The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Playing with fire.

You would imagine that getting to play The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim for the first time is an enormous pleasure, but let me tell you a secret: it is not.

It probably will be for you, of course, because you will get to take your time playing with the character creator, running your fingers through the long grass and listening to water rushing downriver before you even have to think about following one of those tempting icons that keeps flashing up on your compass.

It wasn't unusual for people playing Oblivion to log well over 100 hours, and if you want to get the most out of Bethesda Game Studios' unique RPGs, you need that sort of time to do so. These are games where you create your own stories through exploration as much as you rely on the script, and you can't do that in a weekend or even a month of Sundays.

Meanwhile, at QuakeCon 2011, I get around 60 minutes to make sense of Skyrim. What follows is inevitably closer to panic than pleasure.

The best I can really do is to pick one path and see where it goes, so as soon as I exit the character creator - decked out as a smart but sexy male Khajiit cat warrior - I grab a fireball spell in one hand and a war axe in the other and make a beeline for the nearest mountain.

It's not a long climb to the summit, but it's eventful enough. One of the first things that happens is I run into some bandits protecting a small tower outpost on the mountain road. My left hand's effectively a flamethrower and I drench them in magic, finishing them with the axe if they get too close.

Switching magic out for a shield for a bit of variety, I block a couple of blows and respond with a flurry of slashes that send blood flying and culminate in a neat axe-through-skull finishing animation. These contextual finishers pop up a few times in the next hour and they always look snazzy.

Naturally I loot all my victims down to their underwear as I climb the inside of the tower, and before long I'm moving slowly and being told I need to dump some gear or else I'm never gonna dance again.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim trailer

RPGs send you into menus more than almost any other game genre, so it's weird that more thought doesn't go into inventory design, but as I play around with powers, weapons and items to lighten my load it becomes clear that Skyrim is a welcome exception.

Its nested menus are accessed almost as smoothly as iPad page swipes, and navigating them is quick and clean. You can set favourites, equip items to either hand, and examine things in detail.

More than once during my brief hands-on I have to rotate an object to look for a clue to a puzzle, or read a document, and it's all done without going to a different screen or do anything more complex than wiggling sticks and hitting a face button.

It's easy to imagine that a system like this in Oblivion or Fallout could have shaved hours off the average player's actual game-time. As it is, it saves valuable seconds in my hands-on, and seconds are my currency today, so thank you to whomever at Bethesda designed the inventory.

Resuming the path, I move up into falling snow as the wind intensifies and drifts thicken around me, eventually clambering over stone steps towards a big wooden door in the side of the mountain.

I've kind of been here before - in my haste to just pick a direction and explore, I've wound up following a similar path to the one Todd Howard chose when I saw Skyrim in April. But whereas Howard showed us what he tells me was "a greatest hits of that dungeon", I get to examine it in detail.

If it's representative of the average quest, the Bleak Falls Barrow is hugely promising, rich in varied combat, booby traps, puzzles and lore.

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