The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Hands-On Preview – Over the Hills and Far Away
Written Monday, October 17, 2011 By Richard WalkerView author's profile
Extended another invitation to go hands-on with The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim recently, we once again found it simply impossible to pass up, especially considering we were given a solid, uninterrupted three hours (we could have theoretically finished the game with an hour to spare!) to be let off the leash to explore the sprawling province, from creating a character, to being skipped ahead past the prologue (you'll find no story spoilers here) and straight into the open-world with a set of armour and a few standard weapons to get us off to a flying start. Exiting the prison cell in which you're initially confined, we head out of a tunnel into the snowy plains, taking our female Khajiit warrior to the eastern regions, avoiding the western locales that Dan explored in our last hands-on.
We won't blather on about character creation, as you already know what to expect there, so we'll get straight down to brass tacks and what we saw. From the moment we venture forth into Skyrim, a hunter comes out of nowhere with his dog, shouting “victory or Sovngarde!”, which is Elder Scrolls' Nordic Hall of Valour, apparently. He's shouting this at a fox that's running up into the mountains, so we lend him a hand and slay the vulpine nuisance, granting us access to look at the wares he has for sale. Nice. After this weird event, we resolve to plod to Riverwood, the first settlement you come to should you travel to the east from the beginning of the game. On the way we encounter bandits at a raided caravan, where the horses have been slain and the cart has been smashed to bits, so we take the opportunity to try out our iron sword and shield, carving up the crummy bandits in seconds.
Here, we get to sample the improved and streamlined combat, which immediately feels more responsive and hefty, with more impact and feedback than Oblivion's fighting. There's also a slow-motion camera when you deal out a final blow during battle, giving you a VATS-like payoff with a stab to the gut or a swiping flourish as you dispatch the last foe in style. We then forge onwards, heading up a windy pass (snigger), up onto the narrow mountainside paths, where the colour is leeched out of the sky and trees, turning the world monochrome as a blizzard roars around us. We're then distracted by a small bandit encampment at North Skybound Watch. With arrows pinging off our shield, we kill more bandits, steal some loot and food, admire the view from the stone structure then continue to Riverwood. Upon getting to Riverwood, the harsh mountain weather lifts, the snow subsides and the leafy greens and majestic autumnal colours pop.
We enter the town, accosted by chattering kids, before heading straight to the weapons forge at the babbling riverside, where Alvor is on hand to show us the ropes. Forging an iron dagger for him, we use an iron ingot and leather strips from our inventory, using the anvil to craft it and the whetstone to sharpen it up. Result. You can use the forge to repair weapons and armour, as well as crafting weapons from components you find tucked away around Skyrim. With Arvor satisfied, we check out the Sleeping Giant Inn where we listen to the noodlings and song of a bard named Sven, who's in love with the same girl as an elf named Faendal. We get involved in their tryst, giving a poisonous forged letter supposedly from Faendal but penned by Sven to Camilla, the object of both their affections. We could grass Sven up and reveal his deception to Camilla or Faendal, or stay true to our word and lie for Sven. We choose the latter and Sven gets his way, shacking up with Camilla while Faendal's left resenting us for our involvement. He's still happy to help us do some archery training though, which is awfully nice of him.
We then take a room for the night at the inn as a starry night falls in Riverwood, waking up to visit the Riverwood Trader, where a quest to retrieve a stolen golden claw leads us to the eerie Bleak Falls Barrow. Here we have to brave the snow once again, arriving at an ominous towering stone ribcage that leads to a huge doorway into a cavern. Sneaking up on a pair of bandits talking by a campfire, we open fire with our bow and arrow, missing miserably. Switching to a sword and fire magic combo, we throw a fire spell their way and resort to swipes with our sharp steel up-close. Being able to combine magic and weapons this way is useful, but leaves you vulnerable to attacks. That said, we still deal with the bandits, and then descend down a spiral staircase deeper into the cavern, through tunnels into a frostbite spider's lair, where there's a fearsome arachnid to slice up, a duplicitous scumbag to save and far too many undead Draugr to slaughter. Completing the quest, we surface, fast travel back to Riverwood and then resolve to explore the surrounding green and vibrant areas a bit more.
Paddling down the river, we watch the butterflies and dragonflies fluttering on the breeze, catch a salmon or two and then head into the hills to see what we can find, grabbing a torchbug out of the air as dusk begins to envelop Skyrim and the soaring, beautiful orchestral score kicks in. There's a small dark house where a mysterious old woman resides, but we soon find there's nothing to see here, and head towards some Guardian Stones nearby, where we can choose a perk from a choice of signs. Levelling up, we can also assign further perks, making our Khajiit warrior more of a force to be reckoned with. This stands us in good stead as we head to Whiterun on a stolen horse with a bounty of 50 gold pieces on our head. During the journey, we're ambushed by more bloody bandits, which our warhorse is perfectly well-equipped to stamp on. It's worth mentioning at this point that while the 3rd-person animation has come a hell of a long way since Oblivion, the horse animations are still rather dodgy, which is a shame. Here's hoping they're improved for launch day.
Continuing to Whiterun, we find a nearby camp glowing with an ethereal green fire where giants roam with clubs in their hands, keeping mammoths at bay. One hit from a giant kills us outright, teaching us a valuable lesson. Don't mess with giants if you can help it. The same goes for mammoths too. Deciding to steer clear of this area next time around, we come to Whiterun where we're confronted by a guard. We don't want any trouble, so we pay off our bounty and make our way into the bustling town. Consulting with Jarl Balgruuf the Greater, we progress the main storyline a little (still no spoilers!), then go off-piste to the Jorrvaskr, a long and ornate building where the Companions reside. A faction not unlike the Fighter's Guild in Oblivion, the Companions are a faction that favours the honourable path, so after completing a couple of fetch and delivery quests, we spar with a Companion named Vilkas at the behest of their leader Kodlak Whitemane, and just like that, we're taken into the Companions' fold and the Whiterun residents respond to us in a far more positive manner.
With our three-hours drawing to a close, we decide to massacre some Whiterun locals, before we're unceremoniously, but deservedly struck down by numerous guards. Three hours with the game still feels like far too little when so many towns and cities still lie beyond the ridge of mountains in the north of Skyrim, but we've still managed to get a good feel for the game, experiencing some story, a few side-quests and other crafting aspects besides potion mixing and cookery. Obviously, we still haven't scratched the surface of what Skyrim has to offer, but with the snowy mountains home to countless secrets, Dragonshouts, creatures and other mysteries, and the rest of the game world giving way to gorgeous grassy plains, volcanic tundra and other wonders, Skyrim promises to be every bit as absorbing and immersive as Cyrodiil before it, if not more so. It's certainly looking to be a far more diverse and varied experience than its predecessor, which is inherent in the locations, creatures and people we've encountered thus far. And yet, there's so much more to see and do, a mere three hours can't really convey how rich and textured Skyrim is. Forget about that QA tester who raced through the game in 2 hours. You'll want to spend hundreds of hours immersed and enthralled by Skyrim's world, fighting, crafting, working, questing, exploring and simply soaking up every last morsel of the Elder Scrolls experience you come across. Skyrim just can't come soon enough.
Lucky for us, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim will be with us in about three weeks, arriving on November 11th, 2011. Victory or Sovngarde!