[Review] The Elder Scrolls V : Skyrim
To quote the game’s vernacular, Skyrim isn’t a flawless game, but it certainly is legendary. I’m utterly amazed by how it consumed my life for nearly two months. I’ve been meaning to write the review for a while, but the game offers you so much to do that I couldn’t help but to think I was missing something that should be here. I’m confident enough now; I’ve platinum’d the game, completed nearly all quests and side quests I could find, and replayed most quest lines with a second character.
Skyrim is an incredible game, but it has more flaws than anyone would care to admit. However, the most impressive achievement of the game is being one of the most enjoyable experiences in video game history, regardless of any shortcomings. I tried to condensate this review in a simple post as I usually do, but there’s too much to talk about and it would get confusing, so I’m dividing everything in tabs, some generic and others more specific to RPGs. I don’t think I need to tell anyone that Skyrim is awesome, as that’s pretty much settled after winning just about every big prize in the business for 2011, so I hope my more in-depth comments shed some light for those of you who haven’t experienced it yet. Since most people have already beaten the game, just feel free to compare to your personal journey.
In a game this big, it’s always a challenge to balance every aspect of it into a control scheme that feels simple, yet deep enough, to offer more elaborate aspects of gameplay to the less casual players. You should keep in mind Skyrim isn’t exactly an action RPG or a hack n’ slash game, so mechanics are less elaborate. There are no combos or intricate combinations of buttons pressed that will make you unleash the wrath of the gods unto your foes, but this does not alter the fact that this was a very well thought-out part of the game. With the push of a button, you can burn down your enemies with fire coming out of your hands, chop their heads off with a giant battleaxe, or, perhaps, headshot an incoming bandit from a mile away with your bow. You can change between any of those with ease, thanks to a well placed favorite menu that can be accessed with the D-Pad.
Of course, this isn’t everything you can do; run, jump, ride horses, chop wood, mine ore, mix potions, craft a dagger, enchant it, use it to silently kill an unsuspecting guard that is at the wrong place at the wrong time, etc. All of that can be just as easily done and you won’t even notice you’re doing something completely different than you were a minute ago.
After a very short tutorial, you’re free to brave the world as you see fit. There are no obligations whatsoever, which can make some feel a bit overwhelmed, but that’s the beauty of it. You’re placed in a huge landmass that you don’t know anything about, discovering its nooks and crannies and looking for riches and power is your what makes you go forth. To me, this game has only one objective, get out there and have fun.
When I was about 20 hours in, I realized I had only completed 5 quests and my unfinished tasks list was huge. Roaming the world without a goal might seem like a silly thing to do, but Skyrim gives you an opportunity to find something interesting anywhere you go. This game is as much about exploration as it is about killing monsters and saving the world, and it’s simply astonishing how rewarding this experience is. Anywhere you go, doesn’t matter how far to the northern iced sea or into some deep forest or even on the top of an unreachable mountain, there’ll be something waiting for you, and you play for theses moments. Fortunately, for everyone, there are just so many; I don’t think I’ve seen half of it.
I don’t personally believe that any game can be fun if it doesn’t offer you enough challenge as an incentive to move on, but I’m not everyone. Skyrim’s difficulty can be easily adjusted and will please your personal preference. Novice (easy) makes you feel like you’re the finest warrior ever born. Master (very hard) makes you squeal like a little girl when faced by an Ancient Dragon that will tear you apart. I found the sweet spot for my playthrough to be the Expert (hard) difficulty; not too many grueling deaths and enough action to keep me awake, but I feel like less dedicated character builds (mine was strictly a tank warrior) might have to contend with Adept (normal).
Don’t forget, this is still an RPG, even though it changed a bit to please a broader audience, so leveling plays a big part in the game. However, there are no stats (Strength, Dexterity, Intelligence and whatnot). Every time you level up you get two points, one to be placed in stamina (raises carrying weight, running and melee endurance), health, or magicka (raises “mana”) and another one to activate a perk. Perks are special abilities tied to each Skill. Each one has its own skill tree; unlocking a different perk will give you diverse abilities and will greatly empower your character. It’s a fun system, new to the Elder Scrolls franchise, that plays an important role in building up your character and also shaping your play style.[tab:Interface]
RPGs are known to be the most time consuming games on the market and everyone will tell you that a good portion of that time will be spent managing your inventory & Skyrim is no exception. Menus are possibly the best I’ve seen implemented for an RPG; they’re clean and elegant, slightly transparent but mostly black and white. They are all very easy to navigate, but might feel awkward at first, as some “basic rules of modern games” are not applied, like the fact the “O” button will close anything open instead of backing out a single stance. This was the only thing that bothered me at first, but the overall ease of use is such that that you’ll soon be going through it like it was the first thing you’ve ever done in your life. I liked that different things are on different menus, so there’s no need to look at stuff you don’t need. This seemingly simple thing will save you so much time that I was amazed by how fast I could completely rearrange my inventory.
