end well for him. So, adventuring around a massive mountainous region, wielding exotic weapons and casting dramatic spells, using power shouts to turn the tide of battle, interacting with a dynamic, living world, and facing dragons in battle--yeah, sounds like Skyrim is pretty well on track.

From The Chatty

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    April 21, 2011 3:30 PM

    Garnett Lee posted a new article, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Preview.

    We take an extended tour throughout the world of Bethesda's upcoming open-world RPG 'The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim,' and live to tell the tale another day.

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      April 21, 2011 7:04 PM

      Due to an error in posting, this has been resubmitted to our system.

      I take the blame. Now... say it with me folks... "XAAAAAAAAAAAV!!!!!!"

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        April 21, 2011 7:06 PM

        There were a few comments on the original. But those are lost. The issue was I set this post to be picked up by Chatty too soon, so it already disappeared from our 18-hour cycle.

        Sorry about that!

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          April 21, 2011 9:25 PM

          Garnett too important to post his own articles? WTF Xav, have some self respect.

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        April 21, 2011 7:59 PM

        XAAAAAAAAAAAV!!!!!!

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        April 21, 2011 8:42 PM

        JEEZ! Now I have to rewrite my nine word post. Yea, I counted.

        Great preview. Looks like a great successor to Oblivion.

        XAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAV!!!!!!!!

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      April 21, 2011 7:09 PM

      So it's Oblivion with guns duel-wielding?

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        April 21, 2011 7:12 PM

        Was duel-wielding intentional? Please tell me it was. Accidentally brilliant.

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      April 21, 2011 7:20 PM

      i'm so there

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      April 21, 2011 7:48 PM

      dear god this game looks so epic, hopefully I can resurface to the world before Christmas!

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      April 21, 2011 7:52 PM

      "The upgrade doesn't appear to have made its way to faces yet, which still look uncomfortably unnatural."

      It's disappointing to hear that. At least the rest of the game seems to be shaping up well. In any case, faces in the PC version will be fixed up by a mod less than a week of the construction kit's release. Console players will be forever trapped in a world of fuglies.

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        April 21, 2011 7:55 PM

        what makes you think the faces won't be done by the time it ships, in November?

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        April 21, 2011 8:21 PM

        shit i thought there were screens showing that was fixed

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        April 21, 2011 9:42 PM

        Beautiful environments, NPC's with robotic dead stares.

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        April 22, 2011 6:03 AM

        I was in between crashes in Fallout 3 yesterday and it came into my mind just how bad the faces, voice acting and characters suck. That whole bit with butch, followed by the overseer are so bad.. I lol'd.

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      April 21, 2011 7:54 PM

      I'm sad to hear that about the faces, and then nothing about character interaction. Oblivion and Fallout 3 were both good, immersive games, but the bubble always burst for me when I interacted with NPCs. Wooden dialogue, janky animation, broken pathfinding and horrifically ugly faces just don't do it for me. This is an area where other AAA studios were showing Bethesda up years ago. I hope they've put some effort into catching up.

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        April 22, 2011 3:30 AM

        Read some of the earlier previews (I think here or other sites), they touch on this. Now the NPC's will go about their business and aren't locked into the conversation with you with that stupid zoom, it's more.. natural I think they put it.

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      April 21, 2011 8:12 PM

      I find it amazing that they are far enough along to give extended tours, etc. but it doesn't come out until November

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      April 21, 2011 8:34 PM

      Taking a dragon down mid flight with a huge thud is going to be so erectionally satisfying.

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      April 22, 2011 12:53 AM

      "Underneath the skin, though, lies one of the most significant overhauls to the game. Gone are the classic role-playing set of attributes like strength, intelligence and wisdom."

      So now we have no way of making strong, intelligent, wise, agile or dexterous characters? Insane. I mean, why remove these stats? They are hardly difficult to understand; they hardly push away the casual market, which is the usual reason why game companies do stupid shit. Even WoW, which is now uber casual, has stats with mutiple purposes - and plenty of them at that!

