Review: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
This is going to be an odd review, mainly because it isn’t one. I’ve always found it interesting when games such as Skyrim, with hundreds of hours of gameplay to offer, can be summed up on release day, plot and all, by publications far and wide. The chances of them having actually completed the storyline is very slim, even if they received the game weeks before release. Even if one poor soul had to rush through the main quest so he could write about it, in doing so he would have missed the point of Skyrim; to get side-tracked, drawn in and generally lost in the world. No one can give a full impression of a game this massive after only a week on the shelves.
So this won’t be the definitive TIMJ review of Skyrim. It won’t even be my definitive review of Skyrim. Unlike pretty much any other game out there, it’s impossible to give you guys a normal review even after playing it every night since release day. I’ve only just scratched the surface, and even if you too grabbed a copy on the 11th, I doubt you will have got much deeper than me. It’s a vast game with an incredible amount to offer, way too much to experience in just a week. So instead I’m going to talk about how Bethesda have put the work in and improved almost every aspect of The Elder Scrolls since the diamond classic Oblivion, and look at a few areas where the ball has been dropped, as well as give you my overall impression so far.
Like getting lost in a good book…
While I’m barely three quests into the main quest line, I can tell you that it’s already more arresting than that of Oblivion. Opening with a spectacular dragon attack set-piece, Skyrim immediately sets its tone. The province is in the throes of a civil war after Ulfric Stormcloak and his namesake band of locals assassinate the King. The province is now divided, split by opinion on the future. The majority wish for Skyrim to leave the catchment of the Empire and once again become an independent nation, yet a significant and very noisy minority want to retain Imperial rule and the safety it brings. This backdrop lends Skyrim a tension and whispered atmosphere that surpasses Oblivion’s age of fear. It causes every NPC to have a view on the war and the game allows you to ask pretty much everyone for theirs. You can also choose a side, electing to join up to the Imperial Army or become a dirty rebel and support the Stormcloaks.
The main quest deals with your heritage as a Dragonborn; a descendant of the ancient Emperors of Tamriel. The Dragonborn are prominently known in Nord mythology and you being one becomes your sort of ‘help me for free’ card. You get to meet with people who would usually turn a wandering stranger away, get respect from people who would otherwise dismiss you and instil confidence in those who would be scared were it not for your presence. It’s a theme I’m sure will continue as the main quest progresses, but in the meantime Bethesda have beefed up the side-questing considerably.
Making up a vast part of Oblivion, side-quests were occasionally thrilling but usually pretty dull. You did them because you bumped into them or because you wanted the reward and many simply involved clearing out another dimly-lit cave. Skyrim takes side-quests much further, offering not only more differing locations to house them but also providing more interesting ways to acquire them.
The new speech system is a big improvement, allowing you to talk to NPCs while they go about their day and complete tasks. This can lead to odd situations where an NPC will talk to you over his shoulder while you look past him, but it’s usually fine. You can also get quests by overhearing conversations. I was creeping through a random dungeon when I overheard some bandits talking about treasure. Staying in the shadows, I waited for them to finish and as they did I got a quest. It’s a brilliantly organic way of amassing a list of things to do.
My only experience so far of the much-touted Radiant Story system is small but significant. After completing an early side-quest and learning my first Shout (more on that later) I picked up a seemingly random Dragon Tablet. A little later on, following the main quest, the court wizard to the Jarl (read: Lord) of Whiterun asked me to go and find it. I knew I had it and fully expected to have to accept the quest and then immediately say something like ‘I found it!’ to which I would hear ‘Ah, you found it. Excellent!’ as if I’d stopped time, gone off to get it and come back again. To my surprise, the Radiant Story system worked it out. Instead I got to say ‘Oh, you mean this old tablet here?’ and got the brilliant reply ‘You already found it? What a stroke of luck!’ The game figured out I already had the item and adapted the quest accordingly; fucking brilliant. I cannot impress how long I’ve been waiting for a game to do this and Skyrim does it very well.
I may have experienced the other result of the Radiant Story system, the random assigning of locations to tasks, many times before without knowing it. Without cross-referencing quests and locations I can’t be sure I’m doing them in scripted places or places chosen by the system. If the latter is true, it’s seamless and unnoticeable; exactly as it should be.
