The Elder Scrolls games are well renowned for their enormous sense of scale, living breathing interactive worlds, rich detailed history and a myriad of quests for the player to complete. Traditionally they have also been complex role playing games (RPGs) but The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion released in 2006 made the series a bit more accessible and the latest instalment The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim continues to streamline and refine the experience for a wider audience. Bethesda Game Studios have crafted a detailed and expansive role playing game that is both accessible and rewarding to those new to the genre, while at the same time offering the detail and choice to those interested in seeking it out.
The series is set in a fictional world populated by many different races and each game takes place on the continent of Tamriel. The Elder Scrolls V is based in the province of Skyrim which is home to the Nord race and it is a rugged region in the north of Tamriel, with provinces such as Morrowind and Cyrodiil from the previous games bordering it. Despite expectations that Skyrim would feature mostly inhospitable snowy environments it is actually more varied than Oblivion. Yes there are snowy mountain locations but there are also vast tundra grasslands, mist covered marshland, woodland and deep river gorges with spectacular flowing waterfalls.
As with many role playing games the character you control has humble beginnings but rises to the challenge and becomes pivotal to the story. In true Elder Scrolls tradition you are a prisoner at the beginning of the game – essentially a blank slate for the player to create the type of character you want to be. Just as you are about to be executed by the Imperial Legion a dragon attacks the town of Helgen and you escape along with prominent Stormcloak prisoners including their leader Ulfric. Dragons were thought to be extinct for centuries and their hostile return only adds to the chaos caused by a looming civil war between the Empire and a Nord faction (the Stormcloaks) who wish to break away from it and rule Skyrim free from Imperial interference.
It soon transpires that you alone have the power to absorb the souls of slain dragons because you are ‘Dovahkiin’ or Dragonborn. During the course of the game you will learn many dragon ‘shouts’ which are powerful abilities derived directly from the language of dragons. For example, Unrelenting Force will push enemies backwards disorienting them, while Ice Form will freeze them for a short time and Storm Call summons a thunderstorm that indiscriminately unleashes lightning attacks on nearby targets. Dragon shouts consist of three ‘words of power’ each adding to the strength of that ability. You will gain some of these important dragon shouts throughout the course of the main story quests and also discover many ‘word walls’ during your travels that teach you one word of a shout. The dragon souls you have absorbed act like a currency to spend on unlocking discovered words of power.
What being dragonborn means for you and for Skyrim will be answered during the main storyline which is both well told and satisfying. Only an Elder Scrolls game could deliver something like this and it is noteworthy that killing dragons is a lot more fun and useful than the chore of closing Oblivion gates was in the previous game.
Being new to the province your character has no comprehension of how dangerous it is out there in the Nordic wilds, while the civilised townsfolk across the nine holds of Skyrim are all too aware of it. So the concept of Quests was invented where people could get troublesome problems solved or items retrieved from dangerous dungeons with no risk to themselves. All they needed to do was wait for somebody who didn’t know any better to get the job done for them (that would be you) while they enjoyed the comfort and safety of mundane town life. OK, there are a few people who can be recruited that do have more of an adventurous spirit but even they wouldn’t contemplate visiting a dungeon alone, but they will follow you if you go with them. Joking aside, followers work well for the most part and you can point at anything in the world and issue context sensitive orders to them such as attack an enemy or unlock a door. Occasionally followers will get in your way but they are a natural progression of the system used in Fallout 3.
The lands that you might think are home to the proud and noble Nord warrior race are in fact awash with mischievous people up to no good. So you will encounter quest lines involving the Thieves’ Guild who usually want you to be sneaky and steal from others, there are a group of mages up at the College of Winterhold who aren’t even trusted by the citizens of the town they are in, the Dark Brotherhood cult have distinctly sinister intentions and even the Companions (similar to the Fighters Guild in Oblivion) might not be all that they appear to be. There are also civil war quest lines where you are free to choose which side you want to team up with, a quest line from the Bard’s College, lots of other side quests and a bunch of Daedric quests just in case you forgot how unhinged people can be in these games.
Skyrim uses a radiant AI system which dynamically tracks how you play the game and can change the target location of dungeons to keep you visiting new places or if a quest giver dies a member of their family will become available to offer you the same quest. The radiant AI system also generates endless miscellaneous objectives for you to perform including delivering items or messages, doing many work tasks like forging and tanning, clearing out dungeons, killing bandit group leaders and dealing with dragon threats. While there were many dungeons to visit in Oblivion they were very repetitive because only one member of the development team was responsible for designing them all. Bethesda assigned a team of eight dungeon designers for Skyrim and the result is that they are now a lot more distinctive. Finally, there is more of an incentive to explore and see what each of the 150+ dungeon location has in store for you. A useful new feature also indicates on the map whether a dungeon has already been cleared.
