Review by Vamphaery
"Bethesda outdoes themselves, delivering a roleplaying masterpiece of unparalleled detail."
DISCLAIMER: As always, this review is merely the subjective opinion of one person. The best and most important review for you should be your own. This review is for information purposes primarily.
In 2006, Bethesda made the transition to current-gen hardware with their landmark open-world RPG, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. For its time, Oblivion was quite an achievement. With unprecedented realism in its dense forests, and NPCs with autonomous behaviors allowing them to traverse its massive world independently of the player, it set the bar for open-world games this gen in many respects. Yet, like all games, it had its flaws. In particular, many felt it lacked the sense of culture and depth that its predecessor, Morrowind, had in spades. NPC behavior eventually began to feel generic and hollow. And the world, as beautiful as it was, was soon revealed as lacking variety.
So with the announcement of their latest magnum opus, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, many wondered whether we would see an improvement in these and other areas, or if the limits of current-gen hardware had already been reached in Bethesda's previous roleplaying game, Fallout 3. (The followup to which, New Vegas, was not developed by Bethesda, but by Obsidian.)
I am therefore pleased to report that after more than 80 hours with the game, I can confidently say that Skyrim blends the best things about Morrowind with the best of what Oblivion had to offer, combining them to forge one of the most memorable, beautiful, detailed roleplaying worlds ever conceived in a videogame. It would be impossible to review a game this massive with a simple summary, so I will endeavor to write as comprehensive a review as possible below.
Skyrim takes place in the northernmost province of Tamriel, the primary continent upon which the Elder Scrolls games take place. Skyrim is a cold and rugged land, and home to the Nords.
As in all Elder Scrolls games, you begin the game by creating your character. The ten playable races you are familiar with from previous games (Imperials, Redguards, Argonians, Bretons, Nords, Khajiit, Dark Elves, Wood Elves, High Elves, and Orcs) are all available. You create a character by selecting a gender, and then selecting prefab facial features such as individual eyes, noses, teeth, hair, and facial hair. You can adjust the dimensions of each of these individually and on several axis, so getting the look and attitude you want your character to have is fairly easy. However, it is harder to make an extreme or deformed character as you could in Oblivion, because Bethesda has gone to great lengths to ensure any character you create will be closer to being on par with the game's NPCs than in previous games. Once finished, you name your character, and the game begins in earnest.
There are no preset classes to choose from in Skyrim. You do not choose major or minor skills. And you do not have any attributes to worry about, apart from HP (health,) magicka (mana, for casting spells,) and stamina (energy, depleted by blocking, using strong attacks, or sprinting.) This brings us to one of the central concerns many fans had about Skyrim during its development. We hear this argument a lot in gaming, and in many cases I feel it's justified; the argument that games are being dumbed down. While I do feel that term applies to many games, particularly this gen, I cannot in good conscience say I feel it applies to Skyrim. Skyrim still contains as much, and in some cases much more, depth as previous Elder Scrolls games (at least from Morrowind on.) It merely presents this depth in different ways. Instead of major and minor skills and attributes, we now have the perk system.
There are a variety of skills in the game. Skills are leveled up by performing actions associated with them (getting hit while wearing armor to increase your skill with that armor class, attacking with a one handed weapon to increase the one handed weapon skill, etc.) As you level these skills up, you eventually increase your character level. When this happens, you unlock a single perk point. Perk points can be spent on each skill's perk tree, presented in the form of a constellation, with each point or star of the design containing a single perk. Perks have skill level prerequisites (meaning you can't take certain perks until your skill level is high enough) and confer myriad benefits.
Not only do the perks make you more capable and powerful in general, but they are also how you specialize your character now. Within the One Handed skill, you will find perks not just for all one handed weapons in general, but also for maces, axes, swords, and dual wielding specifically. This system works incredibly well, as it allows you to decide what you like using as you play, and then specialize later once you're ready to take perks, rather than being locked into a premade class from the outset of the game.
Many have expressed dismay over this, as the knee jerk response seems to be that this renders the game less hardcore and more dumbed down. But just as the removal of attributes moves that depth into the perk system, the removal of classes also increased my sense of roleplaying flexibility. I can now start out as a sword wielding Orc knight in heavy armor, but then switch to maces later if my character decides he likes them better, or, to put it in more roleplaying terms, Wants vengeance for the death of his companion (more on NPC companions later) and wishes to bring a more brutal form of death to his adversaries in their name! I can actually roleplay this now, and then DO it, without being penalized for it.