Generally, as with Oblivion and other Bethesda games, Skyrim is what you make it plot-wise. There is no shortage of quests and stories for you to get involved in and it’s more than likely you’ll be spoilt for choice. Boredom is an extremely rare occurrence; you’ll probably get tired or hungry before you even considering thinking ‘Hmmm… bored now’. Skyrim is a supreme demonstration of Bethesda’s storytelling prowess, with each side-quest, cave and ruin as interesting as the last. Skyrim is alive and every second spent within its chilly confines is gold.
Strike, retreat, block, bash, strike, repeat!
Skyrim is packed to the gunnels with gameplay elements and I won’t go into detail about all of them.
Combat is largely unchanged, rather it’s been refined and improved. The new equipping system is the key to this and it works a dream. From the beautiful inventory screen you can equip weapons, shields and spells to each hand by highlighting the desired object and hitting the corresponding trigger. It’s achingly simple and takes about 4 seconds to get to grips with. It does mean you have to figure out your combat style early on; it’s impossible to wield a two-handed weapon and a spell.
At first it feels limiting but as soon as you grasp the new Favourites system it ceases to be an issue. Unlike the restrictive 8-item limit of the Oblivion hot keys, Skyrim allows you to ‘favourite’ any item or spell by hitting Y when you have it selected. This item then shows up in the Favourites menu, accessed by pressing Up or Down on the D-Pad. This pauses the game and allows you to easily equip new stuff, use potions and even pick your Shout without having to go back into the menu.
It’s a masterstroke in efficiency and pays dividends throughout your experience. You can also map two items from the list to the Left and Right D-Pads, allowing you a couple of key items that are immediately on hand. How you use the system is entirely up to you; I have mainly Shouts and potions on my list, with a shield on the Left D-Pad and a bow on the Right. The combinations are endless and it really allows you to develop your own combat methods, further increasing the personal nature of Skyrim.
Actually engaging the enemy is a simply matter of hitting them and trying not to get hit. The Elder Scrolls has never been lauded for its combat complexity and there’s no change there, however the addition of a shield bash and the new equipping system allows you to mix things up a bit more than before. Also, the new Creation engine makes combat feel a lot more solid, with blows landing with purpose and power attacks rocking the screen as well as your character. Newcomers may find it simplistic but fans of Oblivion will find the improvements are very, very welcome. The awesome, random finishing moves don’t hurt either.
Shouts are a new thing too. Being Dragonborn, you can use the ancient art of Shouting, basically using your mega dragon voice to do cool stuff. You start out by being able to Shout your enemies back with a sort of force push but soon unlock fire-breathing, a neat dash and a disarming move. There’s apparently twenty or so Shouts, each with three words in them. The more words you have, the more powerful the Shout will be. You can find words scrawled on ancient walls in dungeons and caverns and each one is usually accompanied by a meaty (or cheap) boss. Shouts are separate from your spells and won’t consume Magicka, although they do have a recharge time. To me, Shouts are a cool but unnecessary addition to the game. While they’re all useful in their own ways, you don’t really have to use them and don’t feel like an essential part of the game, aside from their significance in the main plot. That’s not so say I’m not a fan and I’m glad they’re included.
To unlock shouts you find you have to use Dragon Souls and guess where they come from? The dragons in Skyrim. An inclusion that has been much publicised and hyped about, are magnificent. While some are scripted (and even included in quests) most are free and random. You could be travelling innocently from town to town when all of a sudden you hear the awesome roar (more on that later) and look up to see the scaly beast baring down on you.
There are numbers varieties of dragon, each with their own tactics and preferences. Some are docile until you pepper them with arrows while others will have a go as soon as they spot you. Regardless of kind they’re all a joy to battle, landing on rooftops and rocks and destroying everything in their path. Lead one to a village and watch as the local guards try valiantly to bring it down, then storm in and deal the killing blow. If you’re lucky, you’ll get a cinematic finishing move. As you watch your little person leap onto the dragons back and cleave its head in, you’ll smile and think ‘This is a bout as good as it gets!’
