Review by CommonJoe

"SKYRIM (With Bonus Collectors Edition Review)"

Introduction

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim; One of the most anticipated games of 2011, if not the most anticipated game period since its predecessor, Oblivion, came out in 2006. Skyrim, like the four previous main titles in the Elder Scrolls (ES) series, is an open-world role-playing game that takes place in the Scandinavian inspired land of, wait for it, Skyrim, Skyrim itself being only a single province in the greater continent of Tamriel, a land just chock full of strife, especially during the game's events and in the time between it and its predecessor Oblivion. The main selling point of Skyrim, besides from the fact that it was a new Elder Scrolls game (the news of which most everyone who knew of the past ES games freaked out about), is that of dragons. But dragons in Skyrim are not your run of the mill dragons you see in other games. No, in the spirit of the other random creatures that populate the massive gameworld, Skyrim's dragons are mostly unscripted and most show up at random times and places, attacking everything. If there is one thing Skyrim can say about itself, its that its dragons put all other dragons that have ever been done, ever, in a video game to absolute and undeniable shame. However, dragons do not make up the whole of Skyrim's worth, nor do they make up for its faults.

The Quests

In Skyrim, you take on the role of a random, know-nothing adventurer who gets caught trying to cross the border into Skyrim by troops of the Imperial Legion, of the Empire. Who precisely your character is (from your race, to what kind of character you are, down to your very name) is up to you, but in the end, destiny takes whoever you are and shoves you down its path. As you go on throughout the very beginnings of the game, you learn through the conversations of your fellow prisoners and your would-be executioners that the High-King of Skyrim was killed and that Skyrim is in a state of civil war between the Empire and a faction known as the Stormcloaks, who seek to gain Skyrim's independence from the Empire. But before you can have your head chopped off, you have your first encounter with a dragon who in the process of tearing the little town of Helgen (where you were taken to be executed) apart, saves your life and puts you on the path to your freedom in Skyrim.

Once you leave the small beginning dungeon, you are free to do as you like, whether its taking on the Main Quest, exploring around, or just killing everything that happens to be moving. For those that choose to embark on the Main Quest, you will generally not be disappointed. It is, for lack of a better term, quite epic in its set pieces and what you do in general. From the first dungeon of Bleak Falls Barrow to the, and not to spoil anything, absolutely mind-blowing magnificence of Sovngaarde (the ES equivalent of the Norse heaven of Valhalla) to the simple majesty of High Hrothgaar (the tallest and most sacred mountain in Skyrim) and right down to the fights with dragons there is little to keep you disinterested as you play through it.

Overall, I give the Main Quest a 9 out of 10.

However, the Main Quest is not all there is to the game. Besides that, which you can ignore entirely by the way, there are several other quest lines and copious amounts of other miscellaneous quests that can be completed. Of these, I will focus on the Guild quest lines, which are the largest next to the Main Quest. In Skyrim, you have four primary guilds. The Companions (Warriors), the College of Winterhold (Mages), the Dark Brotherhood (Assassins), and the Thieves Guild. You also have two armies to choose from (as you can only choose one per character) and those are the Imperial Legion (the army of the Empire) and the Stormcloak Rebellion, as well as several other minor guilds like the Bard's College. These all carry quest lines that are great for what they are, however, you will find that as you play through them that they are quite drastically short, and in some cases (particularly the two Civil War factions) lack variety entirely and are just a line of quests that all do virtually the same thing. The intention was for the actual gameplay time of each of these guilds to be supplemented by Radiant Story quests (though in reality, they are more along the lines of Radiant Filler), and those are all fine and dandy, but they are not required to advance the main story of the guild, and often if you get caught up in the main questline you will likely end up skipping over these entirely. (Though they will always be there for you to do later, which may feel odd to some, as most of these quests are things that one would expect a mere hireling to do, and not the Grandmaster)

However, despite their shortness, each quest line are just as equally excellent in what they set out to do as the Main Quest is. But that shortness cannot be ignored, which is why I give the Guild quest lines a 6 out of 10. So for Quests overall, 7.5 out of 10.

Gameplay

There is no doubt that Skyrim is a fun game. Compared to its predecessors, combat has gotten much better (On par now with the best combat mods made for Oblivion) and general interactivity with the world has been greatly improved. Many things have changed from past ES games, and I will go through them here. The leveling system of Skyrim is as simple as this: Use X skill X amount of times to level up that skill. Level up one skill or a mix of skills 10 times in order to gain an overall level-up. On level-up, you may choose to increase health, magicka, or stamina and you also gain one perk point to spend on a skill of your choice. This is, unfortunately, a dumbed down version of leveling systems of the past (which included attributes, which determined your derived attributes that you now choose to increase directly) games. That isn't to say that the system isn't functional and gets the job done, but it greatly reduces the amount of effort and thought that used to be required (while adding little to make up for it. The Perk system has been a long awaited addition to ES games in my opinion, but as of now the perk system is just the butchered remnants of the past systems working around a perk selection mechanic, instead of being a new part of the leveling system altogether) to the detriment of the overall experience. For more casual gamers, this might not be that big of a deal (and there is nothing wrong with going along those lines either), but for those that are into deep role-playing and character building (which is really where RPG's got their start) the system will likely prove unsatisfactorily shallow.

