The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Review
A cold breeze slips through the trees surrounding me, somewhere out in the hills in the southeast portion of the province of Skyrim. Snow hasn't covered this landscape, so it's got a wonderful fall atmosphere to it. Leaves crunch under my feet in this amazing-looking landscape, trapped in time right as the leaves turn red and brown, and I raise the bow. Good, the elk looked in my direction but it didn't notice me, or it'd have run off and I'd be left without its pelt for making some new armor with back at Whiterun. The bow's string stretches tight, and I'm about to fire out a double-damage critical arrow that kills in one shot. Right then, a dragon swoops in, ruining the moment and sending my prey running for the hills. I shouldn't be upset, since this new encounter is vastly more challenging and rewarding. Having a new soul in my collection will be handy later for when I want to spend it to learn a new dragon shout, and the bones and scales will be useful once I build my smithing skill to the high levels required to make Dragon Armor with, but I'm still a little annoyed that the elk didn't die first. Well, at least this dragon breathes frost, so it will barely hurt my cold-resistant Nordic skin as I battle it. I swing my bow around to face the new foe...
It's been more than five years since developer Bethesda Game Studios released the blockbuster hit Oblivion, and now we have the privilege of playing a new fantasy title from one of the oldest still-running RPG development studios in the western world. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim may not deliver on every hope, wish or fervent demand you've been formulating ever since you realized how many flaws Oblivion was carefully hiding with its immense charm, but it most certainly lives up to the name Elder Scrolls and will easily qualify for millions of gamers' best-of-the-year lists.
The game takes place in the snowy province of Skyrim, home of the Viking-like Nords. The High King has been assassinated and war has broken out between the Nordic rebels and the forces of the Empire who are now trying to seize power. To make things worse, Tamriel's long-lost dragons have returned. As is custom for The Elder Scrolls, players take control of a nobody that starts out in chains and will create their character during the tutorial. This time around, it's a beheading that you're being unceremoniously taken to, and a chain of events is set in motion that sets you free. It turns out that our nameless hero is a Dragonborn, the first person in hundreds of years that has the soul of a dragon. While the game has multiple plot lines snaking throughout the land, the main story has the player learning the dragons' tongue, using their special abilities (called shouts), and giving them a final death that the rest of Skyrim's populace is incapable of dishing out.
Bethesda is famous for their big reveals of a huge, wide open world, but it's the promise of freedom to roam wherever you want that makes those moments feel so amazing. The province of Skyrim is a beautiful place with majestic and tall mountains, green valleys, and a look that's altogether different from their past games, but it will still feel strangely familiar to fans. The total square mileage adds up to about the same amount as we got in Oblivion, but this time the landscape has been carved up by high mountains and impassable cliffs. Unlike some games, however, Skyrim is not designed in this way to hide a lack of content. On the contrary: these treks are eventful and exciting, quests and peculiarities are all over the place, and you can see your progress on uncovering Skyrim's secrets on the new fully-3D map. Sure, the map can be unwieldy and just a little confusing at first in the way it spins and scales in your hands, but it doesn't take long to figure out. As you take on new adventures and quests, your map will become filled with the new locations you've discovered, and any place you've visited is ready for instant travel if you feel like skipping the trip.
The cities are quite distinct from each other and far more interesting than Bethesda's past efforts, the hundreds of dungeons and indoor locations each more memorable and fun to explore, and the landscape is natural and beautiful in a way that seems more realistic than the environments in Oblivion - but they're just as fun to explore. On the Xbox 360, no single texture ever looks incredibly detailed, but the overall effect of a wide-open scene is intoxicating, especially with little touches like the dynamic music, the addition of non-aggressive wildlife, the howl of a nearby wolf, or the wind blowing through the trees.
For epic RPGs, bad interface has been a long-standing Achilles heel that many developers have struggled with in the past. While Bethesda hasn't revolutionized things in Skyrim, they've done a few things to make switching between the dozens of weapons and abilities you'll eventually have pretty easy. When staring at the heavens after leveling up, you can poke through any of the 18 skills and browse through hundreds of perks, then pop back to the items or magic menu to choose weapon/spell combinations and set them as favorites for quick selection.
Everything's got small names when you want to see a long list of your equipment, and when you stop to focus on something, you get up-close 3D models and statistics - and scrolling through all of this is a breeze now. One of my favorite little features is the ability to disable the HUD completely for whenever you want to stop playing an RPG and just take a lonely walk up a narrow path to a fantasy world's mountain summit.
