I don't know when exactly I fell in love with Skyrim. It might have been when I killed my first dragon, capturing its soul. Or maybe it was after I crafted my first full armor set. Somewhere along that line, I realized Skyrim had not only managed to meet my expectations (which were at an all-time high), it had exceeded them.
I didn't play Oblivion until very recently, but I loved Fallout 3 to death, and New Vegas was a great title, so when I heard about Skyrim, I decided I should acquaint myself with the Elder Scrolls series. Unfortunately, nothing about Oblivion grabbed me. The combat felt too disjointed and despite being a much more colorful and life-filled world, Cyrodiil lacked the charm and character of the Capital Wasteland.
However, I had faith in Bethesda, having seen the improvements made from Oblivion to Fallout 3. As a matter of fact, I can scarcely think of any games I looked forward to as much as this.
Skyrim begins like almost every Bethesda RPG. The player is in a dire situation when all of a sudden the responsibility of saving hundreds (or thousands) or lives falls on his/her shoulders. In Skyrim, the player is Dragonborn, a warrior of legend who has the ability to understand draconic language.
Their timing couldn't be better, as dragons arrive on the scene after thousands of years of extinction to halt the hero's execution. Because of his (or her) special ability, the Dragonborn is called upon to eliminate the return of the fire-breathing destroyers and liberate the world.
These dragons are every bit as fierce as the legends claim.
The story takes several twists and turns and includes several awe-worthy moments. Unlike Oblivion, the narrative remains incredibly engaging and encourages players to complete the main quest, even if they didn't in previous entries. Surprising for a fantasy title, there is very little content here ripped from other works, creating a story that seems wholly original. The writing is superb, though we have come to expect this from Bethesda. Voice acting is almost at the same level as the script, held back only by a few wimps and a handful of out-of-place accents.
In addition to the main quest, many of the game's side quests contain great stories. Several of the larger missions break out into full-on quest lines of ten-plus hours that manage to stay just as captivating as the main story. In addition to slaying dragons, players will fight (or aid) a rebellion, uncover lost weaponry, and become the leader of the fiercest warriors in Skyrim. Intrigued yet?
Without a doubt the biggest knock on every Bethesda game is the actual gameplay (okay, maybe after the glitches). Combat had never been their forte, as evidenced by the recent Fallout games and the reliance on VATS to hit the weakest of creatures.
With Skyrim, the developers finally created a system where combat is worth lauding rather than just a necessary roadblock between you and your goal. The tight controls give the player a more grounded, weighty feel compared to older titles.
Wielding a sword now feels like a real action, with more heft behind each swing and appropriate recoiling from both the protagonist and enemy. Weapons will glance off shields, throwing the player back, or if you use a strong attack, they will visibly daze the opponent.
All that time spent conditioning his fur, wasted.
When an enemy's health is low, striking them will occasionally result in a short cinematic where the player executes the adversary with various acrobatic, powerful, or gory finishers. Most occur in third-person, but my favorites were those that happened in first-person, as you often don't realize the game has taken control until you are shoving your blade through your enemy's neck. But be careful. If your own health is low, you may find yourself on the receiving end of one of these finishers.
Magic, a major staple of the series, is back and better than ever. This is because, like BioShock 2, players can now brandish a weapon in one hand and spells in the other. You can manipulate two different spells or equip the same spell with both hands to maximize its power. The same types of magic are back, with destruction magic for attacking, restoration for healing, and all the others that players remember from Oblivion. Though I don't use them much, alteration and conjuration skills have gotten some nice enhancements to make them more useful on the field of battle.
In addition to regular spells, dragon shouts make their first appearance. As the Dragonborn, the player has the ability to voice their language. It turns out a dragon's innate fire breathing stems from the magical words it speaks. By locating these words hidden across the world, players unlock these abilities for personal use. However, while some words are gained through the main story, most require exploration or side quests to find, and will always be guarded by either a dragon or another formidable foe.
Once a shout is learned, it must be "unlocked" using a dragon soul. Every time the player eliminates a dragon, he/she absorbs its essence. Each shout contains three pieces, which must be discovered individually. With each phrase, the shout becomes stronger. Shouts are a powerful tool in battle but have long recharge times, so use them wisely.
Cue the epic music.
Archery is now more useful to all types of players, greatly rewarding those who who stick to that skill tree. Combined with a high sneak and light armor skills, players can actually be a long-range force in this game, which one could not in Oblivion. For everyone else however, it still helps to keep a bow and quiver on-hand.
Skyrim teems with all sorts of wildlife and citizens, all of which can be fought and killed. Hunting is a nice way to lose a few hours chasing large game. Or if you want to improve your chances in the next battle, go to a forge and start smithing. Before long, you'll be crafting better equipment than you'll find in the shops. It should be noted that the best armor and weapons will have to be made by the players themselves, but the visual payoff is well worth the investment.
Finally, I want to quickly touch on the dragons, seeing as they are arguably the biggest inclusion to the Elder Scrolls series. In addition to appearing at scripted points during the story, and at the aforementioned word walls, dragons exist in Skyrim as any other animal does, and when they spot the Dragonborn, they usually attack. The dragon's breed determines its difficulty, which scales with the player's level to keep the fights challenging. And they truly are quite challenging. Even after you learn their patterns and upgrade several shouts, dragons are still without doubt some of the most dangerous creatures, wrecking unprepared adventurers in two to three hits. But with enough patience and skill, they can be defeated.
