Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim – Review

Release Date: Out Now!
Developer: Bethesda
Publisher: Bethesda
Singleplayer: Yes
Splitscreen: No
Multiplayer: No
PEGI: 18+

Thanks to Bethesda for providing a copy of this game for review.

What little social life I actually did have died on 11/11/11 – the day Skyrim was released into the world. Those who know me can attest to the fact that I retain a special place in my heart for the Elder Scrolls series, especially for Oblivion which ate up hundreds of hours of my life. And so Skyrim has finally arrived after a long and arduous six-year wait. Sure, there’s been other games to slate my thirst and keep me from going mad, but none of them would truly make me happy, none of them could truly lay claim to my heart. But being an ardent lover of the Elder Scrolls series also means that I feel justified in ripping it to pieces and scrutinizing every aspect of it that I played in my near 70-hour time with the game to ensure that this review is completely fair.

Inhabited by the hardy Nords, Skryim is a land that is in direct contrast to the one that captured so many hearts in Oblivion. While Cyrodill was home to lush greenery, idyllic scenery and even unicorns, Skyrim is a cold and formidable land with snow-capped peaks dominating the vistas and a more practical feeling to the cities, towns and villages that are dotted across its landscape. But despite its less than cheery looks, Skyrim is a compelling place to lose yourself in; the vast mountains are just waiting to be climbed, the sprawling plains are filled with animals to hunt (mammoths are a good challenge), dungeons to clear out, castles to fight through and so many side-quests, distractions and stunning vista’s that you may as well just give up your job and resign yourself to the house for the next year or two. To say that Skyrim is a vast game is to say that Spartacus: Blood and Sand would make a good kid’s TV show. Bethesda have promised almost 300-hours of gameplay spanning the main storyline, the various joinable factions, dungeons, side-quests and more, although the game is technically infinite due to randomly generated quests. I, sadly, cannot tell you whether this boldclaim of three hundred hours is true, but I will tell you that even at 70-hours I had barely scratched the surface of what the game had to offer. There were still reams of missions to undertake in my quest-log, and massive amounts of locations on my map that I hadn’t explored.

Yet Skryim is a land split by war as the Imperials try to maintain control while the Stormcloak army, made up of native Nords, fight to throw off Imperial control and take back Skyrim for themselves. As if this wasn’t bad enough, Dragons have returned to Skyrim, swooping through the skies, burning entire villages and generally causing problems. Their reappearance in the world heralds the return of Alduin, the World Eater, whose single-minded goal is to bring about the end of everything. But there is hope; you, the player, are Dragonborn, a warrior who is capable of absorbing the soul of dead dragons and using them to learn powerful Shouts that can do all manner of awesome things, but more on them later. As Dragonborn, then, it’s your mission to try to slay Alduin, a feat which will take you across the plains, over the mountains and even into other planes of existence. The story that forms the backbone of Skyrim is a well written one that weaves the return of Alduin into the chaos of war, yet it ultimately fails on several key points. The first is that there are really no characters that standout in the tale; you’ll meet numerous people throughout your journey, but none of the are particularly memorable, nor will you find yourself caring about them. The second failure is that Bethesda’s deliverance of the story is lacking considerably. There’s never any real sense of urgency to the storyline, nor is there any real flair or cinematic quality to the storytelling , often leaving it feeling rather flat. Despite it being the end of the world nobody really seems that bothered about it, and you never get the sense that this impending doom is actually that bad – sure, they keep talking about it, but it feels like the end of the world is only ever happening in these specific quests, and never during the rest of the time.

