Where do I even begin? The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim is a very, very big game, perhaps the biggest of this year in terms of the actual square footage it covers–also in terms of the expectations that precede it. The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion was one of the earliest games from this generation that showed what our fancy new technology was capable of, but it was lacking in a few key areas though. All Skyrim really has to do, ultimately, is fix those shortfalls and it becomes the perfect open-world RPG game. Right?
Maybe. Skyrim doesn’t fix every one of Oblivion‘s missteps. You’ll still run into a fair amount of (often hilarious) bugs. Your game might crash sometimes. Dialogue doesn’t always make sense in the context of the larger narrative you’ve constructed for your character. Skyrim is very much imperfect. That’s okay though. Oblivion, for all of its imperfections, continues to stand as one of the most engrossing gaming experiences of this generation. Skyrim trumps it. It’s a better game and, more importantly, a more fun game to play. Here’s why.
The most immediately obvious change moving into this new part of the Elder Scrolls universe is how you interact with it. More precisely, how you interact with things in it that you’re going to kill. The left and right triggers control your left and right hands, no matter what you choose to stuff into them. Sword and shield? No problem. Two daggers? Of course. Maybe a flame spell and a healing spell? Or two healing spells? Or a fire & ice elemental combo? Any combination you can think of will work; if it’s a weapon or spell in your inventory, it can be mapped to a trigger.
It’s hard to capture in writing what this does for the game. You feel more in the world during combat encounters. Your sword strikes land heavily and convey a real sense of force. The addition of randomly occurring finishing move cutscenes only adds to that visceral appeal. You’re a nasty force to be reckoned with in Skyrim, and you feel it with every sword swung and every fire bolt thrown.
The other two shoulder buttons are also put to good use. One allows you to sprint, a welcome new feature that predictably drains your stamina bar as you use it. The other is what you map your special powers too. Magic is separate; powers are things like racial abilities and blessings–the sort of things that can be used once per day–and Dragon Shouts, recharging Words of Power that you pick up as you progress through the game’s story.
Tying all of this together is a revamped menu system that responds quickly and is easy to navigate, even as you build up a massive inventory further along into the game. It’s still not perfect; some filters would be nice, and perhaps a “Drop All” option to complement the returning “Take All” option. The biggest saving grace of the new menu system, however, is Favorites.
Mapping various weapons, spells and items to the D-pad is a thing of the past now. Instead, you earmark items in your inventory as “favorites” to add them to a master list that can be called up at any time with a press of the D-pad. From here you can easily map any of your amassed weapons, spells or powers to the left and right triggers by pressing the associated button (you can press any button to map a power to the “Power” button). This list becomes cluttered and somewhat painful to navigate later on in the game, but it’s very useful for ensuring that you never spend too much time away from the action and fiddling in a menu.
On A Quest For Everything, Ever
There was much PR talk in the months leading up to Skyrim‘s release about the new Radiant Story system that’s in place. Not only will this dynamically alter the course of a quest — say, to ensure that you’re sent to a location you haven’t visited yet — it will also feed you a fairly non-stop drip-feed of tasks that fall into the “Miscellaneous” category of your Quests tab. Some of these lead to nothing more than a minor reward. Other open doors into full-blown quest lines. Even if you just follow the threads that the game dangles in front of you, there are tens of hours here to occupy you.
That’s not all, however. Moreso than Oblivion or Morrowind, Skyrim effectively creates an impression that there’s a world that exists around you and without you. It all still functions to stroke the player’s ego — this is a game, and everything is ultimately about you and what you do — but some deft smoke and mirrors work might have you thinking otherwise every now and again. That’s a big step for games to take.
There’s also a very subtle, yet constant, challenge before you, an expectation that you’ll be observant enough of the environment to tease out any number of secrets. One fairly involved “quest” that I discovered never once appeared in Quest Log; I came across an interesting artifact in a cave with a book nearby. That book pointed me to another location in the world where I could find the necessary items for making the artifact in question “work.” I won’t spoil the sequence of events that followed, but it was much more than a quick conversation and an infusion of gold into my coffers in exchange for Successful Quest Completion.
Gamers who have been trained to try to “game” a game like this, say by exploiting the generous save system to see if one response produces a more favorable result in a particular task than another, will find themselves in a constant battle with Skyrim. The game throws a lot at you, and it’s not always clear if what you’re doing or saying is going to have some huge impact at some future point. It feels almost… natural.
The odd thing is, the rhythm in Skyrim overall is almost identical to Oblivion and Morrowind. It doesn’t feel fundamentally different in anyway. It’s just more engaging, and more fun. A lot more. There’s a visual boost of course, but it’s not quite as dramatic as you might think. That’s not to say Skyrim isn’t beautiful; it is, in so many ways, and it’s a more varied landscape than Oblivion‘s Cyrodiil was. But it is also still, undeniably, Elder Scrolls.
Also, There Be Dragons Here
Hey, by the way: Skyrim has dragons. You fight them. By the 50th hour, you’ll have slain more than you can probably keep track of. I wish I could say that your combat encounters feel appropriately epic, but they don’t. Music wells up, nearby people and creatures will join in the fight. Pains were obviously taken to make each fight feel epic. They fall short though.
Maybe it’s because I played more of a ranged character, and ended up peppering most dragons with arrows and fire bolt magic from afar rather than getting up in their faces. In my own game, however, the dragon fights quickly settled into a simple pattern. The combat tactics don’t seem to change much from dragon to dragon, so the fights pretty much boil down to: Watch dragon fly, wait until dragon lands or hovers, deal damage to dragon, rinse and repeat. I had many challenging encounters during my 50 hours (so far) in Skyrim, but none of my dragon fights rank among them.
Don’t get me wrong here. There are dragons in the game, and they’re awesome to behold. The Elder Scrolls universe needs more BIG enemy types, and dragons (also, giants) definitely fit the bill. There’s an expectation with dragons though; they’re intelligent creatures and so between that and their great size/power, I expected a more diverse offering of “types” within that group. It’s not in any way a terrible thing for the game that the dragons all follow the same predictable patterns, it’s just underwhelming, given all the hype.
That’s the trick with Skyrim, the real question we need to be asking here: does it deliver on the hype? Dragon woes aside, it absolutely does. This is every bit the Oblivion sequel fans have been waiting for, a bigger game set in a bigger world. You can still do everything that you did before, and then some. Thank the design of the world for that; the land of Skyrim feels alarmingly real at times.
If you’re coming to the end of this review now and wondering why I left out any talk of the story, know that it’s intentional. There’s a central plot, major sidequests too. There’s a reason all of those dragons are flying around, and it’s one you’re going to get to the bottom of. That’s besides the point though. Like all of the Elder Scrolls games and add-ons since Morrowind, Skyrim‘s succeeds first and foremost for letting you write your own narrative as you play.
Score: 9 out of 10
(This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360 on a copy provided by Bethesda Softworks)