24 Nov 2011
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Game review: Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

By Sean Mitchell

"In the frozen lands of the north, in the land they call Skyrim, legends are told. 

In dark and dingy taverns, men huddled round fires to warm their frozen bones tell of a time when dragons returned to life and terrorised the world. 

The warriors of the Companions Guild sing of an unknown warrior whose veins flowed with Dragon blood, who rose up, defeated the dragons and saved the world. 

The mages at the College of Winterhold have many scrolls that tell the same tale, but insist it was a mage, brimming with fire and wrath that defeated the world eater Alduin. 

The thieves of Skyrim have no songs or scrolls and know nothing about dragons, but tell a tale of a thief that was the bane of guards and wealthy lords across all of Skyrim – a thief so skilled, he could steal the pants you were wearing – without you even noticing".

In 2006 (2007 for PS3), the team at Bethesda took us back to the land of Tamriel, in what many would argue represented the ‘popularisation’ of The Elder Scrolls series with The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Sure, there were Elder Scrolls games before that - dating back to 1994 in fact – but for many gamers, Oblivion became their first introduction to the lush open world environment and freedom of play that an Elder Scrolls title represents. Oblivion did a lot of things well, but it also still had room for improvement in many areas. Bethesda then brought us Fallout 3, radically changing our perception of what a desert wasteland adventure could be, and now the continued evolution again swings back to the land of Tamriel – and boy, it’s been well worth the wait.

There are so many elements of Skyrim to examine it is hard to know where to start talking about it. For those who haven't played an Elder Scrolls game yet, Skyrim is the perfect place to start. It does a perfect job of presenting a world that is steeped in history and lore – indeed there are thousands of books in libraries, homes and shops within the game that discuss all areas of Tamriel's history and culture if you feel inclined to read them, but the game never makes you feel burdened to learn about the world you are in any more than you want to. 

Skyrim is an open world game, meaning literally that once you get out of the initial tutorial you can go anywhere you like, and be anyone you want to be. Of course, heading straight for the deepest dungeon around is likely to get yourself killed, but it illustrates the openness with which the game treats the player.

There is a main storyline to guide players in the first instance, but there is no obligation to follow it, and the game will never remind you of it, or reprimand you for ignoring it completely. Indeed, many of the side adventures that you will have in your time in Skyrim will be equally as engaging and satisfying as completing the main storyline. 

In a change from previous role playing games, there are no gameplay classes in Skyrim, no penalties or restrictions towards doing or becoming a particular type of character.  All skills are directly linked to what you do in the game. So if you want to become an amazing archer, well you had better get a bow and start using it – or, like in real life, pay someone to teach you. 

As each skill improves it generates experience which goes towards levelling your character up. Each time you gain a level, you get to choose to increase either your Magic, Health, or Stamina – which are the three bars that are relevant in combat. Using Magic empties your magic bar, swinging weapons, jumping and blocking use up stamina, and getting hit reduces your health. All of these regenerate in time (or with spells or potions), but choosing which to increase will help you tune your character to a specific play style. Upon level up you also gain a point to spend in any one of the skill constellations. These often unlock unique abilities (like the ability to smith a more exotic type of armour) or offer dramatic boosts to certain skills (like being 20% harder to detect when sneaking). If you are unsure of what you want to go with, you can simply choose not to spend these points - instead saving them for later on when you have a clearer idea of what type of character you would want to be.

In an open world game like Skyrim, one can’t do a review without talking about the world – and it’s fantastic. From the opening scenes of the game’s tutorial intro, you enter into a world of such vast scope and detail that it is hard to put down in words. Skyrim may be only about the same size in land mass as the previous game, but the land is packed with detail and areas of interest. Vast, towering, snowy mountains delve down into deep valleys and lush forests. Ancient cities are bustling with townsfolk, each with their own place in the world, things to do, opinions, and voices. Wander a few metres from a small town and you will find wildlife naturally abounding, even hunting each other independent of the rest of the world’s actions. From butterflies and glowbugs to wolves and oxen, Bethesda has breathed life into the world, and it feels alive. 

