Game: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Developer: Bethesda Game Studios
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Available on: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC (Reviewed on Xbox 360)
Slaughter the fattened calf and down a tankard of mead, because Skyrim, the long-awaited fifth entry into the legendary Elder Scrolls series, has finally arrived. Resting on a solid legacy of rich, open worlds, stellar production values and a unique yet familiar fantasy lore, the game is greeted by dauntingly high expectations.
Although this review will assess the game on its own numerous merits, it’s worth drawing the odd comparison between it and Bethesda Game Studios’ previous entry into the Elder Scrolls canon, 2006′s Oblivion. Though both critically and commercially successful and a wonderful introduction to the series for console gamers Oblivion was held back from true greatness by a few things: podgily repetative NPCs, immersion-breakingly tenacious guards and enemies who levelled along with your character, meaning that rash focus on non-combat skills such as speechcraft or potions could leave you hopelessly lagging behind your adversaries.
Set 200 years after that flawed classic, Skyrim promises an improved levelling system, greater detail and more variety whilst retaining its predecessor’s imaginative quests, intoxicating atmosphere and mind-boggling depth. Can it escape Oblivion’s flaws whilst forging its own identity at the Nordic anvil of development? Read on and find out.
STORY: As Elder Scrolls lore dictates, you begin your epic journey as a penniless prisoner. When the game opens, you awaken, hands bound, on a rickety cart taking you through Skyrim’s spectacular Arctic scenery to be executed. Although your crime is unspecified, the other passengers are all convicted Stormcloak rebels, to be executed for anti-Imperial activities following Ulfric Stormcloak’s assassination of Skyrim’s king. After witnessing a pretty grizzly beheading, it’s your turn at the block, but just before the executioner can swing his axe, a dragon arrives, getting you off the hook in spectacular style.
What follows is the perfect introduction to the game’s politically turbulant world. To escape the dragon, you can choose to either follow an Imperial soldier or a Stormcloak rebel to freedom. Your choice has little impact on how the game pans out, but by placing both sides on an equal footing at an early stage, the game puts their power struggle into a neat perspective. It’s a simple enough conceit, but one that sets the tone for a morally ambiguous game that shows how mankind (well, and elf-kind, orc-kind etc) is often so preoccupied with their own petty arguments that they fail to see the real probems that threaten them. For the dragons’ return heralds nothing less than the apocalypse, and with the rest of Skyrim caught up in their political struggles, only you can save the world.
Of course, it helps that you’re Dragonborn, one who possessess a unique ability to slay and absorb the souls of dragons. What this power means, and how you can use it to your advantage, is revealed as you play through the main quest. That is, if you want to. Something that has always divided Elder Scrolls players is the fact that you can explore the world for days without ever actually troubling yourself with the main quest. The side quests that you can take on are all intriguing, imaginative and downright fun, but some will lament their occasional detatchment from the main storyline.
Early on, you’re given the option of joining either the Imperial faction or the Stormcloaks (as well as the Mage’s College of Winterhold and, most amusingly, the Bard’s College), though you’re never forced down either path. It’s to the game’s credit that there’s no apparent “good” or “bad” side, and you’re given a beautifullly clear view on the world, able to appreciate everyone’s perspectives and priorities without being clouded by a clumsy good vs. evil yarn. Skyrim is populated by good, bad and ugly characters, but they are defined by who they are and what they do, not what side of the fence they’re on.
GRAPHICS: After the snowy beauty of the opening cart ride, the first thing an Oblivion veteran will notice upon entering Skyrim’s character creation screen is that the potato-headed monstrosities that populated that game have disappeared, replaced by jawdroppingly detailed creatures with crisp, distinct facial characteristics.
For those who rely on a good creation tool as the first step in getting into character in an RPG, Skyrim is one of the most flexible and extensive to grace the genre. Along with staple features such as hairstyles (tribal/romantic/medieval) and beards (rugged, exotic, wizardly), you can now give your character war paint, choosing from a vast selection of coloured designs that range from the decorative to the creepy to the downright threatening. Eyes can now be rendered bloodshot for that “meadhall” look, or blinded milky white. You can also dispense with irises altogether and opt for an entirely black eyeball, an effect as disturbing in the handsome face of a Nord as in the craggy visage of an Orc. The range of customisation options are dizzying, and the clear distinctions between races mean that each is imbued with a strong identity.
