Developer: Bethesda Softworks
Release Date: November 11th, 2011 (Steam)
Official Website: http://www.elderscrolls.com/
The name Skane the Imperial might not mean much to the average person. In fact, I don’t think many would even recognize the name. Yet despite his obscurity, he was a hero… A legend. He had fought alongside comrades in arms on snowy mountaintops, infiltrated a hellish cult, and thwarted a plan to let loose the legions of the damned onto an unready world. He traversed the planes of existence, bringing a sense of security to a land held in the grip of madness. He reformed an ancient knightly order, whose sole purpose was to hold the forces of darkness at bay. He lead fierce warriors and magisters alike from the helms of their respective guild houses. That was five years ago. Skane was my Oblivion character.
Not a month went by where I didn’t play that game at least once. For a game already older than most, I had put more time into it than many of the other games on my shelf combined. When I got bored, I would try a new character. When I ran out of content, I would download mods. Oh, the mods. So many mods. There was one which unlocked an entire region of Tamriel, the likes of which we hadn’t seen since Daggerfall. There was even one that recreated the entire island of Vvardenfell, basically combining both Oblivion and Morrowind into a single entity. Epic quests, dark villainy, and heaps of loot made Oblivion the classic that it was. That it still is.
So now its sequel, Skyrim, is out, eh? I guess it’s time to dust off my Deadric boots, and recharge my Bow of Sparks with some Welkynd stones. The Elder Scrolls is back, and you better believe I’m going in just as hard as I had left.
If you’re a fan of The Elder Scrolls games, or perhaps someone who has played them before in the past, then the beginning of Skyrim should be all too familiar with you. As per tradition, your character is a mere prisoner, in the hands of Imperial troops. Where the other titles simply leave you in a dank, fetid cell or in the underbelly of a ship bound for Balmora, Skyrim places you directly where all enemies of the Empire seem to end up. On the chopping block.
After you decide which race you would like to be (all the standard races from the previous games are here) you step up to take your turn to die. Then, thankfully, your execution is interrupted by a vicious dragon attack, sending both prisoners and guards scattering to save their own lives amidst the fiery chaos. Legendary.
It’s here that you start to shape your character. Character classes that were present in the past games, which basically started you on the path of becoming a Mage, Sneak, Warrior, or Trader kind of guy, are no longer present here in Skyrim. Instead, every character starts off the same, every time. It’s up to you to form and define the character you want to play. This is inherently both good and bad for several reasons, but overall I think it turned out to be a smart move.
How so? Let’s say for instance that you want to be a no-nonsense warrior — one who runs up into your enemy’s face, sword and board at the ready — you can do that, without having to suffer any negative effects or slow grinding times. You start off from the very beginning with enough tools to be able to train up nearly every skill available. The downside? You lose some sense of immersion in the process. Your High Elf Mage can carry 300 pounds of equipment, and use a sword just as easily and as ruthlessly as any other sword-bearing character right up until the end of the game. Basically, Skyrim’s character is more of a blank slate, whereas Morrowind and Oblivion’s are somewhat pre-formed from the start.
But most of the time, you won’t even be thinking about that. Probably not even once. Why? Because the game is just so damned sweet to look at. The visuals are stunning in nearly every aspect, from the cascading waterfalls to the icy clutches of mountaintop ruins. You will be so petrified with wonderment that the nuances of the character creation will never enter your mind, I guarantee you. When I began my first playthrough, a family member came in and quipped that my mouth hadn’t closed since I started the game.
I couldn’t close it. I was in awe.
If you don’t believe me, then nothing I say can persuade you — in that case, seeing is believing. Check out some of the screenshots at the bottom of this article. Watch a trailer, a livestream, a friend playing through it. Anything. It will kick your ass how beautiful this game’s art direction is. The only thing even remotely unsatisfying about the visuals are the fact that the game is built upon the same Gamebryo engine Bethesda seems to have a crush on. But even then, you cannot deny the fact that this game is fascinating to look at.
