Thursday, September 08, 2011
When Bethesda got in touch just after Gamescom and said, “Want to come and see Skyrim at PAX?”, admittedly we were a bit like, “Well, we have only just seen it.” It wasn’t until they said, “hands-on,” “free-roam” and “Gamescom code” that we did a swift U-turn… after all, this was the perfect opportunity to venture into Skyrim with no limitations, only that of time. That’s an offer you can’t turn down, right? Damn straight!
In a bid to steer ourselves down a completely different path to the hands-off presentation at Gamescom, our objective was simple: pick a city on the map and trek towards it, sampling the delights of everything that we come into contact with along the way. The lucky city was that of Falkreath and all that stood in our way was a big fuck-off mountain. Good choice, Dan! Picking up about 30-40 minutes into the game, at roughly the point you had broken free of the shackles of oppression in Oblivion, we were finally ready for a freeform adventure. Shame the opening few seconds didn’t have the same wow factor that Oblivion’s did when you first hit the wild, but it more than made up for that as we got further into the demo.
As was the case at Gamescom, our first objective was to create our character. Having been an unsightly Orc at Gamescom, we though we’d opt for something a little less conventional this time – you know, because Orcs are conventional – and as such, opted to set ourselves up as an Argonian – you know, the reptilian looking creatures from The Elder Scrolls series. Being an Argonian has many benefits, like every race in fact, and as such, we were blessed with the Histskin ability, which is the ability to resist disease by up to 50%; a spell that allows us to regenerate health a lot faster; and of course, the ability to breathe underwater. Look mum, I’m a fish!
Seeing as Todd Howard, Bethesda Game Studios’ Game Director, has always used the phrase, “If you can see it, you can get to it,” I put that to the test by attempting to walk up the mountain and take the shortest route to Falkreath. Turns out, I couldn’t get to the top – well, not this way, anyway – so I did the next best thing: I went potholing… well, I saw a cave and I wanted to get my explore on. The cave in question, Greywater Grotto, was a rather dank and oddly picturesque crystal cavern with a quaint waterfall running through it. I should have been able to tell by the skeletal remains of some poor bugger outside its entrance and a half-eaten deer carcass at the tip of one of the interior’s ledges that looks can be deceiving. As with anything in Skyrim though, you’re rewarded for venturing off the beaten path and after slaying more than a handful of wild wolves, we’re able to loot the corpse of an adventurer and open a chest and get our hands on the Amulet of Arkay – granting us a bonus 10 HP points when equipped.
Thankfully, because Skyrim is such a large location, Bethesda has rather neatly added “Cleared” tags to all locations you’ve visited in Skyrim that you’ve completely rinsed, something that also allows you to see whether you’ve got all that you really need from said location. After realising that the words of Diana Ross didn’t ring true here and this mountain was definitely high enough – well, too steep to ascend from this point anyway – we descended back down from where we had come and found ourselves at the base of the mountain by a stone archway with ice-covered steps leading up to another cave entrance.
Seeing as we said we’d do everything along the way, we didn’t have much choice and so we climbed into the unknown, a place known as the Bonechill Passage – and that it did. It was another area occupied by wolves, if not slightly tougher than the last lot, but making use of our trusty bow and arrow we were able to dispatch them rather quickly – sneak bonuses and attempting to stay out of sight is still as beneficial here for an archer than it was in Oblivion.
Rather soon after being in the Bonechill Passage we were able to level up, allowing us to venture into Skyrim’s rather impressive menu system. When it comes to levelling up your first job will be to assign a point to either your health, mana or stamina, but the part people will enjoy most is picking a perk, although you can’t just pick any willy-nilly. Picking a perk is a multi-staged process, so not only do you have to have the perk preceding the one you want unlocked and purchased, but you need the relevant skill level too. In our case, we were able to select the Overdraw perk – adding 20% damage to our archery attacks – as we were the correct level for that skill and it was first on the tree. However, Eagle Eye, which allows archers to zoom slightly before shooting an arrow, and the Critical Shot, which improves your chances of getting a critical shot, were both perks that required a level 30 in the archery skill… and of course, every perk that preceded it. Unfortunately for us we never got that far because of a shortage of arrows, and as such had to move to dual wielding the Flame spell or wielding the Iron Greatsword which were both rather powerful and made quick work of the skeletons, Draugr and magic-happy bandits we met on our travels.
