I mean no disrespect when I say this: I couldn't give a dragon's arse about the story in Skyrim. It may well be wonderful, but as the fifth instalment in The Elder Scrolls series — none of which I've played for more than an hour or two at most — I've never had any opportunity to understand, let alone grow to love, the story.
But after about an hour of playing through the latest build of Skyrim on an Xbox 360, I'm happy to report that I think this will be the first Elder Scrolls game I actually may play through to the end.
Blame Fallout 3. While the first-person RPG interface of Morrowind and Oblivion always felt clunky, maybe even punitive, Fallout showed me the appeal of Bethesda's open world game design. Skyrim isn't an RPG in the classic sense — it's a sword-and-sorcery simulation.
I'll probably play Skyrim on PC — I'm a mouse and keyboard person, given my druthers — but I'm glad I had the opportunity to play it on a console, as it showed off how far Bethesda has come in their ability to create an interface that is both deep, instantly accessible, and yet not overwhelming. The last Elder Scrolls game I tried to play, Morrowind, was my first Bethesda console game; I immediately returned it and bought it for PC. I hated the feeling of playing such a detailed FPS on a console.
But as I sat down with the 360 version in Dallas last week, I didn't feel any sense of trepidation or perceived loss. Within minutes, I was smashing wolves in the face with a small iron hand axe with one hand and setting them on fire with the other.
Enough about the interface, though — how about those graphics? Even on the ageing Xbox 360, I was shocked to see how lovely the game is in action. Certainly not as pretty as its screen shots — something about the engine still looks rough around the edges in a literal, visual sense — but taken as a whole the landscapes were beautiful and varied, seamlessly transitioning from craggy mountain forests to grassy river bottoms, from thatch roof villages to icy mountain passes. Get on a high perch and you can see for miles.
With limited time, I didn't mess around with the famously intricate character creator for long. I rolled up a healthy, ugly orc and threw myself into the world. For the demo our characters came pre-encumbered with armour, weapons, and some magical abilities. I wanted to get a taste of a little bit of everything, so I bound a flame spell to my orc's left hand (controlled with the left trigger) and a one-handed axe to his right (right trigger).
The combination proved to be more than enough to immolate a few wolves as I left the small cave from which I started out, heading down the mountainside as fast as I my green legs could carry me. (I wanted to see as many environments in my hour as possible.)
While not every monster or NPC in Skyrim is inherently aggressive, I presumed anyone outside of a town was fair game for my two-fisted flame/axe combo. I soon learned that I could shoot the ground in front of an oncoming attacker with my flame spell, which would set anyone alight who passed through it. A quick thunk with my axe usually took them down, especially when I held down the right trigger to enable an extra strong melee smack.
Soon I found a cave guarded by a blonde Nordish bandit. (Lament the poor bandits of Skyrim. I must have murdered a score of them in their roosts.) Flame. Axe. Murder. Sifting through the corpse for loot is a simple process. And like previous Bethesda games, Skyrim helpfully gives you an indication if a corpse or container is empty, saving you the trouble of riffling through nothing.
Down into the cave I went, which loaded up an instanced level of generic fantasy mine dungeon. It only took me about ten minutes to travel through the entire mine, luring chatty bandits into the path of my flame, then carving them a double-wide nostril with my little axe. I had some bigger axes and swords in my pack, as well, but using them meant sacrificing my flame spell, and two primary attacks were already approaching tedium. There was no way I was going to just one.
Luckily, Skyrim's interface allows a "favorites" system that binds items, magic, and weapons to a quickly accessed menu that lets you change up your gear without going into the only-slightly-more-involved regular inventory system. With a little bit of time, I think I could have set up a rhythm that would let me use my bow and arrows, then switch back to my axe and flame combo when enemies came closer.
