Preparing for a new Elder Scrolls game is like preparing to die. One must ensure they get all their worldly affairs in order, speak with the people who mean everything to them, and have a final meal. After all, once that disc goes in, the user may as well have departed from our mortal world.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is a game that will murder you, for the time it steals from your life could rightfully be considered criminal. It is a game that will literally never end while simultaneously bringing you closer to your own end.
This is all before the dragons show up.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 [reviewed], PC)
The mountains of Skyrim are beautiful to behold, truly breathtaking in scale and bursting at the seams with things to see and do. Not all is well in the shadow of the snow-capped rocks, however. It has been two centuries since the Oblivion Crisis changed Tamriel forever, but the resulting peace couldn't last for eternity. Cyrodiil's expansive Empire has laid claim to Skyrim and abolished the traditional customs of its people, the Nords. An inauspicious threat of civil war hangs over the people as rebellious Stormcloaks plot to drive Imperial forces from the region and gain popular favor amongst the local Nordic Jarls. Though common folk strive to keep to themselves, events have taken their toll on every citizen.
Inevitably, it is the player's destiny to become deeply embroiled in these events, as well as many more. Yet again, The Elder Scrolls casts its adventurers into the role of a mysterious prisoner, this time due for the chopping block. However, a stay of execution is granted by the sudden appearance of apocalyptic dragons -- once thought to be creatures of mere legend. The first of these scaly monstrosities is but one of an army, as the mythical creatures reawaken all over Skyrim, and the player -- soon to realize his destiny as a dragon-slaying Dovahkiin (Dragonborn) -- must confront the beasts and save the world.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim can take a handful of hours to beat. That is, if you consider wrapping up the official story quest as "beating" an Elder Scrolls game. Nobody should, however, for the main plot is but a mere morsel of what Skyrim has to offer, to the point where it isn't even the most sprawling and epic quest on the menu. To focus only on the main narrative would be to ignore the deliciously macabre Dark Brotherhood resurrection, the various twisted meetings with capricious Daedric Princes, or the vengeful tale of The Companions and their grim secret.
Bethesda's games have always felt like online encyclopedia browsing, where one opens a page, finds more interesting ones within, and ends up with twenty unread articles open before long. In Skyrim, this approach is taken to extremes, with opportunities for adventure found in every city, cave, farm and forest hideout. Thanks to the "Radiant" storytelling system, these adventures can be procedurally generated as well. While there are fully scripted quests boasting their own characters and narrative threads, there is an infinite amount of miscellaneous objectives that can appear at any point. These range from simple tasks (such as collecting a bounty note in a tavern and slaying the target) to more intricate missions (like pulling off a successful burglary for the Thieves Guild). The game is also smart enough to place objective locations in unexplored areas of the gargantuan map, improvising in order to encourage further exploration.
At the time of writing, I have put over fifty hours into the game, and my journal menu still lists more than forty unfinished jobs. These are just the tasks I've found, and I doubt I've scratched the surface as I am willing to bet there are many finely layered quests that I still have not stumbled across.
Of course, all this content would be meaningless if the game itself were no fun, but Skyrim is perhaps the most encouraging, rewarding and downright indulging Western role-playing game I have ever played. That sounds hyperbolic, and perhaps it is, but it's something I truly feel in my bones. With Skyrim, Bethesda has taken everything successful from previous Elder Scrolls games and mixed it with the best elements of recent Fallout installments, all while leaving behind the chaff. The result is a game as deep and flexible as Oblivion but as accessible and intuitive as Fallout 3. More importantly, it's better than both.
Before our budding hero can embark on his or her quest, one must first work out if it's a he or a she. The in-depth character creator from Oblivion is back, offering a wealth of options to spawn warriors as handsome or ugly as desired. Every race has been given a significant visual overhaul, with Orcs looking tougher, Elves gaining harsher features, and humans receiving far more believable, subtle faces. Tamriel's exotic races -- the Khajiit and Argonians -- have benefited the most from Skyrim's fresh visuals, earning richly detailed animalistic features that cause them to look less like vaguely re-skinned humans. Each race possesses a predetermined aptitude for certain talents alongside unique special abilities (Argonians once again breathe underwater while Imperials can access the calming "Voice of the Emperor" power), but every race will be able to make use of whatever skills the player ends up choosing.
