Published on October 17th, 2011 | by Cameron Woolsey
Skyrim: Three Hours by the Veteran
Platform: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC
Release Date: Nov. 11, 2011
[Editor’s note: Since we had two people at the hands-on event, we had them write two different articles based on their experience with the Elder Scrolls franchise. Cam, the writer of this article, has played the previous two games and knows what to expect with Skyrim. Greg on the other hand has not played any games in the TES series. His article, named The Rookie Playthrough, can be accessed by clicking here.]
There was a lot I liked about The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, but there was a lot that I thought could be improved. The leveling system, the fighting and the menus were all things that could have been far better with some extra tweaks. When the sequel, Skyrim, was announced, I started thinking about the things Bethesda needed to improve upon, as well as wondered what the team could have added to make it a better Elder Scrolls experience. That is, I started thinking that after I stopped hopping around and squealing like a girl over the announcement. Yes, I am an Elder Scrolls fan. I have followed the series since the third installment, Morrowind, and have logged many hundreds of hours traveling the vast, beautiful world of Tamriel.
I had a lot of questions I needed to answer when I began my first three hours of Skyrim, and probably answered very few. You see, my hands-on experience with Skyrim was very enjoyable, but also a little upsetting. I love to explore in games of its ilk. I can take around good five or more hours to complete a campaign mission, simply because I always get distracted on the way. My route from point A to point B is not a straight line but crazed zigzag as no ruins went by unexplored, no house went un-pillaged and no bandit went by without me and my shiny blade stopping by for a visit. With only three hours, I had to suppress every powerful urge to run off into the wilderness after some unseen treasure. But you know what? I’m proud of that fact. Ask any fan of Elder Scrolls and they will tell you it’s not an easy thing to do. For the sake of you, my fellow readers, I dove into Skyrim and came back with some answers to your burning questions and to my own.
The demo begins 45 minutes after the intro–I was told it was to avoid spoilers. You start the game in the typical Elder Scrolls fashion: as a prisoner. As usual, I chose the Imperial as my starting class. The character customization is similar to that of Oblivion, except with some notable upgrades. A basic form can be chosen and modified to fit how you want your character to look. As a welcome upgrade, players can now choose from a set of facial scars and even tattoos, plus the color. For a better scarred effect, the player can choose eyes that are whited out on the left, right or even both. There is even an option for pure black eyes which I know has peaked someone’s interest.
After I stepped out into the light, I strapped on some iron armor in my inventory and moved out. I started out with three sets of armor. One was iron, the other was leather and the third was a set of enchanted clothing. The different options exist depending on which direction you want to go with your skills and abilities: warrior, rogue or mage. The graphics in Skyrim won’t blow any graphics purists away, but for its size and scope, they are impressive. The expanding land around me stretched seemingly for miles. The mountains are enormous and covered with a fine layer of floating mist. Like in Oblivion, the area around the player is highly detailed until a certain point then gets fuzzy. With Skyrim, though, the effect was far less noticeable. The game really does look stunning for its size. The world feels real, and every natural effect such as running water, swaying grass and trees, and floating clouds all work together to create a believable world.
I felt the time ticking away as I stared over the horizon so I quickly decided to get to work—by punching a nearby fox to death. Huzzah! Looks like my fists were cleverer. After skinning my vanquished foe I headed north to the town of Riverwood.
Since I missed the the first part of the game, I wasn’t sure where to go right at first. So I walked around and talked to the townspeople. Unlike Oblivion, talking to people no longer freezes the world around the player while the person being engaged stares with dead eyes. Those you speak to still go about their daily business and you can walk around them or alongside. Like previous TES games, many NPCs have his or her own schedule and jobs to perform in the towns. They work at their jobs or walk around town engaging in discussion with one another.
There were several moments that occurred while I played that convinced me Bethesda created the most realistic Elder Scrolls world yet. It’s hard to explain, but with previous titles, the player interacted with the world and the NPCs, though it felt like from a small distance. NPCs only regarded the player’s presence when close by, uttering some repeated acknowledgment. Other times they only approach the character to offer some side quest. When engaged in conversation the world stopped moving. In Skyrim, however, after a quest is taken, the NPC no longer disregards the player. Sometimes the NPC will have something to say before the player leaves. Other times, it’s a little deeper than that.
After I got my bearings in Riverwood, I walked into the trader to dump off some goods and maybe grab a few potions. As I walked in, the vendor was arguing with a woman I later learned to be his sister. They noticed me walk in, and the sister walked to a chair and sat while I made my transaction. I asked the vendor what the argument was about, and he told me in hushed tones that they recently had a robbery. But here’s the kicker: the bandits made off with only one thing, a golden claw. He said they ran off to their bandit hideout in the nearby mountain and doesn’t know what to do about it. Being the indomitable bane of foxes everywhere I offered my services. Normally, this is where I go and do my thing. But as soon as I started turning away, the sister jumped from her chair and started berating her brother for hiring some stranger off the street to go settle their problems. It was awkward. She asked her brother if it was even smart to send me on my way without a guide. He didn’t have an answer so she said she would do it. Sure enough, she walked me outside and told me that the bandits lived near the mountain that could be seen above the house in front of us. She guided me to the bridge on the edge of town and told me to follow it and keep right. Then she thanked me and walked away.
