Game Review: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Mark Butler delivers his verdict on the epic open-world RPG, out now for PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 (reviewed).

Within minutes of stepping out into the huge, enticing world of Skyrim, and gazing into the dense mystery of its evocative landscape, you’ll almost certainly feel an overwhelming urge to ignore the pressing concerns of the game’s main storyline and simply sprint off into the distance – determined to find out what lies over the next hill, or discover just where that winding path up ahead is likely to lead.

Such excitement at the prospect of exploration and adventure is at the heart of this highly-anticipated new entry in the much-praised Elder Scrolls series. Morrowind and Oblivion may have cemented Bethesda’s open-world fantasy franchise as a hefty force in mainstream gaming, but this latest instalment marks the point at which the majestic land of Tamriel becomes truly essential, with the frost-bitten landscape of Skyrim proving an absolutely astonishing gameworld in which to revel.

The titular northernmost nation is a land of colossal, jagged mountains, vast rolling fields and thick, shadowy woodland flanking wide, rushing rivers. It is a land of lumbering giants herding woolly mammoths across wide, open plains, of gigantic spiders skulking in underground tunnels, and of fierce creatures lurking in the blinding whirl of snowstorms.

In short, it is a captivating and incident-packed world – at once jaw-droppingly beautiful and thrillingly dangerous. If 2006’s Oblivion undermined its masterful questing with disappointingly repetitive environments, then Skyrim actively enhances its epic RPG action with a living, breathing and impressively-detailed landscape: a lovingly-realised creation which regularly manages to be nothing short of awe-inspiring.

In familiar Elder Scrolls style, the game casts you as a silent hero whose name, race, appearance and starting skills are entirely at your discretion. You begin your fateful journey in the back of a prison wagon, caught up in the insanity of a violent, complex struggle between two warring factions, and on your way to the chopping block.

However, the petty squabbles of the world’s populace are soon thrown into stark perspective when fearsome, fire-breathing dragons awaken from their slumber and start to terrorize the land. As it rapidly becomes apparent that you are a ‘dragonborn’ – able to absorb the power of these creatures and use their language to muster formidable abilities – it seems you may be the only warrior in Skyrim who can quell this threat, saving the people from a terrible fate in the process.

Still, never mind those advert-hogging, attention-seeking lizards eh? They can wait. Because ultimately, you’re just as likely to end up running unusual errands, taking out bandit gangs and searching for lost treasures Indiana Jones-style while the whole damn landscape burns.

You see, Skyrim offers a pretty-much unparalleled wealth of content and questing, with seemingly endless missions and endeavours for you to get stuck into in order to enhance your abilities, purchase better equipment, and uncover new avenues of exploration. In other words, it offers exactly what every fan of big, open-world RPGs is looking for, and it does so in some style.

From the very beginning there’s a genuine sense that the player has complete freedom to determine their preferred approach and priorities. The skills progression system is similar to that utilized in Oblivion, but with some notable and well-judged differences. Your choice of race determines your special abilities (breathing underwater, resistance to poison etc.) and starting stats, and a whole range of attributes – taking in close-quarter combat, various schools of magic and supporting skills such as lockpicking – can each be progressed through repeated use, practice, training or the reading of particular books. Selecting which skills to concentrate on and enhance allows you to determine your own approach to combat, and the game in general. You can build a ‘tank’ character specialising in melee combat and heavy armour; a stealthy assassin who has high sneak ability, invisibility magic and archery prowess; a powerful mage wielding deadly spells in both hands – and everything in-between.

Increasing any ability, including non-combat skills such as speech, contributes to your overall experience. Each time you ‘level-up’ you can choose to permanently enchance your character’s health, magic or stamina, with a new perks system allowing you to select additional boosts to favoured attributes by progressing along glowing skill-trees, stylishly presented as web-like constellations.

Added to this is the extra clout offered by ‘dragonshouts’ – powerful magic learned by acquiring the language of the dragons, and used to bolster your array of talents with everything from super-speed to the ability to breathe fire.

