Review: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Platform: PlayStation 3 (also on Xbox 360, PC)

Developer: Bethesda Softworks

Publisher: Bethesda Softwroks

# of Players: 1

ESRB Rating: M (Mature)

Official Site

Score: A

At some point, if you happen to know someone who’s also playing The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, you WILL get a phone call, email or text with some variation of the following: “Hey, can you help me out on this quest?” It’ll most likely be something you’ve already done and maybe bragged or shared a tale of woe about to your buddy, but you’ll find the results in their case may be slightly to very different. Sure, some of the basics will be familiar, but after that, it’s up in the air. Perhaps they got challenged to a drinking contest, woke up in a temple in a faraway city, had to help clean up the place (or not) and now have a big mystery to solve that sends them to a new town they’d never even seen before. Or maybe it’s the odd Argonian woman who desperately wants you to take that strange item off her hands, and now your friend has a creepy cube that looks like something from a Hellraiser film stuck in their inventory. Or maybe it’s about that strange note handed to them by a cryptic courier asking them to visit an unusual museum in a most unexpected place where a darker mission lurks. Or the paid assassins that assaulted them while traveling and after killing the thugs and looting their possessions, an odd letter is revealed that only brings up more questions than answers. And so forth and so on…

How do you properly review a game that’s so huge and random, no two people playing will have exactly the same experience even if they play side by side and trace each other’s footsteps? On one hand, Skyrim is indeed a consistently spectacular game experience full of stunning visuals, open-ended gameplay and newly tailored elements that make it accessible to almost any gamer. On the other hand, like Bethesda’s other TES games, Skyrim has a number of bugs that (depending on your willingness to overlook the minor ones and deal with the major ones via a few methods) can make things mildly amusing to downright frustrating. Nevertheless, it’s still one of the best games of 2011 simply because when everything clicks, there’s nothing else like it out there that comes close. Even if you’re not a fan of fantasy RPG’s, there’s enough content here to keep you busy for weeks or even months, especially once you get hooked in and hit the road to explore for a while.

Like previous games in the series, you start out as a nameless prisoner, this time one on his or her way to be executed. Once you create your character and get led to the execution block, you’re freed by a bit of luck in the form of a huge dragon that swoops in for a hot meal that consists of the entire village you’re in. Escaping with one of the guards, you’re led through an excellent tutorial that lets you practice many of the basic skills needed in the main game. The interesting thing about the tutorial (and in fact, the entire game) is you can play it “straight” as a total “A to B” experience, absorbing the game world in as you go. Or, you can start off and continue to exploit the game’s Skills leveling and level up system from the beginning, emerging from that early dungeon as a particularly powerful higher-leveled hero or heroine. Or you can ignore all of that, be a madman on a total (and game-breaking) killing spree, a jokester fooling around with the physics engine for laughs or a simple wanderer looking into every nook and cranny for secrets and more treasure than you can possibly carry.

There are advantages and disadvantages to each of the above play styles and I’m not going to say which is best for anyone. Still, unless you experiment (using a fresh save file, of course), use the insanely deep strategy guide as a reference (I didn’t) and/or hang around a few Skyrim message boards trolling for tips, you won’t notice some of the more interesting changes from the last game, Oblivion. Some of these changes can make the game geometrically tougher if you gain too many levels early on without properly developing certain skills. No matter how strong your character ends up, if you can’t deal with magic users, enemies that can regenerate health or ranged attackers that can take you down before you know where those arrows are coming from, you’re going to be in for a rough time. Smithing and Enchanting will become core skills if you choose to spend skill points in them and even Alchemy (which works a lot better than in previous games) becomes a great skill than can help turn the tide of even the toughest battles the game throws at you.

The one thing fans of the older games will see right away is the new leveling system that both simplifies things, yet expands the way you can play the game to the fullest. The new skill tree system lets you play the game in any way you choose, but also allows even the most hardcore “tank” to wield magic like an accomplished mage or a magic user to wreak havoc wearing heavy armor and carrying a hefty weapon. Each of the races has its strengths and weaknesses and while again, you can scour the Internet for suggestions, there’s enough depth and flexibility here that no matter who you end up playing as, you’ll find you can become quite a powerhouse. Personally, I went for an Argonian (again), as I like the 50% disease resistance and built in water breathing skill (no need to brew or buy potions). Also as usual, I chose to be what amounts to a Battlemage or Spellsword in the older TES games, preferring a spell in one hand and a weapon in the other. Of course, carrying a shield in my inventory to swap in for close-up fighting and blocking plus dual-wielding certain spells for greater effect soon became part of my game plan.