However, as was said, the system does get the job done and is in no way a bad leveling system. But a deep system? No where near it. For this, I give 6.5 out of 10.

Combat is absolutely excellent in this game. If there was ever something in the ES series that steadily improved over time (besides graphics of course), it was combat. Whether its decapitating your enemies with a big axe, disintegrating them with lightning magic, or slitting their throats and slithering back into the darkness, there is no part of combat that you will find remotely boring.

Melee combat has seen great improvements, such as the already mentioned potential for decapitation, and now includes moves like shield and weapon bashes, disarming, different types of effects from different weapons (Swords have a chance for a critical hit, and axes can cause bleeding damage, which drains health over time, for instance), several different deathblows, and of course the long awaited and ever-demanded ability to dual wield one-handed weapons.

Magic in comparison has had relatively few major improvements (and one rather large degradation), but it has certainly gotten much better nonetheless. Destruction magic (spells like Fireballs, Frost blasts, and lightning bolts) now leave actual marks on the world and your opponents, and other sorts of magic have become quite a bit more satisfying to make use of. The biggest improvement towards magic, and certainly one of the bigger innovations Skyrim has brought to the table, is the ability to dual wield magic. This means that while you can throw fireballs around with one hand, you can summon a skeleton to fight for you or use a healing spell on yourself with the other hand. Once you acquire the required perk for whatever school of magic you are using, you can also dual cast the same spell to make for a more powerful version of it. A dual casted fireball spell makes for one, powerful fireball, a dual casted healing spell heals more, and so on and so forth. Dual casting also allows you to cast the same spell separate from the other, which depending on the spell can have different uses. The major degradation to magic that I mentioned earlier is, quite plainly, the lack of spellmaking. This means that instead of being able to create your own spells (With their own attributes) the spells you use must be found out in the world and they are, for the most part, fixed in their power. This has ultimatley lead to magic (or at least, destruction magic, which is the direct damage dealing school of magic) being much weaker a combat style than the other two over the course of the game. However, magic is still fun despite its weakness.

Stealth in comparison to the other two has seen relatively few improvements, and no major ones to speak of. The biggest improvement was in assassinations with blades (The already mentioned slitting of a throat) and beyond that, nothing much has changed from what you could do in past ES titles. But of course, that doesn't mean stealth isn't as fun as ever. Sneaking around in the dark and landing an arrow in someones head from afar is still satisfying as can be and with more interactive traps in dungeons, being able to set these off against enemies is oh so fun.

Overall, I give combat a 9 out of 10.

The world itself is a tricky thing to grade. On one hand its been improved to a great degree, but on the other its also gotten a bit worse.
The improvements are obvious. Just walking into the first town of Riverwood and observing the locals should give you an idea of whats been improved. With new activities like woodcutting, fishing (Though sadly its a more barbaric catch the fish with your hands type of fishing), smithing, tanning hides, getting into tavern brawls, enjoying the bards sing at night the world has become a much more lively place to just relax in. Hunting in particular has gotten much better, as now there are animals that roam the forests that you can hunt (like rabbits, deer, hawks, mammoths, etc) and they have trophies that can be taken and sold for gold. Houses can be bought (as you could in Oblivion) and marriage has been introduced (Though don't expect much from the vanilla marriage candidates. Most are plain and their functions are not too useful for the most part. Most act as companions who call you lover). And there are other minor things like these throughout the world which I'll leave you to discover should you buy the game. Where the game has gotten worse is generally just in the fact that the world is still rather uncharacteristically empty. There are not very many different creatures to fight (and in general, you can tell what enemies you'll face by the kind of dungeon you walk into, as most of the time the enemies are exactly the same in that particular dungeon type) and the roads are still rather barren except for the occasional wanderer or babbling cat. While a game like Morrowind got away with being so empty (because the actual landscape supported that) a place like Skyrim is somewhere you'd expect to be bristling with life.

Overall, I give the world an 7.5 out of 10.

