The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim preview

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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.