By: George Weidman
Day 6: I trotted my horse off the side of a cliff, and it wasn’t an accident. An ice troll charged at us from seemingly nowhere and in my panicked haste I made some desperate decisions. Luckily, the horse’s squishy body broke my fall, but I was left battered, alone and stranded in the cold tundra. The sensible thing to do would have been to scan for more threats, but the breathtaking scenery was more hair-raising than any situational danger. Nothing but ice, rocks, and a frozen monument to some long-dead hero dotted the horizon. I was the only thing alive out here and had plenty of time to gaze upwards at the aurora borealis burning overhead, gently throbbing with colors of neon blue and green. The white ice, light-blue water and glazed black cliffs overcame me with the most intense appreciation for natural scenery that I think I’ve ever experienced. Out there in the cold, I felt small, alone and vulnerable. But utterly and completely satisfied.
Bethesda has done well to devote the focus of their flagship series to the minutiae of solo adventuring. It’s given them a creative bubble where they can have players enjoy their games at a personal pace but within an intimate setting. No two people play an Elder Scrolls game exactly the same, but they both sample from the same world that has had an insane attention to detail put into it. This appreciation for highly personal, player-driven gameplay is what made the series, and Skryim proves that they’re only getting better and better at it over the years.
The Elder Scrolls universe is Betheda’s baby. This time, they aren’t taking a fumbled stab at Fallout or haphazardly re-inventing their franchise for a new generation a lá Oblivion. Skyrim is a legit sequel, correcting what didn’t work in Oblivion and taking those corrections to an exciting new place.
Passion for Exploring
Longtime fans will be pleased to know that Skyrim is the closest thing to Morrowind to have come out since Morrowind. But they’ll also be disappointed to know that it looks and plays a whole lot more like Oblivion. Technically speaking, Skyrim is built on nearly the same engine as its 6-year-old predecessor. Visually speaking, it’s barely an upgrade from the previous game. But back away from textures a bit and step outdoors, and Skyrim looks so much better. A healthy dose of texture detail and some inspired art design have done wonders for Bethesda’s engine, and a slightly wobbling camera and livelier animations nicely alleviate the cold, digital-feeling movement that pervaded Fallout 3 and Oblivion.
Skyrim’s rich outdoor vistas are ripe postcard material. Distant mountaintops are circled by mist and stab high into the clouds. Sharp cliffs and frozen swamps are drawn under layers of meticulous gritty details: scratches here and there, odd patches of briar and shrubbery and a vibrant daytime lighting palette fill the great outdoors with tons of realistic-looking details, making for a hardy-looking landscape displays thousands of years of erosion and history.
I heaved a fair share of embarrassing sighs at Skyrim’s scenic overlooks, but Skyrim has a way with sound too. An alarming amount of audio fluctuation can heard outdoors: the exaggerated echoes underneath icy cliffs, the way a waterfall’s roar becomes muffled through thick sheets of foliage, the deafening roar of wind that drowns out all other ambient sounds as you scale mountains. Head inside a warm tavern after wading through a chilly rainstorm and note just how much you can hear: strumming bards, context-appropriate chatter, crackling firepits, cracking leather.
It’s a huge world, and some 15-ish square miles of landscape are depicted with these high standards for visual and audio fidelity. Exploring all that space is, in a word, compelling. Bethesda has managed to pack some new quest or interesting landmark inside just about every little thicket that lies off the main roads.
Skyrim, like its predecessors, is a celebration of gratuity: there’s simply an overabundance of everything. You’ll never get to know the thousands of individually named NPCs long enough to actually remember their names. You’ll never be able to read the ~300 dense, lore-heavy books deeply enough to actually remember what they say. There’s 15 square miles of outdoorsy Skyrim scenery to explore with 70 deep, long-lasting dungeons waiting to be cleared (they actually mark cleared dungeons on the map this time!) It’s enough to keep dedicated players playing for way more than any reasonable amount of time.
Yet despite the gratuitousness of their size, the thing that blows my mind about Bethesda games (and Skyrim is no exception) is that they still pay attention to the small stuff.
Day 6: I wonder how the story behind these two ended. On my way back up the cliffs to Winterhold college, I found two petrified corpses poking out of the frozen dirt, one of them sprawled across an activated bear trap, the other one huddling in a permanent fetal ball. No grisly diary or death notes could be found, but the posture of these two bodies was enough to tell the story. Why one of them chose to remain and die with his(?) companion would remain unknown. A leather alchemist’s sack lay next to one of them with some flowers inside.
Skyrim’s overworld is a vast network of self-contained mini-stories and mini-environments that are all connected to the same mega-world. There’s a host of things that make this happen: from the aforementioned pile of flavored rubble, to the pick-upable pots and plates to the quasi-random quest generator that apparently exists but is not readily visible to the dungeons that exist for no reason other than your pillaging.
Then there’s the little touch of restraint added to hostile AI. Bandits stare you down and shout warnings before beginning combat. I’ve seen some mudcrabs that only attacked in defense. The towering jolly green giants that patrol the steppe act mostly docile, but can easily pelt low-level players into the air when confronted. They herd mammoths during the daytime and camp around huge bonfires at night, imbuing the countryside with a wonderful taste of weirdness.
