As I brought to a conclusion my epic battle with a blood dragon, shouting flames into its face and driving ice spikes into its body, I absorbed the massive beast’s soul in a rush of light and noise. Flush with victory, I sheathed my enchanted sword and ran up the rolling hill to find my unfortunate horse had just been killed by a sabre cat.
Skyrim is full of hazards and every heroic victory seems to be tempered by some minor defeat as you get lost amongst the living world of Tamriel’s northernmost province.
That’s the overwhelming feeling with which I leave Skyrim: that it continues to be, even when I’m not there to experience it. Complex philosophical questions about the nature of existence aside, that’s simply not possible. And yet, Skyrim’s world gives such a strong impression that it is happily buzzing along, whether you like it or not, that you might occasionally feel as though you’re simply playing a bit part in this wider world of intertwining stories and existences. Certainly during the early stages of the main story or for many of the side quests, you could be forgiven for thinking that each opportunistic quest-giver wouldn’t care if you were eaten by trolls or bludgeoned by giants. They’d simply offer the next armour-clad sap a chance to make his fortune.[drop2]Skyrim’s gameplay breaks down in much the same way as previous Elder Scrolls games. You have a main story quest line to pursue but there is no obligation to do it quickly. There are seemingly endless supplies of side quests and incidental tasks to perform over and above the opportunity to simply explore and exist in this world.
For the purposes of this review, I worked through the storyline with very little extraneous questing or exploring. My game save says it took me over 20 hours. I’ve since spent another six hours chasing around the map doing a few side quests and clearing a couple of dungeons. There is still more than enough to do and I’m still discovering new places every time I travel. Skyrim is a huge game.
Set a couple of hundred years after the events of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, in which the player battled the forces of that dark plane to save the province of Cyrodiil, Skyrim brings another tale of ancient terrors awakened. Dragons had long since been thought extinct in Tamriel, leaving behind nothing more than ancient tales of a long passed terror. Now they are returning and after a scene-setting intro and some fairly complex character creation, it’s up to the player to halt the rising scourge. Or not. The game has no objections to you simply ignoring the main quest and running around the countryside for hours on end. It’s up to you.
Skyrim is about choices more than anything else. Within minutes of assuming control of your created character, you’ll be casually asked to choose between the two warring factions that offer a tense background to the main, dragon-shaped, distraction. Rebels have killed a high king in open rebellion and are now at war with the Empire. Skyrim’s native inhabitants are the Scandinavian-like Nords and their populace-splitting “Stormcloak” rebellion allows for some light aggravation from whichever side you haven’t been favouring while providing a good reason for many of the side quests.
You don’t have to firmly decide to back either side in the civil war but what you probably will need to decide, fairly early on, is how you want to play the game. There are so many categories to upgrade, each with a natural aptitude assigned to it thanks to your selection of race back at the character creation. Using this natural aptitude as a base, you will earn experience and level up depending on your actions and the equipment you use. Always fighting with a single sword means that your one-handed combat will level up quickly. Always dual wielding single hand weapons, magic or using heavy two-handed weapons means that you will get naturally better with those skills.[drop]On top of the gradual levelling of skills, all of which account for the same here – there’s no minor and major skill level decisions, there is a perks system. Essentially, this allows you to put skill points, earned with each new level, into a special trait. For example, you might choose to add a perk that gives you a better chance of striking a critical hit with a one-handed sword. You might want to put your skill point into destructive or restorative magic instead. It’s always up to you.
I found the magical combat a little more difficult path to take due to the story quests not naturally guiding you towards places where learning magic is easily accessible. Ultimately, my preferred mix ended up dual wielding destructive magic and a single blade, which left me open to attack because using magic in the left hand means no shield can be carried and there’s no way of blocking attacks. This meant that I had to make sure I kept a ready stock of health potions in my inventory or be prepared to switch out my destructive magic for some health buffing restorative magic.
