Release Date: 11/11/11
Platform: PC, PS3, XBox 360 (reviewed on the PS3)
Its hard to know where to begin, when attempting to discuss a game this monumental!
Gamers were first introduced to the continent of Tamriel with the release of The Elder Scrolls: Arena in 1994. This was followed by The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall in 1996, The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind in 2002, and The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion in 2006, along with several side games.
The hallmark of the series is the stunning sense of freedom given to the player, as well as an extremely flexible character system.
The first modern Elder Scrolls game was Morrowind. It was one of those heartbreaking games: if everything in the game had been as good as the good things, it would have been an RPG for the ages. The pros: amazingly compelling, alien, scary, beautiful and fascinating game to explore. Jaw-dropping visuals. Amazing sense of mystery. Cons: the game was so open, you didn't feel as though anyone cared if you paid attention to the main quest, and eventually your interest just faded. Also, it had a clunky interface, particularly regarding inventory and quest log.
Oblivion addressed many of the issues Morrowind had. The main quest was much more compelling and the interface was cleaner and more effective. Unfortunately, the gameworld, while beautiful, was a bit too homogenous, as were many of the quests.
The big question we RPG nerds have been wondering about -- Would the next chapter of the series be an improvement or a step backward? -- has finally been answered. The good news is that Skyrim feels like a distillation of everything Bethesda has learned from the earlier games, not to mention their experience with Fallout 3.
First of all, the setting: each Elder Scrolls game has taken place on a different province of the continent of Tamriel. Skyrim is the northernmost province, and its a wild, rough, cold and mountainous place. Its two hundred years after The Oblivion Crisis that you took care of in the previous game (well, maybe you didn't take care of it, but I sure did).
The land of Skryim is rocked with political strife. Tensions between the native peoples, elven interlopers, and Imperial forces are making the rocky vistas of the country a stressful place. And if that isn't bad enough, the dreaded and heretofore presumed mythical dragons have begun reappearing and randomly attacking the populace!
You play a character who is gradually revealed to be Dragonborn and you have to find out exactly what that means for you and for the province of Skryim as a whole. Are you here to stop the dragon menace or to fulfill it?
The real power held by the dragons of Skyrim are in their voices. As a Dragonborn, one of the most interesting activities you'll engage in is discovering, learning and equipping various dragon shouts. Ancient words of power, you discover these by reading runes scattered all around the world of Skyrim -- most of them in difficult-to-reach places such as the end of a challenging dungeon. The shouts give you various abilities: to push back and stun enemies; to breath fire or ice; to knock dragons out of the sky; even to slow down time. Each dragon shout has three components that must be found separately; the more components of a shout you have learned, the more powerful it is. Additionally, in order to unlock the shouts you've learned, you must acquire dragon souls. And the only way you get dragon souls is by, you guessed it, killing dragons.
While this task -- dragon-killing -- can seem quite intimidating at first, it gets more and more manageable as your skill levels increase. As the dragon encounters are truly randomized in the world, this adds a large measure of chaos and danger to the atmosphere of the game.
As in the previous games, character creation is a joy. You can choose from among Argonians (that's lizard-folk), four types of humans (Imperials, Nords, Bretons, and Redguards), Orcs, three kinds of elves (High, Dark and Wood) and the feline Khajiit. Each race has its own history, agenda and of course, different types of skill bonuses.
In the first few minutes of the game you choose your race, design your characters look and pick a name. Notice I didn't say pick a class. Because Skyrim doesn't have classes. At all. This has been true of the Elder Scrolls games for a while, but Skryim doesn't even have Primary or Secondary skills as the last two games did.
This freedom is dizzying, and so unlike most western RPGs.
Here's how it works. There are three sets of skills in the game: The Path of Might (Smithing, Heavy Armor, Block, Two-Handed, One-Handed and Archery); The Path of Shadow (Light Armor, Sneak, Lockpicking, Pickpocket, Speech and Alchemy); and The Path of Sorcery (Illusion, Conjuration, Destruction, Restoration, Alteration and Enchanting). You take a gander at the skills, decide which ones sound fun to you and start developing them.
And how do you develop them? Not by spending traditional skill points. Nope, the approach the game takes is stunningly organic: you develop skills by using them. Spend a lot of time swatting at enemies with one-handed weapons and watch your One-Handed skill go up. Make a lot of potions and see your Alchemy skill increase. It's that simple.
The game doesn't even have Experience Points. Wait, an RPG without XP? That's right. You level up after you've increased any combination of skills a certain amount. (The higher the level of skill-up, the more it contributes to your level progress.)
When you do level up, you get to do two things: add a point to one of three core statistics (Health, Magicka, or Stamina)and you get a Perk to spend. Perks give you bonuses to target skills by either improving them directly or giving you special abilities.
It's a fantastically useful, natural and intuitive system, made even nicer by the beautiful Skills interface. To examine your skills, you simply look up into the sky. Each skill tree is a constellation and as you pick Perks, the various stars in the constellations light up. Its lovely and elegant.
Bethesda even gives you freedom with the format of the game in that you can play either in traditional First-Person or Over-the-Shoulder Third-Person. I found myself bouncing back and forth between both views quite a lot, as each worked better in different situations.
The hallmark of this series has always been player freedom, sometimes at the expense of any focus or through line to the story. Skyrim manages to get this balance just right. You can do whatever you want, pursue whatever quests and storylines interest you and work on the main quest whenever you feel like it.
