It’s been a long time coming, but we finally have another brand spankin’ new Elder Scrolls to sink our teeth into. At the time of my writing this review, Skyrim sales have exceeded expectations by shaming even the new Call of Duty. Overall reception from critics and gamers has been overwhelmingly positive. Bethesda has been made aware that they really captured something special this time around. Skyrim is the greatest Elder Scrolls game to date by a very large margin and could, quite possibly, end up vying for the position of my favourite RPG of all time.
So, what makes Skyrim so darn good? For starters, the narrative and story telling is exceptional. While in the first three Elder Scrolls games we were mostly confined to reading dialogue windows that told us the story, Oblivion tried to deliver a more cinematic and immersive experience by fully voicing the campaign. Unfortunately it ended up feeling a little sloppy in Oblivion, as it was clear that Bethesda’s dabblings in fully voiced NPCs was unable to hit a steady stride. After getting their feet a little more wet with Fallout 3, Bethesda made enormous ground. This really shows in Skyrim’s opening sequence in which the player is set to be executed. Typical Elder Scrolls fare there, but the immersion has been improved drastically. The game opens slowly with your character riding quietly in a cart with a few other apprehended prisoners who you soon learn are rebels who refer to themselves as the Stormcloaks. As your horse-drawn carriage enters the town of Helgen, you learn that the Imperials wish to execute you along with the Stormcloaks. Fortunately this obviously does not pan out, otherwise there wouldn’t be a game to play. I won’t spoil the opening sequence for anyone who still has not played Skyrim, but it is wonderfully done. Bethesda has really shown that they have the chops for delivering highly cinematic interactive scenes.
Gameplay is where Bethesda has made the most improvements. In Oblivion, many of the new features felt like failed experiments that went awry. Skyrim takes Oblivion’s shortcomings and perfects them while also adding a dash of what made Morrowind successful. It is probably difficult to talk about the various features of Skyrim in brief, so get ready for a huge section of this review to be about gameplay.
First off, let’s look at combat. This is nearly identical to how it was in Oblivion in terms of mechanics and physics, though there have been a few tweaks. It is now possible to dual wield two one-handed weapons or even two spells. While dual wielding weapons can feel a little clunky at times, I’ve taken an enormous liking to dual wieling magic. There is nothing more satisfying than melting a bear’s face with fire spewing from one hand and lightning sparking from the other. You can also have offensive destruction magic in one hand and a support spell (such as a healing or damage absorption spell) in the other hand. Fans of battlemages can now also fully realize their dreams as they are fully allowed to simultaneously hack away with a sword in hand and a stream of frost emitting from the other. It is actually surprisingly easy and user friendly be swinging a melee weapon in your left hand and casting a spell in the right at the same time. Bethesda did a fantastic job of making it feel natural to the player and I really have to commend them for really nailing this dual wielding system that they’ve finally chosen to add.
Assassin and thief characters will have a lot to look forward to in Skyrim. It is now more possible than ever before to sneak realistically and fool your enemies. Ever want to make an intimidating looking foe think you are in one spot but are actually somewhere entirely different? This is finally possible, as a sneak-themed player with quick wits will be able to maneuver quickly enough to make enemies search an area that they believe you are in while, in reality, you may have already moved behind them for the kill. If you’re not one who enjoys sneaking up on your foes and performing critical hits with daggers, you can always opt to use bows instead. Bethesda has further refined the arrow physics since Oblivion and it shows. Arrows now fire and arc in a more realistic fashion than in any of Bethesda’s previous titles. Players with good eyes will truly fall in love with the archery in Skyrim.
An interesting “give and take” situation with Skyrim’s gameplay is the refined nature of the stamina bar which allows players to always run without losing stamina. This is partly because the acrobatics and athletics skills have both been removed. There is no longer a need to improve your running and jumping since you are always able to run efficiently. Instead of your stamina being drained by running, it will now deplete when you use the sprint key. Sprinting works like it does in any first person shooter, allowing the player to gain a momentary boost in speed to escape difficult situations or cross treacherous drops and ravines. Sprinting depletes your stamina quite quickly, so it is best to use it in small spurts. Players can now regenerate stamina by simply running, which makes traversing the Skyrim’s wilderness quite a bit more enjoyable than it was to trudge through Oblivion’s neverending forests.
