The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

skyrim

Five years ago the fourth Elder Scrolls game, Oblivion, graced the world. And while the rest of the world gushed over its graphics and its sprawling open ended gameplay, I was oddly indifferent to all the hullaballoo.

Sitting in my comfy chair, it was easy for me to dismiss the game. Never mind playing the game, I only needed some preconceived notions that I had floating around my head to just ignore it.

“Oh, it’s an open world game? There’s probably no depth to the story, the controls are probably clunky, and the world is probably mostly empty and lacking in polish anyway.”

And if you just thought to yourself, “Gee, what an ignorant dunce,” I agree. Yes, what a fool I was to dismiss the game without playing it.

It wasn’t until 5 years later in late 2010 that I received the game from a friend, and played it out of sheer boredom.

Needless to say, I fell in love with Oblivion and played the hell out of it. The controls were kind of clunky, but everything else I had assumed about the game was dead wrong. I regret being so late to find a game that has given me so much happiness.

So what was the point of mentioning any of that? It’s simple, you must at least try Skyrim.

If you’ve never played an Elder Scrolls game and just dismiss this game on the basis of, “Oh gee, the animations are too stiff, and the people all look dirty.” Or by the simple fact that there is currently a huge amount of people enjoying the game; making it somehow uncool to you, then you are doing yourself a huge disservice.

In fact, there are only two groups of people that I can most definitely say will not like this game. The first is the crowd of people that happen to think dragons, elves and swords are lame. The second group of people being those who think having such a huge game (both in scope and in acclaim) being so good is somehow a bad thing.

That said, this review is for all the folks out there in their comfy chairs, dismissing the game, and missing out.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is Bethesda’s massively single player RPG. Much like its predecessor, Skyrim attempts to be a mystical fantasy realm of endless adventure. This is a review of the PC version for the game.

I dreamed of games like this as a kid. For me, Oblivion struck a chord because it dared to try to be this kind game you could almost live in solely due to all the many adventures you could have. Skyrim again tries this and to no surprise, does the whole thing even better than Oblivion did.

By comparison, Skyrim is bigger, shinier, and just plain better. If you liked Oblivion and somehow are on the fence about getting Skyrim, then just ignore the rest of this review and get it. There is no doubt in my mind that you will love Skyrim.

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This is going to be a largely positive review, and before I get into it all, I’m just going to get the negatives out of the way. First of all, there are bugs. With a game as large as this, minor bugs are to be expected, but there are some major ones that can get annoying.

For example, I got to the final fight of a major quest line. And for the fight to start there needed to be a certain NPC present who would run in to shoot the villain. Unfortunately, that NPC was stuck trying to navigate into the room, and failing badly by running into the wall. I had to reload the game about 4 times before the fight took place properly.

This was the only major frustrating bug I came across in game, aside from occasionally getting momentarily locked into NPC conversation. But for sure, you will find yourself running into more minor ones like the occasional enemy getting stuck in a corner.

Another major flaw lies with the user interface. I mean, for the most part, the UI is actually pretty good. It’s slick looking and functional, but my main beef is with the favorites list. It’s designed to be a menu that you can bring up in the midst of battle to switch spells or weapons. Favorites is a bit of a misnomer, however. It’s less of a favorites list and more of a “Put-everything-you-could-possibly-need-to-succeed-in-battle-here” list.

Because as you acquire more weapons, spells, and potions, you’re going to want to put them all on your favorites list for easier access in battle.

As you can imagine, this list can get quite long, and quite clunky. Thankfully, time is frozen as you pick through the list.

I realize just having the list is helpful for console gamers, but as a PC gamer I’d like a few more options like being able to bind certain items or spells to number keys and such. At the very least, it would have been nice to have a few more options to sort the list. Like by most used, or item type, instead of just the normal alphabetical order the game employs.

I say this because I think having to wade through the list every time you need to switch an item or spell out in the midst of combat, really kills some of the pace for me, making the combat feel less fluid.

I suppose what I’m getting at is this. It feels like the UI was optimized for the console user, with the PC user being an afterthought. In spite of this, the game plays well enough. But could it play a lot better with all the options that having a whole lot more buttons on a PC presents? Hell yes.

