It’s been five years since the release of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, and while Bethesda has been busy in that time, it’s been on other things. With the acquisition of at least part of the Fallout license, Bethesda has brought fans of the franchise new hope with Fallout 3 and its numerous expansions, but while Bethesda Softworks has begun to increase its publishing output in the face of the success of its more recent titles, Bethesda Game Studios has, by all indications, been working on Skyrim non-stop. It was fairly apparent that a fifth game in the Elder Scrolls series was as likely as the sun rising, but what was interesting was the sheer effort put into the game, from the developer completely building a new engine to power the game (or so it’s said) to the time spent working on it, as three years of development for a game seems like overkill in a world where new games come out in franchises practically every year. Now, it’s obvious that, at some point, Skyrim would be a fantastic game, even if you believed this because of nothing more than the ability to recognize patterns, but between the hype surrounding the game and the fact that Bethesda has developed a pattern in the last few years of releasing games with notable bugs… well, Skyrim seemed like it was fighting a losing battle against its own hype from the start. Fortunately, Skyrim is mostly a good enough game to power through the flaws and justify itself beyond the hype, though as one would gather, it’s not perfect out of the box.
Amusingly enough, Skyrim starts off in much the same way Oblivion did: you’re a random prisoner of the Empire who ends up being the “Chosen One”Â (in this case, Dragonborn), though the events are a good bit different. You start off with your head on the chopping block before, of all the Deus Ex Machina character-saving plot points that could come up, a dragon attacks and you end up running for your life. Now on your own, you end up discovering your inherent ability to understand the language of dragons and absorb their souls to use their words against them. The dragon language, as it turns out, is a powerful language that has the potential to create all sorts of effects, and your character is able to speak (if not understand) the words, allowing you great feats and amazing weapons to use against the very same dragons. Said dragons, of course, are hardly blameless in the whole affair, as the reason for their return and subsequent ransacking of the countryside is Alduin, a dragon dubbed “The World Eater”Â, who was banished from this plane hundreds of years prior, and has returned with a tiny bit of a grudge. Thus, you are tasked to find a way to put an end to Alduin’s reign of terror before he brings an end to the world in the most violent way possible. Now, Skyrim isn’t about its plot any more than Oblivion was; the plot was more of a motivator to accomplish something grand in-between accomplishing lots and lots of smaller tasks, and this game is no different. The plot is well written, as always, and full of little details that are interesting and keep the personality of the experience lively. Bethesda knows what it takes to build a world, if nothing else, and Skyrim is full of touches, both minor and major, that call back to their older games while also adding to the lore of the game world in new and interesting ways that are likely to keep both franchise fans and newcomers engaged.
Skyrim is also a very beautiful game, both technically and artistically, and the game is full of both huge and minute elements that make the game a visual marvel. Character animations and models are fantastic, as one would expect, and the introduction of more massive enemy types like giants, dragons and mammoths is an excellent addition that’s visually striking the first time you see them in action. Further, the game environment is amazing, as usual, featuring significant attention to detail across all parts of the game world and an excellent amount of variety and depth in the surroundings. On the other hand, there’s some minor draw-in at further distances that’s noticeable on occasion, and in death, enemies still look a little awkward. These aren’t game breaking issues by any means and it’s still pretty funny to strike an enemy down and goof around with their body, so there’s that. Aurally, the game music is the now-expected orchestral score that, in this case at least, is highly fitting for the experience. The music is well composed and fits the fantasy theme of the experience nicely, giving added flair to your encounters and explorations. The voice acting is generally rather solid as well, and while some voices for generic NPC’s repeat a bit, the voice talent in the game is overall generally very good at their job and enjoyable to listen to. The sound effects are a good mix of fantastic special effect sounds and steel-on-steel/flesh combat that makes for an excellent backdrop for your battles and, overall, shows a good attention to detail, as one might expect.
Mechanically, Skyrim feels somewhat like Oblivion, but while the basic mechanics feel similar, the more in-depth mechanics are a good bit more advanced. The core gameplay is pretty much standard when compared to other games of this type in Bethesda’s library: the left stick moves, the right stick looks around, A is your default interact button, Y jumps, X readies or holsters weapons, and the left and right triggers use the weapons, shields or spells in hand as needed. You can also press in the left stick to crouch and sneak, press in the right stick to swap between first and third person views, press the left bumper to sprint, and press the right bumper to use your dragon shouts once you have them. For management, B brings up the Character Menu, from which you can check your gear, look over the map and more, as needed, while Back allows you to set an amount of time to wait around and Start brings up the journal for setting missions to take on. You can also set various items as Favorites and Quick Key items that you can pull out using up and down or left and right on the D-Pad, respectively; the former is a list of useful stuff while the latter acts as instant selection hotkeys. The game is pretty good about teaching you how all of this works, and you’ll have most of it down pat from the get-go if you’ve played Oblivion or, to a lesser extent, Fallout 3, so fans of those games should be able to jump in without too much hassle.