This area of the game actually provides the perfect introduction to the incredible depth of Skyrim’s design. Not one aspect of the game is lacking when it comes to detail, making exploration unbelieveably rewarding. Every object, from the various potion bottles to the ingredients you harvest from the wastes through to the jewellery you craft from found objects is rendered in incredible detail. Weapons and armour are especially rewarding to twiddle with in the inventory screen (which gives about 60% of its on-screen real estate to the objects, slotting the sleek menus into a side bar), as the observant player can determine the race or faction who crafted them by their designs and embellishments. Loading screens are accompanied by a full 3D-render of a random in-game object or character that you can rotate at your leasure, allowing you at learn about the world and appreciate its design as you wait to get out and explore it.
The world, too, is magnificent, though more for its breathtaking design than for graphical fireworks. It’s fair to say that Skyrim won’t be the most spectacular game you’ll play this winter (though it does look significantly better on a powerful PC than on an XBOX), but what it lacks in rendering might it more than makes up for in depth. Though the Arctic setting never gives way to anything warmer, there’s incredible variety within what may seem like a restrictive backdrop. Frozen wastes give way to thawing marshes, and the spectacular volcanic tundras of the east throw steaming geysers up into the crisp air. There are gentler settings too, such as the mossy plains near Whiterun and the mountinous fjords near Markarth, and each town has its own distinct arcitecture. The view from the game’s highest peak, The Throat of the World, is well worth the time and effort it takes to get there. Interiors are just as wonderful, and although the inns you’ll stay at all look oddly similar, for the most part they’re designed with visual flair.
SOUND: The now familiar Elder Scrolls theme is back in apocalyptic choral force, playing at key moments in the game, for example when you encounter a dragon. Though it has its quiet, contemplative moments, the score is a heavier affair than Elder Scrolls players might be used to, entirely fitting for the harsh and unforgiving landscape it accompanies. Even levelling up is accompanied by a triumphant tribal serande.
Voice acting seems to have improved a little since Oblivion, though this may be because I am not as adept at picking out the distinctions between Nordic accents as I am British and American ones. Whereas Oblivion’s NPCs all seemed spookily similar, Skyrim boasts a larger cast, which pays dividends in the world’s diversity. Though famous voices can wreck a game’s immersion with their overfamiliarity, Skyrim’s celebrity quotient are either left-field or well-cast enough to avoid this fate. Like Patrick Stewart (Oblivion) and Liam Neeson (Fallout 3) before them, Max “Ming the Merciless” Von Sydow, Joan Allen and Christopher Plummer use their thespian skills to create well-rounded characters rather than dazzle players into submission with ill-placed star “quality”.
GAMEPLAY: Because there are so many ways to approach Skyrim, it is impossible to give a definitive review of the gameplay itself. A revamped levelling system places vast importance on “perks”, extremely specific benefits to gameplay that quickly make every player’s experience vastly different. Although I made an effort to try my hand at each of Skyrim’s 18 skills, the most interesting developments are to be found high up in each skill tree.
Since Skyrim’s most eye-catching innovation is its dual-wielding, I chose to play as a spell-casting high elf, or Altmer, able to cast powerful spells with one hand and wield a one-handed weapon (sword, mace or axe) in the other. The mechanic is so simple that it’s a wonder it isn’t used more often in first-person games: while the left trigger controls the left hand, the right trigger controls the right. You can duel-wield almost anything you like, be it spells or weapons, though you can do so more effectively after levelling up. It makes for extremely flexible gameplay, and the more skills you acquire, the more you’ll want to experiment with different combinations.
To make your choice, you’ll have to navigate Skyrim’s streamlined menus, which on the console are beautifully intuative. Pausing the game brings up a “compass” of options, with Skills, Items, Magic and the Map on its four points. Switching back and forth between them is quick and easy, as is finding what you want when you get there, a mercy considering the wealth of options at your disposal. Perhaps the most striking of these screens is the “Skills” menu, featuring 18 spectacular constellations that represent the different skills. Whizzing around the night sky, trying to decide which “star” to illuminate as you spend your precious perk, turns levelling up into an occasion.
Choosing a perk feels like choosing a prize as opposed to preparing for a worst case scenario. Because you must choose to increase either your health, stamina or magicka before you pick your star, you already feel as if you’ve made a sensible choice, leaving you free to invest your perk in something that really interests or intrigues you. Want better prices from the opposite sex? The ability to forge enchanted weapons? A power that only works during the full moon? Go on, treat yourself, you already increased your health bar. Enemies no longer level up with you, making for a more logical and approachable world. Certain creatures, such as the mysterious giants that roam Skyrim’s open plains, are untouchable for the first few hours of play, whilst a mudcrab will never give you any trouble.