      I think my point is why dumb it down any more?

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        April 22, 2011 1:00 AM

        I don't think it dumbs it down. Only difference is that everyone starts on the same page. One major thing they saw was people constantly remaking characters once they played for a bit. "Oh shit, I didn't want that as my Major! I should have put more points in X!" So now if you are a stealthy character, use it. It will get better. Running a lot makes you run faster. I guess they just saw that the attributes are kind of redundant. It does make some sense though. Skills still get more powerful on use. That's what matters.

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        April 22, 2011 2:47 AM

        I could get behind these changes. If you sneak around a lot, do you really need 2 modifiers(dex + skill) instead of just one(skill)? If you like to stab things after sneaking behind them, your 1handed skill should level about the same as your 1h skill, again eliminating the need for two modifiers. Backstab will probably be a perk that you get for leveling up your sneak skill, with increasing backstab damage being a factor of your sneak skill. The only loss is that you can't have a high stat help offset the disadvantage of using a low level skill. But since skills are only low in Elder Scrolls because you never use them; it shouldn't be a huge factor. You also won't have two players swinging their swords doing the same amount of damage, except one swings his sword really, really fast while the other swings his sword with more strength.

        I'm curious how they'll handle some of the annoying rules like encumbrance. In Oblivion, mage types would occasionally put points in strength just so they could carry more stuff. I wonder if in Skyrim you'll have to allocate a point to physical stat to do the same thing.

        Anyway, I can't know for sure until I play the damn thing, but I'm going to try to maintain some hope despite the fact that I enjoyed Morrowind more than Oblivion.

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          April 22, 2011 2:48 AM

          That's another question I have that I don't know whether or not it has been answered. Elder Scrolls punishes the hell out of you if you don't choose the appropriate sign to be born under. I can't imagine playing a mage character without choosing to be born under the sign of the mage or apprentice. If they're really trying to free things up, they may have to eliminate the sign system.

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            April 22, 2011 2:49 AM

            Meant this as a reply to kingdepork... Oh well.

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            April 22, 2011 2:58 AM

            I think perks are more or less signs. I like that they wanted people to not create a character beforehand skill wise, but to play naturally and let the game adapt to you.

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              April 22, 2011 3:39 AM

              Yeah, I wouldn't be surprised to see bonus magic perks that come from leveling magic-related skills and the like.

              I hope they're mostly creative perks ala Fallout and not just boring shit like +10 damage. I've always felt like the ES games could benefit from that sort of thing.

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                April 22, 2011 5:58 AM

                Technically you probably don't even need to level your magic skills before taking the perk, from the sounds of it you'll be able to take a perk going towards whichever skill you want when you level.

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          April 22, 2011 3:34 PM

          Hopefully they'll give players more clever ways of wrestling with encumbrance. I'd personally like to see feather spells that can be targeted at a specific item to permanently (but reversibly if necessary) enchant it into a much lower weight item for carrying, without limiting opportunities for further enchantment of course. "Hrm, it's a 76 pound warhammer. Maybe I should make it an 8 pound warhammer instead?"

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        April 22, 2011 2:49 AM

        The ones in oblivion, because there were so many affecting each other, didnt feel like they made any difference. Each point was almost meaningless as the stat barely increased.

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        April 22, 2011 2:42 PM

        I think the decision was about a renewed emphasis on the soul of Elder Scrolls: The Elder Scrolls series is meant to let you "be whoever you want, do whatever you want" in a lush fantasy world, but Oblivion's leveling system punished players for playing naturally. To give a refresher, the system had three fundamental problems, which were bad enough individually but interacted terribly:

        The first problem was that the strength/quality of a level-up was contingent upon the manner of leveling. Final Fantasy VI made this same mistake with the Esper system: Your characters your characters would get certain stat boosts depending on the Esper they had equipped when they leveled up. Since not all Espers were created equal, players who wanted to max their stats tried to put off leveling until they a.) got Espers in the first place, and b.) got the best Espers in the game.

