The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
AMD Radeon 4890
When does a game world become something more than a well constructed environment for fun? When the world in question is as big, expansive and near limitless as the titular Skyrim, the newest entry in the Elder Scrolls saga. It had a lot of hype leading up to its release, with good reason. This is a series which pushes boundaries, Skyrim is again looking to raise the bar and attempt to become the best Elder Scrolls title yet.
Emerging from a dark, enclosed cave, you take a minute in awed silence as you absorb your surroundings. Snow capped peaks, distant ruins and sparkling blue lakes stretch before you. You've just survived an encounter with a dragon, avoided execution and most likely have a few kills under your belt, all in the games opening tutorial. It's at this point you take a tentative, nervous look at your map screen, dare to zoom out and see that Skyrim really is as big and epic as it promised. That was my main feeling when starting Skyrim, that of being overwhelmed. Be it by the quests and objectives on offer, the treasure trove of weapons and armour and even the stunning variety of the landscape.
The follow up quest was to inform this bandit's next of kin of his death.
Luckily, Skyrim is a game which seeks to limit user frustration as much as possible. It has been somewhat simplified when compared to its immediate predecessor, Oblivion and very much stripped back in comparison to its older relative, Morrowind. However, the core experience remains the same, and much more is improved. You essentially create a character, choosing from a variety of races and abilities, then explore the world at your own pace. Follow the main quest, which involves saving the world from dragons and other, more compelling mysteries or simply wander the land, undertaking quests and tasks as you find them. It's your choice.
The Elder Scrolls games are so unique in this scope of freedom, that they are quite difficult to review. There's no point of comparison, because no one is doing quite what Bethesda does in regards to open worlds. The gist is that dragons are returning to Tamriel, doing normal dragon things such as burning down villages and eating helpless peasants. You, as a prisoner of unknown origin, turn out to be the Dragonborn and set off on a quest to save the world. This basic fantasy premise all takes place in, you guessed it, Skyrim, home of the Nords. Being the kind of rough, rugged, frozen environment you'd expect from a race of beefy warrior people, the tone of the game is certainly more brutal than Oblivion. Where Oblivion's Cyrodiil had rolling green hills and posh towns, Skyrim has daunting mountains, castles and hardy villages. It feels dangerous, untamed and wild. Which is why it is so fun to explore.
From a first person perspective, there are a variety of nuances to how you can approach combat - your primary means of interaction with many of Skyrim's inhabitants. You can wield spells and powerful magic in the palms of your hands, throwing fire balls and casting lightning. Or, you can wield a sword and shield and get a bit more... intimate with your foes. Bows are also an option, allowing you to strike, often unnoticed, from a distance. Skyrim allows you to dual wield, turning what would otherwise be an unremarkable combat system into something special. It is perfectly possible, for example, to send a jet of fire streaming out of one hand, whilst swinging a mace in the other. Whilst the impact of a sword hitting an enemy isn't as impactful in terms of how they react as it could be, magic bears a vicious force. Fire will illuminate the space around you, and pour out very nicely. Upgrading your abilities will even allow you to combine two spell effects when wielding them in both hands, ramping up damage and other stats, managing to make you feel like a powerful sorcerer.
Building a tower on the edge of a mountain? Perfectly safe.
There's a lot of variety to kill with, be it spells, melee weapons (one and two handed) or bows. There's also a marvellous variety of beasts, bandits, dragons and... fish to use your arsenal on. Walking through a forest you could be hunting deer with a bow, before facing off against bandits and switching to some damaging spells, setting things alight, that kind of thing. Then you may find yourself diving into a cave or ruin, fighting ancient spirits, skeletons and emerging with a sack full of loot.
Just as well, there are a load of different types of ruins this time around. From mines, caves, underwater grottos, burial chambers, abandoned forts and more. Whilst they all look suitably mysterious and inspire a certain amount of dread as to what they contain, explore enough of them and a degree of tedium can set in. Dungeon layout is often linear, with few if any branching paths. The enemies you face will often be of the same type throughout and, unless you're a fan of collecting spoons and other useless miscellanea, you'll have to wait for the designated loot chest at the end for your reward. So whilst the combat is undeniably fun, investigating these areas can grow stale. There are so many however, that you can easily pick and choose. The map will even leave a note besides the dungeons you have cleared. Furthermore, thanks to Skyrim's radiant quest system, taking on a task from someone will not send you to a dungeon you've already been to.
