Hands-on: Three hours with The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Last week, I got to do one of those things that makes me remember how cool my job is: I played The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. The fifth installment in the hugely successful Elder Scrolls series and one of the most eagerly anticipated games of the year.

Before I begin regaling you with tales from Skyrim of fair bar-maidens and fire-breathing dragons, I should clarify something: I’m not an Elder Scrolls fan. It’s not that I dislike the series, I just haven’t spent that much time with it. Oblivion came out at a time when I wasn’t doing much gaming, and since then, my time with it has been limited to playing around with it at friends’ houses.

My first exposure to The Elder Scrolls was from a severely maladjusted co-worker who’d share anecdotes of sneaking into barracks, poisoning all the apples in the pantry, waiting for all the guards to eat the poison apples, and then stealing their things. I’m a sucker for sandbox games, and the thought of this much freedom piqued my interest. However, before I got around to checking out Oblivion, I got sucked into Fallout 3, which quickly became one of my all-time favorite games in a matter of hours. Fallout, however, is NOT The Elder Scrolls.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Xbox 360 [Previewed], PlayStation 3, PC)
Developer: Bethesda Game Studios
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Release: November 11, 2011

The first time I uttered the word “Skyrim” on The Destructoid Show, I was given a crash course in Elder Scrolls fandom. It is a serious game, it is not something to be taken lightly. Unfortunately, I take very few things seriously, so this sudden backlash let me to take things even less seriously. I erroneously stated the game had a Squidbear in it (and staunchly defended my claim), I introduced an “Elder Scrolls Watch” segment on The Destructoid Show, and I proceeded to interview Skyrim’s lead artist about how many types of fish are in the game, and whether or not you can be a gay werewolf.

My enthusiasm for Skyrim is genuine, but should not be misconstrued as an expertise in the lore of The Elder Scrolls. At the same time, any irreverence I show towards the game is all in good fun. The Elder Scrolls fanbase has proven itself repeatedly to be a rather humorless crowd, so I figured a disclaimer was in order.

My Skyrim demo started roughly 45 minutes into the game, at the end of the tutorial section — comparable to leaving the sewers in Oblivion or Vault 101 in Fallout 3 — and I was given a chance to alter my character’s appearance. Character creation is something I can spend hours on, so I tried not to dawdle. Just browsing through the different races, though, it’s safe to say this game is not Oblivion or Fallout.

Depending on your race’s bone structure, you’re presented with a number of different options. Argonians have different horns and warpaint choices whereas Khajiit have different fur colors and patterns. Eager to get into the world, I chose a Khajiit, made him look vaguely like Panthro from Thundercats, pushed the weight slider as far towards the “fat” end as it would go, and entered the realm of Skyrim.

If there was any confusion at all, let me clarify right now: Skyrim is gorgeous. It is an absolutely beautiful friggin’ game, and anyone not lauding it as such should get a slap. Both in terms of art direction and the Creation engine’s ability to effectively give your eyes a blowjob, it’s just really damn pretty. Any given screen in Skyrim looks like the lovechild of a motivational poster and a Frank Frazetta painting.

When picking my character, I chose a Khajiit because they’re one of the more visually unique races, and I wanted to see how this looked in the game. The character movement in Skyrim makes Fallout: New Vegas look awkward and dated. Watching my feline character bounding along with fuzzy cat ears and a long striped tail was so impressive (I’m actually going to hold off on making any Furry jokes.)

The problem with being plopped down in front of a console and told, “here, play Skyrim for three hours” is that it’s bittersweet. That’s more than enough time to get a feel for the game, but there is so much to see and do that it’s legitimately daunting. I decided to just jump in and explore the game. The guy next to me made a beeline for the dragon battle, but I chose not to do that. We’ve already seen the dragon battle in the E3 demo, and I’d probably get my ass handed to me anyway.

I found myself on the same forest path where the E3 demo began. I checked my map, and decided to make my way northeast to the nearest settlement of Riverwood. It’s a lovely little town with a mill and a few shops. One thing I was immediately curious about was blacksmithing. I approached Alvor, the Riverwood smith, and spoke to him.

