*Disclaimer: I have not completed Skyrim as of yet but am writing this review on the 100+ hours of gametime I’ve put in so far. Normally 100+ hours would mean some extensive amount of experience with a single title but in Skyrim I still feel I’ve got some ways to go.*
S is for the self-perpetuating skies that stretch the surface of sight.
K is for Khajit – the weirdest race I’ve ever had the pleasure to control in a game.
Y is for yawns endured in the endless nights of saying to myself “just one more quest”.
R is for the ridiculous amount of hum drum content shoved into this game.
I is for the insane amount of idiotic insects (read: bugs) I’ve experienced.
M is for all the mods that have(/will) been(/be) made to patch up and enhance this game to no end.
My time with The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (to be known as TESV or Skyrim from this point on) can be just about summed up by this exercise in cheer-leading. Simply put, Skyrim is a huge (understatement) game that aims to please everyone in its approach but fails to realize that pleasing everyone is an impossible task. Its ambition and scope are both its greatest strength and greatest weakness. I’ll try to link back to this point at various points of my review… points.
No comment necessary
“The dragons are coming! The dragons are coming! Not by land! Not by sea! But by sky!” – Paul Revere. Okay… not exactly. But that’s the outline of Skyrim’s story. In more description, the ancient Nord prophecy of Skyrim dictates that when Skyrim found itself in civil unrest (some time after the gates of Oblivion were closed), the dragons would return. With the reappearance of the dragons, the Dragon born (Dovahkiin) would also be reincarnated. Now it should come as no surprise that you play as the legendary Dovahkiin; the mortal born with the blood and soul of a dragon, allowing you to speak in true dragon’s tongue naturally. This ties into a gameplay addition I’ll cover later. From what I’ve played so far it seems the main quest involves sorting out this dragon situation.
What I found most interesting is the facet regarding a civil war. The summary of what’s going on here is that Skyrim has always been proud of its Nordic heritage and rights and they tend not to meddle with the affairs of the other provinces of Tamriel (the continent in which all Elder Scrolls games have been based so far). However, the Empire governing Tamriel has stuck its nose into Skyrim’s business by outlawing certain rights after the events of Oblivion. The most candid of these was the right to worship the legendary Nord hero Talos; the only human born member of the major Gods of Tamriel – the Nine Divines. This created some turmoil between the habitants of Skyrim as some were outraged by this banning while others simply obeyed in hopes of maintaining peace with the rest of Tamriel. This gave rise to a rebel faction, the Stormcloaks, named after Ulfric Stormcloak, The Jarl (leader) of one of the major cities of Skyrim who is (arguably) grossly opposed to the Empire’s actions. Ulfric murders the King of Skyrim which alarms the Empire to come into Skyrim and take a role in settling things down. Many see Ulfric’s actions as a ruse to gain support from proud Nords in order to ensure the promotion of his political role as King of Skyrim. I have yet to see how this conflict plays out but there are choices to be made by the player on how it all goes down.
The richness of Skyrim’s story is all in the hands of the player. The player can take as little away from the experience as possible or simply be buried by all the books, conversations, and connections to past games that appear here. As an Elder Scrolls addict, clearly I’ve opted for the latter option and am totally dumbfounded about how rich the backstory of the Elder Scrolls series is. Of all the major gaming universes I’ve ever plunged into (Halo, Mass Effect, Zelda Timeline, Assassin’s Creed, etc.) the Elder Scrolls is, by far, the most immense and fleshed out. For me it’s amazing how they keep track of it all and connect the dots between events (and games) that can still be enjoyed so much as an isolated experience. For others though, if you’re looking for a story-telling experience that holds your hand through overly directed sequences and lack of exploration you will be gravely disappointed here. This is exactly what I meant by scope being its strength and weakness. Skyrim tries to cater to everyone from the Elder Scrolls rookie to the all-knowing, walking, talking, breathing encyclopedia of Elder Scrolls. Going too far either way with the story would upset one group or another and finding a happy medium (as they did) totally puts off those who want to be presented a story instead of exploring it for themselves.