        Oblivion shared this fundamental flaw with FFVI, but Oblivion's complexity made it AWFUL. Want a +5 boost for three attributes? You'd better get 10 skillups in skills governed by those attributes before getting 10 major skillups! You had to carefully plan your leveling in advance and play each level using only a specific set of skills that you intended to level. This was unnatural, annoying, and difficult, and it led to a lot of time-consuming minor skill grinding before letting yourself level up. (Since your final HP depended on your endurance at each level up, the game also compelled you to raise your endurance +5 every level until it reached 100, at the expense of other attributes languishing at 40.)

        In short, making level-ups vary in quality was madness. It is IMO the single biggest mistake designers can make with a leveling system, and it made the game more stressful and less fun that it could/should have been. I spent half my time updating my stats in a spreadsheet instead of playing (360 version though; I should've gotten the PC version for the useful mods). There's nothing wrong with rewarding players for number crunching and stat-strategizing, but the rewards should be more situational (like making smart weapon upgrades), and opting out shouldn't permanently gimp your core character for the rest of the game.

        The second problem was that your class choice at the very beginning of the game determined how painful the leveling problem would be. It was bad enough with a custom character designed specifically for efficient leveling, but it was murder for built-in classes. Classes like Warrior interacted terribly with this system, because all of the skills you relied on most were major skills. For Warrior, you could only get +5 strength on a level if the ONLY major skills you leveled were governed by strength. On top of the nonstop leveling stress, Oblivion's inflexible class system led people to constantly restart the game to recreate their character.

        The third problem was that monsters leveled up along with the player. If you didn't get three +5's (or two +5's and a +1 luck), you just permanently limited your character's growth, but monsters always level steeply. If you didn't agonize over every level-up for efficiency, it wasn't long before the monsters outpaced you (at least on high difficulty levels).

        In short, Oblivion's level system was a mess. Instead of providing depth, the baroque complexity broke the system. Once you eliminate the variable-strength levels and inflexible classes, the ideal result would be a more natural skill-based system with attribute modifiers for depth. Level up skills with use, and once you level up e.g. 10 or 20, you get a level up and a perk. Attributes could either be increased by spreading fixed-quantity points at each level or more indirectly by increasing governed skills (the latter should be independent of any kind of leveling window to avoid an Oblivion repeat). Including attributes for system depth still makes sense to me: If you level up your blunt skill a lot, your increased strength should help your other physical combat skills as well.

        It seems like Bethesda went a step further and nuked the attributes altogether, which were the only systematic ties between logically related skills. I tend to agree that they went a step too far in the right direction and eliminated complementary depth for no good reason. As nice as this depth would have been though, Skyrim retains a solid, flexible, and fun core system a million times better than the one in Oblivion. The heart of the system is leveling up skills with use for a natural role playing experience, and I think Skyrim will capture this without all of the obtrusive cruft that caused players to spend as much time leveling and agonizing as they did playing. While traditional attributes linking skills might have been nice, I'm REALLY looking forward to playing Skyrim now that I know they fixed the obnoxious problems from Oblivion.

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      April 22, 2011 3:32 AM

      The loss of stats makes my heart weep.
      Not enough to stop me from buying, mind.

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      April 22, 2011 5:02 AM

      Do the enemies auto level? That's my main gripe.

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        April 22, 2011 5:59 AM

        It won't be as bad as Oblivion, I believe it will be more in line with Fallout 3.

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      April 22, 2011 7:41 AM

      Typo error ; replace "heath" with "health"

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        April 22, 2011 9:01 AM

        Maybe you recharge with a delicious chocolate and toffee bar.

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      April 22, 2011 8:31 AM

      " It's a straightforward approach that maps the left and right trigger to the corresponding hands of the character on screen"

      Oh great a console port. And they even further dumbed it down by removing attributes.

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      April 22, 2011 8:35 AM

      you mentioned 'pulling the corresponding trigger' for spells. Were you playing this on 360/PS3? How did it look?

