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Which Console Did You Buy/Receive Over The Holidays?

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Game Profile
 Written by Alex Roth  on October 18, 2011

Previews: How good does Skyrim look? Good enough that you should be worried.

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.

Skyrim is a gritty place. The developer at the demo compared it to Conan the Barbarian, but surrounded by the frozen countryside, I was thinking Game of Thrones. Skyrim's ESRB description is particularly lurid. As I stood there, feeling a bit sheepish about the bloodshed I'd created, a butterfly flitted past. Without a thought, I gave chase. His blue wings stood out against the frozen tundra, and I got close enough to snatch him out of the air and into my inventory. All around me were flowers, whose somber colors stood out just enough to tell me two things: ?power-ups,? and ?grab ?em.? Snatching them up left bristly stems all around. I was sure that pretty flowers and butterfly wings were part of some deadly alchemical recipe, but it was nice to know my warrior could take a break from splitting skulls to collect flowers and chase butterflies. Then I noticed something big, brown and hairy in the horizon. I ran toward it, of course.

Mammoth Mammoths

Getting closer, I realized they were those big hairy elephants you see in books on the ice age: mammoths. They were gathered around a gorgeous pool that glowed an otherworldly blue. Nearby there were sacks of mammoth cheese, which I raided. The hairy beasts trumpeted in protest, but I ignored them, until a giant dragging a club crested a nearby hill. This was his camp, and I was stealing his cheese. I turned to run, but too late, I was flattened before I could hit sprint. OK, I thought, time for a quest.

The Main Quest

I hit the local outpost of Riverwood, where I used the crafting system to forge some new gauntlets. Wearing my new armor, the locals directed me to the capital city of Whiterun. I made my way there and was directed to the court of the Jarl, the city's king. Speaking with him involved all the varied dialogue options the series is known for, but the game didn't zoom in on his face for a faux-cinematic as in Oblivion. Instead, it stayed in my normal perspective. As we spoke, the subjects of his court milled about around us. It didn't feel like the game world had ?paused,? as in past Elder Scrolls games. Instead, it felt more like a ?natural? first-person interaction, like in Half-Life 2.

The Jarl introduced me to his trusted advisor, a brilliant alchemist, who gave me my task: journey to Bleak Falls Barrow and retrieve the Dragon's Claw, which he needed to work his magic. I quickly accepted.

I traveled to the Bleak Falls, making short work of a few wolves on my way. Reaching the Barrows, I slunk into a cavern lit with torches, showing off Skyrim's advanced lighting effects. Soon I heard voices. Wondering if they could possibly be friendly, I stepped out of the shadows and let my presence be known. An arrow buzzed past my head; there was my answer. A male bandit charged while his lady friend nocked another arrow. I brutalized him with a mace I'd picked up in the cavern, and began to charge the archer. She scored a direct hit that wiped a good chunk of my health. Change of plans; I hid behind my shield and advanced slowly, working the bandit into a corner. When I got close enough, I bashed her with my shield and finished the job with my mace.

Deeper and deeper into the cavern, I avoided traps and solved riddles that put me in the Indiana Jones mindset. I began to hear cries for help. It was a bandit, and he was calling out for his partners, whose blood was still on my mace. For role-playing's sake, I switched to my short sword, and entered the lair of the giant spider. You know how it goes from there.

Back to the Draugrs

Now, the bandit's I'd fought weren't too tough, but they weren't exactly pushovers. When I kept my guard up, they were meat, but if I got sloppy they exploited it. The Draugrs were a different story. When they first attacked, I tried my old method of hiding behind my shield, bashing, then unleashing a heavy attack. I could kill one or two of them, but their buddies would always swarm me.

I needed to change tactics, I needed some magic on my side. Luckily, Skyrim's inventory system had my back. I favorited a flame spell, and a two-handed battle-axe I'd picked up. This put them in a simple, scrollable menu that could be called up with a press of the D-pad. From there I selected Flame with the left trigger, equipping it in my left hand, and the right trigger put the mace in the my right hand. Fire in one hand and a blunt instrument in the other, I was an undead fighting machine.

At the advice of a developer, who was watching over my shoulder, I roasted the weaker Draugrs with the Flame spell. This was no ordinary level one fireball. This was a continuous stream of fire, like a flamethrower coming out of my palm. Once the little guys were taken care of, I switched to my axe and faced the last two undead warriors.

This fight was all about bashing and blocking, both of which can be done with a big two-handed weapon. I would stun one Draugr and then unleash a heavy blow on his buddy. This combo drained my stamina bar, so I had to make sure my hits counted. They didn't always. Don't think I did this I did this all in one go; there was plenty of quicksaving and loading involved.

The deed was done, and with a pile of rotted corpses at my feet, I looted my reward: the Dragon's Claw. ?Sorry, times up.? Behind me, the developer had the sort of smile you wear when breaking bad news. He promised I'd get some video footage of the dragon battle, but we both knew it wasn't the same. Oh well.

Final Thoughts
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.

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