And oh, what a world. Skyrim is a huge province and you are free to explore every inch of it. Design-wise, it's a beautiful if not flashy place. In the first hours of the game I found myself wishing that the architecture of Skyrim were more over-the-top. But I soon realized that the payoff to the more realistic visuals was just that: it made Skyrim feel like an organic, actual place. Whenever you discover a new fort, a new town, a lonely temple in the snow it can give a real thrill of discovery.
Travel through the game world has steadily gotten better in the series. In this game, a location doesn't appear on your map until you've heard about it. Once you've actually traveled to a location you can, forever after, fast-travel to it from any outdoor location. It's a good system that makes exploring the world rewarding and keeps the dashing about you have to do to get your quests done not a cumbersome chore. It's also satisfying to gradually see the map peppered with the locations where you have had adventures. It really adds to your sense of accomplishment.
For me the exploration highlight involved a long trek up the highest mountain on the map. It took a long time, and I was amazed at how real the experience felt: lines of snow blowing into my face, various creatures impeding my progress, the views off the edges of the mountain, etc. It was a thrilling ninety minutes.
Skyrim has to be one of the most generous games you'll ever spend your money on. There are so many things you can get involved with. In addition to the fascinating main quest, you can: become a lethal assassin; become a master thief; join a civil war (on either side!); become a vampire; become a werewolf; get married (to a male or female); purchase and furnish homes; go to wizard college; become a master blacksmith, alchemist and enchanter; commune with the mysterious and powerful Daedric gods of Tamriel and do their bidding; clear out nests of bandits, vampires, spiders and undead; explore vast underground ancient dwarven city ruins; solve puzzles; pick flowers; mine valuable ore and gems. In addition to these and many other activities, you can endlessly explore, explore, explore!
And I haven't even mentioned the beautiful horses you can buy, steal and ride.
The evil genius of game director Todd Howard and his talented team is that they want to get right to the essence of electronic gaming: they want to create a heady world of enchantment, danger and freedom that seduces you. And seduce it does: I would recommend picking this game up during a vacation or when you're, ahem, between jobs.
The central story of the game -- the unwelcome return of the fearsome dragons -- is told in the main quest. As the main character, you're free to move this quest forward at any pace you like. Feel like developing your education with the mage guild for a dozen hours or so? No problem. Or is it time to indulge in some stealthy assassinations? The main quest will be waiting for you when you are ready.
This system really makes you feel that you are in control of your overall experience in the world of Skyrim. It also gives you meaningful chances to actually role-play, as many of the quests have serious moral and political choices to make.
You also don't have to go it alone. There are many recruitable characters in the game who can help you on your adventures.
Alas, all is not perfect in the northern mountains. This is an Elder Scrolls game, after all, which means it's got its share of bugs and other problems.
The bugs you encounter will depend on your luck and what system you play the game on. But they include such things as invisible armor pieces, dragons flying backwards, quests that wont leave your quest log even when completed, and quest items you can never remove from your inventory.
The worst bug I encountered was a glitch that kept me from progressing in the Thieves Guild quest line. This was a shame, as it was an interesting story; and the fact that I was playing a stealthy character meant that I missed a major portion of content that would have been appropriate and appealing to me. (My queries to Bethesda about a fix went unanswered.)
In addition to bugs, the game has a few other problems. The quest log has two major issues: 1) You cannot abandon quests you decide you do not want to complete, and 2) Other than getting a geographical hint about where to resolve your quest, there is no way you can remind yourself about quest details and background. In a game this size with a quest log that gets this full, this is a disappointing oversight.
Also, even though there is a Quick Menu, its not as useful as it could be because the fact is, you need to be able to switch out several items at a time, depending on what your current task is. It drove me crazy that I couldn't set up equipment sets. Time to do some trading? Time to switch out my cloak, shoes and necklace. Time for two-handed stealth backstabbing? Time to change both of my weapons. The fact that I had to endlessly switch out multiple pieces of equipment to perform optimally got pretty obnoxious.
And speaking of obnoxious, the load times on the PS3 are just horrible. I'm talking up to 40 seconds. When you're popping in and out of buildings and across the landscape, there are times when this cascade of delays becomes almost intolerable. (My friends playing the game on the PC report that the load times on that platform are admirably brief.)
Finally, enemy AI problems. Again, I played a stealthy character. I can't tell you how many times I quietly killed a guard or an evil sorcerer who was five feet from a colleague . . . which would not seem to bother the colleague one bit! Not even when he literally tripped over his buddy's corpse! To be fair, sometimes you'd hear a survivor say, "I'm going to find whoever did this..." but then he'd seem to lose interest almost immediately. This silliness sometimes caused inappropriate humor . . . and sometimes it just pulled me out of the intensity of the situation.
However, it's true that when creating a single-player RPG this huge, its easier to forgive the cracks around the edges.Skyrim gets so much right that I can overlook its faults.
If you've ever wanted to get truly lost in a game and want the freedom to play any type of character you can imagine, you owe it to yourself to pick up this game.
● Windows 7/Vista/XP PC (32 or 64 bit)
● Processor: Dual Core 2.0GHz or equivalent processor
● 2GB System RAM
● 6GB free HDD Space
● Direct X 9.0c compliant video card with 512 MB of RAM
● DirectX compatible sound card
● Internet access for Steam activation
● Windows 7/Vista/XP PC (32 or 64 bit)
● Processor: Quad-core Intel or AMD CPU
● 4GB System RAM
● 6GB free HDD space
● DirectX 9.0c compatible NVIDIA or AMD ATI video card with 1GB of RAM (Nvidia GeForce GTX 260 or higher; ATI Radeon 4890 or higher).
● DirectX compatible sound card
● Internet access for Steam activation