Reviewed: November 10, 2011
Released: November 11, 2011
If you can only purchase one game this holiday season then make this game, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Admittedly, it will help if you enjoy deep and immersive gameplay and a story so vast it will consume you for several months to come, and it will also help if you have a preference for the RPG genre. Sure, there may be games that are prettier or offer more excitement in smaller doses, but those are the ďone-night standsĒ of gaming, whereas Skyrim is your soul mate for life. When you break the seal on that game case you almost expect a choir of angels to sing and doves to take flight in some medieval royal wedding. |
Skyrim is more than a game. This is the most complex, interactive, simulation of life that you can experience on this generation of console and sets the bar impossibly high for any other games that would dare compete. Fans of the previous Elder Scrolls game, Oblivion, already know what to expect as do diehard fans who have been stalking the developers ever since we started getting good looks at the game at this yearís E3. But until now, that has all been speculation and hyperbole. The game is finally here and nothing can prepare you for the epic adventure youíre about to undertake.
Reviewing Skyrim is about as difficult as reviewing life. Bethesda has gone to great lengths to make this game all about options and choice beginning with the creation of your character that takes place mere moments after the opening cutscene deposits you in town; a prisoner in line to be executed. HmmmÖwhy do I always start these games as a criminal? Creating your character is just the first of many painstaking processes youíll endure throughout the 100+ hours this game has to offer, and ironically, itís also one of the easiest. No stats to worry about, no attributes to pump up; just pick from one of the ten available races and get going, but if only it were that easy. These races not only look uniquely cool and different, they also have specific bonuses. Even after mulling over my selection I still canít help wonder how or even if the game would be playing if I had picked that cool lizard or cat person.
Once in the game you will start to level up just about every aspect of your person through actions. The more you sneak the better your sneak skills, the more you use a sword, the better your one or two-handed attacks get. The same goes for magic, pickpocketing, archery, lock picking, or any of the dozens of crafting skills you can learn and master. Find a pot and you can start mixing ingredients to brew some stew that will restore your health, or perhaps youíll want to get a job at the local smithy where you can learn to use the forge, grinding stone, tool bench, or leather tanning, because now itís not just about repairing your weapons; you can actually craft them from scratch and improve them if you have the raw materials and skills.
Skyrim is both a dream and a nightmare for packrats, as you will be collecting thousands of items but can only carry so much weight before your movement speed is throttled to a crawl, so while it might be tempting to carry a battle axe, two-handed sword, war hammer, mace, and a hunting bow, as well as three sets of armor, youíll often have to make some tough decisions about what to leave behind. There were several times when I would literally crawl back into town with so much extra stuff, just because I knew I could sell it for some spare coin. Thankfully, most of the smaller stuff classified as ďingredientsĒ wonít add up to much, so you can farm as many veggies and pick as many mountain wildflowers as you can carry.
You can make Skyrim as ďbusyĒ as you want. For instance, you can go out and kill a pack of wolves then sell their pelts at the store, or you could work those pelts into leather and sell the leather, or even better, craft the leather into clothing or armor. The more work you put into any item the more value it has, but all at the expense of time. If you aren't careful you'll find yourself working a virtual day job instead of progressing the story. Also falling into the ďbusyĒ category are hundreds of books you will find throughout the game. These can be collected and read at your leisure, but many of these have numerous pages and get quite involved. Iím guessing you could spend 3-4 hours just reading in this game. I almost wish they had all of this literature in eBook format, so I could read outside of the game on my iPad.
Unlike any game to come before it, Skyrim creates a living, breathing world with seamless blending of climate zones, weather effects, night and day cycles, and an intelligent population that youíll get to interact with at every step of the way. On my first game I made some bad decisions, stole a few things, got caught, got attacked, killed a person, and things kept on escalating until I had killed nearly the entire village. I was surprised at how much guilt and remorse I was feeling, and not just because I was arrested upon leaving town and forced to serve a brutal 3-day jail sentence. I had actually formed relationships with these people. I learned how to build and maintain weapons under the guidance of my blacksmith tutor, until I had to kill him one night when he attacked me for killing his wife who had attacked me the night before because she caught me stealing. If you do the crime, be prepared to do the time, or at least bribe the arresting officer.
There are hours upon hours of quests, some pertinent to the main story and others as more diversionary side quests. If you arenít careful and thorough in your exploration of each new location and in talking with everyone you meet, you can easily miss a quest. Usually talking to one person will set you on the path to one or more others, but you still need to follow those leads until they result in an actual mission that you can view in your log and mark on your massive map of the land. And you can be sure that in route to that quest, new people will be met, new quests will be revealed, and more opportunities for adventure will present themselves.
The world is alive with all sorts of creatures from the harmless deer and elk to the more dangerous wolves and bears, and of course, the occasional dragon will swoop in to do battle. These are important encounters, as killing a dragon will allow you to absorb its soul and power up any of several magical Shout attacks. You first have to learn the words by finding their ancient inscriptions hidden throughout the lands, and then activate them with dragon souls so you can call upon their awesome power in battle.
