Guys, I just got real first hands-on with The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Skyrim! I just played it at QuakeCon here in Dallas, Texas and the first thing I noticed was that Skyrim fixes the surface-level flaws of Oblivion. Not only that but Skyrim outdoes its predecessor in terms of scale, ideas and ambition.
I mean, it has dragons. Dragons! Sh*t yeah!
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 [Previewed], PC)
Stepping into the world of Skyrim is like stepping into Oblivion, the way you remember it in your imagination -- forgetting the small details that kept it from achieving more.
In Skyrim, a strong swing with a battle axe feels right, jumping in third-person doesn’t defy the natural laws of physics and dialogue sequences flow naturally. All of these are incremental improvements that make exploring Tamriel feel exciting again.
The QuakeCon demo -- the first time press have gotten hands-on to play Bethesda’s latest hulking beast of an RPG -- focused on presenting the traditional Elder Scrolls experience. Rather than fighting dragons or chasing 50 ft. trolls, the demo presented an open environment where the great adventure lies elsewhere, far away. Rather than displaying the great dragon fights that are to come, I was shown the fluidity and subtle design of the game’s core mechanics and environments.
The demo began with creating a character within Skyrim’s revamped creation tools, which allows the player to make a human that doesn’t look like a troll with an ass for a face. However, I opted to create an Argonian, a reptilian race established in past Elder Scrolls games. I ended up creating Lizzle-Bob, a sexy, big-boned lizard lady. Although no towns folk came onto me, I often sensed they were stricken by Lizzle-Bob’s impeccable good looks.
After creating Lizzle-Bob, I spawned in a cave -- taking place a couple hours past the game’s intro and the locals shown in the E3 presentation. Upon exiting the cave, I was thrown into the lush woods of southern Tamriel. In classic Elder Scrolls tradition, I was both in awe of the world around me and bewildered with where to go next.
The landscape of this forest area looks far more natural than those of Oblivion. Sections of land aren’t randomly copy-and-pasted, but rather hand-crafted with a focus on creating a convincing world that isn’t always designed in the player’s favor. Steep cliffs tower above you, large creeks must be swam across and dense woods often blocked the view.
Giving up a trivial amount of player convenience is a fair trade for the artistry and variety of Skyrim’s world. I wouldn’t want a tram ride to zip me around Skyrim anyway, although I did hear there are carriage rides in the game.
After deciding a trek to the nearest town would consume the entire 60 minutes of my demo time, I instead spent my time searching the woods. Feeling an urge to destroy something fluffy and harmless, I slayed a small bunny wandering toward me.
I then made my way to a nearby cave. Near its opening, I was given my first opportunity to test out Skyrim’s combat. With a shield in my left-hand and a iron sword in my right, I went to battle with some jackass bandit. Like all jackass bandits, he had some dumb wolf with him. Or maybe he was attacking the wolf. Either way, I killed them both.
The hit-detection, sound and weight of melee combat feel great. As someone who never loved Oblivion due to its combat, this is somewhat of a revelation. You’ll still need to adapt to strong sword blows, but at least the timing is consistent. Even better, you now have critical deathblows that let you finish off an adversary with an intense thrust to the gut or slash across the throat.
The interior of the cavern served as an excellent 20 minute introduction to combat. After getting a handle on using my shield, I changed over to using a firespell with my left hand. It turns out that lighting people on fire and beating them with sharp things is a pretty good combination. If you really want to humiliate these cave-lovin’ freeloaders, though, you can carry a torch in your left-hand and set them ablaze with it.
The new favoriting system lets you bookmark all items, weapons and spells to a special menu, which pauses the game when open. It’s an elegant solution to Fallout 3’s cumbersome button-mapping. No more dying because you couldn’t access that gun mapped to the upper-right on the gamepad.
My favorite weapon has to be the bow. The revamped physics and controls made me feel responsible for every arrow shot. The trajectory of the arrows is realistic and not randomly determined by stats, but the damage is. A stealth arrow to the head is something I don’t think I will grow tired of during the many hours I plan to spend with Skyrim. If you aren’t a natural Legolas like me, unlockable skills will help you perfect your bow-and-arrow skills by slowing down time or providing a closer zoom.
The cavern itself was rather impressive for being such a hum-drum locale. The elements of Skyrim’s new Creation Engine are displayed to great effect. The lighting generates a haunting atmosphere, and a waterfall coming down the multi-tiered levels of the cave presents a spectacle that interiors in Fallout 3 and Oblivion lacked.
Fans of Fallout 3 will be happy to hear that lockpicking, NPC followers that you can direct and weapon crafting will return in Skyrim with subtle improvements. For example, NPCs will follow you based on their perception of you -- a mix of your karma, dialogue choices and quest favors all brought together through the new Radiant AI system.
Additionally, there are new features such as mining for minerals with your pick-axe (a la Minecraft) and requesting a bard to play a song in a tavern. Now, if only you could get him to follow you into a bandit cave and abandon him.
During the demo, I ran into a couple bugs but nothing game-breaking. The third-person camera -- while more functional than in past Bethesda games -- is still not the best way to play. Not to mention there was a substantial lag in movement when in third-person.
I also came across cheese wheels that violently shook on a table, but that was kind of awesome. Given that these were the biggest problems within a late-alpha build, I think it’s safe to say that Bethesda is making good on delivering a relatively bug-free game.
After spending an hour aimlessly exploring a very tiny area of Skyrim’s world, I’m convinced Bethesda will deliver on Oblivion’s promise while outdoing any previous ambitions. If the dragons and 50 ft. trolls break the game, I’ll forgive Bethesda as long as the combat, environments and exploration are as damn good as this demo indicates.
I look forward to my future journeys with Lizzle-Bob the Argonian.