Much to my chagrin, it has been a week since the release of “The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim” and I am only now sitting down to write my review. Why? Because I’ve been playing it. Among its other sterling qualities, the game is engaging to the point of being almost unputdownable (it’s a word).
Skyrim is the 5th installment in Bethesda Softworks’ “Elder Scrolls” series, the 7th if you include “Battlespire” and “Redguard”. It takes place about 200 years after the events of TES4: Oblivion and is set in the Tamriel’s province of Skyrim. From a gameplay standpoint, Skyrim continues the Elder Scrolls’ skill-based leveling system, incorporates some of the mechanics developed during Bethesda’s ventures into the world of “Fallout 3” and “Fallout: New Vegas”, and brings in a few features created by modders of previous games. Players of previous Elder Scrolls games have found and will find significant changes in the game’s mechanics that they will not like. New players will find a system that is fairly simple to understand and interesting to work with.
Some will undoubtedly want to burn me as a heretic for it, but I am NOT going to rate this game as I might review a stand-alone game. Skyrim is a part of a series and it needs to be reviewed as such. I am taking this approach in light of the almost perfect reviews the game has received from the media. From my perspective, there is no such thing as a perfect game. How a reviewer can slam Skyrim for a “half-done inventory system” (a harsh, but reasonable assessment) and then give it a perfect 100 is beyond my comprehension.
- Graphics: Outstanding! Even with my mid-range graphics cards, everything is beautifully rendered. I have minor issues with blocky shadows and some stuttering, but not enough to seriously detract from the game.
- Another reviewer’s characterization of the inventory system as being “half done” is a bit harsh, but there are UI issues that need some serious attention. This is the hazard of being a PC port from a console, but if they’re going to make a game for the PC, then it should be made for the PC.
- There are also a couple of areas where the game can (and probably will) crash and burn. This is something that will undoubtedly be patched soon, but should never have made it past quality control in the first place.
- There are a few quest-related scripting issues that will make you scratch your head and go, “huh?” They are minor and will not seriously interfere with the experience. But they should have been caught before release.
- The rest is extremely well done and in keeping with the rest of the Elder Scrolls series.
- Sound: Jeremy Soule’s soundtrack is completely awesome. It lends just the right atmosphere to the game. The voicing is much better than previous games, due in large measure to a cast of thousands. OK, a cast of 70 or so, but still… I found nothing in the sound to detract from the game in the slightest.
- Story: there are a few items that stretch credulity to the breaking point, even considering that this is a fantasy game, but if you can manage to “bleep” over those points, it’s an engrossing storyline that is well presented. You will find yourself frequently side-tracked, but your journal does a good job of reminding you of what you need to do next.
- Replayability: Like the other Elder Scrolls games, people will be playing Skyrim for years to come. I am definitely looking forward to seeing what the team comes up with in the way of expansions and other DLC in the coming months. Toss in the fan mods (whenever the Creation Kit gets released – no brownie points for having it available on release day, as projected)
- Overall: 9 out of 10. The game has a few issues. Leaving aside the one or two crash points (which are admittedly in out-of-the-way locations), those issues are minor and could probably be more accurately characterized as annoyances, but they are there. While I can find all sorts of good reason to excuse them in light of the game’s other outstanding qualities, I cannot ignore them.
The basics are easy enough. Skyrim presents an engrossing story within a beautifully rendered world. I am not playing on a high-end machine and am still blown away by the graphic quality of the game. My wife is constantly having to pull me away from the game (makes me wonder how many divorces will get blamed on Skyrim) and in many cases, it’s “give me a couple of minutes and I’ll be right there”. Those couple of minutes seem to turn into ten or fifteen minutes pretty consistently. Artistically, the world is consistent, stays within its boundaries (no “Mothership Zeta” material here), and is rendered with excruciating attention to detail. Jeremy Soule’s music is awesome and could stand on its own as a fine composition. All told, this is an awesome game that will stand quite well on its own and as part of the Elder Scrolls series. It has issues, however.
