previews\ Oct 18, 2011 at 9:30 am

Hands-On with Skyrim: Prepare to Lose lots of Sleep


Walking into a hotel in downtown San Francisco, one I had visited many times before for various previews and reviews, I can’t say I was terribly excited for the upcoming session. Three hours to play The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim? Having never played Oblivion, I had zero expectations for what I was going to play, or whether or not I was going to “get” this very Western RGP.

In hindsight, this might be the best thing coming in. Free of many preconceived notions about what Skyrim should or could be, instead, I have been charmed by one of the most liberating role-playing games I have played in years. From my short time with Skyrim, I barely scratched the surface of what this game offers.

Please note, Bethesda is very tight-lipped about a few features, including the first forty minutes of the game. Rather than start off from the beginning, we were allowed to create our characters and set off on our adventure in the middle of a cave. Character creation is pretty in-depth, and depending on the races you start with, player’s skills will be slightly different. I created a bearded and bald bruiser from a magically inclined human class, and I quickly dropped into the game. Walking forward, I had no direction, no goals, and I haven’t been taught how to do a thing.

Skyrim Xbox 360 PS3 PC Screenshot

It’s pretty exhilarating to step out into the snow-covered mountainside, with only a road to offer any semblance of direction.That’s all there was, except for foxes and bunny rabbits I could practice the controls upon. Returning players should be familiar with everything, but the combat system deserves some comment. Skyrim for consoles uses a “favorites” system that functions much like a quick command load out. Players can pick up hundreds of various items, weapons, food, and more, and as long as you have enough weight capacity, you can carry them all. Weapons and spells can be manually equipped.  However, the game shifts between sniping enemies with arrows, burning them with a fire spell when they charge forward, hacking them up with an ax when the magic depletes, and healing with a spell once every settles down. This is all done so quickly that jumping into a menu is poor form.

Instead, the game lets you favorite shields, spells, and weapons accessible in a pop-up menu with the press of up on the D-pad. Since combat is locked to the left and right hand, players can only equip two items at once, meaning you need to be thoughtful of what to use for any given situation. Thankfully, the favorites menu is great, as you tap L or R to equip whatever tool you need. It’s fast, easy to use, and is very thoughtful of a player’s needs.

Skyrim Xbox 360 PS3 PC Screenshot

Throughout the course of the game, players will naturally level up. Not only do they level up their personal level, but also the level of their weapon skills, whether or not they use their off-hand much, what types of magic and abilities they use, and more. Every element of the your character is naturally customized by every action they make, meaning this is true role-playing, letting the player be who they want to be and how they want to play. It’s fantastic.

Now, I last left off stranded on the side of a snowy mountain with no direction. After getting comfortable with the controls and switching over to the new third-person perspective (something new players will love, as switching between third and first person is a very useful option that makes battles much easier), I troop down the road.

Skyrim Xbox 360 PS3 PC Screenshot

Taking a quick left, I find a large, walled town that I need a key to get into. Oh well. Turning around, I bounce around off the path, and meet the first person I could talk to--some hunter. He says he has things to sell, and either he does and I didn’t understand how to use the menus, or he didn’t have anything to give me, so I move on. Before long, I finally reach my first village--Riverwood.

Not really inclined to learn every detail possible about the story line, I spent the next few minutes wandering around this small village, talking to people, and even sneaking into a house, where I proceeded to steal every item not glued to the floor. Most conversations lead to some minor quests, such as “go lie to this woman for me,” and the act of thieving is less difficult compared to Oblivion. You actually have to be caught red-handed, but NPCs will still keep an eye on you.

It was talking to Riverwood’s leader that I was asked to go to the nearby city of Whiterun to speak with the ruling Jarl about dragons…and other things I cannot talk about. Meanwhile, a nearby shop owner asked me to retrieve a lost golden claw he once owned. With these two quests, one primary and one secondary, I troop across fields and rivers to get to Whiterun. It was nighttime before I got there, having been distracted with drinking moonshine with some revelers and stealing all of the vegetables from a farm. Surprisingly, it seems some giant ogres have been sneaking around. Considering they are ten feet tall, they attract a lot of attention, and I see one battling some warriors. Just as I come up to help fight, these fighters seal the deal and question me why I didn’t help them. It turns out they are some lame group of brotherly do-gooders, and can be joined up later in the game. I spent the rest of the in-game night dicking around, even getting arrested for some crime committed in that early part of the game. I did my time, and then fast-traveled back to Whiterun.

Skyrim Xbox 360 PS3 PC Screenshot

Finally, I got around to asking the Jarl about this situation involving dragons. After some exposition (I wanna kill dudes!), I’m sent off to a mountain dungeon called Black Falls. It took me a few times to get there--I was killed by some corrupt soldiers I witnessed murdering some people, then I was killed by an giant, and finally hacked apart by some thieves. It took some time, but I finally got to the dungeon.

This Black Falls quest is a primary quest, as I was tasked with bringing back a magical tablet. It was also the location of the stolen golden claw. Thankfully, like Oblivion and  Fallout, the quest system is smartly designed. Sure, I had talked to the right man for the claw mission, and the Jarl mission was a part of the main quest. However, I could have gotten the claw without ever talking to the merchant, and the PR representative said that I would have been recommended to visit him later by the Jarl. Many times, players will find themselves completing missions without even being tasked, which is pretty nice, actually.

Black Falls is a fairly linear dungeon, so I followed the path and killed any skeletons that got in my way. The difficulty balancing of the game is quite good. Unlike Oblivion, areas of the world are designed for certain levels, although you are more than capable of charging into some far-flung region to see what would happen. As it stands, my journey through Black Falls was perfect for me. Items and healing magic were very helpful, although I could take down a massive spider with some practiced dodging, healing, and attacking.

Skyrim Xbox 360 PS3 PC Screenshot

After taking on the spider and reclaiming the golden claw from the traitorous thief (who ultimately died at my hands after attempting to run away), I found myself at a massive doorway; it was clearly designed as a puzzle with the golden claw as a key. Different images needed to be lined up like a pad lock, and after a few minutes, I gave up. Talking to a representative, it turns out I’m supposed to read the journal left behind by the thief, which says I need to look at the golden claw for the solution. Sure, enough, after digging in the menu, I found out I can look at the claw, showing me the exact order to open the door.

A game that rewards deep incorporation of the lore! Who would have thought?!

Once inside, I collected the tablet and fought a powered skeleton, which tried to kill me with his ice magic, but fell to my fire. I earn a bitching ice axe, and I soon found myself on the other side of the mountain. Completing these quests rounded me up to level 5 in only three hours, and it was just about here that I settled down.

Skyrim is an immensely satisfying game that suits itself perfectly to a player’s style. I tended to favor magic and close range fighting over range, third-person over first, and I discovered I was more inclined to follow the main path of the storyline. If you were to join me in a room of twenty or so reporters, each screen would show something entirely different. One reporter would head north, where his tasks ended up witch hunting and battling a whole town. Another ended up playing with alchemy the whole time. Some wandered off in entirely different directions altogether, exploring lakes and far off villages.  Sometimes the experience is much more difficult, and sometimes these areas are much easier, but all together, they feel like a world you explore on your own terms. Rarely have I felt such freedom in a game. Those looking to lose themselves in the world of Skyrim, be prepared. You’ll be gone for a very long time.

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