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        April 22, 2011 5:45 PM

        Sounds like 360. Default PS3 controls generally don't use the triggers for attack actions.

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          April 24, 2011 7:01 PM

          It's definitely the 360 they're talking about, but I'd like to point out that a majority of PS3 games ARE using the triggers for attack actions nowdays - espcially in multiplatform games where they keep the controls as similar as possible to the 360.

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      April 22, 2011 9:43 AM

      So, 18 skills which is less skills than Oblivion, which in turn had less skills than Morrowind. I think I see a pattern here.

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        April 22, 2011 12:09 PM

        Mass Effect 2 showed us you don't need overly complex stat/skill systems, in fact that fewer, and more meaningful stats/skills makes for a better game.

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          April 22, 2011 5:25 PM

          Not every game needs to be, or should be, Mass Effect 2.

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          April 23, 2011 10:32 AM

          Not with an Elder Scrolls game, not by a long stretch.

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            April 23, 2011 3:01 PM

            Well, apparently Bethesda thinks differently than you do.

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              April 23, 2011 10:44 PM

              Well, Bethesda are wrong.

              How does it go..."The Customer is always right". Which would explain why Oblivion was so much worse than Morrowind.

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                April 25, 2011 12:06 PM

                LOL! GOTY how many years in a row? Get real.

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                  April 25, 2011 1:44 PM

                  How does the other one go, "People like Coldplay and supporting the Nazis, you can't trust people Jeremy."

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        April 22, 2011 12:10 PM

        Elderscrolls IX will be an adventure game.

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      April 22, 2011 2:14 PM

      Horay for less stats! Morrowind and Oblivion both had terrible mechanics in my opinion.

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        April 24, 2011 10:18 PM

        I agree 110%. The combat mechanics in both previous games were absolutely an abomination.

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      April 22, 2011 3:02 PM

      I just made an epic post on the leveling system, but...I'm looking forward to the new combat system too. I'm glad they're making it feel more intense, but what I REALLY hope is that they make it more fluid and responsive.

      People made fun of Oblivion's animation system for diagonal sliding and unsettling facial expressions at odds with the dialogue, but the biggest problem with Oblivion's animation system was that the combat system was a slave to it: If I barely tapped the attack button and immediately changed my mind and decided to block, I was screwed...because my character was going to swing, bring his sword back, and PAUSE before finally putting his shield up.

      I can only hope that this aspect of animation and combat has been improved. The Elder Scrolls may not be action games or first person shooters, but anyone who decides to use real-time combat instead of a turn-based system should put just as much effort into fluid play control and battle mechanics as they would for any other game. Having sloppy mechanics is not a central tenet of the RPG genre, so "it's an RPG" just isn't an excuse to half-ass fluidity. Bioware is progressively learning this lesson by improving their core combat mechanics with each passing game, and I hope Bethesda has decided to evolve similarly.

      ...I also hope they kept all the fantastic strengths from the previous games though, like the cool guild quests. :)

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      April 23, 2011 1:17 PM

      I wonder if I can still keep casting a lighting spell over and over and leveling up my illusion magic... Man I wish I had a decent PC.

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      April 23, 2011 7:01 PM

      Has anyone figured out what language the hearty warrior chorus is speaking? Or is it just some made-up tongue that sounded totally awesome?

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        April 24, 2011 11:53 AM

        It's a language the developers invented for Skyrim and for the native tongue of dragons, called Draconic...and I agree, it sounds totally awesome. :D

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      April 24, 2011 7:47 PM

      Excellent, thanks for the preview. I'm going to play the shit out of this game.

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      April 24, 2011 10:06 PM

      here take my money take my money... I don't care

      I just WANT!!!

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      April 24, 2011 10:17 PM

      I could never get passed the combat and menu system in Morrowind and Oblivion. Just terrible designs that really made 2 great games (content wise) not really fun to play. Hopefully this one is different.