It won’t be long before you get on the wrong side of somebody, living or dead, human or creature and need to show them the error of their ways. The game makes inflicting pain on your enemies easier than ever thanks to an overhauled interface. Instead of weapons or spells being automatically assigned you can freely place them in your left or right hands this time, while using them is as intuitive as pressing the left or right triggers (Xbox 360 version). The player can dual wield one handed weapons, have a spell in one hand and a weapon or shield in the other, you can dual cast different spells or even the same spell can be created with both hands to make a more powerful version of it. A useful new feature is a Favourites menu that lets you assign spells, weapons, shouts or items to it. During gameplay this is accessed by pressing Up on the D-pad and it makes managing anything you use frequently in combat much easier.
Pressing the B button opens the character menu where you can view your Items, Magic, the Map screen and Skills. The map is now viewed using the in-game engine from high above the environment and so always reflects the time of day and while I initially missed being able to see where the roads were it is something you soon get used to. The Items and Magic screens are clear and accessible but the placement of the menus on the left and right of the screen can initially seem counter-intuitive until you get used to it and realise they were designed that way to make the control scheme more consistent. The Skills screen is where you level up your character and unlock one perk with each new level.
Your skill perks are literally written in the stars because each skill has a constellation of connected stars dedicated to it. These mini skill trees allow you to advance and collect special bonuses related to particular skills. At first these might seem like another Fallout 3 inspired feature but many of the perks were given to you in Oblivion by reaching level 25, 50, 75 or 100 for different skills. For example, reaching level 50 in Sneak unlocked a 3x bonus for stealth attacks with bows and a 6x bonus with one handed weapons when undetected. These are now two separate perks in Skyrim that you no longer receive automatically. Skill perks are a limited resource but they are not the skills themselves. Each skill can be levelled up to 100 but the skill perks you choose will highly customise the type of character you create. You earn one point to spend on skill perks each time you level up but these are a limited resource and the player will not be able to unlock everything.
The levelling system in Oblivion was needlessly complicated with major skills increasing your level and minor skills adding bonuses to three of their governing attributes - I said it was needlessly complicated. In Skyrim however, all skills are equal and will contribute towards levelling up. Thankfully those eight governing attributes are gone and instead you will choose to either increase your magicka (magic), health or stamina when you level up. Even during the game’s tutorial phase you only pick your name, gender and race while all the character class archetypes and custom character creation have been removed. But streamlined doesn’t mean it is a step backwards, far from it. In Skyrim you gain skills levels by using them and you become the character you play as. It makes more sense and is easy for anybody to understand. Another improvement is that the world no longer levels up with you but instead Skyrim adopts a similar system to Fallout 3.
As you traverse the massive open world of Skyrim you will be inundated with quests, overwhelmed by the freedom of choice to develop your skills and side tracked by the urge to explore the many distractions the game will tempt you with. The constant lure of seeing an undiscovered cave, fort or other location of interest on your compass will entice you forward to map the world. It is best to try a bit of everything early on just to see which skills match your preferred playing style but eventually you might want to specialise and maximise your limited number of skill perks. If for example you plan to stick with One Handed weapons then the Two Handed weapon skill perk tree can be discarded and the same logic applies to making a choice between using Heavy or Light Armour. Some skills can become an obsession like finding ingredients for Alchemy potions or poisons, Enchanting all your gear to enhance your character’s abilities and there is a whole economic system built into the world just for the diverse Smithing skill.
Smithing replaces the skill of Armourer from Oblivion so instead of constantly repairing weapons, shields and armour which no longer take damage, you use various smithing techniques to create or improve your equipment. The cheese wedge style minigame has been completely removed so you now increase the Speech skill by purchasing items from or selling them to merchants. Lockpicking (or Security as it was known) no longer uses the lock mechanism tumblers and instead adopts the Fallout 3 system of finding the sweet spot but lockpicks will degrade even if you exit out of the minigame. Stealth is particularly effective at higher Sneak skill levels and the perk that unlocks 15x damage when attacking stealthily with a dagger is usually an instant kill. Mysticism has been removed and its effects incorporated into other schools of magic and shouts. Some unnecessary skills that didn’t add to the depth of gameplay such as Acrobatics, Athletics and Hand to Hand also didn’t make it into the game.
