At a time when RPG developers are working out how exactly to pierce darker narrative meat and draw out the gradient of heavy morality decisions, Skyrim just lets you get on with it and do as you like. Whether that materialises as hunting dragons or chasing rabbits over waterfalls is part of the depth of choice the series allows. Even without the context of story, entering into Bleak Falls Barrow, an underground dungeon encampment within the heart of a mountain, introduces just how much atmosphere can be wrung out of gameplay decisions alone.
The level of play style experimentation on offer has already been covered. Like in the previous games, you'll still level from using your on-hand weapon, and gain perks from specialisations. With no rigid class system in use it's possible to switch between melee, stealth-based, or ranged spell-casting combat on the fly - and because either hand can hold any weapon or spell, your character can roam through the grey areas in between traditional class types, giving you the freedom to fight creatively against bosses.
So by the time you've reached the mid-way point through Bleak Falls and been coaxed into a spider's nest by the shouts of an entangled NPC, you already have various tools to work with that span all classes. Against a giant spider ranged spells make the most immediate sense, and dousing it in flames for a few seconds leaves him relatively immobile. But it's just one of a collection of options at your disposal, along with bows or a clever combination of potions and basic whack-em' melee attacks.
The fact that very little information is given about what to expect in these quests - beyond the help of a horizontal compass for navigation and to point out enemies up ahead - often works to the game's benefit, with the lack of structure giving you more room to play.
Simple puzzles break up the combat scenarios, and are generally used throughout Bleak Falls to open doors to pertinent areas. Often these are of the find-the-right-combination ilk: your avatar will turn a number of statues until the correct combination of carvings face outward. Sometimes the answers are hidden around the room in the form of wall art, other times they're etched onto quest items in your inventory, although more often than not they can be solved with basic trial-and-error tactics. But while it offers more of a structured, 'gamey' flavour, Skyrim is still largely just about free roaming and unpredictable outcomes.
Fighting against the same enemy, for example, can provide completely different results - something that likely won't be appreciated without a thorough playthrough.
My first attempt at chasing down an NPC inside the mountain encampment ended in a wipeout: he made a left turn into a burial chamber of skeletal zombies, which began a fight-within-a-fight. His attention turned from an instinct to run away to combating enemies by my side - something I briefly found interesting before he tripped a pressure button that triggered the armoured door behind us to burst shut on us like an upright mousetrap.
My second attempt involved the more aggressive strategy of hitting him with a fire spell as he ran away. While he kept running regardless, this time he waited for me at the end of the corridor with weapon drawn, bypassing our earlier team-up against the skeletons.
The environment provides an additional strategic partner. The pressure button on the floor of the burial chamber, in particular, provided a one-hit manoeuvre to ridding the room of an entire collective of zombies. The result is ragdoll carnage as they fling across the room in pieces, but it's the simple pleasures that make the game.
Back in town, the dialogue system has mercifully been re-worked. In the past, triggering conversations would zoom awkwardly into the face of an NPC, while users were lumbered with having to earn their trust. Skyrim has a more natural twang - walking into town immediately triggers comments from passers-by, and full conversations can be carried on while the city life continues to go about business in the background.
Despite featuring the standard RPG cast of enemies and NPCs, Skyrim is about taking fantasy to a realistic conclusion by developing an environment that makes the fantastical seem actual. The franchise has always prided itself on its open world tendencies, but this is easily working up to have the most vivid depiction of a fantasy setting in an RPG.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim will be released for 360, PS3, and PC on November 11.