Levelling up has changed too. Instead of the confusing old system we now have a very simple, straightforward levelling system that I’ve been wanting for God knows how long. You have a set of skills ranging from combat-based stuff to armour, magic, smithing, and thief skills like Sneaking and Lock picking. The more you do something the more experience you earn in that skill, eventually levelling it up. Level up a few skills and you level up your character, allowing you to spend 10 points on either Magicka, Health or Stamina and gaining one Perk point.
This point can be used to unlock a Perk in any of the skills, provided you’re a high enough level in that skill. Christ, it sounds complicated when I write it like that but in all honesty it couldn’t be more simple. Just play the game however you want and the levelling system adapts, granting you bonuses and perk options in your preferred fields. The only interaction you have is choosing your stat gain and picking your perks. Some hardcore RPGers may dislike the lack of micro-managing and fine-tuning available, but I think it’s a damn sight better than the clunky system Oblivion had and I’m guessing most of you will agree.
I could go on for pages and pages about Skyrim’s gameplay, but the fact is you just have to play it for yourself. There’s something here for everyone and everything has an alternative. Don’t like trekking across country? Buy a horse. Keep getting owned? Get some heavy armour. However you want to play, Skyrim accommodates and that, coupled with its unmatched scope and newly refined mechanics makes it the best RPG to grace the industry in years.
I can’t kiss Skyrim’s arse entirely though. It does have its issues. For a start its ridden with bugs. I haven’t found any game-breakers yet but NPCs are forever teleporting about and getting stuck on things. Bookcases disappear for no reason, dropped items hang in the air until I run through them, doors refuse to open; the list goes on. None of the bugs ruin the game or make it any harder to play, but they are fucking annoying. The companion A.I. is shockingly bad; they get lost, stuck, confused, left behind and generally act like lost children. In the heat of battle it’s too easy to accidentally cut down a wounded partner, killing them forever. No sooner had I been made a Thane of Whiterun and took my new housecarl Lydia out for a spin, when she died, a victim of one of my stray arrows.
The horses are also laughably shite. I won’t list all the bugs associated with them; it’s too long and I suspect I’ve not found them all anyway. I’ve experienced varying effects, from sinking hooves to sling-shotting a mile down the road. Horses do anything but what they’re supposed to do, making them a tentative travel choice at the best of times. They also have a habit of charging into battle ahead of you and can be killed by the enemy, which they invariably are. My first horse (which cost me 500 needed gold) lasted about 10 minutes before getting cut down after charging into a pack of bandits I was trying to sneak up on. There’s no reason for the horses to be this awful and they’re not really an option because of this.
There are other ridiculous bugs I’ve experienced but I want to make it clear that this is not only a Bethesda usual, but an accepted one. It’s only to be expected with a world this big and this ram-packed with stuff there are going to be a few tears. To put it in perspective, New Vegas barely worked at first and that had a smaller world with less stuff, lesser graphics and animation, and was made on a completely different, already established engine. I’m actually quite surprised there aren’t more bugs, given the youth of the engine and the sheer amount of stuff in Skyrim. While your immersion may occasionally be damaged and frustration will sometimes arise from the game’s bullshit, in my experience 99.9% of the game is solid gold.
It can sometimes throw you a cheap curveball though. One time I went through a relatively easy puzzle cave, fending off weak skeletons, only to be faced by an impossible boss. He fired a spell that killed me in one or two hits despite me having the top armour I could find at the time and gulping down Resist Magic like an alcoholic in a brewery. I tried all sort of strategies and methods until I realised; I just wasn’t good enough yet. It would’ve been nice if the game went ‘Ah, you’re only level 12, this boss will ruin you! Let’s set a level cap on this here quest so you don’t get fucked so hard it ripples back through time and becomes a teenage memory’, but it didn’t so I spent the best part of an hour pulling my hair out trying to beat the fucker. Events like this are, again, rare but I thought I’d mention it.
Skyrim looks lush. Well, compared with Gears 3 or many of the other recent AAA titles it looks alright. In relation to its predecessor however, it’s a massive step up, chiefly due to the brand new Creation engine.