On paper, Skyrim seems like a less complex, less deep game than Morrowind or Oblivion. But in practice, it gave me more real gameplay depth and roleplay complexity than either of those games did. And personally, I'll take real gameplay depth and roleplay complexity over just having more numbers or spreadsheets on a screen any day. There are options I do wish were here that aren't, of course. I will confess that the omission of spell creation is disappointing, as is the continued absence of spears and crossbows. But what we get in return makes for more total gameplay content and a more enjoyable, engrossing experience than either of its predecessors offered... outside of my own imagination, at least. And that's really what I'm getting at. Skyrim is much more of a GAME - with REAL gameplay depth instead of imagined, roleplayed-in-your-head depth represented by superficial numbers on a screen - than Morrowind or Oblivion ever were. You can and in my opinion should still roleplay... but Skyrim will actually present you with real content and consequences when you do, rather than the game simply being a backdrop for your own thoughts. (Not to the degree of, say, a Bioware RPG or the Witcher games. But far more so than in previous Elder Scrolls titles.)
Before you can dive into any of the game's content and skill leveling, you of course have to equip yourself. Doing so is made much easier and more intuitive by the new menu interface. Pressing the B button brings up the inventory screen, which now takes the form of a compass with four cardinal points: Skills, Items, Map, and Magic. Pushing in any of these four directions seamlessly (save for some autosave-related stutters) takes you into the selected menu. Menus take the form of lists of categories such as (in items) All, Weapons, Apparel, and Misc. Within these you can press Y to favorite any item for hotkey access later, or equip it directly from the inventory screen you're on. You can assign items independently to your left and right hand, and the implementation of this is incredibly versatile. You can have a sword with a shield, a sword and a torch, a spell and a sword, two spells, etc. Everything is based on which hand is equipped with which item.
Once in actual combat, you will find that it still suffers from some of the things people disliked about previous games. While it retains the when you hit, you hit" mechanics of Oblivion (as opposed to the dice roll combat of Morrowind,) weapon swings and collision still feel floaty and imprecise at times. You can perform a power attack and have its animation complete during an enemy's attack, and sometimes they won't react to it at all as a result. (Though you'll know they took damage by seeing their health bar decrease, and the blood that spatters from them.) But despite these familiar quirks, I always felt much more in control during combat than in the past.
You can now press attack while blocking to perform a push, which can actually shove opponents off of cliffs under the right circumstances. Perks unlock powerful attacks that you can manually perform at critical moments to save yourself from death or take a tough enemy down a few pegs.
You can enter sneak mode by depressing the left stick, and you'll find that stealth is far more functional now. It's much easier to actually avoid detection, and sneak attacks become one of the most satisfying and powerful ways to dispatch your foes. But you have to be careful, because now line of sight as well as sound play a roll in stealth, and enemies will react to noises you make and search for you. Hiding behind walls or objects outside of the area where you made the sound will allow you to watch them walk up to where you were before, look around, and then return to their prescribed route once your sneak status slowly returns to Hidden" again.
Archery, especially combined with sneaking, is much more powerful and effective than in Oblivion. You can now dual wield one-handed weapons for much higher damage-per-second, but you cannot block while doing so. Two-handed weapons do the most damage, but are slower. All in all, things balance out fairly well, despite some minor issues (see Balance section later in the review.)
The biggest change this time around is probably the magic system. Instead of creating spells from spell effects, you now learn spells from spell tomes, in addition to using a staff if you so desire. As you increase your proficiency with a given school of magic (the magical skills in the game, Destruction, Alteration, Conjuration, Restoration, Illusion) the amount of uses a staff will have before having to be recharged with soul gems, and the more powerful the spells that will be available to you.
Magic is truly impressive and versatile in the game. Each form of magic has its use and its ideal situation. Shock damage drains magicka and is best used against other mages. Frost damage drains stamina, and thus can impair warriors, which depend upon it for blocking and powerful attacks. And fire damage hurts just about everything. (Some enemies are specifically weak to fire, as well.) And the spells look absolutely impressive. Force-lightning-like electricity shoots in streams from your fingertips. Continuous streams of fire consume your enemies in an inferno. You can buy and learn different versions of these spells that allow you to lay magical mines" of a sort, activated on contact by enemies pursuing you. You can reanimate fallen enemies (or allies,) and even equip them with specific weapons or armor before doing so, as they fight at your side as necromanced drones... for a time. You can summon bound armor and weapons to aid you, or Daedra to rout your targets.
Another area that has seen a huge overhaul in Skyrim is the crafting system. Firstly, instead of lugging around crafting equipment with you everywhere, you must be in a town with an Alchemy Lab, Arcane Enchanter, Forge, Tanning Rack, etc. before you can use your crafting skills. Secondly, many of the crafting systems have been expanded far beyond what they were in previous games. You can now craft armor and weapons, and even improve them through several stages of enhancement until they are as good as they can be.
