Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Release Date: 11/11/2011
Skyrim is far from a perfect game. In fact it’s a very broken and bug-ridden game. Is it a bad game? No, it’s definitely not. In fact I love the game, but I think it has some major issues and should not have been released in the state it’s in. If you’re reading this review though expecting me to blow Bethesda a big kiss and decree this a perfect game and cry that it should get game of the year, then you’re reading the wrong review. If you’re looking for that, go to another site where they gave it a “ten'” and they say “It’s perfect,” because while I’m enjoying the hell out of it, I’m about to rip Elder Scrolls V a new one.
I’ll be honest right now and say I never really got into Morrowind or Oblivion much at all. In fact I’ve logged more hours playing Skyrim than I had put into both of the other games combined. In Morrowind I spent my time running around as a werewolf trying to kill every living being in the game because I was so annoyed with them. Obilivion, right after I escaped the prison I lost most of my interest as I realized how they had completely and totally under-utilized Patrick Stewart, and then after putzing around a bit just couldn’t bring myself to zoom in on another hideous face in that game either. Skyrim has held my attention, and I don’t know if it’s the dragons, or the political intrigue, but I’m loving the story in the Nord lands, and really I think that’s what has kept me playing.
The story start off like the Elder Scrolls does, with your character as a prisoner. This time however you’re being carted off with a criminal and several rebels. It seems you have been caught up in a civil war and you’re going to be beheaded. All that comes to a screeching halt when a dragon attacks the town you’re in forcing you to flee for your life and drops you squarely in Nord controlled territory with a few basic weapons and very little in starting gold. You find out more about the rebellion as you move through the game and one fateful day you’re attacked by aanother dragon. They’re after you because you’re a Dragonborn. Dragonborn naturally have the ability to use Shouts, special spells you have to learn, but have instant command over, where someone else would have to take years to train. It’s the dragon’s tongue and the same thing they use to attack you. When you kill a dragon, you suck out its life or soul, leaving behind a pile of bones to mark your kill.
The usual staples are there, the Thieves Guild, a Fighters type of guild, the Mage’s College, all of which give you quests that aren’t necessarily related to the main quest, but definitely increase your ability to dish out the pain in the game world. If you get involved with the right group you can even become a werewolf, which is one of my favorite things, ever since Blood Moon for Morrowind, which I already stated why. While the characters are all well developed and no one is as clean cut as they seem, even when they’re innocent, there are a few story telling issues that really leave me scratching my head. For example, at the start of the game, the Imperials are taking you to the chopping block with a bunch of rebel prisoners. When you get off the cart, they’re taking a roll call, and you’re not on the list. Well, the Imperials, not knowing your crime or even if you’re innocent, or even who you were, decide to go ahead and send you to the chopping block anyway. Wait, what? You don’t even know what I did, or who I am but because I happen to be on a cart you’re going to decapitate me?
I think the best part is that after you get out of that little issue because of a dragon attack, you have the option of going with the Imperials! Really? The same guys who wanted to behead me without a crime or name? Then, if you go to them you have to prove yourself to clear your name. I’ve yet to side with them in any playthrough, mainly because the story-telling here to me makes zero sense for me to side with them. Sure they’ve ruled in Skyrim for a long time, but obviously there’s some serious issues with their ruling structure, that siding with the rebels might rectify. You don’t have to side with either to complete the game, but there are benefits to doing so. I just don’t know why you’d ever side with the people who were willing to behead you until the dragon’s showed up.
For the most part though, this isn’t an issue. You get conversations as you happen upon them and the world continues on around you, unlike the last two Elder Scrolls games where it’s just you and the person you’re talking to. Morrowind wasn’t so obvious about it, but Oblivion zoomed in on the person so it dominated your whole screen which was terrifying in and of itself. Let’s face it, standard faces in Oblivion weren’t that attractive, and not something I wanted to get closer to. Here though, it feels more natural and makes you feel more a part of the game world which is a good thing.
