Developer: Bethesda Softworks
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Genre: Epic Fantasy RPG
ESRB Rating: M
Release Date: November 11, 2011
Platforms: PC, PS3, Xbox 360
Tamriel is under threat from an enemy so old they have become legend. None are safe as dragons take to the skies for the first time in generations, and none are equipped to stand against them – none save you. You are Dolvakinn, a Dragonborn bearing the natural ability to battle these fearsome monsters. Along the way the path you take may be drawn by fate, but the way you travel the road is paved by your own choices.
Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim takes place in an environment swathed in beauty. Bethesda Softworks does detail best, and this is the best game they have created to date in terms of visual splendor. From the majesty of the jagged peaks that ring the horizon to the eerie beauty of the Northern Lights undulating in the sky at night, Skyrim is nothing short of breathtaking.
And those are just the big elements. There are also the small details that make this game so magnificent to experience. The nature all around you, from tiny blue butterflies to the rain soaking the landscape – all of these are procedurally generated, and knowing such complex systems are created just so that a buck can wade through a stream makes the experience downright magical.
Character design in this installment of the Elder Scrolls series is highly improved when compared to the last game. Oblivion featured overly-detailed NPCs who were wooden in their movements. Talking to them felt akin to talking to a painting: They might be well drawn, but the faces just don’t move. In Skyrim however Bethesda has decided to break with their traditional NPC conversation format, and you no longer zoom in to the person’s face when you talk to them. This allows the character to stand more realistically in the space where you encounter them, and also allows you to better see their whole body expressions and muscle movement. The art design in the Skyrim characters is less realistic and more stylized, which in Uncanny Valley terms means they are more believable as real people.
The mastery of detail also extends to the user interface in Skyrim. To view and select your talents, you literally look to the heavens, where all the skills available to you are laid out in constellations. To find out where you are going, you look down, and read the hand drawn map that shows you your location.
Apart from the visuals in the game, the sound work is also a thing of beauty. Sound is a huge part of the game, because as a Dragonborn you have the innate ability to speak the language of dragons – the language that allows them to harness the elements to create their magical abilities. Each word in the dragon language is distinct, and as your character performs a Thoom, or shout, you can distinctly hear them saying the word. Yet again this is a small detail that makes a big difference. You know when you are performing two parts of a three part shout by the sounds you utter.
The combat systems have been greatly improved since Oblivion or even entries in the Fallout series. Much of the reason why Oblivion fell flat was because of the simplistic combat design in the game. Skyrim has no such limitations. At its core the combat system is flexible: You can wield any combo of any weapons in either hand, and this includes spells.
The multiple camera views add to this flexibility – finally being able to experience combat in third-person allows for a much more dynamic feel. The inclusion of finishing moves to the combat animations is possibly the greatest improvement in terms of combat feel. Any melee blow with a flourish triggers an additional set of animations, and this provides the player with a feeling of epic power as they finish their enemies off. Depending on which skills you have learned in your talent trees, these flourishes can almost be constant, and are always satisfying. Magic users are largely exempt from this system as is the case in most RPGs to date, but Archers do get a talent that allows them to get some finishing moves using their arrows.
While playable on the PC, the control scheme seems originally designed for a gamepad, so if you have one handy I would suggest you use it. If not, navigating the controls via keyboard can sometimes be a challenge, particularly with a minimal UI scheme such as this.
And the game is big. Huge. Epic even. Not only is the world itself huge, there are no limits on how you play within it, or how long you can play it. The developers themselves said there is a theoretical level cap at around level 80, but to reach it is nearly impossible. Which means Skyrim is a game you can play for years and still get enjoyment out of it. It’s what we might call a smart investment.
A beautiful game with clever combat mechanics can still bomb if you don’t have a dynamic story underpinning the entire experience. Luckily, Bethesda learned from the haphazard nature of their storytelling in Oblivion and wrote Skyrim with a more focused hand. Just as the game genre implies, this is an epic Fantasy tale with you in the center. No longer are you a measly unknown peasant thrust into a situation simply because you happened to be in the dungeons as a king is escaping. No, you are Dragonborn, a character of legend put in the realm to save the land from the menace of dragons.
Not only is your character’s purpose better defined, so are the stories that you interact with. At any time you are provided with at least one major quest line, and anywhere up to half a dozen or so side quests. The quests are fascinating, particularly in the main storyline, and the writing within them is brilliantly executed. There are times when you will find yourself driven late at night into yet a third dungeon because you just have to find out what happens. The burning desire to know what is next is the hallmark of any great story, and Skyrim fills your playtime with this feeling until you’re hip deep in skeletons and dragon carcasses and still you have to know more.
But again, this is a Bethesda game, which means you don’t have to follow the main storyline or even the side quests. You can ignore both and set off in a random direction. Sure this will make it more challenging for the folks getting roasted by dragons back in Whiterun, but the possibility is there. Even exploring the vast landscape you will encounter side quests that tug at you, reminding you that there is a larger issue at hand than how many flowers you can collect or how many wolves you can kill. A wonderer down the road might talk to you of the far off stronghold of the rebellion, and urge you to join, or a saleswoman might speak of the college magi far to the East. Or you might find a letter in a cave that needs to be delivered in a village down south. These subtle reminders help to reintegrate the player back into the game, help to reinforce the larger story arc and get you back on track. Because, after all, Skyrim is about the dragons, and you are the only Dragonborn to appear for three hundred years. In other words, you might not need the world’s stories, but the world certainly needs you.
Any game this huge is not without its flaws. Mob pathing can be easily manipulated depending on the terrain, although for mages this can be a most welcome exploit when going up against say three Frost Trolls when you’re out of Power. The largest flaw to be found in the game is actually with the NPC systems. In Oblivion the NPCs had their own separate lives with schedules and patterns that went on with or without you. This was one of the best features of Oblivion, because it allowed for some interesting gameplay situations.
Skyrim mimics these virtual lives, but does not fully realize them the way that its predecessor did. While not a huge issue most of the time, the NPCs routinely say the same things over and over as you pass them, and even the same quest scenarios might be happening in town even though you’ve already resolved the issue abroad. The seams of this virtual world start to show when the deft hand that spend so much time to make sure the lightning bugs were beautiful didn’t take the same care to make sure the people felt realistic. In one instance there is an NPC that will only sell you home furnishings if he’s in a certain room. Presumably he forgets his duties the minute he steps outside.
As a lover of RPGs who had been burned by Oblivion, I was probably the largest skeptic when it comes to Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. I’ve been very outspoken about how wooden the entire game looked at E3, how unimpressed I was with a world that looked beautiful but had little personality. Oh how wrong I was. The Tamriel presented in Skyrim is a dynamic, lush world that pulls you in and provides surprise and intrigue around every corner. There is nothing bland about this game, and the only wooden elements are in the procedurally generated forests. I have been converted to the faithful, I have been won over, I have finally been impressed by a Bethesda game so good I can’t even be ashamed to say it is now one of my favorite RPGs. It might be my favorite by the time I get to level 80. Only time, and dragons, will tell.