If you decide to follow your rescuer from the beginning of the game, you’re led to a nearby village where you can pick up the first of many quests and side quests. Your quest journal is updated immediately when someone asks you to do something and you accept, but that’s far from the only manner you’ll get things to do. An overheard conversation here, picking up certain items there and sometimes you’ll run across the random stranger that requires an immediate helping hand. This sort of unpredictability combined with the general flow of the game means it’s extremely hard to be bored as you travel from one spot to another. While there’s a fast travel option that takes you to towns and dungeons you’ve been to as well as a horse and cart travel service that can take you to the different capital cities in Skyrim, it’s often best to hoof it as much as you can so you can learn the lay of the land and discover a few off the beaten path areas as you go. As in previous installments, crime isn’t tolerated to well, but clever players investing in certain skills can escape jail time by bribing or persuading guards to let them off the hook… sometimes.

Once you complete an early main quest, you find out that you’re a Dragonborn, or a mortal born with the blood of a dragon in his or her veins and the ability to “speak” through a number of powerful voice-based skills. These Shouts are one of the biggest draws, as each can make things such as combat and surviving deadly traps easier and less frustrating as the game gets increasingly challenging. Among other things, you need to awaken your powers in order to pacify the newly awakened dragons that want everyone dead and Skyrim all for themselves. Outside of that (if that’s not enough to keep you awake nights), a whole lot of people with a whole lot of problems can also use your help as the game progresses. You’ll be asked to choose sides in a bitter war, join a number of guilds (some good, some neutral, some evil) and even choose whether or not to participate in some mild to extremely unsettling activities such as cannibalism or out and out assassination. If those aren’t your cup of tea, there are a number of gentler quests including one that’s all about love sending you to a few cities as a Cupid of sorts before culminating in a bittersweet final mission involving a pair of long dead spouses.

Speaking of love, your character can actually get married (yes, even to someone of the same sex) and/or own property. Getting hitched is completely optional, but profitable as your spouse will set up a small shop and share the profits with you. Owning property requires a bit more work, but ends up being a necessity if you want a more reliable place (or places) to keep your excess inventory, work on your Alchemy skills or just want a respite from the game doing it’s best to do you in hour after hour. While you can clear out dungeons and wide swaths of the game world of deadly creatures, every few game days, these spots are repopulated with the exception of any small villages where anyone living there was killed by strong roaming creatures or a dragon that happened to swoop in for a few snacks. You’ll occasionally come across a corpse or a few corpses of people and animals that were engaged in a battle and may have been killed by something else (eek). If the bodies haven’t been looted, you can of course, help yourself and move on, although you may sometimes end up with another quest as a result of this.

No matter where you’re headed in Skyrim’s massive over world, you’ll be attacked randomly by the occasional dragon and these encounters can often be thrilling unless you’re totally unprepared and you’re in the middle of a familiar or unfamiliar city or village. Feeling the controller rumble as a yet unseen dragon makes an appearance and swoops overhead can be terrifying, particularly if you’re on a mission with a weaker NPC along for the ride. Additionally, there’s nothing worse than seeing folks you’ve grown to know and like (or haven’t even spoken to yet) getting roasted, frozen or chewed up by some gigantic winged beast that’s circling and blasting everything in sight. Even if you are prepared for a fight, you’ll need to take dragons down as quickly as possible before they wreak too much havoc on some areas lest you have almost no one left to get a few interesting side missions from. Certain important characters will automatically hide inside or never leave certain structures, so most of the main quest givers are perfectly safe from harm.

As for those quests, without spoiling too much more, every city has them, most are unavoidable and many will be stumbled upon by accident with a few changing how others in the game react to your character once you’ve completed them past a certain point. While you can put off the main quest for a while, just wandering around can have its consequences as you’ll encounter people who literally run up to you and drop their troubles in your hands before running off. Or you’ll overhear a conversation when first entering a town that piques your interest and before you know it, you’re headed off to a tomb people are afraid to venture near because a few villagers went missing. Or you might hear about some little boy in a faraway city trying to summon assassins to kill the cruel owner of the orphanage he’s escaped from. Each quest has some great dialog that makes up for the generally sparse storytelling. As there are no dramatic cinema like cut scenes here, everything plays out in front of you like in the Half-Life games. Sometimes, an important line of dialog might be lost in an overlapped conversation some other NPC’s are having nearby, but thankfully, your Journal lets you know of updates and completed or failed quests as you go.