Everything is rendered in gorgeous detail, shaking the last-gen feeling that haunted Oblivion from start to finish. The landscape of Skyrim is much more rocky and interesting than that of Cyrodiil and the Creation engine goes some way to making it look great.
Every cave, ruin, dungeon, keep, fortress and catacomb has its own style and detail, although they all share many similarities. This has always been a criticism levelled at the Elder Scrolls games but its never made anything but perfect sense to me. In real life, houses are built in estates of identical buildings. Throughout history, styles of architecture have be created and copied across the world. Archeologists don’t moan when they find yet Another Saxon ruin that looks just like the last Saxon ruin; it’s a style and it’s expected to be copied. Also, Skyrim is a massive land with hundreds of locations and Bethesda only had so much time and so many people. I’d rather suffer a few similar caves than wait another two years for the game. There’s more than enough variety to keep things interesting anyway.
NPCs actually look like people now. Far from the pig-faces semi-humans of Oblivion, Skyrim’s inhabitants have facial expressions as well as varying degrees of attractiveness. The trademark, odd Elder Scrolls styling means I haven’t come across an NPC I’d describe as ‘fit’ yet, but neither have I been repulsed by the ugliness of everyone I set eyes on. The people won’t blow your mind and they don’t have the detail of GTA or L.A. Noire but they’re a big step up from Oblivion and more than good enough to serve their purpose.
All the items in Skyrim are rendered in full 3D with detailed textures. Every… Single… One… This makes them seem all the more real as they adorn tables and shelves all over Skyrim. You can view each one and examine it in your inventory, a feature that’s useful for a few puzzles but is mainly there so Bethesda can say ‘Look! We did it!’ and grin smugly. and so they should. Every sword, shield, bow, cuirass, helmet and potion bottle has tiny details and flecks. Everything has a weight to it that was missing from previous Elder Scroll games and makes Skyrim feel like the most interactive and realistic world yet.
Basically, Skyrim looks loads better than Oblivion and is more than capable of standing up next to its counterparts. It won’t win any graphics awards but it can occasionally be stunningly gorgeous and always, always does it’s job.
Sound has been tweaked and refined in Skyrim to bring it bang up to date and totally immerse you in the world.
Towns bustle with random conversations and arguments, giving you a feel of the community and attitudes present in Skyrim’s myriad settlements. Everyone has something to say and unlike most RPGs they don’t just spout odd one liners. Aside from having a weird habit of telling you their life story when you’re just passing by, NPCs have full-blown conversations with no influence from you whatsoever.
A great example is how, upon finally meeting Ulfric Stormcloak in his castle in Windhelm, he had a heated argument with his right hand man over the future of the movement. As they spoke, they walked from the throne room to the war room and back without ever breaking the mood of the talk. Whatever Bethesda have done they’ve managed to make random conversations in Skyrim some of the most realistic I’ve ever seen.
Combat now sounds meaty and satisfying. As steel collides with steel there’s a real feeling of power, compounded by the new vocality of your enemies. Bandits will squall battle cries as the charge, only to cower and beg for their lives when you’re winning. Mages call upon the 8 Divines as they fling spells your way and guards shout in honour of their hometowns. It lends each fight a personal touch and a realistic edge. Magic sounds awesome; fire crackles and roars, electricity shatters the air and frost snaps and pops as is freezes the environment.
Dragons also sound as fantastic as they look. Their majestic cries echo through the crisp Skyrim air and strike fear into all who hear them. All except you of course. They crash and burn everything, roaring and squealing as they go. They are truly a force of nature and their sound perfectly matches their awesome appearance.
A note has to be said for the fantastic score of Skyrim. There’s a movement for every mood, from quiet and beautiful exploration to thrilling combat. Dragons have their own theme, a Gothic-inspired choir piece underpinned by crushing drums and racy strings. I’d even go so far as to say that’s the Skyrim theme tune, mildly echoing the traditional Elder Scrolls theme but carving a brand new mood just for Skyrim.
