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The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Review

We live in an age of refined fantasy. Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings series completely re-imagined what film fantasy could – and should – be, and gone forever are the days of Willownonsense. (I hope.) George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice has reached a level of political and moral maturity – not to mention unpredictability – most genre series can only dream of.

Add Bethesda’s The Elder Scrolls IV: Skyrim to that list; by doing what they do best, why, they’ve just about made just about every other fantasy RPG franchise their bitch.

Is it perfect? No. But it’s possibly the most deeply addictive, thrillingly plotted video ever made. It’s certainly the most engrossing video game world I’ve ever stepped into. Unlike Oblivion, a world that felt stiff and unnatural, Skyrim feels lived in; individual cities’ micro-politics merge with the macro-politics of the world at large. The one-two punch of its tried-and-true gameplay and its new-and-true leveling system are, like heroin, designed to make you completely unable to not come back for more. The visuals are sumptuous, evocative, and properly epic. Some déjà vu hits in some of the dungeon design, but that’s to be expected in a world so massive. The game is, as so many Bethesda products before it, unfortunately prone to strange glitches and technical issues. This wouldn’t be much of an issue for me if it weren’t that some of them are – especially if, like me, you play it on a PS3 – outright gamebreaking.

Insert joke about an arrow to the knee.

Where the game really succeeds – sings! – is in its storytelling. You begin the quest as an anonymous nobody (a highly-customizable nobody) who discovers that he or she is a Dragonborn of legend, a person with the soul of a dragon. The task before you now is to wipe out the dragons that are plaguing the continent. Yessir, this is fairly typical medieval fantasy stuff, but, thanks to Bethesda’s skill at spinning yarns and crafting deep worlds, Skyrimmakes it feel unique and special, even if it isn’t.

If you played Oblivion– or, to a lesser extent, Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas – you have an idea what to expect. The combat and movement mechanics in Oblivion were clunky and difficult to manage, especially if (for some godforsaken reason) you tried to play the game from a third-person perspective. Not so in the province of Skyrim. Movement is much more manageable, cleaner, polished to excellence. Wielding spells (now with dual-wielding!), axes, and daggers has never felt so natural.

But problems arise. Some of that Oblivion clunk is inbred, and hit detection can be spotty. There’s also that annoying difficulty imbalance Bethesda games seem unable to get avoid. Remember the first time you accidently walked into a pack of Deathclaws in Fallout 3 and got your ass just fucking kicked? It’s gonna happen in Skyrim,too. I also have to lodge a complaint against the companions you pick up throughout. They’re often helpful – sometimes lifesaving – but they have a bad habit of getting in your way, especially in tight corridors – and you will find yourself in many. I wanted to scream at J’Zargo more than once for being such a pain in the ass. In general, combat and movement are much improved. And would you believe I actually played in third-person from time to time…

J’Zargo has some fire scrolls he’d like you to try…

Magic has been pleasantly refined. The abilities you expect — fireballs and defense boosters, healing and summoning — are rounded out with some helpful new additions. The ‘Clairvoyance’ conjuration spell, which tells you where to go to reach a quest objective, is invaluable in a game so huge. Shouts are a glorious new mechanic. As you battle you way through the embittered Skyrim landscape, you’ll learn dragon shouts, abilities similar to magic — such as Unrelenting Force, a loud yell that blows enemies away, Whirlwind Sprint, a quick blast of speed which helps get across gaps or away from danger, and Fire Breath, exactly what it sounds like — that add a fun new layer to combat.

The leveling system is a stroke of genius. It’s also absurdly simple: you level individual skills, a staple of most RPGs, and individual skill levels add to your overall level. But you level skills by using them. You like to sneak around stab people in the dark? Your sneak and one-handed skills go up. You like the run into a fray with a giant war axe and turn the ground into a tapestry of gore? Your two-handed and heavy armor skills go up. Is magic more your thing? The five magic skill subsets go up. Level the way you play – what a novel idea.

The game impresses visually due to Bethesda’s abundant art design talent. Skyrim’s mountains tower realistically. The whole continent feels properly bleak. Every time you exit a city or village or dungeon, you can practically feel the monstrous eyes in the dark. Discovering new cities always feels exciting. Each city feels lived in, unique from one another. As mentioned, the individual politics and situations – from serial killers to haunted crypts to megalomaniacal families – lend each city a fresh vibe, and I loved the way each one has a distinctive political leaning.  This lends the game world further believability. It feels as though war could break out at any moment – there’s palpable intensity to it

What a hideously ugly game…

I cannot heap the same praise upon the dungeons. Their layouts are sometimes thrilling, massive and awe inspiring, with huge underground structures that had me gawking (usually these came with a surprised “Wouldja look at that!” comment from my companion). Most of the dungeons are the same hallway-crypt-hallway-hallway-hallway-trap-destroyed keep-hallway-huge crypt-undead prick formula. I was reminded of the unfortunate visual repetition in the bombed out settings of the Fallout games. The fun combat and leveling system’s constant sense of achievement kept me – and still has me – hooked, but it’s hard not get a little bored with the same bleak underground setting.

