Review – The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Enter The Dragon
Anyone who is even half interested in RPGs has been salivating at the prospect of a new Elder Scrolls game and coming hot on the heels of the fantastic Fallout 3/New Vegas the bar has been set at a level where disappointment seemed to be the only possible result. Skyrim however handily exceeds expectations at every turn.
Many developers think that a modern RPG should be all about loot. Which is fine but often the dispensing mechanism for the loot is grinding. As this is what most developers see players doing in the boring world of MMOs. Skyrim rejects that grinding is a necessary evil and instead offers a varied, massive world and says ‘here, level-up and explore. See something brand new each time you play and if you go into a new area, there will be a story to find there’ and then you get some loot. I had put in almost fifty hours of exploring the world before I even thought about doing the second story quest. I spent my time mapping the overworld and diving into ruins. Pretty crazy when you consider most most games will have four to eight hours of single player content at best.
The main story of Skyrim involves the return of the dragons, which surprisingly is bad news, and is altogether well-told throughout. Personally though, I preferred the micro stories for each of the guilds and Daedra lords (further detail is offered in the myriad in-game books that can be found in various homes, shops, temples and lairs). These are where the game gets weird, which is great, one story in particular of a necromancer who brings back the dead and then has a relationship with one of the thralls was a bizarro twist ending moment that I really enjoyed. They also allow you to continue once the main story is over so there’s no reason to avoid it like you would have to do in New Vegas or Fallout 3.
I would recommend jumping into the main story and pulling off a few story missions before exploring as it doles out a few ‘shouts’ early on which are useful. Shouts are a form of magic which allow you to do awesome stuff like force-push people off of cliffs or freeze them in a block of ice. They are great as they aren’t associated with the games main magic system so even pure warriors builds can experience spell effects without much effort. Shouts can be found on special walls at the end of (mostly) optional dungeons. Once you’ve learned the word from the wall, you then need to absorb a dragon’s soul to unlock the power. Finding dragons to kill is never a massive problem as they randomly turn up when you’re in the overworld and can lead to some cool emergent moments like the time I was trying to sneak into a fort I was wracking my brains as I didn’t want to get into a fight. Then a dragon turned up and started attacking all the forts defenders and me and my trusty companion Lydia snuck in the back door. Okay, we were spotted almost as soon as we entered -pro tip: don’t have a follower if your trying to go stealthy – but it was a cool moment nonetheless.
Skyrim handles leveling up with a clever system that improves the skills you use, rather than the usual system of awarding EXP for killing and completing quests. It is a system that rewards trying out different skills, as ranking up in a skill progresses you to the next level. So instead of sticking to, say, one-handed combat for the whole game you would actually hit a wall where ranking up in one-handed takes such a long time that dabbling in two handed or archery combat becomes a valid option if only for leveling up. Upon leveling you don’t dump points in to strength, vitality etc either but rather you choose from health, mana and stamina (which increases your carry weight) and are given a perk point. These perks have a wide range of effects and all fit into trees centered around each skill. The perks either augment or improve aspects of the skill they are associated with (such as improving your damage with certain attack types or allowing you to work with more advanced equipment in fields such as blacksmithing, alchemy or lockpicking). Unfortunately, with perks there is no way to respec once you’ve spent them which means that while you can still dabble in many skills, you’ll never get the full experience of all of them in one playthrough.
As regular readers might know I love me an RPG. Oblivion is an RPG, but I didn’t love it. I really enjoyed it and some of the quests were amazing but I didn’t get drawn into the world, whether it was because of the cut and paste nature of the environments or the shitty Oblivion gates I’m not sure. I think I do love Skyrim. I certainly can’t stop thinking about it.
It’s not perfect by any means, I’ve had a couple of crashes and people sinking into the floor or flying into the sky and just general weirdness, but nothing game breaking and nothing which spoiled my enjoyment. There are still a lack of voice actors but you can’t realistically give every character a different voice and the levelling system can still be ‘gamed’ somewhat, but again, it did not hinder my desire to play one bit.
The controls are much better this time around, the overall performance of the engine is incredible considering the improvement in visuals and the whole experience has been polished far more than usual for a Bethesda game. The menus are streamlined, the perks style system for levelling allows for a much more focused character and the combat feels much more involved. Although I’ve not done every quest (obviously) there have been a few corkers so far, most of which I stumbled into accidentally whilst trying to do something else, which is always a welcome surprise.
Not everything that’s been changed is for the better but the majority of it is. If you’re looking for a million stats you’ll be disappointed, but try and look past that and you’ll find hundreds of hours worth of joy out of Skyrim. Now if you’ll excuse me, my rogue is helping me in my quest to steal EVERYTHING. If RPGs have taught me anything, I must have it all.
Secondary Score: 9/10
Crafting is often something RPGs dabble with and is either paper thin or so complex and specific that you need to read a FAQ to have even limited success with it. Skyrim gets over this by giving the player clear feedback on what improving or enchanting a item will do and is generally quite rewarding. It actually becomes almost a game unto itself, with quite a few hours of my pla though dedicated to scouting new locations for ore.The same cannot be said for alchemy which ends up being a bit of a mess due to the number of different ingredients involved and the varying degree of potion usefulness. Alchemy is by no means ruinous but it does exacerbate one of the fundamental issues I had with the game. Item management, while much better than previous games in the series thanks to the mostly-improved user-interface, is still a issue. Sure you can dump stuff at a house you own but that involves multiple load screens (and these can be uncomfortably long at times).
With this being a Bethesda RPG you’ll be wanting to hear about the bugs and personally I was pleasantly surprised with the complete lack of nightmarish glitches. I’ve had the game lock up my console once in 100 hours which to be honest I’m ok with, another time I had a issue where the floor didn’t load but leaving the zone and coming back fixed it. I had a subquest glitch on me which was a bit more terrible and reading the what other players have said it seems to be common that if the game tells you to get a generic item like a mushroom and you already have one in your inventory it can bone up quests pretty bad. Not ideal but but hardly ruinous and hopefully patchable. You may have heard of the texture glitch when you install the game to a HDD on 360 but its honestly worth the reduction in load times and didn’t effect my enjoyment of the game at all and has been patched now.
Skyrim will probably be a game that will sit beside Mass Effect 2 when it comes to the top RPGs of this generation and the only improvements I would like to see would be fairly minor tweaks as opposed to anything meaningful. On a personal note, it has been great to have a game that I could really get lost in because so much of 2011 has left me cold. If you’ve been on the fence about Skyrim but suspect it might be a game you would enjoy, you should jump on it with no caveats.