With all this exploring and killing, we mustn't forget that Skyrim is an RPG at heart, so character development must be mentioned. This entry certainly takes a different approach to past games. It's not completely streamlined and simplified, but it is more of a sidestep in how you grow your character rather than a leap forward. The more you use skills, such as fighting with swords or crafting weapons, the more they level up. When enough of your skills have levelled up, your character levels up, allowing you to choose a perk. Perk trees are present for every skill, allowing you a wealth of different abilities and benefits to choose from. Each perk also requires that you have the corresponding skill at a certain level. For example, if you've been using one handed weapons a lot, you may choose a perk in that tree which lets you decapitate your foes with a finisher. More stealthy players can opt for increased bonuses to sneaking and so on. Although there are no strength, agility or intelligence attributes to increase as in other Elder Scrolls games and many RPGs in general, the perk system on offer here also works very well. They provide fun and useful rewards to using skills, the whole experience is a lot more satisfying than simply seeing a number increase. Whilst some complexity has been lost, you can also choose to increase either your health, magic reserves or stamina when you level. You feel more like your character is growing and learning new things, rather than simply have better numbers behind the scenes.
Draugr, any tomb raider's worst enemy.
With good combat and character development in place, levelling happens often, which is just as well. It means you won't be waiting around or bored, it keeps things moving nicely. Not being confined by your skills also means that, if you decide to switch to magic after hours of focusing on being sneaky, that is perfectly possible. No classes to select at the start really do improve the experience, allowing you to follow whatever path you choose.
Being flexible in how you approach playing your character is a welcome change, since the game is so massive. Seriously, in addition to the main quest line there are a plethora of guilds as well as side quests to complete. I've played for nearly 200 hours and still haven't seen one of the towns or even joined some of the guilds. There is just so much to do. You can buy a house for example, even marry. You could drink in a tavern, craft armour, hunt animals for their pelts. It really feels like a living breathing world. One which thankfully avoids the problem previous Elder Scrolls games had, where the NPCs felt like walking information boards. This time around the voices have greater variety and are better acted, and the camera doesn't do that creepy thing and zoom in on their face when you speak to them. Instead, they carry on when you chat, chopping wood or crafting items. They also interact with each other better, no more endless mudcrab conversations. Sadly however, Skyrim still suffers from a similar problem to previous Elder Scrolls games, in that your actions in the world rarely stir NPCs in reacting you in anyway, aside from mumbling the occasional one liner as you walk past.
One rather strong failing I found in Oblivion, was that the landscape itself and the towns were too similar, not varied and very much a copy and paste job. Skyrim feels real, I can't stress this enough. Rivers flow naturally for instance, mountains are suitably large and the cities are all different. Whiterun sits in the middle of a great plain, whereas Solitude rests on top of a giant rocky outcropping. I was worried that Skyrim would be all snow and not much in the way of variety, but I have been well and truly proved wrong. Dense autumn forests, icy seas, snowy mountains and grassy plains all feature. Rest assured it is all beautiful as well. The draw distance, whilst not perfect, is impressive. Water flows realistically and the world feels grim, just as intended. Close inspection will reveal low resolution textures, but when taken in all at once, this is a stunning game. Composer Jeremy Soule is back as well, he has managed to craft a fitting soundtrack full of epic sounds and aggressive tones, perfect for Skyrim's harsh land.
Shortly after this picture was taken, the horse was tragically killed by a Dragon.
Skyrim isn't perfect however, it is plagued (as seemingly all Bethesda games are) with a variety of bugs. I would say that they aren't as prominent as Oblivion or Morrowind however. Other oddities arise from the AI, which isn't great. Companions can get stuck in the terrain far too easily and NPCs often come across too robotically, despite some improvement in that area. Whilst not as complex as Morrowind, Skyrim certainly zooms past Oblivion when it comes to playability and depth. In fact, it seems that certain efforts have been made to hark back to Morrowind itself which, as we all know, is the greatest Elder Scrolls game.
There's a lot I haven't mentioned, simply because there's so much to see that this review could go on forever. Rest assured however that in Skyrim you have an epic, original and fun experience waiting for you. The weak links in the form of AI and bugs don't dent the overall message: Skyrim is a great game. For the asking price, you're getting a ton of content. There's a certain charm to all Elder Scrolls games, if you've never played one before, you're in for a treat here. In some ways it makes other games look dated in comparison, simply because Skyrim is trying something new. If you're a returning Elder Scrolls fan as I was, be safe in the knowledge that Skyrim lives up to the series and is close to being its most compelling and rich entry yet.
- Much to see, much to do: There is A LOT to see and do here, hundreds of hours of adventuring await you.
- It's... beautiful!: Skyrim is a good looking title, getting the best out of your PC for all round great graphics.
- Fun Combat: Fighting is intense and satisfying, an improvement on previous Elder Scrolls games.
- Your Character: Developing your character is fun and flexible, choose from varied races and switch up play styles on the fly.
- Too Simple?: Some might say this entry scales back too much of what made the Elder Scrolls great, but it takes big strides forward as well.
- Bugs, bugs and bugs: There are some issues with the AI and other bugs, some of which can impede quests.