First things first: a disclaimer. I haven’t finished Skyrim. I haven’t completed the main quest or run through all the missions for a guild. I haven’t explored every corner of the map and leveled my character to godly heights. In fact, I feel like I’ve barely experienced any of what this game has to offer. The thing is, though, I’ve put more hours into it already than I have any other game I’ve played this year. Endless playability is the hallmark of The Elder Scrolls series and, while I haven’t matched the hundreds of hours I put into Morrowind, or even the nearly 100 I put into Oblivion, I’ve spent enough time in Skyrim to know that this is The Elder Scrolls we were always meant to have; a vibrant, living world, beautiful vistas and haunting dungeons and so many missions, sidequests, and random tasks that you can’t walk from Whiterun to Riften without tripping over twenty-five or thirty. If you’ve never played an Elder Scrolls game before, now’s the perfect time. If you’re a veteran of the series like me, prepare to lose yourself in Tamriel one more time.
Set 200 years after Oblivion, Skyrim explores a continent in disarray. The titular province sits north of Cyrodiil and West of Morrowind. Home of the Nords, this frozen mountainous land provides an incredible backdrop for a very intriguing story. Skyrim is in the midst of a civil war following the assassination of the High King. The Imperial Legion and the Stormcloak rebels are battling for ultimate control of the province. It’s into this bubbling cauldron that the player character is thrust right from the beginning.
Your player starts his journey as a prisoner, a hallmark of the Elder Scrolls series, on his way to the headman’s axe after being caught up in an Imperial ambush of the Stormcloaks. It seems like your journey is headed (get it?) to an abrupt end when suddenly a massive dragon attacks the town. After fighting your way out between blasts of fire, you’ll be given the option to escape with either a member of the Imperial Legion or one of the Stormcloak rebels. It’s clear that the developers have been paying attention to the gaming communities recently developed love of scripted sequences as the first five minutes feel more like Call of Duty than Morrowind. While I appreciated what they were trying to do here, this kind of highly scripted cinematic style isn’t Bethesda’s strong suit. The good news is that from here, the game opens its world up to you with complete freedom as to where and when you want to tackle all it has to offer. If you want to complete the main quest first and then worry about all the available guilds and side-missions that’s completely doable. If you’d rather skip the main quest altogether and forge your own path through the world, that’s also on the table. Even if you’d love to just channel your inner Lewis and Clark and just explore the world with no goals or motives, the option is there. This level of freedom is always what has set the series apart from its RPG brethren, and I’m pleased to report that the land of Skyrim offers plenty of world to get lost in.
Perhaps the first thing that you’ll notice upon setting foot outside of Helgen is that this game is a substantial visual leap over Oblivion. Everything from the environment to the skybox has been drastically improved. Nothing has seen as much work as the character models however. While not the greatest on display in the industry, they certainly look better than those in any other open world game that I’ve seen. The beast races, in particular, look substantially more legitimate and menacing than in previous games. The elven races also get a substantial amount of differentiation, making it easy to pick out which NPC’s are Bosmer, Dunmer, and Aldmer. Now, some will look at the graphics on console and point out the occasionally muddy ground textures or a sub-par wall texture here and there. I can’t argue with that, however the art direction is so superb that the occasional texture will be the last thing on most gamers mind as they explore. After a somewhat boring world artistically in Oblivion, Bethesda has clearly gone back to putting Morrowind-like levels of effort into the look and feel of the world.
Simply put, this is a beautiful game. The scenery on display here is almost unparalleled in the genre. From scenic viewpoints atop snowy mountains to the rushing streams and waterfalls I found myself often just stopping and admiring for a while. A host of new environmental effects have been added to the game and everything from driving snow to the mist slowly rising over a body of water is breathtaking. Riding alongside a river at night as the sky bursts into aurora is the kind of moment that grabs a hold of you and pulls you in to this world. I can’t express enough how much the look and feel of the environment adds to this game.
From a gameplay standpoint, Skyrim offers a blend of old and new. Combat plays out similarly to Oblivion, but with a new system that allows you to equip weapons, spells, shields or other items in each of your hands with the left trigger and right trigger operating them. Holding down the trigger of choice triggers power attacks. This system allows for not only more control over blocking but also for the dual wielding of weapons and even spells. Because of this new system, magic feels more powerful and grounded than ever before. If you want to keep a flame spell in one hand and a frost spell in the other you can do so, even casting both at the same time. Certain perks (more on this later) also allow you to cast a more powerful version of a spell by equipping it in both hands and casting both at once. This seemingly simple change adds a great deal of weight and variety to the combat system.
While the game still suffers some of the problems that it’s predecessors did when it comes to some attacks not having any discernible feedback, at other times blows feel savage and heavy. New finishing moves are randomly triggered upon death blows and vary between those that keep you in the first person viewpoint and others that drop you back into a third person view of the carnage. These moves succeed in adding a larger degree of tactile feedback to the melee combat and aren’t so frequent that they lose all meaning. Sneaking can still play a huge role in the game as well and the new icon for whether you are hidden or not (a shut to slowly opening/closing eye) is very intuitive.
