QuakeCon 2011 is in full swing here in Dallas, Texas, despite the record-setting heat wave sweeping the Lone Star State. Naturally, this means we've been staying inside and checking out all of the games on display, including Bethesda Softworks' latest entry in The Elder Scrolls series: Skyrim. This open-world role-playing game is filled with tough choices to overcome, but we had to make the hardest decision right off the bat: looks. Among the reptilian argonians, catlike khajiit, pointy dark elves, and many more, we decided to play as an orc with a striking coat of yellow face paint.
The striking yellow face paint was one of the many face-paint options available via the face-paint slider. As you would expect, there were dozens of these sliders to choose from in creating our devilishly handsome (or perhaps hideous) character. Everything from skin tone and jaw width to eye depth and facial hair could be tweaked to our liking. And if we switched to another race in the character-creation screen, the game saved our customizations so that we didn't have to redo them when we returned to that race.
After deciding on the name Knuckleduster, we were instantly dropped onto a very familiar woodland path. Call it a hunch, but we figured the town of Riverwood couldn't be far off and that the snowy temple in the distance probably housed an angry dragon. Therefore, we opted to take the road less traveled and wandered into the woods. After almost getting devoured by a wolf, we called up the item menu and outfitted our orc with some weapons and armor. A hand axe and fireball spell seemed chaotic enough for our needs, though we could set other items as favorites to equip them quickly without having to dive back into the menu.
The first thing we stumbled across during our travels was a set of magical stones. We activated one with a carving of a warrior on it and received an enchantment that let us learn combat skills 20 percent faster. We decided to test this out on an unsuspecting merchant we spied camping along the bank of a nearby river. At first, he was more than happy to have a customer at his little shop and gladly bought the wolf pelt we'd collected earlier. However, his mood quickly soured after we cracked him upside the head with our hand axe.
The merchant pulled a dagger on us, and we were locked in a fight to the death. While our opponent looked completely terrified, we had a lot of fun swapping between attacking up close with the axe and hiding behind rocks while shooting fireballs. The battle ended swiftly, and after a brief lock-picking game, we looted a massive, two-handed battle-axe from the dead man's chest. Flush with victory, we equipped the new weapon and took practice swings at nearby trees until we happened across our next victim: an elderly woman who was gardening.
The old woman, Anise, looked as if her head had been filled with gravel and she refused to speak to us when we talked to her. We took her silence as an invitation to wander inside her cabin where we learned that she was some sort of alchemist, given all the special weeds and roots littered about. Back outside, we found Anise sitting in a chair looking somehow even more unpleasant than before, so we attacked her. She tried to fight back using magic, but her wrinkly hide was quickly overwhelmed by our shiny, new axe.
In her basement, there was an alchemy station where potions could be brewed. All we needed to do was combine two to three alchemical items (pilfered from upstairs) that shared a special property. Each item had four special property slots, all labeled "unknown," and the only way to find out what they were was through trial and error at the station or to eat the item. Either method consumed the item(s). Our first potion failed, but the second succeeded because two of the items shared the "resist frost" property. This information was then recorded in the item's description for future reference.
We then made a quick pass through Riverwood before starting up the side of a snowy mountain. There, Knuckleduster encountered some bandits who were eager to throw themselves on the end of his axe--save for one with a large, wooden shield. This opponent was able to deflect our basic attacks, but by holding down the attack button, we brought our character's weapon around for one powerful blow. The bandit buckled under the weight of the attack and crumpled at our feet.
As our enemies went down, our character leveled up. At level two, we first had to choose among improving our magicka, health, or stamina attributes. Next, we got to pick a perk from one of the many skill constellations. From the two-handed skill set, we chose to improve the first skill, barbarian, which granted our character 20 percent more damage per rank when using a two-handed weapon. The skills improve with use, so by attacking enemies with the two-handed axe, we were improving our two-handed skill.
True to The Elder Scrolls series, combat felt very heavy in Skyrim. Knuckleduster's attacks came out slowly and had a definite feeling of weight behind them. But while the core mechanics of the combat didn't feel far removed from the series' predecessors, the number of options available in battle--such as all the weapons, spells, and shouts--was refreshing. Our hands-on time with Skyrim left us with the impression that Bethesda isn't trying to reinvent The Elder Scrolls formula; instead, it's taking what was great about the previous games and adding some interesting new content on top of it. You can check out The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim on the PC, Xbox 360, or PlayStation 3 on November 11.