Don’t even get me started about the audio. Jeremy Soule, the guy in charge of coming up with the game’s score ever since Morrowind, and who championed other fantasy game soundtracks like Neverwinter Nights and Guild Wars, does not fail to deliver. I would even go so far as to say Skyrim’s soundtrack, and main theme song Sons of Skyrim, might be one of the best video game pieces ever made. I swear that when I hear that damn song it sends shivers up my spine; and I can’t help but mouth the faux Scandinavian lyrics after each word is chanted by what can only be the manliest of men ever conceived.
But it doesn’t end there either. As with Oblivion, every piece of dialogue is voice acted by credible and talented voice actors and actresses. That’s not to say the other titles had less talented voice actors (in fact, I kind of miss the old ones a little bit). It’s just that the new batch of talent is so much more varied, and fits the Viking theme so well, that you tend to forget that these people you see in game are fictitious. A superb job overall.
But enough about all that, I’m sure you want to know more about how the game handles and/or plays. Well let me tell you — it doesn’t disappoint. Aside from the usual plethora of glitches and laughable physics bugs that come with the aged Gamebryo engine, Skyrim handles like your first car. That last statement can be interpreted in different ways, I know — but I’ve taken the liberty in assuming everyone reading this first car was a Porsche Boxster S.
Movements and animations in general are as solid as Skyforge Steel, making combat and traveling enjoyable to watch in both first and third person views; as opposed to Oblivion, where the latter was merely there for vanity. Simple things like sending your two-handed axe down for a big cleaving power attack is as addictive the 1st time as it is the 500th time; and watching your horse gallop along the tundra and taiga environments of Skyrim’s massive sandbox world gives you a feeling of unrivaled excitement.
Often times during the game’s development cycle when I heard rumors that the province of Skyrim itself was actually going to be vastly smaller than previous titles, I shuddered. “No!” I said to myself. “How dare they shrink my beloved franchise!” But as soon as I was in game, I laughed in quiet relief. Skyrim is freaking huge, and filled with dungeons to boot. Not dungeons that were haphazardly thrown together as in its predecessor; but rather dungeons that were lovingly crafted by two different teams this time around, insuring that each delve into the unknown would be as thrilling as the next. Well played Bethesda — it works! This new world never seems to get dry, or stale. Recycling is at an all-time low in Skyrim, and for that I am grateful.
Fighting is as polished as ever, leaving behind the older, more rigid system present in Oblivion. Spell casting has been revamped to a point where playing a Mage is actually entertaining, instead of mind-numbingly dull. Instead of spamming key clicks to fire bolts of lightning or balls of fire, Skyrim has a new system. Spells differ now in terms of how they are casted. With some spells you will hold your key down, as when you are spraying a room (or single target) with a hose of fire, lightning, or ice. Others require a small cast time, leaving you vulnerable for a few moments while you charge them up. However, these kinds of spells are usually so powerful it makes it worth the time you spent idling about. Spell effects like ice storms (or barrages of searing flame) that emanate from where you stand as opposed to where your cursor is pointing are a marathon’s length ahead of the older games. Now your caster finally has some long-needed power and flexibility in his arsenal.
Sneaky/stabby types have been given a great number of overhauls as well. Sneaking feels more realistic in this game, as the sounds you make greatly affect a battle’s outcome. Even walking around a cluttered dungeon and tripping on some old bones might send an alerted guard to see what the fuss was all about. Sound played a part in Oblivion’s sneak as well, but it was easy to exploit. The NPC’s “hearing” AI was never fully realized. It is in Skyrim, and sometimes will make you regret not spending that extra perk point into the Sneaking skill.