There wasn't much in the way of treasure in the mine, so I left via another entrance and tromped down the mountain to a small fishing village, name of Riverwood. There I met a blacksmith who was awfully welcoming — "Sure, you can use my forge, orc stranger!" — and spoke a gentleman about a rival, elven suitor who was wooing his paramour. The lover suggested I deliver a nasty fake letter to his object of affection, signed with the name of his elven competition. A dick move, for sure (and one you can choose to give a twist, by alerting the innocent elf to the plot), but also a testament to the progressive race relations of Skyrim's culture. (If you think I'm poking fun, I'm not. There's something distinct about the way The Elder Scrolls series seems to ignore the issue of race that feels at once mature and perhaps over-idealised.)
Even better, the fix to one of my (and everyone's) big irks from Oblivion — the sameness of the voice acting — was made apparent in town. There were 14 different voice actors for all the characters in Oblivion; in Skyrim, there are 70.
I had no time for matchmaking, though, as there were faces that had not yet felt my axe. (And I didn't have it in my heart to kill the townspeople or their adorable goats.) So across the river and up a mountain path I went, stopping along the way in a ruined watchtower to clear it of bandits. I felt a little bad, cooking those bandits in a gout of eldritch flame, but in fairness they looked pretty cold and lonely up there, so I was probably doing them a favour. Plus they were guarding a chest at the top of that broken outpost and no court in any fantasy realm would convict a man of murder-for-treasure-chest.
The gold from the chest safely in my bottomless nega-pockets, I turned from the top of the tower to descend and was stopped in my tracks. Not by a bandit or a roaring monster, but by the view. Below me spread the river valley, Riverwood, and the mountainside from which I had originally been shoved into the world. Gorgeous, alive, and only a little bit out-of-proportion, in that in a real fantasy world I wouldn't expect so many bandits and mines and gothic barrow temples to be squished into a couple of square miles of terrain. But still, wow. And on a 360, no less.
Oh, did I not mention the barrow temple? It was at the top of the mountain path and my final destination. I put my axe through the heads of some human guards and pressed open the tall oak doors. (I presume they were oak. Barrow doors are nearly always oak.)
It was inside this block-and-buttress temple that I made a new best friend. He lived inside a magical staff that when fired would allow him to come out and eat my enemies' faces clean off. (Well, in my imagination at least; in-game he mostly just chomped at where their balls would be.) My friend was a spectral, glowing wolf and I loved him — and for 60 seconds at a time, before he popped out of existence in a flash of blue light, he loved me.
Into the barrow temple we went, until we happened upon a room upholstered with meter-thick spider's web. I had to hack my way through it to get in, even though I knew that there was going to be either 1) a gaggle of dog-sized spiders, or 2) one giant spider inside.
It was number two.
It took a bit of juggling to take the Volkswagen-sized spider down: wield the magic staff to let my wolf out to play; switch to axe and flame and take a few hacks; pause to drink a potion or two when she got in some good licks. But within a minute, down she went, and I was rewarded not with good treasure but mostly with the whines of a man who was trapped in her web.
He demanded I let him down so he could give me the Golden Claw of Some Such, which I gathered was a mission-specific item, as the game awarded me some sort of check-off on my quest list when I burnt the guy to a crisp when he tried to run away after I'd been totally nice and cut him free.
It would have been nice to have another friend, though, because instead of being whisked out of the barrow temple after defeating the giant spider, I instead had to thread my way through a crypt filled with dead warriors, some of whom would occasionally get up and try to eat me. I limped along well enough (especially because I had a healing spell that I'd only just realised I had), using my wolf to draw their attacks — including missile spells! — and then giving them the ol' one-two.
I nearly died in one puzzle room, where instead of realising that the reason I was triggering arrows to spree from tiny murder holes every time I made a pulled a lever was that I hadn't turned the appropriate runes in place. I lost a lot of health from that bit of stupidity.
The zombies finally got the best of me, but no big whoop: my demo was pretty much over anyway. (I'll never forget you blue glow-wolf. May we meet again.)
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In some ways, I almost wish Skyrim didn't have a plot — I'd feel less guilty ignoring it. But for someone who couldn't how finicky the previous games could feel, I'm legitimately excited to plow into the full game. I'll treat it like the sword-and-sorcery simulator that it is. And if it just so happens to suck me into the plot, as well, all the better.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is hitting the street on November 11. I think we're all in for a treat.