Fans of the franchise will love all the attention to detail and the continuity maintained throughout the series with familiar names, places, references to events, and such. There is a great underlying story arc working beneath all your main quests, a story of civil war where lines are drawn and sides must be chosen. All of these events and the general state of the land are all popular topics of direct conversation and eavesdropping. There is so much going on, both in backstory, current story, and gameplay mechanics that you can easily spend 120+ hours before ever exhausting the main content, and with future DLC coming, expect this number to only get larger. Of course, if you just want peel away all the layers of minutia and plow through the core story; you can do so in about 20 hours.
The split between time in menus and time in game seemed about 60-40 at the start, but once you settle into your career and upgrade path this ultimately gets to a 30-70 split. Early on, the Skill tree, styled after constellations and stars for each perk, can be quite daunting. You want to do it all and do it now, but level grinding is a slow process and it really makes you think hard before spending those precious perk points. You also have to decide if you are going to favor Magicka, Health or Stamina, or just keep spreading the points evenly each time you level-up.
The main interface is quite simple. Tap the B button to bring up the menu cross for easy access to Items, Skills, Magic, or the Map. The inventory screens are divided into weapons, armor, books, ingredients, etc, and you can equip or add an item to your Favorites, a handy pop-up menu for easy access to your most used items using the D-pad. You can equip items to either your left or right hand and then use those items with the LT or RT such as a sword and shield combo or perhaps a mace and a magic fireball attack. Some items like a two-handed sword or giant battle axe will require both hands, or you can equip identical spells to both hands for a boost in magical attacks.
There is an odd disassociation with the combat when playing in the first-person view, almost like a weird VR sim with unruly arms extending out into the screen so you are never sure if you are close enough to actually hit something or if they are close enough that you need to block. This is mostly in the melee combat however, and ranged weapons like bows and magic attacks didnít have this problem. You can also play the game from a third-person perspective, which seems to give you a better overall view during combat and general exploration, but also takes away a bit of the immersion.
There are a few nagging issues like a compass that has too many overlapping destination markers and a map where the waypoint won't always reset making it hard to get where you need to go. The landscape can be difficult to navigate in places. One time I fell off a narrow winding path and it took me 15 minutes to get back to the top because my character couldnít jump back over a rather small rock. There is nothing critically wrong or broken with the game; just a few minor issues that keep it just outside of perfection.
Skyrim is so huge it could easily be mistaken for an MMO, and while there is no online or multiplayer available that doesnít mean you have to play alone. You can bolster your numbers by hiring NPCís to team up with you or even use ancient magical spells to summon beastly assistants or even wake the dead. While you wonít get to bond or make any lasting relationships with these characters, they are useful tools in getting through some of the tougher sections in the game.
While Skyrim sets new boundaries for RPG visuals, these graphics donít come without a price. There are numerous instances of chugging framerate, even as early as the wagon ride at the beginning of the game, and this was after installing the full 3.8 GB onto my hard drive. The scenery is breathtaking with mountains and cascading falls that plunge into lakes that turn into rivers with whitewater rapids before winding into town to lazily turn a waterwheel at the local mill. Forests turn into plains that turn into hillsides that turn into frosty snowcapped mountains. The weather can change as fast and seamlessly as the landscape. Daytime turns to dusk that turns to starry night with clouds that will drift across the massive full moon changing light and shadows in real-time; it is quite beautiful to behold.
Pop-up isnít as much of an issue as is fade-in. Grass and plant will just start materializing about half the distance to the horizon and rocks, trees, bushes, and other shapes will slowly morph into more detailed models as you get near. Given the ambitious scope of this graphics engine and the PC requirements for optimal viewing, itís a wonder the 360 can even handle this game let alone look almost perfect while doing so. There are a few oddities in character design, some of which looks like Oblivion quality, and some awkward animations, but these are few and far between. The game also suffers from frequent and often lengthy load times, usually when going in and out of a city or other major location like a dungeon.
The audio package does achieve complete perfection with a glorious orchestral score that invokes all the best from movies like Lord of the Rings, with its larger than life scope. The music not only fits the mood, it more often than not sets it with rousing action themes or more subtle emotional vibes or intense moments of stealth. The Dolby Digital mix encompasses you in all the fantastic sounds of nature as well as real-time combat and magical spell effects, and so far I havenít met an NPC, major or minor, that wasnít performed with perfect character and emotion befitting the source material.
Even when you finish Skyrim you really arenít done. Iíve logged more than 140 hours into Oblivion and all its DLC and Iím sure there is stuff I havenít found or done. Skyrim is so much larger, it truly is the game that just keeps on giving, with so many ways to play, so many paths to take, so many things to do, and so many reasons to come back and do them all over again.
Bethesda has refined the RPG genre, crafting what is quite possibly the best RPG ever made. It is certainly the best installment in The Elder Scrolls series and a perfect example of what all other role-playing games should aspire to become. With unparalleled story set in an ultra-realistic immersive world, Skyrim is more than a game Ė it is a parallel universe that we are privileged to visit, an alternate life we are allowed to live - so relish every moment you spend there.