Three hours won't be enough time with Skyrim. When Bethesda invited me to test drive their latest epic, that's the first thing I thought. It wouldn't be enough time for any Elder Scrolls game. We're talking about game worlds that derail social lives, and prompt concerned phone calls from family and friends. ?Why haven't we heard from you?? Because Bethesda put out a new game.
Not that I'm complaining. Games like this are catnip for ADD gamers who want to run off in whatever direction seems shiniest and most distracting. Skyrim is at least as big as Oblivion, and with its mountainous terrain, I'm told twice as difficult to traverse. You could say I felt a little excited, maybe even downright honored, to take this game for a spin. A three-hour demo, and at the end of it? A fight with a dragon, the new bad boys of the Elder Scrolls world. I hoped there would be snacks. Or maybe an intravenous drip.
The Dragon's Claw
?Cut me down, THEN I give you the Dragon's Claw,? said the tomb raider. Stuck in a massive spider web, he was still trying to haggle. ?Does it look like I could reach it now?? Fair enough, I figured, and began hacking at the webs. Betray me and it'll be the business end of a short sword for you. I mean, you saw what I did to that giant tarantula, right?
Apparently he didn't; the moment his boots hit the dungeon floor, he was off and running. ?You fool,? he cried, ?why should I share my prize with you?? Because I saved you from a spider the size of a pony, that's why. I had to bash that thing senseless with my shield before I could gut it. There's no pleasing some people.
The chase didn't last long. I rounded a corner in time to see spikes fly down from the ceiling and leave him smashed, bug-like and broken. He'd triggered one nasty booby trap, and now the Dragon's Claw was mine alone. It was all so Raiders of the Lost Ark, until I heard a groan. Half a dozen undead Draugr warriors were rising from their tombs. What would Dr. Jones do?
Welcome to Skyrim
If all of Skyrim's quests are this well scripted, I may have to enable my 360's Family Timer. That's the Parental Control that limits how much you can play per day or week. When I hit the three-hour mark of my hands-on demo, the poor developer almost had to pull the controller out of my hands.
My tour of Skyrim began at that special Elder Scrolls moment when you've just finished the first ?tutorial? dungeon and the game offers you one last chance to adjust your character before the training wheels come off. I chose a hearty Nord, a local to Skyrim, and other than aesthetics that was the only choice I made.
It's true, there's no class choice at the beginning of Skyrim. At least not in the traditional, pick it from a scroll-down menu kind of way. Past Elder Scrolls games made you commit to a class that would permanently skew your stats toward a certain play style. Skyrim wants your character to evolve based on how you actually play.
It's for the same reason college students don't declare a major until midway through sophomore year: as a freshman, you may not be sure what you want. If you want to focus on one-handed weapons, just start using them. If you want to throw a little magic in the mix, start casting spells. In a series known for letting the player wander off and stumble across adventure, it feels like a perfectly natural evolution.
And wander off I did, as soon as I was done feeling dumbstruck at the game's vast draw distance and environmental detail. I ran down the mountain and came across some Imperial guards, escorting a Stormcloak prisoner. He was shouting about the coming revolution against the empire. The guards warned me to back off, but I saw the chance to give Skyrim's combat a whirl.
Conan meets Game of Thrones
More so than in any other Elder Scrolls game, melee combat is based around the stamina bar, although regular swipes and swings don't drain it. Heavy swings, which you charge up by holding the attack button, do. So do special attacks, like bashing with your shield or the hilt of your weapon. Obviously, the slow, heavy attacks do the most damage, but you're not gonna land any if you don't stagger your opponent with a bash or two. The result is combat that's much more methodical than what you find in Oblivion. With good timing and clever use of your stamina-draining attacks, you create openings in the enemy's defense, which you bloodily exploit. I dug it.
A well-timed charged attack often results in a nasty execution animation. I bashed the first guard with my shield, and then charged up a heavy blow with my sword. It was an instant kill; I was treated to an animation of knocking the guard to his knees, and then finishing him with a blow to the head. That combo wiped out my stamina bar, so I hid behind my shield while his buddies rained blows down upon me. Through dogged sword work, and every healing potion in my inventory, I fought until their last man was crippled on the ground. ?Alright, end it,? he bitterly requested. There was an actual tinge of guilt as I did so; I felt bad for picking this fight.
Is it possible to be disappointed and satisfied at the same time? Because that's how I felt. Don't get me wrong, I wasn't disappointed by Skyrim, not in the least. Obviously, this is the best the series has ever looked (has it really been five years since Oblivion?). The under-the-hood class system has moved the series in a great direction, increasing immersion by having the player make decisions via in-game actions rather than through menus and D&D style character sheets. The dungeon sequence showed that the game's events could be engaging even for players not versed in Elder Scrolls lore. Finally, Skyrim has the best handle on scaling difficulty I've seen in the series. From the cannon fodder wolves, to wily bandits, and the downright difficult Draugrs, the game knows when to make the player feel like a bad ass, and when to make him scrape and struggle, something Morrowind and Oblivion weren't always so good at.
So what am I disappointed in? Myself. I had three hours to work my way to dragon encounter, and what did I do? Murder guards, chase butterflies, steal cheese and get stomped on, more times than I cared to mention. Frankly, I lack discipline, unlike this guy. While a two-hour run through Skyrim feels like a waste akin to a champagne and caviar chugging contest, you've got to admire his commitment.
For more on mammoths, brutal executions, and that sweet, sweet dragon action I missed out on, check out G4's coverage of Skyrim from E3.