Today marks the long-anticipated release Bethesda's excellent role-playing adventure The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. It's a massive game, a true epic — hundreds of hours of exploration, adventure, magic and mayhem.
But before you can get to all of that, you've got to start the game and make a bunch of decisions about how, exactly, all those hours are going to play out. After putting a hefty chunk of hours into the Xbox 360 version of the game, I'm starting anew on PC. I'm excited to do it, as there are already a few things I plan to do differently. After polling the rest of the Kotaku staff, and we've put together a list of things you should know going into your first outing in Skyrim.
No big plot spoilers in here, though of course I will discuss some broader things about the game in its early goings.
Don't worry if you haven't played earlier Elder Scrolls games. Skyrim picks up 200 years after the events of the last game, Oblivion, and while it still takes place on the continent of Tamriel, it tells its own unconnected story. There are references to the stories of past Elder Scrolls games, but any important plot points are laid out by other characters and by text during loading screens.
Play it on PC if you can. It is easily the best-looking version of the game, and the load times are significantly shorter.
Don't install it to your Xbox 360's hard drive. For the time being anyway, you'll get better graphics on Xbox 360 if you don't install to the console's hard drive.
Try the PC version with an Xbox 360 controller. This is partly a matter of personal preference, but Skyrim (unmodded) offers nothing unique in its PC control scheme past the precision of the mouse. Like it or not, the user interface has been designed with console controllers in mind, and it works perfectly with a plugged in Xbox 360 controller.
Furthermore, the swing and crash of melee combat feels much more natural with a controller than a mouse and keyboard. And in a big bummer for PC users, the hotkey system doesn't appear to have been designed for a computer keyboard — as far as I can tell there's no simple way to assign spells and items to the number keys on the keyboard. I'm sure that patches and mods will make hotkeying easier in the future, but for the time being, one of the keyboard's biggest advantages is significantly downgraded. Give the controller a shot. It's nice.
Don't lower the difficulty — some fights are supposed to be hard. The game defaults to "Adept" difficulty, which I'd say is just about right. The enemies don't level according to your character in Skyrim, so often, especially in the early goings, you'll stumble into an area that's out of your league difficulty-wise. A few of these even happen on the road to major story quests. That's okay! The game is supposed to be hard, and it will force you to level your character and improve your skills until you can take on the challenge before you.
Don't worry which ancestral stone you choose at first — character classes aren't permanent. Right near the beginning of the game, you're given a choice between three ancestral stones: Thief, Mage and Warrior. Whichever one you choose causes skills associated with that class to improve faster than other skills. Keep in mind, however, that there are 13 ancestral stones like these lying around Skyrim, and while you can only have one active at a time, you can change whenever you want. They're not permanent. You'll have time to decide which style of play suits you over the course of the game. There's no need to agonise over the decision at the beginning, as you can always change your mind.
Save often. On PC, there's a quicksave button, but on console, you're going to have to remember to save your game often. It autosaves whenever you rest, sleep or go through a door into a new area (basically anytime the game shows a loading screen), but it doesn't ever save anytime in between. It's possible to wander Skyrim for an hour, find some good stuff, and then be killed by a mammoth and loose all your progress. Which reminds me...
Don't piss off the mammoths. Seriously.
Don't piss off the giants, either. Well, unless you want this to happen to you.
Travel with a friend. Hireable companions have been an option on several of Bethesda's games, but they feel more usable in Skyrim than ever. When you get your first companion (likely in Whiterun), take her with you on difficult quests. It'll make your life a lot easier.
Try using a shield. One of the best things about Skyrim is that you can play it however you want — magic, melee, ranged or some combination. That said, I'm finding the physical combat to be more enjoyable and a touch deeper than ranged combat. I've always played Bethesda games as a sneaky archer, creeping into a room and using my stealth damage bonus to give people the old one-hit-kill.
But in Skyrim, it finally feels too unsatisfying. Bethesda veterans know what i'm talking about, the old "backpedal and fire arrows while getting your face eaten off" strategy. Given Skyrim's improved melee combat, it's worth giving shield combat a try. Also shield-bashing is really fun.
Stick to first-person perspective in combat. Much has been made about Skyrim's improved animations and third-person camera, but when it comes down to it, third-person is really still best for exploration. In combat, you'll want to stick with first-person, partly for gameplay reasons and partly because the chaos of first-person makes the combat seem more impactful and exciting than it actually looks in third-person.
Don't spend your gold on equipment. Right off the bat, you'll find several vendors willing to sell you things. (Or really, they're willing to buy all of the suits of armour and extra swords you're carrying around.) Don't take the bait! Save your money, as you'll find loads of the basic steel and iron weapons lying around, as well as enough arrows to build a large arrow-fort.
Instead, save your money to spend on training, which allows you to get out of the low-level dregs a bit faster, while improving your combat prowess much more substantially than a puchased weapon.
In the early goings, buy health potions whenever you can. These are worth your money — health potions can be applied immediately in combat, unlike the finniky healing spell you begin with. When you're in a pinch and getting hammered by a particularly ugly troll, you'll want to have four or five minor health potions in your inventory. They're not too expensive, so buy them whenever possible.
Wander! While gut-checking the game , I described Skyrim as a game about wanderlust. And it is. As you play, take the time to wander just for the sake of wandering.
Skyrim is encapsulated by that moment when you're walking down a path towards an objective and suddenly, you notice another path off to the right. Where does it lead? To a cave, a bandit hideout? Some magical stone, some lost artifact? Something altogether more interesting and dangerous?
Only one way to find out.