November 10, 2011
Before I’d even put pen to paper, or finger to keyboard, should I say, for our The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim review, I’d clocked up an incredible 117 hours and 12 minutes, completed 118 quests, notched up 121 miscellaneous objectives, finished 5 questlines, discovered 219 locations, cleared 71 dungeons, had 526 skill increases, learnt 45 words of power, plucked 30 wings off various creepy crawlies, nabbed 37 dragon souls, contracted 8 diseases and slaughtered 2 bunnies – we'd have killed more, but we like bunnies, so leave us alone. Despite all of that, we’ve only scratched the surface of what Skyrim has to offer and for the second time this generation, Bethesda has clearly set a new standard for what we now expect from a traditional RPG game.
For this latest instalment in the franchise, you step into the shoes of Dovahkiin, the unsuspecting Dragonborn who’s destiny throws him into Skyrim just as the World-Eater, Alduin, a huge, powerful, soul-sucking dragon has come back to life and is resurrecting dragons across the province. From learning what your ancestry holds in store for you to digging deep into the origins of the dragon plague, Skyrim will send you from coast to mountaintop, and dungeon to crypt in search of answers. The truth is though, that despite the Alduin storyline being the main thread weaved throughout the Skyrim cloth, it’s a game with so many different questlines and stuff off-the-beaten-path that you could essentially spend hundreds of hours elsewhere without even paying attention to the main storyline like we did.
The simple fact of the matter is you’ll never be without things to do in Skyrim, whether it’s the civil war questline, the Thieves Guild questline (which outstays its welcome in the latter stages), the once-again-brilliant Dark Brotherhood questline, the almost-nearly-as-brilliant Mage’s Guild questline or the Companions’ questline – Skyrim’s posh name for the warrior’s guild – the content is so rich and fleshed out that there’s essentially five epic stories under one roof. That’s not including the slew of side missions, smaller side missions known as ‘miscellaneous objectives’ or the fantastic Daedric prince quests either, all of which are worthy of your time and provide major standout moments – the fact that one of the quests is like an Elder Scrolls version of The Hangover but instead of Vegas, drugs and tigers, it’s Tamriel, alcohol and giants, is testament to the level of quality the quests display outside of the main storyline.
Whether you’ve sampled the delights of Oblivion matters not, as Skyrim delivers a brand new story in a brand new setting, with only the odd nod here and there for fan service – for instance, you’ll often bump into the babbling Khajiit, M’aiq the Liar, wandering the world, offering amusing one-liners to make your time on the road that little more amusing.
The fictional land of Skyrim is located in the north of Tamriel and it’s a place where people eat salt pies, munch on cheese wheels, get high on Skooma and settle their differences with fisticuffs. With epic mountains, harsh terrains, volcanic and grassy tundras, tranquil streams and lakes, as well as some truly iconic locations, it’s certainly one of the most vivid, immersive, diverse and awe-inspiring game worlds ever created. It’s a huge environment with hundreds of locations to explore, but thanks to the ability to fast travel and use a steed, it never seems too big. Now, we’re not going to sit here and say that Skyrim’s biggest character is the world itself – it’s a cliché that’s over-used and is as cheap as a Skeever’s tail – but it’s a world you truly won’t want to leave and it’s a world you’ll actually come to care about. Heck, we spent 20 minutes chopping wood at the dilapidated Mixwater Mill to see if we could help it out. Turns out, it didn’t, but the fact of the matter is, we tried.
Perhaps one of Skyrim’s most admirable qualities though is its unpredictability, just as it was in Oblivion. Whether your horse gets mauled by a Sabre Cat as you roam the mountains, a dragon swoops down as you attempt to barter at the market stalls of one of the region’s four major cities or you get chased down by a crew of bandits who’ve been sent after you because you stole something a few miles away; you truly feel like a part of the world and never know what’s going to happen next. It’s not very often that we’d idly stand by in a video game and watch blizzards consume the lands, storms rush over the planes, mist descend and hug the rugged mountain tops or watch the rivers run wild, but on many an occasion, we found ourselves doing just that. How many game worlds can boast aurora borealis in its northern plains, some of the clearest night skies and two bold, distinct moons? None, that’s how many. Factor in the hostile and friendly wildlife, its bizarre inhabitants and characters, and… hmmm, there’s something else as well… oh yeah, and its dragons, then you have one of the most well-thought out and crafted environments for a game, ever.
