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The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Review

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Back in June, I mentioned how highly impressed I was by Bethesda’s demonstration of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim at E3. So much so, a game I hadn’t heard about prior jumped to a day-one purchase and won my vote for Game of E3. Not only did the game look gorgeous, but Bethesda promised a scope that seemed unrivaled by any other game. Now, no game is ever as long as the developers claim, and Skyrim is certainly no exception. Still, for myself and numerous other gamers, the region of Skyrim has been a place to lose ourselves over the past few months. While I certainly haven’t delved into everything the game has to offer, I feel I’ve finally gotten to the point where I feel comfortable offering my opinions on this stunning game.

Skyrim takes place in the aptly named Skyrim Region of Tamriel. Tamriel is a magical continent occupied by a variety of fantasy races where the events of the Elder Scrolls franchise occur. Normally, jumping into a franchise with such a rich history and backstory would be a daunting task. Luckily, Skyrim takes place two-hundred years since Oblivion, the last Elder Scrolls game, and thrusts players into a world none have traversed before. In this world, players take on the role of the Dovahkiin, or Dragonborn, a person with the ability to absorb the souls of dragons and use their mighty powers. Coincidentally, the discovery of this power is coupled with the reemergence of the fearsome dragons that were long thought to be extinct. Skyrim, a region filled with numerous problems, not least of which is an unfavorable civil war, is precariously walking the path towards destruction. Players are tasked with uncovering the cause of the return of the dragons, all the while working through the myriad of problems the plague the citizens of Skyrim.

When I originally mentioned Skyrim, one of the things that stood out most was easily how massive the game sounded. Over one-hundred-fifty random dungeons and over three-hundred hours of gameplay -- can you think of a game that comes close to rivaling that? In fact, this review was delayed, in large part, due to not wanting to rush through the game. Was I able to do 100% of what the game offered? No, of course not. Still, at a little under two-hundred hours clocked, I was able to complete nearly everything I wanted to before writing this review. The game naturally didn’t live up to the promised playtime, but it was still ridiculously long. It doesn’t take Skyrim long to hit its stride either. With the open world, players are free to explore any town or dungeon they want, complete any quests, fight any enemy, and generally do whatever they want. While the first few levels are challenging due to how inexperienced and undeveloped your character is, it doesn’t take long till you start to develop a successful playstyle (stealth-archer for me). By the time your character hits level thirty, you get into a solid groove which lasts till around level fifty. After that, the game starts to get significantly easier, which is not exactly a bad thing as it is a lot of fun to stomp on enemies which once curtailed your fun. Occasionally there are times at the later levels where the game will surprise you with a sudden death or challenging sequences, but for the most part, by the time you’ve reached those higher levels, most enemies won’t be much of a problem. However, the complete freedom, at times, comes at a cost. I learned fairly early the importance of not power-leveling non-combat skills. I also learned that visiting and clearing out random dungeons can have its own problems. Killing people or acquiring items before you’re directed to hunt them down can prevent you from accessing additional objectives from quest givers. Worse, sometimes completing dungeons before they’re assigned can break quests and leave parts of the game unbeatable.

Players are given a large amount of freedom in deciding what type of character they will control for their enduring journey through Skyrim. In the opening moments, players are able to pick their character’s race, gender, and various features. From there, they are able to develop the character any way they like as they progress through the game. The game offers eighteen skill categories split into three families. These range from the warrior family, which covers combat skills such as one-handed weapons, heavy armor, and smithing; the mage family, including restoration, conjuration, and enchanting; and the thief family, which contains stealth skills such as sneak, lockpicking, and alchemy. Repeatedly using a specific skill (for instance shooting things with a bow and arrow) raises the specific skill till it eventually levels up. Leveling up skills provides experience toward the next overall level. When players level up, they can increase their health, magic, or stamina and gain a perk in one of the skills they have developed. Since it is impossible to completely max out every perk, this forces players to decide on a playstyle and focus their benefits on developing their character along specific paths. While it was an interesting system, I personally didn’t like how you only received experience for leveling up skills. This criticism was cemented when I realized that raising all 18 skills to level 100 did not result in my character reaching level 100. Of course, I had acquired every perk that I really needed for my character to be fully developed in my playstyle, but I would have liked to have the nearly twenty extra perks..