For Alchemy, you approach the lab and interact with it, bringing up an animation of your character working to mix ingredients, crushing them into pulp, and creating potions. You no longer know the first effects of basic ingredients as in past games, so now it is much more about trial and error, as it would be in real alchemy. You can eat or combine ingredients to test them, and when you are successful, you will permanently learn one of their effects. When you are successful in combining them with different ingredients having other shared effects, you will permanently learn that effect in both ingredients as well, and so on. As you do this, a list of effects begins to populate on the left side of your screen. This allows you to easily and at a glance see which learned effects you have the ingredients to create a potion for. You can then simply select that effect, and it will highlights the owned ingredients or reagents you need, and allow you to create the potion. If you have the ingredients, your potion will never fail. Potions now only fail when you try to combine ingredients you don't know the effects of, and it turns out they share no common effects.
For Smithing, you start out learning how to make the most basic forms of heavy and light armor, and then as you craft more and more weapons and armor (a good source of income, as well) you level up the skill and gain access to the perks that let you create more advanced forms. In time, you will be able to craft Daedric, Ebony, Glass, Elven, and even Dragon armor. To do this, you must first gather ingredients, however. This can be done by finding mines, where you can mine for ore and then take them to a smelter to turn them into ingots. Or you can buy ready-made ingots. You can craft animal skins from things you kill into leather and leather strips at the Tanning Rack as well, which are required for many items. You then craft the desired item (once you have all the ingredients required) at the Forge. You can sharpen weapons at the Grindstone, or improve armor at the Workbench. It's an incredibly deep, and initially overwhelming system. After a few good crafts though, you rapidly get the hang of it, and realize how powerful (and addictive) it is. You can even craft jewelry, to be worn, enchanted, or just sold.
Speaking of Enchantment, this is another area that has seen a change. You no longer learn spell effects and then apply them to items to enchant them. Instead, you must find already-enchanted items, and destroy them to learn their enchantment. Once you do, as usual, you then need a soul gem of sufficient size, containing a soul of sufficient size, to apply the enchantment you've learned to the item of your choice. The larger the soul gem and the soul, the better the enchantment will be.
Finally, while not associated with a skill, you can also cook and learn recipes in the game. Throughout the world you will find Cooking Pots in which you can combine food items (distinct from alchemy ingredients generally) to create meals that will restore health and stamina slightly. It isn't a deep system, but it's a great little touch that helps increase your sense of actually living in the world.
All of this combat and item management wouldn't mean much without quests. In addition to the main quest, quests in the game are doled out by the game's several factions, each Hold or region's Jarl (a sort of governor in Skyrim) and steward, and numerous miscellaneous NPCs. Joinable factions include the Companions (sort of the Skyrim equivalent of the Fighters' Guild,) the Thieves' Guild (a much grittier, crime-oriented version of what was a much more benevolent force in Oblivion,) the Dark Brotherhood (an assassin's guild players of Oblivion will be familiar with,) the Blades (which you may join in the course of certain events I will not spoil here,) the Bard College (a brief series of quests pertaining primarily to the game's Speech skill, a token gesture to aspiring bard characters that could have been a lot deeper but is nice to have for a change rather than nothing at all,) the College of Winterhold (essentially the mages' guild,) and the Imperial Legion, and the Stormcloaks (two sides of an ongoing civil war in Skyrim.) In addition, you can do quests for Hold Jarls and eventually become each Hold's thane, an honorary title bestowed on you for your service to a given Hold.
How interesting and well done these quests are range from pretty good to amazing as far as I'm concerned. The vast majority of them feel much less generic, and much more varied than any in Oblivion felt. Many quests in the game also give you more than one option in terms of how to resolve them, who to side with, etc. This enhances roleplay, and while the consequences won't be as up front as in some games, that they exist at all in a game this massive is testament to the systemic improvement Bethesda has made to Skyrim since Oblivion. The added depth and seamlessness of quests doesn't exclude the famous Daedric shrine quests that The Elder Scrolls games are partly known for. Instead of simply seeking out a shrine and talking to a statue, Daedric quests will now "seek you out" in a variety of surprising and interesting ways. (Some of which are quite disturbing.) I won't spoil any of this, but it certainly makes each Daedric quest feel like a unique interaction with a deity, rather than a laundry list of shrines to visit on your own.
This quest variety is helped enormously by the night and day improvement in dungeon level design. After many, many tens of hours of questing, you will eventually notice similarities or repeating motifs in dungeon levels, but they are infinitely more varied, detailed, and distinctive than anything in Oblivion. Each dungeon has its own personality, its own twists and turns, its own hints of history and character, and its own visual style. And even when these begin to appear familiar, they are still incredibly intricate and well designed visually. This attention to detail and character extends to the design of the world's creatures and enemies, as well.
