A beautiful sprawling fantasy
The Elder Scrolls is a series that I have been keeping an eye on for a long time now, watching it grow from game to game. Skyrim marks the fifth entry into the series and it also grabbed me far more than any of the others, turning me from a casual observer into a fan in over 40 hours play so far.
It is a beautiful, sometimes buggy (minor ones for me) epic fantasy that lets you play at your own pace and it deserves every accolade, every single bit of praise and every score that it has garnered from all the outlets so far. Never before have I been so immersed in a world that anyone has created, not since I opened up my original Dark Sun box set back in the days of TSR. Yeah, I am that old...but not old enough to be set in my ways concerning video game rpgs.
So in honour of Skyrim, this review is going to be a little different compared to many of my others.
I have poured (so far) over 40 hours into Skyrim and this landscape has enthralled me at every turn. The world that Bethesda has crafted for this outing is nothing short of magnificent, with enough adventure to last a gamer nearly a lifetime. Or according to the marketing speak, 300+ hours. I can believe it too...
I have travelled for miles across snowy wastes through a harsh blizzard, revenge burning in my heart mixed with sorrow, following a group of stalwart warriors into an ancient tomb for one last great send-off. I have fought bears high in the mountains, watching a mighty dragon swoop down and breathe gouts of chilling frost as an angry giant involved himself in the battle. I have slain said dragon, absorbed its soul and unlocked the power to speak words that conjure flame. All in first or third person I might add...and third person combat works quite well.
I am no longer a simple gamer in this land, I am the Dovhakiin, the dragonborn and I am totally immersed in this world from the moment the first scene rolled into view...this is a testament to how Bethesda approached the design of Skyrim from the get go. I have crafted magical weapons, made potions to save my own life in the depths of ancient barrows, I have created glass armour and weapons and I haven't even really touched the main quest line.
I have done more in those 40 hours than I have ever done in any single player game in a long time. I am not bored either...not by a long shot. Every single mile that takes me across new terrain brings something new and interesting, from long hidden tombs to a sudden dragon attack or a random quest event that somehow makes sense. I can play the kind of character that I want to play, I can do the kind of things that I want to do and most of all I can grow this character my own way. The gameplay is simple and rewarding, the difficulty scales pretty well and there are challenges that I cannot overcome yet via brute force. So I must think tactically and use the resources at my disposal to deal with the situation. I could go into length about the control systems and how the game plays, but really, it's an experience unlike any I have experienced and the gameplay is easy to pick up and tricky to master.
Combat is brutal, and it can end swiftly if you don't have your wits about you. There are a variety of attacks, you can block if you choose one handed, two-handed or sword and shield - if you go down a dual weapon path, you get more damage and frequent hits, you however cannot block. This makes sense, since you're focussed on getting more damage onto your foes and less concerned with actually protecting yourself.
You are not constrained by character class either, rather like Dark Souls; you can be the class you desire. If you want to mix up magic, ranged, stealth and anything else, you can. There are no real constraints; of course as you level up, you're going to be thin on the ground in some areas compared to others. As for levelling up, Skyrim approaches things a little differently than most games in terms of experience and skills.
Everything you do in Skyrim, from sneaking around, fighting, taking damage, blocking and picking locks (for example) earns you something towards the skill that you're using at the time. Eventually that skill levels up and gives you a push towards your next level. Smith a bunch of bracers and smithing will increase - eventually that skill will let you make even better items and weapons, and it will also lead to you gaining in a level. Upon which you'll need to choose, Magicka - Health or Stamina as an increase and place a perk into one of the many skills that you're eligible for.
You could place a perk in two-handed and gain some more damage, or the chance to decapitate your enemies. Do you wish to be sneakier? Assasssin type perhaps? Well, look to popping some into Sneaking and becoming better at that. The choice is yours and this method of skill and level advancement means that you're in control of that character from start to end.
Bethesda has crafted a unique, living and breathing world for you to explore and it's packed with adventure around every corner. Some of these are small side quests that their Radiant Story system creates to give you something to do, and some of these are quests that Bethesda has crafted from start to end that may not behave quite as you expect. There have been numerous moments in the game where I have been blindsided by a quest, where I thought it was going to be one thing and it turned out to be another. These are the moments that transform a typical fantasy into something akin to the Ring Cycle or Beowulf. These are the tales of epic heroism that star your own created character, your own personality and immerse you into the game world totally. Even these set quests have various Radiant Story elements that allow them to play out differently as you head towards the conclusion, perhaps it's just a change in where the one part of the quest takes place, or perhaps it's the enemies that you will face. It keeps things fun and fresh.
