‘The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim’ review

Years later, you can still get lost in ‘The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim’

Six years after its release, Skyrim is still a must-play game.
Six years after its release, Skyrim is still a must-play game.
Six years after its release, Skyrim is still a must-play game.

Highs

  • Massive open world
  • Many amazing stories
  • Tons of abilities and character creation options
  • Dragons!

Lows

  • Noticeable clipping and other bugs

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is a very, very big game, perhaps the biggest in terms of the actual square footage it covers. That’s given it a lasting presence. Today, Skyrim is available not only for its original launch platforms (PC, PlayStation 3, and Xbox 360) but also Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, and VR headsets.

While the game has since released on many new platforms, its core remains the same, warts and all. Some elements of the game feel their age — but Skyrim is a modern classic that’s well worth your time if you’ve somehow missed it.

Taking control

The most obvious enhancement Skyrim brings to 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 to. 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.

Skyrim effectively creates an impression that there’s a world that exists around you and without you.

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.

The-Elder-Scrolls-V-Skyrim-screenshot

That’s not all, however. More so 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.

The land of Skyrim feels alarmingly real at times.

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

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.

Our Take

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, and with the game available on Xbox 360, Xbox One, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, PC, and VR you’re free to write that narrative on your system of choice.

Is there a better alternative?

Skyrim is still a very good time years after launch, but there are also now a large number of open-world action games and RPGs that offer a similar experience. It isn’t a direct analog, but The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild recently took our breath away in the same way Skyrim did.

At the same time, there’s nothing quite like a Bethesda RPG: Few games offer a wide world with such deep immersion. If you want something a little more modern, Bethesda’s latest game, Fallout 4, is great in many of the same ways.

How long will it last?

The primary narrative in Skyrim can take 20-30 hours, but with more than a few sub-campaigns and hundreds of smaller missions scattered across the world, you could spend years playing Skyrim before finding every nook and cranny.

Should you buy it?

Yes. Even in 2017, playing Skyrim feels like going on a fantastic adventure. If you ever feel the urge to fight dragons or scour dungeons for treasure, you’ll have a good time playing it.

This game was originally reviewed on the Xbox 360 on a copy provided by Bethesda Softworks. We’ve since played it, at various times, on all other platforms. 

Update note 12.5.2017 — This review was updated to references to Skyrim on new platforms. The formatting was updated to reflect Digital Trends’ modern style guide, including adding a current purchasing recommendation.

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