Skyrim preview – Abandon all hope, ye who expect to have a life once this dragon-born epic arrives

Speaking of combat, Todd is in the middle of a chess match with his opponent – if by chess match one means “two marauders with shields and very large swords trying to cut one another in half”. The fighting seems slightly heavier than Obivion, but in a good way – both the characters and their weapons move with a more realistic weight, the hits and shield bashes look more jarring, and you can’t just run backwards spamming fireballs. Our foe steps back and thumps his shield with his weapon, as if to say “bring it on”. Todd uses this opportunity to swap his shield with a frost spell an unloads it, slowing his opponent down. After a couple solid sword strikes, he leaps in with what turns out to be an automatic, context-sensitive finishing move – a vicious sword stab deep into the enemy’s chest.

As we continue down the mountain, we fight off another couple bandits and reach the town of Riverwood, a loose collection of cabins nestled in a pine forest along the edge of the river, and whose chief industry is lumber. Here, we finally encounter characters who would rather talk to us than carve us into pieces (note to Oblivion players: The hated dialogue mini-game is gone). And here is where the game’s main villains are mentioned for the first time: dragons.

Until now, dragons have been uncommon in the Elder Scrolls games. They were actually thought to be extinct. But now they’re coming to visit and as it happens, that’s not really the best news – according to prophecy, the dragons are returning because the biggest, baddest dragon, Alduin, who is also a god, is going to consume the world.

That is, unless you can stop him. You are the last of the “Dragonborn”, a singularly rare person who can read the language of dragons, use dragon magic by speaking their words, and consume the souls of dragons. This qualifies you for the “only one who can save the world” club. Lucky you.

But there are no dragons in Riverwood. We do hear about an odd robbery that happened recently to a local merchant – thieves broke in, but left almost all the valuables – so we decide to check it out. Arriving at the store, we begin a conversation with Lucan Valerius, who explains the only item taken was a golden trinket in the shape of a dragon claw – we agree to retrieve the item for him, so his sister leads us to the edge of town and points us up another mountain.

On the way up, we’re again struck by the depth of the world in Skyrim. The weather changes dynamically with time (and elevation – the higher you go, the more snow you get), and the world teems with details that make it seem alive even when you’re not there. There are packs of wolves that will go out on the hunt, kill a mammoth, and then hang around guarding their kill. There is also, on this very path, at least one giant, who stands at least 12 feet tall, if not 15 or 20. But he’s not hunting people, at least at the moment, so we take cover and he saunters past uneventfully, oblivious to the tiny Nord warrior hiding in the shadows.

We reach Bleak Falls Barrow, a snowy, ruined temple where we’re told the thieves are hiding. Todd casts a Detect Life spell, and two well camouflaged guards are revealed. He hits one with a Mind Takeover spell, which forces him to attack his companion – merciless. When only one is left, Todd bulls-eyes the survivor with his bow and arrow. Bows are greatly improved in Skyrim. They require two hands to operate and take more time to pull back than they did in Oblivion, but they do far more damage. Think of them as a Viking sniper rifle.

Heading through the gate, the thieves are nowhere to be seen in the entry courtyard. What does catch our eye is the massive dragon perched atop one of the temple’s crumbling archways, wings outstretched and on the lookout. Naturally, he sees us and dives immediately in our direction.

As the music rises in volume and urgency, the dragon roars out a word in the dragon tongue and belches a massive gout of flame directly at us. Dragon fights, Todd warns us, are tough. These are the boss battles of the game, life and death struggles against titanic foes who are bigger, faster, stronger, tougher to kill … you get the idea. So he does the sensible thing: He runs into the temple, where the dragon can’t follow.

This won’t always be an option. Dragons are random occurrences across much of Skyrim, so you won’t know when you’re going to encounter them, or where. But the game will keep track of how long it’s been since your last encounter, so you can be confident that it isn’t going to let you go too long without getting the crap scared out of you.

Inside the temple, we find two thieves standing near a fire. Todd crouches hidden in the darkness and listens to them discuss how their comrade has taken the claw deeper into the temple. He then silences one thief with a single bow shot. The second thief takes notice, but by the time she’s picked us out of the shadows, she too has an arrow in her throat.

Shortly thereafter, we encounter another thug in a room with three rotating columns, whose symbols must be matched before we can pass through the door without being riddled with arrows.

Finally, we reach a room completely covered in spider webs – we know where this is going. Sure enough, a black, fanged arachnid the size of an SUV quickly emerges and sets about sucking our life out through some newly carved fangholes. Todd manages to wipe it out fairly quickly by spamming his Frost Rune – a spell that acts basically as a mine, drawing a mark on the ground and erupting in magical ice death when an enemy steps on it.

Here we also finally find the dark elf Arvil, trussed up in the web, apparently meant to be the spider’s late-night snack. He’s a surly little bastard, but he promises to show us the secrets of the claw as soon as we cut him down.