The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim – The Review
It has been 5 years since the previous Elder Scrolls title, Oblivion, landed on to the Xbox 360, PS3 and PC. But in the world of Tamriel, 200 years have passed since the region saw the horizon scourged by the appearance of the Oblivion gates, bridging the gap between reality and the realm of Mehrunes Dagon, the Daedric Prince of destruction. Harmony was eventually restored and now Tamriel faces a new threat.
The province of Skyrim is in the clutches of civil disparity. The High King of Skyrim has been murdered and the Nordic locals are divided on the future of the Empire. Wrought with instability, the province is plagued further by the return of the fearsome Dragons, who had inexplicably vanished in the distant past. The safety of Skyrim and the whole of Tamriel seems to be at stake as civilisation, as it has come to be known, stands on the brink, from which they can either stand their ground in the midst of unequivocal adversity or catalyse the fall of humanity and the rise of the age of the Dragon. Someone needs to step up and offer hope to the kingdom, that someone is an anonymous prisoner, that some one is you.
With a stirring soundtrack, engaging combat, breathtaking vistas and a deep, rich storyline, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, throws down an almighty gauntlet to all other fantasy RPGs and, in fact, to the whole video game industry. This is how games should be made and secures video games as a force to be reckoned with in the age-old art of storytelling.
You begin the game shackled in the back of a wagon with 3 other prisoners. This echoes the trademark prologue of the Elder Scrolls series and is a plot device that creates an enigmatic yet entirely mouldable character. However, in contrast to the previous title, the prologue thrusts the player into an intense set piece which sets a precedence for the rest of the game. It soon transpires that you are the only known to be living Dragonborn, blessed with the soul of a dragon. While Oblivion implied character significance in dialogue, being a Dovahkiin (or Dragonborn) in Skyrim allows the player to actually feel the immense power of the character which is intrinsically rooted in the game’s combat, which I will talk about later. The main storyline pertains to the return of the dragons and the fulfilling of your destiny as a Dragonborn. The plot will take you from a mountain top temple to forgotten ruins in a fully realised world. Each village, city , small encampment and roadside inn is populated by distinct characters, each with their own personalities, back stories, views and troubles. The atmosphere of Skyrim is immediately consuming as you wonder into a small tavern, for instance, where in most cases you are warmly met by a welcoming barman in the shadow of a crackling fire where wearied travellers settle to relax and divulge their tales to the tune of a flute playing Bard. Most houses are filled with cluttered shelves, ornate heirlooms and embellished dining tables. The world truly feels lived in. You can even feel a sense of history, whether it’s from the variety of architectural styles or the ruins of an underground labyrinth. Bethesda have managed to make Skyrim feel believable, a crucial element to storytelling of which is fully appreciated. This is reflected in the perfectly orchestrated soundtrack. The music is atmospheric while wandering across the world and it soars while in battle. The soundtrack does not feel detached in any way and adds hugely to the experience.
There is little hand holding initially and you are soon released into the wild. Some people may find this intimidating. If you want a little more guidance, you can always follow the main storyline, until you feel confident to stray off of the beaten track into many of the games others stories. The guilds, or at least the equivalents, make a return. You can join the Companions, the Skyrim version of the Fighters guild; the College of Magic, one of the lasting remnants of the Mage’s guild; or a couple of others. You can join any “guild” at any point, you are by no means limited to the one you choose first and you should join all of them to experience Skyrim fully. They have their own individual storylines which rival that of the main quest and you may find your favourite moments of the game lies in one of these quest lines, or even one of the many mini quests in the game.
Skyrim is a northerly province, and so snow is prevalent. However, this does not limit the range of environments in the game. You will march across grassy plains, dense swampland and vibrant forests. The mountains of the game only add to the sense of scale as the folds of these colossi invoke wonderment and inspire exploration compounded by blanketing blizzards at the summit. The in-game map is now in 3D which, not being essential, is still a nice addition. The graphics have been greatly improved, at least in terms of the details of the environment. NPCs still seem to wear very unrealistic expressions which is somewhat detrimental to the immersion, albeit it has been improved from that of Oblivion. On the other hand, interaction with the NPCs feels far less awkward as rather than zoom in to the characters face, you are given the freedom to look around. Skyrim also boasts an incredible sky box. The day time sky is almost photorealistic, while at night you are met by constellations of stars, several moons and the enchanting glow of the aurora borealis. Bethesda are very good at skies. 🙂
The in-game menu has been vastly streamlined from the complexity of that in Oblivion. Opening up the menu reveals a compass like option tree, which takes you to the menus for Skills, Maps, Items and Magic. Items in the game are each given a 3D representation, although as far as i can tell they lack a thorough description. It does detail the items stats, but it would be nice for a more descriptive breakdown, though with the amount of script already in the game, I can let them off. Everything can be favourited which allows you to place them in a quick menu so that your most used items or spells are more easily accessible. Your completed quests and outstanding objectives are presented very clearly, plus selecting an
objective automatically places a marker onto the map allowing for easier navigation. When I first saw what the menu would look like, I was skeptical. While Oblivion’s menus were very confusing, it felt like it had an appropriate theme, this time around however is simply a black background colour with white font, no more no less. But instead of taking away from the experience, it enhances it by allowing you to sort out any admin quickly and return to gameplay and so not pulling you away from the experience for too long. Likewise, if you want to spend longer sorting out your inventory, it is far more user-friendly than previously.