The rest of the combat is matched perfectly with orchestral majesty on par with Lord of the Rings. In its quiet moments, gorgeous string sections layer over flutes and lend an other-worldly quality to exploring the stunning landscape. Every location is expertly scored and there’s not a lame piece of music in the entire OST. It’s rare that game music makes my heart dance and my muscles tense, but Skyrim’s epic score does just that.
You’re not alone…
This is where I’d usually go on about the multiplayer but of course Skyrim has none; nor does it need it. While I won’t be so anal as to bleat on about the need to preserve our single-player experiences in a world of multiplayer domination, I do have to say that I can’t really see where it would fit. Co-op would fall as Skyrim is such a personal journey, the levelling differences would make most match-ups difficult; and a Borderlands style scaling system just wouldn’t work. No, Skyrim is meant to be played on your own. The quest of the Dragonborn is yours to fulfil alone but that doesn’t mean we can’t help each other out a bit.
You see, unlike most games Skyrim is so massive that it’s likely you won’t see half of what it has to offer in your first playthrough. Considering that first go will probably take you around 80 hours, it may be some time before you decide to venture there once again. Luckily we have the Internet and a vast community of excitable gamers. The obligatory Wiki is already fulling up with locations, quest solutions and secrets. Every gaming forum on the web has a Skyrim section where gamers across the world are hastily discussing tactics and secrets. It’s an adventure, a true journey. Just as we used to share secret doors and hidden items with our friends back in the days of 16-bit games, we can’t help but tell each other tales of Skyrim.
It’s partly because we want to help but also because we’re proud. Skyrim encourages you to explore at will and discover as much as you can. With a game so big there’s every chance you’ll find something no-one else has; or at least something no-ones claimed yet! So get out there and share. Bethesda may have wisely elected to keep The Elder Scrolls a single player experience but that doesn’t mean it has to be a lonely one.
My game of the year
No game is perfect. Super-fans and even experts will dispute that and we’d be here until next Christmas arguing about it, but I’m right. Every game has its flaws, its mistakes and its bad decisions. The severity of those flaws and how much they impact the game is usually a key factor in decided what rating I decide to put in that little box. Despite being a huge Oblivion fanboy and having been excited to bursting about Skyrim since it was first announced, I’ve noted its flaws and bugs and made them very clear.
Yet what strikes me as astonishing is that all of Skyrim’s issues are technical. None are the result of bad design, lazy coding or shit writing. There are no mechanical errors, no story slumps, no big disappointments. Skyrim is a slab of solid gaming gold, a masterclass in how to build a world so rich and full that its impossible not to get lost in it. Every single issue that put Oblivion below its peers has been resolved and then some, placing this new Elder Scrolls achievement at the top of the table. It offers as much as any other game on the shelves and more. It allows an incalculable amount of choices and outcomes, of paths and destinations. It works effortlessly to adapt to you and make your experience so personal, so absolutely free that you honestly feel like it was made just for you.
Bethesda’s ambition is shown proudly here but also reveals itself to be a downfall. The loading times, the clipping, the bugs and the glitches are all evidence of the sheer scope of this project. To cram so much on to one tiny disc only serves to show how ideas and creativity are slowly beginning to outgrow technology. RAGE had three discs, as did L.A. Noire. Battlefield has two and even older games like The Last Remnant are spread across four. Developers are getting agitated with the limitations of the current generation and it’s shown like an angry boil all over the face of this year’s blockbuster season.
So condemn Skyrim if you like. Say it’s a buggy piece of shit and scald Bethesda for releasing a game with so many flaws. With a game as huge as Skyrim it’s plain to see that these issues are the unavoidable result of an unwillingness to sacrifice scope and ambition for technical perfection. Modern Warfare 3 may be perfect under-the-hood (although I doubt its spotless) but that’s just six-hour campaign and a few unchanging online maps. It’s one way to play with only one outcome.
I’ll suffer the odd bug and the occasional glitch. I’ll weather the chilly breeze of a game filled to bursting and swat away the buttons as they pop off its bulging, disc-shaped jacket. I’ll do it with a smile, because in return, I’ll be getting one of the most complete worlds I’ve ever seen and one of the best games ever to grace our little planet. Do yourself a favour and buy yourself a ticket; it’ll be the best 40 quid you’ll spend all year and maybe all decade.