Skyrim is a familiar story for anyone who's kept a keen eye on every preview that's been wrought out of VideoGamer.com's editorial mines. For the past year we've been detailing advancements to the game, but the magic of a basic Internet connection has allowed most of you to experience some of the latest developments yourself: recall a few weeks ago when shaky-cam footage from the game's 40-minute presentation at Quakecon found its way online.
Think back again to the Quakecon audience baying like a hundred broken seals because they saw a nice puddle or something on the screen. The game has become an echo chamber for fan enthusiasm, something even the jaded men of VG towers have been so moved by we think one day, just maybe, they may be able to love again.
This is why seeing the game being presented in Cologne, in a room that felt so hilariously hostile toward all notions of hype, was an eye opener. For all the childhood giddiness that wells up whenever we see a dragon on a monitor, it's so easy to forget that somewhere between the infinite loop of references to mudcrabs in Oblivion, the clunky first-person interface of Morrowind, and the arthritic third-person character animation from years ago is a vague memory of Elder Scrolls' rougher edges.
But let's be clear: Skyrim has outgrown any and all adolescent clumsiness it may have had in the past.
This is Elder Scrolls at its most elegant. Skyrim might have over 85 spells, 130 dungeons, and over 100 hours of content, but ignore the big numbers, because Bethesda does everything it can to make complexity seem less daunting.
Magic, weapons, and general inventory that are regularly used can be bookmarked using a Favourites menu option which appears in a slide-out window for easy access, which gives a minimalist flavour to the chaos of options you have to choose from.
Crafting is similarly in-depth but follows a structure that will be familiar to anyone who's played with Fallout 3's weapons schematics. This allows users to create any number of pre-designed item types based on material in their inventory. The system is simple enough, following a near minigame-style format: Kill a wolf, for example, and you can skin him for his hide, which you can then take to a tannery and turn into leather to use as material to design leather-hilted axes and daggers.
Weapons can be made from scratch too - if you're lucky to find an iron vein in the wall and bring the raw material to a weapons forge. Following a similar "if you have stuff, you can build stuff" philosophy, we're told that anything that looks consumable probably is. Players can combine anything from dead dragonflies to berries to make a variety of meals.
Bethesda has worked to give users more reason to explore this time around as well. Fast-travel is available to areas you have already visited, by zooming out of your map to see a 3D representation of Skyrim from above, but the studio has gone out of their way to try and beckon you below the surface. Where Oblivion's dungeons were brought together by the staff's artists, they're now the handiwork of a team of full-time level designers whose aim it is to make each individual dungeon feel unique - a way of encouraging users to actually explore down below as well as up above.
This is maturation rather than a change of format. The game still maintains the same strangely realistic ecosystem we saw in the Elder Scrolls titles that came before it. Hijacking a local lumber mill will limit the amount of wood available and make arrows harder to come by, and more expensive when you do. And to a certain extent this could have an effect on how you approach combat in the game, encouraging you to use other weapons instead. On the other hand, if you don't intervene the world will simply move on without you. A shoal of fish will skip past you in the lakes, butterflies will migrate between flowers, and NPCs will go through the motions of their daily jobs.
Bethesda has worked to refine its style of fantasy RPG for years, and with The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim it's clear this latest evolution is likely going to be the most accessible in the series, and the most convincing fantasy world available.