Game Reviews

Review: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (360, PS3, PC)

The Great Return

A giant and his mammoth lumber across the enormous tundra encircling the city of Whiterun, a fine mist of rain veiling the bordering foothills. It’s a new sight for me, and a fascinating one. But I’m about to disturb it. I need the gold, after all. The thought of selling reams of hide in the market drives me to do something incredibly stupid. Hidden in bushes, I notch an arrow and fire it right into the tusked beast’s rump. It trumpets, and its twenty-foot tall protector springs to attention, unhooking a huge club from his back. I dare to move forward. I am spotted. Suddenly, another giant appears, and two more mammoths. I sprint towards the safety of Whiterun’s gates, vaulting over rocks and stumbling through streams. Almost there! The ground thunders. Their strides are loud and long. I turn around to face my pursuers, casting an arc of lightning from my hand. It’s no use. The guards on the walls but metres away know it’s no use. Out of breath, I draw my sword, pivot round and slash at the shins of one of the giants. Without so much as a flinch, it swings its enormous mallet at me, batting me into the stratosphere. I am dead. This is the role-playing game The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, and that was but a minuscule sliver of my adventures so far in an epic world, a mere distraction as I wandered off the road, my curiosity piqued by some distant objects.

Anyone seriously following Skyrim’s salivating slew of write-ups, developer diaries, trailers and screenshots since its announcement in December 2010 will have had a hard time not getting caught up in a veritable tsunami of hype. Five and a half years of anticipation in the wake of the success of Oblivion is a daunting (if not impossible) task for any developer to rise to. So, what has Bethesda done, exactly? Let me be clear: Skyrim isn’t “revolutionary”, and it isn’t the leap forward that Morrowind to Oblivion was (and this, I envisage, is mostly down to the problem of primarily developing for consoles with hardware over six or seven years old). That does not, however, make the experience a bad one. In fact, it is the extreme opposite: it is a superb, finely crafted one. Skyrim, though similar to Oblivion, is measurably more polished and streamlined, more handsome, more detailed, more alive and more exciting, with most of its predecessor’s niggling flaws and smudges things of the past.

The world of Tamriel has changed since you last saw it. Set two hundred years after the climactic events of Oblivion, when Emperor Martin Septim sacrificed himself to save the world from a demonic invasion, we journey to the homeland of the Viking-like Nords, Skyrim, where a once-proud empire is crumbling, and foreign and domestic vultures circle to pick flesh from its rotting corpse. A new alliance of elves – the Thalmor – looks to assert its authority over its far-reaching dominions; they have pushed the Imperials to such a brink that the Emperor is little more than a puppet kept on the throne at their behest. In Skyrim, civil war has engulfed every aspect of its geography and society, splitting its people between the cause of the Empire, struggling to maintain its control, and the Stormcloak rebels, fighting for independence under the banner of Ulfric, the alleged murderer of the High King. And, as if it couldn’t get any worse, dragons are returning, promising to turn a political maelstrom into an apocalypse.

You step in as Dragonborn – “Dovahkiin” in the language of the dragons – a hero born with the soul of a dragon and the ability to absorb the souls of other dragons. Your destiny is unfurled before you: vanquish the draconic scourge and return Skyrim to safety. Of course, in typical Elder Scrolls fashion, there’s not really a destiny at all: you’re free never to confront this new menace or take sides in the civil war.  In fact, you’re free to do whatever you like: join the Thieves’ Guild and make a dishonest living, or do it without their help; sign up with the evil assassin cult, the Dark Brotherhood, and murder your way to infamy; enroll at the College of Winterhold or with The Companions and master spell and sword alike; or do none or all of these things as you pursue your own goals as an adventurer with his or her own moral compass, travelling, learning, fighting, saving, stealing, killing, hunting and championing as you see fit. The sandbox world of Skyrim is huge, its sense of freedom mind-confounding, with hundreds of hours of gameplay there for you to do with what you will.  Your story – and every chapter of it – will never be the same as mine.