If you’ve read anything about Skyrim online, you know that the world isn’t plagued just by dragons, but by myriad odd technical issues. These range from amusing (I killed a frost dragon hours back in the quad of the Mages’ College in Winterhold, and every time I return his skeleton reloads and falls from the sky. It usually gets caught on a tree and dances epileptically for me as I walk into the college) to frustrating (On a mission for Whiterun, I was – surprise! – tasked to track down a dragon. When I got there, the dragon was moving ultra-fast and glitchily through the sky, making him nearly impossible to hit. I just took his shout and moved on) to infuriating (My game has crashed seven times). As I said, it’s only the issues that render the game unplayable that really get to me. My game crashed once in the week since I got it. Six of those crashes I mentioned – as well as all those other issues – have come since Bethesda released their “update.” Additionally, being a second-class citizen/PS3 owner, my game suffers from mega-lag if save files start to pile up. Thanks guys.

Just go about your business.

But it’s a testament to just how good Skyrim is that even gamebreaking bugs haven’t stopped me from loving it. That’s because, fundamentally, technical issues are superficial. They don’t detract from the game. They may mar my experience, but they don’t actually have any bearing on the game itself. Once you get wrapped up in the plot – or better yet, one of the exciting side plots – you’ll forget all about dancing dragon skeletons.

The story is Skyrim’s meat and potatoes. As mentioned, this is a pretty typical medieval fantasy setting, but – like A Song of Ice and Fire – it succeeds because it doesn’t treat it as anything typical. You’ll blast your way through hundreds, if not thousands of enemies using magic and spells, and of course dragons and otherworldly Daedric princes figure necessarily into the plot, but the focus is usually on humans and their most horrifying invention: politics. (And does anyone actually have the time to read all the books scattered throughout? It’s not as though there’s a page or two scattered here and there — the game has actual books. If anything shows Bethesda’s insane commitment to immersion, it’s this. You could sit and read the lore of Skyrim for hours and hours if you wanted to.) This makes Skyrim feel believable and involving. It never – well, rarely – falls into typical genre traps. The supernatural elements of the story are a bit off to the side, hiding in the shadows and just far enough out of view to feel constantly menacing.

I gave you an introduction to the basics of the plot, but that doesn’t begin to do justice to the sheer amount of story Skyrim has to offer. Yes, you are the Dragonborn, you’ll travel across the land collecting shouts and horns and such, and you’ll defeat a great many dragons, but most of the fun to be had in Skyrim comes from sidequesting. For example, joining either the Companions, the Thieves’ Guild, the Mages’ College, or the Dark Brotherhood will unleash hours of excellent, insular stories, as much content and hours of play as many other full games. And it doesn’t hurt that they’re jam-packed with twists, betrayal and fun. Oh, and that doesn’t even consider the dozens of Daedric prince missions, which are similarly long and involving. More than once I started what I thought would be a basic fetch quest only to be wrapped up in an epic conspiracy. One might wonder how your character can be the “chosen one” so many times over, but hell, chock that up to the life of a Dragonborn. The sheer amount of story – and the fact that little of it sucks – is staggering.

Sweet mother…

Another improvement is the morality system – in that there is none. I know there wasn’t in Oblivion, but my god, I am sick to all hell of these cancerous ethical systems. One of my most aggravating gaming moments in recent years was playing New Vegas. It was clear that Obsidian went above and beyond to make your decisions more morally gray than in Fallout 3, but after awhile, I realized I was getting karma points for killing Caesar’s Legion members, and I’d lose Karma if I killed a member of the NCR – it took away much of the grayness of the overarching plot, giving me a clear right and wrong path. Not so in Skyrim. As in the Fallouts, there are repercussions to your actions, and, maybe simply because I wasn’t told “this is right” and “this is wrong,” I had a genuinely difficult time making some choices. For example, choosing whether to join the viciously intrusive Empire or the white-is-might Stormcloak rebellion – both seemed evil in equal measure. I sincerely hope Bethesda brings this balance to Fallout 4, or greatly refines the karma system.

To absolutely no one’s surprise, Skyrim is a definite game of the year candidate for me. I’ve sunk a lot of time into it, and I see myself playing much, much more. I’m not shocked that Bethesda is seeing a hitherto unknown level of success from it. Despite its issues, it’s the best product the skilled developer has delivered. In fact, I have a suspicion that Bethesda’s success might have something intrinsically to do with these technical issues. John Lasseter, the creator and CEO of Pixar, once succinctly attributed the studio’s critical and commercial success to the fact that their “films don’t get finished, they just get released.” What he meant was the Pixar constantly refines their work until they absolutely cannot. The success of Bethesda game can be boiled down to this same level of ambition. I feel as though they follow a design philosophy similar to Pixar’s. If Skyrim is broken, it’s likely because it hasn’t been finished, it’s just been released.

P.S. Am I the only who feels as though Bethesda missed the opportunity to put some good, satanic black metal into Skyrim? The game is so obviously inspired by Norse middle ages and mythology, I half expected some of my enemies to be in corpse paint. I’m usually against the use of modern music in period or fantasy-set video games, but can you imagine if this kicked in when you fought your first dragon:

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Posted on December 20, 2011, in Game Reviews and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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