The world of a role-playing game like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, however open, is a playground arranged along the trail of quests that will eventually make you ultimate messianic hero. It is populated by quest-giving actors waiting for you to traipse through their village so they can have you can kill this, escort that, or fetch 10 of the other. That the land of Skyrim is so successfully disguised as a real, living place is one of this game's considerable marvels.
Skyrim, home of the fair-haired Nords, feels real and natural. That is not only because the vast, bleakly beautiful wilderness is alive with beasties and the roads scattered with travelers, but also because the towns and cities are hives of authentic activity, with inhabitants convincingly going about their business. Dialogue from all sides overlaps into pleasing ambient chatter as the locals gather wood, gossip, argue, or walk past each other.
As you trot through the walled city of Whiterun with an urgent message to deliver, for instance, there might be a couple arguing within earshot about a missing sword and a monk preaching for his dark cult across the way. Both are recognizably pick-up points for new side quests but are signposted with a pleasing lack of staginess, thanks to the impression that the place is home to real people whose lives don't revolve around you. It doesn't feel as if once your back is turned, they're all going to relax and duck out for a smoke. It feels like a world that's living, breathing, and muddling along without you, which will make it all the more gratifying when you presumably do become ultimate messianic hero.
Much has been said on the mythical heart of this Elder Scrolls installment: Skyrim's all-important dragons and the powerful dragon shout spells you learn as the dragonborn hero. The dual-wielding combat system, with which you place a weapon or a spell in each hand, works well. A flamethrower-like fire spell in each hand, with a perk for bonus damage, is invigorating fun. But we suspect the everyday business of being a hero will be just as compelling as the spectacular dragon battles. The sense of discovery in the early hours of the game, not just of places but of new stories and tricks, is absorbing.
In the mill town of Riverwood, the elf archery trainer is mooning over Camilla, the sister of the town shopkeeper, while in the store, Camilla is bickering with her brother over the theft of a golden trinket. And in the tavern, a rival suitor, the local bard, is plotting against the elf. It's a neat little fantasy soap opera, with each of the players also a quest giver or helper, and their dialogue in direct conversation with you is as natural as their ambient nattering. When you talk with the shopkeeper, his sister chips in from the other side of the store. But if you'd rather not play matchmaker or hunt down a golden dragon claw, you might instead sink time into any number of the crafting systems.
Away from the towns, there are wild plants and mushrooms to be harvested and butterflies to be captured. Each of them are ingredients to be ground up and mixed into potions at an alchemy workbench, which intriguingly invites you to experiment with combinations of items to discover new elixirs. There are also tanning racks for treating animal skins you've nicked off Skyrim's wildlife, blacksmith forges for working weapons, and cooking spits on which to prepare food. We whipped up a batch of magically active cheese fondue that was flavored with illegal moon dust lifted from an orc dealer we met and murdered on our travels.
Also on our travels, we came across and similarly murdered a band of camping bandits. Then, while we rifled through their tents for goodies, a wealthy businessman passed by on his way to a wedding in a nearby town accompanied by his wife, who was duly horrified at the corpses in the road. If time hadn't been short, we might have tailed them to the wedding and not murdered them for the pricey wedding gifts they were carrying.
With distractions like these leading off in all directions and discreet side quest invitations issued in overheard dialogue, it's easy to be enjoyably sidetracked in the land of Skyrim. Even in the early hours of the game, rumors of a Dark Brotherhood, word of a distant mage college, or a warrior band battling a giant in the potato field of a nearby farm might lure you off the main breadcrumb quest trail that leads to your eventual destiny as dragonborn. Endless, beguiling distractions are only right and proper in a rich, free-roaming RPG like this, and we can't wait to be endlessly distracted when Skyrim launches on November 11.