With its beautiful day-night cycles and rolling hills stretching for miles, Oblivion was somewhat of a presentation marvel when it launched early this gen. At the time it was the most beautiful open-world title that anyone had seen but it wasn’t without its rough edges. Animations were so robotic that ASIMO learned to blush, character models’ faces looked like they had been ravaged by orcs (okay, this one is valid for some of the characters), and you got tired of hearing the same 12 (including Patrick Stewart’s short but outstanding cameo) people voice every character. Clearly, Bethesda knew they had to up their game with titles like RDR, GTA IV, and the AC franchise impressing with their open-world presentations. The presentation of Skyrim is (IMO) the biggest departure from the last entry in the series.
The environments resemble my relationship with this game – hot and cold
All these faults have definitely been given priority attention through the development of Skyrim and the “new” Creation engine (I have a pair of 5 year old casual adidas shoes. I cleaned them a few weeks ago to make them all nice and white again, Febreze’d the odor, added new laces and some Dr. Scholl’s for comfort. They’re a totally “new” pair now!). Here’s a brief summary of things that have been changed/added/tweaked to make the land of Skyrim appear more dynamic and believable to enhance the player’s immersion in the game world:
- Animations, although still fairly rugged in comparison to the titles mentioned above, are improved across the board (conversation, combat, running around the world, meshing/intermediate animations).
- Character models look and act more like their realistic humanoid counterparts (as realistic as a human with a cat head can be at least)
- Although some voices from past games (yeah… they go as far back as Morrowind) return and outstay their welcome in more than one character, the overall voice work has improved in both quality and quantity. Lines don’t repeat as often as in previous titles, most lines don’t sound incredibly “phoned in” and the cast has multiplied by at least a factor of 5 in an effort to enhance immersion (and mitigate annoyance for us long time TES players).
- Environment graphics are improved in their variety and quality. Given the strong focus on mountains, rock textures seem to have been given a good deal of attention. The trees and flora don’t all look incredibly identical this time around and the inclusion of pretty streams and rivers makes you want to stop and soak it all in once in a while.
- Particles and lighting/shadows have been improved noticeably to make spells look really impressive – especially in dimly lit dungeons where everything seems to light up.
- NPC scripts give most characters believable daily routines. You can expect to find a lot of the same people do a lot of the same things every in-game day and their actions are believable based on their occupation, class, race strengths/weaknesses.
- The inclusion of a seemingly infinite amount of dynamic quests (Go here, get this!)
Being Northerly, it makes geographical sense that Bethesda would mimic our own world’s geographical traits by making Skyrim adopt a tundra environment. Less sunlight peeks through the grey skies, the flora has a yellowish tint, mountains intimidatingly stand between you and every direction of sight, and the fauna are all as furry as Fuzzy Wuzzy to keep their unmentionables at optimal working temperatures. I found it to resemble the first level of Halo Reach a lot in tone and style and I actually found Skyrim to do a better job at portraying this style of environment. The art in this title is very well done.
Of course there are a plethora of detailed sub-environments to explore such as fully snow covered areas closer to the mountains and swamp-like regions further south/central to combat monotony. Even the dungeons have a variety of interior styles this time around. Some are basic caves like in Oblivion while newer additions range between mining facilities, underground shrines and ruins of an ancient Elven civilization. These last type are very interesting to explore and pay off with some very neat discoveries if explored thoroughly.
And you thought Nathan Drake fell through a lot of holes in the sand…
This isn’t to say the game isn’t without its visual flaws. Even at its highest PC settings (minus anti-aliasing) environmental textures, foliage and character faces lack detail and crispness. There’s very little use in higher resolution output when the assets are low quality in the first place. Shadows are very blocky even when set to Ultra. Thankfully high definition texture mods and shadow mods are in the works to rectify this. The only major visual gripe I have left is jittery foliage but I have a feeling that has more to do with NVidia’s recent poor drivers than it does Skyrim’s assets. As a bonus, the now famous ENB series mod made popular by GTA IV is also quickly cropping up all over the place to enhance the lighting and colour saturation of the game, although I still haven’t found settings that I prefer to the natural look of the game.