New players not used to the scale of an Elder Scrolls game will at some point feel overwhelmed by the sheer amount of things to do and the overall size of the game world. I’m a TES veteran since Daggerfall and each game has eclipsed previous installments thanks to Bethsoft’s dedication to making each new game bigger than the last. In terms of scope, Skyrim trounces all of the others put together with the only caveat being Morrowind is still my favorite for its truly open towns and cities. While Skyrim’s smaller villages and certain cities are placed in the world as areas you can get through without any loading, larger walled cities are broken up into outer walled and inner city areas with a load screen between them. Dragon attacks can still occur in walled cities, however, and some locations are worse than others when it comes to getting in clear shots with arrows and magic. Fortunately, the controls are solid and combat feels much tighter than before. Horse riding is back and while you still can’t fight from a horse (memo to Bethsoft: play Mount & Blade and work horse combat into the next TES game!), it’s good to be able to race through some areas rather than get caught up in fighting. Although, leading some enemies into range of some villages can do more harm than good.

While the combat is action-based (highly influenced and expanding upon by Bethsoft’s own Fallout 3), calling up menus mid-battle allows you to use potions, swap gear and equip new spells, all of which can keep your avatar alive longer when the going gets tough. Animations have also been greatly improved, so third-person play looks a lot more realistic. I tend to play in third person more than first person for the wider view of the surrounding environment (which expands a bit with a weapon or spell readied). That and it’s easier to see if you’re about to run off a steep cliff or other deadly drop in the heat of battle. Still, in some of the dungeons, first person mode makes spotting and disarming some traps easier. The dungeon design is magnificent throughout and while there are a number of “themed” layouts (thieves all shop or steal from the same medieval mall when tricking out their hideouts, it seems), each time you step into darkness, you’ll be impressed by how immersion factor in these locations.

Revisiting my own play style in my first play through also shows how one person plays makes each Skyrim experience unique. My preferences of a great deal of sneaking (indoors or out) and a summoned Flame Atronarch as far ahead as possible in some spots to set off traps and weed out hidden enemies to lure them into a few traps of my own is vastly different than someone playing as a Nord warrior who eschews magic use for custom crafted weapons and pure Dragon Shout usage. Again, the flexibility of the skills system coupled with the ever-changing game world mean no two people will see the exact same things in a session other than certain enemies appearing in the same spots every so often.

The visuals in Skyrim are amazing and even more so when you consider that when outdoors you can run from one end of the map to the other seamlessly and never see a loading screen. Provided you survive the trip should you attempt this at a low level with gear you find along the way from the occasional bandit attack (that doesn’t kill you), you’ll be struck by many things. The way the weather changes as you get to higher elevations, the wildlife scampering away from you (or toward you in some cases), salmon you can reach out and grab, all sorts of plants to harvest and much more all await. Of course, this isn’t some idyllic vista packed with happy unicorns and rainbows springing up with the sunrise. In addition to the aforementioned bandits, expect wolves, sabre cats and bears (oh my!) and more to interrupt your travels if you’re out for a stroll and stray a bit off the roads.

Also key to the immersion is the music and sound design and overall, both are excellent. Yes, with so many NPC’s and supporting characters, there’s a lot of dialog overlap and yes, the different merchant types tend to say the same things when you’re perusing their inventories. Nevertheless, the voice acting is great and even the kids (a first for the series) get the job done well. The privileged brats you’ll run across in certain areas sound just as annoying as they should, while the poorer kids running around playing or moping in the aforementioned orphanage also nail their parts without being overly hammy. Jeremy Soule’s score is wonderful, from the main title that turns Morrowind’s main theme into a rousing Nordic seafaring battle song of sorts to the quieter moments that quickly change to dramatic combat music each time a dragon drops in for a chat. The sound design is equally impressive, particularly in combat. Spells crackle and explode, weapons clang and bash convincingly and accidentally kicking a bucket while sneaking past some powerful foes can have your character really kicking the bucket when discovered.