Which brings us to perhaps the most discussed, anticipated, and advertised feature of Skyrim: Dragons. In a word, dragon battles in Skyrim are amazing. Sure, we can nitpick the fact that, as with any recurring enemy in any game, dragon encounters will eventually probably begin to feel samey or repetitive. Or the fact that depending on which dragons you encounter (there are multiple varieties and strengths of dragon in the game and they spawn randomly in addition to scripted appearances) and what level you are, some dragons are pushovers. But the bottom line is that in a game that's already this massive, this packed with content, and this detailed, having freaking DRAGONS populating the world, flying around, attacking towns, etc. is an amazing technical achievement on Bethesda's part.
The first time you encounter a dragon, you will be daunted to say the least. These mighty creatures can fly freely, hover in mid-air, land and walk around, and, of course, breathe fire and ice. They can bite NPCs, lifting them up in the air, shake them around like rag dolls and spit them out. They can pursue you through mountain canyons. They can flame broil you and kill you in moments if you're poorly prepared, low-level, or just not quick enough to take cover. Again, dragons are amazing, epic, legendary, and every other adjective used to describe them before the game came out. They did not disappoint. There is nothing quite like crouching in some rocks as a dragon flies overhead so low you can almost feel the wind from its wings, hoping it doesn't take your last sliver of health with a fly-by roasting. Whatever other valid criticisms people may have, this is an unprecedented and awesome experience in an open world game like this.
Just as combat and crafting wouldn't mean much without good quests and creatures, quests wouldn't mean much without interesting NPCs living in an interesting world for you to explore and feel a part of. This is one area where Skyrim completely blows Oblivion away, and actually gives Morrowind a run for its money by my standards. NPCs feel much more alive, varied, and distinctive. Some repeating voice acting (much, much less common than in Oblivion) notwithstanding, every NPC seems to have a place in the world, a personality, and a political view. Everything about the game and its denizens feels firmly rooted in the rugged land and mythic lore of Skyrim, and the culture of its people, the Nords. Gone is the generic, medieval fantasy vibe that pervaded Oblivion. In its place is a rich, textured, granular sense of history and culture on par with Morrowind.
This is furthered by several decisions you can make, which the game presents as politically derived choices that will impact the course of ongoing events in the world. I'll elaborate more on that (hopefully without spoiling anything) in the Story section of this review, but sufficed to say that who rules Skyrim at the end of the game won't necessarily be those who did at its outset.
You can also choose to purchase property, and even get married. Even the way the game presents this to you is laden with cultural and political references. To become a Jarl's thane, you must have property in that Hold. To marry, you must first familiarize yourself with the goddess Mara. Owning property assures that you have a place to sleep, a place to store excess items without them disappearing (some counterintuitive exceptions notwithstanding) and, after buying some upgrades, to enchant and mix potions.
Marriage is more or less a superficial feature. You can marry a male or female (regardless of your own character's gender... yes, there is same-sex marriage in the game,) and then ask them to stay at one of the homes you own. When you visit them, they will routinely give you some money and a food item if you ask them to. They don't do much else. There is no romance quest or romantic dialogue (beyond simple quips like, Good to see you again, love," and the like.) You cannot be intimate with your wife or husband. It's a good source of income however, and a nice roleplaying touch. It would be nice if it were more fleshed out of course, but this isn't really what the game is about. And having it at all is still an improvement over past games in the series.
Speaking of money, the economy in the game has been improved significantly since Oblivion. Acquiring money is quite a bit harder initially for one thing. In addition, high level loot doesn't start appearing on standard enemies (non-leveled, unique item locations excepted) until you're quite high level. With enough crafting, you can make quite a bit of gold eventually, but it isn't something you can easily stumble into without going out of your way to do it, or simply waiting for it to happen naturally over time.
People have disputed this, but in my personal experience with the game, traders I use more often and sell more good items to than others, seem to have more total gold available more frequently than others do. Ingots for smithing high level armors also don't seem to show up in shops until you've unlocked the perks for that armor. Neglecting a town in terms of trading with it seems to keep it poor, whereas trading with it frequently seems to make it more prosperous. Whether this is just a random thing, or an example of Radiant Story is not necessarily clear.
Speaking of Radiant Story, I feel it needs to be mentioned and clarified at least once in the course of this review. Before the game came out, Bethesda was very careful not to overhype this feature. Todd Howard (Game Director at Bethesda) repeatedly said that they didn't want to oversell" it, and made it very clear that the feature was merely a tool allowing them to make rudimentary (generic, basically) quests a bit more dynamic. It allows for quests like, X NPC asks PC to go to Y dungeon and retrieve Z item" on the basis of where the player has and hasn't already been, what level they are, what NPCs they're friends with, etc. That's precisely what happens in the game, and precisely what was advertised/promised, yet people have been complaining that this feature was overhyped or misrepresented. I feel it should be clarified that this is not the case at all in this reviewer's opinion. The feature was never going to be Project Ego," and this was explained and reiterated numerous times. Any inflated expectations are the responsibility of the unwary self-hyper.