Interfaces are so well done in the game, that I doubt it wasn’t one of the design pillars of the game. Skill trees are a work to marvel at. Instead of looking at some numbers, you’ll be looking at the skies. Each constellation is a different skill, and every star represents a perk that can be chosen for that skill, and it is beautiful. It also works perfectly as well, and it’s a great solution to make these less immersive moments a lot more enjoyable.
Another aspect that is exceptionally well done is the map. Fully rendered in 3D, you can look at it from different angles and it’s the best way to plan your journey to the far ends of Skyrim. The terrain here is filled with huge mountains and rivers so its a good way to make sure you’re taking the best route, instead of walking for miles and miles just to find a wall of rock separating you from your objective. Every important location discovered will have an icon added to it and after you’ve been there you can simply fast travel back, instead of walking all the way. I missed a filter option so not all markers would show at the same time (because there are A LOT of them), especially after 120 hours of exploration.[tab:Graphics]
Skyrim wonâ€™t be making the best looking game of the year list, but it still looks impressive. Mostly because of the extremely well done art style. Up close environment textures might look a bit blurred and low res. I understand part of it is supposed to be the PS3 â€œfaultâ€, but I was very much satisfied with the graphical capabilities of the game and it didnâ€™t bother me at all. Weapons and armor donâ€™t suffer from the same problem and look great. Theyâ€™re beautiful and, at the same time, threatening, each showing off the particularity of its type, material and origin.
Going out in the world, itâ€™s easy to become amazed by the beautiful settings of Skyrim. Huge mountains covered in snow, cities built on top of cliffs, incredible ruins waiting to be braved. Everything looks impressive and unlikely diversified. In a world this big, I was surprised by the fact I rarely felt like I was going through the same place over and over again, one of my biggest problems with Oblivion. Dungeons are no exception. With about four prominent art styles, each feel unique and worth exploring.
Even though the graphics of Skyrim arenâ€™t prize worthy, the art style completely makes up for it. Every bit of this northern land is rich with details and feels like a place of legend and history. One of the most memorable moments for me was when, after going up a hill, I faced the two gigantic moons in a star packed and colorful sky. I felt like I was in one of those fantasy paintings and not playing a video game.[tab:Sound]
I believe sound design is one of the most important things in any game, and it completely helps immersion. I tend to play with high quality headphones and I’m and audiophile, so I do pay a lot of attention to details and I was impressed by it. The score is simply epic, as most have probably heard by now, since there are various cover songs and Youtube videos that borrowed some of its greatness. I believe it’s very important that the music played during a game is adequate to each situation and, at the same time, exciting. Most great games I’ve played in my life have great songs that, to this day, I can easily remember, Skyrim could be one of these.
Sound effects are also very well done; the clash of weapons, the roar of Dragons and the whispering wind inside caves always do the part and should make you feel like youâ€™re battling all kinds of evil yourself. Unfortunately, not the same can be said about the voice acting, as is the case in most extensive games like this. The most noticeable problem is the acting itself. It often feels forced and not natural like it should. It’s also weird that every character in the game seems to be from a different place in the world and accents often vary greatly (sometimes even when the same person is speaking!).
One good thing is that every line of speech in the game is dubbed, but this will quickly start to annoy you because every vendor says the same 3 lines over and over again. That is obviously major problem #2. In a game this big, with so many hours of content, repetitive lines are not welcome, combined with the fact that two very different people sitting next to each other could have the same voice and you’re in for a real weird fest.[tab:Content]
Content is perhaps the most astonishing aspect of Skyrim. This is a game that you can easily play for over 150 hours and still have a bunch of things to do. Besides the main plot, you also have the choice to complete four faction quest lines that are about as big as the main one. This, alone, has the potential to keep you going for a good while (well over 60 hours), but itâ€™s only the tip of the iceberg. The game has at least other 4 lengthy adventures for you and literally hundreds of side quests and miscellaneous objectives (that more often than not turn into side quests of their own) for you to complete.