Perks are kind of “the new thing” in this game, and are kind of “borrowed” from Bethesda’s reinvention of the Fallout franchise. In Oblivion, as you leveled up a skill through extended use, it got better. It’s the same thing in Skyrim, however you have different choices and different upgrades this time around. You are given a Perk point, and through a skill tree you can select a new ability or passive bonus that comes with that skill. Each skill has a tree, and some perks on the trees can’t be unlocked until you have reached a certain level with that particular skill.
For instance, the Conjuration skill has a perk that causes all of your undead minions to last twice as long in combat. You could choose that as a perk when you level up, but not until you reach a certain level in Conjuration. This makes knowing when to choose your Perks, when to hold onto your Perk points, and what skill to level up with Perks a new and welcome system to The Elder Scrolls. I’m sure some purists will fight to the death in saying that this system fails, or is blasphemous — but for all intents and purposes, it works fairly well.
Dual wielding is another new feature letting you equip a weapon in any hand, or even a spell in each hand if you are so inclined. In fact, you can even equip the same spell in both hands, giving the enemy a well-needed double dose of arcane power. Or, try using a weapon in one hand, and a spell in the other. I found it pretty advantageous to go into combat using an enchanted weapon in my right hand, and a healing spell at-the-ready just in case things went south.
Your experience may vary, of course.
Bethesda also added some kill animations into the game, which is kind of the love child between Fallout 3’s VATS system and Mortal Kombat’s classic finisher combos. When an enemy is weak, or if you are significantly more powerful, your camera will back out into third person (sometimes first person) and brutally murder the disadvantaged opponent in a various ways.
My dual wielding Orc sometimes slugs an enemy in the gut, then makes the coup de grâce by beheading them as they slouch over in pain. It’s pretty awesome to see The Elder Scrolls evolve into a darker form by adopting these animations, but it’s not too brutal to warrant locking up your children before playing the game.
Another stellar addition and my all-time favorite feature so far has to be the quest system. You might have heard rumors of Skyrim having “infinite quests.” Those were true. Doing odd jobs for peasants and warrior captains alike might not net you heaps of gold, but over time they will give you so many things to do, your head will spin. Finishing one quest and returning to the same person later on in your game might reward your backtracking with another quest. Bounty missions from tavern keepers will also replenish over time, as do missions granted by some guild members. Things like this will keep me playing Skyrim for a long time, at least until bigger, flashier quests are released through Bethesda or user-made mods.
One problem I had with the game was the seemingly weak rewards from completing quests. Quests sometimes have you go well out of the way of your intended path to kill an evil lich, or retrieve some lost artifact, and sometimes the rewards were so bad it made me question if I would ever do that quest again.
In one spoiler-free example, two factions are fighting for control of the province. Players are allowed to join either side, and fight through major battles in a war that spans all of Skyrim. After having completed that entire quest line, and rising to the rank of someone with major military importance, I was merely given a normal un-enchanted Dwarven Shield, and a one handed weapon with an enchantment so lame I ended up selling it.
Of course Bethesda is notorious for giving out rewards that scale with your level, so had I done that quest at the peak of my character’s abilities, he might have been given something with a little more teeth. In spite of that particular example, it is worth mentioning that completing any quest while experiencing Skyrim’s amazing storytelling is a reward in and of itself.
In the end, Skyrim is one of those games where you really have to try hard to think of a reason to not play it. Skyrim has done what few other games have done, which is make a fun, exciting game that is both intelligent and mature — and it looks as great as any of the other current blockbusters.
This game is all about immersion, and the sooner you get sucked into The Elder Scrolls lore, the sooner you realize that you just spent 40+ hours wandering a snowy wonderland. And what’s even better, you won’t even think of it as wasted hours. You savor every moment and hope it never ends. As for me, I’m gonna hop back on. If I have any hope of beating my old Oblivion play time, I better get started.
Game Play: 10/10
Replay Value: 10/10
- Steam Store page: http://store.steampowered.com/app/72850/
- Metascore: 95
- Check back later in the week for the start of a series of articles chronicling the adventures of me through Skyrim!