The Elder Scrolls has always been at least somewhat behind the rest of the world when it comes to character movements and behaviors, and it's damaged the games' immersion significantly. We've seen smooth and realistic character animations in games like Uncharted and Grand Theft Auto IV, and this attention to detail has given life to these games in ways that were crucial to their success.
Now, with the help of Bethesda's Creation engine, they have finally made animations that may not rival L.A. Noire, but they're easily as good as what we've seen from many other comparable RPGs. In Skyrim, the steel of a sword meets the wood of a shield more convincingly than in The Elder Scrolls' past. After having racked up several thousand iffy-looking VATS kills and countless strange-looking weapon swings in Bethesda's last three flagship games, Skyrim finally allows me to forget the old technology and move on.
Those old Radiant AI features like shopkeepers that go upstairs to sleep at night are still kicking around, although everything has been tweaked so that NPC actions make a bit more sense and ambient conversations sound generally more realistic and natural. (It also helps that the number of voice actors contributing work to NPC speech has been vastly increased.) One of my favorite parts is how time now passes during conversations as NPCs continue to go about their business while talking, and players are allowed to look around or even just interrupt the conversation and walk away at any time.
Sure, sometimes you'll see a whole conversation take place through a closed door or see an NPC start making a casual observation a split second after killing an enemy - awkward! - but games that don't have these issues are generally highly scripted, which Skyrim is not. What's important is that Bethesda brought all of this together with a much more cohesive look and style for both the world and its inhabitants
Most RPGs bestow experience points to track level-ups, but The Elder Scrolls does things differently. You gain levels by building up your skills, whether that's by skulking around with Sneak, using weapons to bash monsters into bits, or using Destruction magic to hurl lightning and fireballs. Those who gauge the quality of a sequel by sheer numbers may be upset that Skyrim has 18 skills instead of Oblivion's 21 or Morrowind's 27 - or that the game only has three governing attributes (Health, Magic, Stamina) rather than the full range of stats from the past - but that's only one rather short-sighted way to look at the game.
Now, gaining points in the highest skills you have will contribute more to a level-up than increasing skills you don't have many points in yet. This solves a long-running problem with the series, as you no longer have to concern yourself with "engineering" the best possible level-up scenario or juggling major and minor skills to maintain a balanced character. Instead of the frustrating drudgery of convoluted skill and level-up systems, Skyrim adds interesting and fun depth by way of hundreds of Fallout 3-style perks, one of which can be unlocked every time players level up. Many perks can have multiple points poured into them for further benefits (and increasing skill requirements), while others bestow entirely new abilities related to the skill in question.
Weapons no longer need to be repaired, which for me removes another bit of tedium from Oblivion and Morrowind. Now, you'll still have forges, but there are also anvils, grindstones, tanning racks, workbenches, alchemy labs, and more for creating a full range of weapons, armor, and potions. It makes for a much more interesting and fun crafting system than just maintaining gear that was constantly threatening to break on you. And of course, like before, you'll be able to enchant gear with spells, too, although I am a little disappointed that custom spell creation is gone this time around.
The main storyline in Skyrim takes a good twenty-plus hours to get through if you're not trying to rush to the end as quickly as possible, but there's at least four times that in additional content through side quests and many more hours in aimless adventuring, too. Just like with their past games, Bethesda allows you to get sidetracked many times over, but the new journal system makes it easy to stay focused. The world is jam-packed with content, and most of it is of a higher quality than any past Elder Scrolls title.
If you leave the confines of quests, you'll find that Skyrim ditches the old system that always tailored enemies' strength and loot precisely to your level - I proved this by dying in one or two hits quite often when out exploring. You'll also find that if you stick with completing quests, the challenge increases with you, but it happens in jerks and jumps like you'd expect out of other RPGs rather than smoothly adjusting to perfectly match your exact power level. Sometimes things are much harder than you'd expect, and other times they're a bit easy, and it makes it seem much more like you simply inhabit the world, rather than having all of its inhabitants level up every time you do.
Radiant Story is Bethesda's latest whiz-bang feature, and it allows Skyrim to keep notes on what you've done and who you've met, then change the conditions of encounters and quests to make things more interesting. I found little evidence of it during my time spent questing, but I did notice it at work randomizing the wacky encounters I had in the outside world here and there. Once you do get into a quest line, however, you'll notice some more generic types of missions pop up, and these particular objectives are powered by Radiant Story's infinite quest-generating system.
