This preview originally appeared in Issue 232 of PC Gamer UK .
My coffee is stone cold. I don't even know how long I've had it, I've been so completely lost in Skyrim. I've been granted a generous chunk of time to play the very latest build of the full game – no restrictions on what I can do or where I can go. And I've only just finished creating my character.
At the start of the game, you're being led to your execution. I've skipped to just after you get out of that, when you're given one last chance to choose your race, gender and appearance before being let out into this vast and frosty world.
Bethesda don't want to spoil the main quest, and neither do I. The reason to be excited about Skyrim is your own story: the unique string of discoveries and adventures you run into. And because it's unique, I can tell you mine without spoiling yours.
Mine was the story of a scarlet-plumed Argonian with manic staring eyes. As I say, I spent a long time in character creation. Argonians are lizard men, and they've had a major overhaul in Skyrim: they look more monstrous, leathery, dinosaurian.
As in every Elder Scrolls game, you start as a prisoner with no history or status. But the war paint, scars and dirt you can add during character creation make it feel different this time. They've made it easier to make a character who looks desperate, bedraggled and fierce. Every race looks leaner and meaner: previously adorable wood elves have piggy, dead black eyes. Previously goofy orcs look fierce and tribal. Once aloof high elves look withered and cruel. And dark elves- wait, no, dark elves always looked like jerks.
My scary-eyed Argonian starts the game in a cave. At the other end, a dazzling light shines through chunks of blue ice, and as I step towards it, a prompt appears: 'To Skyrim'.
Morrowind let you off a boat, into a misty fishing village overlooked by a giant tick. Oblivion let you out of a sewer, onto the shores of a shining lake. Skyrim lets you out of a cave, on the snowy slopes of a huge mountain. The craggy landscape stretches before you, half lost in the clouds. It's one hell of a sight. I turn around and set off in the opposite direction.
This is what I love about Elder Scrolls games. I love not doing what I'm told, avoiding what I'm pointed at, and going where I shouldn't. Anyone wanting to take the well-trodden path in Skyrim can head down that slope, discover the small town of Riverwood, and kill a boss spider in a dark cave. But we've seen all that in the E3 demo – I want to see the rest of the world.
A few minutes up the hill, I find a walled-off Nordic town I'm not allowed into. I hop on a few boulders and climb in anyway. Through a pair of heavy doors, I find subterranean torture chambers, and dead adventurers rotting in tiny cages. Only one seems worth looting – a robed guy with a book in his cell – but it's locked.
Lockpicking is no longer a tumbler-tickling nightmare: you just swivel one pick to what you hope is a sweet spot, and try turning the lock with the other. It'll turn a little if you're close to the sweet spot, but turn too far in the wrong position and the pick snaps. It's a system that works well in Fallout 3, and it feels slicker here.
Persuasion, by the way, isn't a minigame at all this time. Certain dialogue options have '[Persuade]' in front of them, and your chance of success – which isn't shown – depends on your skill. I never succeeded at one.
The wizard has nothing much on him, but the book is worth it: it teaches me Spark, a streaming lightning spell. I try it out on a ribcage: a crackle of white energy leaps from my hand, jolting it across the room, and doesn't stop. The roaring current keeps flowing as long as you hold the button. It's an addictive feeling of power.
Back out in the wilderness, I decide I need a destination. The map, when I bring it up, is beautiful: a bird's-eye-view of the world, in full 3D and rotatable to view its geography. Parts of it are swamped in mist because, apparently, it's actually misty there at this moment.
I pan beyond the mountain I'm climbing now and look for the nearest city in this direction. Off to the east, the snowy slopes give way to milder forests running along a meandering river, and a few miles later the river leads to a city. I'm going to Riften.
You can't fast-travel to cities you haven't visited already, but I want to walk it anyway. I haven't gone far up the slopes when it starts to snow – lightly, then heavily, then a full-on blizzard. A cold haze creeps over everything, and I can barely see where I'm going. I stumble on some carefully piled rocks, and follow a trail of these as best I can. Until I come to one that's splattered with blood and decorated with human bones. Ah.
My compass indicates some kind of thing nearby, so I head to it. I could use a thing about now.
The thing turns out to be Orphan Rock, a huge mass of stone jutting out from the mountainside. Scrambling through the snow, I find a way to the top and peer out into the storm. All I can make out is what looks like a huge carcass to the east. I jump down to investigate, and realise it's a horse: dead and twisted next to an upturned cart. I 'search' its 'inventory' and 'collect' some horse meat, then freeze at the sound of steel. I scan the wreckage for movement, and realise there's a large, shaggily dressed warrior making his way around it, battleaxe drawn.
So about the new dual-wielding system. In your inventory, you equip an item or spell by pressing the button you want to assign it to: left or right. There are virtually no restrictions on what you can mix, so I'd mixed a flame spell in my left hand with the new lightning one in my right. And in the heat of the moment, it's pretty natural to just hold down both.