As with everything in Skyrim, variety is key, and this is a pervasive trend that readily applies to the gameworld in general. The tedious copy-pasted environments of Oblivion have given way to hugely distinctive areas and provinces, and while many fantasy RPGs test a gamer’s patience by repeating the same old type of tired locations over and over again, that is certainly not the case here.

Dungeons are expansive, atmospheric labyrinths of booby-trapped chambers, mysterious puzzles and rotting tombs trembling with the unnerving threat of reanimated corpses. Each seems to have its own individual flavour and character, and the same could even be said of the various caves too. Some glow with a ghostly hue unique to their geology while others are active or abandoned places of work: dense mines replete with dim lamps and pickaxes, or makeshift tanneries littered with animal remains and tools.

Equally, the Lord Of The Rings-inspired settlements range from the quaint thatched roofs of small hamlets to mighty stone strongholds. All are vibrant, bustling places, alive with the sounds of rotating water wheels, singing bards, blacksmiths at work and butch, Schwarzenegger-like Nords muttering their grievances into the icy air.

NPCs are much more varied and dynamic than in Oblivion, which helps bolster the sense of a fully-fledged, diverse world. For more significant characters Bethesda have once again assembled an impressive cast, including the likes of veteran great Max Von Sydow. That said, the voice-acting is often merely competent rather than actively engaging, and minor characters have an annoying habit of bellowing loudly over significant conversations at the most inopportune moments. To be fair, the same random NPCs also provide plenty of humour when you overhear random exchanges out and about in the gameworld, so perhaps we should forgive them for that.

The game’s music, meanwhile, is tremendous. You’ll never tire of hearing the beautiful, stirring main refrain, and the well-judged contrast between elegant strings for scenic interludes, bombastic horns and percussion for combat and epic choral chanting for dramatic events works perfectly.

In graphical terms the textures and detail are certainly a step-up from Oblivion, but the game’s graphics are not perhaps quite as impressive as they could be. There are notable issues with disappearing or flickering surfaces in some areas, not to mention some pop-in problems – which can be particularly jarring on occasion – though somewhat surprisingly Skyrim is largely free of the kind of infuriating bugs that have often plagued Bethesda’s previous open-world epics. This is a very reassuring development, and means you’re decidedly unlikely to encounter any quest or game-breaking glitches.

On the surface, Skyrim seems largely composed of fantasy-RPG ideas and mechanics that are now well-worn – even clichéd. But it readily becomes apparent that it is adept at finding new ways to liven up these familiar aspects. For example, side-quests are still very much of the ‘go there, kill that’ or ‘retrieve this item’ variety, but one of the most exciting new developments is that quest locations are now randomized to increase variety and replay-ability.

The destinations of side-missions and even main storyline quests will change depending on your exploits thus far, dealing in a single, masterful stroke with that age-old RPG bugbear of being forced to revisit locations you’ve already explored. You may also be presented with tasks in different ways, or be offered different quests or goals depending on your actions up until that point. It’s a clever and rather inspired way of livening up the proceedings, and it really does work well.

Added to this, Elder Scrolls fans will be delighted to hear that the Thieves Guild and Dark Brotherhood make a welcome return with their own thrilling storylines and missions, and a substitute for the Fighters Guild comes in the shape of a band of swords-for-hire known as The Companions. You can also join one of the two major factions in the ongoing war – the steely Empire or the rebel Stormcloaks – and work to further their, or your own, ends.

The enemies that populate Skyrim are a varied and suitably nasty bunch, taking in series staples such as bandits, necromancers, vampires and phantoms, as well as a whole range of new foes – some of whom are so shocking and exhilirating to encounter that it would be unforgivable to forewarn you of them here.

Melee combat may not be the great leap forward expected from Oblivion, all-too often descending into wild hack-and-slashery once again, but there is a more tangible crunch to the cut-and-thrust and parrying when you get up close and personal. Bows, however, are much improved from the previous game, making archery a much more viable and useful option for stealth kills, ranged attacks and even taking on the dragons themselves.

Unfortunately, the action – as with general inventory management and bartering – is often still bogged down in endless lists and menus, despite the ability to ‘favourite’ certain items and spells and call up that shortlist at the tap of a button. It can be frustrating – and a little mood-breaking – when some of the more epic, dramatic confrontations end up being interrupted by constant pauses and shuffling between different weapons, spells and potions. The favouriting system helps to some extent, but it still produces yet another list, and the ‘hotkey’ tactics of Oblivion may actually have worked better here.