But really, the Elder Scrolls games have always been about the stories that the player creates, and Skyrim is no different. As soon as you finish the games intro and tutorial section, you’re let loose upon the world, free to do whatever you want. You can simply ignore the peril that Skyrim faces, choosing to never take on a main story mission, pick a direction and set forth. In Skyrim’s world there are numerous factions and guilds to join, each of which comes with their own unique, and highly enjoyable storyline and set of missions which also serve as a great source of money and unique weapons and armor. You could lead the life of a dark assassin, always hidden by shadow, by joining the deliciously dark and incredibly fun Dark Brotherhood, or perhaps your skill at remaining unseen would serve you better as a thief, in which case joining up with the thieves guild an embarking on a tale of treachery might be destiny. The Mage’s Guild are always looking for those willing to push the boundaries of magic, and the Companions, who hold a dark secret, are always looking for those hand with a blade. Or you could lead the life of a true adventurer, roaming the land in search of treasure and fame. These are just a few of the possibilities that await you in Skyrim, and by your actions, how you play and who you join with you’ll define your own story through Skyrim, and that is perhaps its biggest strength. Many games promise to let you carve your own legend, but Skyrim is one of the few that actually holds true to that promise.

Emphasising the fact that Skyrim is ultimately about player freedom is the heavily reworked levelling system which does away with such petty constraints as ‘classes’ and simply lets you be what you want. In doing so Bethesda have taken the numerous different attributes that most Oblivion players are familair with and chucked them in the bin, leaving just three; magicka, health and stamina. Hardcore fans might find themselves a little annoyed by this pruning, and it does seem rather strange that they’ve removed the likes of strength, but the awesome new skill tree system more than makes up for it. While most RPGs demand that you choose a class that limits you to a certain play style and skill set, Skyrim features a more dynamic system that has no such limitations, favouring natural developement of your character’s skills based on how you play the game. By simply using a skill, you improve it, just as you would in real life. So, if you wanted to become a better smith, a skill which lets you craft your own armour and weapons, all you’d have to do is find the nearest forge and get to work. You’re not limited to set skills either; all of Skyrim’s skills are available from the start, allowing you to learn magic, crafting, swordsmanship, sneaking or whatever you want when you want to learn it. By improving your various skills you’ll level up your character and earn the right to select a band spanking new perk, which have been ripped straight out of Fallout 3, given a swords and sorcery makeover, and thrown into Skyrim. Every one of the skill trees available in the game contain numerous perks, each of which grant the player significant upgrades, such as being able to create Ebony armor, do more damage with your sword or being able to slow down time when aiming with your bow. Compared to slowly increasing loads of meaningless numbers these perks give you an instant boost to your abilities, making levelling up feel like a more rewarding process, always driving you forward so that you can claim that awesome perk you’ve had your eye on. The hardcore out there may moan about this new way of handling player progression, but this new levelling system feels like a massive leap forward, providing an incredibly satisfying way of forming your own unique character within the world, by simply playing the game how you want to, rather than how a predetermined class tells you that you should.

The combat system has also seen plenty of refinements to try to make it a more enjoyable experience, and to a degree Bethesda have succeeded, but they still haven’t quite found a way to reconcile a first person view with melee combat entirely. The biggest change to the combat comes thanks to new ability to dual wield both magic and one-handed weapons, so you can be throwing fireballs with your left hand and cleaving skulls with your right, which is, quite honestly, badass, and according to my private maths immediately makes Skyrim twice as good as it already was. Dual wielding does come at the cost blocking, though, so be prepared to go all out on the offense. When it comes to getting down to the gritty and whaling on enemies with swords, axes and other implements of death the basics are pretty similar to those in Oblivion with the left trigger for blocking and the right for striking. The first person view does make things feel a little hectic and hard to keep track of the enemies, and while it can be frustrating it does add some realism to the whole thing, or you could just switch to third person, you wuss. While it’s a fairly simple system, there’s something incredibly satisfying about the thrust and parry of a fight with a deadly foe.  However, striking your opponent with hammer or blade more often feels as though your simply swinging through the air instead of cleaving through flesh and shattering bones. It’s hardly a game-breaking problem, but it’s certainly disconcerting to smash your foe in the face with a warhammer only to have no discernible effect on them other than their health bar going down a bit. The only time you will get any sense of impact is when you misjudge an attack and hit your opponents raised shield, resulting in the screen shaking and you cursing loudly.