As I said, acrobatics and athletics have been removed. A few others such as axe and blunt (both for weapons) have been removed and are now part of the one-handed weapon skill (it is no longer blade-specific). To make up for these removals, Bethesda has added a few new skills such as enchanting and smithing. Anyone who has played an MMORPG in the past few years will know exactly how these work. For smithing it all boils down to finding pieces of leather and the proper metal ores required to make different kinds of armors and weapons. Enchanting is a little different and instead rewards you with actually destroying your equipment! By selecting the “disenchant” option, you can select a magical item from your item to destroy. When you destroy the item, you learn the magic enchantment that it possessed, such as fire resistance, magicka regeneration, or additional points of damage. To enchant an item you choose one from your inventory, select an enchantment that you have learned, choose a soul gem to use, and then hit the “craft” key. You even get to rename your pieces of equipment prior to performing the enchantment, which is nice. If your character is named Bill and you are enchanting a hammer to inflict bonus fire damage, you can certainly rename it to “Bob’s Hammer of Fiery Hell.” This adds a bit of fun to the game as it allows you to personalize your gear or simply try to give everything epic sounding names (go on, rename your iron dagger as “daedric dagger of deity slaying” if you want).
Scaling still exists in Skyrim, but is not as “in your face” as it was in Oblivion. You will no longer see common highwaymen charging at you with glass armor and ebony greatswords. A little realism has been put in place with humanoid NPCs and they are now fairly static in terms of their statistics and what gear they have. Creatures are still a different story and you will see stronger creatures in the wild as you gain levels, but this has always been the case with Elder Scrolls games and was not exclusive to Oblivion.
In terms of encounters, there is probably nothing more exciting than dragons. They are indeed a true joy to fight and your first few encounters feel remarkably exciting and epic. Unfortunately, once you have fought several dragons under different circumstances (on plains, on a tower, in the frozen north, etc.) they start to lose their novelty and simply become nothing more than giant cliffracers that have returned from Morrowind and take longer than most encounters to defeat. Dragon attack patterns become very predictable after several encounters, and most players will find themselves growing frustrated with the dragons that prefer to do more flying than actual attacking due to the fact that dragons are much harder to combat when they are airborne. While dragons are definitely a very worthy selling point for this game, I do feel that the initial excitement and grandeur that they present the players with upon their first few outings far outweigh their repetitiveness that tooks root after about a dozen dragon fights. They will always be rewarding to fight due to the fact that they drop dragon scales that are essential in forging powerful pieces of armor or can be sold for hefty sums of money if you’re not into Skyrim’s smithing system.
An impressive aspect of the gameplay is the overhaul leveling and character statistics. Gone are major and minor skills, and now improvements to any skill will contribute to your leveling. As in previous games, all you need to do is raise ten skill points to gain a level. Upon doing so, you will be able to increase either your health, magicka, or stamina. Seasoned Elder Scrolls fans will likely wonder where strength, dexterity, endurance and so forth have disappeared to. Character stats are no more and their functions are now either wiped from the game or have been incorporated into stamina. Remember having to increase your speed to make yourself run faster and longer? Or how increasing strength allowed you to carry more. Increasing stamina will now do both of these. The overall stats system is simplified, but it is for the better. Having to juggle between upwards of ten individual statistics was a chore in previous Elder Scrolls, especially since they were all useful to some degree. Now that players only have to worry about increasing one of three core stats, character builds are now easier to put together than ever before.
To make up for the simplification of character stats, Bethesda has carried over the perks system from Fallout 3. Whenever you level up, you are awarded with a perk point which you can place into one of many skill trees which govern your actual skills. If you look in the destruction perk tree, you will find that you area ble to reduce the casting cost of destruction spells while, in the archery perk tree, there is a perk that allows you to zoom in and slow down time slightly when you are aiming your arrows. There are around a dozen perks for the roughly two dozen individual skills which means that there are a lot of fun possibilities for players to experiment with using the perks systems.
The open world exploration has been improved significantly over Oblivion. Players will find that exploring now feels more like it did in Morrowind, as there is a sense of wonder at times when you are exploring the different regions of Skyrim. The southern areas are mountainous but full of lush forests while central Skyrim has rocky but scenic moors and plains, and the northern ice-covered coastlines of Skyrim are often blanketed in extremely heavy snowstorms that almost reduces your visibility to zero and, oh yeah, it’s tough as heck to explore the north too! The regions vary quite heavily and there are also some really beautiful lakes and swamps to find as well. An improvement Skyrim makes over Oblivion is that it is no longer possible to simply press the forward key and watch your player walk in a straight line without obstruction for a few minutes. Skyrim’s landscape is dotted with many jagged rocks, mountains, and obstacles. In many cases, players will have to make their own paths. It is this sort of “off the beaten trail” method of exploration that really draws several between adventuring in Morrowind and Skyrim.