Skyrim gives starting players all the tools they need to test every type of hero they could potentially become. Armed with rudimentary stealth, weaponry and alchemy skills, as well as a few weak spells, one's fresh-faced avatar serves as a fertile testing ground that can be specialized in many directions to suit the needs of every individual. As with previous Elder Scrolls games, there is no traditional experience system. Instead, skills gain levels with repeated use, and contribute toward a rank meter that determines the player's overall level. This creates a natural progression in which characters evolve based entirely on how one wants to enjoy the game. If a player tends to sneak around a lot, the character will become increasingly stealthy. If the player likes to swing two-handed axes around, the character becomes more proficient at wielding heavy melee equipment. The only stats you'll have to worry about are Health, Magicka and Stamina, one of which can be upgraded with each successful level gain.
Every time a level is earned, a skill point is also awarded. Skill points are invested into various perks arranged on individual skill trees. There are trees for each school of magic, as well as light armor, heavy armor, sneaking, lock-picking, alchemy and other familiar Elder Scrolls abilities. As players become more experienced in various skills, new paths on the tree will unlock, allowing points to be sunk into ever more useful abilities. For example, the Speechcraft skill tree has perks that make it easier to intimidate people in conversations, or cause items to be sold at cheaper prices in stores. Heavy Armor has perks that grant additional defense bonuses if the character is wearing a matching set of armor pieces, while spell perks can reduce Magicka costs or even dual-cast incantations to make them stronger. Although these perks aren't quite as obvious and game-changing as those found in Fallout, they are nonetheless crucial in creating a powerful Dovahkiin.
The natural way in which characters are built ensures a huge variety of potential warriors. My own character is a battlemage who specializes in Conjuration and Destruction magic, backing up his spellcasting with a measure of sword-wielding experience. Sword in one hand, magic spell readied in the other, I'm able to summon a daemon from the Oblivion plane and send it to charge ahead while I throw fireballs and soften up the target. Once the enemy is weak enough, I can charge in and finish it off with the sword -- which can often be accompanied by a brutal execution animation. What's great about my character is how I was able to incrementally tweak it to maximize strengths and limit weaknesses. For example, my hero was a bit of a glass cannon at first: able to dish out punishment but prone to getting slaughtered if enemies could close in. I therefore spent some time focusing on Heavy Armor, using just enough skill points to give me a defensive edge. Now I have a character that feels like a battle tank. He's slow and and has very poor stamina (you can't have everything), but he will soak up plenty of damage while devastating all but the hardiest of foes.
This is just one potential build of many. I could have had a lightning-quick scout, or a character with Illusion magic that renders him invisible and causes enemies to furiously attack one another. The possibilities aren't endless, but they may as well be. Furthermore, dedicated players who reach the pinnacle of their talents will enjoy power equal to a demigod. By the time the character is sufficiently leveled, there's no reason not to feel on top of the world and downright almighty. That isn't to say the game becomes a complete cakewalk -- tougher enemies will rise to the challenge -- but players aren't punished for leveling up, as often felt like the case in Oblivion.
Another change from Oblivion is the in-game menu. The menu screen features crossroad-style navigation that points to skill trees, available magic, items and the map. Simply moving in the right direction fluidly opens up the corresponding menu, allowing for easy and swift access. Unlike the clutter seen in previous Elder Scrolls interfaces, these screens are clear and clean, sacrificing pompous stylishness for pure functionality. The item menu is particularly cool, with each item fully viewable in 3D within the screen -- you can even zoom in and rotate anything in the inventory, which comes in handy for a few quests.
Combat is dramatically improved. Magic spells are similar to the Plasmids found in BioShock, equipped to one of the Dovahkiin's hands and readied for use whenever weapons are drawn. Players can choose to have a sword in one hand with a spell in the other, or even have two spells at once. Some spells issue a constant spray of damage, while others are projectile-based; some have instant effects, and others take a moment to charge up. As with everything in Skyrim, flexibility is the essence of the experience, and players can tailor their combat to suit any preference. A large number of "Favorites" can also be mapped to a special menu that's brought up at the touch of a button, allowing heroes to change weapons and spells and use potions on the fly.
For those not magically inclined, there's a huge variety of weapons with which to dispense death. One-handed and two-handed melee weapons are joined by bows and staves to create a healthy and versatile arsenal. Although combat retains the unwieldy hack-n'-slash flavor of prior games, things are slightly more refined, with blocking and counter-attacking given a greater focus. Fights feel so much more involved than they did in previous Elder Scrolls games, especially since every blow feels like it connects with a mighty impact. Those looking for intricate and graceful melee will be disappointed, but those who want brutal, manic, in-your-face engagements have come to the right game.