Radiant Story attempts to examine numerous variables and provide nearly unlimited opportunities for adventure in Skyrim. So far, it's worked gloriously and I have experienced only a fragment of the world on offer in my time with the game so far. Then you have the Radiant AI that imbues the citizens of Skyrim with their own personality, their own wants, desires and needs, their own feelings about you. This AI manifests in numerous ways, from a friend of yours giving you a gift to someone returning a dropped dagger that they know belongs to you, or running off with it if they're an enemy of yours.
It also governs what the NPCs do on any given day, hour or minute in the world. They have their own assigned jobs; they chop wood, talk to each other, work at the local mill and tend to the forges etc. You can do a lot of these jobs yourself as well, especially smithing and it's a great way to earn some extra cash. The same can be said of chopping wood too. Whilst we're talking AI and so on there's also a follower command system that works pretty well, you can order your chosen follower to do a variety of things, opening chests and attacking bad guys, as well as heading to specific spots. You can trade items with them and some of them will even guard your home for you, if you have one.
Radiant Story also adjusts things in the game based on what you do, where you have explored yourself and even who you may have killed. If an important quest giver dies, you may still gain that quest from a friend or relative...be warned though, revenge isn't just for the player character!
Overall the AI for the game is excellent...then of course you have the Radiant AI that governs the dragons. Oh...the dragons...these are titanic monsters that provide some of the best battles in the game, where brute force can't just win the day, where tactics and planning helps over just wading in. Killing them is hard and the reward is their soul, since as a dragonborn, you can steal their souls and gain power from them.
The Draconic Tongue
Integral to the core story of Skyrim is the Way of the Voice. A mythical power that allows the dragonborn to perform incredible magical feats that only dragons can normally do. Not content with just making up some gibberish and calling it a language, Bethesda went the Tolkien route and made their own language. A language that rhymes in dragon as well as in English, a language that can be written or scratched by a dragon's three claws and their dew claw. This attention to detail is one of the reasons that Skyrim is just basically one of the most immersive adventure rpgs on the market and is rapidly outshining all of the other games in my heart as a Game of the Year 2011. The dragon shouts are utterly fantastic and earning them is a real legendary journey, more often than not they appear on Word Walls in ancient tombs and high in the mountains, mostly guarded by one or more dragons and once you have the word...you can use the dragon soul to unlock it. So don't think it will be a cake walk and you can mythically know these powerful chants, the shout or Thu'um must be hard won to mean something.
There's a lot of Skyrim to explore. There are several major cities, there are settlements out in the wild and there are dungeons and ruins galore. It all looks great too, and the Nordic theme to the game is superbly done. It is the best looking Elder Scrolls to date and the level of detail graphically is bordering on the insane. The weather system is a superb thing to see in action and a thunder storm, or massive blizzard is amazing to watch. My only gripe is that you don't actually see the character get covered in that snow, it's a tiny niggle and doesn't affect the game at all really.
The character models and items are really well done. The elves are an odd looking bunch and their alien looks fly in the face of the Tolkien stereotype, which is a good thing since it gives them their own place in the genre and marks them as different. The animations to Skyrim are likewise excellent with the combat looking beautifully visceral and the camera randomly panning out to show a third person view of the action as the character pulls off a slick move.
The atmosphere to Skyrim is something else as well. Every place you visit is unique visually and far more than any other game in the series has its own unique identity, from the sleepy little settlement at Riverwood to Whiterun, with the imposing Dragonreach high atop the hill...the home of the Jarl of Whiterun. The Creation Engine is definitely a step in the right direction and provides better visuals than the previous games. The lighting part of the engine is also nice and gives a great feel to the underground areas when they're dimly lit by torchlight or a spell. There are dozens of tiny touches as you explore from the snow blowing off the edge of mountains, to the wind tickling the trees or salmon jumping in a nearby river as they fight against the great current.
Then comes the night and everything changes, the landscape alters and the stars come out...and what stars they are. Night time is my favourite time in this game and I have travelled at night far more than during the day. Camping under the stars and watching the world go by...once again, immersed in this realm.
When you make something like this, you need to give the player enough options to design their own persona in the world. Bethesda has given this option in spades, with the character creation part of the game featuring a dizzying array of sliders and options, enough to allow you to craft the perfect character visually for your adventure. You can also choose from numerous races and each one brings something different to the table. Vikar is a Redguard from Hammerfell and they make the best warriors, so he naturally became a two-handed warrior with some ranged and magic, who can smith up a storm in terms of magical weapons and normal weapons. He can also make killer potions, cooks up some nice apple cabbage stew and is a generally nice guy.
You could play an Argonian Assassin, Argonians being the reptile race can breathe underwater indefinitely. Perfect for that sneaky water based assassination. The choice is yours and Bethesda has probably crafted the best character generation and levelling system in a game yet with Skyrim in that respect. I can truly say that for the first time, this character is 100% mine and has grown to my wishes and desires over the course of the game and at level 21, I am not even done yet.