There have been numerous complaints by players over the game’s UI. Initially I did not like it much either but, after spending a bit of time with it, the UI really grows on you. While it may not be as quick to navigate as Morrowind’s UI, it is still infinitely better than what we were forced to endure in Oblivion. Everything is now sorted into organized lists that can be quickly scrolled through with the mouse. If your inventory clutters up and you find that locating certain items becomes a chore, you can hit the F key to add them to your favourites. This adds an entirely new category called “favourites” at the top of your inventory screen that only lists the items you have manually added. This is exceptionally handy for keeping track of your favourite equipment sets.
To finish with the gameplay, I’ll briefly say that NPC interaction has been improved tremendously. Time no longer freezes when you talk to someone and it does not zoom in on their faces either. Time will continue around you and, in many cases, you will steal be able to move freely and throw objects around rooms like a fool while NPCs continue talking to you.
There are a lot of factions to join this time around. The mandatory Thieves’ Guild returns while the Winterhold College replaces the Mages’ Guild and The Companions have replaced The Fighters’ Guild. The Dark Brotherhood is of course still intact, though joining them is a little harder this time around than it was in Oblivion. There is also a civil war brewing between the Stormcloaks and the local Imperial Legion and it is up to the playe to decide which side they want to align with. Siding with either faction will automatically brand the player as an enemy to the opposing side, so make sure you know for sure which side of the war you want to be on!
In terms of graphics, Skyrim does not disappoint. Bethesda has long made sure that their Elder Scrolls games are beautiful games that require state of the art computers to run at the highest settings. Skyrim is no different and it certainly is a gorgeous game, but the fact that Bethesda had to develop first and foremost for consoles limited what they were able to accomplish. Skyrim does look great, but visually it could have been much better if it had been developed exclusively for the PC.
Aside from the landscape looking great, the best part about Skyrim’s graphics is the immense improvement made to character faces. Bethesda dropped the ball with Oblivion when they decided to use FaceGen software for rendering their faces. Dark Elves had fair and soft looking skin and the beast races looked like humans wearing animal costumes. This has been remedied completely in Oblivion as Dark Elves now look like their miserable old selves again and the beast races have been restored to their former glory. Fans of Daggerfall and Morrowind will enjoy how the races look, as they now look as they did in those games once more. Players who started with Oblivion will probably be wondering why the Elves all look so ugly now, but truthfully? It’s how they’re supposed to look. Oblivion’s FaceGen software was fairly limited and wasn’t truly capable of providing players with the faces Elder Scrolls Elves are supposed to have. Now that Bethesda has ditched FaceGen, we are seeing proper Elves once more. Oldschool Elder Scrolls fans will be very pleased by this!
As always, it wouldn’t be an Elder Scrolls game without a score provided by Jeremy Soule. This guy needs to win an award for Skyrim’s soundtrack because it is simply outstanding! While I still enjoy Morrowind’s sountrack a little more (despite Skyrim featuring a new recording of a Morrowind track), Skyrim is still leagues ahead of Oblivion’s score which I felt wasn’t Soule’s best work. Skyrim has very immersive tracks, and the battle themes are all really fantastic. The themes that play during dragon fights really suck you in and sound so deliciously epic that your heart will be your throat the whole time.
To finish things off, I can safely (and gladly) say that Skyrim is a true return to form after the flawed package Bethesda gave us in the form of Oblivion. This is the biggest Elder Scrolls yet and there is an insane amount of quests to take on, dungeons to traverse, and perks to play with. This is Bethesda’s most polished release ever and could, quite possibly, be the RPG of our generation. Skyrim is not to be missed.
+ Elven races look as they should again.
+ Perks system adds a whole new dimension to The Elder Scrolls.
+ Skyrim’s regions are gorgeous and incredibly varied.
– Dual wielding weapons can feel slightly clumsy at times.
– Follower AI can sometimes seem suicidal.
– Light given off by fire in dark areas can look a little dated.