What this feature does accomplish though, in a game already this enormous and full of things to do, is give you an unlimited number of quests at least rudimentarily tailored to your actions and interactions to date. No more, no less. It isn't the greatest feature ever implemented in a game and, as Bethesda themselves said, you probably won't even notice it. But it is there, and it does ensure never-ending content. Another amazing feat in an already amazing game, and I for one will give credit where it's due for this system.
So, do you have to take on all this epic questing alone? Not exactly. There is no party system as such, and there are not any in depth NPC companions as in Fallout. But there are 45 different followers you can hire or recruit to travel with you on your adventures. These are not entirely without personality. They do have a smidgeon of unique dialogue, and a few conversation options to choose between. They at least are distinct enough that after a while you can start thinking of them as allies who have been with you through a lot. But they generally never present you wish sidequests or a more fleshed out sense of their history or motivations.
You can issue commands to your followers, including Wait here, Interact with this (after which you can select an object to steal, pick up, try to unlock, etc.) and It's time for us to part ways. You can also equip them with better armor and weapons if you so desire. Some would say that this is unnecessary as followers aren't supposed to be able to die, but since I've had two of them die at the hands of enemies (whether this is intentional or a bug is irrelevant to the issue) I recommend outfitting them with good gear, if only to personalize them a bit.
For navigating the immense world while delving into all of this content, there is the new and improved map system. Gone is the 2D map of Oblivion, and in its place is a full color, three dimensional map of Skyrim, complete with clouds and mountain tops. Some may feel that this graphical enhancement makes the map less readable in terms of finding locations at the edges, but in practice this requires you to actually brave the limits of the huge world and discover hidden regions you might not otherwise find. So ultimately, I found having to explore in order to reveal what was concealed below the thick clouds and snow at the map's edges quite gratifying.
Lastly, there is the much discussed feature known as Dragon Shouts. In Skyrim, you play a mortal with the soul and blood of a dragon; the last of the so-called Dragonborn. This enables you to learn ancient Dragon words of power. When combined, these words form Thu'ums, or Shouts, which work like powerful magical abilities. Hunting down word walls throughout the world (usually somewhere in the well designed dungeons) and killing dragons to absorb their souls (which unlock each word you find) becomes a great freeform sidequest of its own, and the Shouts are definitely powerful tools. They enable you to do everything from breathing fire, to summoning your own dragon to fight for you, to using a force-push-like ability to exact crowd control. It works very well and makes you feel like the mythic, powerful being you're supposed to be in the game. But it's also possible to play without more than a small handful of Shouts, so if you don't want to hunt them down, you don't have to.
As mentioned previously, Skyrim has an epic sense of world, culture, and historicity. It takes place some 200 years after the events of Oblivion, and things have not been going well for the Empire. A powerful organization known as the Thalmor has united the High Elves of Summerset Isle and the Wood Elves of Valenwood into a resurgent Aldmeri Dominion (an ancient Elven empire that once ruled over men,) conquering all in its path. The Empire has only survived at all because of the White-Gold concordant, a treaty specifying that the Empire would abandon the worship of Talos.
Talos was a great Nord hero in antiquity who, through his deeds, was elevated to godhood in the Nordic, and later the Imperial, pantheon. As such, the abandonment of his worship has not sat well with the Nords of Skyrim at all. With the Empire at its mercy, the Thalmor has been granted power to persecute Talos worshipers in Skyrim. This has triggered a civil war between a group of rebels known as the Stormcloaks, and the Imperial Legion. The Legion wants to maintain peace and security through appeasement, while the Stormcloaks want to expel both the Thalmor and the Empire from Skyrim. Their platform is essentially, Skyrim for the Nords, which despite their ostensibly heroic motives, leads them into a sort of racist, Nord supremacist philosophy.
It is against this backdrop of rich political and cultural strife that you discover through events I will not spoil that you are the last of the Dragonborn, which is what allows you to use the power of the Dragon Shouts. (The ancient dragons, who once ruled over mankind through terrible tyranny, had their own language. So powerful was their speech, that even a vicious battle between dragons made up of breathing fire and savaging one another, was actually a form of verbal debate!)
The long foretold World Eater, an ancient, terrible dragon known as Alduin, has returned to the world, and is bringing with him other dragons, long thought dead or at least dormant in the world of men. Only the Dragonborn has the power and destiny capable of undoing Alduin, and preventing the literal end of the world.