The Chosen One

It’s true, the role-playing heart of the Elder Scrolls has taken a bit of a beating in Skyrim. The most evident change is the game’s lack of classes. Admittedly, I was concerned that my character would no longer develop to the specific role I envisaged for him, instead turning into a jack-of-all-trades, switching inelegantly between combat, stealth and magic. In reality, it’s efficient, it’s streamlined and it works, changing the game only slightly, but for the better. Players no longer slot themselves into the roles of warriors, knights, mages, rogues or the like: instead, your character can be tailored on the go. Indeed, this means that attributes like intelligence, endurance, strength and agility are all gone and have been replaced by three major ones: health, magicka and stamina (which governs the power of your attacks and how long you can sprint). One of these can be increased by ten points upon levelling up, a process that can now be undertaken at any time after adept and consistent use of your character’s abilities. When a player levels up, he or she looks to the stars on a beautifully designed menu screen of constellations where individual skill trees are accessed and, in a nod to Fallout 3, perks are unlocked, like arrow shots that paralyse, or sword swipes that gruesomely decapitate.

Character creation is as detailed as it was before, if not more so, allowing beards, war paints and generous smatterings of dirt to be applied to your hero’s visage. Skyrim‘s races – the four races of men, three races of elves and three beast races – now look a deal more rugged and severe, adapted to the frigid climes of the north.

Living and Breathing

The mountainous homeland of the hardy Nords is a bleak, desolate frontier; it’s fearsome, freezing and unwelcoming, a far cry from the colourful green world of Oblivion’s Cyrodiil.  In Skyrim, craggy, snow-capped peaks corral the world as far as the eye can see. Climb to the top of the game’s highest mountain, the Throat of the World, and behold an astounding panorama: to the north, an ocean and icebergs; to the west, jagged karst foothills;  to the east, forests of birch; and below, vast, sprawling plains of gorse, pines and boulders. True to the Elder Scrolls design ethos, every inch of this land is explorable and the rewards are rich for any adventurer daring enough to plunder every lost tomb or inspect every shadowy copse. That is, if you make it that far. Every step down a battered cobblestone path brings you closer to intrigue and danger. Stray but a little from the well-travelled roads (thankfully populated with wandering mercenaries, farmers, thieves and bandits), and you may find yourself stumbling into a sabre-tooth cat den or the evil clutches of an undead-infested barrow.

Despite the unmatched beauty and intricacy of Skyrim (for which the art and design teams deserve many a tankard of mead), there is little true uniqueness to what is a very typical fantasy world, albeit one several lines of latitude north – you’ve probably played somewhere very alike before. The nods to real-world Nordic history and mythology are extremely numerous indeed, and though there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, players hoping for a rekindling of the bizarre and alien world of Morrowind‘s Vvardenfell will be disappointed.

Whereas Oblivion‘s NPCs took centre stage – for better or worse -, the inhabitants of Skyrim remain largely understated. The last game’s Radiant AI is mercifully absent, or at least downplayed. Though townsfolk still operate on a daily schedule and now, depending on profession, tend to their forges, farms, mills and market stalls, they no longer hold the stilted, often nonsensical conversations with each other as they did in Oblivion. The revamping of the player-to-NPC conversation system means you are no longer shoved into the face of whoever you’re talking to, awkwardly pausing the world around you. Catch a blacksmith hammering a sword on an anvil and he’ll occasionally look up from his work to address you, focusing on the more important matter at hand; you’re free to look around and cut him off mid-speech. Topics of conversation, too, are limited, and persuasion and bribery have essentially been done away with unless a specific conversation prompts it, whilst an NPC’s disposition towards you is subtly affected by your actions towards them, be that trespassing on their property, helping them in quests or making off with their kitchenware. If they’re especially fond of you, they may even surprise you with gifts. A kindly bard in the starting town of Riverwood was generous enough to hand me a beer when I wandered into his tavern – a few days before, I had helped him humiliate a dark elf intent on sabotaging his relationship.

Companions can also be hired to tag along with you on your quests and can be ordered around using a rudimentary command system. Alas, this aspect is executed poorly, and your friend is likely to get stuck on a rock or get lost entirely before he does what you ask him to. Children, too, make their first appearance in an Elder Scrolls game. They’re a curious inclusion. The same pudgy-faced younglings populate most settled areas, and are done no favours by their grating voice actors. They are no more than service to a weird and unrelenting fan request, and contribute nothing to the world. (And no, you maniac, you can’t kill them.) Marriage also debuts, but those hoping for an interesting romantic sub-plot will be left to stand out in the rain, wilted roses and all. Why Bethesda felt compelled to include these latter two hollow aspects of NPC interaction without expanding them beyond Fable-like simplicity is beyond me.

