This is probably going to be the most difficult review I have ever written, or will ever write. Why? Because this game is, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the best games I have played. Of all the time. Can I end the review there and go home? No? Ok then. Onward, adventurers. I guess I will also offer the obligatory mention of how much time I have spent playing The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim; in excess of 100 hours so far across three characters.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim begins like most Elder Scroll games, with the player character in ‘binds’, that is to say you are a prisoner. This time you know why you were arrested at least, a big old case of the wrong place, wrong time. The opening cinematic (at least in the sense that you can’t do anything but look around – not an actual cutscene) pulls no punches, showing off Skyrim’s beauty right from the get go as you and your brothers in binds are being transported by horse-pulled carts to an Imperial Fort. It was quite serene and peaceful to experience despite knowing that, where ever you were headed, things were going to take a turn for the worst.
And it does. Skyrim dumps the player character in the homeland of the Nords in a time of great upheaval. 200 years or so have passed since the Oblivion Crisis, the Empire is well and truly in decline and the Nords are engaged in a civil war, between pro and anti-imperial factions. And of course, your fellow prisoners just happen to be some of the rebels, called Stormcloaks. As the convoy rolls into the Imperial Fort of Helgen, their fate and yours becomes abundantly clear. As one of the Stormcloak rebels says, “End of the line”. And then the game ends, with your head unceremoniously chopped off. Game over, we can all go home.
Ok. So instead of that, a big ol’ dragon which you later learn is Alduin the world eater, makes his grand appearance and more or less fucks shit up, allowing you to escape. As it turns out, the events of the previous Elder Scrolls titles have all been preludes to the return of Alduin. Civil war. A dragon. And you haven’t even killed any rats yet. Once you get through the first portion of the game, which one could describe as a tutorial, you are faced with a choice. Do you continue on with the quest that the game gives you or do you go with door number two and opt to say ‘screw it’ to the quest and wander off in a random direction? Both are perfectly valid and enjoyable ways to play the game.
It really doesn’t matter which way you go, but in following with the quest, you are taken to a nearby village of Riverwood – it is the direction I opted for on my first character. And it is in this short walk that the game screams at you saying, “LOOK AT ME, I AM BEAUTIFUL” and it is. The vibrancy and attention to detail in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is second to none. Things like walking along a river and seeing salmon swimming upstream. Deer, rabbits, foxes and other peaceful critters bound through the woodlands. Wolves and other predators actually stalk and attack them, too. Various types of butterflies can be seen fluttering about too and be caught (for their wings – not as pets, unfortunately).
Oblivion had great attention to detail too, but Skyrim takes it to the next level. Unlike Oblivion though, which for me was a drab and boring place to explore (especially after Morrowind), Skyrim is brimming with life and is actually interesting to explore. Dilapidated forts, ancient Nordic ruins, Dwemer ruins, as well as the varied landscapes and settlements; each of the hold capitals generally have a different feel and vibe to them. The game also boasts around 150 hand-crafted dungeons and much to my surprise, many have their own associated quests, even if another quest sent you to the dungeon to do something else anyway.
Game play is a bit of a departure from previous titles and in some cases it appears to be in an effort to simplify things a little. Take for instance your skills. In Oblivion, you would have skills for blade, blunt and unarmed. Skyrim redefines that, by having all one-handed weapons being governed by the one-handed skill and two-handed weapons governed by, you guessed it, the two-handed skill. When you level up, you no longer put points into attributes such as strength or intelligence. These are gone too. Instead, you are presented with a choice of improving your Magicka, Stamina or Health.
Borrowing a little from the Fallout series, Skyrim also sees the addition of perks. Each time you level up, you get a point to spend on a perk from one of your skill trees, provided you meet the requirements of course. At first, I wasn’t really sure if I liked this simplification of the attributes and skills or not. I had some reservations about them, because I quite liked how things were previously. But hey, the system has grown on me and it works quite well. Because it is rather simple, it allows new players to more easily dive in to the game and enjoy it. Not always a good thing for some people I suppose, but it is a tick in the box for me (even if I still miss the old attributes in particular).
Combat is not spared either, with probably the biggest change to the dynamic of combat being dual wielding. In the simplest of terms, this means the ability to pick up two one-handed weapons and use them in combat. Where it really shines, is with magic. Although you can no longer create your own spells, you can equip a spell to either hand whether they are the same or two different ones. Provided you have the requisite perks, you can ‘dual-cast’ spells, which allows you to cast a more powerful version of a spell if you are dual-wielding it (for example, equipping the flame spell and using both at the same time). As I mentioned, you can also equip two different spells, so you can be casting heal with your left hand while unleashing lightning bolts with your right.
