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

Naturally,the little bastardtakes off like a shot the minute his feet hit the ground, shouting “You fool! Why should I share the treasure with anyone?” The answer to which is, of course, “because if you take off like a jackass, you’ll get bow-sniped in the back and we’ll just take the claw and your journal anyway.” Which is exactly what happened.

Heading deeper into the temple, we begin to encounter draugr, undead norse warriors with emaciated frames and glowing blue eyes. Todd begins to really cut loose with the magic. He uses chain lightning to blast a large oil lamp from the ceiling, which causes a temporary inferno when it hits the ground. Then he casts double Chain Lightning, triggering a huge, sizzling blast.

This is also about the time we begin to realize “temple” is a terribly inadequate way to describe the dungeon we’re now in. It’s a massive, winding trail that delves ever deeper into the mountain, alternating between crumbling human-carved ruins and pure wilderness. One minute, we’re standing in a room full of columns and stairways and caskets. The next, we find ourselves walking through a narrow cavern overgrown by gnarled tree roots, or even completely outside, skirting the edge of the mountain itself on a narrow pathway – where we encounter a tenacious Frost Troll – before plunging back into the caves and temple ruins and ever more draugr. It’s a great showcase for the graphical engine in Skyrim, which leaves Oblivion totally in the dust. That game was often “not that ugly”. This game is frequently beautiful.

Finally, we reach a door that Todd explains is the entrance to the Hall of Stories, where ancient Nords would say their goodbyes to their dead. The door has a complex lock, comprised of three rings with various symbols carved on them and a central nub that is clearly the “keyhole”. It’s obvious that the golden claw is the key, but where are the clues to tell us what symbols need to be showing? Todd opens the inventory and looks at the actual claw – each item, from the lowliest herb to the strongest weapon, had been modeled in 3D and can be viewed and rotated in your inventory – and there are the symbols we need, etched right into the claw.

Heading through the door, we see the Hall of Stories – a cavernous space with thundering waterfalls and steps leading up to a circular platform, half-framed by a wall covered in strange writings. This is dragon writing. One phrase glows blue – this is a word of power, which makes up a “shout”.

Shouts are phrases in the dragon language that, when spoken by a Dragonborn like you, come out as magic spells (but they do not take up a hand). There are about two dozen in all, and each has three levels of intensity, depending upon if you say one, two, or three words in the phrase. They’re rough, powerful magic. For instance, the one we just learned can actually slow time. And another we'veseensends a shockwave of pure force ahead of you, capable of knocking an enemy clear off his feet.

Unfortunately, the Dragon Priest who bursts out of the stone casket in the room’s center doesn’t use his feet – he levitates. More importantly, he summons a fairly large and very aggressive Frost Atronach (read: elemental), who hits really hard right up until the point that a fire spell melts him into a puddle. The priest summons another, but we dispatch this one more quickly and the priest itself follows soon after. In his casket, we find a nice mace. Each weapon in Skyrim not only has its own unique finishing move, it has specific perk possibilities. Axes can cause wounds that continue to bleed, for example, and maces can be perked to ignore the armor class of an enemy.

Finally, it’s time to exit the temple. But the demo has one more surprise for us – the dragon is waiting outside, and this time there is no escape. It’s a vicious battle, highlighted by the dragon’s shouted words, which seems always to be followed by a screen-filling wash of flaming breath (some dragons speak the common tongue as well, Todd cryptically offers). At one point, it takes to the sky, only to swing a wide arc and crash back down to earth, angrier than ever. But Todd does manage to slay the beast eventually. It’s body begins to burn, and Todd explains that, when a Dragonborn kills a dragon, you also devour its soul – this is not only the most ultimately badass teabagging we can imagine, it will give you the power to learn new shouts.

By this time, any of youstill left reading thisare probably doing some shouting of your own, either “Shut up already!” or “OMG WHY IS IT NOT NOV 11 YET?” We get it. This preview was big, but we’re talking about an open world game with more than 120 dungeons (and 100+ “points of interest”), open-ended everything, and twice the levels of Fallout 3 (it had 25, Skyrim goes up to 50 officially, but the math will let you keep going up to 70 or so).

Heck, they’ve even built in systems to make sure you get every single quest. If a critical NPC dies – say, the shopkeeper who gave you the quest – someone will take over for them, and if you’ve already explored a dungeon that was needed for a certain side quest, it’ll move the prize/rescuee to a dungeon you haven’t yet seen.

Todd Howard actually said it best during our demo, stating simply, “It’s a big game.” So get ready, because we’re officially adding, “and it looks gooooooood.”

April 18, 2011