Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Review
Warning: This game is bad for your health
There’s no clever or cute way to start this review. Really, there isn’t. Nothing that can quite convey the devastating effect The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim will have on your free time and free will. Looking at the almost pathetic excuses we’ve used thus far to avoid social engagements (“I, erm, I… sorry, no” followed by hanging up has been quite effective) and the complete neglect for anything else in our lives, we’re surprised Skryim doesn’t come with a warning of some sort. Forget Grand Theft Auto and the like – Daily Mail’s been aiming its ire at the wrong target all these years.
“But Play!” you cry. “Isn’t Skyrim just some nonsense about trolls and goblins?” Time for an education. Let’s start at the beginning. Sentenced to execution, Skyrim opens as you’re carted off to die in solemn fashion. Having seen one of the other prisoners decapitated in front of you, you’re next on the chopping block when a dragon shows up and all hell breaks loose. Given their status as a legendary creature in Tamriel, and the whole fire-breathing shtick they have, chaos ensues and you break free.
Recounting story is hardly the fist-slamming, blood-pumping way to kick off a review you’d want for a game that’s scored 93 (admit it, you’ve already looked at the score) but it’s necessary here, as the intro is the only part of Skyrim guaranteed to be shared by all. Once you escape the fiery ashes of what would have been your final resting place, how the rest of the game plays out is up to you. With its freeform structure and ridiculous amount of distractions through side-quests and exploration, you could play for hours, days, weeks, months without ever troubling the main storyline, leaving the Greybeards awaiting your arrival to die of boredom and arthritis.
The emphasis, as with all Elder Scrolls games, is on choice. Choice has become a trendy byword in games development recently but in Skyrim, choice really is choice. Not choose-the-blue-paragon-answer-or-the-naughty-red answer (don’t send angry emails Mass Effect fans – we still love you) but actual, tangible choice with where you go, what you look like, how you play and what you do. That starts with your first cautious steps of exploration and the first surprise is how Skyrim’s map initially feels fairly small and quite bland. Extended play shows this is to be the result you starting your adventure in a town by the largest, emptiest field in the entire game. A strange decision then but once you start exploring the snowy mountains, shipwrecks on beaches, abandoned caves, spooky swamps and medieval forts, it’s one you quickly forgive and forget.
The combat is simplicity married to endless nuance. That’s our fancy way of saying you can mash the shoulder buttons at the most basic, sausage-thumbed level but there are other factors influencing battles such as your stamina, the enemy you’re up against, the area you’re in and so on. Narrow corridors? Lead them towards you. Guard hiding behind shield? Let them swing first and get in your own blow while they’re exposed. Dragon? Just bloody run.
Even then, your choice of playing style will lead to further tactical considerations. Those who build themselves as swashbuckling tanks with paranoid eyeballs peeping through a wall of steel armour may want to specialise in blocking and forging their own weapons rather than, say, lock-picking and enchanting. Archers will naturally want to opt for sneaking, while dabbling in alchemy ensures poisons are always on hand to be applied to their arrows. Those going down the magic route have a wealth of options with their spells from raising the undead to mass paralysis.
And this is before you even take into consideration further specialist routes – assassins can stick to shadows and use juicy backstab buffs to clear their path, wizards can turn invisible like a cheap circus magician to avoid conflict and the indecisive can dual wield a spell in one hand and weapon in the other. The choice, as they say and as we’re at pains to point out, is yours.
What’s smart is that your development in Skyrim is natural, with your skills leveling up the more you use them. This neatly avoids the RPG pratfall of ticking character progression boxes you later regret – you can only build a character in the way you’re playing. RPGs of this nature can also suffer from endless micro-management and Bethesda has done well to trim away at some of the fat. Weapons and armour no longer degrade through use so you don’t have to keep checking and repairing while conversations can be influenced by bribing, intimidation, persuasion or bare-fist brawling rather than Oblivion’s bizarre Trivial Pursuit wheel with comedy facial reactions.
In short, everything from the interface to the menus have been overhauled for ease of use. In less short, through Skyrim, Bethesda has finally found a way of streamlining its Elder Scrolls series for consoles without losing any of the qualities that makes this feel like the huge built-for-a-nuclear-powered-PC RPG it is at heart.
The only real clue left to the heritage of the series is the cumbersome nature of the Favourites sub-menu. Designed as a way to quickly let you switch weapons, spells or armour on the fly to save a trip to the main inventory menus, it doesn’t actually prove any quicker than simply exhaling and taking the slightly longer trek to said menu. Likewise, it takes a few I-wanted-the-quest-journal-not-the-map mishaps before the controls become second nature. After a while, it’s easy to take for granted how easy it is to play Skyrim.