Which moves me into graphics. Visually, when it’s not glitching, the game is stunning. I run it on max settings, and going to the top of a tower or mountain on a clear day or even when there’s clouds on the horizon, the world of Skyrim is absolutely stunning. But that’s never been Bethesda’s issue. Their game worlds always look fantastic. Where they’ve had problems before in the past is the character models. Not only were the faces almost always terrible, the bodies and animations weren’t that great either. Aside from the Elves in Skyrim, that has all changed. The animations look great, the character models look fantastic, and you can actually make a character that looks half-way decent as opposed to someone who hit all the ugly branches on their way out of the character creation tree. I honestly have no idea what they were thinking with the elves. They all have these bizarre forehead ridge things going on that make them look like background extras from a season of Star Trek Voyager.
There are some problems. Things don’t stand out very well. Some things shouldn’t, like a weapon an enemy dropped in a grassy field, but in mines it’s very hard to find, well, the ore you’re looking to mine. This doesn’t stand out, at all. Also, with one of the latest patches, if you’re really unlucky, the dragons you’re fighting could be flying backwards. I’ve yet to encounter that particular gem. While entertaining, this is a pretty big thing not to have found in testing. One of the things I think they’ve managed to get right is the 3rd person perspective. This wasn’t something that worked very well in Oblivion and was definitely not meant for Morrowind, but it feels a lot more comfortable to play that way, especially after spending so much time with RPGs like Mass Effect and Dragon Age II where it’s the standard view for me anyway.
Now, while visually the game is fairly magnificent, the controls and menu are for the most part, atrocious. Bear in mind I played this with a variety of keyboards and mice, including a gaming keyboard and mouse combo set up to play these type of games. Navigating the menu on the PC is a guessing game. You don’t know what keys will do what and when you’ll have to use the mouse instead. At least a third of the time the menu doesn’t respond to key strokes anyway, and character creation took twice as long as I’d have to go back and then forward again as the menu would quit responding. I did like what they did with the Favorites list. Having a quick menu to equip spells and weapons or anything else you want to choose from is awesome. What’s not awesome is that half the time it wouldn’t equip spells or weapons to the correct mouse buttons when you selected them and you’d have to fight with that in the middle of a fight. Yes, the game is paused, but the last thing you want in the middle of a fight is to be screwing around with a damned menu.
I’d run into similar issues while running around in the world. Some of my keystrokes weren’t hitting in conversations and more inconveniently when trying to cast a spell or swing a weapon. The screenshot shows my character after I’d hit the command to ready weapons. Notice they aren’t out? I had to do that three times before they popped out. The new patches have fixed this issue somewhat, but not entirely, which is frustrating. What I can tell you is that while the keyboard was terrible on my system, I could use an xBox 360 controller without an issue. To which I say shame on Bethesda for either lazy or crappy programming, or both. See my rant about companies skimping on PC ports here. I won’t go into it, but suffice to say I honestly recommend playing the PC version with a controller instead of a keyboard. It will save on headaches. The menu system will work fine, your favorites will assign to the correct shoulder buttons, and you’ll actually attack and cast spells when you hit the button to do so, every time.
Gameplay is relatively unchanged from Oblivion or Morrowind. You only level up when increasing skills, and you only increase skills by doing actions in the game or by paying money at a trainer. Combat is real-time unless you’re changing gear in a menu during which the game is paused. Where things change up a bit is that you have Companions that you can cart around with you through the game to help you in your fights. You pick these up for various quests and when you earn a house in a new city. I enjoy them, my friends I play over teamspeak with can take them or leave them. Most of the time they actually help. There are times, however, when they are nowhere to be found or show up just after you’ve killed the last guy in a group of 15. So they are really a mixed bag. Quests are grouped by who you get them with on the menu. If it’s a side quest it’ll show up under your Miscellaneous quests and you can tag them there for markers on your world map. If they’re more important or part of a chain they get their own listing outside of Miscellaneous with the same option.
One thing they’ve added in, aside from dragons, is the ability to Shout. These aren’t like spells where you can buy them and learn them, but are abilities you learn by finding the dragon marks across Skyrim and killing a dragon to power them. Shouts are potent, but take awhile to recharge, so you have to be careful and use them wisely. They’ve put in a skill system for this game that reminds me of the leveling system from Final Fantasy X, both in look and function. It’s tied to the skills you level up, and can give you bonuses to your attacks and open up other options for you. Unlike Morrowind and Oblivion however, an un-modded version of the game will not afford you enough to unlock everything so you’re going to be forced to specialize a bit which changes up some players styles a bit from the previous Elder Scrolls titles.