The crackling torrent of fire and electricity takes even me by surprise. A separate stream shoots from each hand, but they're so thick and chaotic that it often looks like one vast beam of lightning and flame. I can barely see the warrior through the dazzling blaze, but when my magicka bar runs dry there's only a corpse. At which point, a long sharp object zips past my head.
Archers. Two of them, and I have no magicka. I will solve this by standing exactly behind a tree until I do. This is what they did for a cover system in fantasy times.
Unfortunately, the warrior has a friend with a sword and shield, and he knows his way around a tree. I need something else to attack with, so I bring up my Favourites menu. Your inventory in Skyrim is like a web browser, in that you can bookmark items and bring that shortlist up in-game. Time is paused while you choose, so it's not like a hotkey system – a difference I was glad of in this tight spot. I'd bookmarked my best onehanded sword, and I had two of them, so I hit the left and right buttons to put one in each hand.
Melee combat is slightly more satisfying than in Oblivion, but light blows still feel a little unconvincing, and heavy ones still a little clumsy. My enemy was excellent at blocking, but I had a crucial advantage: I wasn't going to ever stop attacking for any reason. Eventually he just couldn't block all the blows from both my swords all the time, and he fell to his cuts. At which point, I had a full bar of magicka and my fire and lightning spells re-equipped. Charge!
I am not a skilful man, so it took my whole magicka supply to keep my dual streams on the first archer long enough to burn him to the ground. Back to the favourites menu: two axes! Against a man with a bow, this fight goes better – it ends when I bring both axes crashing into either side of his head with a special dual power attack.
Suddenly I'm alone in the blizzard, among the corpses of both the attackers and the travellers they evidently ambushed. I put my axes away and set off towards Riften.
The blizzard doesn't let up, and it's getting dark. I start looking for another thing. My compass suggests there's a boxy thing with lines in it to the north and a triangular thing to the west – I'm not yet familiar with what these icons represent. I head for the boxy thing, and by the time I arrive it's night.
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.
Guys! 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!
This sort of lunacy will be a familiar tale for anyone who horse-rustled in Oblivion. But in other ways, the crime system is more advanced: each city is its own faction, so crimes in one don't get you in trouble in the next. And if you can kill everyone who saw you commit a crime, you'll get a notification that there are no surviving witnesses, and your bounty has been cleared.
Right now, though, this is bad. I gallop on to Riften inside of a minute, but arrive with arrows whizzing past my head and sticking in my horse. Two guards at the gates charge at me on sight. I try dismounting and putting my weapon away, the way you usually surrender to the guards in Skyrim, but they don't relent. As much to escape their blades as any actual desire to be here, I burst through the city gates.
It gets rough. Guards are streaming in from every side street as I barge through the busy market in the centre of town, jump over fences and weave between bystanders. This is not how I wanted to see the city. I leg it through a gate in the walls.
Outside, something bizarre is happening. The Imperial Guardsmen chasing me for the first time I stole the horse have run into the Rift Guards furious with me for the second time, and they're both much more furious with each other. A small war breaks out in front of the city walls, and for once I'm not under immediate attack. When there's only one guard left among the bloodied corpses, I walk straight up to him, weapon sheathed: please, please arrest me. He arrests me.
In Oblivion, a few of your skills would atrophy as you rotted in your cell. In Skyrim, this doesn't happen, but your progress towards your next point in a few skills will be reset. It's a much milder penalty – I don't even notice which skills I've lost progress in.
Finally exploring Riften without being stabbed, I find a remarkable city. A river runs through it, and in places the cobbled streets give way to sharp drops to the water below, wooden walkways running along the houses at street level. Below that, a network of piers connects the doors of grubbylooking subterranean dwellings, their doors almost at water level. From the chatter around town, I hear there's a network down there called the ratways, where the Thieves Guild hide out. Rift Guards with ominous helmets that conceal their faces growl as I pass. In all kinds of ways, it reminds me of Vivec, Morrowind's intimidating capital.
When I ask art director Matt Carafano about the other cities, he says they're all unique. “We worked really hard to make those feel distinct. So Riften is a rundown lake town, but it's set in the beautiful fall forest area. Whereas Markarth is built in an ancient dwarven ruin in cliff sides, so it's very different. Solitude is more like a castle city, kinda influenced by an imperial style. Windhelm is an ancient Nordic fortress, so it's full of really old Nordic architecture. And you have the city of Whiterun in the centre, which is a more classic Viking – almost mountain-style – city in the tundra.”
Back in the market, a shifty-looking man runs up to me. He's impressed that I saw through the corrupt guard at the north gate, but he thinks killing him was a little harsh. I... what?
I deduce he's a thief with some kind of scam going with a guard. That guard must have been killed in the fracas I caused at the city gates, and he's assuming I rumbled his scheme and did it intentionally. That's wildly untrue, but he's so impressed with my instincts that I decide to accept the credit. He's offering me work: he wants a vendor in town brought down, so he needs me to pickpocket a valuable ring, then place it in the vendor's private chest. He'll create a distraction while I work.
