Review by Stinger31383

"A great and full world that's hard to care about."

Forty-five hours of playtime and I still feel as if I'm waiting for Skyrim to actually hook me, in having me care.

Skyrim is my first Bethesda experience. I've stayed away from other Elder Scrolls and Fallout games for a while now, wary of devoting so much time to a single world in order to get the maximal enjoyment out of such a title. It's easy to understand the appeal of such a game: the open world, the vast immersion, the mythos and history created by the game's designers. But if that's the only the game has to really offer, is it worth the effort?

A whole new world...

Skyrim has probably the most complete virtual world imaginable. There is simply no other way to describe the sheer scope and magnificence of the environment within this game, and the incredible scale of the world is unparalleled to almost any other game out today. The literal fact that you can go along a trail and eventually climb a mountain, at which point the climate gradually and quietly changes, is surreal and even sublime.

It's not just the sheer size of the world, but the details within such a large landscape that makes the game's physical design even more impressive. The homes are not just common rooms, but have had been carefully pieced into architecturally sound designs. The infrastructure of the castles and homes form into believable medieval cities. Skyrim, on the outside, is simply brimming with life.

Even more impressive is the world that the developers have created: The inter-species/inter-group/inter-city politics that take place before your eyes; the lore of the dragonborn coming alive around you; the various histories of individuals and places; the references from older games hinted; the books, pages upon pages of which are written into actual texts forming pretty impressive miniature stories in their own right, either adding more to the mythology or out of sheer entertainment.

For me, it was definitely the presence of the dragon lore and the mechanics of language that the developers had gone so far as to invent that was the most impressive. To spend the time on such a thing within a game is simply stunning. To make it at least somewhat mechanically sound on top of all of this makes the world that much more amazing.

Creating such a world makes it that much more believable that a player can get sucked in and become immersed. The level of detail invites one to become a part of Skyrim, to make the visit seemingly real, to engage on the daily activities, to join its clubs and be immersed in its world because of the details. The ability to buy homes and find a mate merely add to this experience.

Other aesthetics within the game add to this immersion. The music is often subdued but plays appropriately depending on the situation. The voice acting is quite good and believable, though lines will get repeated quite a few times. And, of course, the beauty of the environment. Indeed, Skyrim is a game that one can get lost and become a part of very easily.

...until you start playing

The problem with this (and, as it turns out, this becomes a significant problem) is that the immersive quality is the only thing Skyrim really has going.

To put it simply: Skyrim, by all accounts, is simply a bad game.

The most noticeable issue, coming out right from the start, is the appearance of very questionable gameplay mechanics. Skyrim's fighting is based off of four basic options: single hand melee, dual weird melee, archery, and magic. Single handed melee combat has some other options, including usage of a shield to provide extra defense or the use of a spell. Distance attacks are relegated to either to magic or through archery. Dragon shouts are also available to supplement attacks. The game allows for several different options such as the use of conjurations to aid in attacks and the use of sneak attacks.

The problem is that most of this is fairly limited. Magic is a narrow and mostly ineffective venture given the amount of magical stamina early in the game and its limited ability (lack of real effect against a group, lack of power), meaning the player is left to use some sort of melee attack. Archery is really the only truly viable option for distance attacks, but the amount of damage is limited until higher levels and better arrows are available. And sneaking, while providing plenty of damage, is simply unreliable and impractical. What you're left with is essentially melee attacking someone or a group, falling back when life is low to heal or throw some spells, and following it with a dragon shout to get away.

Fighting itself requires almost no finesse and amounts to merely hacking and slashing as fast as possible against an enemy. Little strategy, if any, is required; when if it does become involved, the idea becomes more of an attempt to find weaknesses against the AI of the game (have enemies run into smaller corridors, run and use magic) rather than becoming skillful at fighting.

Little details also break the immersion of the game mid-battle. For instance, it's odd that enemies do not stagger after being inflicted blows; not until the higher levels do enemies begin to “feel the attack” after being hit, and only by harder stamina attacks. Blocking has little effect other than limiting damage and perhaps slowing down action (if you've invested in the ability), but otherwise the player is left to hack as quickly as possible until the enemy falls. And unfortunately, this combination is essentially repeated through the entirety of the game. It's odd that the developers couldn't put at least a simple combo system that allows for a mixture of comboing and blocking that may provide for at least a simple reward.

