Developer: Bethesda Game Studios
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
To say that there have been high levels of anticipation for the latest entry in The Elder Scrolls series would be an understatement. When a teaser trailer that shows only a stone wall, accompanied by the sound of a male choir, manages to inspire videos such as this one (NSFW, btw), you know something special is on its way.
I do however have an admission to make; At the time of writing I still have yet to complete Skyrim. I could blame the fact everything and their dog has tried getting in my way since my copy arrived last Thursday, but even with the many hours I have put into my playthrough the real reason I have yet to save the land of the Nords is simply because Skyrim is a vast experience. A vast, vast, VAST experience.
By this I mean that like its predecessors Skyrim is not a casual experience in any way, shape or form. The sheer size of the game world, as well as the copious amounts of quests, mean you will have to invest many hours to get through this behemoth of an RPG. It is also worth stating that even on the default difficulty, combat can be unforgiving at times and force you to be mindful of which fights you decide to pick (pro tip: sabre cats are evil, avoid them early on.) You can of course turn down the difficulty, but I feel in doing so you will end up regretting such a move as this removes the satisfaction in killing multiple foes, or, perhaps more importantly, defeating your first dragon.
Of which there are many. And they all want to eat you.
While I will not spoil the beginning of the game for you (because I’m nice like that) I feel it is worth noting that the first ten minutes are expertly done as a tutorial and introduction, unless you spend the first ten minutes crafting the appearance of your character, in which case the first twenty minutes are expertly done. The game eases you into the action, and even presents you with an interesting choice very early on. Little touches such as changes to the dialogue depending on your race add to the immersion, which is very much the key element to the enjoyment value of Skyrim.
While the basics of the combat mechanics remain similar to previous outings, the option to change abilities on the fly with the use of the favourites menu allows easy access to weapons or spells that you use frequently. This is crucial because of how you can be whatever you wish to be as a character, with the traditional class system of previous Elder Scrolls games which funnel you down archtypes cast aside in favour of a system that takes into account the action you use frequently. Performing a specific skill not only improves your ability to use it, but works towards your overall level, and this includes receiving training from an NPC, allowing you to spend your way to the next level providing you have the gold. Upon levelling up you are granted a point to spend in the constellation perk screen to further improve various areas of expertise. This allows you to focus your attention on one specific area or become a jack of all trades, which gives a sense of freedom when crafting your hero to your specifications. For example, my current hybrid of a 2-handed sword-wielding warrior who likes to also use a bow yet has the ability to sneak about, and does blacksmithing in his spare time, is one such example. You could, if you wished, go all-out range by wielding a bow and powerful magic spells, whilst being adept in the arts of Alchemy. The choice is yours.
Of course, the biggest addition to your arsenal of abilities is the Dragon Shouts, which allow you to use the language of the dragon in your battles. These shouts, which are unlocked by spending the souls of the dragons you defeat, can be learned by finding shrines of the Dovahkiin in various places all over Skyrim, each with different results when used such as knocking back an enemy or moving forward at lightning speed. These abilities can be amplified by learning additional words, and allows the play to hold down the appropriate button to charge up the ability. It adds an additional layer to the combat, regardless of whether you go ranged or melee, that helps to keep the action varied.
Those looking to be thieves or assassins will be glad to know that Skyrim provides the ability to create a stealth-based experience that can rival that which we saw in Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Be it sneaking around a dungeon to get the drop on unsuspecting foes, or performing quests for the Thieves Guild, it appears Bethesda have got the right balance between line-of-sight and noise detection to create some tense moments whilst hiding in the shadows. Speaking of dungeons, whilst certain sections may seem familiar after going through several quests, I feel Bethesda have done a good enough job of forming maps that are not only natural in progression, but helpful in returning the player back to the main world upon completion (something Bioware should take note of.)
Bethesda have also given players the ability to effectively use the environment around them to their advantage. Spellcasters can place magical runes at choke points to hinder their enemies, and clever use of fire in areas where oil have been spilt can send enemies to a flame-filled end (or yourself if you fail to notice well placed traps.) Third person slow-motion finishing moves make a return from Fallout 3, although these are also joined with first person views of the same animation to give you an up-close spectacle of your slaughter.
