Oh my, where do I start when attempting to review such a massive game like Skyrim?
Do I wax lyrical about the lush beauty of the world in which you are thrust? Or do I sing the praises of the new user interface which has seamlessly been refined to near perfection for the console audience (probably much to the disgust of the PC crowd)! I could talk for hours about my numerous encounters with the wildlife of Skyrim, of how the game does a superb job of making random encounters seem like scripted ones. But let’s hold back for a moment and start at the very beginning.
Skyrim is the latest instalment of the Elder Scrolls series, to which I’ve been a HUGE fan since Morrowind was released in 2002. I became marginally obsessed with Oblivion and its DLC and spent SUCH a long time in Tamriel just poking around and soaking up the world, dabbling in the numerous side quests. In fact, I probably didn’t completed the “main quest” for a good few years after the game was released, so I do consider myself a bit of a veteran in TES series.
The premise of Skyrim is remarkably simple if initially a little overwhelming – you are introduced to a vast sprawling fantasy world with numerous towns/cities and hamlets with a vague notion of where you should be headed to progress the storyline. Anything you do from the moment the “tutorial” introduction ends is entirely up to you. If you want to meander around a local village, helping out the locals; earning some coin then you can, alternatively if you want to wander off and explore the numerous dungeons/caverns for loot then do it. Want to turn up at a village and kill everyone (weirdo)? Go for it, or, if you want to earn some coin, buy a house and get married – guess what, you can. It’s all about choice here and for a game that presents so much of it, it handles itself and the consequences of your actions so well, that it’s very easy to forget you are playing a game at all!
When a new game is released from an iconic series which you are incredibly fond of, its probably fair to say that there is always a little trepidation as you play for the first time – needless to say there was no need for any concern – Bethesda have seemingly done the impossible and improved on nearly every aspect of the game. Where something didn’t quite work in Oblivion, it’s clear that serious discussion was had at a fundamental design level and changes made all in favour of the player experience. Usually (as with everything) it’s the simple changes that really make the biggest difference. For example you might spend the best part of an hour exploring a dungeon to get to the central chamber, maybe kill a boss/pinch some loot and then you turn around and dread the long trudge back to the entrance, but no, wait, I spy a secret passage opening up that takes you straight to the entrance again. A simple touch (borrowed from Assassins Creed) but something that really helps the flow of the game. Also, a particular gripe I had with Oblivion was the ability to only “favourite” 8 weapons – Skyrim has done away with this and lets you create a separate favourites menu in which you can not only place weapons, but armour, spells, and pretty much anything you have in your inventory at the moment. The favourites menu is accessed with a tap “up” on the D-pad. Simple and effective and yet really does add to the fluidity of the experience.
The way that the game handles skill upgrades is a vast improvement over Oblivion too. Gone are the picking of major and minor skills in Oblivion, in Skyrim you level up by “doing stuff”. Doesn’t have to be specific stuff, just use your weapons, pick locks, cast some spells and sooner or later you will level up. The levelling up process is really neatly handled too – you basically look up to the stars and select to improve one of your three statistics – Health (you can take more damage), Magicka (cast more/more powerful spells) or Stamina (run further, swing your sword harder etc). Once you have selected which stat you wish to improve you can then allocate a point into “perks” provided that the skill level for that branch is adequate. This enables a degree of character customisation and specialism that has been lacking in previous Elder Scrolls titles – it’s a fantastic refinement of a cumbersome system and the perks system is a welcome addition.
All these refinements mean nothing if the game plays poorly though. Thankfully the game plays fantastically. There is a real sense of being immersed in this world and not only that, that the actions/tasks you perform have an impact on its inhabitants. All too often in sandbox world games, despite the openness of them, you are led down a narrow linear “main quest” path which invariably leads to a finale and then there’s little incentive to continue. Whilst there is an element of the linear main quest here, you are forced to make decisions along the way that genuinely move away from the “go here, do that” mentality and encourage thinking on your feet. Indeed in the first 10 minutes of the game you make such a decision and make it quickly. Whilst it’s not game changing in terms of story progression, it certainly “puts you on the spot” and forces you to react with a gut instinct rather than look through countless menus and conversations to decide the “best” course of action.
Then there are the epic dragon battles. They are perhaps simultaneously one of the most terrifying and well presented aspects of the game. When you first hear that dragon roar (and, once you’ve killed your first they could happen anywhere, and at any time) you genuinely feel like you need to run for cover and assess the situation. Certainly in the earlier levels if you stand your ground and don’t think tactically you will be killed, probably VERY quickly. This really does feel like the right way to handle these encounters. The inhabitants of Skyrim are (rightly) terrified of these Dragons and if you could take them out with a couple of sword swings it would mean that fear would seem wholeheartedly displaced and pointless. No, these Dragons mean business and they let you know that VERY early on! The reward for slaying a Dragon is that you absorb its “soul” and you can use these souls to “power” up the numerous magical “thu’um” or “shouts” you discover throughout the world. These “shouts” allow you additional abilities which can be powered up to really impressive and powerful levels – so there is a definite incentive to Dragon hunting!
In addition to all this lovely Dragon chasing, Bethesda have improved their “radiant” AI system to now generate quests for you “on the fly” so to speak. So wandering around the world you will find you bump into quests which can divert you from your task at hand, this I find is one of the greatest things about Skyrim – if you get stuck on a particular quest (and I’m sure you will over the course of the game), you can leave off and do something else for a while. When I say a while, don’t be surprised if you find yourself distracted for 2-3 hours. It’s great how the game is constantly offering you new stuff to do, stuff that might suit your skill set better at the moment before you return to the quest that you were struggling with.
The only real downsides here are the numerous little (and one big) glitches that you spot. These are unfortunately an expected staple of an open world experience and to be honest there aren’t as many as I first expected. Oblivion was rife with weird stuff happening and the only real glitch I’ve seen is a weird bug with a woodcutter carrying some chopped wood in his feet! There are reports of the 360 version having a texture bug that manifests itself when you install to the 360 drive, and that the PS3 version (the one I’m playing) has a crippling lag bug as your save game size increases. Thankfully (and touching wood) I’ve not experienced this lag yet, certainly not to any level that makes it a game breaker.
Skyrim is SO much more than the sum of its parts – each of its parts is fantastically implemented in isolation and when coupled with all the other systems and improvements you are genuinely presented with a masterpiece of game design and programming. It’s REALLY hard to see how this could be improved however I’m sure (given the initial sales) that Bethesda will give it a go which is REALLY exciting to contemplate.
I’m at the end of my review and genuinely (it’s an overused phrase) I have barely scratched the surface of the game and what it offers. Value for money notwithstanding, the sheer level of enjoyment and excitement you will get from playing this game is unparalleled – a genuinely exciting swashbuckling journey from beginning to end… Although it doesn’t really end!
Reviewed on PS3