Skyrim also sees the introduction of Dragon Shouts, or the Thu’um. They are words of power spoken in the ancient Dragon language. Dragons can naturally use Dragon shouts, and as Dovakhiin, so can you. Each Dragon Shout consists of three words of power which must be obtained by finding word walls located throughout Skyrim. To be able to use the dragon shouts though, you are going to need kill yourself a dragon or twenty. Killing a dragon allows you to absorb their soul, which can be used to unlock a word of power. Basically this amounts to you being a badass. Because you can shout things to death, if you so choose.
When you aren’t bashing, shouting or blasting things to death in the wilderness of Skyrim, there are number of non-combat activities you can perform. Crafting potions and poison returns while enchanting also makes a welcome return. The two coolest, in my opinion anyway, crafting additions are smithing and cooking. Smithing allows you to take raw materials like iron and leather, to create your own weapons and armour, which is great although armour and weapons no longer degrade and thus no longer require repair. Its a shame because it would have lended more use to the smithing skill and blacksmiths in the world. The second thing is being able to cook. There are no skills associated with cooking, you just find ingredients, activate a cooking pot and create your choice of dish.
The menu has undergone a redesign as well and, for console players at least, it is a very intuitive and well designed menu. Hitting the B button on Xbox 360, brings up your menu options such as items, skills and magic. Both your magic (including dragon shouts and other powers) and items can be ‘favourited’, placing them in a special favourites menu that can be brought up with a single button press (Up on the D-pad for Xbox), allowing for easy equipping between your most needed skills.
Selecting the skills option in the menu takes you to the skill perk trees which take the form of constellations. As you take perks, the points on the constellation light up, so in essence this menu provides a bit of a meta game by trying to complete the constellations. The downside is sorting through items. While its not so bad in the item menu because it is broken down into categories (weapons, apparel etc) it can still become a bit unwieldy once you start hoarding stuff. This is even more evident in chests, which don’t employ item categories at all.
Its not very often I feel the need to talk about the music in a game, but The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is definitely one of those exceptions. Jeremy Soule, who also worked on both Morrowind and Oblivion, once again handled the music aspect of things. And he didn’t disappoint. The Nordic ballads(if you can call them that) lend well thematically to the game (think Viking chanting in a manner of speaking) as well as provide a sense of empowerment. The rest of the soundtrack were quite enjoyable too, evoking emotions as needed (urgency when at low health in combat, delving deep into dungeons etc). If I were going to nit pick on anything sound related, it would have to be the voice acting. Although there is a large variety of voice actors and lines in the game, several of the voice actors are quite prominent and seem to ‘pop up’ in too many places.
There are quite a large amount of quests to do in Skyrim (well over 200) not to mention that the Radiant Story engine allows for the creation of random quests and events. This is used in a few places and although it mostly along the line of fetch quests, many are repeatable thanks in part to their random nature (within a set of defined parameters). The are essentially two main quest storylines in Skyrim, firstly the one dealing with the Elder Scrolls prophecy (Re: Alduin) and secondly the Civil War quest line; they also both intercept at certain points. I found the story for both to be compelling and enjoyable, but unfortunately the conclusions to those quest lines were rather unsatisfactory.
I did not feel like I had beaten some big baddy who was out to destroy the world, hardly anyone knew or even cared that I had done so. I did not feel like I ended the civil war one way or another. Say what you want about the execution of Oblivion’s main quest being average (I’d agree with you) but at least when I helped stop the Oblivion Crisis, I felt like and was treated like as was befitting of the Champion of Cyrodiil. Faction quest lines do suffer from this to an extent too, though not nearly as bad. At least in some cases, you gain a few extra followers to boss around.
Like the previous titles before it, Skyrim unfortunately suffers from quite a few bugs, though personally, this is to be expected in such a large and complex game (not that I am saying this is an excuse). To date, haven’t encountered many and those that I have, have been restricted to small quests that I could live without completing (for now).
All in all Skyrim is an epic and a title well deserving of all the accolades it has received to date. Its easy for new players to get into, while not alienating veterans in the process. The phrase ‘Value for Money’ is definitely epitomized by this game. As I mentioned earlier, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is one of the best games I’ve ever played and it is the best game I have played this year without a shadow of a doubt. But it isn’t perfect and there is still room for improvement for future titles.