REVIEWS -- Elder Scrolls IV: Skyrim (The) -- PC
Skyrim lives and breathes
by Sebastian Stefanov
Fun factor: Fun
Worth to: Buy
Despite the forgetful blemishes in gameplay and sound, Bethesda delivers a brilliant world that is sure to occupy players for months if not longer.
Few games ever reach the status of “social event” but Bethesda’s fifth installment in the Elder Scroll series has that honor. Skyrim is the butt and theme of countless jokes online and just about every gamer has an opinion of it, whether they played the game or not. Despite the high praise it seems like expectations haven’t been met. But really, how can something that was almost deified live up to anything? If you were to believe the hype around the globe Skyrim was supposed to make you waffles in the morning. It was supposed to be the best game ever. Why so many of us were lead to believe this isn’t much of a mystery.
Oblivion wasn’t a perfect game. It had numerous flaws even for its time. What it did offer was a sense of belonging. Legions of fans were card-carrying members of the Elder Scroll universe who actively shaped the world of Tamriel. For years now, the mod community has been re-envisioning the previous game into every fantasy lover’s dream, and those same people were starved to have “their” world legitimized in a sequel. It was only logical that Skyrim would deliver since fans showed Bethesda the blueprints.
So did Bethesda listen? Elder Scroll V does somewhat adopt the community’s vision, but it’s still timid enough to leave room for disappointment. But don’t despair, just about everybody can enjoy this beast of a game. Skyrim will hack away at your free time like a Nord swinging at a dragon’s head. It’s great, and is bound to get better.
Mind the sleeping bear
Tamriel has a strange prison system; it seems to incarcerate its most gifted citizens. Cyrodil was saved by a mysterious prisoner in Oblivion, and now the same fate befalls another criminal in Skyrim two hundred years later. This time, though, the threat comes from above – from the return of dragons.
Skyrim’s main quest is shorter and more straightforward than in Oblivion. The land of the Nords is in turmoil on two fronts: rebels calling themselves Stormcloaks want independence from the Empire, and a nasty dragon called Alduin The World Eater has returned and is resurrecting his ancient brothers with the purpose of… destroying the world. The main quest will have our hero focusing on the dragon threat more than the civil conflict, but this an Elder Scroll game; you’re not obliged to complete the main story if all you want to do is explore Skyrim’s restless backdrop.
Not much has changed in Tamriel since the Oblivion gates were closed, at least not on a political and cultural level. The Empire is still in charge. We still have the Argonians, Orcs and cat people representing the lowest casts. We still have the same weapons and armor types. Dwarves, despite having their wares actively made and sold on the open market, are still absent. Elves are still as ugly as ever, with the Dark Elves looking more like diseased fish than anything resembling the Drizzt. And mudcrabs are still all guts, no glory. Oh ya, and still no fat people, but that’s a Bethesda thing…
More similarities emerge as we are treated to a rather slow start while our character is lugged to a fort to be executed for crimes unknown. And we have company. Three Nords accompany us to their doom, two of which have different accents for some reason. While we wait to be processed a quick character creation menu is sprung on us with a rather disappointing choice of hairdos and a slew of creepy eyes, the end result of which is always someone pretty. So it’s off to the chopping block for the rebel scum, until a dragon spoils the Empire’s fun. After a series of on-rail scenes we are finally able to hack at heads and receive a rather mundane choice of following an Imperial or Stormcloack, both leading to us hauling ass out of the fort in search of fame and fortune.
After hastily escaping through a cave we are presented Skyrim in all its glory: beautiful graphics, too many things to do, and loads of grinding. The grinding part was evident even after the first few minutes of gameplay; my character was already at level 12 with Stealth over 50 by the time I exited the fort. It was my choice as I took it upon myself to sneak around a lazy bear for over an hour. So here I was, a fully armed stealth-girl with glowing eyes, standing before a majestic view of Skyrim while a dragon flew away in the distance. Mixed feelings but enjoyable.
The rest of the game is what we have come to love in Oblivion with a few important changes.
First, the leveling system is simplified. We are no longer given separate points for physical attributes like strength. Instead, every leveling up session lets us improve either Magic, Health or Stamina. Then we are given a perk point ala Fallout to allocate to the various professions. Each profession has perks that noticeably change gameplay. What you can use the points on depends on the profession’s level. The new leveling up system is an improvement since we can better plan our character’s evolution. In Oblivion, I only found out by accident that Archery let you zoom after a certain level. Here, we have an entire tapestry of ability choices literally written in the stars. It gives players something to strive for.
The second change involves the new job of smithing. Weapons and armor don’t wear out but you can upgrade them to Legendary status, which basically amounts to improving stats with the help of raw material and either a grindstone or workbench. You can also forge your own gear with the right ores and skills. A few more levels of improvement between normal and legendary would have hit the sweet spot, but I guess we can expect the community to change that in time.