Now, Skyrim does change things up in some useful and interesting ways, and there is no more interesting a change to the experience than that of Shouts. Basically, you’ll learn a Word of Power fairly early on in your adventure and, once you have a dragon soul to power it, will in turn be able to use the word with the right bumper. Words of Power come in groups of three, actually, but you’ll often only find one at a time. When you find a word, it will be added to your list of known words, but you can’t actually use it until you power it with a dragon soul, which, SURPRISE, you get from killing a dragon and going Shang Tsung on its recently expired posterior. Powered words can then be equipped and used with a press of the right bumper, allowing you to breathe fire, lighting and ice, run extremely fast, become ethereal, knock back foes and more, depending on the word series used. There are a total of three words in any given Shout, and each time you find a new word you’ll in turn make the Shout more powerful, allowing it to be used more effectively or to add additional effects to the Shout, depending on the actual Shout you use. Shouts do have a cool-down period, however, so you can’t just spam them against enemies and hope for the best, but you can use them to help turn the tide of battle as needed when magic and weapons simply aren’t enough to get the job done.
The character leveling system has also seen an overhaul, taking elements of Morrowind and Oblivion along with new elements to make for a system that is both familiar and unique. Basically, whenever you do various different things enough, that particular talent levels up, and leveling up talents enough will, in turn, grant you an overall character level increase. Each overall level increase allows you to then gaze to the heavens and look over the constellations that represent the different schools of skill you can upgrade, including armor crafting, alchemy, destruction and restoration magics, and of course, the old-fashioned making-things-stop-living-with-your-weapons schools of one and two handed weapons, among many others. Each constellation has stars that allow you to put points into different bonuses that come from these schools, though you have to be at the particular level the star requires to buy the bonus in the first place, so you’ll need to keep training at the schools to buy the stats, which creates a nice chain of events to get your levels increased. Overall levels can be raised by simply increasing your levels in any school, so if you’re looking for a point in a hurry you can always go practice schools you’re not very good in or buy training to level up with no effort (at a cost, obviously). Enemies do still scale with your level though, making such leveling up problematic if your combat skills aren’t up to snuff. The game also rewards variety because of how much faster it can be to level up multiple schools instead of focusing on one, meaning it can be faster to switch between magics, one handed and two handed weapons instead of simply focusing on one type of combat if you want to level up, allowing you to experiment and earn rewards for doing so.
The remainder of the game retains a lot of the standard, “walk/ride a horse to a destination, uncovering new locations along the way that you can explore now or later”Â concepts that make these sorts of games so enjoyable, though the game does change up a few minor things as well here and there for added freshness. There’s a good amount of things to do outside of the main game, obviously, including a massive amount of sidequests and several different crafting options for making potions, armor and weapons, among other things. Spells now allow you to dual-wield and combine like spells for more powerful versions of the original spell as needed. The conversation mechanics have also been changed, so you don’t have to play mini-games or use weird mechanics to converse, you need only select an option from a list and succeed or fail, as the case merits, you’re your skills come into play. You can spend your time impressing local lords and ladies to be able to buy property in the different cities, complete with furniture packs you can acquire, and if you’re so inclined you can recruit allies to aid you in battle, marry NPC’s, cook food, steal things and more. There are literally an astronomical amount of things to see, do and collect in Skyrim, to a level that puts many similar open world games to shame, and you could spend weeks playing the game and never bother completing the campaign if you’re so inclined because there’s enough to do to support this and the game is totally okay with letting you do whatever the hell you want, more or less.
You can basically plow through the campaign in around fifteen to twenty hours if that’s something you’re specifically interested in doing, and the campaign does give you a pretty good introduction to the basic elements of the game, so it’s not a bad place to start if you’re so inclined. However, completing the campaign is so miniscule a part of the experience that it feels like a drop in the metaphorical bucket when compared to the remainder of the game, as there’s so much you can do with the game that it’s daunting upon consideration. You can spend hours just creating powerful potions and outstanding armor, hunting around the game world looking for dragon words, diving down into ruins and caves, and finding all sorts of weird things that make no sense in context for hours until you discover whatever it is that’s supposed to go with said thing you discovered in the first place. You can become the leader of guilds, a slayer of demons, a master mage or a person who picks up every book they find just to make sure all of their houses have fully lined bookshelves, whatever floats your boat. There are Achievements to earn that will likely take you fifty or so hours to fully complete, of course, but the fact that the content the game has to offer extends so far beyond the Achievements that simply playing the entire game will unlock them and still leave you with more to do is the game’s single biggest selling point, above and beyond anything else, and for those who demand content in their games, Skyrim easily fits the bill.
