When it comes to gaming, there are series that define their set genres, series that are often considered the pinnacles of the niches they belong to. That’s how the Mario games are the best known platform games, Halo/Half-Life the best known first-person shooters, Civilization the best known turn-based strategy game, Grand Theft Auto the best known action/crime sandbox game and Final Fantasy the best known Japanese RPG. When it comes to open-ended, sandbox fantasy RPGs, however, there’s a single series that has held the title for the series that best represent the ideals of said genre, and that series is The Elder Scrolls.
Since its first release in 1994 with The Elder Scrolls: Arena, the Bethesda series has strived to give the gamer a unique experience where the story they’re told is based on their in-game actions rather than on a script they must follow from the beginning of the game. After being given a basic main quest, the player is set loose and allowed to roam through the land doing as he pleases, a feature that’s highly enhanced by the ridiculous amount of side-quests these games have to offer, thus allowing the player to choose which ones to do or not according to their character and ensuring two games won’t be alike.
As usual with The Elder Scrolls, Skyrim starts out with the player being a prisoner without ever being given a reason for it. After a quick encounter with a dragon that forces you to go through a small tutorial, you’re set free and allowed to roam through the land of Skyrim without limits and that’s where your adventure properly begins.
Right after this, the first thing that struck me about Skyrim is how enthralling the whole atmosphere is: From the moment you finally face the world, the environment around you seems to be alive, helping the game pull you in and giving you a lust to explore that I particularly hadn’t felt in any game before – Not even the previous Elder Scrolls games. The world of Skyrim is one where not only does the player exist, but everything and everyone around them does too, a world where what was originally attempted with Oblivion’s Radiant AI seems to finally succeed by creating a world that, though scripted, doesn’t feel as such, a world where most characters have their lives and stories and where everything you do seems to have a repercussion – For better or for worse.
One of the common complaints of Oblivion, for example, was the complete lack of consequences for most of your actions. I’m not going to say that’s entirely fixed in Skyrim – After all, you can try to pickpocket someone, fail and then talk to them an hour later as if nothing happened, but one of the most interesting part of previous entries (One that most famously happened in Daggerfall) is back, this time allowing for townspeople who dislike you to hire thugs or even the dark brotherhood to get you killed because you stole their cupcake. There’s also the fact that sometimes a whole town can get to hate on you, making everyone try to kill you on sight after you accidentally kill a rooster (Those Skyrim citizens are very respectful of their poultry) and you even get the chance to make friends who’ll jump and defend you if needed, all of them small things that greatly add up to the believability of the world.
Another point worth describing is the new character creation process. After selecting the looks and race of your character, you’ll notice there’s nowhere to select a class. Fine, Oblivion kept that hidden until the tutorial was done and you went out into Cyrodiil for the first time, so one would generally think that it’d be the same with Skyrim.
Except it isn’t, because Skyrim, unlike all previous Elder Scrolls games, doesn’t have a class system to speak of. It also does away with the zodiac signs we’ve come to known and totally ignore, making the character creation process one that’s limited only to its looks. And amazingly enough, it works just fine – Right after creating your character, you’re free to do as you please without having to bother with primary and secondary skills and you can actually create a class that adapts to whatever it is you want. The perks system that was implemented, which comes from Fallout 3, is the defining aspect of character advancement in the game, allowing you to choose what to make your character get better at rather than making it stronger as it gets more numbers in strength, speed or whatever. Though said system has the old-school RPG fans foaming in the mouth, it is actually the best advancement system I’ve seen on an RPG, since it allows you to create your class as you want it (I’m playing an assassin/thief type specialized on one-hand combat, light armor, sneaking and pickpocketing) and I love how I can just make my Sneaking better without having to think whether speed or whatever the skill is named will help enough. I just select the perk that says I will no longer trigger pressure plates in dungeons and I know that’s what I’m getting. Skyrim’s character advancement system is Fallout 3’s system on crack, and I like it as it is. I don’t care if I can’t see how my strength stat has 120 points, since said number means nothing to me. Now, knowing I do 100% extra damage when I hit with a one-handed weapon? That says a lot.