The world of Skyrim is a character in itself, a companion that will be with you for dozens or even hundreds of hours of gameplay and the dynamic weather can transform its mood from a friendly place lit by warm sunshine to the cold isolation of a raging blizzard. The game regularly displays impressive scenes like fingers of cloud hugging distant mountains, tree lined rivers snaking into the distant sunset or a dark night sky transformed by the colourful glow of an aurora. The constantly flowing water effects are much better compared to their very flat looking textures in Oblivion. Every item you pick up in the world can be examined in fine detail by pressing the right analogue stick button and even loading screens have a degree of interactivity. One big improvement over the last game is that during conversations the in-game camera no longer zooms in and locks onto the staring face of the person you are talking to. While you can’t move, you are still free to look around and certain effects like flames are now properly animated instead of frozen during conversations.
The epic soundtrack fits Skyrim perfectly and is so integral to the experience it is hard to imagine the game without it. The tranquil almost ethereal score switches automatically to the more dramatic battle themes as soon as you are detected by an enemy, while the main theme uses the spoken dragon language itself to compliment the dragon voice concept. The sound effects of combat are spot on whether it is the thud or clank of sword on shield or the appropriately sounding whoosh or fizz of spell effects from the different schools of magic. Dragons sound good whether it is the flapping of their wings to the roars of their attacks, while your dragon voice abilities are loud and forceful as you use the words of power you have learned in the various ‘shouts’. The towns are populated with people and most of them have a lot to say with plenty of dialogue lists which initiate conversations about quests, the town, their work, the civil war, dragons, history or more background to the character and their family.
There were only a small number of voice actors used in Morrowind / Oblivion and these became repetitive, seeming at odds with the variety of everything else those games had to offer. That absurdly limited gene pool of voices has now been infused with the DNA of many more recognisable actors including Battlestar Galactica’s Michael Hogan and Claudia Christian from Babylon 5. Established actors such as Max von Sydow and Christopher Plummer put in good performances in fitting with their decades of filmmaking experience. Joan Allen and Charles Martinet deserve special mention as their voices match the characters they play very well. In doing some background research for this review I remember Joan Allen (Delphine) as Dr. Eve Archer in the movie Face/Off and the deep authoritative voice of Paarthurnax in Skyrim turns out to be none other than the official voice actor of Mario, Luigi and Wario in Nintendo games going all the way back to Super Mario 64.
The more complex a game gets the greater the chances that there will be glitches or bugs and Skyrim unfortunately has its share of them. Friendly AI seems particularly affected in crowded areas. You will hear overlapping conversations as the game tries to bombard the player with information. In a surreal moment two AI characters were trying to get my attention about different things and they alternated getting their words out but neither would back down as they jostled to get to me. Another time an AI character on an important dragon slaying quest started spinning around quickly on the spot during a conversation and the aggressive AI jumped on the opportunity as another person ran in front of her and started talking about something completely pointless.
The Xbox 360 version of Skyrim has suffered from a bug that has resulted in low texture quality often being displayed when the game is installed to the hard drive. A patch has been released fixing this issue but it actually created some new problems such as resistances to magical effects no longer being calculated properly by the game. Dragons have also been affected and there are reports that some dragons have been flying backwards. Since the patch I have seen a dragon stuck in the sky and in the ground on a miscellaneous objective quest to kill one of them. Bethesda will have a rolling patch service to keep updating the game until identified problems are corrected.
The harder developers try to simulate a life-like world it becomes even more jarring when you are reminded of its limitations or flaws. Bethesda games from The Elder Scrolls and Fallout series are notorious for these issues. But they are in part a result of their lofty ambition and to some extent they are expected in such large and complex games. Few games can boast the attention to detail that these open world RPGs provide. For example, each AI characters has a weekly schedule that they follow to go about their routines – they sleep, eat, go to work or even go on trips elsewhere in the world. The attention to detail in the books that you can read is staggering as they provide so much information about the culture and history of the region. An epic game like Skyrim demands an epic review but there are obviously lots of things I still haven’t covered like buying houses, marriage, investing in shops, horses, crime and punishment or even the range of enemies and puzzles you will encounter in dungeons.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is another landmark game just as Oblivion was before it. It has an enormous detailed world filled with quests and distractions but gives you so much freedom that each player’s experience will be different and they will have their own tales or situations that will be unique to them. Too many RPGs have a narrowly defined restricted gameplay experience where the player’s journey will be carefully managed and that role will be the same for everyone. There are story and guild quest lines of course but The Elder Scrolls games give you that freedom of choice to role play.
This game represents incredible value for money considering how many hours you could put into playing as one character. Oblivion was excellent but Skyrim manages to make it more streamlined and user friendly than ever before. It has been said that there are 300 hours of gameplay in Skyrim and I haven't seen anything yet that makes me dispute that claim. This is a fantastic, immersive role playing game that deserves to be savoured and not rushed.
Bethesda raise the bar once again and create another landmark RPG that anyone can enjoy.