There is literally hundreds of hours of play time here in this game. This is especially true if you avoid main quests and work on crafting or spend time exploring without the aid of fast travel. Skyrim’s explorable area is massive and should having you coming back to play again and again. You have a large amount of options and different factions to side with that can really affect your game and what bonuses and alliances you have as far as the story goes. My wife has sunk a massive amount of time in and I’ve still seen areas that she hasn’t and vice versa. Replaying this game isn’t a factor of not doing it, but more along the lines of when. Despite its faults and glitches, I keep coming back to Skyrim again and again, and even with Star Wars The Old Republic coming out I’ll still fire up Skyrim once or twice a week. Bethesda did an amazing job crafting the areas and world, I just wish they’d spent more time fine tuning the gameplay and the controls on the PC. This takes us into the balance of the game.
One of the thing the Elder Scrolls have done since I started playing them, is keeping the enemies on par with the player. As you level up and gain abilities, the enemies across the landscape also get harder and gain more abilities. Of course, this is how you can beat both Oblivion and Morrowind in just 15 minutes or less each if you’re just going to take care of the main quests. For your money though, you always know with an Elder Scrolls title you’ll have plenty of content to play through. On the PC this is even more true as the Construction Set, which isn’t out yet for Skyrim but is on its way, keeps giving content out by other players. Even without the content you’re look at over a hundred hours of unique content with a few over-lapping quests. My wife is over 200 hours with three characters and still has yet to finish the main quest in any of her games. She has the opportunity to, and plays a lot more than I do. If you can get around the bugs and somewhat slow controls, you’re going to be busy with this game all winter long.
With Skyrim, you can really tell Bethesda watches what mods get made for their games. There are several things in Skyrim that used to be mods in Morrowind and Oblivion that are part of the standard game now. And while I can appreciate that they look and see what their fans want in game, they’ve also gone and cut the ability to make spells as well as a slew of abilities and spells from the game. Levitation and Fly are still missing, having been excised from Oblivion, these were two of the spells that I actually loved from Morrowind and set up a great moment when you find it in the game when the guy testing out the ability dropped from the sky when his spell wore out its duration. They’ve also killed an entire school of magic, keeping just two of its spells and dumping them elsewhere. This continues the stripping down trend started in Oblivion by combining weapons skills into one or two-handed weapons, the removal of medium armor entirely, etc. Sure as it stands you can’t max out everything like you could in Oblivion and Morrowind, but with an RPG, I like having more options instead of fewer. A finely crafted story can get me around a lack of options and the dragons are well implemented as well as the shout abilities and system. Really though the Shouts seem to be variations on spells that exist in the game with a different timer system.
Despite my issues with the game, unlike its predecessors, I have not been able to put it down. I love fighting the dragons. I love that the action move fluidly in combat, I love the story line and that there are very few good and bad guys and its almost all shades of grey and a fight for survival at the top of the Elder Scrolls world. There’s a number of reasons I keep sinking hours of my time into this game and it ranges from exploring to doing quests, to just turning my horse into a mountain goat and trying to get around a mountain with it for fun. Honestly, this is the first Bethesda RPG I’ve played this much before putting it down for something else in a long damn time. That includes Fallout 3 which I could only manage to play in fits and spurts because the glitches in that drove me insane. Many of these are still here in Skyrim despite a new engine, and I’m over-looking them to keep playing. They still fill me with a nerd rage I’ve not had in a long time, but they did something right with Skyrim that they hadn’t managed to do in their other RPGs with me and that says something.
I’ve heard grumblings from a lot of people that have been saying the single player RPG is dead. I think the sales sky-rocketing over everything else and overall play time on Steam is telling a far different story for the genre and Skyrim specifically. I think what developers need to remember is that we like our RPGs with some meat to them, some good story we can sink our teeth into, and a number of the RPGs that have not been doing well have been a lot of fluff. I’m looking at you Final Fantasy XIII. I get very few games on launch day. I usually wait until they go on sale. My wife had to have this one launch day, and the trailers and gameplay footage really sell the game well and I’ll be honest every time I hear Max Von Sydow in the trailer and in game I get chills. The only thing that might hold some people back is the forced Steam integration (you HAVE to install or have a Steam account to install this, no way around it and there are some people out there who don’t like Steam, I’m not one of them) and the fact that even with a third patch the game remains unstable for a lot of people, and the only thing they seem to be doing is killing people’s early mods to the game without a lot of other fixing of major issues going on.