The sound effects are something that were decently well done in past entries of the series so it’s no surprise that Bethesda has continued to present a realistic sounding world. Ambient winds blow, Dragons deafen with their screeching roars, the clinks and clanks of armor and weapons sound sharp and battle-tested while everything from crunching snow to rustling carpet and linens will be heard underneath your feet. I’ve had a few sound mishaps in my experience where sometimes weapon clashes didn’t produce any sound at all, and walking on some magical carpet in the basement of the Companions Hold produced the sound of walking on snow, but these are minor quibbles in what is otherwise a great audio presentation.
Outside of the voice acting and sound effects, the main theme in Skyrim feels more in your face in the style of Morrowind than the more serene and orchestral take that Oblivion took. The remainder of the soundtrack is rounded out with battle themes for combat and ambient themes that mesh perfectly with the sunrises, sunsets, flowing streams, and mountainous hillsides found in Skyrim. They’re perfectly orchestrated to simply play in the background as you explore and most of the time you won’t even realize you’re listening. Then once you’re 50 hours into the game you’ll find yourself on a snowy hill overlooking miles of land bathed in the glow of a sunset thinking “I wish that one ambient song was playing right now”. Yep, you’ll memorize them without even knowing it.
The Gameplay I: Combat
The combat of Skyrim will feel familiar to anyone who has played prior games in the franchise. In terms of gameplay mechanics, Skyrim will not pose much challenge or depth in its handling. There are pretty much 3 styles of combat; Archery, close range physical attacks, and spell casting. No matter which style you pick, you’ll find yourself using the same buttons to deal damage to enemies. Nope, the control scheme is not very demanding and the enemies will more often than not out-power you rather than out-smart or out-maneuver you. I’ve intentionally oversimplified the combat to demonstrate exactly why some people simply have no affinity to the gameplay in Skyrim, as we’ve all seen first-hand. It is a pretty basic “game” at its fundamental level.
The depth to the gameplay comes in its variety and exploration. Skyrim is about finding your own style and character and tailoring the gameplay to what you want to play. To put it in a corny phrase as I love doing, Skyrim is about discovering yourself as much as it is discovering the extensive world and lore Bethesda has crafted. This again brings me back to the point that Skyrim attempts to be an experience that tries to cater to everyone by allowing you to choose how to play. However, in the process of expanded scope it loses gamers who are simply looking for solid fundamental gameplay.
Anyways, this choice in depth is given to the player in the form of perks. As you use your various skills to play, you’ll earn experience to level up individual skills. When a number of individual skills are improved your character’s overall level will increase, granting you the ability to increase your health, magicka or stamina pool by 10 points as well as 1 skill point to spend on the skill trees of the 18 skills. I’ll explain a little on how the 3 combat styles can be customized using perks in the paragraphs below.
Archery: In my opinion this is definitely the combat style with the least obvious variation. You pick a bow and a type of arrows and you shoot arrows. There are perks allowing you to deal more substantial damage that also stuns enemies, perfect for characters who want to deal with enemies solely at a distance while other perks promote the use of more arrows more rapidly by allowing you to recover more arrows back off downed enemies.
Close Combat: Close combat covers the one-handed and two-handed combat skills (and the block skill if you so choose). You can choose to wield (and use perks to specialize in) a single handed weapon and a shield, two single handed weapons, or one massive weapon. Within the single handed weapons categories you have daggers, swords and axes while two handed weapons let you choose between hammers and greatswords. Each of these weapons classes also have varying benefits (faster vs. more damage or greater possibility of stunning enemies and performing critical attacks). Shields can also be used to push back and stun enemies, providing another element to depth in combat. Furthermore, these skills mingle with non-combat stats like health and stamina reserves. Wielding heavier weapons requires more stamina, while dual wielding weapons leaves you without much protection which ideally would require greater spending on health.
Spell Casting: I think I’ll just list the classes here to demonstrate just how varied this can get; Restoration, Illusion, Alteration, Conjuration, and Destruction. You can use these skills to dispose of enemies by throwing the elements at them, sending minions to fight for you, or even getting them to destroy each other. These skills to bolster and enhance the other combat styles.
This should give you a slight peek into the options available for a character build in this game and the variety to the combat gameplay. I should also mention that different types of enemies have different types of weaknesses which throws further complexity into your characters definition. It seems pretty overwhelming (and it can be) but I haven’t even mentioned the less combat oriented skills and gameplay mechanics!