Of course, the biggest addition – and possibly the most addictive aspect of Skyrim – is the whole dragon theme. Not only will you get to stand toe-to-toe with dragons that are both randomly spawned and scripted, but as a Dragonborn you’ll be able to absorb their souls which you can then spend on ‘dragon shouts.’ These shouts are effectively like superior magic spells – that require no magicka, but do have a recharge time – that can be used to devastating effect. Whether that’s using Storm Call to brew a deadly thunder storm, slow time, throw your voice to trick unsuspecting fools, summon beasts to fight alongside you or pluck a dragon out the sky and bring him down to earth, you’ll never be short of options.
It only takes one ‘word of power’ to learn a shout, but finding all three will extend the power and effectiveness of each given shout. And because they can be learnt independently too, and these words of power are scattered in the deepest and darkest recesses of Skyrim, they have a Pokémon feel to them, meaning you’ll want to find and collect 'em all. It’s Skyrim’s real world version of Skooma. Granted, the dragons can become a nuisance at times, especially if they attack mid-conversation when you’re receiving a mission, but directing that frustration on the dragon afterwards nets you plenty of riches, especially if you make good use of your shouts. Watching the locals take on dragons with a tiny dagger though, which is almost like taking a spoon to a gun fight, is worth its weight in gold. That said, that aspect does balance itself out, and when you’re being overwhelmed by a group of Wispmothers, for instance, they can be a saving grace and the distraction you need to turn the tide in a fight.
When you’re not fighting dragons on the surface though, it stands a good chance you’ll be deep underground, looting crypts, chasing after long lost artefacts, tackling the undead and more, in what seems like an endless amount of dungeons. It’s not a case of copy and pasting the same dungeon over and over again though, and it’ll be their diversity that’ll keep you intrigued enough to dig deeper. With dwarven labyrinths, huge sprawling caverns, dank pits, ancient catacombs and more, you’ll be itching to see what’s further down each of the rabbit holes and you’ll never grow sick of the surroundings that embrace you. The fact that a good percentage of these will have you thinking on your feet as well with some ingenious puzzles and traps, makes the experience that much more rewarding.
The combat has seen vast improvement since Oblivion too, and now players are able to equip whatever they want in either hand, whether that’s a spell and sword combo, dual-wielding maces, using a double-handed long sword, or even grabbing a bow; the choice is yours. Sure, its melee combat may still feel rather clunky and dated, but Skyrim is an RPG first and a melee simulator second and in fact, it’s actually rather charming – the fact that no-one has created a first-person melee experience that isn’t like that just goes to show that it’s probably not even possible to make it anymore intuitive. I look forward to being proven wrong one day.
The inclusion of a favourites system for your equipped items and quick-equip mechanic – using the directional pad – is a saving grace too, so it means that you don’t have to spend as much time buried in menus. That said, the new interface is so simple that even had it not been included, it wouldn’t have been a problem anyway.
The levelling system in Skyrim is a perfect example of not judging a book by its cover, as on the surface it’s shallow, but when you get to learn its ins-and-outs, it’s rather deep. With no class selection and 18 skills to master, players level up and improve their character by simply playing. For instance, if you use a bow, you’ll get archery points; if you use destruction magic, you’ll get points in that skill; essentially meaning that you can adapt your character to your strengths. The player level is actually based on the 18 skill subsets and when you’ve done enough you’ll level up, giving players the chance to select either to add points to their health, magicka or stamina, and assign a perk to their chosen skill – but only if their skill is high enough in that chosen skill. It might sound complicated but it’s not, and there’s enough depth and character growth for even the most ardent RPG fan. Of course, with 10 playable races – each with a whole host of customisability options too – each character will have their own inherent strengths. It’s also worth noting that the world doesn’t level with you this time, so if you take on a Giant as a level 5, prepare to be smashed 300 foot in the air. Yes, this happened to us!
