NOTE: We played the Xbox 360 version. There may be some differences in the PC and PS3 releases.
It’s hard to know where to begin with a game of Skyrim’s stature. A lengthy five year wait ended abruptly when The Elder Scrolls V broke street date in Australia yesterday, ruining the perfectly symmetrical 11.11.11 that Bethesda has been plastering around the Internet.
Your reasons for loving Skyrim will be completely to mine, and that is why The Elder Scrolls as a series has such a high reputation amongst gamers, even those who aren’t the biggest of fans. It’s the little things that make a big difference.
What Skyrim Got Right
The expansive world - Skyrim’s map is roughly the same size as Oblivion’s. While it won’t break any records, it will still take days to fully explore.
Skyrim improves on Oblivion with its diverse and stimulating landscape. It’s one thing for the marketing team to claim lush forests, treacherous mountains and snowy villages, but it’s another to actually deliver. The latter is certainly the theme of Skyrim, leading the locals, the Nords, to develop a resilience to the freezing cold that dominates the land.
Most will be traversed on foot, but once discovered, an area can be accessed via quick travel to speed things up. You can also hire a cheap carriage to any of the major towns before discovered them (or even afterwards to waste some coin) or obtain a horse through legal means or otherwise.
The horse riding mechanic is serviceable but bland. I gave it a rest after my only stallion was mercilessly killed by a village of bandits. I accidently rode into their hideout, only to be attacked by a dragon. They repaid me for saving their rubbish huts from being burnt to a crisp by murdering my sweet ride. Bastards.
Like all games of this magnitude, Skyrim suffers from some impassable terrain. A lot of it, in fact. A smart man would plot a path on the map, but that requires pausing, and the on-screen director is much easier to follow. That can lead you to an impassable incline that takes forever to negotiate.
Radiant Quests - The playtime of Skyrim is like the length of a piece of string. It would be difficult to complete the main quest without finishing at least a few side quests or miscellaneous objectives (which are tracked). If the aim is to follow it while only completing carefully selected optional tasks, it could be finished within 25 hours. However, that’s not how The Elder Scrolls is meant to be played. Most will easily spend 30-50 hours in the enthralling adventure and still not come close to the full experience.
It could conceivably last forever with the new radiant A.I. quest system. Some of the branching stories have been written by Bethesda, but radiant storytelling allows it to constantly recreate new quests that haven’t been predetermined.
It’s a smart cookie, too, as it tracks what you’ve been doing to come up with new quests. It knows where you’ve been hanging out and will strive to force you into new locations wherever possible to avoid repeating dungeons. Enemies vary depending on your skill level, as well as the difficulty which can be changed at any time. Whether these actually make for an “infinite” experience is debatable, but it’s certainly unique for each player.
Dual wielding combat - Combat has seen a major overhaul with the introduction of dual wielding. It’s awkward at first, but once you find your niche it’s hard to remember how Elder Scrolls played without it.
I began with two melee weapons, and promptly proceeded to certain death. Despite my ambitiously aggressive tactics, this was a rubbish plan that was never going to succeed.
For a period I thought the shield and weapon combination was an all-time classic for good reason, but lacked the defensive gameplan to pull it off. It all came together combining a one-handed weapon with destructive magic. That’s the beauty of the upgrades: each player can tailor to their needs, and there’s no reason to choose one over the other.
Character creation & levelling system - Character creation is fairly simple, and exactly how an Action-RPG should be. Your pick a race from a brief description – each with its strengths and weaknesses – and move on. The ancient RPG levelling system of picking a class and being forced to live with it for the next 100 hours is awful. There’s no need to commit to a class at the beginning, with plenty of time to decide how you want to play.
The new and improved levelling up system continues the trend with a snazzy new menu. The skills tree uses a stylish ‘constellations in the night sky’ design to represent upgrades that even the laziest of RPG players will follow with ease without sacrificing functionality.
Follow the dragons - Skyrim has a divergent narrative with quests that keep the player focused on what is important. It’s able to tell one story well, rather than spiral out of control with an abundance of subplots. There are masses of side quests, but they all relate thanks to the Radiant system. You won’t be thrown into a completely random scenario that has nothing to do with the rest of the game and disrupts momentum.
