Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Review)

November 11, 2011
PS3, Xbox 360, PC

Developed by Bethesda Game Studios

Published by Bethesda Softworks

A new open-world to explore, forever more. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (2011)
Skyrim is as engrossing an experience as the medium as ever seen.

Today marks the 1-year anniversary of the most memorable launch date of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. On 11/11/11 I was in line (like many fans across the country) for the midnight release of the latest installment in Bethesda Game Studios' successful franchise. The Elder Scrolls is the quintessential medieval-fantasy role-playing game for the Western world. Many players jumped aboard during 2006's Oblivion, less discovered The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind back in 2002, and so on to the series' launch in 1994. I still cite Morrowind as my favorite game of all-time for reasons both nostalgic and ground-breaking despite the game's infuriating mechanics (then and even more so now). With nearly two decades of related games before it I am confident in ascribing Skyrim has not only the greatest entry in the series but among the crowning achievements of our current generation of video games.

I write this review even though I have yet to complete all that there is to do. It's debatable if that is even possible as Bethesda programmed ways for the experience to literally be infinite. There are entire quest lines I have yet to touch and all this even after clocking in some 80 hours into the game over the past year. So please keep in mind as you read this review that I am far from being done with Skyrim; and I like to think it is far from being done with me. Of course I have completed the main quest, which happens to be the first time I have done so in the series. I believe this is primarily because Skyrim is the most accessible of all The Elder Scrolls games. The technical advances in gaming since previous installments have certainly helped make the story in an open-world game such as this more detailed and thus more personable.

A map of Tamriel. This time we are in the appropriately white province of Skyrim.
Skyrim is one of the nine provinces of the empire of Tamriel. As the above map displays it is centered and Northward. It is a land mostly covered in a permanent winter, a place that is sometimes a wonderland and at other times a terribly bleak existence. It feels fairly compact, but the mountain ranges and windy terrain give you plenty to work with. Skyrim is roughly 14 square miles in size. You could probably run across the whole thing in an hour of real-time which would last a day or two in game world's time. Even so I am still stumbling upon caves, ruins, and even an occasional settlement that I have never seen before. When you pull up the game's map it is littered with the destination markers of every place you have been. It's staggering to take it all in.

Character creation has more details than you could ask for. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (2011)
In such a large and lived-in world you play but a single role. Nevertheless you are one capable of mighty action (for good or for evil or maybe something in-between). Like every previous game in the series Skyrim is single-player only (though The Elder Scrolls Online is in the works). You begin the game as an unknown prisoner (a classic RPG trope if ever there was one) awaiting execution. Before your head is put on the chopping block you get the luxury of deciding what that head and its body looks like. Like Oblivion before it there is a robust character creation process that takes wherein you choose from nine varied races (with different abilities), select a gender, and then further customize your looks (these choices are entirely cosmetic). You could easily spend a half hour deciding things like the postion and length of your nose. Immediately the detailed character models of the game are showcased. They start to pale in comparison to something like Mass Effect, but wow, we've come a long way since Morrowind! You make the character you want to play as and after your inevitable though exciting escape from imprisonment you are given an open-world to explore at your own pace and digression.

This time you play Dovahkiin (or Dragonborn), a being with the body of mortal and the soul of a dragon. As such you are capable of using "Dragon shouts," one of the new additions to player's arsenal. These let you do anything from summoning a terrible storm to take place over your battles (did I mention the game has a vibrant weather system?) to slowing down time itself. The force push shout "Fus-ro-dah" has gained Internet meme status as it is among the first you learn to use. It bears some of the funnest results as you send your enemies flying, even the giants go head over heels for it.

Look up "epic" in the dictionary and you will find this screenshot. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (2011)
It is a good thing that a Dragonborn has appeared on the horizon because actual dragons, those wicked worms, have once again started appearing throughout the land of Skyrim, much to everyone's surprise. They terrorize the tundra (some with fire, some with ice) and occasionally choose to take on a town. You are Skyrim's greatest hope in taking them down (though I did watch a giant and his wooly mammoth do a pretty good job at it). The dragon battles are possibly the highlight of the game and can take place anywhere outdoors. They are random and seemingly infinite, but are more majestic manifestations of this epic experience than anything else. Watching dragons circle a mountain in the far off distance is a breath-taking sight. One flew right over me once, his shadow completely overtook me out of nowhere, but I sighed in relief as he flew on his merry way. Maybe he was late for something... 