From the outset, the game seemed a bit off. In a number of pre-release interviews, Todd Howard said that you would begin as a prisoner being led to your execution. This is a fairly consistent theme in all of the Elder Scrolls games. You started in a prison cell in “Arena”, you get shipwrecked and stuck in a cave in “Daggerfall”, you start on a prison ship in “Morrowind”, and as a prisoner in a dungeon again in “Oblivion”. I’m not sure that the execution part was particularly necessary to the story and it seemed somewhat over-the-top. To be fair, the need to get those dragons into the story quickly pretty much necessitated an outdoor environment for the start, but I think the last-rites-and-head-on-the-block bit was a bit much. To crown the whole episode, if you choose to escape with the Imperials, you’ll be told, essentially, “we’re really a bunch of nice guys and hope you won’t hold that whole head-chopping thing against us.” And, as with the other Elder Scrolls games, you’re pretty much on your own from that point.
This is the point where the Elder Scrolls games truly shine and Skyrim is no exception. You really are on your own. You may choose to follow up on the few things you were told at the outset or you can run off and do your own thing. I chose to mostly do my own thing and have been doing it for the past 83 hours of playing, if Steam is to be believed. Here’s where we get into the places where Bethesda dropped the ball.
The user interface is interesting. It’s not terribly complicated, but it is obviously a port from a console. As such, it does not take serious advantage of the capabilities of a mouse and keyboard. My suspicion is that the first mods released after the Creation Kit becomes available (we’re still waiting on that – another disappointment) will be changes to the user interface. One of the major annoyances in the inventory system, for example, is the clickable area in the categories. Bethesda provided no indicator of where the user needed to click to select a category. Being rather used to radio buttons and checkboxes on the web, my inclination is to either click on the category or just to the left of the category. Those areas are not clickable and it just closes the inventory. The proper area is to the right, but there’s just blank space over there. An icon or “click here” indicator of some sort would have been nice. At the same time, the default key for placing things into a container and removing everything from the container are the same. I cannot count the number of times that I tried to put something into a container and ended up staggering under the load from accidentally putting everything into my inventory. This is yet another place where the development team’s console port comes back to bite the PC player. Bad devs – no Cheetos for you. These are not major issues, but they are annoying enough to detract from the game.
From a graphics standpoint, the game really shines, but there are a few issues in there, too. I have only experienced an unexpected crash to the desktop in a couple of places, so Bethesda has put a major focus on stability. But it should not be a case of there being only a couple of places; there shouldn’t be any at all. The game also has a tendency to stutter/hang for very brief periods, usually a fraction of a second, but sometimes as much as one or two seconds. Keep in mind that I am not on a high-end machine by current standards, but I’m well in excess of the minimum specs. I will grant that the almost infinite number of hardware/software permutations on the PC platform makes it impossible to predict what any given PC’s environment will be. But this seems to be a problem across enough systems that a ball got dropped somewhere along the line. This is something that should have been caught and dealt with in quality control before release. For the places where a crash to desktop happens, there are alternate routes to the destination, so it’s not complete game-breaker, but it’s disturbing enough to warrant the wagging finger.
In the area of gameplay, Bethesda revamped their skill-based leveling system. This represents a major change from past games. Your character only has three attributes: Magicka, Health, and Stamina. In previous games, these three were derived from your character’s other attributes (Strength, Intelligence, Willpower, Endurance, etc.). I think I understand the reasoning behind the change and am pretty much in agreement with it. I’ve always viewed classes as being like a box that you were expected to keep your character within. By removing the attributes and classes of previous games, you are free to develop your character along whatever lines you like rather than along the lines your class requires. This is very much in keeping with Bethesda’s “be who you want to be” approach to gaming. While the the navigation of the user interface for the perk system could use some work (we’re back to the clickable and not clickable thing), it’s well conceived, visually appealing and generally well-implemented.