Hitting bad people, the undead, innocent bystanders and inoffensive wildlife with pointy objects (and blunt ones) is all very well, but it’s hardly subtle compared to the mighty art of magic which can allow you to summon up terrifying creatures, raise the dead, conjure weapons and armour or just bathe enemies in flame. Speaking of which it is a little odd to that enemies don’t really react to being set on fire, which can be rather baffling when your desperately trying to burn them alive only to have them hit you in the face with a hammer, yet from gameplay terms it does make sense; if setting them ablaze made them freak out then magic would be just a tad overpowered. it’s still freaky, though. While you can no longer create your very own spells, which is rather disappointing, there’s still a wide variety of magic to play around with, though, and there’s certainly something to be said about playing around with the arcane arts that is incredibly amusing. New magic tricks include wards which can fend of enemy magic attacks, so that you can now have true magical battles, and Runes, which act as booby traps that you cast upon the floor to blow up/electrocute/freeze unwitting idiots. Dual-wielding has also had a major impact on how you play with magic, opening up a wealth of strategic options depending on whether you choose to use magic in both hands, in which case you can combine spells of the same type for some awesome results, such as a ward in the left and fiery death in the other, or whether you prefer to wield magic in one and sword in the other. Otherwise magic remains largely the same as in Oblivion, although spells are no longer learned directly, instead requiring you to purchase a Spell Tome and learn the spell by reading it. Exactly why you have to do this now is never really explained, but then neither is why you can suddenly swing two swords at once when you couldn’t before, so it’s probably best not to question it.

The more devious among you will most likely find your place in the shadows, carefully disposing of those who happen to be in your way and transferring ownership of choice items found in people’s homes. Theres something immensely satisfying about stealthily navigating the many dungeons, cities, forts and other locations of Skyrim, silently going about your business and breaking into enticing chests using the new lockpicking system.. Those of the shadowy nature may be pleased to learn that archery is now a formidable skill in Skyrim, with bows, especially when used in conjunction with a sneak attack for 2x or more damage, able to do some serious damage to health bars. Whereas in Oblivion they often felt useless, they’re now a perfect tool for the assassin or thief. The range of perks available to an archer also help to make this a deadly skill, as does the simple fact that arrows don’t weight anything in your inventory, which, in a game where inventory weight carries great importance, makes bows a valuable asset. And, of course, there’s that lovely warm glow you get from managing to plant an arrow between someones eyes from a considerable distance. it’s just a shame that you can’t fire off two arrows at once, Robin Hood style. For those that prefer to be up close to their victims, the brutal new stealth executions should bring a smile to your twisted and warped face, you sadistic bastard, you. Yet for all the satisfaction that comes from being a sneaky lil’ devil, it can be a little frustrating to see that the rules governing when and how enemies see and hear you haven’t really been cleaned up since Oblivion, nor have some of the odd AI errors. At times it’s possible to be illuminated by a light directly behind you, only to have the guard looking in your direction five feet away fail to register your existence. and yet next time they’ll spot from the other side of the room, despite you being hidden in the shadows. Other rather strange behaviour includes being able to put an arrow into an enemies back, killing him outright, only to have his companion, standing right next to him, either completely ignore his death or suddenly become aware of your exact location.  Luckily these moments don’t occur often enough to hamper the game, but they stay leave you feeling uncertain as to what the actual rules governing stealth are, and that can be irksome.

Outside of the main storyline in the vast world of Skyrim awaits so many distractions, side-quests, and things to do that it can almost be daunting to enter the world for the first time, with only a small arrow to point you in the direction of the main quest line. As mentioned before there several joinable factions within Skyrim’s world, each of which has their own tale to be told and adventures to be had. The four main guilds that you know so well from Oblivion (you do know them, don’t you? right? RIGHT!?) are present and accounted for, albeit with some of them being renamed. The storylines that they offer are considerably shorter than those in Oblivion, but far more enjoyable in both storytelling and the missions themselves. Whether it’s thievery, murder, fighting or playing around with the fabric of the universe there’s a place for you in Skyrim. Likewise the civil war offers plenty of opportunities for those looking to get some bloodshed on the go, eventually allowing you to lead massive attacks on the cities spread across the land. However, the storylines for both sides of the ear are quite weak, with neither of them offering particularly likeable goals and aspirations. Nor does the war seem to be having any real impact on the land, even after the storyline is finished.  Complaints with the civil war aside, the wealth of side-quests that Skyrim offers up on a silver plate is, quite honestly staggering. Wherever you turn there always seems to be another side-quest that leads you off on some adventure that spans the width and breadth of Skyrim, with each of them offering their own little contained stories ranging from the small and simple to the epic. The success of these side-quests can also be attribute to Bethesda’s dungeon designing skills, Unlike Oblivion, which contained generated dungeons, the entire of Skyrim has been hand-crafted, including ever castle, dungeon,  cave and Dwemer location. The result of this is some truly breathtaking dungeon designs that encompass vast waterfalls, underground forests and many more unique designs, including the stunning Blackreach, which you’ll just have to experience for yourself as words can’t do it justice. But these are far from safe locations, often littered with brutal traps, the undead and puzzles to solve, albeit pretty simplistic ones. These hand-crafted dungeons are a joy to explore, loot and fight through, and go a long way to making Skyrim feel like a more immersive gameworld. And there’s just so freaking many of them!