It is more than luck that the Dragonborn's appearance coincides with those of the dragons. A wise group of sages known as the Greybeards reside atop the highest peak in all of Tamriel. You seek them out to understand your potential as the Dragonborn and further the game's primary story. I say "primary" because there are many. Each person you come across in Skyrim has something to say, many of which have favors to ask. Children will want to play tag with you, a fugitive will ask you to keep quiet about their whereabouts, and every city's Jarl (a mayor of sorts) seems to have a bandit problem. There is so much to do in Skyrim that your menu will soon and fast fill up with quests.

You can examine every item in you inventory, even the salmon meat. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (2011)
The user interface is general is simple as can be for an RPG as massive as Skyrim. One thing that is easy to overlook is the clear and clutter-free HUD (head-up display). Besides the ever-present compass at the top of the screen there are no other items onscreen outside of combat. When you are physically engaged the health, magic, and fatigue meters fade onscreen to let you keep track, but they just as subtly melt away so that the entire screen is dedicated to the impressive visuals, from the scenic views outside and to details of every shelf inside. Every building you see can be entered, expect a load time when you do though. Furthermore you can interact with most items in the game. Read books, cook food, repair armor, make armor, chop wood, arrange all your belongings (whether they be ill-gotten or rightfully earned). The menus (especially when you open up a filled chest) could desperately use some customizable organization, but they stay true to simple menu scheme. You can manage your inventory, view your stats, check the status of your missions, and study the map with simple flows through the menu.

Part of the reasons I have left some aspects of the game untouched is due the character I am playing as. I am a Wood Elf named Zar Vular and I am trying to remain a "good guy." I have dabbled in the Thieve's Guild but have avoided the Dark Bortherhood and Vampirism. I sided with the Empire in the fierce civil war that is ever-felt in this cold provence. These are all choices that you make as a player. It's not that I am not opposed to playing in some of those ways, but this character has a personality and a code of ethics. In fact, I have eager plans to start a second character soon. She (yes, sheShe will be a naughty girl who excels in black magic, seeks out the Dark Brotherhood, and would slice up a farmer's wife just for looking at her sideways. Hei Mao will be a dark-furred Kajhiit, a cat-like yet humanoid race of Tamriel. Some gamers might not care to make a psychological-rounded character and will play as someone who bends as easily as reeds in the wind, but I like to think that games like Skyrim are progressing how we think and ultimately how we play. The topic of morality in video games (or lack thereof) is one I will address in future posts, but I had some truly tough choices to make in my play-through.

Skyrim would not be a Bethesda game without its bugs, and I'm not talking about the butterflies they you can catch and use in potions. The game has its fair share of technical hiccups and even glaring glitches. I experience an unbeatable dragon during the main quest which took troubleshooting to get pass. When making something as ambitious as Skyrim I let many of these annoyances slide as I try to realize it is impossible to test every aspect of an open-world game that gives the player this much freedom. To me the adventures are worth the consequences. We all deplore them and wish we could have an experience without them. My hats off to the fine team at Bethesda for continually updating and patching the game to ensure smooth gaming in the future.

Shepherd giants and their flocks of mammoths are a wonder to behold. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (2011)
There is much more to tell you about my time in Skyrim. The people I have met, the creatures I have slain, and the flowers I have picked. There is a bard college I am thinking about joining. This one time I resurrected a bunny after I killed and it attempted to fight along my side. And I am still deciding which lucky lady is going to be Mrs. Zar Vular as you can even get married. This week I began Dawnguard, the first DLC available for the game. I eagerly await next month's Dragonborn. I will not be finished with it until The Elder Scrolls VI because that is the kind of a game we have here: An endless showpiece of atmosphere, a rich history of lore, dangerous dungeons and dragons, and... you. This is what video games can be all about.


Words by J.S. Lewis

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