Skyrim – Review
Here there be Dragons, Magic, Vampires, Werewolves, and everything else.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is one of those sequels which had an exorbitant amount of pressure on it since it began its development cycle a few years ago after the success of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Pressure’s a funny thing, though. If you start with the right stuff and have just enough pressure in the right places, and give it some time, you could end up with a diamond. Or a fossilised piece of crap.
Bethesda took away a lot of lessons from their time watching Oblivion turn into the cult hit that it did. First and foremost of those lessons was that gamers loved building their own stories and characters. Another important lesson was that we hate wasting armour on horses, the selfish whinnying bastards.
Skyrim is the culminating point of some of the very best elements Bethesda has developed for their particular brand of open-world RPG, from Oblivion onwards…Along with some of the worst. Welcome to Skyrim, gamer. You’re not leaving for some considerable time.
For a game that contains entire cultures, races, history, and its own brand of academic and fictional literature, Skyrim’s plot is blissfully simple.
Dragons are coming back to Tamriel and they’re very angry, having been ousted from power aeons ago. The province of Skyrim is engaged in a brutal civil war between separatist and imperialist factions, so nobody’s really treating these giant lizards as a serious threat. You, however, are about to discover your latent powers as the ‘Dragonborn’, meaning that the defence of the realm is entirely down to you.
As far as forging your own story within this colossal open-world RPG goes, the rest is laid out in a series of action/consequence decisions, from the moment you complete the intro and step out into the wilderness of Skyrim.
Exactly how much you choose to do vis-à-vis the main quest line at any given moment is left in your capable hands.
Beginners will probably take comfort in the guidance of their compass waypoints, making their way to the nearest village and from there to the first confrontation with a dragon, but you’re more than welcome to explore off the beaten track. There’s certainly a lot of exploration to be done in Skyrim.
How your character is equipped to deal with the threats you’ll encounter is something you’ll want to ponder as soon as possible.
If you want to take the obvious approach and don a suit of barbaric fur and armour with a great sword as your weapon of choice, be our guest. Show-offs will no doubt revel in accumulating magic skills to do everything for them, from conjuring weapons out of thin air to lighting up dungeons and transmuting iron into silver and gold. The more nefarious of our gamer brethren may appreciate a bow and some stealth training, not least because it helps you steal other people’s belongings.
That’s just a rough outline of your options; it’s your character and your skill set, so you can pick whatever you want.
The skills you employ will level-up as you use them on a continuing basis.
For every skill you use, be it lock-picking, destruction magic, heavy armour, blacksmithing, or whatever else, there is an attached skill tree with several or more perks. These perks grant you special abilities or unlock new options within that particular skill, but the clever part is that you can’t simply learn any perk you like straight away.
Much like the system we saw in Bethesda’s Fallout games, you’ll have to fatten your skills up to the requisite levels in order to select certain perks.
It’s much, much better than the ambiguous skill increases we had in Oblivion, and it doesn’t imbibe the complications of having to worry about how you’ll increase overall stats like ‘strength’, ‘agility’, or ‘intelligence’. Those have been swept away entirely from Skyrim and it seems like the game is all the better and more accessible for it, though the RPG purists might disagree.
While having all of these skills to develop gives us the feeling that we’re being spoiled, Skyrim does present us with some problems in the actual gameplay department – specifically combat.
Fighting opponents with melee weapons in the first-person perspective is not easy. In fact, there are points when it can seem downright unplayable, which is strange considering how simple it was when we were traipsing around Cyrodil.
In an effort to make character movements and handling more realistic, Bethesda have turned melee fighting into berserker flailing. You will depress that right trigger in the vain hope that your blade can find your opponent somewhere, somehow, and more often than not you will miss.
Parrying and blocking attacks, so easy to achieve a few years ago, have been rendered close to unintelligible. Magic attacks are another issue; your single-shot spells will go off at all angles until you practice enough times to get it right. If this is a case of Skyrim’s combat being hard to master, surely it should have been much easier than this to learn the basics.
Once you progress a couple of hours into the main quest line your character will gain the ability to ‘shout’.
This is actually a specialised set of spells designed for any eventuality, which have a potentially broad spectrum of effects – the catch is, you’ll need to find them first.
“Words of Power” can be located in ancient ruins and other areas throughout Skyrim, and usually they’ll be under heavy guard by sorcerers, undead, and dragons. Most, if not all, of these ‘shouts’ have three tiers of effectiveness that are unlocked by finding and learning subsequent Words of Power, and the effects range from forceful telekinetic shockwaves to making your character ethereal or disarming your opponents.
Unlike other spells, which rely on your magic energy levels, ‘shouts’ are limited by a recharge time. They provide a decent fall-back plan if you happen to get overwhelmed by enemies or if you start a fight with a dragon you can’t finish.
It’s a tool which, like so many other skills you’ll have, encourages players to explore Skyrim’s ample landscapes.
While exploration of a vast and open world might seem like a great concept, Skyrim does tend to overstretch it to the point where it looks like the pleasant creases of age in Bethesda’s gameplay have had an unneeded facelift. Having a few of the bigger quest lines where your destination’s miles away is perfectly acceptable, but you’d think criminals who are plaguing a town enough to get a bounty on their heads would set up shop just a little bit closer than on the other side of a goddamn mountain.