Bethesda have also gone to great lengths to make Skyrim a graphically beautiful game. The world is, quite literally, packed full of stunning vista’s to be found and admired. Some remarkable lighting plays a large part in bringing this world to life, as does some great texturing work. It’s, the amount of detail that has gone into the creation of Skyrim’s world that is more impressive, though, with ever square foot of the world feeling like it has been carefully sculpted to create a compelling world in which to explore, and the wildlife that inhabit it go a long way toward making it for more realistic. From huge wooly mammoths to tiny little rabbits, the world is filled with them, and they all react to each other so that you can be walking through the wilderness only to discover a pack of wolves carefully circling a mammoth in the hopes of bringing it down. Likewise the towns and villages have a far rougher look to them than the more polished structures we saw in Oblivion, though much of the architecture could be favorably compared to Bruma. The interiors are equally detailed, filled with books, tables, chairs, chests, and random clutter that you would expect to find. But when it comes to the animations Skyrim falters somewhat. New animations such as brutal finishing moves add a nice touch to combat, and other animations such as farming, smithing and more do add another level of detail to the gameworld, but these animations still feel rather clumsy. NPCs generally don’t gracefully turn, instead they jerk around and continue on their path, while watching them walk up steps looks funny as hell. It gets worse if you switch to the games third person view, where you’ll realise that your animations often look just as clumsy. But otherwise Skyrim is a fine-looking game, albeit one that does beautiful vistas better than graceful movement.

The AI powering the game does go a small way toward ruining the illusion of a living, breathing world when combined with their rather odd animations. For the most part the AI that controls the poor little NPC’s lives does do a good job of creating a real town, with people wandering around, working the fields, crafting weapons and generally getting on with their daily business. Yet you will notice quite a bit of odd behavior from them, especially when it comes down to Bethesda’s much touted system that actively allows NPC’s to have feelings about you. The theory is that, depending on how you behave, the various NPC’s will like or dislike you, which can stop them giving you quests and more. However, it’s a barely noticeable effect on the world, but at times can suddenly make them behave rather strangely. Kill a shopkeeper, for example, and his assistant that takes over the shop may very well figure out you did it and greet you with such kind words as, ‘I should bash your face in for what you’ve done’, which is a perfectly reasonable stance to take, but simply ask him about the latest rumours around town and he’ll just chat away normally to you. Likewise, ask to buy something from the shop and his hatred seemingly vanishes. Like every other problem in Skyrim, it’s not game breaking and won’t ruin your enjoyment, but it does make the world feel slightly disjointed.  Strangely enough when I tried this experiment again I made absolutely sure to kill the shopkeeper out of sight of everyone, yet his assistant still knew I had committed the crime. This in direct contrast to other times when it’s possible to be standing over a corpse with a bloody sword in a room with only one entrance and a guard outside, yet have the guard utterly perplexed by who could have done it. Really? I’m standing right here. It’s also possible to recruit some NPCs as companions to follow you around and help you out in a fight, which is a fine thing indeed but quickly proves to be a headache as they’ll often block doorways, stopping you from advancing, or just run into the stream of magic fire your unleashing and die in agony. The solution is helpful; do everything by yourself to avoid confusion. The enemy AI is generally just as daft as well. But it’s important to stress that, despite the negativity toward them, the AI does generally do a decent enough job in Skyrim, keeping the world ticking over nicely.

