Review: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Review: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

I grew up with the constant reminder that ‘You get what you pay for.” But for all the years I spent reminding my uncle that his “deal of a lifetime” boat has logged more hours in the shop than on the river, I am beginning to question the validity of this little life lesson.

My video game fund comprises a substantial chunk of my budget, but lately I’ve been toning that back and really evaluating some of the titles I’ve paid full price for. Bugs, glitches, bad gameplay, poor story, and incredibly short longevity have relegated far too many games to a life spent collecting dust on my shelf. I’ve discovered that a good many titles just aren’t worthy of entering the market at full price.

Thankfully, every once in awhile a title comes along that defines a console generation and is worthy of not only the full price of the game, but the price of the system and every accessory you need to go along with it; a game where you would be more than justified in never touching another title again for months, or even years to come; a title so insanely immersive and filled with content that it’s a wonder they even considered letting it go for a fraction of what it’s truly worth.

That game… is Skyrim.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

For those who are looking to embark on their very first Elder Scrolls adventure, welcome. I feel as though I must warn you that I am going to tackle this review in essentially the same way I played the game, randomly. Unfortunately, I fear it may be next to impossible to capture the magic of a title so vast, so sprawling, so open-ended with simple words, but seeing as how they’re all I’ve got, they’ll have to do.

 Dredging Up the Past

I feel it’s important to provide an extremely abridged version of the Oblivion crisis as those events essentially set in motion the events that lead up to Skyrim.

*Massive Spoiler Alert for a game that’s half a decade old!*

Martin Septim, the long lost heir to the throne of the Empire is the only remaining Septim and he alone holds the key to saving Cyrodiil. Once you finally track him down you discover that Mehrunes Dagon, harbinger of all that is death and destruction, is having one of those days and wants to take his anger and frustration out on everyone else. In the end, Mehrunes Dagon attacks in the form of a large dragon. Martin, the only one capable of stopping the dragon, sacrifices himself in order to return as an equally powerful dragon and challenges Mehrunes Dagon to a medieval dogfight. The two duke it out in the sky and ultimately destroy each other. The result:  Cyrodiil is saved, you are famous, Martin is dead, and the Septim bloodline is no more.

*End Massive Spoilers for a game that’s half a decade old!*

Some two hundred years later, Skyrim finds itself in the middle of an all out civil war thanks to the assassination of the true High King. This was foretold by the Elder Scrolls, so everyone should have technically seen it coming. Unfortunately, not everyone picked up on that and a major divide entered the political fold of Skyrim. The Nords of Northern Skyrim have always felt it best to secede from the Empire as frankly, there isn’t much worth fighting for. However, their feelings aren’t shared by the rest of the nation. For as corrupt and overbearing as it is, many people still see something in the Empire worth fighting for. This divide is the driving force behind the main story and you instantly become submerged in the political ‘he said’ ‘she said’ and must ultimately make a decision about who is worthy of your assistance.

For all the problems the civil war is causing they are but a drop in the bucket compared to what’s on its way. Also foretold by the Elder Scrolls, Alduin, the Nordic god of destruction, has assumed the form of a massive dragon and has taken up residence in Skyrim. Thought to have been destroyed ages ago, the return of the dragons can only mean one thing: the Elder Scrolls’ prophecy is true and Alduin is back to consume the entire world with the help of his servants.

Skyrim’s only hope of destroying the dragons was lost centuries ago with the end of the Septim line, who were thought to have been the last remnants of the legendary Dragonborn bloodline. The death of the Septim family has had a lasting impact over the centuries and is most predominantly seen through the eradication of the infamous Blades. The Blades’ sole purpose was to protect the Dragonborn bloodline and without anyone to protect, they began to crumble. Only a handful of true Blades remain, refusing to give up hope that one day the Dragonborn bloodline will return, because even though the Elder Scrolls foretold the return of Alduin, they also predicted the return of one who would rise up and defeat them.

Enter you.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

You rang?

 Dovahkiin

Wrongfully imprisoned, you are on your way to have your head conveniently removed from your body when a dragon attacks, allowing you to quietly slip away unnoticed.  As you can imagine, you very quickly discover that you play a much larger role in the outcome of the war than you could have ever imagined because you, in fact, are the final Dragonborn.

At this point, you may want to say goodbye to some of the things you hold dear in your life and inform any significant other that you may be disturbingly absent for an undisclosed length of time because you are not just playing a game anymore. Skyrim sucks you in to the events of the world so much that you’ll feel as though you are living and breathing your character’s lifestyle, and any other games are merely a distraction from this incredible title.

