Skyrim. The word itself already transcends popular culture into something more akin to a future published, post-apocalyptic tome titled, “The History of Everything that Mattered.” Bethesda’s open-world masterpiece will go down as one of the best games of all time, setting a gold standard for developers wanting to mimic the design and success of a well-rounded western RPG. No video game world feels more alive, suturing the player into its icy peaks and log cabin towns with an enchanting grace that only an experienced developer could bestow. All this gushing praise and there are still problems.
But let’s start with the good. Upgraded combat, open character development, streamlined UI, dragons, and more three dimensional non-player characters top the list of improvements.
While still not as tactile as it is in a game like Dark Souls, Skyrim’s combat boasts a marked improvement over its predecessors. Weapon physics give weaponry and shields more weight and it helps that each of your character’s hands is mapped to the corresponding trigger on the controller. This allows for effective dual-wielding, particularly while magic is equipped. Supercharge a firebolt, for example, by mapping the spell to both hands. Charge it up, send it off and watch that Khajiit bandit go flying in a heap of flames across the snowy landscape. Or if you prefer, assign “healing” to one hand and “sparks” to the other and simultaneously heal yourself while pouring a stream of lightning at your enemies.
Thanks to the new way characters are created and developed, possibilities like these for you character are endless. Bethesda does away with the old Dungeons & Dragons character creation paradigm, wherein you choose a class and assign points to a set of attributes. Instead, you are free to take your character in whatever direction you choose throughout your entire gameplay experience. Creative combinations like a mage with deadly stealth skills, or an archer proficient in heavy armor with an unlikely interest in enchanting are just as fun as the more traditional character builds.
Old-style characteristics like intelligence and dexterity are pared down to just three “resource” attributes, magicka, health and stamina that govern the use of your abilities in combat, not what you can and cannot learn or do. Instead, Fallout style “perks” determine the effectiveness of your character with a certain skill. Some perks lower the magicka cost of spells in a given skill tree, others are more specific like increasing the damage done by a sneak attack or allowing your character to craft a new type of armor. The point of this new system is to you allow you to take your character in whatever direction you choose simply by using the skills you like best and choosing perks based on those skills. A far less restrictive experience is a far more immersive experience, even though these building decisions can feel a tad overwhelming at times.
As an offshoot to character building, the streamlined UI is both a blessing and a curse. While rapid inventory and skills management is a plus, the newly introduced “favorites” menu frustratingly slows down the pace of combat depending on your character build. A jack-of-all-trades character with several combat abilities, or a mage specializing in all the schools of magic spends more time switching out the appropriate weapon or spell in their favorites menu than they do enjoying the detailed animations and back and forth tide of combat. Still, the menu system as a whole strips out all the fluff, allowing intuitive and efficient management of equipment, magic, and items.
While somewhat of an anecdote at this point, the fact that Skyrim’s realm is bustling with dragons says more about the game than only its inclusion of something awesome. Picture an innocent farming village on the outskirts of a larger city, its chaste citizens mindlessly tending to crops, feeding their horses, or cooking up lunch for a famished family of four.
As you get to know the town and its residents you spot something in the sky weaving a giant circle through the clouds. A familiar screech breaks the placid monotony around you followed by the swell of battle music. You draw a steel sword and shield just in time to meet the flames bursting from the dragon’s face. Thankfully, you’re not on your own as the entire village draws arms against the threat. A battle ensues; the townsfolk loose endless arrows into the beast as you face it head on like a true hero.
This scenario is just one of many unscripted situations you might find yourself in. Tack on a third party, like a giant or a wandering mammoth and things really start to get interesting. These situations are brilliant displays of the graphics engine, the AI system, the physics engine and more. Dragons are the true showcase of Skyrim. The design and implementation of the winged beasts speaks to just how far the series has come and its infinite potential down the road.
One thing Elder Scrolls games get right time after time are their characters. Hundreds of non-player characters populate the diligently designed realm of Skyrim, each with their own AI directing them on how to go about their day. However, unlike past Elder Scrolls games, Skyrim’s character personalities are far more complex and richly brought to life through better voice acting from a decently talented cast and fantastic dialogue writing. While not yet on par with some of the best film and TV animations, or even video games like the Uncharted series, Skyrim’s voice acting gets the job done just enough for the writing to build the many characters beyond their attached quest lines.
Aside from these improvements, without even mentioning the new dragon-shout ability, additions of children NPCs (still can’t kill them) and a meaningful and fun crafting system, Skyrim does what previous Elder Scrolls iterations did but adds a healthy polish. Environments are breathtakingly expansive and lush with vegetation; hand-crafted dungeons are uniquely designed, each with their own charm; the lore is deep and rich with names, dates, places and events; guild quests are still the best parts of the game; gameplay is literally infinite with dynamic AI, and more. So what’s the problem?
We can start with the main quest. If you have not spent a significant amount of time exploring the vast realm of Skyrim, completing a plethora of scripted quests and learning the important people, places and things, the main story falls dreadfully flat. The ongoing civil war, which other quest lines immerse you in, briefly becomes integral to the main quest line a little more than halfway through. However, if you have yet to experience the war firsthand, you have no information to guide you through a series of rather important decisions.
Likewise, some characters and enemies appear throughout the main quest without any context or introduction. Don’t act surprised if you find yourself asking, “Who’s this and why am I killing him?” Too often the quest jerks you from plot point to plot point without taking the time to build any momentum or incorporate supplemental information to flesh out your understanding of why you are taking the thing to the guy so that he can open the thing to get the thing. Finally, if you’re hoping for a truly epic conclusion to match the scope of the game, it’s probably best to lower your expectations.
The lesson here is to not rush through the main story. If you have the time, enjoy the world of Skyrim for as long you’re able before heading too far through the main quest.
But Bethesda cannot do everything, which is also why it gets a pass (once again) for buggy gameplay. Granted, it’s 2011 and publishers have the option to release day-of-launch patches and more down the line. Still, this does not entirely excuse Bethesda for the recurring problem of launching nearly broken games. Every game houses bugs and exploits, but no game’s bugs are as outstanding and annoying as those plaguing Bethesda’s high caliber releases. There’s no need to mention them here; but if you feel Skyrim is bug/exploit free, search “Skyrim bucket exploit” for a humorous, yet glaring example.
The fifth entry in the Elder Scrolls series is probably the best to date. It’s not perfect, not even in a “nothing’s perfect” sense of the word. It has its issues, technical and otherwise. Still, these issues are forgivable, given the epic scope of the game. Most games simply are not attempting to deliver narrative in the same way. Judged against its peers, Skyrim goes down as an absolute masterpiece. But judged on its own right, Skyrim is a fantastic game with sufficient room to improve.