The AI may occasionally leave you feeling mildly confused, but at least they do have more than just a few voice-actors, which was a major complaint aimed at Oblivion. The voice cast of Skyrim, once you get past that highly amusing accent, are a talented bunch, again bringing a better sense of immersion into the game’s world. As you would expect from a game this utterly huge, there’s a few exceptions where you will encounter a character with some sketchy acting, but for the most part play their parts well, though a few moments in the game are rather cringe worthy when they attempt to work their way through a clumsily written piece of dialogue. The rest of the game’s audio is quite exceptional, with a soundtrack that may very well go down in history as one of the best that we’ve heard in agame. There’s beautiful, tranquil music that plays whilst you’re exploring – the type that you could listen to for hours on end. There’s creepy music for when you’re exploring the deepest, darkest parts of Skyrim, carefully navigated the crypts of the dead. And then there’s rousing battle music where what seems like hundreds of voices join in song with drum and strings to create truly epic feeling music that sets the scene perfectly for a dragon fight or epic showdown. Great music speaks to the soul and can never truly be described using mere words, which simply cannot do it justice, and so suffice by saying that it’s a completely entrancing soundtrack that captures the spirit of the game perfectly.

While Skyrim contains many dangers, from the drooling undead, the preying bandits, hunting wolves, deadly spiders, evil Daedric gods and all manner of insane  creatures, it’s the graceful yet terrifying dragons that will have you quaking in your cute little fur boots. These giant beasts dwarf you and everything else in Skyrim, and their roar as they fly overhead will always get the blood pumping. But what makes these huge lizards so terrifying is their random nature; they can attack you at anytime, in almost any place. You see, unlike other games that would control every use of a dragon, Skyrim simply lets them roam the land, content to allow them to do what they wish. Ok, so some rules do govern them, but the dragons themselves are randomly generated and infinite in number, meaning you can never truly feel safe. Few things get the blood pumping as well as the roar of a dragon overhead as you quietly go about your business in town, forcing you to abandon your current pursuit in favour of your blade. The town guard will grimly draw their own weapons and prepare to fight as the townsfolk either do the same or run for cover. Dragon fights are epic occasions, as you would well imagine, and your first few battles with them are some of the most exciting moments of the game. Yet Skyrim almost literally throws dragons in your face; as you progress through the storyline the amount of dragon attacks you’ll face increases, until you begin to fight one or even two every hour or so, and that can somewhat ruin the epic feeling of doing battle with these badass fire-breathers, especially as each fight with them feels pretty familiar, requiring no real changes in tactics to defeat them. Still, even if they do lose their ‘wow’ factor after a while, it’s pretty awesome to go head-on with a dragon.

But risking life and limb to slay these might beasts is certainly worth your time. Slaying one doesn’t save some damsel in distress for you to marry, but does reward you with a dragon soul, absorbed from the dragon as they courtesy of your Dragonborn heritage. The souls of these mighty beasts can be used to unlock the powers of the mysterious Dragon Shouts – powerful abilities that are written on walls around the world in the language of the dragons. These powerful abilities give you access to all sorts of badassery at the touch of a button, allowing you to unleash infernos, summon thunderstorms, become ethereal and much more. In many ways the Dragon Shouts almost feel like a way of giving non-magic focused characters powerful magic-esque abilities. Having said that, though, those who do use magic may not find themselves using the Shouts that often as the various spells at your command can often do the job just as well as the Shouts, although even the mightiest of spellcasters can’t compete with summoning a kickass dragon to fight by your side. In fact, simply going on a quest to learn as many of the shouts that you can, with each of them being upgradable, will take away many hours of your life as the walls on which the words are written are almost always guarded by a dragon or buried in some deep dark dungeon that contains legions of undead that have an unhealthy obsession with making you very, very dead. Travelling the land in search of these hidden walls is the sort of adventure that would make up another games entire storyline, yet in Skyrim is something that you can do only if you feel like it, and that’s without taking into account the fact that many of the dungeons that contain these walls often have stories of their own to be discovered, often distracting you completely from the task at hand.