I am imagining the possibilities now, and the fact they were missed makes me a little sad.

Yet all of Skyrim’s flaws are tiny before game’s grandeur.

When you begin the game, you start out as a prisoner on a carriage, and what follows is probably still one of my favorite scenes in the game. It’s like a scene out of a good Steinbeck novel from years long gone. I was drawn into the world, and I came to have a soft spot for some of the characters introduced.

Most notable, was the absence of “forsooth” or other exaggerated means of expression that made Oblivion sort of a quirky, almost goofy kind of game with how hard it rode high fantasy tropes. Skyrim, by comparison, is much grittier and much more down to earth.

Sure the “forsooth” is still there, especially when you start hanging around the mage college, but for the most part you really are in a frigid land of hardened barbarians. This is not Oblivion; gone are the idyllic bright colors, and the pastoral countryside of Cyrodil.

See a corpse in Oblivion, and you’ll likely laugh a little marveling at the silliness of the death. See a corpse in Skyrim though, and you’ll likely feel a little sad. The death scenes are grisly and the stories behind them are often tragic. I came across one of these stories and I was genuinely sad for what happened.

As a result, I found myself legitimately wanting to avenge the deaths of the poor sods I had found.

Life is tough in Skyrim, and even though I play in the warmth of my home, I still felt the chill of the blizzard that I was wandering through in game. The colors are moodier, the darks much darker, and the forests are brooding. Yet somehow, the land is that much more beautiful.

After that basic opening sequence, and your escape from the unfolding disaster, you are free to go wherever you wish. There is nothing in the game that says you must do this particular quest now, and so you can take your time to carve your own path in the world. Whether that is exploring the tons upon tons of unique caves, ruins, and dungeons, or just taking in the world’s beauty is up to you.

You could be walking down some errant path and find some bandits raiding some poor soul with his broken wagon, or you could just find a group of merry men that would just love to share a bottle of mead with you. Possibilities are varied, and almost all of them are events that would tempt a person to partake in. There is a story to the world, but it’s mostly yours to shape.

Some of these are simple one-off events, while others could possibly trigger longer quest chains. And if all these things weren’t interesting enough, there are always random dragon encounters to throw a monkey wrench into things.

Dragons themselves, after you get the hang of fighting them, aren’t huge threats. However it’s the moments that they choose to present themselves that really add excitement to what would otherwise be just another routine engagement with some bandits or just some boss.

Remember that buggy final quest fight I was talking about earlier? There was a dragon raging right outside the entire time. When I finally finished that fight and then got around to killing the dragon, well, I felt like I had just beaten the game.

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This was about 54 hours in. Am I anywhere close to beating the game? No. That was just the final boss for a quest line.

And thus, I set out for more adventures.

If you’re wondering just how much freedom this game grants you; I am currently level 22, have a play time of about 56 hours, and I still am not very far into the main quest. Skyrim really does let you move along quests at your own pace.

During the course of adventures you will, of course, progress your character.

Like Oblivion, your character’s level will increase as you increase your character’s individual skills. Increasing your skills is a simple process. You can either just train them through use or, if you have the money, you can simply pay different NPCs to increase your skill level through training.

Increase your skill levels enough and your character will level up.

Upon leveling up, you will be asked to choose to increase either health, magicka or stamina.

Obviously, health increases your max HP and increasing magicka allows for more spell casts. Increasing stamina lets you sprint longer and allows for more frequent use of power attacks with weapons as well as providing you more carrying capacity.

Unlike Oblivion, you don’t sleep to level, and you don’t need to choose from a long list of stats to increase. The way skills increase due to major and minor focuses has also been removed, and as a result, character advancement is much less complicated.

If you feel this sort of system feels a bit simplistic, no worries. The perk system has your back. It adds much needed depth without the needless complexity.

Along with the chance to increase a stat, a perk point will also become available on level up. I dislike the name as it reminds me of a certain twitch based FPS game, but never mind that. The points themselves allow you to gain buffs to your chosen skill sets.