Players can choose their own adventure that remains interrelated. Anything less than complete dedication in Oblivion led you to wander off track. Skyrim puts you in complete control, but it all relates tangibly, replacing arbitrary subplots with interesting expanding of the overall narrative.
Looks great, from the right angle - For such a massive world, compressed into a ridiculous 3.8GB on the Xbox 360 install, Skyrim looks fantastic, from the right angle. Moments of majestic beauty are undone by hideous blights, but that’s all to be expected.
On the positive, the characters look and act like living creatures. Once again thanks to the Radiant A.I. the towns are ablaze with realistic life as the villagers interact with one another. They have perceptive and varied faces that are somewhat virtually attractive, rectifying a massive blemish from Oblivion.
Background soundtrack - The background soundtrack of Skyrim is so good you probably won’t even notice it. There’s nothing spectacular, it doesn’t dominate your senses, but almost without fail creates the perfect atmosphere for each moment.
What Skyrim Got Wrong
Short freezes & loading - Skyrim constantly freezes for a split-second playing on Xbox 360. It’s never detrimental to gamplay, it doesn’t happen in the heat of battle slaying a dragon, but is persistent.
Short freezes seem trigged by actions such as auto-saving, opening a menu or loading textures –particularly problematic when running. It mightn’t cause any direct problems, but becomes intolerable after hours of play.
Fast movement isn’t an elegant way to appreciate the design, as most of what is in front of you will still be loading. The hazy distance creates intrigue, but the ground in your direct path being a brown splodge moments before hitting your feet disrupts the immersion. Fortunately, it’s not widespread, and only occurs in some parts of the vast open world.
Glitches aren’t pretty - Glitches were to be expected, but when they happen, it’s not pretty. Mother of god it’s not pretty. Dragon wings going through houses, feet in all of the wrong places, and mountains that look like triangle hands from the Nintendo 64; it’s all here.
Environments clash as a case of beauty and the beast. Ugliness that not even a developer could love is all part of a non-linear world this colossal, as there’s no way Bethesda could have conceivably anticipated every move. To my surprise, there are some particularly horrid moments that could have been avoided. One path that must be followed on the main quest, for example, combined modern snow with the muddy textures of a PS1 James Bond game. Not hidden around the corner for only the keen-eyed to explore, it’s on the main path that must be followed. Moments like this can ruin the beauty pageant.
Item menus aren’t perfect -
The levelling up menu is a highlight, but the same can’t be said for the inventory. It’s simplified into categories with no easy way to compare statistics. To see how much damage each weapon does you have to scroll through individually and make a mental note. It gets harder with weight, as there’s no way to see the obvious discards when over the threshold. While I like the simplicity, the menu would benefit from a method to compare items and see a general overview.
Repetitive enemies - In such a lasting experience, the enemies will eventually become repetitive. This isn’t really a fault, but more of an obvious drawback to such a long game, should you choose to keep playing.
Enemies are numerous and varied, with each having multiple embodiments. The overused spider returns, for example, as the frostbite spitter, as well as its giant carnation and rusty mechanical build.
Dragon encounters don't quite match the hype - Dragons are a massive part of Skyrim, but they begin as target practice and more or less end up that way. The way they are involved in the story is intriguing, yet the battles, rather surprisingly, don't quite match the quality of the rest of the game.
They were built up as being an extraordinary piece of modern action gaming, and it just doesn't play that well. They get better as you progress and the difficulty increases - they certainly aren't bad by any stretch of the imagination - but I couldn't help but leave unfulfilled from the end result after such hype over dragon slaying.
The Final Verdict
There are hundreds of reasons to fall in love with The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. It makes improvements across the board over Oblivion, but doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel and won’t appeal to players yet to appreciate The Elder Scrolls. It’s a fantastic Action-RPG with an amazing world to explore, unique quests and combat tailored to each player. It’s not perfect, and is full of glitches as expected, but fixes will come. Skyrim is the experience most were waiting for and one of the best to come out of a star-studded end to 2011.
By Ben Salter
Fantastic combat, a great levelling up system, heaps of quests to explore and an even better world.
When it’s good, it’s enthralling, but when it’s bad, it’s hideous.
The voice acting is great and the music is unnoticeably suitable.
You could be lost here for weeks…
The long five years have been well worth the wait.