Skyrim terrifies me. I sank 150 hours into its brilliant predecessor, Oblivion, and now Bethesda wants me to visit their offices and play three hours of Skyrim. Three! Three hours from 300. Three hours of a game I've been desperate to play for five years.
When I arrive, 30 minutes late thanks to an agonising train delay, I'm placed in front of a near-final version - one with everything in it - and told I can do as I please. Panic washes over me. How do you begin to get a flavour of such a huge game in such a short space of time?
For tips and cheats have a look at CVG's Skyrim guide.
The map's vast, the character options myriad... the items at my disposal number in the hundreds. I want to see it all, to make Skyrim spill its juicy secrets, but it's all so overwhelming I freeze, unable to even start. Oh god - where do I begin? I feel the precious seconds draining away like the sands of an egg timer. At last, I take a deep breath and seek Solitude.
Literally. Solitude in this case is a city in the northern-most reaches of Skyrim; a man-made structure on a vast ridge, it juts from one of this area's many mountains like a middle finger, raised in defiance at the rest of the nation. The place has its own identity, a flavour unique to this one small part of Skyrim. Not just cosmetically - the people here seem proud to live in Solitude. They have their own festivals, myths and customs.
Upon arrival - after an hour just getting there from the middle of the map - I notice everyone is gathered in a square near the gate. I walk over to investigate. A man is being executed for his part in a vicious civil war - something that has gripped the whole world of Skyrim. Looks like he picked the wrong side. People gather to watch. They come out of their shops and houses to hurl abuse at the condemned man, who remains stoic even as the charges are read and the axe falls. Afterwards, the spectators chat amongst themselves about what just happened, before returning to their day jobs. For me, this simple snapshot makes Skyrim feel more alive than any other world on current consoles.
And it's exciting - I can feel hours of my life falling away as I explore one tiny part of this game, learning about its people, its identities, its dark secrets. I already know I'll spend longer in Solitude alone than I will in 90% of all the other games I play in 2011 - and 2012 - in their entirety.
BARD TO THE BONE
I head into town, keen to find a 'proper' quest instead of the random dungeon-plundering I indulged in during my journey to Solitude. I'm directed by a random passer-by to the Bard's Guild (yes, Bards), where I meet with the head - a man called Viarmo. He's got a little problem. Haven't they all?
The Jarl of Solitude has banned the city from celebrating the Burning Of King Olaf festival this year, and Viarmo - as a fan of all things cultural - needs something to make her reconsider, something to highlight the historic importance of the festival. Viarmo thinks there's a book of ancient verse hidden in a place called Dead Man's Respite that might do the trick. Would I mind fetching it? Well, I did pass that place on the way to Solitude... oh, go on then.
I can feel hours of my life falling away as I explore one tiny part of Skyrim
I fast-travel (from inside the city) back to Dead Man's Respite. It's a strange and foreboding tomb carved into a mountain, and to get here originally I'd clambered across mountains, marshlands, moors, forests and snow-covered tundra, yet still only covered a straight line from the centre of Skyrim to the far north-east corner. What lies to the south? The west? I'm almost ecstatic to say I don't know. Yet.