The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim: 163 minutes & 27 seconds with a 300-hour game
31st Oct 2011 | 12:23
Skyrim terrifies me. I sank 150 hours into its brilliant predecessor, Oblivion, and now Bethesda wants me to visit their offices and play three hours of Skyrim. Three! Three hours from 300. Three hours of a game I've been desperate to play for five years.
When I arrive, 30 minutes late thanks to an agonising train delay, I'm placed in front of a near-final version - one with everything in it - and told I can do as I please. Panic washes over me. How do you begin to get a flavour of such a huge game in such a short space of time?
For tips and cheats have a look at CVG's Skyrim guide.
The map's vast, the character options myriad... the items at my disposal number in the hundreds. I want to see it all, to make Skyrim spill its juicy secrets, but it's all so overwhelming I freeze, unable to even start. Oh god - where do I begin? I feel the precious seconds draining away like the sands of an egg timer. At last, I take a deep breath and seek Solitude.
Literally. Solitude in this case is a city in the northern-most reaches of Skyrim; a man-made structure on a vast ridge, it juts from one of this area's many mountains like a middle finger, raised in defiance at the rest of the nation. The place has its own identity, a flavour unique to this one small part of Skyrim. Not just cosmetically - the people here seem proud to live in Solitude. They have their own festivals, myths and customs.
Upon arrival - after an hour just getting there from the middle of the map - I notice everyone is gathered in a square near the gate. I walk over to investigate. A man is being executed for his part in a vicious civil war - something that has gripped the whole world of Skyrim. Looks like he picked the wrong side. People gather to watch. They come out of their shops and houses to hurl abuse at the condemned man, who remains stoic even as the charges are read and the axe falls. Afterwards, the spectators chat amongst themselves about what just happened, before returning to their day jobs. For me, this simple snapshot makes Skyrim feel more alive than any other world on current consoles.
And it's exciting - I can feel hours of my life falling away as I explore one tiny part of this game, learning about its people, its identities, its dark secrets. I already know I'll spend longer in Solitude alone than I will in 90% of all the other games I play in 2011 - and 2012 - in their entirety.
BARD TO THE BONE
I head into town, keen to find a 'proper' quest instead of the random dungeon-plundering I indulged in during my journey to Solitude. I'm directed by a random passer-by to the Bard's Guild (yes, Bards), where I meet with the head - a man called Viarmo. He's got a little problem. Haven't they all?
The Jarl of Solitude has banned the city from celebrating the Burning Of King Olaf festival this year, and Viarmo - as a fan of all things cultural - needs something to make her reconsider, something to highlight the historic importance of the festival. Viarmo thinks there's a book of ancient verse hidden in a place called Dead Man's Respite that might do the trick. Would I mind fetching it? Well, I did pass that place on the way to Solitude... oh, go on then.
I fast-travel (from inside the city) back to Dead Man's Respite. It's a strange and foreboding tomb carved into a mountain, and to get here originally I'd clambered across mountains, marshlands, moors, forests and snow-covered tundra, yet still only covered a straight line from the centre of Skyrim to the far north-east corner. What lies to the south? The west? I'm almost ecstatic to say I don't know. Yet.
Turning back to the tomb, the wind whistles round me, bringing flurries of snow. The magnificent orchestral score drops to a sinister swell. The atmosphere is second to none, wherever you are in Skyrim, and the music always seems to reflect the mood.
No, Skyrim isn't the most beautiful game in the world, but it's unmatched at evoking a sense of place, be it through music, weather effects, characters, even the names of the locations. It's a beautiful mix of all these things. I feel connected to Skyrim, like I belong here. I'm not an interloper in this world: I'm actually part of it.
At last I tear myself from my thoughts and enter the tomb. At first glance it's a maze of tunnels dug into the hillside: a rabbit warren for the dead. Luckily I seem to have picked up a guide, a ghost who beckons me down a route through the dungeon. I hesitate but, unable to resist, run after him to loot a small chamber near the entrance, snatching up a handsome jewelled dragon claw and some potions.
CLAWS FOR THOUGHT
There's an ominous rumbling. The dragon claw had lain on a pressure plate, and now I'm going to pay for my greed. I hate doing that! Immediately I'm rushed by a small company of zombie-like Draugr, who seem upset. It's time to test out the new two-handed fighting system. I opt for a sturdy steel mace in my right hand (and therefore R2) and a simple but powerful flame spell in the other (L2).