For the last part of this, I will focus on the games golden child, Dragons. As was already said, Skyrim's dragons put every other dragon ever done in video games to shame. They look fantastic and the animations are great, especially considering this is a game from Bethesda, who is notoriously lackluster in the animation department. They are largely unscripted and ideally most battles with dragons are never the same. And indeed, when a dragon can pick up one of your companions (or indeed virtually any other creature or NPC it can get its hands on) and throw them a distance while flying over and sending a fireball at you that says a lot about how different the battles can get as you go on. However, they aren't perfect. If you fight dragons long enough you'll eventually see how they will settle into the same loops and generally attack a certain area in the exact same way. Indeed, most fights with dragons will generally just be you waiting for them to land (so you can whack them with your weapons) or waiting for them to get in range of your spells or in a position to be hit by your arrows. And that will go on until the dragon dies. And speaking of which, I'll also touch on the derivative mechanic of dragons. Dragon Shouts. These are basically powers that you can call upon to wreak havoc on your enemies. Being what gives dragons their power, among these powers are things like fire and frost breath, but also among them are powers like Throw Voice (which makes enemies come looking for a non-existent voice where you aim it at, putting them into a position to get hit with your arrow or for you to simply sneak past them) and Storm Call. (Which summons a storm that destroys everything in the area except for you) These are fairly fun to use, though in general they get old and most of them are either near useless or too weak to matter. Dragons I naturally give a 9 out of 10.

So overall, I give 8 out of 10 for gameplay.

Graphics

The main thing you have to remember about Skyrim is that while it looks great, that does not make its actual graphical capability any sort decent.

The art direction for Skyrim is fantastic. By art direction, I mean of course the actual artistic look of everything in the game. From the colors chosen, right down to how every individual piece of armor looks and to the architecture of the castles and buildings and to how dungeons were put together. Skyrim marks a return to the kind of art direction that makes Morrowind, the third ES game, still look fairly great even to this day, 8 years later. And indeed, there are so many epic and beautiful set pieces (like the already mentioned High Hrothgaar and Sovngaarde) to behold in Skyrim that it really deserves its place as the best looking ES game to date just ahead of Morrowind. However, the actual technical side of Skyrim's graphics are not anything special, and are mostly a marginal improvement over Oblivion. Textures are better (though not all textures are that great) and particle effects have been improved by the same amount. Lighting has improved substantially, though its implementation isn't the best (and in some dungeons the poorly done lighting throws the atmosphere right out the window, while in other places it makes for the entire scene) and naturally character models have seen some improvement (mostly in the hair models however). Beyond that, all that is left that has seen any kind of significant change is the water effects. Beth went to a great deal in order to make what they had hoped would be better water effects and at first glance (and a fair distance) they certainly do see to have achieved that. The rapids and waterfalls look great (which again hearkens back to the art direction), but upon close inspection the water proves to be extremely plastic and just as nonreactive as ever. The rapids do, at least, act like rapids. If you sit still while floating in the water, you will eventually float down river. Most everything else however (like items and such) just drop like 10 ton rocks and stay wherever they fall in the water. Graphics I give a 7.5 out of 10.

Conclusion

Overall, Skyrim is a great game and if you like RPG's at all you'd be missing out if you don't at least give it a chance. It is good for several hundred hours of vanilla gameplay (and thats if you do absolutely everything) and when the Creation Kit (Skyrim's eventual modding software) is released it will extend the life of the game to infinity. Or at least until you get absolutely tired of Skyrim period, which can happen as unfortunate as it sounds. Despite its faults (and my personal opinion that its a massive disappointment, though I have decided to leave that whole business out of this review) Skyrim is without a doubt one of the best games of 2011 and likely will go on to be one of the best games of this decade if Fallout 4 (which will ultimately take from Skyrim) doesn't eclipse it.

So for the final overall score, I give Skyrim a 7.5 out of 10.

BONUS Collectors Edition Review

Interestingly enough, I bought the Collector's Edition of Skyrim and I'll review it here. (Though keep the score separate from the game score, of course) First off, Skyrim's CE cost $150. Thats a lot even amongst Collector's Editions. And considering what you actually get, it is quite overpriced. However, not by much. At best, this was a $120 collectors edition. And thats pushing it.

The main item you get in the box is the Alduin/Word Wall statue. This thing is massive. As in, really freaking huge to the point that pictures fail pretty hard to convey its actual size. Alduin himself is perfectly detailed and actually has spikes on him that hurt a bit. Definitely worth whatever cost this part of the statue took to make. The Word Wall, which the Alduin statue sits on, however, is not as great. Its quite plasticy (compared to Alduin's rather solid rubber feel) and the details are subpar at best. What you also get in the box is styrofoam with the Skyrim name/logo on it (which I found to be a nice touch), the game box itself (which includes the premium pseudo-burlap paper map, which is a nice wall poster, and a little DVD I've yet to watch that details the making of Skyrim and other things), and an art book which is excellent bathroom material I've found. Overall I give the CE a 6.5 out of 10.


Reviewer's Score: 7/10 | Originally Posted: 12/01/11

Game Release: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Collector's Edition) (US, 11/11/11)


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