Bethesda Game Studios is a well known name in the gaming industry, specifically when it comes to massive role-playing games such as Fallout. If you’ve never played a Bethesda game before, you’ll be blown away by their latest masterpiece yet, if you have, well you know what they’re capable of in the Role-Playing genre, and Skyrim, the fifth installment in the Elder Scrolls series, is easily their best game yet and promises to be the most entertaining experience you’ve had in a video game in a world that’s simply colossal and stunning to behold. And equally perilous.
Elder Scrolls fans are already familiar with Tamriel, the Elder Scrolls universe as you may call it. The fifth installment in the series is set in the Northern land of Skyrim, home to the Nords of Tamriel. The game is set a few centuries after the events of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and 30 years after the Great War between the Aldmeri Dominion and the Empire. We start the game in traditional Elder Scrolls fashion, as a captive being taken to the small town of Helgen. The people of Skyrim are on the brink of war between the Empire and the rebels led by the Jarl of Windhelm, Ulfric Stormcloak. Unfortunately for you, you’re mistakenly assumed as part of the latter and on your way to your funeral. Fortunately though, a dragon attacks just before you’re beheaded and after half an hour of chaos in Helgen, the game sets you loose in the vast expanse of Skyrim, filed with hundreds of dungeons, numerous cities, waterfalls, snowy peaks and beautiful vistas just waiting to be seen and explored.
Since the world of Skyrim plays a very big part in the appeal of the game, graphics would be an important consideration ofcourse. There’s hardly any point having a huge world to explore if it isn’t pleasing to the eye. Sadly though, this is one of the weak points in the game, yes it looks beautiful, but this the 21st century, with games like Crysis 2 that are almost life-like in appearance you’d expect Bethesda could do better. Textures in the game aren’t very good to be frank, it all looks great when you’re moving about exploring, but as soon as you look at a bandit’s blocky face, or even your own crude looking weapon you’ll realize how awful they are. Enter a dungeon or any city and the graphical limitations become even more evident.
But every game has its flaws, and Skyrim’s good points far outweigh the bad ones. Character development for one has been simplified compared to Oblivion. Instead of choosing a class or selecting major or minor skills, you have 18 main skills in total spread across three gameplay styles. One handed and smithing fall under the Warrior play type, sneaking and pick pocketing under the Thief and Enchanting and Destruction comes under the Mage. The good thing is, you’re not limited to any play style, there are no restrictions whatsoever, you can play the game however you want, and your character will start to reflect your gameplay style. If you play as the sneaky type, your sneak skill will rise, allowing you to Level up and choose one perk per Level which you spend to further enhance your abilities, simple as that. You do have races to choose from, ten of them in fact which affect your gameplay to some degree, but even they’re cleverly used to aid you go a certain path while at the same time not limiting you to it should you feel the need to go a different approach midway during the game. You’re pretty much free to do as you please. While not the best systems we’ve seen, character developing in Skyrim is an easy affair, something that goes on in the background and is very easy to manage, leaving you free to do other things, explore the world for example?
And here comes the best thing about Skyrim, its BIG. The game has one of the biggest worlds you’ve ever seen divided into nine regions or Holds with their own leader, their own unique topography and their own side story you can delve into. Winterhold for example is a snowy and hilly area to the North with not much going on, Riften on the other hand is very different topographically, heavily populated, much richer and with its own sinister plots in the background. And its not me saying this, the differences are so visually evident, it takes exploration to a whole new level. Every area feels different; you literally want to spread out in every direction, maybe go after that light in the distance which could be a fort full of treasure and bandits or just a flame atronach that takes you by surprise. You’ll spend hours exploring the world, and very little of it seems repeated, Skyrim’s world is one of the most realistic and interesting ones you’ll come across, and definitely one of the most bizarre. You might for example come across a headless horseman’s ghost on your way and feel the need to see where’s its going or come across an Orc who’s waiting for a prophecy to be fulfilled or spot the Thalmor, representatives of the Aldmeri Dominion, taking a prisoner to one of their secret camps. And this is what makes the game so unpredictable. You can plan to do a quest you like and then get completely sidetracked by some random incident, a huge flying lizard perhaps?
Dragons are the centerpiece to Skyrim; they’re part of the main quest and can be a unique experience themselves, seeing a huge fire breathing monster is a sight to behold. While very visually entertaining, I can’t say the same about the combat experience. You’re first few dragon encounters might be interesting, but it soon gets boring and when you get deep into the game, dragons can be an unnecessary hindrance, and they’re not helped by the fact that even a cave bear or a troll can be more of a challenge than a dragon. Bad mark for Bethesda there. Thankfully though, dragons bring about an interesting new element to Skyrim, dragon shouts. The player is Dragonborn and as such naturally gifted to speak the dragon language, the Thume as they’re referred to in-game. Each shout is comprised of three words and once you find them and kill enough dragons to unlock them, you can use Shouts to set your opponents on fire, slow down time and send them flying through the air amongst other things.
Speaking of combat, it’s not as polished as the environment of Skyrim is. If you’re playing as a warrior, apart from the occasional slowed down, animated death blow, it’s fairly a hack and slash mechanic, determined largely by your stats then actual skill. On the plus side though, Skyrim brings with it the ability to dual wield weapons. You can use big two handed weapons, go for a two handed sword/axe approach or play with the more defensive sword shield tactic. Since you’re free to play Skyrim the way you want to, there’s nothing stopping you from wielding an axe in one handed and a bolt of lightning in the other. It takes time getting used to since the buttons are reversed (right mouse button for your left hand and vice versa) but it adds a bit of variety to the rather boring combat mechanic. Playing as a mage is a whole different experience, the combat system seems to work much better for mages, and since you can hotkey and favorite pretty much anything in your inventory, you can switch from casting fireballs to using lightning, or heal yourself while summoning a deadly atronach, cast a spell that raises your armor and so forth. While on the topic of mages, you have 5 schools to specialize in, Conjuration, Alteration, Illusion, Restoration and Destruction and if you ever need help you can always seek out the mages at the College of Winterhold, the Companions of Jorrvaskr and the thieves in Riften for a bit of help and if you’re interested, they’re very own quest line. The Dark Brotherhood is back too from Oblivion, though they’re a shadow of their former self, nothing you can’t fix though.
This brings me to the final aspects of the game, the user interface and sound. The latter is very well done, the background music is worth listening to and it adds to the tension when you’re facing a group of Draugrs in a dungeon or facing off against a dragon. There are moments that seem ridiculous, you hear the same music whether you’re fighting a harmless mudcrab or a dragon, but for the most part, you’ll love it. The UI on the other hand is not so well done, not on the PC anyway, while its easy and simple to use on consoles and a definite improvement over Oblivion, it could have been revamped for the PC version. Whether you’re leveling up or browsing your inventory, you get the sense the men wasn’t made for a mouse and keyboard configuration. On the whole though, riddled with flaws as it is, Skyrim is a wonderful game, yes the combat is repetitive and the graphics could be done better and it’s not as challenging gameplay wise as it could be, but as a whole, it’s damn near perfect. Every game has its flaws, and Skyrim is no different, but the sheer vastness of the thing, the amount of stuff to explore, the beauty, and above all the freedom to do what you want right from the beginning is what it makes it one of the best games if 2011.
Though what sums up Skyrim better than any review can is this: A giant, a fancy Dwemer toy and some mushrooms in an underground cavern the size of a city. Blackreach is one of the most beautifully created indoor environments I’ve ever seen, and there’s quite a lot going down here if you’re into some exploring!
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