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The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Hands-on: The Adventures of Loki the Orc

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I walked into Bethesda Softworks‘ three-hour demo for The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim in New York City last week with two specific goals in mind: See as little as possible that had already been shown and wipe out the population of an entire city. This is the story of my failure.

Things started off promisingly enough. I sat down in front of the monitor and found myself staring at a character creation screen. Not wanting to take too much time, I quickly selected an orc with a thick red beard and some crazy face paint, all of which seemed like a perfect fit for my city-killing lunatic.

With that finished, I suddenly found myself dumped into the wide open land of Skyrim. I’m told that the starting point for the demo comes just after the game’s opening section. When every player finishes that intro and sets off into the world for the first time, they’ll find themselves in the same place, at the top of a dirt path winding down a steep mountain.

With control now in my hands, I take a sharp left turn and stumble off into the woods. My unarmed and half-naked orc — I named him Loki — doesn’t seem very prepared for the dangers that lie ahead, so my first plan is to score some equipment. It doesn’t take long.

Moving through the trees, I spot an encampment at the side of the road with beds, a roaring fire and, most importantly, treasure chests. I crack one open and find some basic equipment. Hide armor, hide shield, blade. And… oo! A Hide Shield of Resist Fire! Score!

Closing the chest, I suddenly hear shouts of surprise behind me. The camp I’ve stumbled into belongs to some bandits and they’re none-too-pleased to see me rooting around for treasure. Still nude and unarmed, I pop open the character menu to set myself up for battle… which is when I notice that Bethesda kindly supplied my character with a range of weapons and armor.

Sorry, bandit-dudes. I didn’t need your crummy stuff after all. The trio of doomed thieves doesn’t pay any heed to my apology, so I happily cut then down with my newly armed mace. Now we’re talking. It’s a quick fight, and a brutal one. The final bandit falls in a glorious display of slow-motion death-dealing.

With my first goal — securing equipment — achieved, it’s time to pick out a city to carry out my killings in. Far to the north on Skyrim’s map is a town called Solitude. Perfect, I think. With a name like that, it can’t be much trouble. The city is quite a distance away, and getting there will involve skirting around a sizable mountain range in the middle of the map.

Dropping a map marker on Solitude, I use the onsscreen compass to track it, moving off in a northwestern direction. Packs of wild dogs and the occasional mudcrab come at me, but none are a match for my mighty iron mace. It’s hard not to get caught up in the scenery, as Skyrim is a truly beautiful land, but the constant blood-letting helps

I eventually come to a beaten-down shack that serves as the home for a crab fisherman. After scouring the dwelling for any useful killing tools and talking to the fisherman himself, it becomes clear that this will not be a productive pitstop for Loki. So I pull out my mace and get on with the head-bashing. You’re welcome, crab fishermen of Skyrim. One less competitor for you to worry about.

Moving on, I meet a group of wealthy-looking travelers who are being escorted by a single bodyguard to a nearby wedding. Weddings mean gifts and gifts mean more stuff to fill my pockets with. Before the bodyguard knows what hit him, my mace goes whistling into his head. He has some fight in him, but not enough to best Loki. A few more swings and he’s in the dirt.

Unfortunately, the wedding guests witness this gruesome display and take off running. I chuckle and pull out my bow. Two arrows go whistling past my intended targets as the duo rounds a bend.

Grunting in frustration, I go running off after them. With the targets in sight once again, my third arrow finds its mark: the thigh of one of the wedding attendees. It’s not enough to take him down, but it staggers him and stops both in their tracks. I catch up and make quick work of them, taking care to nod my thanks to their corpses for the influx of precious jewels.

Solitude is still a ways off and time is ticking away, so on I go. Good progress is made until some joker, a Vigilant of Stendarr, greets me and starts going on and on about how he’s a vanquisher of Evil Things. He can’t vanquish my mace though, and I quickly put an end to his do-gooding ways. Unfortunately, a nearby bear hears our scuffle and lopes on over to feast on Loki the orc.

Bears in Skyrim are so not cool.

Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Loading up a recent save, I mutter regretfully as I realize that the Vigilant of Stendarr is once again alive and out doing good in the world. No time for that though; on to Solitude! I finally reach the outskirts of the city and have to put my bloodlust aside for a moment as I stop and stare at the wonder laid out before me.