Keeping you on your toes is the fact that enemies are at a ‘fixed level’ and don’t scale up automatically to match your current status, meaning that some of the monsters you encounter early on will be far too powerful for you to tackle, and by the end of the game you’ll be simply batting weaker foes aside with a flick of your sword. However, as many RPG veterans will attest, this is actually by far the better option, as it lends a feeling of realism, adds a greater sense of fear to certain creature encounters, and also allows you to feel like a bona fide demi-god when you’ve sufficiently levelled-up and pimped-out your weapons, armour and spells – returning to gleefully wreak havoc on the now-cowering foes that once terrified you so thoroughly.

Randomized events and occurrences liven up the experience and help make each play-through unique. You might flee a terrifying troll and seek refuge in a nearby inn, only to awaken the next morning to find several of the town’s guards hideously slain and shocked citizens standing around wondering what horrific fate could have befallen them. There are many incredible and eyebrow raising possibilities to uncover as you negotiate the world, and to spoil any of these here would be to do a disservice to a game that goes out of its way to spring surprises at every turn.

That said, because the game actively avoids trying to script events too rigidly, sometimes significant occurrences trigger at times or places where you are not best-placed to experience them – and it can be disappointing to realise you missed out on the full effect of a key ‘wow’ moment.

Such moments are, however, in impressive supply. Dragon attacks – which occur randomly throughout the landscape as well as at pre-determined points – are a particular highlight. It’s hard to do justice here to the feeling of mingled apprehension and joy that greets an assault by one of these flying foes on a town or village. Guards scurry for cover, firing off volleys of arrows or shrieking as they are blasted with torrents of flame; the huge creatures swoop down from the heavens bellowing an ear-splitting roar, their leathery wings beating the air and the very sky shaking as they near.

The feeling of elation when you slay a dragon really is immense, and these encounters add extra spectacle to a game that grips you so tightly in its clutches it adds a whole new meaning to the word ‘compelling’.

Indeed, Skyrim is a game so vast, immersive and intriguing that you really will lose yourself within it, completely losing track of time and the real world as you scour its terrain and unearth its secrets. You can easily while away whole evenings crafting items or experimenting with different spells, and you’ll doubtless spend tens of hours tackling the myriad side-quests or tracking down bounties for extra coin. There are so many distractions and curiosities lying in wait that you’ll be hard-pressed to avoid exploring every single fort, ruin, dungeon and cave you encounter while negotiating the eventful landscape, with new opportunities for intrigue and plunder awaiting you at every turn.

As if to underline the investment of time this game so readily demands, at one point the main quest compels you to scale a monumental, windswept mountain that reaches high up into the clouds; the journey so long and arduous that it would have Edmund Hillary weeping on his hands and knees for mercy.

And yet the game never leaves you feeling sorry that you have exhausted so much time and energy within its folds. It is an undoubtedly demanding experience, but it is also an extremely rewarding one.

All things considered, Skyrim is not quite perfect. The combat could be slicker, the menus less cumbersome and the graphics a little sharper. But such minor concerns are largely irrelevant in the face of an experience that regularly delights and, on occasion, is capable of taking your breath away. Pushing the established open-world RPG template in new and daring ways, Bethesda have succeeded in creating a vivid and exciting gameworld that begs to be explored. Its landscape is so remarkable, and its quests so engaging, that you could quite easily find yourself playing for days at a time. And you really couldn’t be blamed for doing just that.

 

FMV Rating: ****1/2



Comments
3 Responses to “Game Review: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim”
  1. Jonathan Szafran says:

    I do agree with the remark that the menus are cumbersome. They can sometimes even be frustrating especially accessing them mid- battle to change shouts or use potions. Roaming around Skyrim’s snowy mountains I found alot of beauty in its graphics but up close I found that alot of the textures mostly in caves and inside homes to be quite ugly. Great review Mark.

  2. Major thanks for the article.Really looking forward to read more. Cool.

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