Run-and-fetch side quests come in their droves to fill up your “Miscellaneous” quest list, as do the go-here-kill-this side quests, and all of them seem to be sending you hundreds of leagues out of your way. Some of the investigative quests are just as bad, but there are a few set closer to the point of origin, so it’s not all that frustrating.
The problem with Skyrim is ironically its greatest strength: the exploration.
Going from one objective to the other, it’s not unusual for you to get distracted by several caves, abandoned forts, ruins, or minor villages (where yet more bloody quests await your involvement – hurrah). You loot, kill, sell, and purchase for a couple of hours, level-up perhaps once or twice, and you then realise that you’re still trying to finish the same quest you started ages ago.
Consequently the game leaves you feeling somewhat unfulfilled. You’re playing it, but there’s a distinct lack of progression – and that will start to grate after several hours.
Another wounding point is the fact that your fast-travel options are limited entirely to places you discover first.
Unlike in Oblivion, where every major city was unlocked from the start, Skyrim prefers that you run to and fro between open wilderness, forests, mountain paths, and bubbling geyser wastelands. Again, this is something to encourage exploration, but sometimes you’ll just look at the objective map marker and sigh inwardly before moving onto something more immediate.
It doesn’t help that hostile creatures and people are no longer keyed into the player’s level. Pick the wrong road and you could very well end up on an ice troll’s dinner table. What lesson will you learn from this? Save your game – a lot. Or turn down the difficulty; whatever works for you.
At the time of writing, Skyrim has become notorious for having a good crop of bugs and glitches in its gameplay, but how and when these will affect you – or even if they will – is impossible to say. You might see dragons flying backwards. A dead mammoth might fall from the sky. Your character could potentially freeze. So, again, you should save often and in different file slots.
Suffice to say, Bethesda are aware of the issues and are working on solving them, and their track record on supporting their products post-release is very good indeed.
Taken into context with the complexity of Skyrim, its landscape, population, and the ridiculously high number of potential quests, you may find you possess an inclination to forgive a lot of mistakes.
Cyrodil was, and still is by today’s standards, a beautiful place to lose your self. Skyrim is just as spectacular, replicating that sense of old wilderness you could only get by visiting some of the deeper rural areas of our own world. Coming out of a forested pathway and gazing across a broad expanse of grasslands, mountainous terrain, or an open vista from Skyrim’s higher altitudes, is a deeply pleasing experience.
You look at the world Bethesda has created and you buy into it wholeheartedly.
You believe the culture of the Nords could exist, the nine regions ruled by nine ‘Jarls’, the history of Tamriel, and, perhaps most importantly, you believe the creatures. The packs of wild wolves, mammoth herds and their giant shepherds roaming the lowlands, the vicious ice trolls in the mountains, the savage wild bears in the forests, and not least of all the ferociously cunning dragons. Every one of these beasts has been brought to life in close to immaculate detail, from their bodily movements to the physical impact they have on the environment.
Magical creatures, such as summoned ‘atronachs’ and undead, have their own unique presence. It’s unnerving to walk into a catacomb and see corpses bashing their way out of their graves or – more worrying still – simply standing up from their resting places.
Skyrim contains a world that sounds almost as good as it looks.
Spells and their effects are pulled off in a manner that’s simultaneously tangible and satisfying. Melee sound effects are hit-and-miss, given the sheer range of enemies you’ll test your steel against. You don’t expect hitting a skeleton to sound the same as hitting an armoured dragon – but it does.
Also, whoever decided it would be a good idea for clearly American/Canadian voice actors to attempt to do Scotch accents deserves to be shot – anywhere but the middle joint of the legs, if you catch our drift.
Lines of repetitive dialogue have become a running joke with fans in the past, and now it’s hard for us to tell whether Bethesda put them in there deliberately or not. We’re guessing they did. And it’s annoying.
There’s plenty you will have to say about what’s wrong with Skyrim when you’ve ‘finished’ all the big quest lines you want to. It’s by no means a perfect game – if such a thing could even exist – but there’s a good argument for it to be described as a work of art.
No other developer can lay claim to having woven such a vivid sense of detail through a series, and Bethesda deserves credit for that. Most sequels look more than a little rough around the edges by the time they reach number five, but Skyrim suffers only from the scale of its ambition.
There’s a lot to do, a lot to see, and it will absorb hours of your time. On occasion it will be dull.
However, when you single-mindedly pursue a quest line and ignore all other distractions it’s then that the game comes to life. You’re able to appreciate the scale of choice you have in everything your character does, the world that’s open to you, and the minute details of the very ground you walk upon. There’s no pressure to explore a newly-discovered ruin, cave, or fort; it’s enough to know that you can do it when the mood takes you.
This is a game every gamer needs to play through at least once. It might not be their most favourite game of all time, but it will certainly be one of the most significant, as it broadens the potential for what is expected to be possible on any console generation.
Skyrim is a diamond, after all. Thank the Divines!
- Hours of new adventures.
- Inspiring landscapes.
- Customise everything.
- Addictive levelling system.
- Dragon slaying.
- Lack of ‘progress’ can be dull.
- Bugs and glitches aplenty.
- Combat feels clumsy.
- Too many run-and-fetch quests.
- Occasionally dumb voice-acting.
- Alex ‘Alaric’ Lemcovich