As great as Skyrim looks and sounds, if you’re a PS3 owner, there are some really unfortunate problems with the visuals and overall performance you’ll encounter the longer you play. Xbox 360 gamers had an easily resolved problem with textures, but on the PS3, the game often suffers from awful-looking jagged cast shadows and character faces that look blurry even when you’re standing right in front of them. Far worse are the slowdown and choppiness that occur when playing for extended periods or while making one’s way around certain heavily populated cities. Some of these problems are due to the ridiculously large save file sizes the game creates and the Creation engine struggling to keep up with so much going on in the game world. For the first 20 or 30 hours, you more than likely won’t notice any issues with the visuals or stability, but at some point (and this seems especially true if you own an older model PS3), you’ll notice a huge performance hit that can render the game unplayable.

There are a few fixes you can do that don’t involve downloading the current patch (which actually and unfortunately makes some things worse), such as turning off all auto save functions, uninstalling and reinstalling the game, and/or deleting some of the auto save files you don’t intend to go back to. None of these are “perfect” solutions, just a caveat if you only own a PS3 haven’t yet bought the game and are wondering about all those things you’re hearing about online. Still, the occasional loading screen freeze or in-game crash will eventually occur, which, if you’ve disabled auto-saving, can slow your progress considerably. Granted, “Save Frequently” should be your mantra for any RPG, but disabling Skyrim’s auto-save forces you to manually save even more often just in case the game decides to crash when you’re least expecting it. At about 170 hours in, I’ve settled on a combination of manual saving, quitting and restarting when things get chuggy. I know Bethesda’s working on a better patch, but I’m hoping they also make sure the eventual Game of the Year edition gets out the door as a far more stable product than what’s here.

You’ll run into a few other issues such as AI mercenaries that you can hire who tend to rush into battle and blow your sneaking before getting incapacitated or killed or an otherwise helpful dog that, while a decent attacker, barks way too much to be useful for stealth-based play. I’ve never fell through the game world as I’ve heard reported on a few message boards, but then again, I’m pretty cautious about where I go when exploring in any open world game I play. Then, there’s the matter of one Louis Letrush, but I’ll let you experience that particularly weird glitch on your own. It doesn’t break the game at all, but it can be a bit unsettling to see the guy pop up in a most unusual place. The only other noticeable character glitches were a Riften guard sitting down for a drink outside with no table, chair or even mug of ale, or a few cases of NPC’s “teleporting” a few feet during a frame rate drop. I don’t count stuff like some enemies sent flying high into the air when hit by an overcharged spell or being able to loot certain copses multiple times as “bad” things at all, as they’re fun (and funny) when they occur.

More problematic is the fact that the game wasn’t designed at all for non-high definition televisions. Those gamers with standard-definition TV’s will NEED to know that there are ZERO letterbox options at all. This will be a huge issue for some with even the biggest analog sets as when activated, the menu sidebars are chopped off, making text on the left and right sides of these bars unreadable (unless you’re good at guessing the missing letters). The last PC to console RPG I can think of that had this issue was Two Worlds on the Xbox 360, but at least you could tinker with the 360’s display settings in order to make the menus fit. Of course, reading them was another matter thanks to the tiny typeface. This isn’t a total game killer for those without HDTV’s, but the oversight on Bethesda’s part is a pretty huge one as 100% of gamers aren’t all as HD ready as they “should” be. Granted, this issue probably won’t even be covered in any upcoming patches, but I’d like some developers and publishers to at least see that not everyone is playing their games on the most up to date tech. Thankfully, there’s no support for 3DTV’s tossed into the mix to make those SD set owners more annoyed..

Minor and major problems aside, as I noted at the beginning of this review, when Skyrim works, it works brilliantly. It’s entirely possible to spend the better parts of entire days engrossed in the game world, discovering new sights and surviving some incredible battles. The game is so huge that while downloadable content is going to happen, some players won’t even need it because they’re finding In terms of content for the money, Bethesda’s skills are on full display here and the game is an unparalleled achievement on a few fronts. The bigger picture, warts and all do make me wonder what would have happened had the game spent another year in development. 12/12/12 may have been a far better date across the board for a game so huge and groundbreaking, which is why I set that as the date on the older DAF blog (and amusingly, only two people noticed it). Nevertheless, even with all the things kicking the experience in the teeth the longer you play, Skyrim is still a game not to be missed. Whether you go for the standard edition or spring for the Collector’s Edition if you can afford it (and love giant dragon statues plus really thick strategy guides), you’ll be in for one of the best gaming experiences to date.

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