In Elder Scrolls lore, this is heavy stuff. Alduin is not just a powerful dragon. He is the first born of Akatosh, the god of time responsible for the literal creation of the world (in the Elder Scrolls lore, gods actually exist and literally did create the world.) Stopping him would be like stopping the rising of the sun, or controlling the tides. He is destined to come, and to destroy the world. How all of this plays out is something I will leave for you to discover for yourself.
What I can say is that all of this leads to some incredible twists and turns, and one of the most epic - if ultimately brief - main quests I've ever seen in an RPG. The sense of antiquity, destiny, and lore-rich importance of the events unfolding, is something few games can match (if you let yourself get into the lore, at least.) The ending can be a bit anticlimactic, but only because the rest of it is so intensely thick with a sense of dire, world-changing consequence.
You can also play a role in the aforementioned civil war, choosing between the Imperial Legion and the Stormcloaks. Neither is necessarily good or evil. They both are responsible for morally questionable things depending on your own ethics and point of view, and they both make good, rational points at the same time. It will be up to you to decide who you think is most worthy of ruling Skyrim... the Empire, or its own people? It's not that cut and dried though, so be prepared to do your homework and consider the ramifications carefully.
The same sense of epic proportions isn't quite there in the case of the lesser factions and miscellaneous quests, but they still tell interesting stories that manage to make you care enough to pursue them. (And some of them are great diamonds in the rough!) That a game this massive gives you so many quests, and such a high percentage of them are actually interesting and even compelling, is truly remarkable. Is there room for improvement? Of course. Always. But with a game that's doing this much already, and doing it this well as it is, it's a bit unrealistic to expect more.
GRAPHICS (Technical): 7/10
Let me get this out of the way: cumulatively, taken as a whole, Skyrim is one of the most ridiculously gorgeous and detailed games ever created.
With that said, this is more due to it being far more than the sum of its parts than to any one aspect of its visual presentation. Upon close inspection, textures look quite blurry, and in some towns (like Windhelm) this is more noticeable than in other locations, to the point that I would almost say they look downright ugly. (And this is before taking into account the ongoing texture scaling bug in the Xbox 360 version of the game that will be patched the week of November 28th, 2011 according to Bethesda.)
Animations are still stiff and at times even jarring. They have seen an improvement since Oblivion, but not enough of one to prevent those looking to nitpick from noticing.
NPCs, while far more detailed and consistent, can still look pretty rough around the edges visually.
Grass and plants, as well as tree leaves, are still just 2D sprites.
I just wanted to acknowledge all of these visual shortcomings before explaining why none of that matters to me, because...
GRAPHICS (Overall): 9/10
... Skyrim is an incredible looking game. This is easily the most detailed game world ever built as far as I'm concerned. Everywhere you go, you are seeing something different yet equally as spellbinding as the last sight that made you say, Wooow out loud. Every city and town has a distinctive design. Every region of the world has its own topography and visual theme. The first time you see fish leaping out of a waterfall as they swim upstream to mate, or realize you can grab a butterfly that lazily flutters across your field of vision, you will realize you are playing an unprecedented game.
The game is divided into several distinct Holds, or regions (although the game is still one, seamless world, apart from interiors.) Whiterun Hold consists of open plains, scarred by jutting, sharp rocks, and babbling streams and brooks. It is bordered by the thick pine forest, reminiscent of Oblivion, of Falkreath Hold. The Reach is reminiscent of Morrowind, with deep, jagged valleys marked by sharp, tooth-like cliffs, and gnarled Juniper trees. The Rift is a land of perpetual autumn, thick with trees and fallen golden leaves. Eastmarch is a barren land of burnt terrain, thermal vents and geysers, and dotted by mammoth bones. Hjaalmarch is a combination of marshes, snow, and ice. The Pale seems perpetually covered in thick frost, as does Winterhold to its north.
As you traverse these regions, the weather changes accordingly. In some areas is is generally clear, with occasional rain. In others, you will be greeted with some of the most beautiful, magical snow ever seen in a game, as cities in the distance glow through the occlusion of flakes swirling gently to the ground. Elsewhere you will face full on blizzards, with virtually no visibility as you struggle to find refuge before something big and nasty finds you in the blinding storm and makes you its snack. North of all these lands are the great ice fields, which are among the most mesmerizing areas I've seen in a game. Huge glaciers, sheets of thick ice, smaller floating ice patches, and freezing waters hide rare dungeons and even a few quest locations. (One of the most interesting in the game can be found out here, in fact, for those who can brave it.)