The amount of directed content is indeed amazing, but simply roaming around is also a great adventure of itself. Every discovered location is worth a good deal of time to explore and appreciate; details and treasure are everywhere, as are enemies waiting to be gruesomely slain. Another interesting aspect incorporated in the game are the â€œradiant questsâ€ random shores that will, most of the time, direct you to locations where you havenâ€™t been in search of a trivial objective. This is a good way to explore every location in the game.
With enough content to keep you going for a really long time, itâ€™s also important that a feeling of fulfillment permeates the game. I believe your actions have some impact on the world, especially when side quests are completed. NPCs will treat you differently and dialogues will change. Oddly enough, the main quest line has little influence on the behavior of Skyrimâ€™s citizens. At least youâ€™ll get powerful that killing the strongest beasts will be your number one concern.[tab:Design]
I believe one of the most defining features of Skyrim is the excellent game design Bethesda has put into it. This isnâ€™t the best looking game out there, it doesnâ€™t have the best gameplay mechanics ever created, and the story sure isnâ€™t anywhere near unforgettable, however, the way that all that came together just might be one of the most successful combination of elements in video game history.
One thing youâ€™ll notice is how well elements work together, things like casting spells in one hand while slashing enemies with your sword, interacting with an NPC while keeping an eye out for local movement, solving puzzles inside poorly lit dungeons, etc. Everything works perfectly together and makes for an unforgettable experience.
The stories told are very much connected to the happenings of the game and the structure of the society and events are also believable and interesting. Itâ€™s also noteworthy that every race, band, or faction has their own way of behaving, talking and reacting to your character and, even though itâ€™s not incredibly deep, it feels right and helps you to experience this world like youâ€™re really part of it.[tab:Skills]
Possibly the most important aspect of any RPG is the way it handles Skills. Iâ€™ve seen great games fall due to messy systems and otherwise unattractive games blossom because of it (hey Borderlands, Iâ€™m talking to you!). The developers took a big risk by completely changing the Elder Scrolls formula in this installment of the series, and I can say that, while it may not be as deep as some would expect, it is a decent evolution of the beaten down point system.
I must say, this is perhaps the freshest attempt to overhaul skill and attribute handling in an RPG Iâ€™ve seen in a while. By completely taking out all attributes, the evolution of your character is now completely bound to your experience and the way you play the game. Thereâ€™s no need to pump strength to maximize melee damage; just make sure youâ€™re using your weapon of choice. The same works for spell casting, crafting, sneaking and every other skill in the game. While this isnâ€™t exactly new to TES games, Perks are a new addition to the series and hopefully here to stay.
In Skyrim, the key to your characterâ€™s development is to allocate points gained when leveling up in these special abilities called Perks. They will make your skills stronger and often provide special abilities and effects when theyâ€™re used. For example, casting fire magic is a lot of fun; who doesnâ€™t like to burn down a bunch of overly confident bandits? But how about dual casting the same spell for a more powerful version of it? Thatâ€™s one perk. Not enough? Then add a stagger effect to this already destructive spell and the baddies wonâ€™t even be able to reach you. Combine that to halved magicka use and youâ€™re set. These abilities are all perks tied to the Destruction Skill Tree, and this system is equally satisfying for all the other skills in the game with very few exceptions.
Even though this works out for the best, I did find it a bit frustrating that making a more spread out character is slightly more difficult to create. This happens because youâ€™re dependent on Perks to adequately face enemies, and sometimes, if youâ€™re not especially strong in any of the various skills, this could mean youâ€™ll be less efficient. However, do not worry. It is completely possible to create hybrid characters. Just donâ€™t try to make a Tank Mage Thieve Enchanting Blacksmithâ€¦ oh wait, I did that and it wasnâ€™t so bad! Just make sure youâ€™re investing on the right perks.[tab:Equipment]
Not unexpectedly, this is the only point of Skyrim that didnâ€™t live up to my expectations. As a big time hoarder, I found the restricted quantity of weapons and armor in the game a slight letdown, especially when you consider the fact that very few enchanted goodies are found while questing and that the ones found are utterly garbage. Not unlike other TES games, there are few different materials and products made of those, which is cool in the beginning, but after youâ€™ve wore the same Daedric armor for 20 hours straight, you start to feel like there should be something else.