The most fortunate use of this emergent wildlife AI lies in the sheer spectacles that are the dragons. Their cry can be heard echoing off distant mountainsides, their flapping wings shake the camera and their fiery attacks blacken the whole screen. They have the power to swoop down on the player unpredictably and turn peaceful strolls through forests into desperate boss battles that can last tens of minutes. Though they aren’t particularly challenging, they definitely require a degree of patience to take down, and it’s a much more interesting fight than the super-zombies that comprise the majority of other boss battles.
Here and Elsweyre
If it sounds like I’m waxing on and on about some ambiguously “epic” fantasy adventure, that’s because that’s what Skyrim is. There’s too much Skyrim to sum up in one review, too many mixed thoughts and varying experiences and unexplored content to faithfully judge the game even after pouring 50 hours into it. For most of my time with it, Skyrim was a good game. It just works. Finally, all of the elements that make up a good game have managed to come together in an Elder Scrolls game: gameplay, graphics, art, music, story and whatever else you’re likely to care about. The combat is the closest thing they’ve made to an actual first-person brawler, there’s a sprint button and carriage system that make traveling the map easier than ever (as well as ignoring fast travel), there’s a few satisfyingly difficult boss battles, and the whole game generally looks pretty. The civil war subplot, which features some stirring writing and voice work that precedes fully realized battle scenes, was the high point of my experience.
There are a few dents in the system that tarnish Skyrim’s overall quality: the difficulty curve wobbles up and down unpredictably; there’s a tendency for guild questlines to end abruptly, and the horrible level-up screen makes it really hard to judge exactly what your character is good and bad at.
Speaking of leveling up, this is actually the most whittled-down RPG experience Bethesda has offered so far. There are no classes, instead you grow into a custom class over time. Weapon degradation is gone, so is underwater combat, you can’t fail at crafting attempts and the (admittedly pretty overpowered) magic-making system has been omitted entirely. There are also fewer skills than in previous Elder Scrolls games, and the omission of an acrobatics skill really limits the options for sneaky characters. The blatantly robotic followers were not just bland, but unsettling too.
Interface is the biggest sore in Skyrim’s boot. It’s almost the same thing as Oblivion’s and arranges your gear into lists that scroll endlessly. Skyrim’s setup is one that prefers controllers over keyboards, and it won’t track mouse movement correctly until you take a dive into the config files. There’s a “favorites” menu that is designed to filter out the most-used items from your inventory, but in practice only lengthens the process of hotkeying items. The main menu is very unexcited to be there, and that level-up screen is awful enough to deserve a second mention. Also, those science-fictiony Futura fonts never stopped bugging me for some reason.
However, the particularistic nature of these complaints hint at the thought that we may finally have an Elder Scrolls game that isn’t fundamentally broken. Bethesda has chosen to retain the series’ wonderfully complex lore and overwhelming scope while smarting it down to eliminate the needlessly high difficulty floor of its predecessors. Many of the previous games’ features that Skyrim omits aren’t missed. This time, they’ve chosen quality over quantity. But Skyrim’s world is still a ridiculously complex labyrinth of hand-placed desks and shelves, scattered with individually readable books, pick-upable forks, and useable ingredients that are found seemingly everywhere.
Final Thoughts: Is it Worth Your Money?
Day 6: After climbing back up to the village outside Winterhold, I decided to horselessly pursue a closer objective on the to-do list: the shrine of Azura on the top of a nearby precipice. Hiking closer, I began to see the goddesses’ towering statue poke out on the horizon, but a closer distraction unfolded from the mountainsides: a small alter with a skeleton on top of it. Next to the bones was a coin purse, and a book titled “Doors of Oblivion.” I decided to grab the coins first, but they hastily fizzled out into thin air along with the book. The skeleton leaped into life, crawling over the alter after me. Two more that I hadn’t noticed reared behind me. I won the ensuring fight, but without any particular reward or experience to show for it.
While it is always wiser to wait for a sale, Skyrim is one of the few games that I can recommend purchasing at full price. When there are potentially hundreds of hours of adventure to be had, and the adventuring is of such a high quality, it’s hard not to get sucked in. While the pre-baked questlines Skyrim steers you towards are adventuresome enough, Skyrim’s best moments come from the stories you write yourself, from the most optional of optional encounters: spotting a beautiful borealis in the sky, stumbling across an interesting pile of remains, or experiencing some cool little scripted setup that a designer knew only a minority of players would encounter. This dynamic, emergent-style gameplay has sent me on an emotional rollercoaster over the past two weeks, the kind of meaningful virtual experience that only good games can give.
Skyrim Technical Summary:
- Play Time – 50 Hours
- 5.1 Sound – Yes
- Widescreen – Yes (Detailed Report via WSGF)
- Acquisition Method – Review Copy
- DRM – Steamworks
- Demo – No
- Control Scheme – Keyboard/mouse, xinput gamepads
- Availability – Steam, Green Man Gaming, Direct2Drive, Local Retail
- Bugs – Graphical glitches ranging from minor to moderate, occasionally AI characters got stuck somewhere
Reviewer’s Note: Before your first serious play session, it may be a good idea to glance through our quick list of tweaks. For me, mouse y-axis movement was sluggish until applying those mouse input tweaks, as well as disabling the controller option box in the in-game options screen.
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