What else is there to say? What about the crafting, smithing and enchanting? You can make your own weapons with materials found around the world, becoming an alchemist and create new potions, or imbue weapons with powerful sorcery. These systems are simple, yet require practice and dedication from those players looking to make their own gear. Even then, they don't have to if they don't want to, and can rely on shops when they get new stock. It's all up to you.
As a Dragonborn, the hero will gain access to Thu'ums, or Shouts. These shouts are spoken in the language of dragons, and their words invoke powerful effects. As players discover Thu'ums written on walls around Skyrim, they absorb their power and gain new skills. These range from simple Shouts that blast out fire or ice to more unique skills, such as surging forward at super speed or summoning a lightning storm. Once learned, a Shout needs to be unlocked with a Dragon Soul, but to win a Dragon Soul, one needs to fight a dragon.
Dragons are not merely scripted boss battles that have been set to occur at a few predetermined points. In Skyrim, these living legends can come at any time and launch an attack upon any location. These randomly generated creatures will start appearing in the world once a certain point in the main story has been reached, and their regular appearances dominate everything. The best time to meet a dragon is undoubtedly in a city, as guards will leave their posts to join in the fight and turn what is already a huge encounter into something truly epic.
The winged lizards swoop across the sky, raining down fire or frost on everything in their wake. They'll land on buildings, smash into the ground and provide truly memorable battles every time they show up. As a choral rendition of the Elder Scrolls theme strikes up and players struggle valiantly to bring their reptilian foe to the ground, only a heart of stone could fail to be roused. Once the dragon finally draws its last breath and begins to burn away, leaving behind only its huge skeleton, most players would be hard-pressed to not just stand there silently for a few moments, taking in everything that just happened. The surrounding NPCs will be doing the same thing, too, making these reflectively calm moments almost as engaging as the fights themselves.
Skyrim can do epic, that's a given. It is, however, the little things that make The Elder Scrolls V what it is. The game is stuffed to its brim with tiny flourishes that seem so insignificant yet make the world of difference between a game that feels like a game, and a game that feels like it's alive. Swimming in a river to catch some fish, dropping an unwanted item on the floor and having an NPC "helpfully" return it to you, gaining a trusty follower who comments on your actions and surrounding locations -- these are the things that really place Skyrim a cut above the rest. Long after gamers have stopped recounting grand scrimmages against tribes of giants, talk will persist of that time an elf tried to sell a player some drugs outside of town, or the bandits that attempted to scare the hero away rather than blindly attack. To talk of such tiny details in a game where storm clouds can be summoned at will sounds silly, but without these minor touches, the overall ambitious scale would mean much less.
Providing the backbone for all this content is a brand-new iteration of the Gamebryo Engine, dubbed Creation. The difference this makes is huge, permeating every facet of the experience from graphics to glitches. Skyrim's huge open world looks inspiring: cities and caves appear to be unique, while character models are detailed and finally resemble human beings -- or their Orc/Elf/Khajiit/Argonian equivalent.
The game's lavish sound design seals the deal and adds that final breath of life to the production. Voice acting is fairly varied as far as Bethesda games go, though certain ones are reused a lot. Still, the acting is commendable and the affected Scandinavian accents used by many of the local Nords is quite endearing. The music is absolutely sublime -- quiet and atmospheric when it needs to be, but stirringly evocative at just the right moment.
As far as bugs go, some are bound to exist in a world so large, but I am yet to find anything game-breaking. The only persisting issue is with NPC allies, who can sometimes get lost and fail to return to their default locations. Some will get stuck attempting to perform an action, and if the player doesn't notice they're missing, they could be lost forever in the sprawling world. Other potential allies will still recognize the player as having someone with them, meaning lost comrades won't be replaced until a quest calls for a specific follower, automatically dismissing the lost one (though he/she will still remain lost). I've also had the game freeze once or twice, but one can never be sure if that's a fault of the game or the console trying to run it. Compared to previous games, however, bugs are essentially negligible, and while I'm sure the coming months will find plenty of problems, I can notice nothing so far that ruins what is an absolutely captivating experience.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is every single reason to love a Western role-playing game, condensed into a single comprehensive experience with nothing lost in the conversion process. It is a game that will drown those who step into its absorbing, overwhelmingly detailed world, a game that will bury you and refuse to let go. Yet your submergence will be agreeable, your burial ecstatic, and the hands placed around your throat welcomed like those of a lover's. To play Skyrim is to enter into a relationship, one that provides feelings of empowerment, yet demands total submission.
Submit you will, for The Elder Scrolls V is the new zenith of role-playing games and it commands you to look up.
THE VERDICT - The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Reviewed by Jim Sterling