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Review – The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (360)

It can’t be that good, right?

The Elder Scrolls is a series that I hold in very high regard. Morrowind, despite its flaws, stands as one of my favorite games ever and Oblivion, while it may not have especially aged well, was a revolutionary title for its time. So when a new game comes out, it’s a very big deal for me and always rightfully so. As a fan, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim was probably my most anticipated release of the year. As a writer, however, I’ve been dreading it.

The way these games are designed, and the way I tend to play them, means I don’t really know how to review it like I would review anything else. It’s a series that is so packed with content that I’ll often find myself sitting down to do one quest, and end up finding six more things to do on the way. Before I know it, I’m absolutely absorbed in the world.

So I’ll just let you know right away that I haven’t finished the game, and I don’t plan to any time soon. To try and rush it would be to go against the very thing that makes the Elder Scrolls games what they are. This review is based off the countless hours I’ve put into it already, with still half a map of content to explore. With that said, let’s begin.

Skyrim starts you out no differently than the other Elder Scrolls games. Once again you find yourself in Imperial custody, except this time you’re heading directly for the chopping block. It’s a shame, too. After all, at this point you’re just getting to meet yourself through the game’s character creator, which may just be the best character creator in any game I’ve ever played.

It may not seem like a big deal, but I struggle to really think of a time I was able to make a character who didn’t look kind of goofy in a game. This is fine for something like Saint’s Row, or other games that embrace that sort of over-the-top style, but in an epic RPG, it’s a little frustrating. Skyrim successfully solves all of that for me. The creator is very simple to work with. Starting from any one of the well-designed presets and adjusting them where you see fit, and eventually moving on to details (warpaint, scars, beards etc), you’ll easily end up with a character you’ll want to journey through this world with. Of course, there’s also still plenty of room to go crazy if that’s your thing, but even this early in the game I had personally felt the need to take this a little seriously, even if it’s just because I saw an executioner sharpening his blade to my left.

The Elder Scrolls games often try to leave you with the feeling that you’re an outsider, and I like to embrace this by usually playing an Argonian. After all, what stands out more than a lizard in the mountains during winter?

From there, I’m now left to stare down an executioner but, of course, I quickly learn that there are much more powerful forces in Skyrim than just the Imperials. While a certain expected guest creates havoc, I suddenly finding myself making an escape, head-attached. This whole opening sequence won’t really get you on the edge of your seat, but it does introduce you to some basic mechanics of the game and it really just serves as the games way of spitting you out into the world.

After all that unpleasantness, I did exactly what you would expect in any Elder Scrolls game. I traveled to a few nearby towns, mostly doing just enough of the main quest so as to shrug off some unnecessary sense of urgency, and then proceeded to explore the land in my own way (AKA screw around).

That’s not to say that the main story isn’t a fascinating tale in its own right. With political turmoil plaguing the land, combined with the looming fear of an imminent dragon attack, Skyrim makes for a good, and surprisingly tense setting. There’s also a lot of interesting ideas being played with like the idea that, for a dragon, a fight to the death and a heated debate are one in the same. This essentially explains your character’s powers through “The Voice”, and puts you at center stage again unlike Oblivion‘s approach. The idea of improving and adding to your “Shouts” serves as pretty good motivation on its own, but the main story being told here is one worth hearing, even if a lot of that credit goes to the setting.

Honestly, the main quest serves as a great path to follow if you find yourself feeling directionless, but the best moments of Skyrim will come when you take the many opportunities to divert from this path and really see the world Bethesda has made here.

I’ve found plenty of interesting side quests to keep myself busy, but I also take any opportunity to explore any nearby cave or ruin I may come across. That sentence alone is something that I haven’t been able to say for awhile, and it feels damn good for a game to bring out the explorer in me again.

It really is a credit to how well the dungeons are made in this game. While you will see a lot of streams and waterfalls, there’s plenty of interesting variation in how each dungeon is laid out, and more importantly, each dungeon I’ve been to seemed to have its own, unique story, many times closing with a very intense fight. I’m sure there was some direct quest-lines that could have brought me to these places, but the mystery alone was enough to get me to move forward, and that’s saying a lot.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that the game would just let me run in and swat everything away like Oblivion did. The fights in Skyrim can get really challenging and may require a few retries from the last save (fortunately, load times weren’t too terrible even with the game uninstalled on my machine). I’ve been getting my share of trouble from dragons, trolls, bears, and really anything that came at me in a group. It won’t be as difficult as something like Dark Souls, but the game’s combat does require you to take a more careful approach and it definitely makes fights more interesting than they’ve ever been before.

While there is still a clumsy sort of feeling with each slash, not to mention very few ways to adequately defend yourself (especially if you’re dual-wielding), Syrim‘s combat does take some huge steps forward and is definitely the best in the series. Assigning weapons and spells to each hand is a very useful addition, but it really just represents the best thing which is just how many options you have. With the very natural type of progression that comes from Skyrim‘s skills and perks system, you really do develop your own playstyle and start to learn how to apply your strengths to each situation. Whether you like to go in swinging, wielding the game’s magic, waiting for a critical hit from the shadows, or more likely using a combination of the three.

You’ll most likely come up with more than one preferred loadout, and the game let’s you quickly get to the weapons and spells you’ll want to equip through the easily-navigated “Favorites” list. In fact, all the game menus look very slick and clean and, for as often as you use them in RPGs, it’s nice to finally get a layout that doesn’t feel like such a chore to go through.

I could on about the gameplay, really. How smithing is no longer about repairing equipment, but rather improving it, or how enchanting and alchemy tables make those aspects a lot more approachable. Even talking to people in this game feels more natural than it ever has before, and also feels a little more specific to your character, as NPCs will reference your race and even occasionally bring up events you’ve been involved in.

But what really stays with me about Skyrim is honestly something I’ll never be able to fully convey to you. The world just feels more alive┬áthan any game I’ve ever played before. On my horse, riding to a destination that feels so far away, I see all sorts of wildlife running across the road or grazing in some patch of grass not touched by snow. I hear the calming sounds of river trickling past rock. I’m tense from the battles I’ve experienced so far, and nervous about potential ones could await me just down the road. Still, I’m bold enough to continue, or I’m far too fascinated to turn back.

I don’t know if Skyrim is going to change any minds on the series, necessarily (although, if any game could do that, it would be this one), but it does raise the bar for the genre in a big way.

Of course, it’s not the perfect game. While there are plenty of interesting NPCs, a lot of them can feel kind of lifeless as well. As a Bethesda game, you’re also going to have your share of bugs and glitches, though I personally have had very few instances of this and nothing I experienced was at all game-breaking. You’ll also find plenty of technical absurdities that you can’t help but laugh at. Like when some random, dumb NPC talks to you in the middle of some dramatic dialogue, or when my first horse killed a dragon almost entirely on its own. Those moments can be charming in their own way, but they are absolutely ridiculous.

None of that matters to me, though, and it shouldn’t matter to you. There’s no game out there that’s on the level of Skyrim right now. Sure there are other large, open world RPGs, but none of them successfully juggle polish, accessibility, and depth nearly as well. The big gameplay additions take the series in a positive direction, and the little improvements feel more impressive as they provide you with the smoothest experience you can get in an RPG like this.

Once again, Bethesda hasn’t disappointed here. The game is amazing, and more importantly it moves things forward.

Posted in by Ben Matlock on November 18, 2011