There’s a running joke with my friends that I spend what feels like ten minutes staring at the sky when I first start playing an Elder Scrolls game, taking time to observe the world Bethesda have crafted. When you consider how beautifully the environments are realised, it is hard to be annoyed when you are over-encumbered and having to stroll your way back to a merchant after raiding a cave or stronghold; I just enjoyed the scenery along the way. Even when I turned down the visual settings on my computer the landscape was still impressive in its presentation. From the bridge of Valtheim Towers (which I turned into a make-shift home) I am able to see all the way up to the top of the Throat of the World, and then turn slightly to view Dragonsreach in all its glory in Whiterun, whilst having a grand view of the river below me.
It would be criminal to not take a moment to quickly mention that the soundtrack once again provided by Jeremy Soule is fitting, beautiful, and had the musician in me enthralled (even if it did recycle parts of previous soundtracks.) That’s all I have to say on that topic.
Taking an objective view of the engine though, I can understand where some people have the opinion that apart from visual improvements nothing much has changed in a mechanical sense, because Bethesda have taken the best aspects of their preview works (especially that of their work with Fallout) and implemented it into their new engine. However, I wouldn’t go as far as saying it ends up feeling like “Oblivion 1.5” as it’s the little changes that really bring everything together to create a slicker experience. For example, while walking into a new area still fades the screen to black, doors now open slightly before doing so to add to the sense of immersion. Conversations no longer freeze the game world like before, allowing NPCs to go about their daily business, as well as allowing you to look around as you converse. Using crafting tables will display your character using said equipment in-game as you navigate the menus, all the while the game world will continue to move on. This also applies to cooking as well, which I warn you will make you hungry.
I’d also like to point out you can catch salmon in the rivers. WITH YOUR BARE HANDS. Fishing poles are for losers.
With all the time I have spent gushing over Skyrim like a smitten teenager, you’d probably think I haven’t had time to observe any faults. You’d be wrong though, because although the game doesn’t suffer from as many issues as its predecessor, it isn’t a completely smooth experience. The path-finding for friendly NPCs that follow you can be frustrating at times, although it usually fixes itself. Similarly, the NPCs may ruin your attempts at stealthy infiltrations, and I found myself leaving my companions outside or right by the dungeon entrance so I could achieve my goals effectively. It’s also worth noting that quests will not always be automatically tracked once received, so you will need to manually select them in your journal.
Perhaps my biggest gripe with Skyrim is the variation in NPCs and voice actors. While the press release boasted a cast of up to 70 actors, it sure feels like I have been talking to the same people over and over. While major characters have individual actors (such as Michael “I'm Colonel Tigh” Hogan as General Tullius) along well as individual appearances, everyone else seems to have a similar look and/or voice. While I appreciate more variety would mean larger devotion to resources, both in development and machine processing, it does kill the atmosphere a little.
But in my eyes these issues aren’t enough to break the experience. I could go on about how if you really, really wanted, you could spend your time as a farmer and forget the civil war that rages Skyrim and the threat of the returning dragons. I could go on about the various enemies and armour designs that help flesh out the world. I could go on about how I’ve spent a fair bit of time hunting animals for their meat and hides so I have plenty of food and materials for crafting (I even started collecting butterflies, just because I can.) I could go on about the immense detail in the copious amounts of books that can be found everywhere in the game. I could go on about how the animals (even domesticated ones) appear to have a personality (like good old Stump the dog in Riverwood.)
Fans of the series will instantly love Skyrim, but those new to The Elder Scrolls may find it too much to process initially. Persevere however and you will be rewarded with a role playing game rich in both atmosphere and content, complete with bloody combat and challenging foes of varying sizes. While DLC will almost certainly emerge for it later down the line, I would say there is enough content here to keep you busy for many, many hours. Hell, I’m on about 28 hours now with my level 21 character, and my adventure has only just begun.
- So. Much. Content.
- A beautifully crafted land to explore.
- Freedom to create whatever character you wish.
- Friendly AI pathfinding can prove annoying.
- Newcomers could find the experience overwhelming.
- Social lives will be stolen. Be warned.
The Short Version: Bethesda have managed to meet, and perhaps exceed, the expectations placed upon the fifth entry in the series. With so much freedom to play the role you wish to, and a huge area to explore, those looking for a deep medieval fantasy experience will get their money’s worth with this one. As far as I’m concerned, Skyrim is the pinnacle of the RPG genre.