Later on when I made it further north to the town of Whiterun, I stepped into a pub late at night to get some needed shut eye. There was a bonfire in the middle of the room with benches around, so I took a seat. Once I sat down, a woman I imagined was the owner yelled at a nearby barmaid to take my order. The woman came by and asked if I wanted anything. How nice. I took a couple of ales and drank them by the fire. There were more occasions such as these, both big and small, that convinced me that the player no longer floated through the game. The game was designed to recognize the player’s presence, and act accordingly. This may not sound like a big deal, but small moments like these add to the overall realism of the game, and create a truly immersive experience that only a game like Skyrim can offer.
Players can now dual wield weapons and spells. A fan of wielding two weapons at once, I put a steel longsword in each hand. Attacking with dual swords dishes out a lot of damage really quickly, but at the loss of any defense. With stronger armor and weapons dual wielding I feel will be a really fun option, but against stronger foes I had to pull out a shield. As I fought, I discovered a few special attacks but I don’t know how I used them. I honestly button-mashed my way through most fights. I have a feeling there are plenty of different moves to pull off besides “strong attack,” “regular attack,” but learning them will take longer than the time I was given. Executions for the most part happened randomly against weakened enemies. And they were satisfying. Nothing caps a good fight like plunging both swords into an enemy. It just feels right.
As I began the first of the campaign missions, I quickly learned that the land of Skyrim was less peaceful than the beautiful environment made it look. With the murder of the king, Skyrim was plunged into a civil war against the Imperials. The player is given a choice to join either side: the Imperials or the Stormcloaks (Nords). I didn’t choose a side right away, and it looked as if the game allowed the player to complete a few missions before making any choice. No doubt the player will be exposed to both sides over the early campaign missions, allowing them to weigh their options and choose the side they feel would do better for Skyrim and its people. While in Whiterun I found a warring side on a smaller scale. In the decent-seized town there existed a family feud between the Battle-Born and the Gray Manes. I learned of the feud by Idolaf Battle-Born who pushed me to choose a side between the two families. I told him I didn’t choose either side, instead I decided that it would be best to once again figure out what side I should support later on.
Sooner or later, we all have to pick sides.
– Idolaf Battle-Born
These encounters convinced me that Skyrim is full of of choices to be made, and consequences to be experienced. Only three hours in and already I felt overwhelmed by the amount of different stories vying for my attention.
Skyrim allows players to experience the world more directly with jobs and usable equipment. Players can create and modify weapons at a blacksmith, or cook their own food with ingredients that can heal or temporarily boost stats. During my time with the game I got the chance to even take a bounty and go after a bandit clan that hid itself deep in a mountain near Whiterun.
The option to fast travel across the massive land is still an option, but there are different ways to travel. Besides just sprinting across the map, horses can be bought for a certain amount of gold, that is, if you don’t want to steal one. Also added to the mix are carriages which take players to all the major cities for 20 gold pieces. I’m glad Bethesda included the option to pay for travel. Fans of Morrowind can think of them like Silt Striders. I really enjoyed the complex travel system of Morrowind and couldn’t stand using fast travel in Oblivion. To me, there’s nothing more un-immersive than a game that constantly reminds the player they are playing a game.
Load times have also been really improved. The initial load to the game was only a fraction from what I remember from the previous two games, and load times for doors lasts only a few seconds. The times will surely increase as more of the game world is opened up, but at the beginning, at least, loading will be thankfully short.
Lock picking fans such as myself will be glad to hear that the horrible picking mechanic from Oblivion is no more. Instead, Bethesda took the easy way out and replaced it with the same lock picking mechanic from Fallout 3. Thieves and assassins can now breathe a sigh of relief.
For my last thoughts before wrapping this up, I have to tip my hat to the soundtrack composer Jeremy Soule. I thought his score for Oblivion was amazing but in my time with Skyrim I think this might be his best work yet. More than once I stopped in my tracks just to take in the beautiful music coming through my headset. From soft travel music to heart-pumping battle themes, Soule provides some truly epic pieces.
I played for only a few hours and from the map traveled no more than 3 percent of the overall world. Yet even though I barely scraped the surface, I feel that The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim has a strong chance to be the best in the series. I realize that’s a mouthful especially since I put in only three hours when Bethesda has reported a possibility of over 300 hours worth of content. But as picky Elder Scrolls fan that knows what he wants, I felt more relieved when I left the play session than concerned. I was excited for Skyrim before, but after my hands-on I want it now more than ever. November 11 is coming fast, but it now feels even further away.