The flames work a treat against standard Draugr, but Restless Draugr - they're tougher, and magic users to boot - need a good smashing with the mace, as they're far more resistant to my flame attacks. By the end I'm dangerously low on health, and - being tight with my potions - I sit down and wait for my health to recharge.
Oh, hang on... I've only got three hours. This isn't the time to horde goodies. I switch loadouts (Up on the d-pad accesses my favourites menu) to try out the longbow. My theory is I can keep enemies at a distance while my health recharges, but this dungeon is too tight for long-range scraps, and I'm forced to neck a couple of minor healing vials.
After maybe 20 minutes of ghost-following, several dead Draugr and a few dirty booby traps, I find the fusty old book I've come for and slip it into my pack.
But the ghost isn't done. He leads me on a new route out of the dungeon, one which brings me to a stone door. It's locked. There are symbols on it that can be rotated - essentially a big combination lock - so I try a few random combinations, fruitlessly. I scour the room for clues, before remembering the jewelled dragon claw I swiped earlier. Examining it in my inventory (by rotating the item in 3D) I find carved symbols that match those on the lock. Clever.
I enter the correct combination and it slides open - bringing me face-to-face with the reanimated corpse of King Olaf himself. It's essentially a mini-boss fight, but the mysterious ghost joins in (on my side), and I make short work of the undead regent. My health slowly recovers as I search his 'throne room' for sweet loot. Oh, and I've levelled up too.
A quick note on levelling up. Every time you gain a level (by using your skills and magic - basically just doing stuff) you're prompted to visit the abilities menu by tapping Circle and pushing up on the Left Stick. You're whooshed up to a star chart, where all your skills are shown, and you can opt to increase either your base health, magicka or stamina. Beyond that, you can then enter a specific skill (so, for example, Destruction magic) and add 'perks' to that skill. In the case of Destruction, you can get bonuses for dual-wielding spells, decrease the drain on magicka, increase range, power and much more.
So, to put this in perspective, you're micromanaging every skill by choosing from roughly 8-10 perks each - and some of these can be upgraded more than once. The scope for specialisation is incredible. Me? I opt to increase my magicka and bump up Destruction to boost the power of fireball spells.
Pockets full, and with the ancient book safely in my possession, I head back to Solitude to give Viarmo the good news. He seems pleased at first, but soon discovers that half the verses have become illegible over time. I plump for the conversation option that suggests he just makes the rest up - after all, the thing's been in a dungeon for hundreds of years, right? Who's going to check?
Viarmo gets onboard with the idea. He reads through the existing text and asks for my suggestions on how to complete bits of the poem. It's a fun little mini-game, and he makes comments on my ideas: "Hmm, that seems a bit farfetched" or even less enthusiastically, "Yes, that's probably what happened, although it seems a bit dull."
Pleased as punch at having rewritten a portion of Skyrim's history, Viarmo invites me to help him present the updated version to the Jarl. How could I refuse? So I head to the castle (it's worth noting that Solitude seems a little larger than most cities in Oblivion), pausing only to stare at the incredible view the city commands over the surrounding countryside. Hey look, there's the mountain I walked past the base of an hour ago! Inside the rather modest main hall of the castle the Jarl sits, surrounded by advisors, as Viarmo prepares to deliver the verse. He does so with hypnotic diction, and I sit and watch, lost in the verse for a good couple of minutes. Yes, it shows that the voice acting is better than in Oblivion - thankfully - but it does so much more than that.
CHAPTER AND VERSE
It gives life and history to Solitude so much more effectively than any silent screen of text could, and it represents the end of a quest that's been much more than fetch and carry. It's incredibly smart design and, I hope - desperately - it's a sign the rest of the game is filled with such invention. Don't forget - I chose this mission randomly.
Much will be written about the size of Skyrim. About how many hours you'll spend enthralled by its world, in awe of magnificent vistas and a wealth of quests. Rightly so. But it's about much more than numbers, however big they are.
It's about making you part of the world and all the stuff within it; making you believe Skyrim exists when you switch off the PS3... and did long before you ever turned it on. There's a strangely comforting thought that keeps coming back to me, long after Bethesda switch off my console and politely send me back into the nonsensical world of bad trains, dragonless grey skies and financial meltdowns. And it's this: I'll be back in Skyrim soon, and for much, much longer than three hours.