The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim Hands-On Preview -- Time Flies When You're Dual Wielding Fire SpellsBy Kevin Kelly - Posted Aug 05, 2011
The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim has been dangled in front of us for awhile now, so long that I was beginning to think this was just a game made out of trailers and cutscenes that you just watch instead of play. Which is why we were so surprised when we found out that we would be able to get some hands-on time with the game at this year's QuakeCon. "We literally just decided to do this last week," Todd Howard told us, "And I'm f*cking terrified."
The game is in what they're calling "Late Alpha," but he said that everything is in there, although they "Sort of disabled the main quest for this experience." Which means we didn't get to encounter or fight with any dragons. But you can see plenty of that in our Skyrim E3 gameplay demo. Instead, we were dropped in somewhere near the start of the game, where our character was a prisoner and we were able to customize what he or she looked like.
In a manner very similar to Fallout 3's character creation, you're not only able to choose the sex and customize the look of your hero, you can also choose from multiple races ranging from Dark Elf to Argonians to Orcs and seven others. Probably still exhibiting a contact high from this summer's Thor, I went with the Nord race. Mostly because they are 50 percent resistant to fire, although this was before I considered the fact, "Oh, no dragons to worry about."
The Nords are the inhabitants of Skyrim, and they show a very strong Viking influence. So I built my Nord tall, brawny, and with long locks of blonde hair, complete with a braid. A little dirt on the face, a scar, a tribal tattoo, and a rough beard added some character to my, er … character, and then it was off to escape from my cell. No doubt some people will try to create doppelgangers of themselves with this system, but I swear you'll need to be a police sketch artist to pull that off.
Once we made it out into the world, we could go wherever we wanted, and the dev team had thoughtfully outfitted us with tons of gear, so we could choose to wear heavy armor and be a slow brawler, light armor and be quick on our feet, or a bow or bladed weapons. I strapped on leather armor, a light shield, and equipped an axe, but it wasn't long before Todd Howard stopped by to explain, "Dude, you have magic."
A Viking with an axe and fire? If I'd any sort of lightning ability, I would have equipped the warhammer I came across and done my best God of Thunder impression, but shooting blasts of fire from my left hand and chopping baddies from my right was very satisfying. Until I realized I could equip that fire spell in both hands. Drew Barrymore had nothing on me, and I ran around starting fires everywhere.
Changing items and spells/abilities is extremely easy, although it does take some getting used to. Hit the B button (on the Xbox 360, which is what we played on) to bring up your Character Menu, then you navigate using the left thumbtack to select Items, Skills, the Map, etc. Highlight one of those, and it takes you into that menu. In Items, you can select from Weapons, Apparel, Potions, and so on, and those take you into further submenus.
When you equip an item, like the Fire Destruction spell for instance, you select it, and then pull the left or right trigger to assign it to that hand. Or, you can cycle through to both hands. Using a spell that way drains your Magicka (just like Mana) very quickly, but it is twice as powerful. You can also hit Y to "favorite" an item or a spell, and then it is something you can access via the d-pad at any time in the game. Hitting the pad brings up a small, scrollable menu that allows you to quickly select something else. Favoriting will quickly become your favorite.
The Skills menu is also complete gorgeous, with skills laid our like constellations in the sky, and as you select a certain area of focus, you'll fly into that constellation and navigate through the individual stars that make up different spells within that focus. Destruction, for example, has different stars and paths that branch out and detail all of the Destruction magic you can level through.
However, Bethesda was only giving us an hour with the game, and that seemed to melt away faster than an icecube on a sidewalk in Dallas (it's 110 degrees here, people), so jumping through menus and equipping items ate up more time than I would have liked. So I went through the world looking for immediate trouble, and found it in the form of the Embershard Mine. Inside, I encountered several human foes, a bunch of treasure, and thankfully no death. Although, I did come close several times. Double fire-blasting was something I relied on too heavily, and I quickly had to switch it up to fire and blades or blunt instruments (maces are handy).
Inside the mine I encountered both a Workbench and a Forge, which is where crafting comes into the game. You can create different items in the game at forges, and you'll be told exactly what you need to make something. Leather strips, iron ingots, and more are the building blocks of armor and weapons, and you'll find them throughout the world. Workbenches allow you to upgrade items through six different stages. I spent some time and materials upgrading my armor (I imagine my Nord sitting there in the dim firelight, adding a double-stitch to his jerkin) so that I'd take less damage, and then it was back into Skyrim.
Nearby was the town of Riverwood, where some inhabitants began telling me about the Stormcloak rebellion, and I was given a task to find and join that rebellion. But that would have required more time than I had, so I ran around getting into random encounters, and ended up getting into some skirmishes that nearly killed me. Being hammered by arrows from a guy across the river while trying to melee battle two bandits is not recommended. Although, it was nice to see that the bowman hit one of my attackers, and the arrow stayed in her shoulder until I killed her.
Heading up a nearby mountain, I discovered a tower encased in snow. A few quick battles got me to the top, where I had a breathtaking view of the land. At this altitude, you can see Skyrim's version of the Aurora Borealis, and wind sweeping through the mountain passes will pick up and carry snow with it. Needless to say, this really is a beautiful game, and when some of my battles took place next to a babbling brook, it was hard not to get distracted by the world. While the only natural wildlife I encountered was a wolf and a stag, there is a working "food chain" in the game, where animals will stalk and kill their prey.
I was able to approach Whiterun, which is a fair-sized city, but that's where our time with the game ended. Giving someone only an hour with this game is akin to showing you the cover to something that's supposed to be the most amazing book in the world, but then not letting them read it. Skyrim did not disappoint, and I'm eagerly awaiting getting back into that world to wreak some havoc.