One of the year's most anticipated games — the "Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim" — has just launched. This medieval-themed role-playing game offers up a vast virtual world to explore, an epic adventure to experience and a stunning 300-plus hours of possible gameplay.
But having already spent a bit of time in "Skyrim," I can say from experience that jumping into this gargantuan game can feel a bit ... overwhelming. There's so much to do, so much to see and so many choices to make, you can't help but wonder, "What should I be doing?"
Of course, there is no should. "Skyrim" — the fifth game in the "Elder Scrolls" series — is all about following your own path and living out your own personal fantastical journey.
Still, with "Skyrim" putting so much before you, one can't help but want a little guidance.
While there is a 656-page "Skyrim" strategy guide players can consult, for something a bit more succinct I went straight to the source. I asked game director Todd Howard of Bethesda Game Studios what he would tell players — those new to the "Elder Scrolls" series and veterans alike — to help them get the most out of their game.
Here are five tips he offered to those about to step into "Skyrim."
Take your time
When Skyrim starts, you'll find yourself launched into the thick of things. There's a civil war afoot and you've been caught up in the middle of it. Meanwhile, lo and behold, dragons have also returned to the land and, bam, you'll come face-to-face with one of the fiery beasts.
At this point, you've been teased with a wee taste of the story that lies ahead and it's fairly easy to discern which way to go if you want to follow that main plot line. But the nice thing is, you don't have to follow it ... at least not yet.
Once you get past the introductory action and basic character creation, you can set out in almost any direction you'd like. And that's what Howard suggests that new players and veteran players alike do.
"Take your time initially," he says. "I wouldn’t dissuade anybody from doing the main quest, but I think my preference is, when somebody first plays the game, that they just wander initially because I think that's when they’re going to start making their own story and be like 'ok this is what interests me.'
"That’s what I think is special about the game: being able to explore at your own pace," he says. "The game has a lot of parts and if you just kind of take it easy and explore for your first couple of hours you’ll find it quite rewarding."
If you want to get ahead...
Of course, if you want to jump into the game at a gallop and level up quickly, Howard has this to say:
"The best way to get ahead is if you try to join a faction in the archetype that you're playing — whether that’s the College of Winterhold for mages, the Thieves Guild for thieves, or the Companions for warriors. Those are good avenues for those archetypes that will give you interesting things to do and make you more powerful."
Where do you find these factions? Don't worry, it won't be long before a character in the game points you in the right direction.
Play around with the different play styles
The folks at Bethesda have taken what they learned from the previous "Elder Scrolls" game "Oblivion" as well as from their work on "Fallout 3" and revamped the character system for "Skyrim." What that means is, they've made it far easier to change up how you play the game as you go.
For example, if you're unsure whether you want to be a magic-wielding mage, a sword-swinging warrior or stealthy thief, you will be relieved to know that, unlike in "Oblivion," you don't have to make a permanent decision. That is, in "Skyrim," you don't have to pick a specific class for your character to be at the outset. Instead, there are a variety of skills at your disposal — enchanting, archery or alchemy for example — and those skills that you enjoy and use will improve as you use them. Meanwhile, the new perks system will let you further enhance and fine tune those skills.
With that in mind, Howard said, "I would say to try out the various play styles. A good way to start out is to get a weapon you like and put that in your right hand and get a spell that you like and put that in your left hand, because that will give you a taste of both. And then you can decide, 'oh I’m the kind of player who prefers doing magic or I’m the type of player who prefers doing more combat stuff."
Do you really need that?
If you're new to playing the "Elder Scrolls" games you'll find that, as you travel through this medieval world, there's lots of nifty stuff to find and keep and even sell for much-needed money. If you walk into a friend's house you may find that you have the option to take everything from potions and books to the household cups and dishes. Walk through a field and you can pick flowers. Head into a dungeon and you can grab skulls, weapons and ratty old clothing.
But just because you can take something, doesn't mean you should.
"Decide what you find is fun as far as what kind of character you want to play, whether it’s a warrior, mage or thief kind of role and then get the items that are going to work for you," Howard says.
Sure, it may take some time to figure out which items you really need and which you don't. But being somewhat choosy will prevent you from wasting your time and prevent your character from getting weighed down by unnecessary garbage. It also just makes sense.
"Those people who don’t play our games a lot, they jump in and they pick everything up," Howard said. "But it’s more like the real world. You don’t walk into your friend's office and take all of his pens and paper and books do you?"
Take the time to look ... down
When it comes to "Skyrim," there are so many quests and missions to undertake and so many fantastical foes to fight it's easy to get caught up in the action and intrigue right in front of your eyes.
But try this: Stop for a moment and look down at the ground.
"If you look down once in a while, there are certain wood boards or log stumps, and if you look at them closely you'll see ants crawling across them," Howard says. "99.9 percent of the people playing the game won't notice that, but we know it's there."
And when you're done looking at the ants on the ground, take a moment to notice the gorgeous trees. Howard says they created an entirely new "tree system" so that the world's foliage is far more detailed than in any prior game. And once you're done looking at the trees, check out the mountains that chew up the sky in the distance. Howard says they wrote a new system for creating those mountains — mountains that are not just distant backdrops, but peaks that you can approach and climb and explore.
The level of detail that the developers at Bethesda have put into the entire world of "Skyrim" is absolutely stunning. In fact, "the entire world is built by hand," Howard points out.
Whereas "Oblivion" featured a lot of randomly generated landscaping, for "Skyrim" a team of 30 artists spent three years crafting every nook and cranny in the game and they built the thousands of objects you'll find there — fireflies and dragonflies zinging through the air, fish swimming up streams that you can catch and cook and eat...
If you really want to get the most out of your game, be sure to stop fighting dragons for just a moment and simply enjoy the scenery.
"We obsessed over all the little details," Howard promises.
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Winda Benedetti writes about games for msnbc.com. You can follow her tweets about games and other things here on Twitter or join her in the stream here on Google+ . And be sure to check out the In-Game Facebook page here.