Quick Take: Jon doles out his first perfect score to the Oblivion sequel.
I was kind of late to the party. Even as The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim swoops into stores, I’d known about The Elder Scrolls series for years, dating back to the PC versions of Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall and The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. I just never played them. When I first got my Xbox 360, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion was one of the games that I had flagged to pick up and play. I just never got around to it until last fall.
From the opening quest to escape from a jail cell, to the first time going through an Oblivion gate, I was hopelessly hooked. I just couldn’t believe that somebody had made such an amazing first person role playing game. It was fluid, it was pretty, it was well acted, and it was fun. Yeah, I know, like I said, I was late to the party.
Flash forward to this fall. After a public announcement at the 2010 Video Game Awards, and then a gripping, year-long wait, the fifth chapter of The Elder Scrolls saga, which I’ll refer to as simply Skyrim, has finally been released. With the promise of a new story (set a two hundred years after the events in Oblivion), and, of course, the well publicized inclusion of Dragons, Bethesda Game Studios had a lot to live up to, and to deliver.
And deliver they did.
Skyrim is as much a game as it is an experience. Yes, it can be played through in ten hours or less to complete the main story. Or, you can talk to every citizen, take up their quests, buy property, get married, learn to forge weapons and armor, or craft alchemy from ingredients you find along your four hundred hour journey. Or you can play a hybrid of the two, or create your own experience; any way you play it, it’s a win/win scenario.
The story centers around you, a character with no past, who comes to learn that you are “Dragonborn,” meaning dragon blood runs in your veins. Because of that, you can absorb the souls of defeated dragons, and “shout” in their sacred and powerful dragon tongues. And – as in all great fantasy stories – your coming was foretold.
There is also a civil war raging, and both factions are fighting for your allegiance. And there is a mystery as to why the dragons are back in Tamriel, centuries after their extinction. And there is trouble in every castle, town, and hold that seemingly only you can resolve. As I alluded to previously, there is a ton of stuff to do.
Skyrim excels most when it is telling the main story. It is spread over multiple chapters and divided into three acts, and even though you can spend hours hunting bears, or clearing out bandit camps, you can always pick the main story back up with a simple menu interface.
You start the epic story by creating your character from scratch. There are ten races to choose from, both male and female, each with its own perks and progression path. You create a name, and even customize your look, and before you know it, you are in a village being attacked from above by a flying black dragon.
As the game goes on, you arm yourself with weapons and armor, and the choices you make start to affect your character. Carrying and using a one-handed sword builds up that skill level, but your skill with a two-handed weapon will never grow until you use it. And of course, you can go on to master higher levels on all three (archery is the other weapon skill), if you have the time and desire.
The same rules apply for armor, and magic skills. It’s best to balance all your skills if you want to breeze through the game, but you can choose to focus on one of two aspects and raise them as you see fit.
There are a total of 18 skills to learn, including smithing, alchemy, lockpicking, and even speech, which a master of can use to get better deals at the shops, or persuade people to do your bidding.
As your character journeys through the game, you not only get stronger with each encounter, including a leveling system that allows you to increase one of three stats (Magicka, Health, or Stamina), but you can also open up the world of Skyrim as you discover hundreds of locations on your map. This can mean a simple mine full of orcs, or a farmhouse acting as headquarters to a coven of black mages. Either way, there are always places to find and there is work for an adventuring Dragonborn.
The richer history of Tamriel, and of Skyrim and the other provinces, is learned through books found on your journey, or through conversation with certain folks. For the student-type player, there can be hundreds of years of history to learn as you progress through the game.
The graphics in Skyrim are gorgeous. There are breathtaking vistas on top of the Throat of the World that will force you to pause and take in, and a trek through the western swamps will have you looking at the muck for creatures that would do you harm. And the snowfall effect looks great in HD, especially while fighting a dragon. The art is crisp and detailed, and Bethesda’s artists, using a graphics engine built for this game, should be commended for creating such lovely sights as vast as these.
There are issues with frame rates dropping, and textures popping in and out, and seemingly, this seems to get worse as the game progresses, but Bethesda has already announced a patch to be released shortly after launch that will help rectify some of the problems. To be completely honest, I can overlook some of these issues, as everything else in the game is cooking with gas, and I am assured that the developer team is working on fixes, using the many updates that Oblivion and Fallout 3 both had in their life cycles as examples.
When it comes to audio, Skyrim keeps pushing the boundaries of excellence. The ambient sound effects are amazing, and the music score is powerful. The first time I heard the Grey Beards shout down from High Hrothgar and call for Dovahkiin (don’t worry, it’s explained in the game), I actually jumped and went on the defensive, sword at the ready. It’s powerful stuff, indeed.
The general voice acting, while commendable, is sometimes laughable. Bethesda tried to implement a Nordic accent, so most folks sound like Goldmember from the third Austin Powers film. Actually, this makes me smile when I play, so I don’t count it against the game.
The main non-player characters (NPCs) of Skyrim are portrayed by well-respected actors such as Max Von Sydow, Christopher Plummer, Joan Allen and Michael Hogan (from Battlestar Galactica fame), and their performances, as expected, are top notch.
Skyrim is a game that can be perpetual, if you so choose it. There is always something to do, and Bethesda has said that you can play for well over 400 hours and still not “do it all.” Also, using Oblivion as a template, expect two to three expansions in the Skyrim life cycle.
As a fan of Oblivion, I still was not prepared for how in-depth and vast Skyrim would be, or how deeply I would fall in love with it. I’m not completely obsessed, as well, this review didn’t write itself, but I do find myself yearning to hunt dragons when I’m doing other things, like eating, showering, or sleeping.
Skyrim is easily one of the best video games I have ever played. It is easy to lose HOURS just doing meaningless tasks, but in the end, your character comes out stronger because of it. Games should be fun to play and engrossing, and Skyrim is both… in spades. I may have been late to the party, but I don’t plan to leave anytime soon.
Shop for The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim on Xbox 360, Playstation 3 or the PC for a discounted price at Amazon.com (November 11, 2011 release date).