One of the hallmarks of this series is the ability to play your way, and the new leveling and perk system makes that possible. The new system combines some aspects of the old leveling system with new skill specific perk trees to create a system that allows for a great deal of freedom when building your character from a lowly escaped prisoner to a god among men. They’ve removed the class system entirely in Skyrim, which allows for a more natural progression in the skills that apply most to your playstyle. Bethesda have removed most of the attributes found in the previous games, choosing instead to narrow it down to simply Health, Magicka, and Stamina. You’ll be able to select one of these to increase each time you level up. The leveling process is handled simlarly to the previous games in that as you perform actions related to the different skills in the game, you will advance toward the next level. This replaces the experience point system found in most RPGs to replicate your character getting better at things through repetition rather than an arbitrary “experience” value. I find this to be a much more intuitive way of managing the character development and wish other games would incorporate the Elder Scrolls method.
As you level up your skills you will have access to more and more advanced perks in that skill. For example, leveling your One-handed weapons skill will allow you to choose perks that enhance the damage that those weapons cause, apply different benefits to each of the weapon types, or increase attack speed. This system works very well, and in its own way, discourages the “jack of all trades” type characters that ended up occurring in the previous games in the series. As mentioned when discussing the environments the art direction of the menus is also top notch. Purposefully minimalist and functional, the main quest and inventory screens accomplish what you need them to without unnecessary flash. The perk menu is fantastically incorporated into a constellation themed set-up. Rather than the standard “drawn on old paper” map that most games in the genre feature, Skyrim features a map generated in the game engine. The camera essentially pans out into the sky to show you the lay of the land.
Of course, a beautiful world to play in and tons of cool stuff to level is great but doesn’t really mean that much if there isn’t any purpose. The quest design in Skyrim is top-notch and a highpoint for the series. Dungeons are much more varied and interesting than Oblivion’s samey hovels. A lot of the seemingly simpler sidequests are long and very interesting with different choices and options built in for the player. Perhaps the most impressive thing is that the new Radiant Storytelling feature allows for new quests to always be available to the player and for them to be based on what the player has or hasn’t done in the world. For example, for some quests the game will look at places you haven’t explored and purposefully send you there instead of to another dungeon that you may have already cleared. This type of gameplay is the next step in RPG development, and I’m incredibly excited to see if it kicks off a new standard.
One of the game’s biggest new attractions is that dragons that have come back into the world. Most of these dragon battles are random and can occur just about anytime or any place. Each battle with a dragon is a harrowing affair, and it’s a blast figuring out how to come out alive. Perhaps the best thing about the dragons is that the entire world views them as a threat when they swoop in. Just about anyone and anything else in the area will pitch in to help you defeat one when they rear their ugly heads, whether that be local guardsmen or the giants that roam the countryside. Bethesda has done a great job giving the dragon battles the proper weight and frequency. Your reward for defeating one of these beasts is to absorb their soul, which you can use to breath life into the new Dragon Shouts. These magic-like abilities require not only the aforementioned soul but also for you to learn words of power from various word walls scattered across the land. The talents bestowed by these Shouts include boosts to movement speed and new attacks, adding another wrinkle to the already deep combat system.
Because this is an open world game (and an open world game made by Bethesda at that) you will see a number of mostly harmless glitches from time to time. These range from books and other items clipping through tables to AI getting caught on the local geometry. At the time of this writing, there are also several more serious bugs related to textures on the 360 and save file sizes on the PS3 present, but a patch coming soon after Thanksgiving should banish these issues.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the contribution that Skyrim’s soundtrack plays to the overall immersion and quality of the game. Jeremy Soule has done it again with a stellar score that contains several hints of classic Elder Scrolls music. From the soaring highs to the foreboding drumbeats it’s not a stretch to say that this is one video game soundtrack that will end up in a lot of people’s collections. The sound effects are, likewise, very good and enhance the realistic feeling of the game considerably.
I could probably fill another 6 pages with information and opinion about this game, but I’m sure you’d rather be playing than reading (as would I). I’ll leave it with this. I’ve spent more time with the Elder Scrolls than any other game series in my 25 years as a gamer. The series simply sucks me in unlike any other on the market. I was worried that Skyrim wouldn’t live up to the hype I had built for it in my head over years and years of waiting, wondering and hoping for a new Elder Scrolls game. I’m pleased to report that Skyrim has not only met, but has exceeded my hopes for the newest iteration of the series. While I don’t have the time I used to invest in games like this, I can see myself playing Skyrim for a very long time; at least until ES VI comes along.
Review copy of the game provided by publisher. Primary play on Xbox 360.