Great mountains dot the game's landscape, wreathed in fog and clouds. Snow, while only via a poor quality texture, does accumulate, and where it falls even depends on which direction the wind is blowing. It's very subtle, and isn't a continuous thing, but one minute snow will be falling softly and a light dusting will appear on objects, while the next, it will be billowing wildly, and thick piles will appear on rocks and tents on the sides of them facing the wind. Like the rest of the game's visuals, it is in and of itself not a technical marvel, but taken as part of the larger experience of traveling through the harsh climate, it's an amazingly cool little touch.
Each city has a distinct form. Instead of the generic village in a castle" design that almost every town in Oblivion had, this time we get tiered, stylized cities rising atop hills and stone arches, built into the sides of mountains, layered around elaborate networks of waterfalls, and quaint fishing villages. Inside cities and towns, you will see NPCs working, hammering hot iron, watch as steam wafts out of the water they toss their heated blades into, and see children running through the streets. (No, you can't kill them.)
Creatures are all designed with a decidedly more dark, aggressive style. Wolves are reminiscent of the wolf form the Nothing took on in the 80s film, The Neverending Story. Trolls and spiders are more fearsome and nightmarish looking, etc. These are perfectly consistent with the harsher, grittier tone of the rest of the game.
And then, at some point, you will look up into the night sky and see the northern lights, glowing an eery green against the black of night or, better yet, the warm glow of the sunrise. You'll look around you, see the freshly fallen snow being blown off the rocks gently by the wind, realize how amazing it all is when it's working cumulatively to create a living breathing world around you, and for the hundredth time since you started playing, say, Wow.
Technical visual complaints aside, this is easily the most amazing, awe-inspiring game I've yet seen. The only other game remotely as atmospheric this gen was Deus Ex: Human Revolution, another game with poor technical visuals, but having atmosphere, style, and intricate design in spades. (Other developers, please take note!)
Skyrim has some of the best sound design I've heard in a long while. Rivers and streams roar or babble believably, footfalls change over different materials like wood and stone, and the 70+ voice actors do a good to great job of making the world's inhabitants seem alive. There are a few NPC voices that repeat a little too often (one in particular,) but this is far, far less so than in Oblivion, where every race had only one male and female voice actor in many cases. The vast majority of NPCs in Skyrim have unique voices. Creature sounds are great, too.
What's really impressive is the quantity of things you can hear at a time, and how clear it all is despite the game being dense with action. When a dragon flies right over your head during a large battle, your hearing is filled with the sound-stifling overpressure from the wind it generates, but you can still make out the now momentarily muffled cries of battle from enemies and your follower alike, as well as the clash of weapons, the crackle of magic, and the roar of said dragon, you'll know what I mean. From battles like this, to ambient sounds and echos inside dungeons, the sound design is intricate and pristine.
The score is probably my favorite in a game by Jeremy Soule yet. Familiar themes are infused with haunting choirs sung in the language of the dragons, and new compositions are legitimately moving at times. So much so that it almost makes me want to stop playing and simply listen. One or two pieces in particular are now among my favorite music from any game in a long, long time. Most of the time though, it simply does the job it's supposed to: setting the mood without distracting.
While not without its technical flaws, this is by far Bethesda's most stable Elder Scrolls release (or release period) to date. Some of you encountering serious bugs may balk at this, but if so, you didn't play earlier Elder Scrolls games, and certainly not on console. (Morrowind Dirty Disc Error anyone?)
At the time of this review, there is a prominent texture scaling bug affecting the Xbox 360 version of the game that causes textures to scale down as intended for performance efficiency, but then never scale back up. According to Bethesda, this affects only users who have installed the game to the HDD. I'm not disputing their expertise, but personally I have had the issue both installed and uninstalled, as well as with the game installed on a USB thumb drive. Perhaps the installation somehow tells the game not to cache fully, (as Bethesda has said fully cached games do not experience this issue) and then it never caches again after uninstalling. I don't know. In any case, the next title update, scheduled to come out the week of November 28th, 2011 is slated to address the problem.
There are several important quest-breaking bugs. One resets a quest after completing it, so that it continually restarts again, forcing you to commit a crime to get out of it. Others simply prevent dialogue that would advance the quest from triggering under certain circumstances. One prevents progress by placing a physical barrier in the way of the player that cannot be removed or circumnavigated. There are likely many others, but these are just examples. I have also had one or two instances of freezing, but only after playing in excess of twelve hours straight, which I have to speculate has more to do with the system overheating than the game.