As I stated earlier, Skyrim, like many other open-world RPGs, offers players a plethora of choices. Players can choose where to go, who to interact with, which quests to complete, even how to develop their characters. In fact, one of the major conflicts in Skyrim is between the Stormcloak and Imperial armies, currently engaged in the previously mentioned civil war which currently plagues Skyrim. However, one peculiarity regarding Skyrim’s choices was the lack of consequence. Now, I'm no game developer, but I assume that developers include choices in their games to add a sense of realism to their games by forcing players to deal with the consequences of their actions as well as create an illusion of freedom. Strangely, apart from adding a new statement to the guards’ comment pool, completing most quests and storylines has little effect on Skyrim. There are a few quests in particular which would appear to have rather large effects on the world, but fail to change much in the greater scope of the game. The civil war, which arguably has the biggest consequences, doesn’t really change the game in any drastic way. Another relatedly annoying problem is in regard to the dialogue from NPCs. A number of the major questlines conclude with the player becoming the leader of the respective faction. Unfortunately, after completing most of these quests, NPCs continue to treat the player as if they’re the newest recruit, not worthy of carrying their gear. While I’m not an expert programmer by any stretch, what experience I do have has taught me how simple if-then statements could easily have eliminated some of these agitations.

Regrettably, one of the most disappointing aspects of Skyrim was exemplified by the dragons that continue to assault the player throughout the duration of the game. As I mentioned in my initial impressions of Skyrim, one of the most tantalizing parts of the game was the promised dragon aspect. Dragons would randomly attack the player and other inhabitants of Skyrim. In the original demonstration, the encounters looked truly fearsome and intimidating. Due to the nature of the dragons, what initially sounded like an amazingly fun feature with phenomenal mechanics ended up being rather mundane as the game progressed. It wasn’t an inherent feature of the dragons, but rather the scope and length of Skyrim that crippled the dragon experience. Early on, fights with dragons were tough and exciting. I remember my second dragon, saving after doing any damage due to how difficult it was to get it to even land. However, as the game went on, I became better at fighting dragons, getting them to land, and better at picking them apart. While the game initially did a good job of introducing new types of dragons every ten levels or so, there was a point where this stopped and they stopped scaling to my character’s strength. By the end of the game, dragons had just become another enemy to hassle me between objectives. If I saw one, I’d think, “oh, there’s another dragon, guess I better go kill it..” and then I would before continuing to my next destination. They had lost the thrill and epic-ness a battle with a dragon should have. This flaw with the dragon mechanics is unfortunately one of the big problems with Skyrim. There’s no doubt that it offers a scope to gaming that few can even come close to. However, the pieces compiled to assemble the greater are unfortunately far too similar. Early on, sneaking around caves, fighting through forts, and drawn out battles against giants are all exciting. But after a point, there’s very little that excited me. Dungeons feel far too similar, battles are identical, and too many quests follow the same formulas. It’s sad to say, but it’s arguable that there just isn’t enough variety in Skyrim to justify such a massive game.

Skyrim is unfortunately plagued by a number of other major flaws. As I briefly mentioned earlier, the game is far from perfect, and can glitch up on you like no one’s business. There’s nothing like realizing you’ll never be able to get 100% completion because a quest you did 30 hours ago didn’t behave correctly, blocking off part of the game forever. While I never had this particular problem, I did have to create a second character just to be able to complete one of the major questlines due to an NPC failing to giving me the correct dialogue option. Now, I’ve talked about this aspect with a friend on several occasions. On one hand, yes, Skyrim is a more massive game than most, and should be given certain leeway. However, on the other, at what point do we say this is a finished product and enough is enough? I, like many, played the game on the PS3, and like many, when my save file got too big, was forced to suffer through crippling lag that often forced me to stop playing in frustration. Bethesda continues to work to resolve this issue, but I can't help wondering, why such a flaw was not caught before it was released? Worse, I think it says a lot about the game that just about every entry on the Elder Scrolls Wiki has a list of possible bugs that can be encountered..

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is undoubtedly one of the best games of 2011. It offers an experience that many games cannot even aspire towards. However, what stops it from being one of the best games ever, or even being the undisputed best game of 2011 are its flaws. Skyrim is a finished product, and as such, should not have as many problems as it does. That alone is a huge strike against it, but the inability to maintain the exhilarating atmosphere of the early game speaks not only against Skyrim, but also against an interesting trend in gaming. Recently, it has been common for western game developers (like the co-founder of BioWare) to criticize Japanese RPGs for not being open enough and for not offering players enough choices. But for Skyrim, one of the most open games in recent memory, this degree of freedom ended up hurting the game. Now, I’m not saying making Skyrim more restrictive would have been better. All I’m saying is that perhaps tons of freedom is not always the best thing. In the end, there’s no denying that Skyrim has its share of flaws. But even amidst those flaws, a phenomenal game manages to shine through. As someone who has never played an Elder Scrolls game before, Skyrim was an amazing introduction to Tamriel. Having spent a solid chunk of time there already, I can tell you, I’m already looking forward to revisiting this amazing world.

The first step towards getting somewhere is to decide that you are not going to stay where you are.

All images owned by Bethesda