It’s instantly apparent that the developers at Bethesda have outdone themselves this time around. In 2006 it seemed like Oblivion was the end all be all of open world sand box games. I couldn’t possibly imagine a title more consuming and addicting… until now.

The major draw to this title is the sheer ability to do whatever you damn well please. There are hardly any restrictions to speak of as you are essentially just another inhabitant of a truly living, breathing world. Fans of the series will quickly feel at home within the game, but how you go about interacting with the world around you has drastically changed.

The entire game is far more streamlined and user-friendly than past titles. Previous games required upwards of 45 minutes to an hour or more, depending on your level of OCD, when creating your character. Before you even thought about setting about on your adventure, you were forced to choose just what kind of character you wanted to play for the next several hundred hours. Skyrim kicks that mantra to the curb and introduces a truly ‘define as you go’ style of gameplay. From the time I popped the disk in to the time I was gallivanting about the countryside slapping Trolls and harvesting salmon was no more than 30 minutes, and that included the opening cutscene and initial dungeon.

That’s not to say you can’t  spend two hours creating your character, but most of that time is going to be spent pouring over countless sliders attempting to get the bridge your female Nord’s nose to look strikingly similar to Celine Dion’s. You can adjust hair, color, skin tone, scaring, age, height, weight, and a plethora of facial features, but truthfully, it’s a giant waste of time as you will more than likely have some sort of helmet on throughout the entire game. Just know that it’s there if that’s what floats your boat.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Even my own mother didn’t love me.

Define as You Go

One of the most noticeable changes is the complete removal of stat assigning prior to setting out on your adventure. Rather, everything is leveled up as you use it. Therefore, if you decide to begin the game as a mage, and 30 hours in come to the conclusion that magic blows and you want to lob arrows into everyone’s eye sockets, go for it. Every time you use a weapon, magic spell, or specific skill, your efficiency with it increases and ultimately leads to you leveling up much faster.

The leveling system has a hint of Fallout sprinkled through as you now have the ability to choose skill-specific perks with each level you obtain. There are hundreds of different perks and this is where you really have the freedom to define yourself and your character. Choosing a specific perk within the stealth category doesn’t necessarily solidify you as a thief. Rather, it just makes you more proficient at removing an amulet from someone’s neck without first removing their head. Perks within a certain category are set up on a tiered system and require you to be at a certain level before you can select it; so if you want to be able to instantly open master locks without being detected, you better start breaking into things.

Perks range from weapons ignoring 50% of armor and dual wielding flurries to picking locks without being seen, magic spells costing 50% less to cast, and a chance to decapitate an enemy with a glorious finishing move. They aren’t technically character defining, but they certainly go a long way towards making your character feel a bit more unique.

For you stat junkies out there, you may notice the absence of several key attributes from past games. Intelligence, Endurance, Athletics, and my personal favorite, Acrobatics, have all been removed from the equation to make way for a more condensed, user friendly stat system. Unfortunately, I have been entirely unable to shake my habit of jumping absolutely everywhere I go. Old habits die hard.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Instead, I sprinkle fairy dust on everyone.

Your ability to create and develop your own individual character is merely the tip of the expansive iceberg. It’s truly hard to convey the range of emotions felt when you are finally set loose in a world where you have the freedom to do absolutely anything you want, in any order you please. Despite the expansive and streamline quest system, I experienced a strange combination of giddiness and overwhelming terror as I had next to absolutely no idea what to do, where to go, or who to talk to. Words cannot describe the amount of freedom this game offers you as there is literally nothing else on the market to compare it to.

The moment you emerge from the pseudo tutorial you are completely free to go hopping about the countryside and explore the wonders of the game. If you are a more task oriented person, though,  you can just plow through the main story line and call it a day without so much as passing a fleeting glance at the rest of what the game has to offer. But that would defeat the entire purpose of playing what may just be the best RPG ever made.

This series has always prided itself on broad, open worlds, but Skyrim takes that to a whole new level. As always, if you can see it, you can walk to it. That mountain in the distance? Go climb it! That waterfall 10 miles away? Go jump off it. However, don’t expect to get there quickly though as a myriad of things are going to distract you from absolutely anything you intend to do. This game is the opposite of Ritalin.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Except for this guy.

There is so much to do and so many places to explore in Skyrim that after more hours than I care to disclose, I think I have discovered about a fourth of the map…that I know of. After spotting an ominous looking castle in the distance I decided that an all out siege to raid the dungeon sounded like a good time, but along the way I stumbled upon a bandit camp, some butterflies, three villages, two dungeons, some wooly mammoths, a dragon, and more wildlife than I could fire a bow at. Needless to say, the castle never got raided. There was simply too much to do between where I was and where I wanted to go.

