PAX 2011: Skyrim Preview

In: Uncategorized by Nick "Alsop Live" Dinicola

29 Aug 2011

The Skyrim demo begins with the character creator, and the first thing you’ll probably notice is how much better the characters look compared to Oblivion. Characters actually look good now; men are handsome, women are pretty, they are aesthetically pleasing to the eye. There’s also a variety of non-human characters, and all of them have the same detailed customization. Other games allow you to get into the nitty-gritty detail of creating your character’s face, brow, lip size, etc, but Skyrim allows you to get into this kind of detail for even the non human species. The lizard people have their own kind of brows and mouths and ears and hair styles, all unique to that species. It’s a subtle amount of content; not something you’d notice unless you went exploring the creation tools for every race, but it’s in there, and it’s an early indication of just how big this game is.

I got an hour hands-on demo with Skyrim at PAX. I was dropped into the early part of the game, past the intro but not so far that I’d find any loot better than some basic weapons and fire magic. That first thing that was apparent was how the new equipment system worked. You can equip a variety of objects in either hand. I first went with the tried-and-true sword and shield, equipping them in each individual hand (I purposely put the sword in my right because I’m right handed), but then decided to add the magic, replacing my shield with a little ball of fire in my palm. This is done through the menu, so the world is paused, but the equipment is instantly quipped. This makes is easy to switch weapons in the middle of combat if you suspect a different load out will work better.

I happened upon an Imperial Legion soldier and a noble man on the road. Not knowing who the Imperial Legion is I decided to attack. The fire magic has been particularly improved, instead of just throwing a fireball, your hand acts as a flamethrower, spitting flames for as long as you hold down the corresponding trigger button. I killed him and went after the nobleman and his horse, the man died easily but the horse was a monster. I learned by experience that the beasts of Skyrim can be more dangerous than the men. I set the horse on fire, slashed it, but it kept coming, so I ran. And it followed. I ran past some wolves, killed them all, and still the horse followed me. I finally lost it by jumping over some rocks, up the mountain a ways, and then jumping off a ledge to a lower area, hopefully confusing the crazy demon horse’s path finding AI. It worked, but for the rest of the hour I felt like I was being stalked by that horse. Note to self: Be nice to horses.

When I calmed down I realized I had leveled up, and here I saw the new leveling system. When you level up, before anything else you choose which stat you want to increase: Magic, health, or stamina. Then you choose what skill to improve. Skills are displayed as constellations, and the background nebula changes depending on what type of skills are grouped together:  Magic skills were grouped in front of a green nebula, and the weapon skills were under a red nebula. Within each constellation is a series of stars, each representing a specific kind of upgrade for that skill, and each with their own levels that can be increased. The leveling system in Skyrim is very much about specialization.

Safe from the demon horse and newly powered-up, I set out in search of something to do and noticed the revamped compass at the top of the screen. Like in Fallout 3, nearby places show up on the compass so you’re compelled to keep exploring, but unlike Fallout 3, a unique icon is displayed on the compass representing what kind of place is nearby: A little mountain appears if it’s a cave, a hut is it’s a lone house, a coffin if it’s a tomb, or more exclusive icons for individual cities.

I opened the map to see what’ was further away, and the world map is mighty impressive. Rather than just imitating a cloth map, it’s a 3D topographical map, as if you were looking down on the world from miles in the air. You can tell the forests from the plains from the snowy fields at a glance. Places you’ve visited show up as white icons, while places you’ve heard about are gray. I set a waypoint for a city in the south and continued.

This turned out to be a bad decision since an Imperial Legion guard came out to greet me as I neared, demanding I pay for my crimes. How city guards know about my activities outside the city I’ll never know; carrier pigeons or something I suppose. When I refused to go the jail he handily killed me. City guards are still a force to be reckoned with early in the game. So I reloaded save, set a waypoint for a city in the north and continued.

