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Elder Scrolls V Skyrim: Epic demo makes our brains melt

Is it too early to call game of the year?

In a word: Wow. Before E3 started you voted The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim your most anticipated game of the show. Having seen the very first demo after the doors opened, we can now confirm that the boys and girls at Bethesda's have not let you down.

It's an incredible game - beautiful and vast, yet significantly more accessible than Oblivion - and if it doesn't win a ton of awards we'll eat our own horse armour. Here's everything you need to know...

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It could have been a PS4 game

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The demo kicks off with game director Todd Howard revealing that Bethesda had kicked around the idea of waiting for PS4 and Xbox 720 to do Skyrim. "When we started we looked at possibly going to the next-gen consoles whenever they might come," he explains. "But coming off the back of Fallout III we knew that we had a really long list of things that we knew we could do on the current generation."

It looks utterly astonishing

The first thing we're shown is one of those signature Bethesda moments in which the hero (they aren't talking character generation specifics yet) steps out into the light and surveys an incredible open-world panorama. Skyrim is the northernmost province of Tamriel, with a chilly Nordic flavour to it. "Our goal is to create the biggest, craziest fantasy world that we could imagine," says Howard. "And we're all about the little details, from plants with full shadows to big macro detail like a mountain in the distance you can walk up to and climb."

Which later on is exactly what we do, and as the snow starts to fall, Howard explains how the weather changes are entirely dynamic. Everywhere you look there's fine detail, like the glowing corona of light on the tip of a mage's staff. And you really can see for miles. For that you can thank the new graphics engine, which like all of the gameplay, has been completely rewritten since Fallout III.

"I think when a lot of people go into engine development they try to figure out how to not draw things," says Howard, "whereas we go in assuming we're going to draw everything." It's also the richest, most colourful world the team has created yet. "Coming off the back of Fallout III all our artists were excited to be able to use the green channel again," jokes Howard.

It's all about how you use your hands

The fundamental decision to make at any time during Skyrim is what to stick in your hands. In this Xbox 360 demo the right stick controls whatever you've placed in your right hand - which could be a sword, a shield, a spell, a staff etc - while the left hand does likewise. Put the same spell in both hands and you double its power. Or you could wade in with a fancy Elven glass sword in one fist and a meaty dwarven axe in the other.

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And of course you can keep switching your selection to suit the task at hand. So at one point we saw the hero using charged-up fireballs to torch a vile-looking Frostbite Spider, before using its venom to poison his blade and then brutally knifing the muppet NPC who tried to make off with the quest treasure. The range of spells is predictably impressive too.

During the section set in Bleakfalls Barrow we come up against a bunch of coffin dodgers. They get dealt with by casting Circle Of Protection in one hand (the zombies like that about as much as cats being tossed into the bath) and Chain Lightning, which does exactly what it says on the magical tin.

Other intriguing spells included Clairvoyance, which draws a ghostly line to whatever your objective is (much like the magic path-finding laser in Dead Space), and Frenzy, which turns enemies against each other. In one instance this resulted in an enraged orc throwing his pal out of the window, courtesy of the Havok Behavior physics engine. "I swear I've never seen that!" shouts Howard. "Awesome."

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