The biggest problem here is that top notch equipment is easily accessible by crafting methods (blacksmith and enchanting) by investing a few points in it and, honestly, thereâ€™s no other equipment in the game capable of replacing custom built weapons and armor. Donâ€™t get me wrong, this is awesome and I love my Legendary Daedric Armor with 2 immensely powerful enchantments, but I wish there was a way I could find something better. This would definitely keep me interested in the loot drops and chests.
While this hasnâ€™t been the focal point of this game, I canâ€™t help but to think how incredibly beneficial it would be if Skyrim had a â€œDiabloesqueâ€ loot system where you can get different levels of gear with a varied amount of enchantments imbued in it. In no way does this aspect of it lessen the experience, but I keep wondering what couldâ€™ve been.
Iâ€™ve already discussed some of the minor issues I had with Skyrim, but there are a few bigger problems that are deserving of a special mention. As most know, itâ€™s extremely rare these days to have a game launched without any problems, especially when the scale is anywhere as huge as in this game. I believe this could be related to the fact an enormous world filled with choice and consequences requires a gigantic amount of variables and scripting, which sure is a recipe for disaster.
Iâ€™ve played and loved Fallout: New Vegas (a game developed by Obsidian and published by Bethesda), but I just couldnâ€™t finish the game until a decent patch was released about 6 months after I purchased it. While NV made me immune to just about any non-game breaking problem in a video game, I can honestly say Skyrim is a huge step forward and the experience is many times better. So much so, I havenâ€™t actually crashed a single time in over 150 hours Iâ€™ve played this game. â€œHey so what are the problems?â€ you might ask. To your question the answer is â€œthe infamous PS3 lagâ€. This is perhaps one of the biggest flaws of a AAA game Iâ€™ve played.
Nobody is sure about the reason behind it; it does not occur to everyone nor does it occur at an exact point in the game, but you can be sure, if it happens to you, so far thereâ€™s nothing you can do about it. What really happens is everything starts to stagger until eventually the whole game simply drops to a FPS rate beyond unacceptable, and the game becomes unplayable. Resetting the game might work for a little while, but youâ€™re eventually fated to face the same problem over and over until you decide youâ€™ve had enough.
I canâ€™t say that it was a huge reason of rage to me, because I was fortunate enough to have only experienced it after 120 hours in my first play trough, and since at that point, I had done just about everything important. I simply decided to start over and do the rest with a new character. In no way am I OK with this, and it was one of the lowest moments in video game history Iâ€™ve ever experienced. After so much time and effort put into a game, itâ€™s sad to see it all go because of some stupid lag.
Apart from that minor bugs like textures not loading correctly, every once in a while, backwards flying dragons and a few scripting dead ends do happen, but theyâ€™re nowhere near as terrible as the lag and donâ€™t really hinder your experience much. If youâ€™re looking for some tips to avoid these problems, I recommend turning Auto-Save off (which also decreases loading times significantly) and try not to mess with environments too much. Clean up after yourself (always loot everything dropped on the floors) and donâ€™t toss unwanted gear on the ground, look for a dead body or chest. Closing doors also seems to help. I really canâ€™t say for sure if those precautions really help, but it is what I did and I consider myself lucky to have run into the lag problem very very late in the game.[tab:Conclusion]
The Elder Scrolls V : Skyrim is the epitome of video game freedom and it offers anyone willing to take it on the opportunity become anything (but not everything) you’ve always dreamed of in your medieval fantasy. The possibilities aren’t endless, but you probably won’t even notice because they’re aplenty, to say the least. This is not a game I’d recommend to everyone, but if you’re into feeling like you’re the most powerful person alive, then you should consider getting this.
The journey from being a deadbeat prisoner to becoming a multipurpose monster killing machine rewards you with a satisfaction that is extremely difficult to describe. Skyrim will have been the last game I play in 2011 and I can honestly say this is my choice for GOTY. If you’re even slightly interested in trying this out, don’t feel scared by all the bugs and glitches. They won’t mess your experience
too many times and I’m confident this is a game that many will recall fondly and go back to for a long time to come.
[review pros=”Enormous game with almost too much to do
Incredible design creates a perfect atmosphere
Great variety of content and possibilities
An epic experience that is extremely hard to come by these days
Efficient and beautiful interfaces” cons=”Minor and major bugs occur every so often
AI needs a lot of improvement
Role Playing was dumbed down for a wider audience” score=96]
This review is based on the PS3 edition of The Elder Scrolls V : Skyrim developed by Bethesda Game Studios and published by Bethesda Softworks.