Crouching Spider, Hidden Dragon: Hands-on with Skyrim
As we reach the point of chewing through solid wood in our desire for The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Nathan Grayson mans up and takes the plunge.
I hate spiders. Like, violently. The mere thought of their spindly, twitchy appendages makes me want to hole up in a steel bunker with an arsenal of extremely tiny guns. But I love The Elder Scrolls more than is healthy – literally. Multiple 27-hour marathon sessions have probably taken a real, serious toll on my health.
Approaching Skyrim's PAX demo, then, was a harrowing experience for me. I'd seen the screenshots. I knew what I was in for. As far as I was concerned, this was a trap, with the tantalizing prospect of full freedom in Skyrim's glorious world as delicious, irresistible bait. I'd find myself face-to-hideous-mound-of-beady-little-eyes with a giant goddamn spider. I just knew it.
Resigned to my grim fate, I ventured into Bethesda's demo cubicle cavern. There, I was greeted by an extremely robust character creator. That I ignored. I wanted to see the world – not a series of meticulously modeled eyebrows. So I went with the default barbarian and named him Thor, because the resemblance was so uncanny that Chris Hemsworth should probably sue. And so, the game birthed my bouncing baby ageless Norse god into a cave. There, Thor's battle to avoid sobbing like a little girl when he inevitably encountered a giant spider began.
Of moose and men (and waterfalls)
It should be noted that the demo started me roughly 30 minutes after the game's actual beginning – so as to avoid story spoilers. Hopefully, this means the first bit's optional, as Oblivion's thrilling sewer flight became significantly less so after you'd seen His Royal Patrick Stewartness bite the big one 34 times. (Then it became hilarious.)
I emerged from the cave into a gloriously green forested area mid-way up a mountain. The main quest suggested that I drag my barbarous bones into a nearby village, and being the dutiful, heroic soul that I am, I-- hey, look, a wolf! And a river! And a campfire! So I went to investigate the camp, because rivers are wet and wolves hurt.
Good thing, too, because what I discovered was pretty interesting. At first glance, it was just a run-of-the-mill bandit camp. However, as I approached, the camp's two dirt-encrusted inhabitants didn't immediately charge me, swords and voices raised. Instead, they attempted to warn me away. They obviously didn't want any trouble. Even so, I inched ever closer, curious to see how they'd react if this giant, musclebound fly didn't shoe.
When it became clear that I wasn't going anywhere, they finally took my bait, so I drew my axe and happily obliged them. Without a doubt, combat's more visceral this time around – with vicious third-person VATS-style finishers really stealing the show – but enemies still react to normal strikes like they're being buffeted by a particularly strong gust of wind and also they're made of wood. Power strikes sent the bandits stumbling backward in agony, but normal attacks were met with a barely noticeable grimace. It was like they felt bad for the axe chopping right through their clavicle, so they pretended to experience slight pain to make it feel better about itself. All told, combat's still markedly improved over Oblivion, but – compared to everybody else – this giant franchise is taking baby steps.
Combat's markedly improved over Oblivion, but – compared to everybody else – this giant franchise is taking baby steps.
After that, I decided to follow the river, because that vicious, foamy mouthed wolf still hadn't gotten any more alluring. While doing so, I couldn't help but notice that – even running on the Xbox (as opposed to PC – the normal hands-off eye candy demo machine of choice) – Skyrim is absolutely stunning visually. And I don't just mean that in the “This spectral wolf mapped gigahedron has precisely 76892329 ubertextures” sense, either. The world is extremely varied, and fantastic weather effects really bring it all to life. Wind-whipping, face-pounding thunderstorms, especially, made me feel like my mighty warrior prince needed to flee inside before he came down with a case of the sniffles.
And then, the moose. He bolted the second he caught wind of my approach, but I gave chase. Eventually, I cornered him – you know, with my back to the edge of a waterfall. Damn that moose; he was a tactical genius. Or just really lucky. Regardless, he was finally fed up with my attempts to engage him in a rousing game of hide-and-go-disturb-the-wildlife. So he gave me a graceful, majestic shove, and off I went. Right over a waterfall.
