NEW YORK — Undead warriors and one nasty dragon highlighted my first adventures through the role-playing game The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, which will be out November 11 for PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.
The game’s publisher Bethesda showed it off at a press event in Manhattan last week, where the media in attendance were given three hours to explore, quest and indiscriminately slaughter civilians in the world of Skyrim. Naturally, I did all of the above.
Here’s a journal of my three-hour tour.
1:15 PM – It begins. I’m in a cave, naked and alone. The Bethesda rep tells me that we’re about 30 minutes into the game; they skipped past the intro because they don’t want to spoil any plot points. They don’t realize that the only plot point I care about is murdering townspeople.
1:16 PM – I choose to play as a Nord, mostly because I am terrified of creatures that don’t look like me. There are no classes or other specializations to pick, so I can only identify as a Nord. A naked Nord.
1:20 PM – I exit the cave and wander around Skyrim’s frosty tundra, breathing in the gorgeous pinewood forests and snow-covered mountains. I use my fists to take out a small rodent. I am a living god.
1:27 PM – While strolling along a road in the tundra, I run into a friendly hunter. My first thought is that facial animations look much better in Skyrim than they did in Oblivion. My second thought is that I should steal his horse.
1:32 PM – I move much faster now. After exploring the wilderness for a few minutes, my new horse and I discover an abandoned temple with a giant, gaping hole in its roof. It looks kinda like the hatch from LOST. We are intrepid adventurers, so we decide to drop down the roof hole and search for delicious treasure.
1:33 PM – Turns out this temple is not abandoned. There’s a forest spirit thing here, and it is mad. Time to bail.
1:34 PM – My horse won’t fit through the temple’s front exit. Since there’s no way to climb back up through the roof (and I have yet to purchase the downloadable horse wings), I leap off my horse and run. Goodbye, fair steed. You shall be missed.
1:40 PM – After fleeing, I stumble upon an orc fortress called Cracktusk Keep. I am immediately attacked by orcs. Being naked has many advantages, but fighting off orcs is not one of them.
1:51 PM – With some help from the world map, I make my way to a woodland village called Falkreath. (You can only fast-travel to cities you have already discovered on foot in Skyrim. This is a major improvement over Oblivion, which let you zip between all major cities as soon as you hit the overworld, killing a lot of the fun of exploration.)
1:55 PM – While playing around with my menu screens, I realize that I’ve been holding an extensive array of weapons and armor this entire time. I save the game and then take out my anger on the townspeople of Falkreath. I am instantly killed by the guards.
1:56 PM – Fully clothed and armed to the teeth, I head back to Cracktusk Keep, where I start slicing up orcs with my iron sword. Combat feels like Oblivion crossed with melee from Fallout: New Vegas. Pressing the left trigger brings up my shield, to either block attacks or smash baddies in the face. Tapping the right trigger performs a normal attack with my right-handed weapon, while holding it down for a second or two unleashes a heavy-duty power move.
There are also cinematic finishing moves, which are neat to watch but a little bit jarring within the context of a fast-and-furious battle. The camera quickly zooms out as I stab enemies in the chest, instantly killing them no matter how much health they have left. Jerky camera movements can be disorienting when there are orcs behind me.
2:10 PM – Dozens of dead orcs later, I reach the boss of Cracktusk Keep, an armorclad warrior named Ghunzul. He kills me a few times, but eventually I take him down. In his bedroom I find a key to the keep’s hidden treasure vault.
2:18 PM – The treasure vault is filled with traps as well as the shards of Mehrunes’ Razor, a powerful dagger from Oblivion. Presumably I’ll be able to undertake some quest to restore the dagger to glory. It will be very helpful for killing townspeople.
2:22 PM – I decide to walk back to Falkreath, slaying bandits and other annoying vermin along the way. I encounter a haughty noble couple en route to a wedding party. The man mentions that they are carrying lots of expensive gifts.
2:23 PM – I finish looting their dead bodies.
2:26 PM – While exploring some more, I run into a few slowdown issues, which remind me that this is a Bethesda game.
2:30 PM – I finally arrive back at Falkreath, where I take the time to have proper chats with everybody instead of just killing them all. Villagers in Skyrim are more interesting than the ones in Oblivion. Many of them seem to have in-depth personalities and mini-quests, much like the characters in Fallout: New Vegas.
2:35 PM – I meet a man named Sven, who agrees to become my follower after I help him win the heart of his crush. He doesn’t know what he’s in for.
2:41 PM – Falkreath’s shopkeeper asks us to help him find the golden claw that somebody stole from his shop. We agree to track down the thief at Bleak Falls Barrow.
2:45 PM – We have reached Bleak Falls Barrow. I tell Sven that I hope we don’t have any bleak falls. He does not laugh.
2:55 PM – As we traverse through the twisty caverns, we are attacked by undead warriors called Draugr. Though they go down relatively easily, there are a lot of them.
3:00 PM – Uh oh. R.I.P. Sven.
3:10 PM – Alone and almost out of health potions, I continue navigating Bleak Falls Barrow. Occasionally I find a puzzle, or a neat item, or a gigantic spider that kidnapped the thief who took the golden claw. I swiftly kill both, taking the claw for myself.
3:15 PM – I decide to play around with the new perk system. After each level-up, I can select one perk from a number of different skill trees that are divided into specializations like Heavy Armor, Restoration Magic and Archery. I choose to focus on one-handed weapons, turning my Nord into a one-handed slaying machine.
Though the system is neat, navigating the skill tree menu can be a little bit annoying. The cursor tends to snap to places I don’t want it to go. Still, I love the idea that I can customize my character in any way I want, rather than sticking to some rigid class structure.
3:28 PM – The final boss of this dungeon goes down easily, and soon I have the dungeon’s ultimate treasure: a “word of power.” Though I can’t use it yet, this word can be combined with other words to create immensely powerful abilities called dragon shouts.
3:36 PM – I return the golden claw to the tavern back in Falkreath and briefly note that Sven got killed and they should probably send someone back into Bleak Falls Barrow to recover the body. I say sorry, then head north for more interesting pastures.
3:45 PM – I arrive at Whiterun, a hilled city that strongly resembles Rohan, that horselord stronghold from Lord of the Rings. The art direction in this game is fantastic. Every city and dungeon I’ve seen so far has its own style, and I love absorbing it all. But there’s no time to explore. I’ve heard rumors that there’s a dragon flying around, and I have decided to kill it before my demo ends half an hour from now.
3:49 PM – I meet the “Jarl” of Whiterun, who I deduce is the leader based on his big chair and bigger hat. He gives me some money and tells me to help fight the dragon outside.
3:55 PM – While rearranging my inventory, I drop some heavy armor. The Jarl’s steward walks over and asks if he can have it. Minor touches like these make Skyrim feel like an actual world populated with actual people. Which can sometimes make you feel worse when you kill them.
3:57 PM – I’m off to face the dragon outside of Whiterun.
4:02 PM – I find the dragon. He kills me.
4:06 PM – I die to the dragon.
4:09 PM – I die to the dragon.
4:14 PM – I die to the dragon. Demo’s over.
4:17 PM – Dejected and miserable, I leave the demo room, mind racing with serious doubts about my masculinity. I couldn’t kill the dragon. What’s wrong with me? Am I terrible at playing videogames? Am I terrible at life?
Though the three-hour demo didn’t answer those heavy questions, it did get me pumped to spend hundreds more hours immersed in Skyrim’s ridiculously detailed world next month. And the first thing I’m going to do when I pick up the game again is collect better loot, max out my skills and slay that freaking dragon. I can’t wait.