The Gameplay II: Skills, Shouts, Followers
That’s right! There are a plethora of other skills to master on your quest through Skyrim. To list them; Alchemy, Enchanting, Heavy Armor, Light Armor, Lockpicking, Pickpocket, Smithing, Sneak, Two-handed, and Speech. I won’t go into much detail about each of these (this review is massive enough as is and I realize I haven’t said anything funny in a while so… Squirtle – It has the word “Squirt” in it) but you can clearly tell from the names how these skills will affect your combat preferences as well as each other. Alchemy, enchantment and smithing are very addictive side games in and of themselves due to their effects on your character’s quest to becoming unstoppable.
All in all there are ~250 perks in total (averaging to about 13-14 for each skill) but the maximum achievable level is 81 (every skill is at its own individual level of that maximum 100), giving you a huge shortage of perks to level up and experience everything on a single character (unless you use the PC command console).
If all these skill trees, perks, and variations weren’t enough Skyrim adds a new gameplay element in the form of shouts that are used for anything from combat to puzzle solving and trap navigation in dungeons. As mentioned earlier, your Dragonborn character is capable of speaking using the dragon’s tongue. However, your character must seek out these ancient words of power throughout the land of Skyrim and spend dragon souls (earned by defeating dragons) to unlock them. There are 20 phrases in all, and each consists of 3 words. The more words you’ve unlocked in a phrase, the more powerful the phrase becomes. However, the more powerful the Thu-um (shout) you use, the longer the cooldown time it has. You can still use 1 or 2 word variations of phrases after having unlocked the full 3 word phrase of a power because the usage relies on the time spent holding down a button. There are a few interesting powers to be found here so I won’t go into listing them all and I’ll let you discover them on your own.
The boy who cried FUS-RO-HUH?!
Another new addition to Skyrim are “Followers”, NPCs that you can earn the trust of or hire to follow you around while you play the game. A few missions in Oblivion toyed with this idea to deterrent results – there was a bug in which an NPC in the Knights of the Nine Oblivion expansion would not stop following me. It ruined my 300 hour character because I could no longer kill without being reported to the guards. The followers are preset (not unique to one’s game world based on actions) and vary in their skills and preferences. You can use them to compliment your own style by finding the right one (IE. Getting a heavy armor, close-combat oriented follower while you perfect your archery). They can also be used to carry your stuff without ever being slowed down by it which comes in handy if you’re an extreme hoarder like me. Finally, you can marry some of these followers for an achievement/trophy. I have no idea what use marriage serves in this game besides that. In fact, I married one of my followers simply for completions sake and after performing the “I do” vow, she walked out of the temple and disappeared. That bitch took my enchanted glass armor and weapons set! Even in video games love alludes me. .. Umm… moving on! Oh, that’s all the gameplay stuff?
Oh right, the horses. What would've been a great opportunity to learn from its open world brethren (Red Dead Redemption and AC) turns into actually gimping and reducing the joy of using a horse. Horses in Skyrim are as worthless as my ability to pick up girls. Unless you plan on sticking to all the trails on the map, horse navigation is extremely awkward and unreliable as your horse will randomly get stuck and re-appear a few steps beyond where you just were. Combat is absolutely non-existent when riding a horse. At least in Oblivion I recall being able to swing a sword but here there's absolutely nothing you can do on a horse to fend off enemies besides running away. Travelling by horse isn't even that much faster than travelling by foot if you know how to shortcut through the games hilly environment. This absolute mess of a gameplay mechanic irked me a lot as it seems like a huge missed opportunity and something that could really have added to exploring Skyrim.
This is a special section that I’ve never had to write before but my oh my what a ride this has been. As mentioned I’ve only put ~100 hours into Skyrim. This number would easily be doubled had it not been for game-crippling bugs that caused the game to be unplayable for a month. From November 11 to November 18 I put in 60+ hours and got to a point where my main menu would simply not load. After a patch or two the main menu finally started loading again. Unfortunately, the framerates I was getting were abysmal (No… not PC elitist abysmal, but abysmal by even console gaming standards: 0-15 fps for a title I was previously getting 45-60 fps). Then some patches started coming out and things got a little bit better. By the time things were playable again, I had taken a 1 month leave from the game and also gone on a 3 week vacation. It has been 4 weeks since and I’m at 100+ hours. So that tallys up to 100+ hours in 5 weeks and ~7 weeks of the game being unplayable.
