When a developer like Bethesda Game Studios comes out and announces a new RPG, fans take notice. When they proclaim it to be their most ambitious work in a long line of ambitious projects, fans clamor, the gaming world takes notice, and ultimately hype builds to a fever pitch. For many games, this hype is hard to live up to, if just for the fact that expectations become too high. Bethesda made grand promises with The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. They promised a persistent world with nearly limitless possibilities, a revamped engine to house better visuals, a new combat system that deviated from the traditional, and dragons… the icing on the cake. With The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim just one day away from launch, it’s time to find out whether or not Bethesda Game Studios’ latest made good on the promises that were made. Better yet, does it live up to hype?
For those that are unfamiliar with The Elder Scrolls franchise, it is one of the longest running, and most popular Western RPGs on the market today. Going strong since 1994, and the release of TES: Arena, the franchise has seen many iterations over the years. Last generation brought us a magical experience in The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, and in 2006 The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion ushered in a new generation of visuals for the franchise. Seemingly not content to just push out a new iteration, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim builds off the core of these previous games in a way that makes the gameplay feel not just nostalgic and familiar, but changed for the better in nearly every way.
The gameplay feels not just nostalgic and familiar, but changed for the better in nearly every way.
Right from the start, you can tell that Bethesda Game Studios has the clear intention of getting you to buy-in to the story of the Dovahkin. You play the role of the dragonborn warrior who is the only hope against the ancient evil beasts that have returned to Skyrim. Though as expected, this is just a small part of The Elder Scrolls V experience. It’s an over-arching plotline to what is, for all intents and purposes, as close to a persistent gameplay world in an RPG that I have ever seen. More important is the functionality of this over-arching plotline. It’s one that explains the powers that you possess, how to increase them, and ultimately become the consummate dragon slayer, that in due time you are destined to be.
Skyrim is a game about freedom. Whether that be the freedom to explore the massive and beautiful world that has been created, or the freedom to craft your character in any way you choose, there are plenty of avenues to explore. Some may not even be seen or realized in a single playthrough considering the size and scale of it all. Being an RPG, you would assume that Skyrim had been created around a class based system. If that’s the case, you would have assumed wrong. No matter what character that you choose to use, you’ll be afforded the option to customize that character in any way that you see fit. Progressing from level to level will allow you to focus on spending points on the attributes that you use most, or that you want to improve. The customizable skill trees, offer an immense amount of freedom, and alongside a progression system for each trait within the system, it’ll take some time to become a master of any one skill.
Skyrim is game that gives you the freedom to choose how to play.
You’ll need to become proficient in some type of combat in Skyrim. Whether you decide to conjure allies to aid you in battle, focus on the arts of destructive magic, or want to get surgical with a broadsword, you can do some, or all of that. The combat allows for two handed spells, weapons, or a weapon in one hand, and a spell in the other. You can become proficient in a number of things and as the situation calls for it, you can shift. Not on the fly however. Making these shifts will entail that you equip a specific spell, item, or weapon to a hand and it takes about a second or so to ready said weapon. But all in all, the changes to the combat in Skyrim are noticeable improvements for the franchise. Fighting feels much more fluid, with well done kill animations that are definitely a page out of Fallout 3’s book. Add in the powers of the Dovakhin and you have three options that you can use in combat.
Fighting dragons looks and plays as cool as it sounds.
Dragon Shouts will range from spells that can clear a path, giant fireballs, heavenly lightning, and many others that can be collected on your journey. Collecting said shouts from reading the inscriptions found throughout the game, you also need to have Dragon Souls to unlock the Shouts for use. This shouldn’t be a problem as the dragons have basically taken over Skyrim, and if you journey for enough time, they’ll find you. No need to go out looking for a fight…unless that’s what you’re into. Alongside the Dragon’s Soul, slaying these beasts will earn you massive points, as well as scales and bones to sell for currency. The game does an excellent job of introducing dragons to you. Whether you come across them naturally or within the confines of the story, they’re almost always a challenge, and a visual treat in an already great looking game. There’s always the threat of a dragon swooping down, and making your journey at hand, that much harder. Being that the game is very similar to previous BGS RPGs, autosaves take place when resting, or entering a new area, so a long trek across Skyrim can prove fruitless if a dragon interrupts your progress mid-way. Moral of the story, save often.
The real beauty of Skyrim is that even with all that is going on in the land besieged by Dragons, there is a very believable world, full of factions, quests, towns, and dungeons to explore. The dungeons are a place to really lose yourself. With 150 of these hand crafted masterpieces, the adventure literally never stops until you want it to. Booby Trapped to the gills, many of the dungeons will have you sneaking around like a haunted house, hoping you don’t set off a trap that will end in your demise. Littered with enemies as well, there’s a nice balance between the tension of combat, the feeling of exploration, and the caution of the unknown around each corner. There is a puzzle element involved in the dungeons as well, but they aren’t exactly brain boggling. There’s no telling what you’ll find on any given quest, and the radiant story mechanic is responsible for that. Actions have consequence, completed missions will open new storylines, places to explore, and people to meet. With guilds and other faction based storylines having been such a large part of the previous games, they once again return, and can at times steal some of the thunder from the main story. They can definitely take you away from your overall objectives for copious amounts of time. Though it’s obvious that that is the objective. Getting lost in the world full of choice is what these game’s have always been about.
In a game so massive and with the track record of past games, you would expect there to be many more problems than actually arise in Skyrim. Prominent freezing issues of the previous titles like Fallout 3 & New Vegas, weren’t an issue at all. I didn’t have even one problem with getting stuck on terrain, which has been a staple of the developer in the past. The ocassional graphical mishap, will likely be spotted more frequently as players get set to embark on their own journeys, but all in all I would be willing to go out on a limb and say this is probably Bethesda’s best work from a quality control standpoint. That’s not to say that the game is perfect, as I said, but the wealth of good, clearly outweighs any of the bad.
It’s quite telling actually. The fact that you can spend upwards of fifty hours in a game world and feel like you’re just beginning to scratch the surface of what there is to see, is one of the best value propositions in gaming. Sure, you can run through the main questline in around 20 hours, if you wanted to, but that would be the equivalent of trying to see The Smithsonian in a day. The point is, there’s so much good content, that you’re never really sure if you’ve found it all, so the journey continues.
At the beginning of this review I posed the question of whether The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim lived up to the hype or not, and I believe that answer is an unequivocal and emphatic, yes! The core changes that were made to the franchise, like the revamped graphics and combat systems, were probably enough to seal the deal in the case for this being the studio’s best work. Fortunately, the developers didn’t stop there. The game has a persistence to it that feels less like a game altogether. Sure, the core elements of a game are still there in it’s deep crafting, skills, and factions. But it bleeds through those conventional trappings and offers something that feels continually fresh and exciting each time you fire up the game, unknowing of what you might encounter in a given session of play. For the RPG fan it’s a can’t miss, for those that aren’t fans yet, you soon will be.