One of the most impressive things for me about the world is how it demonstrates its unscripted nature time and time again. I walked along the road from one town to another and encountered a group of heavily armoured elves with a prisoner walking along the same road who bid me mind my own business. For reasons that escaped me I reloaded my last save from just a few minutes earlier and proceeded down the same road – but this time there were no elves or prisoners, and instead a roaming band of holy monks greeted me as I passed. Another instance saw me arrive in a small village where a guard was engaged in a swordfight with a thief in the middle of the main street. As I approached, the guard slayed the thief and left his body lying in the middle of the road. I helped myself to the dead thief's clothes and belongings and retired to the inn for the night; the next morning, a small band of children and villagers were gathered around the unclothed body looking at it and commenting amongst themselves. As far as I can tell, this was not scripted, but instead was the world doing what it does, living and reacting to itself.

Mechanically, the game has received a few overhauls under the hood, and while it plays similar to previous versions, the switch to controlling each hand with a trigger breathes fresh life into several areas – particularly spell casting, with the ability to dual wield and mix and match spells improving mage gameplay no end. Melee combat is still a bit hit and miss; blocking now feels more solid and impactful but slashing with bladed weapons still lacks a feeling of connection. Archery is the real star though, with a real sense of tension when pulling back a bow and the way that arrows can bounce off armour or pierce through unprotected areas.

Graphically the game is gorgeous; however, I have to say that the PC version is noticeably better looking than the 360 version (if you have a powerful enough PC to run it). 

One of the other advantages to the PC version is the modding community (Bethesda is reportedly releasing official tools soon), and already many mods have sprung up to ‘improve’ the game; from making mineable ore veins more visible in rock, to smoothing out character facial textures, the list of tweaks to choose from is growing by the day.

Controller-wise, though, it seems that the game and menus were designed with a console controller in mind, and I frequently found navigating options with the mouse to be problematic as you have to hover over menu words first to ensure they are highlighted before clicking, or you might choose the wrong option – not the greatest when you are choosing conversation choices! The ideal combination would therefore be to play on PC but with a 360 controller.

Which brings me to the issues – and there are a few to mention.

On PC I have had several crashes to desktop. I haven't been able to trace the source but it would appear to be spec related. On my test rig the game runs flawlessly even on Ultra settings, but I found at certain points the game would crash to desktop without any lag or other warning in advance. Reloading the last save would bring about another crash at the exact same location and time, i.e. cresting the top of a particular hill, or walking around a particular bend in the road. Having said that, dropping the graphics settings resulted in a more stable gameplay experience, and the game still looked great.

Besides the menu annoyances mentioned earlier, there is also a bit of frustration around the setup of some of the menus. Let’s face it, RPG's are built on gaining lots of stuff, and increasing your skills, and the inventory and skill menus could really have been done better. While it’s nice to have the ability to ‘favourite’ items to make them easier to access in combat, the downside is that I ended up favouriting almost every potion, food, spell and weapon that I had, which quickly became a comprehensive list that took ages to find anything in. The ability to have item types in the favourites menu would have reduced this problem drastically. Also, the constellation skill menu, while impressive looking, is unwieldy and difficult to navigate, and sometimes makes you feel that you are doing the wrong thing by spreading your skills out thinly across different areas.

The AI also disappoints at several places – your companions frequently get in your way, blocking doorways and showing little intelligence when it comes to pathfinding or avoiding traps. They’re also prone to stepping in front of your line of fire just as you unleash a poisoned arrow or lightning bolt at an enemy.

Already there are videos popping up on YouTube and the like of graphical bugs, flying horses, dragons riding horses and other glitches that people have come across, but instead of these being bemoaned as with many other games, the Skyrim audience embraces them, and collectively laughs at them as unique quirks of an amazing world bursting at the seams.

Even with all this, by far the biggest problem with Skyrim is that it is an all-consuming, addictive time sink that will suck you in and make you forget about everything else in life. 

In conclusion, Skyrim is greater than the sum of its parts – and let’s face it, there are a lot of parts in this engaging, immersive world that has been created.

One of the most telling praises of Skyrim is that it makes everyone a storyteller, giving each player their own unique story to tell and world to play in – and then tell their real friends about and compare adventures with. 

My friends have been able to tell me about amazing or crazy things that they have seen or experienced that I have not come across and in return I can tell them of things that have happened to my character that they wish they could have seen.

We are both playing the same game, and yet, our experiences are totally unique, and that is what makes Skyrim something special. The fact that it can move people to talk about the game to their friends in such a way is testament to the depths at which the game connects with and engages people.

Graphics: 9

Gameplay: 9

Sound: 9

Lasting appeal: 10

Overall: 9.5

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