In Skyrim, talking to people is noticeably different from previous Bethesda games. Instead of the camera vaulting forward so the NPC being spoken to is in full, glaring mugshot view, it brings the character into focus much more subtly. By wiggling the left analog stick, you can look around a bit. If you’re bored by what the NPC is saying, you can make your character nod enthusiastically or just have him stare off into space at something in the background. It’s just like real life.

I asked Alvor the blacksmith if he had any work for me to do, and he offered to teach me the smithing system. I was given a few iron ingots and some leather straps, and told to go play with the forge. The menu provided a long list of different weapons, armor, and jewelry I could create. I chose “iron dagger” from the menu and watched my guy hammer away at a red-hot piece of metal. After showing Alvor my cool new knife, he suggested I temper it on his grindstone. At the grindstone, a similar menu opened up that allowed me to upgrade the dagger’s condition to “fine.”

Later in the game, while exploring a mysterious kitchen, I checked out what I could cook in the game. Like the grindstone and forge, an extremely intuitive menu popped up with eighteen different dishes I could prepare, from mammoth stew to Horker loaf. Yummy.

At another point in the game, I came across a book titled “Thief.” Opening it instantly improved my lockpicking ability, much like the books and magazines in Fallout. However, after opening the book, I was given the option to actually read it by turning the pages with the left stick. We’ve heard about how there are over 300 books in the game, but actually inspecting them first-hand is impressive, especially when you come across an entire bookshelf of different titles.

Cooking, blacksmithing and books (and fish) might not be exciting for everyone, but it’s such a mind-boggling example of how immersive this game is. There are plenty of games where you can fight monsters and cast spells; what makes Skyrim so incredible is the level of detail everything has.

After getting bored of blacksmithing, I decided to go kill some things. I left Alvor’s blacksmith shop and wandered over to the Riverwood Trader. Inside, the owner was shouting at his wife about thieves. I asked him what the problem was, and the next thing I knew, I’d agreed to retrieve a golden claw from the Bleak Halls Barrow.

In addition to crafting menus getting streamlined, Skyrim’s main menu system is refreshingly intuitive, especially compared to the journal in Oblivion or Fallout’s Pipboy 3000. The menu is brought up by tapping B, and four options are presented, arranged like points of the compass. A double tap downward of the left stick brought up the map. Having barely started the game, only a few locations were visible, so I easily found Bleak Halls Barrow. I set a waypoint and embarked on my quest.

I reached the barrow and made my way inside. Gathered around a small campfire were a pair of bandits, and I kicked myself for embarking on this mission — I’d already seen it in the E3 playthrough video. Still, the desire to kill people and steal stuff prevailed, so I made my way through the dungeon, getting the crap scared out of me by a big frost spider along the way, and eventually solving the mystery of The Golden Claw.

I returned to Riverwood and gave The Golden Claw to the shopkeeper. I asked him if he had any spells for sale, and he did. I bought frostbite, fury, and one that let me resurrect people I’d killed to fight on my side as zombies. Fury makes enemies attack each other, frostbite makes them get cold damage, and the zombie resurrection one does exactly what I just said it does. It’s really badass.

I decided to head into more unexplored territory. To the west, I entered Whiterun Hold, the central region of Skyrim. I was stopped by a group of Imperial soldiers who told me I couldn’t be there, and tried to lean on me for money. Considering that my character was a burly axe-wielding panther-man who could shoot fireballs, this seemed pretty stupid, so I decided to fight the soldiers. Unfortunately, after killing one of them, I got sucked into the ground underneath a bush and died. Oops.

As cool as it would be if Bethesda always shipped flawless games, it’s not something we’ve come to expect from them, and unfortunately, I don’t think Skyrim will be an exception. During my three hours with the game, I died three times from getting stuck in invisible holes in the ground. I don’t know if I played a final build of the game or not, but I’ll be extremely surprised if the retail version isn’t without a few glitches. I can’t ignore problems like this, but I’m not about to let them ruin my experience. Skyrim’s got some bugs? Megan Fox has weird thumbs, I’d still bang her.

