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Wednesday
Dec072011

Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Review

(This review has come from playing the game on the Xbox 360. I do not know first hand about the different control options or graphical advantages playing the PC or PS3 versions may have on the overall experience of the game)

 

 

98 hours I've played Skyrim. 98 hours I've traversed the picturesque Northernmost Province of Tamriel, saving 177 times and completing more quests, side-quests and miscellaneous quests than I dare to count. I've slain many a dragon, fought off many a reanimated corpse and bribed more than my fair share of seedy characters; I've toppled regimes, sieged cities and brought giants to their knees; I've been to the top of the highest mountain, explored sunken ships on the ocean's depths and delved into the minds (literally) of more than one doomed soul; I've seen men go insane before my very eyes, I've changed the weather just by shouting and sometimes,
sometimes... I just sit back and watch the Salmon jump upstream, Such is the life of the Dragonborn.

 

Chances are that you already know what Skyrim is about, but for those that don't, Skyrim is the 5th in Bethesda's extremely highly regarded Elder Scrolls series: A collection of epic RPGs that basically spawned their own genre of open-world adventure games. The games centre around the continent of Tamriel, with each game in the series taking place in a different Province of the country. As you can imagine, a province of a continent is pretty massive, and the size of the environments is one of the defining features of the series. Skyrim itself features a map containing 9 different counties or “Holds”, and each Hold containing a city and numerous small villages, farms, caves and ruins, each one fully explorable. It's completely up to you if you want to help out the inhabitants, do the main story quest, or even just murder everybody in town and plunder their possessions. The level of player freedom is the main staple of the Elder Scrolls franchise, and never has this been as evident as it is in Skyrim.

 

The gameplay is similar to the previous Elder Scrolls game 'Oblivion', in that you can choose exactly the way you want to do everything. Want to fight with a sword and shield? Go for it! 2 swords? Hell yeah! Magic in one hand, axe in another? You betcha! Axe and a mace?.... You get the idea. The freedom to fight enemies in literally any way you see fit isn't exactly new, but it feels fresh and exciting, helped in no small part by the ability to favourite certain spells, weapons and even bits of armour. Mid battle, with the touch of a button you can freeze the action and go from double magic to a two-handed axe, a bow and arrows, or even just fists within a matter of seconds. The system helps encourage creative and varied combat, by making it just so damn easy! Combat is (finally!) fun in an Elder Scrolls game! And I love it.

 

Another thing this game shares in common with Oblivion is the sheer number of activities you can be doing at any one time. There are separate categories for a number of things, from Sneaking, to Smithing, to Alchemy, to Pickpocketing. You level the categories up by, ingeniously, performing the thing you want to level up. This system isn't like other RPGs, where you level up by killing enough enemies then spend points on specific categories to get them higher, if you want to make better armour whilst you're Smithing, then hey, do more Smithing and level it up! Every skill you level up contributes towards your character's level increasing, so it's entirely possible to level up your Dragonborn without killing anything, something no other game really has the balls to give you the option to do.

 

Upon levelling up you're treated to a major change to the series, and one clearly borrowed from the last 2 entries into Bethesda's other popular series 'Fallout'. Every time you level up you can choose to either increase your Health, Stamina or Magicka by 10 points, then you get to unlock a perk. Perks can do anything from increasing your damage output, to making magic spells cost less Magicka, to making your lockpicks never break. A higher level in a skill will net you the ability to buy a better perk for said skill, for example, you can't get the perk that allows you to behead enemies with one-handed weapons until you are over level 50 with one-handed weapons. This new system really lets you power yourself up, whilst also giving you heaps more options when you level. Perks can be saved up for later, and there's always the option of saving, assigning a perk, trying it out, then re-loading the save if you don't like it. I found myself misspending a few of my perks, but never felt compelled to re-load a save. All the perks are ultimately useful, and a fantastic improvement over the old levelling system, which felt archaic and ineffectual.

 

The game takes advantage of some other lessons Bethesda has learnt from this generation's Fallout games aswell, with the interface much improved over Oblivion and the conversation system actually feeling like you're chatting to a character, as opposed to Oblivion's conversation system which let you pick topics of conversation, with no real context. The conversation system is much closer to Fallout now, with branching conversations with varying levels of politeness, bluntness and downright aggression. It really helps make the world feel more organic. Try to intimidate a mercenary and he'll laugh in your face, or downright insult somebody asking for your help and watch as they skulk
                                                                 away saddened.

 

Now ofcourse while all these additions and improvements are obviously welcome, they don't mean squat without some context, and thankfully there's a lot going on in the land of Skyrim. 200 years after Oblivion, you enter the world amidst a civil war between the soldiers representing the free peoples of Skyrim, known as the Stormcloaks, and the soldiers of the Imperial Legion wanting to seize control of the province. The leader of the rebellion, Ulfric Stormcloak, is due to be executed before fate interrupts and we find out that Dragons, an ancient tyrannical race, have re-emerged to fuck some shit up. Needless to say the fate of the world rests entirely in your hands, and the game's main quests will take you all over the snow-covered scenery. The basis of your characters world-saving ability is that he has been born with the soul of a dragon, and as such is the only person who can kill a Dragon for good, absorbing their souls and using them to unlock 'Shouts', a new form of power your character can use, which comes in many different flavours. A shout can change the weather, slow down time or even just distract an enemy for a few seconds, they're varied and fun to use and are another great addition. I never once got bored of killing dragons either, finding every dragon encounter epic and fun. I've been hearing a lot of bad things about the game's main quest, but I found it to be interesting and to take you in enough unexpected directions that I never felt bored with it, and even if you do get bored with it, there are literally hundreds of other things you could be doing instead. HUNDREDS!

 

As jam-packed as the world is with shit to do, maybe the thing I love most about the game is just being IN Skyrim. The game's graphics are great, the world is lush and vibrant and packed full of little secrets to discover. Everywhere you turn you're treated to a picturesque view the likes of which you've probably never experienced in a game before, and there's such a massive draw distance you can literally see for miles and miles, not to mention being able to travel anywhere you can see, whether it's the very tippy-top of a mountain or a landmark way off in the distance. Every inch of the gameworld has something to do and something to see. Pick flowers, go hunting, catch Salmon as they jump upstream, admire the Northern Lights or just play hide and seek with the local children, it's all a joy to be a part of, and still after 98 hours brings a smile to my face.

 

98 hours. 98 HOURS!!! 98 hours and 177 saves. 98 hours, 177 saves and just 90% of the game's achievements done. In a month. A month of ONLY playing Skyrim. Skyrim has essentially robbed me of a month of my life, and I don't want it back. It can have it. It earned it. Skyrim is a game that surpasses any expectations, and rewrites what you'll expect from so-called “Triple-A titles” in the future. It lays a fresh groundwork for Bethesda that ensures their next game will be anticipated like no other and, despite the game crashing under it's own weight once or twice (don't worry, it autosaves super often) was an experience I found to be absolutely faultless. Amazing.

 

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