Solitude is a city that sits midway up a mountain. It’s a port of call apparently, overlooking a large body of water. The city itself isn’t nestled into the mountain so much as it is laid out across a giant, flat bed of rock that extends at least a mile out over the water, creating a natural outdoor cavern undearneath. It’s a beautiful sight, and one that I hope will soon be awash with the blood of the innocent.

Unfortunately, Solitude turns out to be a bust. I arrive and immediately come upon a public execution. Some of the gathered citizens are mumbling about the particulars, but it doesn’t matter to me. Any enemy to the city is a friend of mine. I heroically step up onto the execution platform to free the doomed criminal and enlist his aid, but the guards quickly cut me down. And then they do it again. And again.

Hm. Maybe Solitude was a bad idea.

Undeterred, I load my game up again and head back down the mountain to a waiting carriage, paying the driver 20 gold to take me to the westernmost city of Markarth. City guards are no joke, so I decide to stake out my turf and take a more subtle approach in this new location.

Incredibly, the first thing I see when I enter the city is a white-shirted man pulling out a dagger and stabbing some random woman in the back. All right! This is my kind of city! I don’t want anyone doing my work for me though, so I run up to the murderer a beat him senseless. The guards even thank me for it! Fools.

Venturing further into the city — which is literally cut into the bottom of a mountain ravine — I walk up to a door being blocked by a well-armed and -armored man. It’s another Vigiliant! I’ve already learned that attacking people willy-nilly can be a bad idea, so I talk to the guy in the hopes of luring him somewhere quiet.

I’m in luck! It seems that the Vigilant knows of some bad mojo involved in the house behind this door, but he’s too much of a wuss to venture in alone. I immediately volunteer for the assignment, intending to turn on my temporary partner as soon as it’s clear I won’t need his help to deal with whatever waits within.

We work our way through a maze of dark, dusty rooms looking for signs of life. Deep inside the house my “companion” suddenly gets spooked and takes off for the door, intent on coming back with help. Not on my watch. As I give pursuit, I hear a deep voice in my head, the voice of some all-powerful daedra that seems very interested in seeing this Vigilant taken down. I like his style.

I catch up to the Vigilant just as he’s reaching the front door and cut him down with little fanfare. Random do-gooders come and go, but it’s not every day you can help out a daedra. Heading back downstairs, I approach an altar and try to grab my prize, which appears to be an even mightier mace than my now-substandard iron one.

Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Unfortunately, I’m dealing with Molag Bal, the Lord of Domination. He freezes me in place and commands me to do his bidding: I must go and rescue a man named Logrolf the Willful, who has been captured by a group of Forsworn, one of the game’s less friendly factions. The rescue is all a ruse though; Logrolf worships a different deity, and Molag Bal wants to beat him into submission for it.

I am okay with this.

I head back out into the world and make my way to the Forsworn hideout, a battered, old citdel built into the side of a mountain. Some resistance is encountered on my way up to the tower, but nothing that Loki can’t handle. A magic-wielding Forsworn Briarheart poses the biggest challenge, but even he falls and soon Logrolf is freed.

I shadow him all the way back to Markarth and into the abandoned house. This should be good. Logrolf makes his way down to the altar and begins his silly prayers, only to suddenly find himself trapped in Molag Bal’s cage of spikes. The daedra wants me to beat Logrolf into submission now. I comply, but the weakened captive quickly croaks. Molag Bal isn’t pleased, but he’s also a daedra lord. It’s not long before Logrolf is alive once again, and being burned by my magical fire.

Finally, just as he’s about to slip loose the mortal coil a second time, Logrolf submits. Satisfied, Molag Bal retracts the spiked cage. Logrolf won’t be freed though; instead, I am to finish him off. My reward for this helpful deed? The magical Mace of Molag Bal. Perfect, I think. City killing time.

Despite all of my best efforts, Markarth refuses to fall. Those city guards are brutal and they crush Loki over and over again. Clearly, I will not be ruling over my own, personal city of the recently dead before this demo session is over. I gave it a good effort though, and felt perfectly satisfied walking away with the blood of a Vigilant, Logrolf, a few wedding guests and a lone crab fisherman on my hands, not to mention countless mudcrabs, wild dogs and Forsworn.

This is the beauty of a game like Skyrim. Your story writes itself as you play. In just three hours, my slobbering orc managed to have quite an adventure for himself, some of it scripted and some of it happening just because that’s what the world served up. The game hits stores on November 11, 2011, and it really can’t get here soon enough.

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