There are, of course, many different combinations to these basic principles behind choosing your combat style. Specialising in one path limits your opportunities for progression in other areas. Theoretically this means you could play the entire game several times, focussing on different areas of expertise, and have quite different experiences. On top of the melée and magic considerations, which are limited via slowly regenerating stamina and magicka bars, there are also bows and various arrow types which allow ranged attacks. The archery is not a strong point to the combat but it can be used in occasionally imaginative ways to give you a head start for the onrushing, usually fairly dumb, enemies.
It’s also possible, and reasonably viable, to go through the game focussing on speech skills and stealth. Sneak attacks can instantly kill an enemy and the dungeons you are tasked with clearing are often set up with many little traps, which can be sprung from the shadows to harm your foes, but you are still going to need some basic combat skills to finish them off.
Throughout the course of the main quest line, you must find a way to defeat the recently returned Alduin, The World Eater. This leads you to another new addition to the series: Shouts. A kind of ancient, guttural call that invokes the dragon language to give the user certain powers. This is the method a dragon uses to breathe its fire (or ice, or shock power). You learn the basics and can then pick up new Shouts via the inscriptions that are discoverable around the landscape or from certain people when Shouts become integral to the plot. Shouts offer a timed, recharging method of dealing great damage or otherwise manipulating the world and, while magical in their appearance (and menu positioning), they are not reliant on your magical prowess as per your levelling and magicka bar.[videoyoutube]For those that choose to ignore the fast travel option (which is only available after discovering your destination), there will be a lot of walking. This presents plenty of opportunity for sporadic animal attacks, which will help you level up, and regenerating health certainly helps there but it could become tedious if you’re not a fan of fighting wolves, spiders and skeevers. The horses make map traversal go a little quicker, even though they’re quite expensive to buy and, tragically, as mortal as anything else in Skyrim. What really breaks up the huge distances of the map are the extra locations.
The five holds of Skryim are host to larger cities with better trade options but the vast expanses of rocky, sparsely forested or wintery landscapes between them play host to a staggering number of small holdings, towns and camps which hold treasures and perils in seemingly equal measure. You’re never more than a couple of minutes away from another point of interest and most locations are home to multiple distractions, valuable loot or combat opportunities.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is an exceptionally complex and intricate game, set on a huge map which is roughly the same size as Oblivion’s Cyrodiil but seems much more densely populated with smaller settlements and townships. With everything that’s going on, it would be easy to lose track of all that the game requires of you. Fortunately, the quest and inventory systems are well built to make management nice and clear. The perks system, built around a series of 18 constellations, is reasonably easy to understand although it could be made a little clearer that trying to average out your abilities is a slow path lined with defeat. In order to become effective quickly, you need to choose a play style and thoroughly commit to it. Aside from the genre-wide mechanical issues, nothing is overly fussy or needlessly complex so that it is easy to imagine newcomers to the genre would be able to effortlessly find their way around.
- Massive, expansive world with an immersive atmosphere.
- So much to do, masses of locations to discover.
- Hugely diverse skill paths will allow for multiple play throughs.
- Solid plot, decent backdrop and plenty of extra missions to get involved with.
- Soundtrack is beautiful.
- Voice work is often stilted meaning that conversations are unnatural.
- Some of the detail in texturing when viewed closely can be less than perfect.
- Early hours, before levelling and gathering gold might be slightly slow.
The Elder Scrolls isn’t a series that will appeal to everyone but it certainly shouldn’t be too daunting for newcomers joining at this fifth instalment. The complexities can be easily learnt or even mostly ignored and, although they are what powers the fantastically diverse gameplay paths, what makes the game special is the world it inhabits. Skyrim is a busy, active place that feels naturally alive. It might be somewhat overstocked with murderous wolves but the sheer volume of things to do, people to meet and enemies to kill is simply quite amazing. Simply put, Skyrim – the game – is a wonderful experience because Skyrim – the land – is a wonderful place. I heartily recommend a few days off work or school so you can visit.
Game reviewed from the 360 version.