There are dragons! Unlimited dragons, purportedly, and I probably should have chased one of them down in my three hours with Skyrim. Instead, I got distracted by crafting swords. This may not have been ideal journalistic practice, but it does speak to what Skyrim really is, as opposed to what all those dramatic trailers present it as.
Fighting dragons is an element of Skyrim, but Skyrim is not really a game about fighting dragons. For all the pomp and splendour of the marketing, this is very much an Elder Scrolls game, and as such is set on evolving and expanding the various roleplaying systems that Bethesda's fantasy adventures have set up over the last couple of decades. This means, on my part at least, obsessively scouring the game's vast and mountainous world for items to scavenge, equip, sell or upgrade. Some strange part of my brain responds far better to this sort of activity than to engaging in to-the-death combat with creatures the size of schoolbuses.
So most of my 180 minutes playing Skyrim from the start (with the introductory, storyline-setting quest neatly excised) was spent crafting and cooking. Underground, overground, scavenging free. A few simple recipes were achievable from the off, but soon I ran into the Dilemma of Dilemmas - to focus my level-up points into becoming more of a powerhouse mage, or into being able to build bigger and better items.
Having been beaten to death by bandits and Norse zombies more times than I could count because I'd been creeping around dungeons with the sole intent of finding crafting stations so I could make better shoes, it wasn't long before I reflected that I may have made the wrong decision. Sure, my shoes had a higher armour rating and my dagger was that much pointier due to the iron ingot I'd found, but shoes and cutlery only get you so far.
Perhaps it would be best if I got someone else to do my fighting for me. And so it was that I refocused my energies on the dark art of zombie-summoning. So long as I could fell one opponent safely (and my upgraded dagger made that significantly easier than it was), I could resurrect it as a servile shadow of itself, duty bound to attack anyone who attacked me. Then I could sit back and mop up whatever was left afterwards.
So I was some sort of tailor-necromancer (though you shouldn't use the 'N' word in Skyrim - technically, what I did was Conjuration), and that, truly, is the joy of Skyrim. It's an open canvas to roleplay on: if you want to be Big Bad Mr Dragon Hunter, go for it. If you want to be a necrom… uh, conjuring kleptomaniac, go for it. The game won't get in your way.
Also to be found are strange, small vignettes - simple scenes it's hard not to spin your own interpretation from. Deciding to swim to the facing shore, I found a lonely fisherman sat on a tiny island. Perhaps, at some point later in the game, he would have a fuller purpose, but here he just sadly observed that there would be enough fish for everyone if no-one was too greedy.
I thought of my piscine-packed bags, intended for a marathon cooking session and recently filled by the game's frankly odd mechanism of simply grabbing passing fish as I swam, and felt a flush of guilt. Oh well, the healing benefits of those fish would probably help me save the world or something, once I finally got around to it, so this guy should be grateful, really. This became that fisherman's story in my Skyrim - in someone else's, perhaps he would have been killed and looted, or hidden from, or never seen at all.
Onwards! Upwards, in fact. Skyrim's landmass is comparable to its predecessor Oblivion's, but it has the benefit of ruddy great mountains adding a whole lot of vertical space to the world. Up and up I climbed, above the clouds, eventually rewarded by the sight of a vast swathe of Skyrim laid out below.
In some ways, the game doesn't look that dramatic a graphical leap forwards from Oblivion, but in moments like this the scale of what Bethesda has built is entirely apparent. All those great gobbets of world I can see are mine to explore. The game's music seemed to realise that I would likely be feeling awed at this point, with its soft, skeletal piano music bursting outwards into loud splendour. I half expected someone to leap out from behind a rock and bellow ' behold!' And behold I did, and in great admiration - if secretly wishing I was playing on PC rather than 360, so it was all bit more high-detailed and anti-aliased.
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I certainly had a strong and evocative sense of being very high up, in a strange and wondrous land. That said, I have climbed awful high and there doesn't seem to be anything up here, which is a bit of a let down. Maybe I was unconsciously chasing dragons after all. Or maybe it's just that I'm still a very low level character, and the game has scaled the available threats accordingly. On the way up, I encountered a few wolves (and can happily confirm that the game lets you conjure zombie wolves too) and bandits, but no sky-lizards or giants yet. So, back downhill I went, and soon I spotted a poacher. I frowned. I'm the number one collector of animal parts round here, thank you very much. So while she was busy hunting a fox, I nicked her horse and galloped off. That'll learn her.
The horse didn't hang around long, sadly - as soon as I hopped off it, it darted away, presumably back to its fox-bothering master. I wish I'd killed it and taken its hide. Still, it didn't leave me in a bad spot, as it turns out there's an awful lot more to see about halfway up a mountain than at its peak. I stopped in briefly on a couple of settlements, raided a couple of dungeons (eek! Spiders!) and cleared a few ruins of their dastardly bandit occupants. On the console next to me, someone excitedly yelled 'look! A dragon!' to a chorus of much awed cooing. I didn't so much as turn to look. I'd found a tanning station, you see. Time to make some new gloves.
That's my Skyrim, anyway - I wonder what yours will be like?