Having said that, however, as with many other games in this style from Bethesda, Skyrim is broken out of the box. Now, in fairness, the game lacks any of the truly game breaking bugs that Fallout: New Vegas contained, but it’s still entirely possible to get stuck in the environment with no means of escape, the game still has issues when the cache becomes too full of dead enemies and random item drops that can cause slowdown, and the game hardlocked for me three times while fast travelling. NONE of that includes all the bugs others have reported. The problem is that the bug fixes which have been pushed down haven’t resolved many of the problems. After a month of waiting for something that might come along and resolve some of the more significant issues the game presents, with nothing in sight, it’s likely that said patches simply aren’t coming any time soon. None of the bugs encountered at this time are truly game ending, and even the hard crash bugs often feature auto saves beforehand so the progress lost is often minimal, but the issues are there all the same. The game also has some issues with targeting, as you’ll discover when you attempt to pick up a legal item and accidentally steal something, and the hotkey and favorite systems aren’t terribly user friendly or well implemented. Oh, and while it’s nice that the NPC’s all have some sort of personality to them, THEY DO NOT NEED TO SHOUT THEIR LIFE STORY AT ME AS I PASS. It’s fine if the guard wants to say that he took an arrow in the knee that ruined his adventuring days, even if the community has turned that into a ridiculous meme, but no one needs to hear about why you spend hours in the shop, kid. Nobody cares, and nobody behaves like this, ever. A simple, “Hi!”Â or a grunt or something from NPC’s that allow you to talk to them is sufficient; Skyrim acts like the NPC’s you meet have something interesting or relevant to say (they don’t), even when you can’t do anything with the NPC anyway, and it’s just weird.
So, in short: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is most certainly an excellent piece of work overall, but thanks to some odd design choices and significant (if not game-breaking) bugs that, as of now, still have not been satisfactorily resolved, it fails to live up to the hype and makes a classic game somewhat less so in the deal. Granted, if you miss out on the issues, there’s a lot to love about the game, between its strong storytelling and artistically and technically interesting visuals and audio. The game is pretty easy to pick up and play as well, and enough changes have been made to the game mechanically to make it something different from its predecessors while still allowing for the familiarity that will keep fans happy. There’s so much sheer depth to the game, also, that it’s easily recommended on the sheer volume of content it offers, and if the game were structurally sound beyond that, it’d be an easily recommended experience, bar none. However, the game features various possible glitches that are frustrating and annoying, and while none are game breaking, they’re no less problematic even a month after the fact. Further, there are still some targeting issues when attempting to grab items that can cause issues, and the NPC behavior can be off-putting the tenth time you’ve heard someone’s life story when you never asked. If you can avoid the bugs and ignore the overly friendly and chatty NPC’s, Skyrim does make some significant improvements over its predecessors and is easily the most in-depth game released this year, but you may want to wait another month or so until all the kinks are ironed out.
The Scores: Story: GREAT
FINAL SCORE: VERY GOOD GAME.
Short Attention Span Summary:
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is clearly a labor of love for Bethesda, as the sheer attention to detail and volume of options available to the player show, but for all of the details and depth the game offers, it misses the forest for the trees in some respects. The game is aesthetically pleasing, thanks to a solid narrative and excellent visual and aural presentation. The game is solid mechanically, with usable controls and a strong amount of customization and depth offered to the player in how their character can develop and act, and the sheer volume of content offered is amazing no matter how you look at it, making a strong argument to keep the player coming back for weeks, at the very least. However, the game suffers from some significant bugs even a month after release and will likely continue to be weighed down by them for a while to come, and some minor mechanical wonkiness and weird NPC over-friendliness makes for an odd experience even beyond game crashes and slowdown. Skyrim is easily recommended for those who can tolerate the bugs and see the expertly crafted game beyond, but for many, it’s a game you may want to wait a month or two before picking up.
Mark B. is the Senior Editor at Diehard GameFAN, mostly because he’s been on staff for a decade. He has previously written for 411Games, InsidePulse Games, Not a True Ending, Retrograding and Beyond the Threshold, and he maintains multiple infrequent columns, as well as a Hitbox stream on Saturdays. You can check out his archives and non-game related work over at markbwriting.com, and follow him on Twitter at MarkBWriting or Facebook at MarkBWriting. (Special thanks to J. Rose for the artwork.)