This new town was more accepting, and I soon found myself in the middle of a love triangle: One guy was jealous a girl he liked was hanging out with another guy. I agreed to deliver his letter to the girl; once again you can involve yourself with minor, personal quests as well as epic journeys. I ended up siding with the other man, and (perhaps?) as a reward (I don’t know since I didn’t reload and try another way) this other man said he’d lend his assistance to me if I requested. I requested his help, and he joined me like a companion in Fallout 3.

So we travelled up a nearby mountain together. Why? Because it was there of course. And we discovered a giant stone structure: Lots of crumbling stairs, broken arches; something that was once probably very important. Upon entering in we could hear bandits talking by a fire, and a new quest automatically appeared once they stalk talking about “the golden claw.” They saw us, and my companion proved his use, if not as a fighter than at least as a distraction: He was more aware of enemies around us, and if he ran off I knew there was still something dangerous left alive.

Throughout my fighting I keep leveling up the specific skills I use, mostly one handed weapons, shields, and fire magic. This progression happened automatically, I didn’t have to find a bed first.

Deeper into the dungeon we started seeing spider webs everywhere. It was so thick in some places we had to cut through it with sword and fire. Then we stumbled into a large room where a man was strung up to a wall by the webs. I had just enough time to process the image before a giant Frost Spider fell into the middle of the room. Names like that are important, because Skyrim still follows the traditional rules of magic use and weaknesses. Namely, that something with “frost” in its name is probably weak to fire. My magical flamethrower hand killed the spider without too much trouble.

But this is where the quest got interesting. The man strung to the wall knew about the golden claw. I demanded he tell me where it was, but he refused. Eventually I relented since I had no choice, I wasn’t going to walk away or kill my only lead. The moment I cut him down he started to run, yelling about how he would never give me the golden claw. I chased after him swinging wildly, but he was just out of reach of my sword. Though not my flamethrower hand. So I set him on fire and watched him burn. Sure enough he had the golden claw on him, and journal that instructed me in its use.

I travelled deeper, and encountered more traps:  A lever in the middle of a room, with no obvious purpose, beckoning like a big red button that says “do not press.” So I threw the switch and was pummeled by poison darts. There were three rotating pillars nearby with different carvings on each side. Obviously I needed to line them up somehow, and after a few tries I stumbled on the solution, opening a gate. There will be hundreds of dungeons to explore, some handcrafted, and this was probably one of the handcrafted ones.  

The path now led me into a crypt, and as soon I entered I could see every dead body slowly sit up, swing their legs over the sides of their stone beds, and start coming at me. There were dozens of them, and they overwhelmed me. Right then my hour was up.

The best things about Oblivion were the emergent stories you wrote without realizing it: The joy of exploration, of stumbling across something new and dangerous and getting in over your head but surviving by the skin of your teeth. The bizarre, makeshift strategies we resort to for fighting enemies stronger than ourselves. All of that is alive and well in Skyrim, surrounded by new mechanics and customization options. It’s a beautiful, frightening world out there, and you’ll want to see every corner of it.

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3 Responses to PAX 2011: Skyrim Preview



August 29th, 2011 at 3:23 pm

You had me at handcrafted dungeons. So much good stuff coming out this fall…



August 30th, 2011 at 2:26 pm

“The best things about Oblivion were the emergent stories you wrote without realizing it: The joy of exploration, of stumbling across something new and dangerous and getting in over your head but surviving by the skin of your teeth. The bizarre, makeshift strategies we resort to for fighting enemies stronger than ourselves”

Navigating unknown ruins, fighting your way through hordes of undead, deftly avoiding numerous traps, barely surviving after using all your herbs and potions, the reward? two wooden spoons and a rusty old sword, nice…



August 31st, 2011 at 4:56 pm

Actually magic skills are blue, stealth skills are green.And you don’t pick which skill to increase at each level-up, you level-up by increasing skills, you pick a perk and a stat increase at each level-up.

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