My new friend shouts to all the shoppers and vendors to gather round, and they do. My mark sits on a crate in front of some barrels, and as the thief rambles about a dragon elixir he's discovered, I sneak up behind the vendor and rifle through his pockets. The moment I take the ring, he screams “Thief!” and the guards flood in. I am new at this.
I didn't know it at the time, but in Skyrim, your chance of successfully pickpocketing something depends partly on its value. Rifling through someone's inventory is no longer a crime – at least, not a detectable one. But when you take something, the chance you'll get away with it depends on your pickpocketing skill, the weight of the item, and how much it's worth. People pay more attention to their valuables, this rule implies.
I don't resist arrest, but I'm not willing to serve time for this. As in Oblivion, you wake up in jail with a single lockpick, somehow secreted about your person. Unlike Oblivion, it was actually enough. Before long, I'm out – no skill-progress reset. Man, I should be in the Thieves Guild.
I decide to find the Thieves Guild. Not losing my skill progress pays off: soon I level up, and finally decide to rest. This is where Skyrim goes from exciting to a thing we need a new superlative for – not the resting, but the levelling up. Your skills improve as you use them, and improving enough skills increases your character level. That lets you choose a perk: a tweak to one of your skills that makes it more effective. So you have an element of choice, but you can't pick a high-level perk for a skill you haven't practised much: they have requirements.
The selection is literally dizzying. I have a sort of buzz in my brain as I scamper around the menu reading up on all the options I'll never unlock in the time I have left. I have two perks saved up – you're not forced to spend them as soon as you level – so I put them both into Destruction magic. The first halves the cost of all low level destruction spells, including my fire and lightning ones. The next enables dual-casting: when you equip the same spell in both hands, you can fire both at once for a single, disproportionately more powerful beam.
I blunder into a few dwellings before I find the ratways. They turn out to be a string of incredibly tight tunnels, dank and filthy. Almost immediately, I come out into a larger chamber and find a gaggle of thieves. Excellent!
They demand all of my money. Dammit, I forgot that was the problem with thieves. Renegotiating, I suggest that I keep all of my money, and they instead take all of the fire I'm now shooting from my hands. It's a tough sell: some of them feel I should take one or two of their arrows in return, and one thinks his fists should be part of the deal. There's only one thief left when I run out of magicka, so I bring out my warhammer and crumple him
Dead, he's more generous: I'm suddenly the excited new owner of the Gloves of the Pugilist.
+15 damage on your unarmed attacks wouldn't be much in another RPG, but Elder Scrolls games are stingy with stats. These gloves are a big deal.
It's not long before I get to try them out. My first punch smacks a huge chunk off of my attacker's hitpoint bar, so I try a power attack. I grab him, he disappears off screen, there's a sickening crunch and I drop his limp body to the dirty ground.
Until now I haven't seen many finishing moves, but with the gloves I'm doing them almost every fight. I stride through the ratways taking on all-comers, letting them close on me and then breaking them. I even discover you can mix spells with hand-to-hand combat: the funniest setup is to use a lightning spell in my left hand and keep my right as a fist. I shock people from a distance, then simply knock them out.
I'm coming to the end of my time with Skyrim, and increasingly anxious that I'm not going to find the Thieves Guild before Bethesda haul me away. The ratways are long and intricate, and all I'm finding are big chambers dominated by tree roots and rampant undergrowth. Eventually I find an even bigger area with a lake of fetid water in the centre, a jetty with tables and chairs on the other side, and a fire glowing behind it.
I creep around the edge of the chamber and see people sitting in some of the chairs. I realise it's an underground tavern. And the people here all seem rather... thievey. Since the first rule of the Thieves Guild is that you don't tell everyone who wanders into the Thieves Guild that this is the Thieves Guild, I check with Bethesda – yep, this is the Thieves Guild. I've found it at last.
Unfortunately, no one in the entire establishment wants anything to do with me. It suddenly occurs to me that the guy I failed the quest for earlier – you know, the thief – might have been a Thieves Guild member trying to recruit me. Whether because I messed that up, or simply because I don't have an 'in', the Thieves all treat me like dirt.
I have about five minutes left. I put my gloves back on.
Before playing it, I wasn't totally convinced Skyrim would be a huge leap forward from Oblivion. It is. For all the similarities, it feels like a new world, rendered at a new level of fidelity. More importantly, the new systems completely blow open the possibilities for evolving your character. I can't stop thinking about all the possible combinations of weapons and spells I want to try together when the game comes out – pouring out lightning and fire at the same time was a feeling of power I never had in Oblivion.
And even more tantalising, the perks you can unlock open the way for ridiculous high-level characters. An archer who can slow time while he aims, knock people off their feet with his arrows, and run like the wind between shots. A conjurer who can bring his defeated opponents back to life, two at a time, to fight for him as zombies. Or a thief who can steal the armour off your back, pick a lock right in front of the guards, and even slip a poison into your bloodstream unnoticed.
I can't shake the obsession Skyrim has left me with. I'm pulling screenshots up on my monitor just to feel like I'm playing again. I'm scribbling character builds on napkins. I'm replaying only the snowiest bits of Oblivion. And I'm wondering what the hell November is doing way over there.