Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Review

Posted on November 22, 2011 by

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As with the game itself, I find myself having difficulty working out what I’m supposed to do here. Elder Scrolls games have always confused me. I’m inspired by the sheer, massive scale of the thing, but the freedom and openness cause me to freeze up, dead in my tracks. I don’t know what to do. Part of me wants to do everything, which is patently ridiculous, especially now that the newest installment in the series, Skyrim, should theoretically last forever with it’s random quest generation. Another part of me wants to take this stuff seriously, and roleplay, which I think is the best way to keep me on track in this sort of game, but this method basically consists of deliberately denying myself content because it would be out of character for, say, my massive muscled Nord Warrior Albrikt Arluffson to go join the Mages college, what with magic being for ponces, in as much as it would be be out of character for my Imperial Mage Ariadne to go join the melee-oriented Companions (fighters) guild.

And I think that this is perhaps a route that has been taken by many other players as well, but is one which is alien to me. I’m used to essentially picking up a game and just throwing myself at it and playing. Even most RPGs that I love, while offering deep character creation and branching storylines, still tend to stick to the linear straight and narrow. This is why a lot of the mythology from Skyrim hasn’t come from the game itself as standard, but from players, telling stories of their quests, adventures, strange happenings and mighty battles. There are some things that make us all the same, though. We all enter Skyrim the same way, as prisoners, doomed to die for reasons unknown, rolled out for a quick and quiet execution by the Empire because we happened to be crossing the border into Skyrim at the same time and same place as a bunch of rebels (The Stormcloaks) were ambushed and captured. We all escaped this fate by a few mere moments when the town we are in is attacked by a dragon, something that hasn’t even been seen in Skyrim for centuries, and we all made our way into the world knowing one simple thing- Dragons are back, and it’s bad news for everyone. Where you go from there is up to you, although if you’re just starting out, avoid Giants at all costs. Their favourite game is adventurer-ball, and they can kick you into the upper atmosphere. I’m not even kidding.

From the moment you escape, your entire Skyrim experience becomes tailored to you, but in a very subtle and insidious way. Without even paying much attention in those opening minutes, you may for example have decided who’s side your on regarding the Empire/Rebellion situation, you’ll have decided what sort of tactics and weapons you like, and you’ll have received your first hints into a storyline even deeper and grander than the petty squabbles of mere men.

Some people, like myself, find that kind of freedom and raw potential crippling. The curl up into the fetal position and just pray for a linear storyline to rescue them, and so the only way really to play the game is to impose rules on yourself, and to genuinely craft a character who is just as human (or whichever of the dozen races you choose from) as you are, which has this strange effect of grounding you in the world and forcing you to think about your next move a lot more than the simple act of wandering aimlessly to play the game would.

And this is what the game does to me, and many other people. Six hundred words into my review and I haven’t said one word about the quality of the game, just what I need to put myself through to be able to play it. So let’s take a minute to actually examine some stuff. Graphically, it’s gorgeous- on the right system, anyway. Thing is, it looks pretty good on the PS3, it’s not that girl at the club you’d try to avoid and spend the night trapped in the men’s room as a result, but when you compare how it looks running on the PS3 to the Xbox 360, it’s not a pleasant sight. More disheartening still is how astonishing it looks on the PC, with the graphics maxed out. And here’s the thing- the game is so well optimised on the PC that you can run high level graphics on a mediocre PC without any issues. So I guess, if you can, get it on the PC. But do play it with an Xbox controller if you do, because I will be honest, the controls were made with gamepad in mind.

You are the Dovahkin, or Dragonborn, the last of a race of men descended from Dragons and humans (don’t ask), which means you have ‘shouts’, basically words of dragon-speak you can yell which have various effects, such as simply blowing your foes away, breathing fire, slowing time, or my personal favourite, summoning a massive storm, which is useful for grounding flying dragons. It’s up to you to find out what’s up with all these darned flying lizards, and put a stop to it if you can.

The sound is good, with a stirring soundtrack, and enthusiastic, and more importantly, varied voice acting, a serious step up from Oblivion’s five voice actors (presumably a result of blowing the acting budget of Patrick Stewart and Sean Bean). Unfortunately, something that really hasn’t moved on from Oblivion is character animation, which seems to be identical, as if the staff literally copy/pasted the code from Oblivion. While the game is primarily meant to be a first person game, you can play in third person at the press of a button and the jerky, awkward movement becomes really apparent, especially when climbing and you see yourself with one leg clipped into the ground itself, when games like Grand Theft Auto 4 had character animations down to a terrifyingly realistic level way back in 2008. Another issue that comes as part of the way the game runs on PS3 is that if you play the game long enough to accumulate a save file over 5mbs in size, it causes the game to lag horrendously.

Character design in improved somewhat, so at least character faces don’t like like melted balls of wax, and Bethesda seem to be very proud of its selection of ‘over 50 beards’, most of which are the same three beards over and over, and all of which are literally just solid things that glue to your characters chin, in much the same way as the hair options are basically crafted lumps of obsidian made up to look like hair, being worn by the people’s of Skyrim as hats as part of some sort of elaborate deception to hide the wide-spread pattern baldness that seems to afflict the proud nation.

So essentially, if you played Oblivion, you’ll know how Skyrim plays. It’s basically the same game but better looking and with some more fun mechanics. For example, the tedious Oblvion gates have been replaced with Dragon encounters, although once you work out the patterns for battling dragons they also become routine. It’s less about charging in with your sword or axe of other bladed implement of choice and more about hiding behind a rock with a bow and arrows and taking pot shots while the thing flies around, and then waiting for it to land, flame at you, pause in confusion as to why this huge boulder has protected you, and then you rush out and whack it on the bonce with whichever ice-imbued weapons you own to slow it down and let you bonk it to death. I would have loved it if you could actually slice their heads off, but that isn’t an option. Yet. Get on it Bethesda.

Skyrim is a good game, but for some people there will simply be too much of it, especially in a world where the majority of people who buy games don’t even finish them, Skyrim transforms from a simple open-world game experience into a lifetimes work arm in arm with the person you created. It will create more and original stories than any linear game like Uncharted, and when it works it works very well, immersing you in this far off land. Skyrim is at least worth a rental for everybody just to see if it’s your cup of tea, but well, if you played Oblivion and loved it, you’re pretty much going to buy this anyway. Chances are you already have.

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Posted in: Games, Review