Talking the Talk: The Art of NPC Interaction
Bethesda went an interesting route with this one, allowing the conversations to happen in real time and letting the world tick on in the background. There's no loss of immersion when it comes to talking to NPCs and you can see the folk behind them going about their business, as the NPC talks to you. They have lots to say as well. Even the ones that don't have massive scripts, these will still impart important information and you might even get a quest out of it if Radiant Story thinks you're bored.
The NPC dialogue system is really simple to use and allows you to interrogate the character, find out information and do the usual things that a dialogue system like this allows.
The GUI change
To talk game mechanics for a bit, the GUI for Skyrim is a different beast altogether. Favourites can be assigned at any time from weapons and items, with a press of a button. These can be quickly selected in combat as the game pauses to let you do so, or you can go into the main character menu and quickly select from items, which then brings up another list of stuff to look through. Here you can examine anything you own, with a full screen view of the actual object itself...including any clues that it might have written on it.
Skills are accessed in the same way, as are magic and so forth. It's all simple and effective, works really well and doesn't really break the immersion. As for the skill screen, where you pick your perks...it's a map of Skyrim's heavens and the various constellations...where you can see instantly what is improving and what perks you have assigned. As you assign the perks, you begin to draw your own constellation in the heavens based on your choices. It looks fantastic and is just another great little addition to the game.
Once you get used to the new GUI it actually feels a lot better.
The Sound of Skyrim
Along with the visuals, Skyrim has a host of audio features that combine to immerse you in the game world. I have lost count how many times I stopped to listen to something in the game as night fell, or as the dawn broke. Or as I climbed towards the very Throat of the World and heard the change in the air, as wind howled on past my ears and I could almost feel the frost collect on my fingertips. It is this level of audio that flows through the whole game from every location and there is a diverse palette of sounds that accompany your journey across Skyrim from frozen tundra to the deepest undead infested tombs.
There are a lot of voices in Skyrim that sound the same; this has always been a thing with the Elder Scrolls that I remember. But at least it is tons better than Oblivion. There are some great voice additions to the cast and some surprises like Christopher Plumber and Claudia (Ivanova) Christian who does a fantastic job with many of her female characters. You can hear repeat voice work with a few of the characters and many of the male characters share the same voice actor, it's a minor niggle in a game that is packed with some great dialogue. There are some off performances and some wooden ones, but again, it's a small price to pay for such a great adventure. The main character has no voice and that works really well for me, since I tend to put my own voice in inside my head and you're not tied down to a particular voice for the image you have in mind.
Epic Anthems and Solemn Themes
Skyrim offers some of the most stirring music in a video game yet. The main theme (Sons of Skyrim) is full of pumping orchestral highs and dramatic chants, sung in the language of dragons that Bethesda crafted for the game. An epic tale of the battle of good versus evil and the rise of the great Dragon: Alduin. Like Wagner's Ring Cycle and music of that ilk it evokes the Nordic theme perfectly. Skyrim's fantastic score, composed by veteran composer Jeremy Soule who has been involved in the Elder Scrolls and other games for years and years is the best music that has come from this composer yet.
It matches the on-screen action and exploration perfectly and a version of it kicks off during many of the dragon battles, yet another great addition to the atmosphere that actually makes the blood pump and has elicited big smiles from the local peanut gallery.
To Save or Not to Save?
Skyrim has a robust save system, the load times are not too bad at all and there's 3 autosaves as well. It is wise to save frequently and definitely after every major victory.
The game hasn't really given me any issues since I've had it. I haven't experienced any major bugs and the minor stuff is so minor it doesn't bear mentioning. Also, I have the whole thing installed on the 360 and there have been no texture issues at all. There are some occasional pop in moments when getting close to certain features in the landscape, but they are few and far between. It certainly doesn't mar the game for me. It should be noted that the draw distance for this game is the best yet for the series and creates some amazing visual moments.
Bethesda has managed to create a truly fascinating world, full of addictive gameplay and interesting quests. They have evolved the franchise to such an extent that if the next game in the series is anything like this one, I'm there...right there with all the Elder Scrolls fans just waiting for it. I can only imagine what a return to Morrowind might bring if it has the same ethos in design as Skyrim and the same attention to detail...
Until then though, I'll be walking the snowy tundra with an eagle eye upon the air for dragons to slay and monsters to kill. Knowing that as a pure single player experience, Skyrim is the game that will last me years and years as I can never truly see everything that it has to offer...
I often wonder if with such things as Radiant AI and Story, if I could truly ever say that I could see everything in this lifetime?
I have a sneaking suspicion that I probably couldn't. Which is kind of scary!
NAAL OK ZIN LOS VAHRIIN
WAH DEIN VOKUL MAHFAERAAK AHST VAAL
AHRK FIN NOROK PAAL GRAAN
FOD NUST HON ZINDRO ZAAN
DOVAHKIIN FAH HIN KOGAAN MU DRAAL!