 Bethesda have also made considerable changes to the menu system, all of which are certainly for the better. It might sound a little odd that I’m going to talk about the menus, but in a game of this scale you’re going to spend a considerable amount of time in the menus checking out stats and equipping new gear. As you wander through the wilderness, slaying random rabbits, fending off bandits and running like hell from dragons, you’re going to accumulate a considerable amount of valuable weapons, awesome armor and absolute tat. To combat this Bethesda have created a far more streamlined menu system which is activated by a simple tap of B and then up on the D-pad your screen tilts up and looks at the heavens, with each skill depicted by a constellation made up of your chosen perks. it’s a slick, easy system that’s easy to navigate. Likewise accessing your magic, shouts, weapons, armor and other assorted junk is nice and slick, and each of them can be added to a quick-access favorite list. However, the menus are prone to freezing for a few seconds when first accessing them, which can be frustrating when you’re in a battle and just want to get backing to hitting a giant spider in the face.

Bethesda have becoming well known for creating games with plenty of glitches and Skyrim is certainly no exception. You’ll find horses that can climb up cliffs, NPC’s that bump into each other, dead bodies that fall through the floor and numerous others that you’ll encounter. The majority are just simple little glitches, worthy of an amused grin or laugh but sometimes there’s the more serious bug that can hinder your progress.There’s also plenty of smaller criticisms that I could level at the game, but they’re small and inconsequential at best. But then, how much did I miss? Considering that 70-hours of gameplay barely scratched the surface, how many awesome little gameplay mechanics and moments did I miss? It boggles the mind, it really does. And then there’s all the things I just couldn’t talk about in detail, like buying your own house, owning your first horse or skydiving off of cliffs using a Dragon Shout, and so much more.

So, there we have it. The horrible truth is that I simply don’t have the words or the skill to truly convey what Skyrim is, or how utterly amazing it is. Even using over 5,000 words in this review, I can’t do. Sure, like its predecessor, Oblivion, it’s rife with glitches and quite a few criticisms, yet it can still boast the score which is proudly displayed at the bottom of this review – a score which I’ve handed out only once before. In a last-ditch effort to explain Skyrim, I’ll leave  you with a metaphor. Skyrim is like a loved one; as you spend time with them and come to know them better, you’ll find more and more flaws, little or otherwise, in them, but you don’t give a damn because you love them. Skyrim is like that; the more time you spend in its world, the more little glitches and faults you find, but you just simply won’t care.

The Good:
+ It’s freaking huge!
+ So much variety in how to play the game.

The Bad:
– Plenty of glitches.
– Some areas still need work.
– Umm…..

The Scores:

Graphics: 9
Skyrim is a beautiful and engrossing land to explore, but the animations need some work.

Sound: 9.5
Despite the music’s occasional love of drowning out the NPCs, it’s one of the best gaming soundtracks around. The voice acting is also pretty good, bar some exceptions.

Story: 8
While the main storyline isn’t handled as well as it should have been, this is ultimately a game about crafting your own story over your hundreds of hours of gameplay, and that story is impossible to give an accurate score.

Gameplay: 10
Sure, there are plenty of small criticisms to be made and glitches to be found, but it’s hard to care when you’re having this much fun.

Lifespan: 10
Say goodbye to your friends, family and loved ones. This is a game with hundreds of hours of gameplay to be experienced. At the very least you can expect near a hundred out of it.

The Verdict: 10
Does this score mean Skyrim is perfect? No, it’s not a perfect game, but it’s such a vast, epic fantasy adventure brimming with things to do, people to meet and places to see that it may very well consume your life. It’s the Game of the Year, and one of the best games we’ve seen in this generation or any other.

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6 replies »

  1. Good review, I don’t agree with your end part about putting up with flaws simply because you love the game, or a person. Finding flaws leads to resentment and that leads to divorce, or wishing you never met the bitch in the first place. :p

    • Hehe, you’re telling me 😀

      At the end of the day I felt the fun of playing Skyrim outweighed the glitches I encountered, but of course not everyone will feel that way.

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