In the outskirts of the small lumber town of Riverwood - on a ledge jutting off a quaint mountainous trail - a rider on horseback surveys the vista in front of him. He can see for miles in each direction; snow capped mountains painting a backdrop to acres of forest, river and rock. As the first flakes of snow fall from the grey heavens, the horse whinnies and rears its passenger. It's at precisely this moment - as the soundtrack reaches a crescendo - that a layer of goose bumps appear on my arms.
I get goose bumps from trailers all the time - it happened during that Mass Effect 3 trailer just the other day, in fact - but it rarely happens during an isolated portion of gameplay, especially one devoid of dialogue, action and spectacle. It was just a bloke on a horse looking at some trees.
Skyrim itself is an inspiring thing to look at, however.
But enough Tolkien-esque guff. I'm sure you don't care about trees, mountains and rivers (although you might be keen to learn that there was this one bit where a shoal of fish leapt out of a babbling brook - that was really cool) so I'll quickly move onto the good stuff: dragons.
Our first encounter with one of these scaly airborne behemoths was atop the ruins of a tower. The beast circled overhead, exhaling huge plumes of fire as he passed. Thinking better of the situation, Matt Carofano, Skyrim's art director and demo-man, leapt from the tower and scurried off into a network of caves below for safety; a dungeon, if you will. He revealed that Skyrim has over 150 of them.
In this underground mountain pass, Carofano demonstrates that our adventurer can wield two swords at the same time. This was the cause of much guffawing amongst the audience. In fact, our hero is happy brandishing two of any single-handed weapon in the game. At one point, we see him with a sword in one hand, and a staff in the other - a perplexing but rather versatile combination. Skyrim allows players to tailor their character to their exact tastes; every weapon you swing and every spell you cast affects your growth.
"Whatever you put in your hand - that's how you're going to play the game" explains Carofano.
Martin delved deeper into skill trees and the intuitive new UI in last month's preview. I suggest you check that out if you're keen to learn more about the role-playing side of the game - I'm going to gush over dragons for a while longer.
It's not long after emerging from the dank cavern that the winged beastie returns for round two. Carofano decides that this would be a good time to show off his new Shout ability - a special attack acquired in the dungeon minutes earlier. By studying the ancient dragon language carved into a stone in the heart of the cave, our hero is enlightened with the ability to unleash his very own fiery dragon breath.
After a few well aimed fireballs, the beast decides to risk a landing. Carofano takes advantage of the beast's proximity, and some well placed swings of his axe later the creature is dead.
The dragon bursts into flames, and Carofano is given the option to absorb the soul of his fallen adversary. This adds to the hero's dragon vocabulary, and unlocks another new Shout.
I thought the demo would end there - what with the impressive dragon boss battle and all - but no. A bigger dragon decided to show up - presumably pissed off that his buddy got snuffed - and an even more impressive battle took place. This second dragon was decorated with dagger-like spikes and this one expelled lightning bolts from its gaping chasm of a mouth. Unsurprisingly, this altercation took slightly longer to resolve.
The new Shout ability came in handy here. The Storm Call Shout swapped the blue of the sky for ominous grey, with violent bolts of lightning stabbing through the clouds at the dragon. After a considerable amount of flirting, Carofano finished the beast off by driving an axe through its head. New kill animations make landing the final blow much more entertaining to watch.
While I've spent most of my time jabbering on about dragons, the half-hour demo managed to pack in a host of other fantastical lovelies, too: horses, wolves, skeletons, spiders, giants, swords, blacksmiths, bows, arrows, tomes, staves and spells. Carofano also spoke of nearby Mage and Thief guilds - sidequests that offer a time consuming deviation from the main story path. The sense of scale depicted in a mere 30-minute slice of gameplay really is quite remarkable.
I'm going to have to wrap this up. If I go on any longer, I fear I'll go off on one about the bloody mountains and rivers again.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is due for release on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC on November 11, 2011.