For example, a perk in the two-handed weapons skill tree will grant a 20% buff to damage, while a perk in the destruction skill tree will give your ice spells the ability to paralyze enemies at low health.

Rather than your class basically being defined by your race at character creation like in Oblivion, it is the perk system that gives you more freedom to create the character you want.

A character’s race still comes with some with some special benefits like Nords being resistant to cold, or Orcs being able to go into a beserker rage to enhance their combat abilities, but overall the races are able to freely to specialize in whatever expertise they wish.

It is in this way that your character becomes more defined by how you play the game, rather than static decisions you make at the beginning of the game. Skyrim is played in a more freeform style when compared to Oblivion.

Combat itself is at its base similar to Oblivion; basic first person hack and slash with aimed spells and archery. But Skyrim comes with marked improvements. New to Skyrim is the ability to assign functions to each hand. For example, in your left hand you could assign a flame thrower spell, and in your right hand you could put a sword.

The execution could be better, but I would refer back to my rant on the favorites list I made earlier. Having more buttons on a computer, I would have liked more options; such as being able to bind certain weapon/spell combos to specific keys, rather than wading through that darn list every time.

But anyway, combat has seen a marked improvement over Oblivion.

Melee attacks have a more satisfying weight and impact to them, the melee finishers are cool, and spells are much cooler looking than in Oblivion. If you played a mage in Oblivion, the new spells in the destruction tree are a real treat, and not just because the spells look cooler, but also because they are much more varied in use and function.

While there are basic mage, assassin, and warrior type characters, the possibilities for hybridization are plentiful.

In addition to all those combat skills, chances are that you will probably also want to dabble into crafting. Crafting, which was mostly nonexistent in Oblivion, save for potion making and enchanting, is a welcome addition to the game.

The crafting systems are simple, but rewarding. For example, weapon and armor smiths are able to craft practically any type of equipment in the game, provided they have the necessary materials and have unlocked the related perk. And if you have both, it’s just a matter of walking up to a blacksmiths shop, using their forge, and then choosing the item you would like to make.

Afterwards, you can further improve the crafted item with more materials, or go on to have it enchanted at a separate enchanting table.

But of course, there is more. Making weapons at special locations will often grant them special abilities that cannot be obtained through means of normal enchanting. Overall, the system is very neat.

I am not lying when I say you could probably spend hours doing activities outside of combat. Not just cooking, blacksmithing, enchanting, potion making, or listening to the songs of minstrels. You may find yourself immersed in the myriad books in the game. I’ve eaten up quite a bit of time this way.

Seriously though, a lot of those books were enjoyable reads, and a lot of them help tell the story of the world. The fact that some books will raise your skill levels in a particular area is just icing on the cake.

Really, after a long day of adventuring in the frigid lands of Skyrim, you can literally go to a house that you’ve purchased, and then read some books off the shelf while you warm yourself beside the fire.

The immersion in Skyrim is fantastic, and  is something that is only broken when the occasional bug rears its ugly face, or when a displeased friend or family member comes along to demand your attention away from the game.

Skyrim is not only a miraculous game of adventure but also a game of its quiet simpler moments. Whether it’s slaying a mammoth, reading a book, or just admiring the scenery, all of it is great.

What I have written in this review only scratches the surface of all the seemingly infinite things to do in Skyrim. I have played for almost 60 hours and you know what? I could easily see myself playing for another 60 or more.

My words are only a narrow impression of what is a very, very large picture.  You could say the animations are stiff or that the people look dirty, but all of that is very small in comparison to what the totality of Skyrim is.

In my book, this game is not only the best of the year, but also possibly the best I have ever played.

There may be prettier games, there may be bigger games, and then there may also be games that have better crafting, story or combat. But then is there a game that does all of those things competently at the same time, and then manages it better than Skyrim?

And even if you disagree with me on this game being the best of the year, one cannot deny that an easy hundred hours of your enjoyment, is one hell of a bang for your buck. If you’re still skeptical, just try it.

If you don’t, you’ll be the dunce this time.

Rating: 5/5

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