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In an age where role-playing titles are increasingly about perpetual social connectivity, obsessive online competition or frustratingly linear, there's something comforting about playing an open-world, single-player role-playing game. There's no threat of ganking by malicious players, no worry about PvP ladder rankings, daily guild obligations or a pressing need to level to keep up with friends like in MMOs. It's Bethesda's world, but not long after starting a game it becomes mine. I slash at innocent chickens and shoot fire at pursuing guards as they try to chase me down for breaking the law. Talk with townsfolk to acquire quests or ignore settlements and roam the misty, mountainous countryside in search of treasures and, in Skyrim, dragons. I only have to follow a set path if I want to. Otherwise I can dig in and, unfettered by any influence but my own, truly play a role. It starts with the character creator, offering the standard Elder Scrolls race options for journeying through Skyrim. The lizard-like Argonian is there, the cat-like Khajiit, as well as Wood Elves, Redguard and, the one I selected, the Dark Elf. As expected, after selecting a race there's a spread of sliders that pop up onscreen to tweak the appearance. There are as basic as selecting nose height to as detailed as adding 'laugh lines', coloring cheeks and giving the Dark Elf one red eye and one grey. Then it's off into a world that looks, at least on Xbox 360, miles better than Oblivion did back in 2006.
To a large degree that's because of the draw distance. The view from a snow-choked cave mouth to distant mountains wreathed in a drifting cloak of cloud is clear and detailed. Stop moving and stare closely and it's possible to see the mountain clouds shifting, swirling slowly around the distant craggy spires that ring the entirely of this particular piece of the environment.
In the middle of the mountain range is a town called Falkreath filled with imposing buildings made more ominous as rain and fog move across the sky to soak the scene. There dour NPCs drag themselves through inns and complain of conflicts far beyond their power to alter, so naturally they ask for help. In a dusty corner of an inn is an alchemy apparatus where I can mash together reagents, flowers and plants plucked from fields, to form potions. All the combinations I try fail, so I steal a few things out of frustration and am promptly met by a guard that wants to escort me to jail. I go and, instead of sleeping off my jail sentence, put two picks in the cell door lock. One pick moves along the top of the lock and at any point in an arc I can stop it and test the bottom pick. If the bottom pick turns the lock turns 90 degrees, the door opens. Or if I pick the wrong spot to test, the pick snaps.
I can improve this skill over time, along with pretty much everything else in Skyrim. Leveling unlocks a point to allocate to one of numerous skill trees, from lockpicking to schools of magic to light and heavy armor, bows, blacksmithing, block, pickpocketing and a lot more. Points don't need to be used immediately, so it's possible to store them up across levels in case, at the outset, I haven't yet decided the type of character I want to be. There's certainly a lot of choice, as each skill tree features multiple nodes that trigger bonuses when activated, and most nodes can be upgraded multiple times for enhanced effects. I chose to upgrade my one-handed sword skill to do more damage, but it's clear that when Skyrim eventually ships on November 11 I'm going be spending a lot of time staring at this screen in agony as I decide which paths to follow and which to forsake.
Outside of town are sprawling snowy fields crawling with bandits and wolves and other beasts. The favoriting system makes it especially easy to switch around armor sets and magic abilities. In the inventory any apparel – shields, heavy and light armor pieces, weapons – as well as offensive spells and healing abilities can be set as favorites. This attaches them to a pop-up menu accessible without having to dive into the main menu system, allowing for quick selection from a list for whatever best suits the combat situation. Equipping a one-handed mace and dagger to quickly slice at enemies, then switching to a heavy two-handed axe before dropping in a healing spell to recover from attacks is all easily accomplished in a few seconds.
The feel of combat is still far from that of an action game, but doesn't feel quite as floaty as Elder Scrolls games past. Weapon strikes rebound off of enemy shields with a noticeable springiness, and because of how the camera moves when readying a heavier weapon strike, it feels as though there's more force behind each swing. Magic in the demo area was limited to three spells at the start, but each had cool effects, particularly the flame spell that shot a jet of fire forward, capable of setting the ground and trees alight or cooking bandits before they even had a chance to land a hit.
While some of the adventuring resulted in random combat, and some directed me through easy to follow labels on the world map and compass to quest goals, at other times I wound up discovering the bizarre and unexpected. Take for example the black door adorned with a skull I found near a frigid pond in a rocky recess. When I approached the subdued soundtrack of a tranquil forest was joined by a faint, menacing drum beat. The door spoke to me in an otherworldly whisper while shimmering faintly, and asked if I knew the music of life. I ran through the conversation tree to exhaust all options, answering drums, screaming, some kind of choir. The door promptly declared me to be unworthy and refused to open. I don't know what the correct course of action was, but knowing that oddities like this exist in Skyrim is just as exciting as the knowledge that I'll eventually be able to fight dragons.