THE ELDER SCROLLS V: SKYRIM (2011) – BETHESDA GAME STUDIOS
It feels like a very long time since I queued in the cold to pick up a copy of Skyrim last November. Since that moment, hours and days have seamlessly passed me by as I have explored the vast and engrossing world that Skyrim offers up to those who take the plunge. A few weeks ago, I finally managed to complete all the major quests that the game can throw at you – and since then I have had the trouble to trying to evaluate in my own words what hundreds of publications have already elaborated upon. Perfect scores and ‘Game Of The Year’ awards across the board have cemented Skyrim as a truly magnificent achievement for video games; what follows is simply my two cents on what Skyrim had to offer to me.
The story should be familiar to you all by now – you start the game in shackles, arrested for trying to cross the border into Skyrim and soon to be destined for the chopping block at the hands of the Imperial Army. After creating your character, an enormous dragon breaks up the party and allows you to escape. Pretty soon you learn that you are the Dovakhiin – the ‘Dragonborn’ spoken of in legends who’s destiny it is to defeat Alduin (the harbinger of end times, who just so happens to be the dragon that saved you from a beheading). From hereon in it is your duty to prevent the dragons returning across Skyrim and prevent the end of the world as we know it.
Of course, this wouldn’t be an Elder Scrolls game without throwing a smorgasbord of distractions at you, and on that front Skyrim doesn’t disappoint. After a few introductory missions designed to get you on your feet, you can choose to ignore the dragon threat for as long as you like – after all, there’s a Civil War taking place in Skyrim, and you can choose sides and end the conflict in the favour of the Imperials or the Stormcloak rebels. If that’s not your thing, the Dark Brotherhood are looking to get back on their feet and need a reliable assassin. The Thieves Guild requires help in restoring its former glories. The Mage’s Guild require new students. You can help out the Companions of Whiterun and become a legendary fighter. Or you could invest some time in the ridiculous amount of quests offered by the many citizens of Skyrim, which range from chopping wood and playing tag to becoming a deity for the Deadric Gods. If there is a complaint to be made, it is that Skyrim offers perhaps too much to do at times.
The thing is though, Skyrim’s predecessor (the much lauded Oblivion) also offered a stupid amount to do – why should one pick Skyrim over it? The crucial differences are in the way the game plays. Everything that was good about Oblivion remains pretty much intact; you can choose from up to ten different races to play as and there is a fair amount of customisation to be had when making a character. The controls also remain largely similar, allowing you to play from either the third or first person perspective. Everything that was broken however has been massively refined or improved. Enemies no longer level up with your character, meaning that dungeons will have a variety of enemies with differing levels of threat to your life. The menu system is far less cluttered, and offers you the chance to view items in a very clever 3D viewer. The much hyped ability to mix and match weapons and magic is also very effective, allowing you to combat enemies as you see fit. The levelling system from Oblivion has also been completely overhauled to incorporate some elements from the Fallout series – every time you level up you can select a perk from a talent tree, allowing your character greater specialisation in a certain area (for example, the Lockpicking skill tree will offer you the chance to get better swag from treasure chests, while picking Alchemy perks will improve the potions you can make); the system is a damn sight better than what Oblivion had to offer. There’s even a fully 3D map of the game world to gaze at should you get lost in the wilds
The most dynamic change to gameplay comes in the form of ‘Shouts’. As the Dragonborn, you have access to a special talent that other humans cannot use…when you kill a dragon, you absorb their souls which can then be used to learn words of power found in ancient runes dotted around Skyrim. These ‘shouts’ allow you to do some pretty cool stuff – you can use the Force to send things flying (leading to many a FUS RO DAH meme on the interwebs), slow down time for a short period, summon lightning storms, freeze foes in a block of ice and improve your reflexes. There are over 20 ‘shouts’ in game to utilise, so it increases the desire to trawl through every tomb and cave in order to find the runes that bestow you the awesome powers.
As much as I would like to advance at this point for further wax lyrical about the game, it should be pointed out that at times Skyrim can have some pretty serious problems. In attempting to be so ambitious with their world, Bethesda inevitably left behind a few ghosts in the machine. At times, quests will become bugged, AI will not respond to you correctly, and in the most serious cases the game will come to a juddering halt as it fails to keep up with itself…as anyone with a PS3 who played the game will no doubt be able to testify to. To their credit, Bethesda has released no fewer than six different patches already that have solved some problems and added cool new features such as advanced deathcams for kills – but you would have hoped for a AAA title like this that the bugs would have been completely ironed out before release, even if some became accepted by the gaming community as being hilarious.
I would defy most people to find me a game that looks better on the Xbxo 360 than Skyrim when it is running at full tilt. Oblivion may have been pretty, but at times Skyrim is downright jaw-dropping. The Nordic-inspired world offers up some of the most fantastic scenery you will find in a video game complete with snowy tundras, vast mountains, boggy marshes and picturesque vistas – seeing the city of Whiterun on its hill for the first time in one of the early quests, bathed in early morning sunlight, had me speechless. The interiors of dungeons and caves can grate after a bit, but that’s more due to the sheer number of dungeons there are to explore rather than any massive problem with their design. It’s perhaps the small changes that are most appreciated however; such as the fact that when you engage in conversation with an AI, you no longer zoom in on thier face when talking to them and the game will continue running as normal in the background. There is still room for improvement however, as running and fighting animations still do not look natural and there is still a large amount of op in when fast travelling across the land.
Unfortunately, I found myself a bit underwhelmed with the soundtrack for Skyrim. Oblivion contained some of my all time favourite pieces of music, and although composer Jeremy Soule returned to the helm for this game I didn’t find the same consistency across the entire soundtrack; that said some tracks such as the barnstorming ‘Dragonborn‘ and ‘Ancient Stones’ are well worth a listen. The criticism’s levelled at the sub standard voice acting in Oblivion have also been remedied somewhat – certainly, there is more variation to the voice acting in Skyrim, and Bethesda managed to pick up some high profile actors such as Max Von Syndow to voice some of the main characters. It didn’t fully prevent some awkward soundbites from getting into the final product though; if you are sick of hearing about things ‘getting an arrow to the knee’, blame the scriptwriters.
And so after nearly 250 hours of gameplay, we reach the verdict. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is a truly great game, worthy of its plaudits, and for me, a vast improvement upon Oblivion. Few games offer the scope and enormous depth that Skyrim offers as a course of regular action, and there’s enough to appeal to all types of gamers, whether you like to stick a dagger in someone’s back or simply go exploring. Should it have been fixed before launch? Yes, it should have – Bethesda tried to be too ambitious. But when a slightly broken end product manages to dwarf other games like Arkham City and Skyward Sword on its release, you just know it’s special.