At first I was excited to see the new crafting addition but later I realized Bethesda is either lazy or lacking creativity. We still have the same weapon makes (Iron, Steel, Silver, Dwarven, Elven, Orcish, Glass, Ebony and Deadric) with only one new addition: Dragon. Where are the Dunmer, Argonian and Kajiit weapons? How about adding more material types like bronze, crystal, titanium, obsidian, etc., then making materials a separate variable and splitting them between race types? So you could have Dunmer, Human or Deadric swords made of steel, iron or crystal, for example, thus greatly increasing the types of weapons to choose from. As it stands, only humans seem to know how to make stuff out of different metals… And seriously, glass? Really? You stuck with that but didn’t add any new minerals? Glass weapons and armor always felt odd to me. When has glass ever been associated with combat? Do you need inspiration, Bethesda? There are plenty of minerals out there to choose from.
The third change involves combat. After a few minutes of wielding a weapon, something felt familiar. Then I realized I saw a similar system in an Oblivion mod called Deadly Reflexes. Skyrim now lets players do more with blocks. It also offers random critical strikes with fancy animations. Both are nice additions but it’s another example of Bethesda’s timidity. Deadly Reflexes, though unrefined and a pain to get working right, let players shield-bash, parry, stealth kill (including people in bed) and offered a few gruesome insta-kills of its own. On top of that it let you attack while on horseback. No horseback attacks here, but we can dual-wield weapons and spells, something that adds a new layer of customizability to combat. Speaking of horses, Skyrim must have interbred them with mountain goats, because those damn things can climb just about anything!
Combat itself is still as awkward as in Oblivion. When it goes well, it goes well. When you get stuck in a pinch, on the other hand, the shit hits the windmill. The amount of missed attacks will have you moaning during every game session as you wait for your character to finish looking like an idiot. Add to it the much-awaited companions and you get a lot of friendly-hacking. Bethesda clearly designed Skyrim with consoles in mind, as evidence of the new clunky inventory system, so why not go all out and add a target lock-on system too? Nothing on the level of The Mark of Kri, but something even as clumsy as GTA’s lock-on system would have been a great addition. We have spells that can point us to the right door, but nothing that can lock you onto an opponent, go figure.
Spells are also a mixed bag. As mentioned before, you can dual-wield them, and though they look better and are more accurate, the assortment has been cut in half. Furthermore, your character eventually learns dragon Shouts, some of which have offensive properties. The shouts have their own hotkey/button and can be used despite being armed with a two-handed weapon. On the flipside, spells don’t have a hotkey and can’t be used while armed with a bow or two-handed weapon. Which one will you use more often? On the plus side, spell effects have been greatly improved, and while using a single-handed weapon they add new depth to gameplay.
Alchemy has been revamped as well. At first I wasn’t too fond of only being allowed to make potions at designated locations, but I got used to the concept. It puts an emphasis on preparation, and questing is all about venturing out – taking that step into the unknown. You don’t have that feeling when you can take everything with you.
The loot itself has been expanded but much of it was reused from the previous game. No big leaps here. You can make meals at campfires if you have the right ingredients and recipes, but the restorative effects of meals can never compare to a good potion, so that feature is useless. It would have been nice to make your own campfires, though.
I do have to agree with Gregory Aiello about the items sold in stores. There’s no point to go to any store in particular because the same stuff is sold everywhere. In fact, I haven’t felt the same urgency to find or buy enchanted gear like in Oblivion now that you can make everything yourself. This puts a damper on your adventuring spirit. Stores become useless after a certain point, serving as nothing more than places to unload your crap.
Winter is here…
Where the game truly shines is in the vastness of the world before you. Graphically speaking, Skyrim is leagues above Oblivion from a design point of view. The Arctic lands are beautiful despite being barren. The snow blankets covering mountain sides are so realistic they practically act like magnets, just begging to be treaded over. Snowstorms have an eerie breath to them, spinning wind around in-game objects and washing the colors of the world away. Glaciers and snow covered ruins are an enjoyable sight. The woods and foliage are postcard worthy and have a newfound organic synergy. Cities, though disappointingly smaller, have more natural designs. Artistically, the game feels like a cross between The Lord of the Rings and the TV series, Game of Thrones.
This vastness and detail can be a pain is the ass though. The floaty collision of the Gamebryo… err, I mean Creation Engine will show its ugly head on occasion. I’ve had many instances where I got stuck between rocks and couldn’t get out. Fortunately every time this happened there were no enemies nearby so I could fast-travel out of my predicament. Physics are an improvement as well, as long as you don’t get whacked by a giant.