It was a fruitful trip through the passage though, picking up some heavy armour – allowing us to quick equip it off another unfortunate sod’s corpse without faffing about in the inventory – along the way, as well as a book and some Iron Armour of Minor Illusion, which grants the wearer a 12% save on mana with illusion spells and stands out in the inventory screen with its blue glow. That said, the real reward lay back in Skyrim at the far end of the passage.
What lay at the end of the relatively short trip into the unknown was another snowy path much higher in the mountains, at the end of which was an ancient stone structure with three wolves protecting in. All three of them were dispatched in seconds though thanks to our dual-wielded Flame spells and we finally had our first real experience of discovering a Dragon Shout – a special power that players can make use of throughout the game. Etched into this ancient stone piece was one of the three Words of Power required to use the most powerful version of that specific shout and as we approached it the screen dimmed, the Elder Scrolls-esque chants started to roar through the headphones and the words start to sizzle as we got closer. Mere seconds later, we had been notified that we had learnt one word of the Animal, Animal Allegiance Dragon Shout which you can use to summon “beasts of the wild” to assist you in battles – unfortunately, because we hadn’t harvested the soul of a dragon yet though we weren’t able to use it, but nevertheless, to say it sounds ultra badass is an understatement.
Before we hit Falkreath – it was within touching distance by now – we stopped in at an abandoned hut by a small stream and a huge lake to catch our breath. By this time we were out of the depths of the mountains and the blue lake nearby sparkled under the day’s sun and the butterflies fluttered across the bright green grasses of a much friendlier looking environment. I say friendlier in the loosest way possible though, as the charred remains of the house’s inhabitants that sat outside the hut and a haunting note warning others of a local dragon in the house’s drawer were a startling reminder that Skyrim is a dangerous place for everyone – incidentally, the note also gave directions to the dragon as well, so if it’s dragon souls you’re after, you’ve got somewhere to start!
About an hour into the demo we reached Falkreath and it must be said, it was probably the most disappointing aspect of the hands-on, mainly because what we had come to was an ex-fort that acted more as a military town of sorts. Even after contributing to the locale’s economy by doing a spot of milling – basically just a series of button clicks at various places on the wood mill – the locals looked down on our reptilian warrior and treated him as an outsider. We were offered a quest to join the Imperial Legion here though, so it’s not all doom and gloom.
Disappointed by what Falkreath had to offer us, we carried further on into the depths of Skyrim, heading towards one of the most northern places on the map: Solitude, knowing full well we wouldn’t get close to it. Along the way we ducked into Peak’s Slade Tower – an abandoned tower protected by a Spriggan, which is a little like a tree man with the power to shoot illuminous green flies at you – before heading into the Hall of Dead and the Shrine of Arkay, almost bringing our journey to a close at a snow temple called the South Shriekand Bastion. Outside we made quick work of the skeleton-warriors and the Draugr guards that jumped out of various tombs as we ascended its steps, but without further ado, we ventured further than we had ever been before… or something like that.
It’s a dungeon – or series of them – that is vastly different to the ones we’d previously encountered, with stone walkways, steep stone steps, an iconic glowing tree in the middle of one of its cylindrical chambers, huge steel doors and vampires blocking your progress. Here, anything went and that included fighting Skeevers and watching a dead vampire get resurrected by a nearby powerful mage. It’s such a diverse game world, filled with many iconic moments and situations, and this just goes to prove that… and this was just in one hour!
After reaching the other side, our demo was coming to a close and where better to end it than under the orange moon of Skyrim on a clear night dominated by the powerful stars that left such an impact on the opening moments of Oblivion. So many years on, they’re still as enigmatic as ever and seeing them twinkle in the night sky with the crickets chirping certainly made up for the initial wow moment that Skyrim’s opening lacked – like you had when you reached the plains of Cyrodiil in Oblivion or when you broke free of the Vault in Fallout 3. Incidentally though, it took us an hour and 20 minutes to get about a tenth of the way to Solitude and Markarth which sit at the far north of the map, so get ready to lose hours upon hours this November.
For me personally though, Skyrim oozes the same draw that Oblivion did all those years ago, and that’s the compulsion just to explore the heck out of it. With no real purpose we darted from point-of-interest to point-of-interest and before we knew it, our hour was up – in fact, we went over by a good 20 minutes, but shhhh, don’t tell anyone! It’s very rare that you can immerse yourself in a game and saunter around with no real purpose, but like Oblivion, Skyrim does just that… and it does it in style.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is scheduled for a November 11th release.
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