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Elder Scrolls V Skyrim: 3-hour hands-on leaves us wanting more


By Nick Cowen

Here’s something to ponder: is there any point in reporting on a three-hour preview of Skyrim?

Oh sure, by the end we can report on some of the gameplay mechanics, the menu layouts, the beautiful presentation and a whole host of monsters we had to fight through. We can even offer snippets of the story and details about a couple of characters.

But what we can’t do is present our readership with a full picture. We can’t put them in the mind-set of being swallowed by the incredible world that Skyrim contains, or becoming immersed in its truly epic storyline.

PRISON BREAK

Here’s what we did learn, though; players will begin the game as a prisoner – much the same way as they did in Oblivion. Character creation starts in a dingy dungeon cell, the narrow confines of which are laughably at odds with the massive scale of options available to the player in deciding what their avatar will look like.

All of the races from Oblivion are present and correct from Argonians to Wood Elves, and the levels of customisation could tax hours from the player’s life – depending on how exacting they are in how they want their characters to look.

Body-type, sex, eyes, brows, hair, warpaint – you name it. It’s all available for tweaking here, or players can go with pre-sets. We created a Redguard female with partially shaved white hair called Tehanu (because well, why not?), and then we were out the door and into the sprawling world of Skyrim.

How the player lands up in the northern territory of Tamriel was unclear at the demo; we were told that the section of play on offer comes three hours or so after the beginning of the game. It’s also unclear whether, by that time, players would have access to the mass of equipment our character was endowed with, which included iron armour, a few robes, a sword and shield, and a bow complimented by a quiver full of arrows.

Whatever the case, by that stage of the game, they’ll hopefully have gotten to grips with Skyrim’s interface. Players can switch between first and third person perspectives by clicking in the right thumbstick, and by holding it in and pulling back on the left stick, you can set your third person view from any distance you please.

Pulling the right trigger puts your character into a fighting stance, and the triggers themselves wield whatever the player’s assigned to them – be it weapon, shield or magic. The X-button puts your weapons away, Y is jump and B brings up a four-option menu where players can access the game’s map, magical abilities, the levelling up section and inventory.

It may seem a little strange to heap praise on a menu layout but given the amount of content the player needs to be able to access easily and quickly, the job Bethesda have done here is sublime.

Toggling between inventory sections is swift and intuitive and players are easily able to find their weapons of choice and assign them to a trigger (or two, if the weapon is a two-handed affair).

You can also ‘hotkey’ weapons, spells, defensive items – anything really – by tagging them in the menu with the Y button and then switching between them in the heat of battle quickly by flicking up and down on the D-Pad.

GOOD SAMARITANS

Kill enough enemies and beasties and you get to level up, and it’s here that Skyrim’s next trump card comes into play. The player’s talent tree is geared towards favouring your individual playing style. To that end it bestows skill levels on certain talent trees based on what weapons, armour and magical attacks the player uses, and also what crafting and social abilities they employ the most.

If you fancy ploughing through the game with a two-handed battle hammer, battering enemies on their noggins, the game raises your character’s heavy weapons ability, enabling you to raise the overall damage of your attacks.

If hurling fireballs is more your speed, you can raise the burn-damage or unlock the ability to wield magic with both hands.

The talent trees themselves are represented by gorgeous, swirling constellations in the heavens above Skyrim. Proficiencies are unlocked by lighting different stars within them, and they’re shaded according to ability – red for physical combat, blue for magic and green for social and crafting skills.

They’re also structured in such a way that cunningly prompts the player to explore their character’s potential by offering the chance to specialise in different weapons in a certain class. If you’re fond of your two-handed hammer, for example, the corresponding constellation will offer you the chance to expand your two-handed repertoire to include edged weapons, such as swords and battle-axes.

If that sounds like a lot to take in, don’t worry; the control system makes navigating around it all incredibly easy. Switching up attacks, levelling a character and navigating Skyrim’s woodland landscape and snow-covered mountain ranges soon becomes second-nature. This allows players the space to concentrate quest-based activities or encounters with the game’s multitude of NPCs.

One of the first settlements we came across in our hands-on time was a picturesque town called Riverwood and in the short time we spent there we managed to get into enough trouble to significantly level up our character.

One of the first characters we met in the town was a spiteful little snob called Sven. He wanted us to help him win over his love interest Camilla, by handing her a rather venomous letter he’d forged in his rival suitor’s hand-writing. Being the noble the folk we are, we told Camilla of the plot, who then told us to look in on the wronged party – a wood elf archer called Faendael.

Not only did our good deed for the day give us a warm fuzzy feeling, it enabled us to recruit Faendael as an ally, which came in very handy when we ventured into the hills around Riverwood to retrieve a Golden Claw artefact, stolen from Camilla’s brother Lucen by bandits.

Between embarking on the quest and returning to Riverwood victorious, we had to make our way through the subterranean caverns of the nearby Bleak Falls Sanctum. As things progressed we found that the Golden Claw was in fact a key which unlocked a tomb deep with the mountain, and that the bandits who hoped to capitalise on this were the least of our worries.

In short order, we were set upon by a giant Frostbite Spider and a small horde of Draugr – that’s sword and spell wielding skeletons to you. By the end of our quest, we’d pocketed a fair few gold pieces, weapons, armour and even some mystic runes relating to the Dovahkiin – the race of Dragon-born humans of which the player’s character is a member.

We’d also covered a tiny amount of Skyrim’s absolutely huge in-game map. Once again, players can fast-travel to any location they’ve visited, and only the main areas of interest are highlighted to begin with – smaller locations need to be uncovered first hand.

Still, the presentation of Skyrim doesn’t make this a chore in any way. The pinewood forests, glittering rivers and towering snow-capped peaks of the environment look utterly gorgeous, and the heart-tugging score which breezes in and out of the soundtrack as the player makes their way through Skyrim is beautiful.

Such is the spell Bethesda’s new game weaves that we were highly reluctant to put down the control pad by the end. And even though three hours proved enough to provide the information you’re reading here, it still felt mercilessly brief. Come November, it may be worth booking some time off work if you plan to explore the northern lands of Tamriel properly.


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