Once you discover a location you have the option to instantly fast travel back there, which drastically cuts down on the time it takes to complete quests. But you must find those locations in the first place and that is where the adventure lies.

The landscape stretches out for miles in front of you and if you can see it, you can go to it. Dungeons, shacks, castles, forts, villages, camps, towns, cities, ruins, shipwrecks, and other wonders litter the landscape just waiting to for you to sink hours of time into each.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Well, everyone over here has been robbed and killed. Where to next?”

Each dungeon, of which there are easily over 150, is individually created and no two are alike. I had my reservations going in after exploring essentially the same dungeon in countless locations through Oblivion. Thankfully, that is not the case here as a dungeon, cave, ruin, or what have you can range in complexity from mere minutes to nearly an hour or more to complete. You will never truly know until you dive and start exploring.

 Elder Scrolls: Fantasy Life Simulator

The game is classified as an action RPG, but I feel it is best described as a life simulator. Those looking to immerse themselves in a fantasy world where anything goes needn’t look any further as this is about as close as it gets to living that life.

Sure, you can tackle the main story line and decide the fate of Skyrim and all who inhabit it. Or, you can prance around the land collecting herbs, shooting deer, catching butterflies, working a wood mill, tanning leather, running a blacksmith’s forge, breaking and entering, raiding dungeons, exploring shipwrecks, settling marital disputes, cooking, or shouting at people till you get kicked out of town. Which sounds like more fun?

Some of these side activities have seen entire franchises built around them, but Skyrim said, ‘Really? Your multimillion dollar franchise is our sidequest. Sit on that!’ If you were to have handed me a game 10 years ago and told me the whole object was to catch butterflies and mash a bunch of herbs together into a soup I probably would have dragon kicked you through the nearest window. But for some reason I cannot seem to pull myself away from such menial tasks. Any trek across the land is sure to find me stopping at every bush to collect ingredients for my next deadly entree or chasing aimlessly after fireflies in the middle of the night. Why? Because I can.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

The Empire’s in danger, you say? Well what are we waiting for?! Let’s g… oh look. A butterfly!

Deep Pockets

When I do actually manage to lug all my loot back to the watchtower I commandeered, – bodies still strewn across my living room floor – I usually spend an absurd amount of time organizing everything. The trunk at the foot of the bed is reserved for all my shoes and the wardrobe holds all my food while the nightstand and basket in the corner hold my weapons and miscellaneous crap (which there is a lot of.) One would think that with an all out civil war raging just outside my door step and dragons ravaging the countryside I’d be a bit busier. But if I leave, who is going to arrange all the stolen cutlery and dinnerware according to size and color? Or stack the books on the shelf in alphabetical order? Those people are just going to have to wait. I have pressing issues at hand.

There really is no limit to the amount of stuff strewn about the world. Every dungeon is packed to the gills with trinkets for you to haul out and take to the merchant, but they aren’t just tossed on the floor in a pile like back in my tower. Rather, there are signs of life everywhere you look. Any sort of encampment, abandoned or otherwise, is set up to reflect the personality of the people who were once there. Campfires roar with giant Skeever rats twirling above while bunk rooms deep in a dungeon still have remnants of food left of the table. There is hardly any wasted space in this game. It’s just too bad you are limited to a certain amount of loot you can carry… Unless you enlist the help of you housecarl and load her up with a lion’s share of the loot as well.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Hey! Get over here. And bring that extra backpack. We’re gonna need it.

No Expiration Date in Sight

Given how wide open and sprawling the world is, one would think that trudging through the snowcapped peaks or wading through the murky marshes would get old after awhile. But collecting plants, fish, herbs, and bugs all serve a greater purpose and show just how intricately connected this world is.

Similarly, you would think that with a game as vast as Skyrim some things would quickly become tedious and fall victim to the fabled RPG ‘grind.’ Surely you can’t have thousands of quests without a good portion of them being the exact same as the previous five? Or better yet, find yourself slaving away in the wilderness futilely attempting to increase your level enough to engage the next series of enemies or advance the plot. Well, as strange as it sounds, nothing I did ever felt repetitive or meaningless. It could be that there is simply so much to do and it’s far too easy to get sidetracked that repeating any one action ad nauseum is near impossible.

