Few game series attract as many followers as the Elder Scrolls. Since 1994, the series has gained in both complexity and followers. Does Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim continue this rise, or has it continued the drop many critics claim have grasped it since Oblivion, the fourth installment in the series?
Bethesda has learnt a number of lessons from Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, the company’s previous foray into the series. Where once magic was less useful in combat than a dead fish wrapped in wet newspaper, Skyrim makes it a powerful ability for those who enjoy playing Mages. Archery too has now become viable, and although an archer may have difficulty going toe-to-toe with an armoured warrior, combined with stealth, a bow gives rogue-like characters the ability to severely wound or outright kill unsuspecting targets in a single shot. Where Oblivion demanded players create a warrior character or die, Skyrim offers true versatility that allows not only great choice, but strong replayability as well.
That is assuming you manage to complete the game once before dying of old age. While most triple-A titles struggle to fill 15 hours, Skyrim can easily absorb literally hundreds of hours of your life. Some of this is because for the most part it can be a slow game; you’ll spend a lot of time between main quests returning to towns, to buy/sell/upgrade weapons and other items. Mostly, however, it’s due to the huge number of quests, side quests, and locations to discover. Most players would be lucky to discover even half the game’s content during their first play through. Skyrim presents a world that lives and breathes, engaging the player like no other game in recent memory.
To call Skyrim a sandbox game is an understatement of epic proportions, every square inch of the game’s world is unique, creating an organic world of fascinating set pieces and characters where hundreds of quests both big and small await. You’ll not always be called upon to perform heroic acts however, murder and theft may be asked of you and your actions may have repercussions for all involved. Add to this opportunities to swap a piece of your soul for power, by becoming a vampire or werewolf for example, and the game’s breadth of moral challenges becomes apparent. Good games challenge a player’s skill. Great games challenge a player’s morality. No prizes for guessing which box Skyrim fits into.
I doubt I was the only concerned person all those months ago when Bethesda announced the new Elder Scrolls game would be set in a frosty, arctic-style region. Surely the endless plains of white snow would be incredibly dull and lifeless? Any fears of a boring environment are set to rest immediately after the opening sequence, whereupon the player enters the lands of Skyrim with its bubbling clear streams run through flowered fields, surrounded by lush forest and snow-capped mountains in the distance. You’ll find yourself frequently stopping during your adventures simply to admire the stunning scenery, complimented by a very well optimised graphics engine that handles textures at long distances easily. Even dungeons are quite spectacular, where lighting is used to great effect in creating the requisite foreboding atmosphere.
Few medieval-styled games have managed to handle melee combat in a satisfying manner. While Skyrim does a decent job of it, expect no miracles. Blocking and counter-attacking is done well, and power attacks feel acceptably meaty as they drive through enemy defences to stagger their targets. What Skyrim does bring to the table, however, is a highly capable dual-wielding system.
This system allows the player to equip their left and right hands separately. Normally, the ability to hold a weapon and shield, two small weapons or one large 2-handed weapon isn’t anything to write home about, but being able to assign spells to individual hands – that’s something new. Equip a sword and a healing spell for example, and keep your health up as you fight. Equip a shield and a flame spell and burn your enemy while being able to block their hammer blows. Equip an ice spell and a lightening spell to slow your enemy while sapping their energy; the combinations allow for highly varied approaches to combat and are quite deserving of their much-lauded reputation. Controlling all this can be a bit annoying however, as I found when trying to swap spells using hot keys; my shield would be replaced by the new spell instead of simply swapping the spells themselves around.
This brings up the only real gripe I have with this game – the failure to exploit the PC’s vastly increased capability over the consoles for which Skyrim was originally made. While the game undoubtedly looks brilliant, it takes mere minutes to find user-created mods online that even further boost the graphics by sharpening textures, adding post-processing, and increasing available memory. If a bunch of random guys living in basements can create these mods within a week or two of Skyrim’s release, why can’t a multi-million dollar company like Bethesda do it? Most of these modders have worked on previous Bethesda titles such as Fallout 3, so why don’t they just hand the guys $100 each and ask them to weave their magic into the official version? They’re currently working for free, so surely it can’t be so hard or expensive for Bethesda to help them into the industry and churn out a superior product at the same time.
Skyrim’s origins as a console port also show through with rather clunky controls and a very backward inventory system on display. Bethesda has been periodically updating the game with patches – one recent patch resolving a few minor keyboard issues – but at the time of writing, Skyrim still fails to take advantage of the PC’s full control interface. Future patches may further improve controls, inventory management and graphics processing, but three weeks after release there’s still quite a way to go.
That said, Skyrim is still a thoroughly engrossing game set in a huge world, offering excellent replayability using different characters and discovering new locations you may have missed the first time around. While porting issues are noticeable, they become minor annoyances in the face of what is otherwise a spectacular piece of work. Stunning graphics, intelligent writing and seemingly endless play choices combine to make this the best game of 2011 for my money.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary PC code was provided to Brash Games for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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