Skyrim is one of the most beautiful places in gaming. It's as if when it came to constructing a follow-up to the brilliant Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, 'spectacle' was the first bullet point on Bethesda's list.
As the live gameplay demo fades to life, the visuals are the first thing to hit. Our faceless, voiceless hero (broken fresh out of captivity, as always) stands on a dirt path in a typically Elder Scrolls rural environment except, as well as Oblivion stands up in its old age, we've clearly come a long way since 2006.
We're served a stunning view: Although the leaves on the trees look a bit flat, there are examples of foliage nestled down at the base of big chunky rocks that capture the light perfectly and appear to bend slightly with the breeze. The rocks themselves look almost real with incredibly detailed textures that have an impact from a distance, as well as standing up to scrutiny upon closer inspection.
The water effects here are some of the best we've seen, especially considering the first appearance from our good friend H2O comes in the form of a fast-flowing river crashing over rocks and waterfalling with a burst of fine, misty spray. None of that easy-as-pie, calm lake crap here - a river like this one may seem like a pretty by the way feature, but it's so crisp, clear and realistic that we immediately take it as a statement of ambition and outright skill from the studio.
When we see a couple of reddish-silver fish arc out of the waterfall and flap in the air before splashing back down and continuing their journey up stream, it's almost enough to make us stand up and walk out in a peculiar reaction of admiration. We don't of course, since we're just a few minutes into what's going to be an hour long demo, and besides, we're pinned to our seats by more than just what's immediately in front of our soft, quivering eyes.
The far distance is even more impressive in the game as a few overbearing mountains make up the background to Skyrim. That's just what they look like; part of an unreachable backdrop that's been painted on just for show. Except they're not; they're bigger and further away than anything you might have seen in other sandbox of spectacular vistas like Assassin's Creed but each one is completely scalable. The biggest one, Bethesda Games Studios' Todd Howard informs us, has 7000 steps carved into it on the way to the peak.
We're assured this is a package of more than just visuals though, and included in the bow-wrapped box is a soundtrack that seems to know just how good the game looks. It's essentially a choir of angels singing the final, most uplifting note of a 'born-again' orchestral score. Without getting too much hyperbole all over your faces, we were looking into Skyrim with an air of awe, but we're not sure how much of that was created by the audio itself, which suggests a job well done on the part of the music maestros.
Even the menus feel expensive; the inventory system, for example, displays every weapon and item in full 360 rotational, zoom-tastic 3D so that you can really study everything you pick up. Not just for the hell of it either; there's a strong sense of culture in the design of a lot of the weapons which can be learned about and traced from one item to the next and, without giving too much away, you might find hints and tips buried in the things you pick up. Okay, you will, so being able to cast your beady eye over you haul comes in useful every now and then.
The XP and skill menu is even better. If you want to check up on your progression or see the best route to fulfilling your full potential, well, the answers in the stars. Skill trees are mapped across star-signs in a cosmic nebula that's both beautiful to look at and strangely relaxing. It's a luxurious display for something that most developers have been jotting down on a scrap of pixel-paper for years.