Damage scaling is another aspect of the core gameplay that simply does not works. With the random quests that appear, it's unclear to players when they're ready for certain area. With everything accessible from the start of the game, there's simply no indicator of the difficulty of enemies in a specified location. Funny enough, if enemies are too difficult, the player can simply use magic, fire at an enemy, and run away while their life is rejuvenated. What you're left with is fighting an area by depending on your companion to fight while you run like a lunatic while firing some quarky spell, hopefully not killing your buddy in the process.

The use of first person perspective is also quite problematic, especially when dealing with multiple enemies. The lack of depth and effect targeting makes it difficult to hit the single enemy that the player may be looking to attack. This is something that has been solved since Ocarina of Time; to see this still be implemented in the most rudimentary means possible is simply unacceptable.

Other aspects of gameplay also feel almost feel as if not much thought was given. The game provides several options for blacksmithing new items, enchanting equipment, cooking, learning alchemy, and so forth, the skill of which is dependent on leveling. Leveling of abilities is determined by the usage of said skill, meaning that a player can raise their level of, say, two-handed weapons by using more dual-handed weapons, or blacksmith by consistently forging items.

But the execution is often off-base. Take blacksmithing for instance, a skill which requires several resources and items. By the time the player has enough resources to effectively use blacksmithing, he or she will have acquired items from the questing that will require even better items to be made. However, since you're limited in the armors and weapons to make based on the level of smithing, you'll be relegated to only creating the most basic of armors, making the blacksmithing unnecessary. The only option the player has is to repeatedly make items of little value to their own selves. A common tactic has been to make several iron daggers to raise player levels in order to be able to forge better armors.

This sort of poor design execution is rampant within these various systems. Alchemy and cooking are incredibly tedious processes that are made worse by the horrid interface of Skyrim. Armor leveling is often a bizarre activity requiring the player to get hit. Speech requires the player to buy a lot of stuff, which I think is quite odd (and wholly idiotic). The only leveling that makes any sort of sense are the weapon and magic leveling require constant usage of items. But even here the process is incredibly tedious, requiring players to constantly use certain items and abilities to maintain proper levels. The game may have benefited greatly by simply cutting most of these “leveling” abilities down and focusing on a core set of attributes that significantly make a difference in the game.

The Dragonborn could be a little more organized...
One unexpected problem was interface. To be honest, organization is something that I thought gaming and RPGs in general had perfected by now. So imagine my shock when playing Skyrim and finding perhaps the most disorganized system.

The interface in this game is terrible. I mentioned earlier about alchemy and cooking being difficult partly due to a poorly designed interface. But this particular problem runs quite deep.

To make it clear, the interface here is to describe the general organization and presentation of items. In Skyrim, most of this is done through a narrow list on the left side of the screen followed by a giant picture that takes up about three quarters of the entire screen. Items are organized in alphabetical order in giant lists without any real distinction between items.

It's a jumbled mess and is simply idiotically bad. Over two decades of RPGs and Bethesda couldn't figure out a better way of showing items?

This also pervades into other aspects of the game. Leveling becomes a confusing enterprise until you realize what aspects you want enhanced. Additionally, organizing items for, say, blacksmithing or alchemy, becomes confusing given the lack of organizational options. It's simply not done well at all.

One aspect of interface working half-way decently is the map system. Locations are clearly marked out to the player when areas are mentioned in the outworld of Skyrim. Quick traveling is available to areas that the player has already been. However, while convenient, this action feels out of place in the context of a game that is pushing for such a visceral experience, and almost feels cheap (you're simply going to walk to the location?). Local maps are a different story, and are difficult to decipher in complex labyrinths.

It's a world, but it's not MY world
The degree to which Skyrim's final problem matters is dependent on how well the player can be brought to care about the world the game has created.

