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The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim

Title The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim
Developer Bethesda
Type RPG
Platform(s) XBox 360, PC (reviewed on XBox)
Kelly Score ™ 98 / 100

I have played a few games in the Elder Scrolls series, and each successive one seems to be a little bit better- at least in my opinion.  I played Daggerfall, Morrowind, Oblivion, and now Skyrim.  And, with a few caveats, Skyrim is basically the best computer RPG I’ve played to date.

Overview

Skyrim is a single player open world fantasy skill-based RPG.  Let me explain briefly what that means by breaking out each part of the phrase:

  • single player: you play one character, although you can add a single companion now and then.   You don’t manage a ‘squad’ like in Mass Effect, nor will you ever run into other players like you would in a “co-op” game like Fable 3 or a MMOG like World of Warcraft
  • open world: except for the opening scenes, you can do whatever you please.  And unlike many games that claim to be “open”, Skyrim means it: there are no ‘invisible walls’ preventing you from walking off the beaten path.  Yes, the area you have to wander has limits, but basically if you can see it, you can walk to it.  There is a main “story” quest, as well as hundreds of smaller “side” quests.  You can choose to ignore them if you wish, although you are missing out if you do
    • Another aspect of “openness” is the inclusion of lots of things to do outside of simply completing the quests.  Crafting armour and weapons, harvesting raw materials, stealing from townsfolk, brewing potions- there are many things to keep you busy if you wish to pursue them
  • fantasy: Skyrim has dragons, and things like elves, and other things like orcs, and swords, and magic, and metal armour, and horses.  It doesn’t have space ships, laser guns, or aliens.  If you prefer Tolkein versus E.E “Doc” Smith, or at least like both equally, Skyrim will feel comfortable
  • skill-based RPG:  Skyrim is a role playing game.  You create a character in the world, a character that acts as your avatar.  Generally, the character you create is vastly different from yourself- in real life, you might be an accountant, but in Skyrim you could be a dangerous assassin/mage whose name is spoken in hushed tones across Tamriel.  Skyrim allows you to choose your character’s race and appearance, but unlike some RPGs you don’t immediately limit your character to being a fighter, a thief, or a magic user.  Instead, specific skills improve though your actions: attack a monster with a sword repeatedly, and your character becomes better and wielding swords.  Put a shield in one hand and block some blows, and you become better at shield use.  Cast a spell to heal yourself, and you become better at healing spells… and so on.  You do get the choice of where to assign specific points that you gain each level to specific skill-related “perks”, but there are no forced class templates

In addition to these definitions, there are some other characteristics of Skyrim worth noting.  The world is filled with thousands of non player characters, each with their daily patterns of activity.  A shop keeper won’t always be in their store; they’ll lock the doors and go home at a certain hour, or perhaps wander over to the local tavern and get drunk.  If two NPCs run into each other, they might start up a friendly conversation, possibly revealing a hint or two about something in the world.  The main NPCs all have excellent voice acting, and even the less important NPCs have a lot of speech: unfortunately, with so many NPCs, it is inevitable that the same voices get used over and over again.  A certain Schwartznegger-esque voice actor in particular gets extremely over-used amongst the Nords.

Graphics within the game are very high quality: scenery in particular is extraordinary, with some vistas from high atop the mountains causing me to pause in my journeys for several minutes at a time.  There are some problems with physics within the game- the usual “keeps bouncing around after dead” Havoc physics occur regularly.  Probably my favourite physics issue is the minor problem with Giant hammer impact.

The “rocket launcher” giants are an example of one other issue with Skyrim.  Any game of this size and complexity will have “glitches”, and Skyrim is no exception.  Sometimes an NPC will get stuck somewhere, and there are a few things you can do to cause one or two quests to break.  But overall I was impressed: very, very few things in Skyrim fail in any way that causes a real problem.

