It's a small shack, lit by lamplight from the inside, and pretty glowing insects buzzing around outside. I try to catch one. 'Sparkfly thorax collected'. What?! No! I didn't mean- nevermind.
Inside, I find the journal of an alchemist who lived here for a while. I use his apparatus to try mixing a few potions of my own: any two ingredients with a common effect will make a potion, but you have to eat one raw to find out any of their effects in advance. In the case of Nightshade and Death's Bane, I decide to forego the taste test and just experiment. They produce a strong poison, which I apply to a sword I will forget to ever use again.
Finally, I shut the door and decide to see if I can sleep through this storm – or at least the night.
The next morning the sun is shining, I have a bonus to my health and magicka for sleeping in a good bed, and it's only a short trudge through the snow before it gives way to an autumnal forest: silver birches with rustling yellow leaves. Soon I reach a camp of half a dozen large tents, erected around a fire with a roasting spit. Imperial guardsmen are milling about in their Roman-looking armour, so I trade with their quartermaster and then try their cooking apparatus.
Cooking is a new feature where, as soon as you bring up the interface, all the imperial guardsmen around you draw their weapons, start shouting, and then run up the hill behind you while you gently stir a pot. Wait, I'm not sure that's meant to happen.
I join the guards, but I can't see what they're reacting to. Following their gazes, I head up a hill outside camp, then finally see it: a Redguard woman in leathers on a high rock, raining arrows down on the camp below. I draw a newly purchased warhammer, itching to try out two-handed weaponry on someone relatively defenceless.
She draws a battleaxe. She runs at me, storming down the hill. I draw my warhammer back. She draws her battleaxe back. I swing. She swings – and an arrow hits her in the side of the neck, sending her flying off my screen and tumbling gracelessly down the hill.
I was having a dramatic hands-on preview moment!
Back at camp, I get the hang of cooking, then blacksmithing: both are basically lists of things you can produce that pop up while your character looks busy in the background. Cooking turns raw food items into stews that give you long-lasting buffs, such as a venison stew that steadily regenerates your health for five minutes or so. Blacksmithing turns metal ores into armour and weapons, but better item types are locked off until you get the right blacksmithing perk. I also had a go on their grindstone: you can sharpen weapons for extra damage. Elsewhere, you can use enchanting shrines to add spell effects to any weapon, and even destroy magical weapons to learn their enchantments and apply them to something else.
While I tinkered, a guard mentioned that the legion are always looking for help. It turns out you can actually join the Imperial Legion in Skyrim, and they're one of a few non-guild factions.
Near the camp, I find a ruined temple of some kind, half-overgrown. I'm about to investigate when a halfnaked man runs up to me and gets my attention. Since this isn't Oblivion, that doesn't mean my head is sucked into his for a creepy conversation where his face fills the screen – I'm just turned to face him, rooted to the spot but free to look around while he talks.
“Here, hold on to this for me! I can't keep it, but I'll be back for it later.”
Since the item in question is a Battleaxe of Souls, I accept. Before the guy can even run off, a hunter appears.
“Have you seen a thief anywhere?”
I look round at the thief, then back to the hunter, and consider the axe in my inventory. “... no.”
“Damn. Well, if you see him, let me know, he has something of mine.”
As soon as the conversation ends, the hunter sees the thief and draws his bow. Not wanting to be left out, I draw my new battleaxe and crush the thief with an overhanded power attack. I look at the hunter, then back to the stolen axe I just used in front of him, and crush him with it too.
I'm still a long way out of Riften, and it's taken me an hour to cross a patch of snow that looks tiny on the map. There are, however, a few horses here at camp. On the one hand, they're not for sale and everyone's watching me. On the other hand, woo! Horsey!
You now steer horses the way you steer yourself – they don't use the vehicle-style controls of Oblivion. It's not a dramatic change: horses are still just a reasonably fun speed boost, but one I badly needed to reach Riften.
I make excellent time galloping along the leafy riverside road, and I even stop to say hi to some Rift Guards who've made camp by the river near the city gates. This, it turns out, is a mistake.
The Rift Guards are a separate faction to the Imperial Legion, so they don't much care about the bounty on my head for stealing this horse. But when I get back on my horse, they're suddenly furious. He's stealing the horse he rode in on! GET HIM!