Spelunking, giant-hunting, swimming and looting in Skyrim

One hour of dicking around reminds us why we love this series

It’s true: we’ve already reported on a demo of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim once before. And the demo we played most recently technically wasn’t any different from the one we’ve already written about. The neat thing about Skyrim, however, is that it’s being presented to journalists in a unique way: rather than a standard hand-holding, forced-march demo, we’ve simply been set loose on a more or less complete version of the game, and given an hour to get as far as possible. And while Matt Keast did his best to have a complete, dungeon-themed adventure in our last preview, that’s not how or why I play Elder Scrolls games. Not for the first few hours, anyway.

For me, the beauty of Oblivion, Morrowind and the rest is that you can wander randomly in any direction and find endless interesting things to do before ever settling down and concerning yourself with the mundanities of plot. And given an hour of free rein, you can bet your ass I’m not going to waste any time crawling into dungeons or listening to long-winded exposition. If Skyrim is a real Elder Scrolls game, I should be able to have plenty of fun just dicking around – and, happily, it didn’t disappoint.

In spite of the time limit, the beginning of the demo encouraged players to check out the character-creation features – and for the sake of a well-rounded experience, I decided to play around with it. Cycling through the available races, I picked an orc and immediately adjusted the facial sliders to make as bulbous and ugly a tusk-monster as the game would allow. Satisfied that he would elicit discomfort and horror from anyone he met, I gave him a hulking red beard and decided it was time for him to head out into the world.

Above: So many possibilities!

The demo began with my orc standing in a cave, and one of the PR handlers immediately stepped in to tell me that it won’t be reflective of the game’s actual intro – but since they didn’t want to spoil that, they gave the demo a placeholder instead. Fair enough. Leaving the cave in rags and manacles (nearly every Elder Scrolls game starts you off as a just-released or escaped prisoner, and this was no exception), I walked out onto a snowy mountain path, and after wandering around a little, I was attacked by a couple of wolves.

After making a valiant attempt to take them on with my fists, another helpful PR minder stepped in and showed me how to equip inventory items (which I didn’t know I had) by hitting right on the d-pad to bring up a simple item menu. Hitting left on the d-pad brought up a similar menu for magic, while hitting up introduced a literal galaxy of skills to worry about – but not now! An hour of playtime doesn’t allow for time to care about the intricacies of what my character can and can’t do. So after putting on some armor, whipping out a sword and a fire spell, and dispatching the wolves, I leapt blindly off the nearest cliff to see how far I could fall without being killed. Luckily, the drop was only about 10 feet, and I landed behind a riverside tent belonging to a hunter.

Behind the tent was a chest, so over her mild protestations, I picked the lock (with a minigame that was thankfully similar to Fallout 3’s lockpick-twisting, instead of Oblivion’s agitating tumbler-bouncing) and ransacked every gold piece and animal skin inside. What was she going to do about it? Nothing, that’s what. There were no guards around for miles. After robbing her blind, I engaged her in casual conversation, at which point she forgot about my theft of her property and offered to sell me some pelts. I gave her some of her gold pieces back in exchange for one of them, then jumped into the river to see what swimming was like.

Visually, going underwater was pretty similar to Oblivion, in that the camera can be angled just above the surface of the water to see it as a flat layer, while the terrain underneath it looked perfectly clear. Angling it down a little, however, brought back the familiar underwater murk, and it stayed murky right up until I saw the water end ahead of me in a shiny wall.

Clearly this merited further investigation, and so I swam through it – only to come out on the other side of a waterfall. Luckily, you don’t take falling damage if you land in Skyrim’s water, and so after plummeting to safety, I lazily swam into the shallows, eventually coming to the little mountain village of Riverwood. Here, I took a few moments to observe the town’s working sawmill, which I could apparently use to split logs, given the time or the inclination. Sadly, I had neither. Just as I was considering dragging a wolf carcass onto the saw platform, though, some guy who’d apparently been in the game’s intro (which, again, was kept out of the demo) came up and started talking to me.

I spent a couple of minutes chatting with the guy, picking questions and responses from a list and listening to his answers, but eventually, he started talking about kings and rebellion and trying to introduce me to his family. After taking a moment to marvel at the realistic way his wife and son gathered around to non-randomly converse with each other about Skyrim and politics and whatnot, I beat it the hell out of there, taking time only to talk to a friendly-looking dog (who, despite being impressively modeled and realistically shaggy, only ever barked) before jumping back into the river to see where it would take me.

After an interminable amount of time wading through the shallows, I followed a little path leading away from the river, and watched a hawk fly majestically overhead. Stripped of any sense of consequence or moral obligation that a full playthrough might bring, I immediately nocked an arrow and let fly at the thing – and then let a couple more fly after missing it by a mile. Eventually, the hawk hid in the branches of a nearby tree, and so I aimed one more shot at where I thought I saw it land. Just then, a couple of wolves showed up.

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