As much lore as the game possesses, as much political and racial strife is observed within the game, as much historical implications as the game may present, Skyrim is still a place that feels awfully empty inside. It's not something that has to do with the emptiness of the general world, but rather the fact that the player really has no history with Skyrim the world to begin with. You start off as a prisoner without a backstory. By the end of the main quest, you're a guy that can speak the dragon language, but still don't have a real anchor or connection to the place.

Much of this has to do with a lack of real narrative structure. The main story, that of you being the Dragonborn, is wholly ignorable. The player has the opportunity of following other storylines, but each of these are also limited in scope.

The quests themselves are very tedious, most amounting to talking to an individual about their problem, going to a location to solve an issue or kill an enemy or retrieve an item, and returning with said achievement accomplished to progress to the next phase. It's technically not linear, but it's predictable and monotonous. Even the idea of going into a cave/dungeon/tower becomes a chore, most of which end up being extremely long passageways with a rudimentary puzzle. While the world is large and complete, it lacks anything of real interest.

Some of this may have been alleviated with some more likeable NPCs, but this in and of itself appears to be almost impossible. This particular point has been difficult to identify, but all of the NPCs in the game, the ones that you end up needing information from, seem to have the same exact charcter flaws: arrogance and bitter self-righteousness. Everyone in Skyrim has some sort of chip on their shoulder, mixed with a flair of overabundant pride. With the exception of a few (Paarthanax is quite possibly the only character that lacks this particular flaw), it becomes difficult to even care about what's going on. It's an odd thing to criticize, but even the developers seem to notice this to that point that they almost haphazardly find an excuse to allow an NPC to act like a completely irrational and irresponsible punk.

Quite possibly the worst part of this is that no matter your actions, what you do has little impact in the world at large, even as the NPCs will play up the conflict you're involved with. It's an odd feeling to have beaten the main quest and averted the complete annihilation of the world, and still get complaints from the city folk about their own miniscule problems. It's more than enough for me to simply not care.

But how much Skyrim matters to the player depends on how much the aesthetics can immerse the individual. For many people, the experience alone is enough to feel as if the place matters, and by the time the eye candy has worn off, individuals will have gotten caught up in the sheer multitude of activities that the lack of story depth will simply not make any difference. However, those that value depth in their experience will most likely see through the shallow surface.

No matter how attractive on the outside, it won't save the inside
Skyrim is an ultimately flawed experience, but not without its merits. On the one hand, you have an interactive medieval world filled with history, politics, and society unlike any other game before. On the other hand, you have a playable but ultimately poorly designed game. The enjoyment of Skyrim is dependent on a few factors, namely the amount you allow Bethesda to get away with in the face of immersion.

To be fair, for all the criticisms, Skyrim is still a decently fun game that's still wholly playable, and you'll get several hours worth of enjoyment. Additionally, mods for the PC version have been released to alleviate some of these issues. But in regards to a review of a game that should have been more or less complete when released to the general public, its simply inexcusable for Bethesda to release a product and expect the public to soften the edges. That's why play testers exist.

But is the game actually good? Does it deserve the “Game of the Year” awards? Or is Skryim overrated? The dichotomy of finding Skyrim to be a great game or a bad game depends on one's priorities. Does it matter that a technically sound and impressive game has internal flaws as long as the experience is immersive? Or is the gaming experience more central to the immersion than the aesthetics?

For me, it's the latter. Gameplay, the goals and mechanics applied to a videogame, is the major characteristic. Few games, if any, fall outside of this rule (some may argue Minecraft and Gary's Mod, but these examples are inherently built with a set of mechanics that are then taken by the player to essentially form their own rules and bounds). Skyrim has set goals, a multitude of them in fact, but they just simply don't amount to much. Funny enough, the game is most fun when you're setting out and making your own goals rather than chase those assigned to you. But on top of it all, the failed mechanics brings attention to itself; while many people can excuse these flaws because of the sheer size of the game, I instead find them to break away from the gaming experience. I can find a mediocre-looking game extremely immersive through impressive and incredible gameplay, but I cannot make find a mediocre-playing game extremely immersive though refined aesthetics.

Reviewer's Rating:   3.0 - Fair

Originally Posted: 04/23/12

Game Release: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (US, 11/11/11)

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