So, with these issues so apparent, why the high stability score? Because even with all of this, 95% of the game seems completely stable, and most of these issues can be fixed through workarounds or by simply reloading (though not all of them, to be sure.) This is a first for Bethesda. They said during development that they wanted this to be the most stable TES game to date, and they achieved that in my opinion. In a game this large, handling this many things at once, there are bound to be issues discovered by the millions of players playing it that Bethesda's comparatively smaller testing teams could never find before release. I'm not excusing these issues or justifying them. They are problems, some game-breaking, and they need to be fixed. But they are going to be, and they probably constitute less than 5% of the the total in-game content, the rest of which seems remarkably stable.
Furthermore, this is the smoothest performing Elder Scrolls game Bethesda has yet put out. Gone are the Loading Area messages anyone who played Oblivion will be familiar with, as are the brief loading pauses both it and Morrowind suffered from. There are a few hangups every few hours, and in one city in particular the frame rate can chug momentarily at times, but most of the time the game runs smoothly and never lets you feel or see its on-the-fly loading as previous games did. The refined engine is far more efficient at streaming the world before you without letting you know it's doing it. There are still examples of model and texture pop-in and fade-in, but it's less apparent than in Oblivion.
This improvement in stability and performance must be acknowledged, and existing issues will be solved shortly. Hence the high stability score.
By and large, any character build you choose to play can find success in Skyrim. Some will definitely have an easier time (mages wearing armor or spellswords) than others (pure stealth builds, and those with no ranged attacks.) But given enough time and effort, that so many different builds actually do work, and that you will eventually end up feeling powerful and capable despite limiting yourself to your build if you so choose, is pretty impressive and a sign of at least good balancing (if not great.)
There are a few issues, though. Playing normally but persistently and with great thoroughness can with some builds result in somewhat overpowered characters sooner than with others. (Combining Smithing with Enchantment comes to mind.) But the effect of this, at least in my personal experience, is not as dramatic or unbalancing as some seem to be protesting. There are still enemies that can spank you completely once you're at a high enough level that they start to show up (or you venture into an area where they already dwell) if you aren't prepared with sufficient potions and what not. And if you want to be REALLY overpowered, you still have to go out of your way to ensure you combine crafting and a lot of waiting for shops to restock, selling to the right people, etc. in order to have enough money to do all of this so quickly. It's doable, but I disagree with some people that it's something the average player can simply stumble into (some people seem to have a distorted view on what constitutes the average player in today's videogame market. Hint: it isn't the kind of player that would complain about this.)
This is not to say that some players won't find themselves overpowered by their standards, but the game was not made based on those players' standards, but the standards of the videogame market/audience in general. And even as someone who has been gaming for 25 years like myself, it doesn't feel as unbalanced as all that to me, so it's at least that hardcore of a game. I still get annihilated at high levels and with the best gear possible. If people are looking for Dark Souls level difficulty, my advice would be to play that instead of Skyrim. That isn't what Elder Scrolls games are about.
There are some outright exploits that you can take advantage of to become god-like very early in the game. However this is entirely the responsibility of the player. They are optional, and require you to go far out of your way to accomplish them, even compared to the aforementioned normal methods.
It's still a much more hardcore game than Oblivion ever was. You can now once again encounter enemies that are too powerful for you, rather than all enemies simply being leveled to you. There are some areas that are not intended for early characters. Generally, the higher the elevation, the tougher the enemies. So unless you're already on your way to becoming a tough cookie, stay out of the mountains early on. The game can be difficult at times, especially when it comes to dragons, giants, and mammoths, until you're appropriately equipped. (And Frost Trolls early on can kill an unwary player.) It's still easy enough that with enough time and effort, you will become powerful and self-sufficient. And that's what RPGs are supposed to do: give you a feeling of character progression and growth.
Skyrim is an unparalleled, seminal game of its time. It casts you into a living, breathing world of wonder and beauty, and lets you get lost in it. You become who you do based on what and how you play. You live as you will, and the consequences, both to the game's story and NPCs, and to your own progression, will be what they will be.
Eventually, as with any game, the magic will begin to wear off. You'll begin to see through NPC behaviors, notice similarities in dungeons that were carefully hidden before, and the graphics will begin to show their seams and flaws more and more as you grow accustomed to them and the wow factor wears off. But this happens with any and all games, and is not unique to, or because of some unique flaw in, Bethesda's latest masterpiece.
And a masterpiece, flaws and all, is what it is. Skyrim is one of the most epic, content-rich, well made games I have ever played, let alone RPGs. A beautiful, immense world, rich with history and depth unlike any other in gaming. If you can nitpick these things and find cause enough to pass on Skyrim as a result, then maybe it's time to reconsider whether you're too jaded and cynical to enjoy gaming in general anymore.
Skyrim is an immersive joy that any RPG fan should be able to find something to love about.
Reviewer's Score: 9/10 | Originally Posted: 11/21/11, Updated 11/23/11
Game Release: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (US, 11/11/11)
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