The Story

Warning: some limited spoilers follow

You enter the world of Skyrim after creating your character as a prisoner.  In these first few minutes you are introduced to the two main factions you will be dealing with throughout the game: the Imperials (your captors) and the Stormcloaks (the Nord rebels, natives of Skyrim).  You also have your first encounter with a Dragon.  Shortly thereafter, you learn that (surprise!) you are special: you are Dragonborn, able to read and speak the ancient Dragon language, which can be combined into powerful “Thu’um” or shouts.

From this point you are set free to wander the world as you see fit.  There is a main quest, which involves confronting the issue of the unexpected and destructive re-appearance of the supposedly extinct Dragons and your role as Dovahkiin (Dragonborn).  You may also choose to side with either the Imperials or Stormcloaks, either of which will launch a lengthy series of quests cementing the dominance of your chosen allegiance.

Whether you follow the main quest through or not, you will be regularly assaulted by Dragons.  If I have one issue with Skyrim, it is this: Dragons become trivial foes fairly early in the game.  Giants are, arguably, a significantly more challenging foe, as are many types of spell casters.  My image of Dragons from years of consuming fantasy novels and playing D&D has always been of a very nearly insurmountable force: not a mere irritant on your way from one side of town to the other, dealt with swiftly and without even working up a sweat.  But in Skyrim, that is what dragons become: a mere irritant.  Unfortunate, and they could have been so much more.

Your main mission is to understand what has caused the Dragons to re-appear, and perhaps more importantly to discover what being Dovahkiin means.  During this journey, you’ll gain vast amounts of power, expand your collection of Thu’um, and ultimately save the world.  Its a good story, flawed only by the weakness of the Dragons, but otherwise definitely worth playing through.

Questing

There are hundreds of quests awaiting you in Skyrim aside from the main story quest.  Some are born out of other things you do or choose not to do: an entire murder mystery, complete with false leads and misdirection, plays out in one city- you don’t just walk up to the barkeep and ask what work there is to be done to discover it.  Although you can do that, too- there are lots of smaller quests of the sort you might call “grunt work”: retrieve the family heirloom, kill 10 bears, slay the local bandit leader.  But even the simplest of them is well crafted, and has a sense of being a real part of the world, not simply the result of a developer pressing CTRL-C… CTRL-V several dozen times.

Some quests will get you into all sorts of interesting trouble- perhaps an encounter with a vampire will cause you to become infected with vamperism?  And of course choosing one side or another in the war between the Stormcloak rebels and the Imperials will substantively change how the rest of the game will play out for you.  Over all, the quests are extremely engaging, and there were a tremendous number that made me care about what my character did and how it impacted the other residents of the world.

Guilds

One of my favourite “quest” paths in Skyrim turned out to be those that related to the various guilds or societies within the game.  The Companions (fighters), the Dark Brotherhood (assassins), the College of Winterhold (Mages), the Thieves Guild…  my character became guild master of all of them.  I loved the fact that, although my Khajit (cat person) was mostly a thief/mage, none of the guilds turned him away.  That meant I got to enjoy the lengthy series of quests each had to progress through the ranks.  And then there were the benefits: free housing, companions, money, armour, weapons, spell materials… the list is endless.  The fact is, I nearly forgot the main quest entirely for a couple of weeks, just working my way through the various guilds.

Crafting

I’m not a crafter.  I know there is a crafting system in Skyrim, and my nephew Shane tells me it’s pretty good, but I have no opinion.  Apparently you can make some pretty cool armour out of all of the dead dragon parts I have stuffed in a chest in one of my character’s houses.  I wouldn’t know…

Conclusion

If you like single player RPGs, then Skyrim is worth the money.  I got over 100 hours of play time from the game, and could add another 30 hours or so to that by playing through again and choosing a different race, following the imperial faction path, and maybe choosing to play my character differently.  The world is rich and beautiful, the quests and story line interesting and relatively deep, and the combat/magic/character development systems are fun and result in truly unique characters.  I heartily recommend the game, without question.

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