Bethesda clearly realized that it was time for a change. Skyrim marks a departure for the series, away from the old gameplay style, which made combat feel more like a chore than an integral part of the experience. I now look forward to enemy engagements instead of avoiding them as I did in Oblivion.
One giant cave of NOPE.
But if there's one element Bethesda absolutely nails, it's the design. In my mind, they are the reigning champions of the open-world genre thanks to the living environments they craft for us to play in.
The Fallout series is known for massive barren landscapes filled with depravity and sadness. It may have been depressing to visiting, but I absolutely loved exploring the Capital Wasteland, and then the Mojave desert. However, I have always chafed at the fact that the entire map, though filled to the brim with unique locations, generally looks the same with identical climate and geography.
Skyrim, however, features the most diverse world Bethesda has ever created. Although the frozen province is roughly the same size as Oblivion, all comparisons end there. As players journey across the land, they will find themselves in rolling green fields, heavy forests, and swampy marshes. And that's just the southern regions of the map. As one heads north, the green gives way to tundra and eventually snow and ice. Also common are enormous mountains, which can be scaled to find hidden encampments and caves.
Aside from the land itself, Skyrim is bustling with life and opportunity for exploration. There are several large towns to visit, each serving at least some major purpose to the story. These aside, there are hundreds of holds, dungeons, caves, and fortresses dotting the landscape for the player to comb. The best part, however, is the culture. Skyrim and its people are heavily based on the Scandinavian nations of Northern Europe, particularly the Vikings. The history, architecture, and religions of Skyrim stem from Norse teachings, creating an experience that is at the same time more realistic, and more alien than previous games.
Yes, you can explore every inch of this image.
Obviously, the world itself doesn't matter if there's nothing to do. Luckily, Bethesda has packed this game with more quests, side quests, and miscellaneous objectives than one could ever complete without shutting themselves off from society altogether (more so than usual).
But despite the massive number of quest lines, each appears to be treated with the same dedication and care as the rest, generating a uniformly excellent experience worthy of praise. Also, Skyrim features a new radiant story system, meaning that quests will adapt themselves to what the player has already achieved. Don't worry about locking yourself out of a later mission by clearing out a stronghold before you are supposed to. The game will simply bend itself to allow you to continue.
Finally, we encounter the new leveling system, or, the old leveling system actually. Bethesda returned to its Oblivion ways, where experience is gained through repeated use of a skill, not quests. This means you can't level up by killing a dragon with a sword, then dump all your points into magic. If you want to enhance a specific skill, you must use it. At its core, the system feels more organic in nature, rewarding adventurers based on how they play the game, not how the game wants them to play.
After leveling enough skills, players will increase their overall character rank. Doing so will allow them to increase one of the three basic attributes (health, magicka, and stamina) and spend a perk. Each skill tree opens up new perks as you increase your level with that skill. For example, players who have a smithing skill of 30 will unlock the perk to craft Dwarven weapons and armor. Several perks have multiple tiers (usually multipliers upon the previous level), which possess their own requirements. Once a perk is unlocked, it must then be made active by spending one of your experience points. You only get one per level, but it can be saved for later.
Don't let the beard fool you. Giants are less than welcoming.
Graphics have been a bit of a sore spot as of late for Bethesda. Both Fallout games, while oozing with style, were deeply lacking on the frame rate front. However, many were willing to ignore this considering the world's expanse. But with Skyrim, Bethesda has proven this argument invalid.
Skyrim doesn't look good for an open-world game. It looks gorgeous. The level of detail in the environments is absolutely stunning, with crisp, sharp textures and superb lighting. Creatures are beautifully modeled, moving and acting with more realism than we are used to seeing in games. Special attention was given to the dragons, making sure they animate properly both in the air and on the ground. The difference from one type of dragon to another is immediately clear, not only from the color, but from the details in the body and extremities.
Human/humanoid character models have also seen a significant improvement from previous games. Yes, occasionally they will stray into the uncanny valley, and all women have the same general figure regardless of age, position, or even race.
Sound design is absolutely top shelf, which again is something we all expected. The soundtrack is, in typical Bethesda fashion, absolutely spot-on, and well integrated into the game's more epic encounters. The sounds of Skyrim that accompany players as they traverse the land are perfect, engrossing the hero and lending that extra bit of credibility into a world which, sadly, does not actually exist.
Skyrim is then at the top of the RPG trade with a beautiful world to explore, innumerable quests, and one of the best leveling systems of any role-player on the market, and rich audio. We all knew it would be amazing. Is it Game of the Year amazing? For many, yes, and it will certainly take home quite a bit of silverware during the award banquet. Considering how many phenomenal games I have had the privilege of playing this year, that Skyrim is even in the conversation, let alone near the top, is extraordinary. If you enjoy RPGs, and for some reason haven't picked this up yet, I have one question for you: What is wrong with you?
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Developer: Bethesda Game Studios
Release Date: November 11, 2011
Number of Players: 1
Platforms: PC (Reviewed), Xbox 360, PlayStation 3