NPCs also received a major overhaul. They look like real people and generally behave like real people. In their interactions, there are no more involuntary close-ups and the vast majority do not look like they have been beaten with an ugly stick. Overall, I give the development team a huge thumbs-up for the improvements in this area. Just for gravy, the voicing was done by about 70 actors, so there is a great deal of vocal variety to enjoy. The actors did a marvelous job and even the most jaded gamer should be impressed.
From Morrowind, Oblivion and the two Fallout games, the fan community fell in love with the idea of companions and followers, mostly through fan-created mods. The Skyrim developers took this concept to heart, it seems. Skyrim has approximately three dozen NPCs who can be recruited as followers and/or companions. Going one step farther, a couple dozen of those are potentially marriageable. Yes, you can set up housekeeping and enjoy connubial bliss. The why of it escapes me, though. Aside from getting an occasional home-cooked meal and a few septims, having a spouse doesn’t seem to fulfill any useful non-roleplaying purpose. But many of the fans are enjoying the idea, so I’m not going to second guess the development team.
Since Daggerfall, the fan community has been begging for dragons. Skyrim gives it to them, in spades. The main quest line revolves around the return of the dragons and you will fight many in your adventures. While a couple of them are friendly, they are not capable of being companions or mounts. The vast majority of players will not find this a problem and major kudos to the team for a job well done. Their appearances are not frequent enough to turn them into a running gag, nor are they rare enough to be a surprising encounter. The team has managed a good balance with them and I’ve enjoyed every encounter, even when I came out on the losing end of it.
Dragons are extremely well-rendered, but their AI seems a bit weak at times. I watched one come out on the losing end of a fight with three Snowy Sabre Cats. The final tally was one dead cat, one dead dragon and two cats weakened to the point where my low-level character was able to dispose of them fairly easily. I’m not sure if this is an indication of an underpowered dragon or overpowered cats. Perhaps both. At any rate, dragon interactions are a shining point of the game. Leaving aside the Sabre Cat incident, dragons are not wimpy opponents. In a one-on-one encounter, even with a fairly high-level character, my inclination is to head for cover and take them out at range or else to run for help. They are, indeed, a force to be reckoned with.
Crafting is another area in which Skyrim has far exceeded previous games. Crafting has long been a part of the Elder Scrolls through the Alchemy and Enchanting skills. Both were improved in Morrowind and Oblivion, but Skyrim adds Smithing, Tanning, Smelting and Cooking to the mix for a completely enthralling experience. It would not be too far off to claim that a player could easily spend an entire game using adventuring and and exploring only as a means of gaining the raw materials necessary to do crafting. In some ways, crafting was so well implemented that it can completely overpower the game, but most players will find it to be a worthwhile adjunct rather than a game breaker. I strongly suspect this will be toned down by the modding community, but console players will just have to be cautious in its use (or not – it’s your game).
There are so many other areas of the game to explore that it would almost take a book to address them. Wait. It did take a book – “The Prima Official Game Guide,” weighing in at a bit over 650 pages. But this isn’t a help and how-to article, so I’ll just have to wrap it up by saying that Bethesda has turned out another excellent game. It has its weak points, but they are completely overshadowed by its strengths. Players who are new to the series will find little to get in the way of having an excellent romp through a virtual world. Veteran Elder Scrolls players will find much to complain about as far as changes, but will still be playing it in the years to come. This is definitely not a one-off adventure game.
At $60 (retail) for the PC version, it’s a tad pricier than most other games on the market, but well worth it. You must install Valve’s “Steam” client to play, just as with “Fallout: New Vegas”. Some will see this as a problem, but DRM is a fact of life in today’s world. Steam is a bit less intrusive than other systems, so I don’t count it as a minus for Skyrim. Anyone who is into the “swords and sorcery” side of gaming will want to add Skyrim to their collection and will be coming back to it again and again and again.