When your first talking point after seeing a new videogame is its menu system, you've either seen something incredibly dull or something so impressive that even its potentially dullest element is exciting. The latest in Bethesda's long-running role-playing game series is very much the latter.
Dear Lord, you should see its menus. They're beautiful. When you're talking about a game that also includes dragon-slaying, a freeform world in which you can manually climb to the top of the highest mountain in sight, a graphics engine that will drop even the steeliest jaw and a brand new combat system that sees you dual-wielding weapons and magic in impossibly expansive combinations, choosing to start off by banging on about the interface is really saying something.
Bethesda's RPGs (most recently Oblivion and Fallout 3) have many recommendable features, but their inventories and stat screens are not among them. With Skyrim, out go the cramped, text-filled boxes and in come the Apple-slick fonts. They crisply float directly on to the screen, organised into elegantly tiered menus, which are accompanied by full 3D renderings of whatever weapon, armour or other object they're referencing. The detail on the latter is such that solving one quest's puzzle involves physically peering at the inscriptions on a mystic key in your inventory. But that's not the half of it.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Trailer
Character abilities (divided into 18 evolving skills affected by a streamlined core of three attributes of Health, Magicka and Stamina) are no longer chosen by scrolling through long lists of words and numbers, but by navigating a vast, illuminated star field. As you unlock new skills, the stars light up, forming slowly into this world's equivalent of Orion's Belt, the Plough et al. It's amazing to behold - elaborate yet obvious, ludicrously showy yet also non-fussy. The metaphor is that your character looks upwards to the gods to find inspiration and strength; their destiny is quite literally written in the stars.
This is an RPG so determined to be the best on show that it's found a way to fold the genre's traditional statistic-splurge into the game itself, and presents it in a way that's (almost) as exciting as knocking dragons out of the sky with exploding fireballs.
Riverwood was one of the small towns we saw in Skyrim
To describe the world outside those menus, the icy land of Skyrim itself, is a peculiarly daunting task, even after exposure to it. On the one hand, it's Bethesda doing the Bethesda thing all over again - a large, sandbox fantasy world, packed with beasts and towns, combat and questing, trade and talking. On the other hand, it makes Oblivion and Fallout 3/New Vegas immediately look about 50 years old by comparison.
Skyrim's in-game world may be a more or less similar size to Oblivion's, but the amount of detail changes everything, and not just because the surfeit of climbable mountains adds so much vertical scale. Screenshots don't do the game justice; they don't convey the motion and lighting that makes this cold world seem so vibrant, and they also suggest it's just a game about bashing monsters.
Here are just a few examples of Skyrim's scope. A town's economy can be disrupted by cruelly (or for quest reasons) trashing its lumber mill; in turn, the price of wooden equipment such as arrows will be affected. Monsters and animals are no longer mindless killers, but roam the world with their own agendas - witness the hulking, somehow-sad Giant that thunders slowly past you without a second glance, or the pack of wolves that work together to take down a poor mammoth.
Many of the quests are now semi-procedurally generated too, cobbling together on-the-fly vignettes - so a challenge to save a villager's child from a nearby dungeon will not be pre-written, but rather based on the game picking a local villager with a child and deciding in which dungeon the nipper will be trapped. To avoid dreary mechanical churn, the story is handwritten, but the key elements and characters are random.