You might be sent off by the Companions to clear a Sabrecat from a basement or by the Mages College to collect some alchemy materials from a local swamp, and while these missions aren't nearly as interesting as the quests, they've been added in addition to the regular game, not in place of it. Finally, as I understand it, the game can also adjust which characters are involved in quests, forcing you to make tough decisions regarding characters you had already met, but if Radiant Story was doing this to me, I had no idea it was even happening. If that was the intent, then maybe that's the best compliment I can give the developers with regards to this feature.
You'll be taking on quite a few dragons in your Skyrim playthroughs, and while some are scripted to show up during quest lines, others will appear randomly. It's important to point out, though, that any kind of scripting ends when a fight begins, so even the dragons' combat AI isn't exactly predictable - and sometimes, the dragons' animations are a little wonky depending on the terrain. Still, the battles are intense and fun, and often it'll be up to you to convince a randomly-spawned dragon that you're a danger by hurling arrows or spells at it as it circles overhead. Eventually it will land, and you'll get the chance to fight it up-close or continue plugging it from range. Entirely unscripted fights like this can sometimes look great, sure, but they can also lead to some rather strange situations and not-so-epic moments as you may find yourself desperately swinging your weapon to inadvertently score an unsatisfying final hit on a dragon's backside.
Oh sure, it's awesome when you do have the right positioning to do a dragon-execution move, but these finishers are often tougher to pull off than I'd like and they expose you to the dragon's most powerful weapon - its breath. Most of the killing blows I inflicted on dragons during my first playthrough looked downright pathetic and desperate, but at the very least, you always get to watch as the creature's corpse burns down to a skeleton right in front of you and the Dragonborn absorbs the dragon's soul. It looks amazing and really gives players a feeling of power.
One of the features that gamers have asked Bethesda for the most is dual-wielding. Bethesda has heard these requests, and has finally answered them - and then gone way overboard with it. Now, you can put nearly any offensive or defensive tool in either hand - a sword in your left, a heal spell in your right; an axe and a dagger; a sword and a fire spell; or the same spell in both hands in order to get a larger effect. Of course, two-handed weapons like bows and greatswords still work just like they did in past games, too. One nice thing is that since you always have access to your dragon shouts no matter what you have equipped, you could even set up akimbo projectile-firing staves and a time-slowing shout and re-enact the Matrix lobby scene with robes and fireballs instead of trench coats and MAC-10s. (Unfortunately, Skyrim doesn't let us do Trinity-style mid-air cartwheels off of the walls just yet, but I plan on playing the PC version primarily so I expect modders to get that bit in by Christmas at the latest. Go.)
Skyrim does a lot of big things right, from its quest structures to its ease of accessing your abilities and weapons, but it does small things incredibly well, too. Watching the Aurora Borealis bloom off the coast of Solitude, running through a field trying to catch butterflies and bees, listening to a bard sing and play at the local tavern, seeing blood left on your blade after a kill, leaving scorch marks on walls after your fireball explodes - things like this help Skyrim become better than the sum of its parts.
Every repeated or muddy texture is easily made up for by an orchestral swell by long-time Elder Scrolls composer Jeremy Soule. Every strange conversation is offset by another that will surprise you with its insight, especially in a game of this immense scale. Every tiny bit of weirdness still left in the game's animations is complemented by unexpectedly awesome things that happen in combat, like your enemies avoiding their own traps, your henchman waiting for the right time to fire an arrow into the skull of the soldier that was about to kill you, or when two or three factions that are trying to kill each other suddenly all turn on you when you roar out one of the game's immensely powerful dragon shouts. It's going to be easy for gamers to pick out things that Skyrim does wrong, but it's even easier to find all those little things that it does right.
Many gamers and critics hailed Oblivion as their game of the year for 2006, and most of those wound up picking Fallout 3 for the same honor in 2008 - and I don't see that streak breaking in 2011, either. While other games this year have delivered tighter storylines and intense multiplayer action, nothing satisfies my gaming needs quite like Bethesda's core studio of developers can. Portal 2 boiled over with charm, Deus Ex: Human Revolution demonstrated true artistry, and Battlefield 3 is my multiplayer FPS of choice, but I'm calling it now: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is easily my favorite game of 2011.