The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim hands-on preview

Thank the gods we weren’t killing rats. The first thing we encountered during our hands-on with the can’t-be-more-hyped The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim was a pair of wolves. Not quite a dragon, but hey, the game has to build up to something, right? We got nearly an hour to play the game, and we weren’t guided: we simply created a character and were free to do whatever we wanted, which as the devs said, is the best way to experience The Elder Scrolls. This also means our hands-on will not be the same as any other one you read.

We decided to go with an argonian character, tinkering with the usual Bethesda parameters, playing with body type, skin color, and minute facial features, but it didn't change the truth of our character – he was still a lizard/dragon man. We did manage to give him a sweet rack of horns, though. Normally we'd fool around making the exact reptilian we'd want, but we only had so much time to play Skyrim and we wanted to explore the new mountainous region as much as possible. Finishing the character, we appeared in a cave with our hands bound together, but a simple attack broke those bonds and soon we emerged onto a rugged slope.

While in many ways Skyrim looks nearly identical to Oblivion, we noticed certain details that made the world come more alive. We worked our way down a rocky incline and noticed perched on a nearby peak the stone ribcage shape of cathedral-like ruins in concentric arches of flying buttresses. We decided that’s where we wanted to go first, knowing full well it might be some high-level dungeon that would stomp our ass (who knew how the monster scaling would really work this time around?). On our journey we came across a roaring river that looked properly mountain-cold and frothing with whitewater and broken up by dangerous-looking waterfalls. Even though graphically it didn’t look “better” than anything we’d seen in Oblivion, it felt more real by artistic design because of the extra details that made it more than just a moving texture.

A simple, yet huge change from the last game appeared when we went to choose how to equip our abilities. PC players may not even know about the frequently aggravating quickslots from Oblivion because you mapped your spells to directions on the D-pad. This might not sound like a problem, except that D-pads (especially the 360 one) can have trouble reading a diagonal direction-tap. This meant we couldn’t count how many times in Oblivion we’d meant to press a diagonal to activate a healing spell and instead activated something useless. We even went so far as to only equip important spells in the up, down, left, or right directions and left the diagonals for the less-needed stuff. Well, Bethesda felt our pain, because now you simply tap up on the D-pad, which pauses the game and opens your Favorites menu. You then scroll up and down a list and pick what you want. It’s true that this adds extra steps to swapping out powers, it also lets you pause the action so you’re not fumbling for which power you want to cast (and don’t have to remember where you put that power in your quickslots) which makes the game more tactical.

We ended up putting our flamethrower-type spell, our racial ability, and our shield in the favorites, but you could also put different weapon types in there. Once you get used to the system you can swap out spells, shields, and weapons in less than a second, keeping the action going, or you can stop while the game is paused and ponder – do you really want that damage spell, or could you go for something that hinders your opponent based on your positioning? It almost allows you the choice of turning the game into a turn-based RPG, and we’re all for empowering choices like that.

Meanwhile, as we were admiring the river two wolves emerged from high ground behind a tree and we had a tense skirmish. We hadn’t tried equipping a spell yet, so we enjoyed the slightly silly act of blocking a wolf’s lunging bite with a shield before cracking it over the skull with a sword. Turning back to the river, we wanted to cross it but worried it would kill us. Aha! We remembered our argonian heritage, which allows for breathing underwater! Onward!

Turned out the river was only waist-deep. Oh well. On the other side we encountered a magnificent stag with a huge rack of antlers. Normally we’re not the type to sadistically slaughter innocent videogame AI, but we really wanted to test out our spell before danger came again, so Mr. Deer became the guinea pig for seeing what happens when you can spew a ten-foot stream of fire from your palm. The result was hilarious. God bless ragdoll physics combined with stunned ungulates and steep slopes.

Emboldened, we trekked on up the opposing slope. Another fantastic detail we noticed was a stream of visible wind winding down through a crevasse, bringing the bitterness of the rugged environment to life. We then discovered a stone tower poking up from the jagged mountainside like a deity’s crude gesture to the world, and we also discovered that the tower had inhabitants. Not for long, because soon the tower had its own set of barbecued elf-meat. Our reward: a set of magic armor in a chest at the top. Nice.

A minute later we had reached the leaning, crumbling stone arches marking the entrance to our possible doom. Ominous text appeared onscreen letting us know we’d reached Bleak Falls Barrow. Ulp. A few elf archers outside couldn’t stand up to our gouts of flame (seriously, this spell is hardcore for being immediately available at the game’s beginning) and so once again encouraged by our medieval ass-kickery we plunged into the stony depths. Inside we discovered more elves discussing some Golden Claw they were looking for, and thus began our quest phase to take that shit for our own selfish ends (whatever a Golden Claw might be). We promptly murdered the conspiring elves and moved deeper underground. We should note that nowhere in this dungeon did we feel as though we were moving through a level composed of copy-and-paste dungeon pieces as was common in Oblivion. We don’t yet know if there are no composite dungeons in the game, but the feel of the one we explored gives us hope, because it felt much more “designed” than anything we saw in Oblivion.

We ended up saving another elf from a giant spider, and of course being a moral paragon got us called a fool as the feed victim ran off with our treasure, but then our moral compass shifted and we torched that punk in the back. We also discovered a locked treasure chest at the bottom of a waterfall-filled cavern, introducing us to Skyrim’s very different lock-picking minigame. This time around, you have two separate picks inserted into a lock and your job is to feel out how the lock turns. You rotate one stick gently and then also twist the other stick – if the lock begins to turn, you know you’re at the sweet spot and can be a bit bolder (sorry PC guys, we don’t know how it will work with keyboard and mouse). The lock we tried was of the lowest level, so we’re not sure how finicky the higher locks will get, but it certainly was much more tactile and “real” than the systematic tinking from Oblivion. What we don’t know is whether it will get tiresome after the hundredth time.

That dungeon was so huge we never made it out. Of course, it didn’t help that the power went out, killing our game, but if you want to see what else that dungeon has to offer, you can check out ourearlier preview(funny how we managed to wander into the exact same dungeon that was demoed earlier, but oh well).

What you can only get from playing Skyrim, as opposed to watching a demo, is the way the world feels. Skyrim feels more dangerous, more forbidding, more lonesome, and somehow more alive than Oblivion. These aspects don’t go leaps and bounds beyond Oblivion – if you played The Elder Scrolls IV, number V will feel very, very familiar. But there’s no denying the formula has gotten an upgrade. Since Demon’s Souls showed that it can be very fun when your RPG is intimidating, we like very much how Skyrim has ratcheted up the intimidation factor. We just really, really hope that the monster scaling has been improved so that “intimidating” doesn’t become “impossible until you level up some more, followed by suddenly way too easy.”

Aug 8, 2011

Matthew Keast
My new approach to play all games on Hard mode straight off the bat has proven satisfying. Sure there is some frustration, but I've decided it's the lesser of two evils when weighed against the boredom of easiness that Normal difficulty has become in the era of casual gaming.