Of course, at the heart of Skyrim are its quests. You will struggle to find a more varied array of stories, tasks, journeys and crusades offline. Each quest is as unpredictable as it is individual, and are such a joy to undertake that the “rewards” you often receive – gold, a weapon, XP, a companion – are bonuses, rather than reasons to undertake them in the first place. You’ll find yourself wandering into an underground cavern to harvest the sap of a magical tree, venturing inside the traumatised mind of a man you must save from his insecurities (with a magical staff, obviously), exorcising a Daedric presence from a haunted house (or not, whatever), and uncovering countless plots and conspiracies as you cross and double-cross all manner of secret agents.
Gameplay itself is enriched by “Shouting”, speaking the language of the dragons to cast unique spells that have no equivalent in other facets of gameplay. Though you learn some as part of the main quest, most “Shouts” are learned by exploring the world and finding inscriptions. They range from a powerful blast that will knock down anythign (or anyone) in your path to the ability to move inhumanly fast to an ethereal state where you can neither receive nor inflict damage. Though you can only “equip” one at a time, they add depth to the already varied fighting mechanic, and can turn an unwinnable battle into a hard-fought tactical triumph.
The one thing that remains unchanged from Oblivion, for better or worse, is the idiosyncratic intelligence (or lack thereof) of the NPCs. “Radiant” A.I. does indeed result in a unique experience for all players, but it balances on a knife edge with sponteneity on one side and idiocy on the other. This will mean that your companions, should you acquire any, will block doorways and get themselves killed. It will mean that you’re able to circumnavigate their contingencies to immersion-breakingly hilarious effect. The guards that pursued you throughout Oblivion’s wastes with a sword for stealing a fork are a little less tenacious – they no longer care about crimes committed in other towns, or “holds” – but not much. Pick a flower in a private garden, and they will fight you to the death. Of course, Skyrim would be a flatter and more charmless place if it had fewer ambitions for its inhabitants, but there are times where you will need to suspend your disbelief and sense of ridicule in order to stay under the game’s spell.
It’s a small niggle, however, and one that’s entirely forgivable in a game as ambitious as this. When you consider the monumental size and depth of every single aspect of its execution, you realise how incredible it is that there aren’t more flaws and inconsistencies. The world is presented with an astonishing coherence, and there are few games which make it as enticingly easy to lose youself utterly within them.
LONGEVITY: This is a game where you can happily spend an afternoon making your way from one side of the map to the other, stopping to harvest ingredients, explore caverns and talk to the locals. More importantly, it’s a game where you don’t mind. Though you can fast-travel to places you’ve vistited before or pay a cart to transport you, doing so breaks the game’s powerful sense of immersion and will have you miss out on some of its most rewarding experiences. Even riding one of Skyrim’s hardy steeds will cause you to skim over finer details.
The immense scale is key to Skyrim’s allure, since this is a game you play to lose yourself in, not a thrill ride you pick up to while away an afternoon. Though it’s possible to blast through the main quest in a matter of hours, to do so is to miss the point. To get the most out of Skyrim, you must surrender your life and submit totally to its world. Every detail is worth your time and attention, from the books to the intricately designed weapons to the loquatious NPCs. An extensive playthrough, where you complete every quest you are given, will take upwards of 60 hours, at which point the only logical step is to begin all over again as a different race in a different gender and with a different skill-set, to find out what you missed the first time.
VERDICT: Fans of fantasy often cite mythology, symbology or history as reasons why they spend their free time immersed in fictional worlds instead of, you know, going outside. I know I do. But although there’s truth in that, at the heart of the matter is the desire to remove yourself entirely from the real world, and get lost somewhere altogether more lonely and dramatic. Although they offer the opium of constant levelling, a guaranteed reward for time invested, the reason we play RPGs is because they make it so easy for us to do that. In these games, we get to rebuild ourselves from scratch, leave our earthly bodies far behind and start a new life as someone else, somewhere else.
It’s hard to think of a game that makes it as easy to do that as Skyrim. It isn’t quite perfect, but if you want to play it, you’ll want to turn a blind eye to its eccentricities for the sake of staying immersed in its enormous, snowy world.