The meta-games and their depth is where most RPG aficionados will find Skyrim the most rewarding though. The fact that you can mine ore, smelt it into an ingot, forge it into a weapon or a piece of armour, improve said weapon or armour and then enchant it opens up endless possibilities – especially if you invest perks into your smithing skill subset. It’s not all weapon making and enchanting though, as you can do a whole host of other activities like making potions, reading books, treasure hunting, or simply hunt and cook the resulting meat and other ingredients into a lovely meal. These things all have a purpose, of course. Even cooking carries added health properties. Or, if you can’t be bothered to cook then you could marry one of Skyrim’s inhabitants to cook for you. Or if you don’t care for food, hire a mercenary or enlist the help of a follower – who you can kit out with armour and weapons – and just kill whatever gets in your way, whether it's the undead, the civilians of Skyrim or whatever.
Skyrim does unfortunately lack a bit of polish in places, with the odd case of pop-up as you make your way through its vast game world. Objects can appear out of nowhere – even NPCs – some textures are extremely poor close up, the odd game crash and a couple of annoying glitches that forced me to load up an older save reared their head – mostly because of those pesky dragons interrupting – but in 100+ hours, in the grand scheme of things, it's nothing… especially when you take into account the sheer scope and depth of the game. Plus, it wouldn’t be Elder Scrolls without the odd comical glitch. The dynamic “Radiant Storytelling” mechanic which is meant to adapt depending on how you play the game, doesn’t work as well as Bethesda made out it would and on a number of occasions, quests were pushing me into locations I’d already explored.
In terms of achievements, they support Skyrim perfectly, pushing you down the most rewarding channels and making sure you experience what makes Skyrim such an enthralling game. It’s a case of, explore the game and play it long enough and theoretically you should earn all the achievements without even trying. That said, the level 50 achievement is a beast of an achievement and could supposedly take you anywhere between 150 and 200 hours – I got to level 38 in 117 hours. In all though, they compliment the game well, although we would have liked to see a tad more originality, but then I guess that would shape your experience a bit too much. It’s all about freedom, which is the essence of Skyrim.
There’s no disputing it though. The sheer scope, depth and charm of Skyrim combine to not only make this the best RPG of the year, but one of the best games this year, full stop. In fact, we’d go one step further and say that not only is it one of the finest RPGs ever made, but it’s also one of the best games that we’ve ever had the pleasure of playing. It’s immersive, it’s engaging, it’s brilliant, there’s just no other way to put it, and if it hadn’t been for those minor issues we found during our extensive time in Skyrim, we would easily have rewarded this that elusive 100% score. If that isn’t a testament to Skyrim's pure brilliance, I have no idea what is.
With some big name actors playing bit-parts and putting in solid performances – the truth is, there are no real big parts in the story – and an epic and powerful score to accompany it, you’ll be reaching to crank the volume up, rather than heading for the mute button. One of the best scores around, simple as.
Skyrim is stunning. It’s beautiful. It’s picturesque, and aside from a few graphical glitches, it would be perfect.
Some may call the melee combat clunky, but we find it rather charming and truly can’t see any way to improve it. Flicking from dual-wielding magic to a mace and shield combo on the fly is as easy as Lindsay Lohan and über satisfying.
Any game that can offer multiple stories that are equally as strong, with hundreds of hours of content in the game world without making you feel overwhelmed, you can’t really fault.
Yes, it might lack that little bit of creativity that we liked, but Skyrim's achievements reward you for experiencing the best bits of the game.
Simply put, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim has raised the bar in the RPG genre, offering a plethora of engaging and unique content in one of the most immersive and beautiful game worlds ever created. Plus, any game that uses the word “lollygagging” deserves eternal praise.