On a dynamic side the world is more vibrant and alive. NPCs go about their daily lives, chopping wood, working at forges, chilling against walls and kids play in the streets. You don’t see the stiffness of Oblivion where everybody was always “going somewhere” but never actually doing anything. With war brewing between the Stormcloaks and Imperials you have cities and camps allied to each side. Skyrim feels like a real country. Now if only you could meet more people outside of towns, like convoys, traders or marching armies…
Quality in production is also present during missions, especially during the main story. When visiting the leaders of each warring side you can overhear them talking about war plans over military maps (security was lax back then, I guess). Characters will lean against tables and act more naturally, adding to the immersion. Sticking around optional exchanges can lead to pleasant surprises, like Farengar taking a sample of Odahviing’s dragon scales for instance. But this immersion does come at a price. Talking to NPCs often leads to awkward positioning. Many conversations will take place with characters not looking at each other.
Your actions can affect immersion as well. If your Sneaking or Pickpocketing is high, guards will have you in their sights, and let you know it. Shouting in their presence will result in a pep talk. Doing illegal stuff, on the other hand, will net you a bounty. Unlike Oblivion, bounties are local, probably because Skyrim is comprised of various regions. Killing off witnesses will remove your bounty, something all the PKers out there will get a kick out of.
Huge game; not enough voice actors
Obviously, games this big always have bugs. In my case I was faced with an almost game-breaking bug where the dragon Alduin didn’t want to fly away during a pivotal fight, even though I had defeated him. The problem was resolved with me leaving the battle on foot, going to a town, having a cold one at an inn, getting 14 hours of sleep, trying on new garments, playing tag with some kids, torturing a few chickens then coming back to the finish the fight. And fortunately for me Alduin was kind enough to stick around and not eat the world while I was on my extracurricular escapades. Fights with dragons are satisfyingly epic, though, but some of them are a bit too weak for my taste.
Speaking of dragons, Bethesda has to be commended for the impeccable voicing and language of their mythical creatures. Sadly, I can’t say the same for the rest of the voice acting. Like in Oblivion, you will hear maybe half a dozen NPC voices being reused to insanity. Skyrim tries to be more vocal this time around, and this maxim has come to bite the game in the ass. You will hear characters talking to each another with the exact same voices, and they will repeat the same lines to insanity by the time you finish the main quest. The repetitive gibber of store owners will make you want to slash their throats.
Acting isn’t even that good, probably because actors try to pull off foreign accents they are not comfortable with. Why on earth do Nords have Arabic accents? One main character even changes his voice, probably due to post-production editing that couldn’t get the original actor. Hearing another man trying to sound like the original one is unexpectedly comical. Michael Hogan (Saul from Battlestar Galactica) does a great job – can’t complain there.
Still on sound, effects like leveling up or bards singing sometimes come at the worst of moments, muffling important dialog. Music, on the other hand, is decently adventuresque but not as memorable as in Oblivion. The orchestral bit that comes up during dragon battles is pretty sweet, though.
Skyrim makes strides in the Elder Scroll franchise. It introduces important changes without touching the foundation of what made the series great: freedom. You will waste countless hours running around, discovering beautiful locations, fighting new monsters, and occasionally getting back to actually advancing the main story. Great fun! The game has a few flaws and missed opportunities, but the basics are set and ready to be expanded. Don’t let the changes put you off, embrace them and you will have months of solid fun in a vibrant and expanding world.
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Developer: Bethesda Game Studios
Genre: Action RPG
Release Date: November 11, 2011
Review Date: 10-12-2011
Numbers of Players: 1
Players Online: No
Notes: Downloadable Content
Majestic settings and arctic landscapes that outdo anything done in previous RPGs. Attention to detail in caves and cities is leaps and bounds above Oblivion. Decent character and dragon models but faces and armors still have room for improvement. No more cities, just small towns. Tamriel again has the ugliest elves in the video game kingdom.
Granted, Elder Scroll games are massive endeavors that encompass many facets of gameplay, but combat has to be solid, and you will encounter frustration while fighting. When will an Elder Scroll game have a target lock-on? You will run and gallop up cliffs and get stuck in many crevices. Regardless, everything is decent enough to make you forget the occasional gripe. Implements many improvements from the Oblivion modding community. Menus are lame.
The lore is expanded and gives tribute to past Elder Scroll games. The world is vibrant and more alive than before. Skyrim truly is a real country with people struggling with their lives. Bugs abound, some of which are game-breaking. Plenty to do and loads to explore, but the old floaty engine still makes everything seem off. Refinement would have been greatly appreciated while talking to characters. Expect to have countless conversations with backs turned.
Epic music, especially during dragon fights, and decent ambient tunes. Dragon voices are a treat, in particular the way Paarthurnax mixes dragons words. Poignant but overbearing sound effects. NPC voices vary from first-rate (rarely) to forced (often). Bethesda overdid it with NPC voices. You’ll sometimes not hear important plot dialogs because of sound effects.
Expect to clock in over 100 hours. You know a game has lasting appeal when you can download a mod that adds a clock to load screens, so you won’t have the displeasure of discovering you played well into the morning. Expect to skip around between quests like a scatterbrain. Too much stuff to do, from crafting to raising your status in the various factions. The veteran mod community is already busy improving the game, which means Skyrim will be fresh for years to come.