Also, perhaps just as expected, the main quest isn’t the center of the gaming experience. Though a nice one, the most interesting part of the Skyrim experience is customizing your story by choosing the sidequests you do (or the ones you don’t do), choosing which factions to join or not (The civil war storyline being the second main story of the game) and even what random people to kill or not. The Radiant Storytelling system, though not as amazing as hyped, does a nice job at providing the player with simple random quests that, though they won’t replace the scripted quests, they are pretty good to take and randomly do as your own story leads you through the world. Need to go to Whiterun? How about stopping by the inn and forging the business ledger numbers for that small thieves’ guild quest? Small things like that are where Radiant Storytelling works well, and the actual amount of quests in the world is so huge it should take you a few playthroughs to do them all anyway.
On the more technical side, I should point out that, even when it uses a by all means outdated DX9 engine for its graphics, Skyrim is without a doubt the prettiest RPG I’ve played even when considering the horribly low quality textures that can be found in several parts of the game. There’s something about how it is done that simply pulls you in and makes you believe the world is real (so long as you don’t look too close), and said experience is as unique as they come. The sounds are another point where Skyrim excels, boasting a downright beautiful soundtrack mixed with ambient sounds and a surround mix that help pull the player into the world – My only complaint on that regard being how background music sometimes becomes too loud during conversations to properly hear what you’re being told. The UI is also much better this time around, with a minimalistic user interface that barely gets in the way, though it isn’t properly optimized for PC – Something the controls also struggle with, since the game is much easier to control and play with an Xbox 360 controller than a mouse/keyboard setup.
Last, but not least, there’s of course the one “feature” all Bethesda games have: Bugs. On that department, I’m actually happy with Skyrim since, for all its technical failures, it is one stable beast. I’ve clocked in over sixty hours of gameplay where I’ve barely had three or four CTDs and no crashes whatsoever, which is more than I can say about any earlier entries in the series – Oblivion was, and still is, famous for randomly crashing to the desktop during loading screens and while traveling the world and Morrowind is incompatible with pretty much anything that creates an overlay over your game. Both games (And Fallout 3, since this seems to be a Bethesda thing) were also famous for hating on alt + tabbing, making it so that playing the games had to be the only thing you’d do on the PC. Thankfully, this time around it is possible to alt + tab and therefore you can indeed multitask while playing (I personally tend to carry IM conversations while gaming rather often) without risking the game crashing.
The part of the game that’s indeed full of bugs, however, is the gameplay itself. Though I couldn’t find any game-breaking bugs, there are several oddities that are actually quite hard to point out whether they’re bugs or not. I won’t go around naming the well known bug that allows players to steal by putting buckets on people’s heads, which is a bug that will only happen intentionally and therefore shouldn’t be seen as a proper fault in the product, but I will indeed mention that my character got stuck a couple times in places and at times the stealing system doesn’t work quite well, telling you it’s ok to take things that will get you to jail or refusing to mark any item as owned at all. More funny bugs abound though, a particular one I recall being how I saw a giant kill a mammoth. I never saw said giant, but I saw an otherwise happy mammoth suddenly fly up high then land and die, meaning a giant more than likely hit it. Other oddities in the game that I’m not sure whether they’re bugs or intended are smaller, like how a beggar in Riften got killed by the blacksmith after I attempted to pickpocket him and he caught me (I ran off, heard the woman scream and by when I came back she was dead in front of the blacksmith), which makes me think said beggar either foolishly tried to defend me or the blacksmith felt so frustrated he decided to let his anger out on the poor passerby woman. Another interesting thing that will likely happen to most players is dragons teaming up with other creatures to kill you – I particularly died spectacularly after I killed a dragon only to be mauled by a bear to death right after.
All in all, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is the best RPG I’ve played in several years, not in small part because of my love for open-world settings and creating my own stories in games. With hundreds of potential hours of gameplay and DLC/Expansions that are sure to come (The recent report of most of Tamriel’s landmass actually appearing in the game had me begging for Bethesda to add the Vvanderfell province on an expansion), the gameplay here will only get longer as time goes by, particularly for PC players who also have access to mods and the hopefully soon to be released construction kit. If you’re looking for an epic-scale RPG with near-infinite replay options, Skyrim is the place to go and definitely the one game every fantasy RPG fan should play.
Final review rating: 5/5
Availability: Currently available from Amazon.com
|Buy for Xbox 360
|Buy for PS3
|Buy for PC
|Buy Collector’s Edition for Xbox 360
|Buy Collector’s Edition for PS3
|Buy Collector’s Edition for PC