After my bug encounter, I reloaded my autosave back at Riverwood. I took a different route back towards Whiterun Hold, and discovered the Honningren Meadery. I was greeted by a man named Sabjorn who told me a little bit about the meadery. While he was talking, I stole an apple pie from the table. He told me to knock it off and confiscated my pie, so I stole several bottles of mead and a honey nut treat. I then went over to his bookshelf and started reading a book about horses.

Sabjorn was mad that I kept stealing his desserts, so he started punching me. I set him on fire and started hacking away at him with a sword. Oddly enough, when his life bar was depleted, instead of keeling over in a bloody pile, he simply crouched on the ground whimpering and covering his head with his hands. Apparently certain NPCs cannot be killed in Skyrim. I went exploring the meadery. In another room, two other NPCs said hello to me before Sabjorn came bursting in the door screaming at me. The NPCs then joined the invincible Sabjorn in punching me, so I ran away.

Down the road a bit, I came to a guard outpost. One of the guards stopped me, and said there was a warrant out for my arrest because of the apple pie fiasco. The guard was very polite about it, and I offered to pay him my own bounty to redeem myself. He let me go about my business.

In addition to being a videogame where you can steal beer and kick animals in the throat, Skyrim is also a really good hiking simulator. That might be the dumbest thing I’ve ever written about videogames, but Bethesda’s managed to make a hyper-realistic game about walking around in the woods. Videogame nature will never outdo actual nature, but as someone who lives in San Francisco and doesn’t like driving three hours to the mountains to see a tree with some snow on it, Skyim’s pretty fun to look at.

Later, I met a herd of mammoths and their giant shepard. I got too close to the mammoths and was quickly trampled to death. Reloading my save, I approached the giant, and he screamed at me and then pummeled me to death with his club. Further north, I found a cairn, and was attacked by Ice Wraiths. Ice Wraiths look like flying moray eels made out of half-invisible broken glass. They were fast, mean, and my fireball spell didn’t do much to them even though they were made of ice.

On the northern coast of Skyrim sits Dawnstar, a harbor town that also has a mine. I’m sure fans of Minecraft will be happy to hear that in Skyrim, you can pick up a pickaxe and go digging for ore. Inside Dawnstar’s Windbreak Inn, I convinced a bar maiden to play a song called “Ragnar The Red” for me on her flute.

After that, I talked to a man in a robe. He explained that all the residents of Dawnstar had horrible nightmares and couldn’t sleep. He blamed this on the curse of a nearby witch, and asked if I’d join him in stopping her. I agreed and followed my NPC companion outside. Eager for some action, I waited while he stood there not doing anything. I ran around him in circles and made sure his quest was my active one. So when nothing happened, I wandered off and talked to some other NPCs. When I came back, my slowpoke companion finally started making his way toward wherever this nightmare witch was, but I unfortunately lost track of him. Luckily, I found a den of bandits, and fought them for a while.

The map in Skyrim is great looking, but I found it a little bit tedious for actual navigation. The ornate design makes it difficult to set waypoints accurately, and this is exacerbated by too many different icons jammed into the compass on the HUD. While most of the menus are intuitive and a huge improvement over previous Bethesda games, navigation and selecting an active quest felt a little awkward. Also, my NPC companion wandered off into a blizzard like some kind of idiot Sherpa.

In my last ten minutes, I stole a horse and galloped around. This made for a nice change from walking, and given the massive scale of Skyrim, I think horseback riding will be a necessity.

“Epic” is a word that has been thrown around to the point of irrelevance, but it’s absolutely the right word for Skyrim. Skyrim is huge, majestic, and genuinely awe-insipring. I have no doubt that hardcore Elder Scrolls fans will play this game for the next half a decade. As for people (like myself) who are new to the series, the intuitive menu system and all-around enjoyable gameplay should be well worth getting excited about. Even if fantasy isn’t your bag, this game has a lot to offer.

What struck me the most about Skyrim is how much it suspends disbelief. It sucks you into a fantasy world where you can do whatever you want, not least of which is slaying dragons and casting spells. When I was a kid, I could run around in my backyard and play pretend. As an adult, it’s harder to get lost in that same kind of make-believe fantasy. If you want a break from reality, Skyrim’s a great place to start. In any case, it’s probably a safer idea than dressing up like a knight and attacking your neighbors rosebushes with a wooden sword.

Max Scoville