An Axe-Bitten Loud Mouth

Not everyone you meet in Skyrim is willing to ask you for help finding their lost dog or spread the latest rumours about a serial killer on the loose, and most wild creatures have you on their menu. Confrontation is inevitable and plentiful, and Skyrim offers weapons, armour and spells by the longhouse-full.

Combat remains largely unchanged from Oblivion, fine-tuned in some areas, but left unpolished in others. Weapon strikes, blocks and magic are still firmly in control of the player and their controller’s shoulder buttons, and the opportunity for dual-wielding spells and weapons opens up new strategic avenues and styles of play. Oblivion’s system of assigning items and abilities to the d-pad for quick access also returns, though now, a far larger quantity can be favourited in the inventory menu and accessed instantly via an unobtrusive pop-up list. Though certainly beneficial, I often found navigating my favourites fiddly and time-consuming, particularly as my list grew.

As Dragonborn, you have an innate mastery of the Way of the Voice, a Zen-like understanding of the language of the dragons. By shouting words in their tongue, your character unleashes a special power, like a breath of draconic fire, or temporary invincibility, potentially turning the tide of a hopeless battle in your favour. These shouts can be unlocked and upgraded by visiting Dragon Walls in temples, caves or other dungeons, and “unlocked” by “spending” absorbed dragon souls. My particular favourite is also the first one you encounter, “Unrelenting Force”: when all three words of the shout are learnt, a blast of rib-smashing blue energy hurtles towards your target, flinging them backwards with hilarious consequences.

Bethesda have clearly dedicated time to making their weapons and spells meatier and impactful. Spells – in effect, animation and look – are vastly improved and a pleasure to use, whilst two-handed weapons slam down with bone-crunching force and bowstrings twang very satisfyingly. Whilst fights are entertaining and exciting, the mechanics of trading blows are still simply a matter of blocking at the right time, then either swinging madly or abusing the power attack; there’s no real skill involved. Though hardcore role-players may argue that it’s the stats of your and your enemy’s weapons and armour working behind the scenes that count, one wonders why Bethesda would include such a visceral combat system in the first place were it not to reflect hand-to-hand combat as fluidly as possible. Your character will also now randomly pull off unblockable killing moves on enemies with low health; the animations are bloody and satisfying, but are often obscured as the camera inexplicably lurches between perspectives.

Here Be Dragons

The return of the dragons constitutes the underpinning of Skyrim’s main quest, and they serve as the game’s major antagonists. Much touted by Bethesda, most of your encounters with these winged lizards are entirely unscripted. Be at the wrong place at the wrong time and you and the local wildlife will most likely end up the unfortunate targets of a scorching blast of fire or ice.  Whilst speedy, stealthy characters can slip away undetected from attacks should they choose to, the cumbersome sort with warhammers and plate armour have little choice but to stand and fight.

My first random encounter with a dragon was simultaneously terrifying and exhilarating. As I eyed up a suspicious-looking rabble of Orcs turning a pack of wolves into fashionable arrow pincushions from the safety of their neatly tucked away forest stronghold, a sudden bellow from the sky and stream of blazing light left the belligerent parties several degrees Celsius warmer and many degrees less alive. An angry dragon swept down amongst the cinders. Disoriented, confused and alarmed, I made a frightened dash towards the cover of the smouldering fort, narrowly escaping a severe eyebrow singeing. But now I was cornered, and had little choice but to face a glorious death in combat. Drawing my two-handed sword, weeping bitterly at the sweet music of some disembodied angelic choir and bidding my loved ones farewell, I charged and did battle. Victory sought me out, and I looted my fallen foe’s corpse of two-hundred gold pieces and a silver ring – hooray!