Much of the quests never really feel all that lackluster either. Sure, you’re going to come across your fair share of fetch and return quests, but ultimately it’s not about the end result; it’s about the adventure in between. Quests range in complexity from five minute delivery runs to an intricate off-shoot plot that adds yet another layer to the ever increasing onion that is the Elder Scrolls lore.

Everything you do has a major impact on the people within Skyrim as well. Slay a dragon or murder the evil leader of an orphanage and people across the land will be buzzing about it for quite some time. Or at least until you do something more exciting.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Layers, I tell you. Layers.

The NPC’s this time around are the best and most interactive I have ever seen in a video game. Each character has a specific set of duties and is involved with other characters in predefined relationships and act accordingly. You may barge into someone’s house in the midst of a heated marital dispute. You have three options at that point.

1) Turn around and walk out.

2) Get sucked into the argument, which usually results in you doing a quest.

3) Kill them both and raid the house.

I generally choose option three, but only after I’ve completed the quest they give me. It’s only right to help them out. Nobody wants to die unhappy.

You may also be approached by random people throughout your stay who proposition you to hide stolen goods or deliver messages for them, and they are just as easy to kill, especially since no one is around to see you do it. The fabled Ma’ik the Liar from previous titles is also ambling about, but your chances of running into him are quite slim.

A Well Adjusted Member of Society

Once you manage to put aside your kleptomaniac/homicidal/genocidal/ tendencies long enough to act as a functioning member of society within one of the many cities, you are going to truly get a feel for the level of detail that exists within this game.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Cliff diving, anyone?

Here you can wander through the streets and peruse the various wares, chat up the locals for rumors, buy a house, meet the Jarl, or even join the thieves/mages/fighters guild.

Unlike previous games, each faction has a specific headquarters that you must report to for missions rather than having a branch in each city. Also, the only one that is really considered a guild anymore is the Thieves Guild. The Fighter’s Guild has been downgraded to the super nifty-sounding Companions while the Mages Guild has been mashed into one giant College atop a mountain where an aggravatingly nice old man accompanies you on your journey through the Arcane Arts. Each guild has a sprawling storyline that in many cases is just as long, if not longer than the main storyline for some other games. Needless to say, you are never going to be at a loss for something to do.

There have been times, however, where I step out of the city into the wilderness and have a moment of complete and utter bewilderment. Having the entire world at your instant disposal can be a bit overwhelming, especially when you look at the map and realize that you are have barely discovered a fraction of what what is on there. I usually end up wandering about the mountainside enjoying the fresh combat system until I stumble upon the next thing to devote my attention to for the next few hours.

Finally Hitting the Mark

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Don’t MAKE me come down there! Because I WILL!

Combat has always been a sore spot for The Elder Scrolls games. Morrowind, aside from its insane advancements in visuals and open world streaming, suffered greatly from hollow combat. Swinging a sword at an enemy often resulted in nothing short of an uninspired clanging sound and the feeling that you weren’t really fighting. Oblivion addressed the issue and combat finally began to take a tangible form. Weapons felt like they carried some weight and were actually connecting with the enemy. But something still wasn’t right. Attempting to mix magic and swordplay was very cumbersome and often resulted in having to make a choice between slinging lightning bolts and chopping faces off. There was no real in between.

Thankfully, Skyrim has learned from the mistakes of its predecessors and provides what I consider to be the most well-balanced, user-friendly, realistic, engaging combat system to date.

Adhering to the whole define as you go strategy, you are free to engage your enemies however you please. You can finally storm the countryside sporting any combination of singlehanded weapons in a flurry of dual wielding splendor. On the same note, if magic is a bit more your speed, you can now equip spells in the left and the right hand and use it as either a supplement to your current weapon or an all out tool of destruction and restoration. Dual wielding magic may leave you a bit more vulnerable to physical attacks, but the payoff is that you can activate a dual cast perk and double the effect of the spell. This helps in a pinch, especially when you are in desperate need of a quick heal. Archery has also come into its own in Skyrim as bows are now far more accurate and come with the ability to zoom in and slow down time with the appropriate perks.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

OH MY GOD!… It’s looking right at me… CRAB BATTLE!!

The new favorites system allows you to assign and instantly switch between your favorite spells, weapons, and armor on the fly without the hassle of mucking about in the menu system, which is far from cumbersome, by the way! Everything has been broken into very basic categories with fully 3 Dimensional shots of each item for you to ogle over while debating over what to keep and what to kick to the curb.

The combat does feel a bit floaty at times as characters and enemies sometimes tend to sail past you in odd directions, but as a whole, the frequency of this is negligible compared to how much time you will be spending with the game. Also, it doesn’t really matter when you are off fighting dragons because who cares… you’re fighting a freakin’ dragon!

