I barely passed my first year at university, and I lay the blame for my half-hearted studies squarely at the feet of Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. I sank literally hundreds of hours into Bethesda's open-world RPG. It was a revelation, and one only topped by its spiritual successor, Fallout 3. I lost a girlfriend to that one. Her loss.
Being offered a 3 hour play of Oblivion's true sequel, Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, had me crossing out conflicting diary dates so fast that the pencil nearly caught fire. And after just a relatively short play of the game, it seems as though there wont be room for anything else in my diary come Skyrim's 11.11.11 release date.
Read on as Tech Digest describe our first tentative steps through Bethesda's massive new world.
Firing up the character creation tool within Skyrim is, in many respects, indicative of what to expect from the game as a whole. Both familiar to returning Oblivion fans and overwhelming in terms of choice and freedom, your options are near limitless as you fine tune the scars, weight, beards and jawlines of one of the game's ten races. We settle on a scraggy, greying Imperial and head on out into the snowy mountains.
Though a key early cutscene was clearly pulled from our preview build of the game, seeing our character's bound hands suggested he'd had a rough time of it of late. Heading out into the flora and fauna of northern Tamriel, Bethesda have clearly tried to make a world more full of life than any they've attempted before. Birds and crickets chirp, butterflies and bumblebees (both of which can be caught, insect fans) fly around your head, reeds wave in deep underwater lakes and rabbits, deer and foxes dart among the undergrowth.
It all seems initially like a scene from Bambi, but it's not long before the spells and arrows start flying. Heading along a riverside trail we soon encounter a seemingly uninhabited camp, and grab a few things from a treasure chest nearby. It is, of course, an ambush, and we're soon clashing swords with a hulking great Orc, a wily archer and a fire-spewing mage.
Here we get our first taste of the new dual-wielding weapon system. It takes a little while to get used to hotkeying equipment and spells for each hand using the D-Pad, but we're soon throwing back our own flames and dicing the Orc into steak-sized chunks. Combat is better this time around; swords now clash and clang satisfyingly, and while it's still a little too difficult to tell when a blow has really hit home, new kill animations at least give a semblance of contact to the proceedings.
Clambering off the beaten track is always where Bethesda's open-world games shine, and though Skyrim is no different, navigating your surroundings feels significantly changed. This is due to the topography of the world the team have created. With much of the game world dominated by towering mountains, it's now not enough to just point yourself in one direction and walk off in search of adventure, as you're more likely to hit an impossibly steep incline. The world is still expansive, but a more measured approach to exploration and path following must be made to get places. Only time will tell if this new-found "verticality" ends up being a bonus or a hindrance to our adventures.
Once out in the wilds though, Skyrim is still a treasure-trove of secrets. We happened across a burnt-out shack and the charred corpses of its inhabitants (which, naturally, involved Skyrim's near-mythic dragons and, just as naturally, led us to shamelessly loot the bodies), and an archery whizz named Angi who offered a few bow-wielding classes, just by going for a quick little wander.
It was once we reached the major town of Whiterun though that our jaws really hit the floor. We've had our reservations about the console versions of the game being able to deliver as graphically rich an experience as PC versions, and we're happy to report that the incredibly detailed settlement of Whiterun looked stunning on the Xbox 360. Architecturally, it's a mix of cobblestones, auburn wood and leaves, fountains and trestle-work, but the devil is in the details. Folks get on with day jobs at stalls, wood mills and blacksmith huts; the glow of a tavern fire feels genuinely warm; the beams of tall-ceilinged halls cast looming shadows across your path. If the world already felt teeming with life, it certainly looks it too.
And while Oblivion suffered from some very wooden character models, Skyrim ramps up the cinematic appeal that the series so obviously has potential for. After imparting some pressing news to Whiterun's Jarl (the Skyrim equivalent of a mayor) Balgauf the Greater in his grand hall, we were treated to a scene where he and his advisers heatedly discussed the next course of action to protect his people. While not quite of the story-telling standards of, say, Mass Effect, it still managed to edge closer to an episode of Game of Thrones than any previous Elder Scrolls game has managed.
Whiterun also showed off a chunk of Bethesda's humorous streak too. Going for a quick pint down the local Bannered Mare Tavern soon descended into a fist fight with a feisty Nord lady called Uthgerd the Unbroken. As the first to beat her in combat, she agreed to help us out on the road as a companion, as we went in search of a trinklet to aid the Jarl in the defence of his people.
Which lead us to our only dungeon encounter during our fairly brief session; Bleak Falls Barrow, set amongst the the dark, snowy, bone-like arches in a mountainous region that's dominated many of Skyrim's trailers.
Though an ominous place, we're welcomed by a talkative bunch of bandits who, before being swiftly dispatched by our ally and our steel, make cheeky comments like "Die! So I can take your stuff!" Charming!
Enter into the Barrow and it's clear that Bethesda weren't kidding when they said that each dungeon would now be far more intricate and individual when sat next to Oblivion's cookie cutter clones. A beautiful tangle of roots, runes and cobwebs, it genuinely felt we were exploring an area where few had tread for millennia.
This aesthetic was woven into the very design of the dungeon's puzzles itself. A lock system had to be passed, which consisted of matching three turning rune stone patterns with giant stone statue heads marked with similar inscriptions.
The problem was that one of the heads had cracked over time and fallen, making figuring out the ordering a little tougher than you'd hope for. Though a fairly simple puzzle, it showed Bethesda's commitment to making a convincing world, and one that uses even its puzzles to give a better sense of place and history.
The dungeon, and our playtime, ended with an encounter with a huge spider in a web-strewn cavern, the sort of battle sorely missing from the climax of many an Oblivion dungeon. Moving with a terrifying arachnid accuracy, it was a suitably scary end to a tense trek through the barrow.
Three hours in and we've barely scratched the surface of Skyrim. Forget scratching it in fact; we've barely caressed the uppermost flakes of its snowy skin. A game that may well not just meet the hype, but best it, Skyrim's 11.11.11 release date cant come soon enough.
We'll have a full review in the run up to release, so check back to Tech Digest soon for our final thoughts.