Bugs, bugs, bugs. If you follow my twitter account I had a rather spectacular fit of nerd rage over this game. For days. I’ve had it crash to desktop all over the place without rhyme or reason. I’ve had the sound go wonky on me so bad that I had to restart my computer to fix it. I’ve seen dragons that are dead get back up and take flight and attack you but because the game registers the skeletons as already dead, there’s no way to kill them again. Good luck with that if you only have one save game on that character. My wife had a bug on her Imperial character during one of the quests where you have to get arrested and it screwed up the flag so that you always have bounty on you in a major city that you can’t pay your way out of, or go to jail to get rid of and instead waves and waves of city guards keep coming at you. Needless to say she quit that character out of sheer frustration. I would have as well. There’s the arrows sticking out of you for no reason until you get pelted with arrows again. More broken quest flags. I’m going off a list I made while I was playing by the way. Falling through the ground. I got stuck inside a door.
There’s the corruption of save games. For example I really irked off a guy and got attacked by his guards and killed. Re-loaded on a save game before I even talked to the guy. His guards are ok with me, but he’s still mad at me for no apparent reason. I’m guessing the flag there got screwed up. My corpse has been stuck spinning in the air like a top, and I’ve done that to enemies with a crit hit. And let’s not forget that I couldn’t play the game very well with a simple mouse and keyboard. Some of the keyboard issues have been fixed with patches, but honestly, if you can’t get a standard keyboard and mouse to respond to keystrokes every time you hit them, you’re doing it wrong. I found though that if I plugged in a 360 controller and everything worked smoothly. Yeah that reeks of lazy programming or playtesting, or both. I still play with the controller because, while the patches have fixed it a bit, going through the menus with keyboard and mouse is still a hit and miss affair and I like my attacks going off when I tell them to not when the game feels like making it happen for me.
After Morrowind’s issues, a lot of the quest problems, graphic glitches, and save game problems have cropped up again and again in Oblivion and then in Fallout 3. This to me is completely unacceptable. What they’re basically showing us is they’d rather rush the game out and give us the finished product after we’ve beta’d it for them. I’m ok with a few bugs. Really I am, but these are the same offenders they have to fix with every game release in this series. I’ve played a beta for an MMO with fewer game-breaking bugs than this. Forced updates through Steam is also annoying. If you’ve got the game running fairly well, more than likely that new update is going to screw up your tweaks and for a lot of people it did. Using a script extender to tweak your game so it runs smoother? Good luck with that. Every update they’ve hosed those for everyone and then the game basically runs the same as it did before the patch anyway. So really all they’re doing is making the modding community work harder for the same buggy issues out there. The only reason I haven’t played the game more is fighting with the game’s many bugs is beyond frustrating. Any time the game crashes to desktop I get disgusted and turn it off. One time I’d just made a new character and it crashed in the tutorial and off it went. I fight enough with computer problems all day with my job, I want the games I play to work, I don’t want to have to work to play my games.
Control and Gameplay: Poor
Replayability: Very Good
Appeal Factor: Classic
FINAL SCORE: GOOD GAME
Short Attention Span Summary
Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is a well crafted story and game world attached to a very buggy PC game engine. The PC version I’ve reviewed here is riddled with the same type of bugs that have plagued the Elder Scrolls series since Morrowind. While the game is overall alot of fun, you’ll also spend a lot of time fighting the menu, getting your controls to work properly, and broken quest lines that could leave that character you’ve spent 85 hours working on stranded. The few patches that have come out for the game have done little to fix the major issues people are having with the game and this trend looks to continue for awhile. If you were really looking to buy it and enjoyed the other Elder Scrolls titles despite the bugs, you’ll love Skyrim. If you want it to work out of the box and not have to fight to enjoy playing a game, you will want to wait for a few more months to pick this up, Or better yet, wait for a really good sale. And now that that’s done, I’m going to play some more Skyrim, unless I take an arrow to the knee.
Tags: bethesda, Elder Scrolls, Elder Scrolls V, Skyrim