The Elder Scrolls games may be famous for their incredible side quests. But I wouldn't even call Pinewatch Sanctuary a side quest. Granted, it is something that you complete, appearing checked off on the map as 'cleared' alongside more potential adventures in Falkreath, Riverwood and Whiterun. But to demystify this into a mere video game completion statistic is to do Bethesda a monumental injustice. So let me tell you about the secret of Pinewatch Sanctuary – and why Skyrim is very likely Game of the Year.
Above: We contracted Rockjoint from one of these things. Kill it with fire!
Having chosen an Argonian and named him 'Spud', I'm pretty sure I'm starting in the same place that Mikel did during his hands-on time. But, after chasing a rabbit through the snow (sounds lovely, but I was trying to kill it with arrows), I end up in a place called Pinewatch. It actually looks familiar, as I'm not the only attendee at the demo event and I'd been watching the screen of the journo next to me while my game loaded. And, to be honest, I'm disappointed that I'm in the same place as someone else. But never mind. Might as well have a look in that farmhouse to see if there's anything worth taking.
The farmhouse is quite small, and occupied not by a farmer, but by two bandits, who don't take kindly to my intrusion. They must've offed the farmer and used his home for their own needs. Perfect fodder for my fire spell, then, which is unlike Oblivion's rather pathetic projectiles and more like a GTA flame-thrower, firing continuously in a magnificent stream of destruction magic for as long as you hold the L trigger (and have magicka, naturally). Two toasted bandits later and I'm momentarily alone again, only for another bandit to suddenly emerge from the basement staircase to my right.
Message in a bandit
Having dealt with him, I check the bodies for gold. And what's this? A letter from one bandit to another. It speaks of knowing a guy who knows a guy who can 'set us up with some pirates' in a far-off town I haven't seen yet. The plan is to travel there, all the way 'living high on the treasure'. Treasure, eh? As a footnote, it says 'I've left you some wine in the bucket behind the shelf'.
Hmmm… I don't see a bucket. So I quickly search the room. A couple of bookcases, both flush to the wall and neither with any hint of a bucket, let alone wine. Perhaps the note isn't talking about this farmhouse. But just as I'm about to leave, I think to myself 'maybe it's not a shelf I can move', so I look for a higher shelf on the wall on its own. Sure enough, there is one – and next to it, a tiny switch. Click!
The wall swings around revealing an alcove. And there, sure enough, is a bucket containing three bottles of wine. Woot! But wait – this isn't an alcove… it keeps going. It's a secret passage...
Inside, there are more bandits. They're not aware of my presence, either, until I push a cart full of round cheeses off a ledge, watching the impeccable physics play out as they scatter on the rock below. Uh-oh – they've seen me. The fights play out on elevated wooden platforms, which makes circling impossible.
Above: The game's almost done now. Just crossing the 'T's and dotting the... lower case 'J's
You can tell the combat is still based on Oblivion's system, but it's way better. There's no feeling of having to run backwards here. I stand my ground, blocking with a shield and thrusting with a sword. The camera jolts brilliantly as hits land on my poor Argonian's face, the flinches highly reminiscent of Condemned's thumping impacts.
But soon, three more bandits lie dead. Most of them are female, and of course the one time I hit 'Take all' is the one time the guy next to me glances at my screen. With the suddenly near-naked girl lying before me and a sudden uncomfortable feeling, I quickly search another and take only their gold and lockpicks. He looks away again. Better.
It soon hits me how good the enclosed areas look, even compared to the amazing outside scenes. I mean, looking back at the demo gameplay footage from outside...
...you'd wonder how it could really get any better, but it does. It clearly helps when the 360 isn't having to render miles and miles of open scenery (which it still does with aplomb, mind), as the caves look even better than outdoors. Light sources from torches line the walls, blinking off as I steal them and put them in my inventory.