I couldn’t decide which bug was more funny.
As non-game crushing bugs go I’ve experienced:
- bandits flying over mountains
- missing patches of water and land
- falling through the ground at Winterhold College
- a gravitationally challenged woman going to bed sideways
- both humanoid and creature NPCs popping into existence right in front of me
- a man who has somehow managed to clone himself 5 times
- caught in geometry while escaping in a dungeon at the very beginning of the game
- numerous crashes to desktop
- quests entries not updating or being screwed up if you pursue a different quest ; This has happened to me on 3 different quests. I’m glad I can use console commands to reset these and fix them. It would disturb me to no end if I had to live with incomplete journal entries that I could do nothing about
And this only includes bugs I can remember off the top of my head. I know I’m forgetting a few that I’ve experienced. Patch 1.4.21 has fixed up a lot of problems on the PC and the bugs probably would not have affected my score much had the game been released in this state (it’s still not and probably never will be perfect). It’s a shame that Bethesda’s track record of poor QA (or rushed releases) continues with Skyrim as it has definitely put off a lot of potential future fans of the series.
Hopefully Skyrim has more lasting appeal for you than reading (or at least writing) this review does. For me Skyrim is jam packed with droning and repetitive busy work that kills loads of time as I turn my character into an unstoppable hydro pump of a force. Some will be turned off by this in a matter of hours (or minutes) but I don’t mind the lack of complexity to the controls in this pursuit as long as what I’m doing to enhance my character is varied enough. The benefit of my character being somewhat specialized in all 3 combat styles (higher than 80 in archery, one handed combat, and destruction magic) allows me to switch between different tactics to keep things fresh in those long 6+ (sometimes 12) hour play sessions I sometimes like to take. When I get tired of a certain type of environment I just fast travel to another spot with a completely different look, feel, and enemy set. I do also plan to start a second character that is more focused on the less combat oriented skills (namely alchemy, enchanting, smithing, alteration and illusion magic) just to experiment.
It just goes on and on…
To add to this exorbitant amount of content, Bethesda is lucky to have a die-hard community that simply loves taking apart, improving, and adding to their games. Downloadable mods in the form of graphics enhancements, bug fixes, weapons/armor packs, and entirely new missions and storylines are found aplenty on the web for free. Bethesda has taken note of this and is releasing “Creation Engine Tools” and integrating their game with the Steam Workshop this upcoming Tuesday (February 7, 2012) to allow easy access to all this great content for PC players. This will definitely keep me playing this game in the weeks/months/years to come. Oblivion was probably the most time I’ve ever put into a single game and Skyrim looks to be eyeing that 700 hour mark with puckered lips and warm saliva.
Conclusion and Final Score
I think I’ve said everything I wanted to say about Skyrim, besides mentioning specific quest related things. I also highly doubt you want me to say any more than I already have. I’ve grown tired of the voice in my head telling me what to type. I just really wanted this review of Skyrim to be thorough and encapsulate all I love about the game and why.
In short, Skyrim will not cater to everyone, but it caters to me (almost) perfectly with lots to explore (both character and content wise), tons of graphics tweaking, and plenty of other modding. It’s like this game was built for me (minus co-op gameplay).
Oh and one last thing - thank you guys for all the support and praise for my past reviews. I finished this review for those who enjoy reading what I have to share (I doubt you’ll want to read anything else from me for a while after having read this mind-numbingly long and boring review ). I really wanted to finish this review in time for the ranking game but then I took an arrow to the knee.
Overall (not an average)
Note: I’m currently overhauling my game rating scheme to balance my rating scale more evenly (from 5 to 10 instead of 7.5 to 10 ). This will be the first game implementing the new scale so try not to compare it to my other ratings. In my old system this would be at a 9.7-9.8 no doubt (highest rated game for me).
Note 2: All these shots were taken by me within the game. To view them at full quality, just right click on them and open them separately.