You’ll also take for granted how absorbed you become in Skyrim’s world. Selling a world of trolls, goblins and ye olde fantasy lore to a generation of gamers reared on steroid shooters can’t be an easy task – you only have to recall the forsooths and mayhaps of Two Worlds to remember what happens when this goes wrong.
Yet Skyrim never flirts with accidental comedy as it’s so fully committed to weaving the illusion of a believable world in a long lost era that you’ll be pulled along with it. When Greybeards speak to you in dragon tongue – yes, this actually happens – it’s something you fully embrace, not something to be looked up on Youtube to emailed around under a ‘lol this is dumb’ heading the next day.
What helps sell the illusion is the world itself is far more believable. Skyrim’s Tamriel has geography dictate your passage through cliffs, mountains and waterfalls as much as the black and white arrow on your compass does. Oblivion tried this trick too but the difference is the landscape doesn’t feel as forced, mostly because you have believable obstructions rather than vertically stretched land with textures pulled to breaking point blocking your path.
Likewise, characters you interact with are no longer relegated to horrifying mannequins with moving mouths. They’ll stop arguments amongst themselves and apologise when you draw near, finger places on the map they want you to visit, point out mountains in the distance and the like. While all this is happening, the weather cycles through clear mornings, rainy afternoons, red dawns and star-dotted nights. The mystery of Skyrim’s storyline pulls you all over Tamriel, Bethesda as happy for you to play virtual tourist as you are spell-casting adventurer.
While those story hoops are fun to jump through, with its linear path ensuring spectacular set-pieces and scripted moments are quietly woven into its fabric without you noticing, the side-quests and small stories that connect them are what really form the heart of Skyrim’s adventure.
It’s the Dark Brotherhood assassin you find crouching in a forest to ambush you, carrying a death warrant with your name on it. It’s the ghost of a child who dies in a mysterious housefire, playing hide and seek before giving you crucial information on what really happened. It’s the treasure maps that are actual treasure maps, giving you pictures of landmarks and dotted lines leading to a red X. It’s the statue that beams you to the skies of Tamriel for a conversation, the threat of falling to your death underpinning its demands of you.
Most impressive of all, dragons aren’t just wheeled out for the sake of drama in the storyline. Bethesda let them roam free throughout Tamriel, a constant threat to the idle adventurer. In one brilliant moment that sums up all of Skyrim’s strengths, we ventured out of town picking flowers (for potions… don’t judge us) when the shadow of a dragon flashed past the snowberries we were reaching for. The pad rumbled as a huge roar could be heard in the distance.
Breathing fire across the dense forest we were cowering in, the dragon gave chase as we ran back to the village we just left. Upon seeing the dragon above them blocking out the sun, the villagers ran inside their homes while the guards came out in full force, firing arrows at the beast. After a five-minute battle the dragon fell and the guards stood around the fallen creature in shock, asking if it’s really dead and if they did really have slayed a dragon. This is a small drama we essentially created ourselves by leading the dragon back to the village, partly to see what would happen, mostly because we were being massive cowards. Bethesda, always one step ahead, accounted for this possibility and hearing the guards talking about the event after the fact makes it feel personal.
Not every lesson has been learnt from Oblivion. That game saw Bethesda shooting for The Dullest Opening Hour In Videogames award, as you trudged around after Patrick Stewart for an hour while his knees creaked and he mumbled about the jaws of Oblivion. Skyrim is courteous enough that you begin its adventure in fresh air rather than the putrid browns of Oblivion’s sewers but it still locks you on rails as you’re walked through the controls. A necessary evil given the dizzying scope of the adventure but an evil nevertheless. Likewise, while Skyrim doesn’t suffer from any fatal glitches there are a few moments where you can see the gamecode being stretched tighter than it can handle over the huge landscape – some see-through forest floors, transparent rocks and the like.
Yet if those are both the price to pay for a game this good, it’s worth the cost. Skyrim builds open everything Oblivion did well and makes a mockery of those who made excuses for that game, as Bethesda has shown it’s possible to make a game this broad, this ambitious and this big without having to make concessions elsewhere. Brilliant in every way – just remember to fix your social circle once you’re done. If you ever get done, that is…
Building upon everything that made Oblivion such a joy, Skyrim has easily secured the crown as the biggest game this gen and also as one of the best. Even if you don’t ordinarily like ye olde fantasy RPGs, this is brilliant.