50, 5 Minute Boss Battles

The most exciting and tense moments of the game come from meandering about the hillsides, evading sabre cats and club wielding giants when suddenly the music intensifies and you see a dragon circling ominously above. One of two thoughts are going to pass through your mind at that moment, “Bring it one, pansy!” or “I’m boned.”

In my case, it was the latter of the two as demonstrated here.

The dragon fights serve as the boss battles and are by and far the most exciting engagements in the game. You never truly know where a dragon will attack as they are simply there in the world to do whatever they please. You may be out and about picking flowers and catching fireflies or deep in the throngs of debating the validity of your crime to an officer within the city limits when a dragon attacks. You never know. Unlike Oblivion, where clearing an Oblivion gate took upwards of 45 minutes, these fights are usually over in a matter of minutes and result in either you a) getting eaten, burned, frozen, stomped to death or b) harvesting said dragon’s souls.

The dragon souls are then used to unlock one of the most innovative and entertaining additions to the game: dragon shouts. I’ll refrain from revealing many of the shouts because they are so much fun to use that it would be a shame to see them coming. However, I will let you know that I have spent more than my fair share of time shouting people into chandeliers, off balconies, and sending goats careening off mountain tops. The possibilities are endless.

Each shout has three words of power that are discovered at random through exploring dungeons and uncovering dragon walls within. Once a word is obtained, a dragon soul must be harvest from a dead dragon and spent to unlock the skill. Some are entirely pointless, but others are invaluable in buying yourself a few extra seconds in battle.

 Perfection is a Relative Term

For as fantastic and awe inspiring as Skyrim is, you may encounter a few hiccups here and there throughout your sure to be hundreds of hours with the game; we are talking about a Bethesda game, after all. However, those bugs are far from anything that even resemble a game breaker. And each of these bugs occur intermittently enough that you may hardly even notice them at all. Thus, I deem insignificant enough to gloss right over as they hardly matter in the grand scheme of things.

At times the audio may clip in and out, which is a real let down because this game has one of the best soundtracks I have ever heard; rivalling that of Oblivion. When the battles get thick and the magic is a flyin’, things tend to get a bit muffled together and some sounds manage to get lost in the mix and/or not occur at all. On occasion, the transition from water to land has resulted in the water sound effect sticking around for quite some time thereafter. Perhaps I was just walking off the excess water or something to that effect. Other than that, the voice acting is top notch, with a vast majority of everyone you meet having a decent amount of interesting dialogue to spew your way.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

A fitting locale for a mudcrab.

Visually, the game is stunning, especially for a title as open and free-roaming as this. Some of the textures can look a bit muddy up close, but the level of detail incorporated into the little things is astounding. Plants have sprawling roots that weave in and out of the ground. Flowers sway in the wind. The water actually has current- not to mention the water falling from the falls looks absolutely incredible. Character models, especially the faces, have been entirely revamped and finally provide a realistic sense of humanity within rather than some sort of bloated, pig-faced, bipedal meat sack. The snow blanketing the land is entirely dynamic as the world is free to dictate the weather and how it covers rocks, steps, houses, and whatever else it may fall upon.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

This is usually where I dump my bodies.

I wouldn’t say Skyrim is the best looking game available, especially considering some of the technical issues plaguing the texture department. Xbox360 users who have installed the game to the hard drive will certainly see a massive decline and visual quality and a slew of people are reporting excessive lag later in the game. Bethesda has attributed that to a game save file and is hard at work on a patch. Hopefully that will cure some of the goofy combat lag that pops up in once in awhile as well. But the game is far from hard on the eyes. Remember, everything in this game is entirely streaming with the exception of entering houses and dungeons. Miles and miles of vast, sprawling wilderness flow together without so much as a hiccup. Just make sure to save often if you are going to be in the wilds for any extended period of time.

 As Good as It Gets

In all, Skyrim is the tantamount of the RPG genre. There is nothing on the market that can hold a candle to what Skyrim offers in terms of content, playability, length, and freedom. Even the most casual RPG fans have delved in only to be sucked into every facet of the game and subsequently struggle to tear themselves away. There is literally no end to what you can do.

In a world where it seems like video games have finally elbowed and clawed their way into an apparent state of social acceptance, we tend to find ourselves spoon-fed heaps of games that merely attempt to mimic the current meme or market trend, regardless of how regurgitated it may be. Thankfully, there are still developers out there willing to pour their heart and soul into a project, dedicating years of time, in order to bring a game worth more in the experience than one could ever put a price on.

Score: 10/10

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