Sadly, few other dragon encounters compare to the excitement and romance of your first. Hearing a dragon suddenly swoop overhead as you hurriedly scramble for safety begins a thrilling game of cat-and-mouse, but when the beast comes to land, battles devolve into disappointing exchanges of sword swipes and bites, as with any other creature. In particularly forested or rocky areas, dragons will have a hard time navigating the scenery, and, as a result, will often get stuck, making them little more than, well,  angry stuck dragons. Alas that Skyrim‘s focal creatures tend not to amount to awe-inspiring, intelligent beasts worthy of admiration and fear.

Writing the Scrolls

Skyrim‘s quest and character writing as a whole remains on par with previous Elder Scrolls instalments, good, but never truly stellar. All but the most important NPCs are one-dimensional, demanding only that you help them in exchange for something else. The addition of renowned celebrities like Max von Sydow and Christopher Plummer to the game’s larger and (generally) more talented voice cast is a pleasant and welcome one, but ultimately seems wasted on characters with little personality beyond “doom-saying historian” and “wizened philosopher-monk”. I found the game’s main quest sadly lacking and, without spoiling anything, it is essentially another series of oddly paced, long-winded item fetches spread across huge, sprawling dungeons; the final part of it is nothing short of an anticlimax with unsatisfying closure. Despite the skyward moans of terror and idle curses spoken by frightened villagers and city-dwellers, the dragon threat never seems threatening, and like Oblivion‘s demonic invasion, feels confined to the periphery, more of a distraction than anything urgent.

That said, Skyrim shines elsewhere. Where Radiant AI has taken a backseat, Radiant Story steps forward. This new feature dynamically alters quests according to your standing and actions across Skyrim. Take on an errand in the city of Riften and Radiant Story might send you to a cave or hideout in a corner of the map you’ve never been to before, pushing you to experience new places rather than traipse through areas you’ve already explored. Your relationships with other characters, too, affect the nature of these quests. For example, a decision I made during the main story turned out to be a crucial factor in determining an important objective of one of my quests in the Imperial Legion. Whilst these choices and actions may not carry the same weight or have such far-rippling consequences as BioWare’s Dragon Age or Mass Effect, they certainly serve to keep your time in Skyrim varied and unpredictable.

Sights and Sounds for Sore Eyes/Ears

Skyrim is a wonder to behold on the Xbox 360 (and on the other two platforms, too), and Bethesda have clearly pushed the console to its utmost limits. Whilst some textures and foliage still pop into view somewhat jarringly as the player covers ground, the overall look is a magnificent treat, detailed to an almost obsessive level of precision at both the smallest and largest scales. Skyrim feels cold, looks worn and emits an aura of hostility. The minimalist inventory menu – a work of art in itself – allows for careful inspection of each of your items, from apples to breastplates, and it’s easy to lose yourself simply examining your latest hoard of dungeon-borne treasure.

Combine this visual clarity with splendid audio engineering, and you have nothing short of a sensory masterpiece. The highly talented composer Jeremy Soule once again returns in force, his orchestra nuanced by the mighty, manly chants of some ancient Nordic choir and, to my ears, subtly influenced by the equally fantastical work of Howard Shore. When threaded into the background noise of some shady glade or polar blizzard, Skyrim walks incredibly close to the real thing.

The Final Verdict

For jaded Elder Scrolls veterans, it’s easy to take for granted both the huge scope and microscopic details of Skyrim. One must truly step back and observe what is essentially a living and breathing virtual world, rich with its own peoples, politics, wildlife, cultures and philosophies. That’s not to say it’s perfect, and Bethesda don’t get a free pass for their mistakes simply because their game is big and awesome – there are plentiful bugs (thankfully none game-breaking), frequent slow loading times and animation glitches. However, it’s easy to snipe at the minutiae or groan at the clichés in story and setting; the very fact that this world can come together so richly, function almost flawlessly and look so handsome in the process is truly marvellous and for that, Bethesda cannot be commended enough. It is clearly the end product of a long labour of love.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is escapism and epic adventure at its finest, with years of replayability value offered through its hundreds upon hundreds of quests, vast world, and dynamic, branching paths for unique character development. Whilst at its core it remains a similar, action-packed experience to Oblivion and is by no means the same astronomical leap forward for the series that the last game was, five and a half years of refinement has ironed out most of its predecessor’s kinks, distilling the trademark Elder Scrolls formula to delicious triple-malt excellence.

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