Sitting down in a behind-closed-doors area for press, I grabbed an Xbox 360 controller to begin my hands-on demo with The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, the next game from developer Bethesda Softworks.
My demo was scheduled for an hour. After going through some create-a-character options, I ventured off into the world of Skyrim. What seemed like no more than twenty minutes later, I looked down at my watch--nearly two and a half hours had passed. Skyrim had captured me.
There's a wealth of options available when crafting your character in Skyrim, which makes sense, considering you're likely to spend a hundred hours with him or her. The demo began shortly after the intro. Here, you can edit your character's race and features. Race offers a back story to your lineage, in addition to various stat bonuses.
A small township called Riverwood was my first destination. The town was made up mostly of Nords, a race of tall and fair-haired humans. As I approached the town, an old woman screams that she had just seen a dragon. The town is on pins and needles. "No one has seen a dragon in more than an age," a man tells me. Though Bethesda says Skyrim features an infinite supply of dragons (essentially "all of the dragons"), I didn't get to see any myself.
I took some time to try my hand at jobs in the area. A lumber mill needs someone to help push logs through an archaic, automated saw. A blacksmith in town allows me to repair my items or craft new ones with pieces I've collected throughout my journey. Quests are available in town, including one that involves a love triangle and a forged letter, written by a man who hopes to sway a woman's affections in his favor.
I left the town to journey alongside the shore of a connected stream and into the mountains across a ridge-line. This is where I lost all semblance of time.
There's a certain joy that comes from losing yourself in a world. A similar thing happened to me when I played The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. I sunk over 100 hours into the game without realizing it. (Fallout 3 was also a favorite, but I didn't become as enraptured by it because the world, by design, was so desolate.)
The Xbox 360 version of the game was the only one available to me, but it did answer a few questions I had about the game. Namely, how pretty is the game? Skyrim is a gorgeous title. Everything from the snow-capped mountains to the gentle babbling brooks looked spectacular. I can only imagine the more robust PC version will look much better.
The game's menu is simplistic, making it easy to swap combat strategies. In a few battles with bandits, I was able to go from a sword and board configuration to dual-wielding magic spells in moments. You can "favorite" weapons and abilities as well, giving you a chance to swap out with the d-pad rather than return to the menus. The combat is more fluid than what I remember from Oblivion and offers some cool flourishes, like a cinematic switch to third-person when delivering execution moves. On more than one occasion, I was dodging incoming attacks in my seat while I played, as if the game were Kinect-enabled. (It's not.)
The game is available to play in third-person as well. It looks like a lot of work was put into making that a functional option for players, something Oblivion failed at. As a purist, however, I'm going to stick with the first-person experience.
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I also got a great sense of how much subtle detail is in the world. After ridding the world of some hostile bandits, I entered a mine where a blind man sat at a desk "reading" a book. After convincing him I was part of his crew, he notified me of an upcoming plan. Sneaking up to him to look at the book he was sitting in front of revealed blank pages, which made me burst out laughing.
Later in the demo, I came to a ridge with an enemy who I sent flying off the mountain with a a fire blast. His lifeless body hit the side of the mountain and rag-dolled down for ages, causing another outburst. Bethesda's Todd Howard laughed along after the enemy went tumbling down the large face of the mountain.
Alas, I wanted to continue playing for hours more. Skyrim has succeeded at luring me back into the world of The Elder Scrolls. While there were a few hitches in the experience, like odd transitions between weather effects, I was fully absorbed. I was always looking forward to Skyrim, but after getting hands on with the game, The Elder Scrolls V has cemented its place at the top of my most-wanted list.