Hmm, that small village over yonder… Oh look! A rabbit!… Ahem, where was I,… That small village over yonder should have the appropriate facilities for me to rest my weary head. Perhaps there’s an Inn? Of course, if I don’t have any luck, I could always liberate that small bandit camp by the riverside down the road and nick their sleeping bags. I hope it doesn’t come to that though, I’m not feeling particularly brutal this evening. Yes, a quick power nap and I’ll be ready to trade with the local merchants. I might even have a chat with some of the hardworking citizens residing within the walls of this fine looking community. What scandal might I unearth through the fine art of shameless gossip? Treason? Theft? Murder? Who knows?! It’s all in a day’s fun here in Skyrim.
What a wonderful night’s sleep. Greetings, fellow travellers! I see you’re passing through as well! What a wonderfully chilly day it is. What’s that? You’re looking for a Redguard woman. You want me to keep my eyes peeled for her? Hmm… you do have me intrigued, stranger. I could help you on your quest but, then again, I could also chop off your head and steal your boots. Allow me some time to ponder upon this conundrum… TAKE THAT YOU INNOCENT VICTIM! GIVE US THOSE BOOTS! Ohhhh! Real leather!
It is precisely these kinds of choices that Elder Scroll fans have enjoyed making since Morrowind. Despite the boasts of some of the industry’s biggest developers, gamers have been relatively deceived and deprived of the true meaning of the word. To quote Andrew Ryan from Bioshock – “We all make choices. But in the end, our choices make us.” Unfortunately, even Bioshock failed to capture the true spirit of free choice and the repercussions associated with it. If The Elder Scrolls has taught us anything through the years, it’s that players require utterly unhinged, unbridled freedom to make their choices feel significant. Instead of simply presenting players with scenarios in which they must choose one of two paths, Bethesda encourages players to encounter their own random scenarios and then choose how to deal with them.
Since the release of Morrowind, Bethesda had me utterly hooked on the Elder Scrolls’ open-world fantasy RPG universe. Recently though, I’ve been playing Oblivion, the fourth iteration in the established and revered franchise. Fun fact – it’s the oldest game I still play on a regular basis. There isn’t more than a month that goes by that I don’t fancy another stroll through the plains of Oblivion. And now that The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is here, it doesn’t take a scrolls scholar to foretell that I’ll still be coming back to it in years to come.
The five year break has allowed Bethesda to explore different areas while working on Skyrim, and the experience they’ve amassed in that time has clearly helped make their fifth iteration the finest in the series. In fact, not only is it the best game in the series so far, but it’s possibly the best Western RPG ever developed. Big speak, I understand, but thirty or so hours in the fantastical land of the Nords not only made this claim comprehendible, but obvious. Fantasy RPGs come and go, but none have made an impact such as Morrowind or Oblivion. Yet, with the release of Skyrim, they appear as mere stepping stones. Yes, it really is that good. Shaving the rarely seen realms of gaming perfection, Bethesda Game Studios have crafted the most beautiful open-world ever seen on any platform.
Although the open-ended world is the game’s biggest appeal, if you want to get a better idea of Skyrim’s history and current state of affairs, it might be a good idea to first experience the campaign. Although past campaigns have offered very light story modes in comparison to the desire for exploration, Skyrim’s main story missions are an absolute geek’s paradise; Prophecies, chosen ones and Dragons galore offer plenty of fiction for fans to discuss. It may be a clichéd swords and sorcery affair, but the tried and tested themes running through Skyrim are strengthened by the convincingly real world that it’s built around. After a superb opening that I won’t spoil, players are prompted to create their own character from a number of races. You can choose any race you like the look of, yet it’s important to note that they all have their own specific perks and specialisations. For example, every race can do magic, but if you want to focus solely on spells you might be better off choosing, say, a High Elf instead of a Nord. Their natural mastery of magicka make them a no brainer considering a Nord is best suited to heavy armour and melee combat. Don’t feel discouraged to experiment though, as every race from Orcs and Redguards to Imperials and Bretons are more than capable of doing whatever you fancy whenever you fancy it. Bored of using your cowardly conjurations? Just whip out your battle axe and cleave that dastardly bandit in two.