Surprisingly, I survived, and the water's current – another new feature – yanked me about like a housecat whose curiosity guided it into a washing machine. Eventually, it deposited me at the base of the mountain, where I sighted an incredibly ominous-looking cave. “Why not?” I thought to myself.
Famous last words
I strolled into the cave, both fascinated and slightly terrified by its haunting greenish hue. And that's when cruel inevitability lunged at me from the shadows. Hundreds of hairs. Eight legs. No soul. The spider rushed me, so I (as in, me – in the real world) reflexively positioned myself as far from the screen as humanly possible and quickly flipped open the game's slightly clunky favorites menu to equip my fire spell. And then I killed it. I killed it with fire.
Fortunately, this was not a den of scum and spider-y, as I had initially assumed. It was just, you know, worse. As I pressed on – passing structures that appeared to be tents made out of gigantic insect limbs – I made a rather negative first impression on the local goblin creatures, called Falmers. By murdering them. In my defense, they started it, so I was only too happy to end it once and for all. As I dug deeper, though, I realized that I was probably in over my head.
When driving an axe through his skull barely registered as a blip on his health meter, I decided it might be better to live and fight another day.
One Falmer? No problem. Two Falmers? Manageable, provided that I got the jump on them with my glowing purple axe and dual-wielded my healing spell (for extra health) in times of extreme danger. But then I discovered their insectoid pets – perhaps more horrifying than spiders, and definitely stronger – and that's when the operatic singer in my head that exists for the sole purpose of comically yodeling “Mistake” started to do his thing.
I managed to run past the skittering demons, though. Right through some incredibly imposing – and I must say, somewhat out-of-place-looking – mechanical doors. I soon found out why. My first all-powerful assailant was a Falmer magician of some sort. When driving Barney the purple (though surely not imaginary) axe through his skull barely registered as a blip on his health meter, I decided it might be better to live and fight another day.
The Falmer, however, had different plans. He froze me in my tracks with an ice spell, and then something equal parts awesome and depressing happened: A giant dwarven golem mech – practically radiant in its gold plating – sent its immaculate fist right into my largely immobilized face. My frail, spider-fearing Thor, of course, didn't stand a chance. KER-DEAD. Shortly afterward, I decided I didn't really like that cave anymore.
Leaving the cave did Thor a world of good. For one, he wasn't being punched to death anymore, which is always a plus. Before long, I sighted a snow-capped mountain, so – given that Elder Scrolls prides itself on freedom and both Bethesda-published Fallouts had a few too many invisible walls – I decided to scale it. I was not disappointed. Not in the slightest.
Up top, I found a rune with strange writing on it, a chest, and a coffin. Being a gamer and all, I didn't even have to think about it: I lunged at the chest like a headcrab at a delicious, delicious scientist. Apparently, that was a no-no. The coffin popped open, and out sprang a gaunt, wispy undead wizard. He immediately summoned a giant ice creature, and – after briefly marveling at how shiny he was – I decided to cut my losses before he cut me in two.
Fortunately, fate smiled on me for a brief moment. The ice giant, you see, glitched. He got himself stuck on a rock, so I bolted for the rune. Upon examining it, the game informed me that I'd learned a new Shout – one of the special abilities Dragonborn (handily, Skyrim's main character is the last one) can use to take the edge off battling a steel-skinned, fire-breathing embodiment of apocalyptic death. Sadly, my character wasn't quite strong enough to activate it yet. So I left the ice giant warmly embracing his craggy new friend and sprinted far, far away. There ended Thor's all-too-brief adventure – but I'd like to imagine he was then devoured by a giant spider. It's how he would have wanted it.
As such, the only truly heartbreaking thing about my demo session was its relative brevity. I only played for about an hour-and-a-half, but I pretty much started feeling the game's tractor-beam-like pull again moments after the controller was pried from my desperate grip. Sure, it's not exactly a revolution and the combat still has far too much in common with Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots, but Skyrim's tiny ground-level tweaks put it head-and-shoulders above Oblivion. Release day might be right around the corner, but that's nowhere near soon enough.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim releases on PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 on November 11.