As with most Role Playing games, you get a plethora of options when creating your character. You first choose the character’s race. Each race has their own unique look, power and skill advantages, whether that’s the ability to better resist frost damage or an innate ability to get the best deal when bartering. From here you get to choose your favourite physical features with the standard chain of scroll bars, of which there are many. Fortunately, Bethesda do not force you to choose certain dispositions, i.e. towards spells or melee. Granted, they do get you to choose your preferred alignment, but this isn’t set in stone. It can be changed later, but you’ll find you become a certain character based on your actions throughout the game rather than those made at the very start. At practically any point you can decide to try your hand at the odd Conjuration spell despite having adopted a very hand-to-hand skewed approach. As you use different skills, their level will increase which will increase your over-arching level. Levelling up no longer involves having to have slept, which is good adjustment, though there is no real reason to sleep in the beds anymore besides to fully take part in role-playing, which you really should do. Once you reach a new overall level, you get the option to improve your Magicka, Health or Stamina as well as one perk point which can be used to unlock a single perk. The perks are represented on a very intuitive and well themed interface. Each skill has its own Perk tree which is represented by constellations. One point unlocks one node adjacent to any node that has previously been unlocked. Doing this will widen the spectrum of useable spells and weapons as well as increasing the damage dealt, included is the sometimes overlooked but extremely useful Speech and Lockpicking skills. The game is littered with chests and sealed doors and having a decent lockpicking level can make your job far easier when it comes to completing the lock picking mini game, which involves torquing and tumbler setting and was redesigned from Oblivion to the same style as that in Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas.
The look, atmosphere and character personalization is perfect, and the combat?
The combat system has been entirely overhauled for Skyrim. The game is primarily a first-person role-playing game which in my opinion offers the best experience to which Skyrim is designed for. Alternatively, you can toggle third-person mode which, unlike the previous iteration, feels like a viable option as the character model and its animation seem to flow far better and is on par with most high-end third person role playing games. Oblivion suffered from very poor combat, to which even one developer confessed “wobbly swords” aren’t exactly the mark of engaging combat. Thankfully, combat is no longer the bane of the player’s progression and is now thoroughly enjoyable. You are given the ability to assign weapons, a shield and spells to either hand in any combination. Want to follow-up a fierce sword lunge with an immediate blast of lightning? How about creating an intense ball of fire between your hands? You are now given the opportunity to do so (I might add that you cannot combine the bow and arrow in one hand with something else in the other, it would be a delicate issue explaining that third hand for drawing the arrow!). Spells are an absolute treat to cast this time around. Once equipped, your hands will emanate raw power. Actually using the spell is immensely satisfying this time around. By placing the same spell in each hand, casting a spell involves combining the energy from each hand and leads to an even more formidable display of power. What’s more, it actually feels like you are making contact with your opponent when swinging your blade. The reverberating clashes feel entirely attached to the scene. And as an added bonus, every now and then, a critical hit will gift you with a short final kill animation, much like the slow-mo Fallout is known for, but much improved upon.
On top of your spell, weapons and race power, you can use something called a shout. The Dragons of the game are not merely fire breathers, albeit there are frost Dragons aswell, but even more impressive is their ability to shout. A shout is a type of spell only achievable by Dragons and those who spend a lifetime studying and mastering the language of the Dragon, but it comes naturally to a Dragonborn who can call directly upon the soul of a dragon, akin to their own. Shouts are assigned to a particular button and can serve as a lifeline in the heat of battle. The spells range from the ability to force back anyone in your path with a wave of energy to the ability to slow down time. The inclusion of shouts open up a very effective mechanic. Shouts are learned by discovering words, called Thu’ums (pronounced ‘thooms’), written in the dragon language on large tablets. Each shout has three words, learning all of them will vastly increase the strength of a particular shout. But you are unable to use a shout until you integrate it fully into your being, which is achieved by the absorption of a Dragon soul.
Some dragons in the game are scripted events, but most of your encounters with these beasts of the skies will occur as a random event. On several occasions I have heard the distinct roar of a Dragon behind me, against the backdrop of the the Dragonborn chant, upon turning and noticing it circling above… I run for my life. Dragon battles are, I feel, one of the most compelling features of the game. Other creatures in the game may at first seem daunting, but slowly become a hinderance. However, every battle with a Dragon feels like a showdown as it crashes to earth and lets out a battle cry. Fights against them are not trivial and every victory feels like a profound achievement, plus they yield invaluable reward. Besides dropping expensive dragon bones and dragon scales, they also release a soul which you, and only you, can absorb thus killing a Dragon for good while absorbing its knowledge. A dragon soul can be used to activate a shout of which you have already discovered the Thu’um for. This serves as a form of collectible as well as an incentive to stand your ground against a Dragon instead of running away…which I’ll admit I’m guilty of.
Skyrim is a fully realised world, with many legends to tell, people to meet and places to explore. The environments are unlike anything I’ve seen in any other game. Though other games can boast better graphics engines, few can challenge the vast and vibrant detail of Skyrim- even if NPC faces aren’t too great. The combat is wholly enjoyable, offering a visceral intimacy. The designing of your character offers high level personalization, the strengths of your character are dynamic throughout the game and so you changing from one style of play to another is a fairly smooth transition. Finally, Dragons are the jewel on the crown, opening up a whole new level of gameplay and adding further activity to the world. Where most video games have both single player and multiplayer modes by default, a game that is purely single player seems to have to make up for a lack of that other mode. Skyrim more than makes up for it! With the arrow of evolution in the industry causing most single player games to drift into the realm of multiplayer, Skyrim is a clear demonstration as to why exclusively single player games not only have a place, but can still create an experience that’s out of the league of most, if not all, multiplayer games. A lot can be said for an intimate and personal experience of a game. In the same way you can immerse yourself in a book, reading alone, sometimes the best games are those which you can be fully engaged and immersed in on your own and so allowing you to form your own experience of the game and retell your own stories. And sometimes such stories, and games, can take an entity unto themselves…
Skyrim, Case in point.
Thanks for reading 🙂