Whatever method of combat you decide upon, once you’ve chosen which race would best exploit it’s possibilities, you will be treated to the best combat mechanic yet seen in the series. Gameplay tweaks such as more effective use of shields, and being able to assign different spells or weapons to each hand, make this feel a whole lot tighter and polished. You can equip your sword and shield along with your abundance of heavy armour to become a bipedal tank, or you can double the fun with destructive magic spells in each hand. If you think they’re devastating on their own, try dual casting your flames or frost for some serious fire power.
If all this talk of killing things is building a bit of froth in your pie hole, you’ll no doubt be happy to hear that there is no shortage of said things to kill. You can practice your archery skills by bullseyeing helpless rabbits and goats, or you could go for the big game killers like bears, giants and mammoths. Best not pester those giants until you climb up a few levels though, you could end up learning a very valuable, painful lesson. Other than helpless wildlife, you will also encounter much more nasty enemies that will try to kill you as quick as look at you. Bandits are the most conventional foes but, before long, you’ll be eating these chumps as a light snack on the way to more intense encounters with giant spiders or undead terrors.
However, such a roster of mythical beasts and beings wouldn’t be complete without Dragons. The main story explains why these ancient devils have returned to wreak chaos on Skyrim, but other than being integral to the main campaign, slaying Dragons becomes a very cumbersome activity. Too often I’ve found myself totally enveloped with my own in-game activities, only to be ambushed by these big bullies. My first run-in was epic, my second run-in was fun, but from then on, it gets repetitive. Their attack cycle is easily grasped and, once you have a few of their souls under your belt, they soon become an absolute doddle to dispatch. They just fly over at inopportune times, do their thang, get slain and become mantelpiece decorations.
As you slice your way through Skyrim, beheading bandits, slaying dragons and murdering civilians, you will gain experience to level up. Rather than just gaining experience points randomly, your overall progression is dictated by individually levelling up your attributes. This is a great way to level up and learn new abilities without the chore-like grinding usually associated with these types of games. When it comes to manually choosing which attributes you’d like to progress, you’ll be lost in a staggering amount of skill trees that make your progression one of the most customisable experiences ever seen in a game. All attributes from sneaking and archery to destruction and restoration have their own multitude of upgrades to unlock. Never has any game given you so many options to sculpt such a specialised or diverse character. You’ll eventually feel so unstoppably awesome that your Dragonborn destiny feels like a tiny cherry on top.
Being a Dragonborn, aka the clichéd “chosen one” from every RPG you’ve ever played, also has its perks. If you managed to focus long enough on your destiny without gleefully chasing a butterfly into the vast wilderness of Skyrim, you’ll be prompted to learn a few “Shouts”. Although they’re touted as divine gifts used to help you quell the dragon infestation, you’ll soon realise they’re just tools best used to help you kill more stuff. Getting bested by a travelling orc? Why not skip the fight by yelling him off a cliff? Better still, set him on fire, then yell him off the cliff.
One could talk all day about how great Skyrim is to play, but it not only plays the part, it looks it. Hard though you may try, the beauty of the snow sprinkled mountains, vast open plains and autumn ravaged forestry will rip you away from the main quest to seek out your own destiny. The impressively rendered towns and villages, while often plagued with pop up and minor glitches, will absorb you in their own stories and side quests. However, the facial animations on character models are still a bit iffy and the slow-motion Fallout 3 inspired finishing moves, while awesome, sometimes look a bit awkward in their animations. This is nothing that detracts from the overall experience though, even the frequent glitches entertain more often than annoy; try not to laugh when you see a mammoth float through the air. And I still giggle when I think of fast travelling to an Imperial camp, only to witness my loyal steed (costing a hefty 1000 gold) magically plummet to the earth and die.
The fact that the game’s main campaign, in itself, is a bit boring and samey, is easily overlooked as you frolic through the vividly realised sandbox. And your pillaging exploits are excellently accompanied by an orchestrated soundtrack that you’ll sway to as you reach peak after peak and explore every horizon. Yes, Skyrim is the ultimate package. Never have so many features blended together to create such an unrivalled, unbelievable experience. The only thing that could possibly hold you back from complete envelopment is your imagination. Have faith in the world around you. Believe it is real. Role-play through your own scenarios and become one with the world of Skyrim. Every mountain can be scaled, each stream followed and every catacomb explored. Gear up, get ready and hit the trail. Oh, and bring plenty of snacks because, if Skyrim gets its hooks into you, you won’t be returning for a long, long time.
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