(Xbox 360 Review) The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Developer: Bethesda Game Studios
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Genre: Role-Playing Game
Players: 1
ESRB: Mature
Reviewer: Nick Stewart

Overall: 10/10 = Instant Classic

Editors' Choice AwardWith an ambitious scope unparalleled in the history of the genre, Bethesda Softworks’ Elder Scrolls series has long been an example of player freedom and imagination. While it’s dialed back a bit since its procedurally generated endless kilometres of land, the series has been constantly fighting to strike just the right balance between vast expanses and viable storytelling. With the release of the most recent iteration, Skyrim, the series has taken another incredibly bold step, one that shakes the foundations of some of its long-held approaches, while also bringing in dragons, the Great Big Bad of fantasy gaming. It’s something that serves not only to invigorate the series, but also to make what could arguably be one of the greatest RPGs of all time.

Two hundred years after the events of Oblivion, the land of Tamriel is a very different place. The Empire hasn’t been quite the same since the death of Martin Septim, illegitimate son of the Emperor and the last of the Septim line. Since then, the High Elven-led Aldmeri Dominion has fought hard to supplant the Empire as the dominant force in Tamriel, and following some significant bloodshed, a fragile truce has been established—a truce which has come with some heavy terms. One of those terms is banning the open worship of Talos, a major religious figure in the province of Skyrim. In this land where the game takes place, openly rebelling against the Aldmeri Dominion—and by extension, the Empire, which enforces their rules in the hopes of keeping a greater peace—are the Stormcloaks, led by one Ulfric Stormcloak, who would be king. With the Empire going toe to toe with the growing ranks of the Stormcloaks, civil strife threatens to boil over into full-blown civil war. Against this backdrop, dragons have begun to appear across the landscape, emerging from legend to become a very real threat. It’s in this morass that you appear, and while it’s no surprise that you are eventually recognized as the Chosen One—Dragonborn, as it’s known here—what is unique is how you carve your role against this chaotic landscape.

It’s important to note at this point that those who have been long-time fans of the series will see any number of major changes to the core formula almost moments into the game. The most distinctive of these is the system of character creation and evolution, which have long stood out in the Ultima mold: answer some questions to be provided with suggestions to fit within certain classes, or pick the class yourself. These would in turn determine which skills would be tagged as “major” and “minor,” which would then dictate how quickly your character would increase each skill, and how this would contribute to your levelling. All of this, along with the system of attributes, is now gone. Classes are out the window entirely, as are elements such as agility, speed, and strength. Instead, the only overarching attributes are magicka, health, and stamina, which really only just determine the reserves you have of each (the difference being stamina, which also determines your carrying capacity). Aside from that, skills such as pickpocketing, light and heavy armor, and varying types of magical schools are now broken broadly across a “flat” range, meaning there are no major or minor skills. Each skill now has a tree, wherein you can toss points you earn as you level.

Putting points into those trees is not necessary for using them, as increasing your skill through use alone will show major improvements, but doing so will give you extra benefits. For instance, someone who dumps serious points into Stealth perks will be able to do considerably more backstab damage, as well as travel silently with different types of armor; putting points into the Alteration magic tree will instead allow you to cast that school’s spells for significantly less mana. While this change may rankle at first, it actually proves to be a fantastic way of creating a much more organic character, one largely free of class titles and which also adapts to your particular type of play. It also means that few characters will be exactly the same, but there are just few enough points to really force you as a player to make certain decisions about what kind of character you want to play. With players now also able to dual-wield and incur massive damage boosts through backstabbing, among the many other small but important tweaks to combat, it is now also completely viable to play a stealth-oriented character, something that was incredibly difficult in Oblivion. Now, instead of running away from trolls and bears, stealthy types can hold their own when the need arises. It’s a major but positive change to the series, and one that will hopefully carry through to its eventual sequels.

Character development matters little in a game where the world isn’t worth exploring; thankfully, Skyrim‘s sense of exploration is simply unmatched. From dank, undead-plagued ruins to bandit caves to tiny villages and sprawling cities, Skyrim truly has it all. While this is something that could have been said about previous Elder Scrolls games, it’s something that hearkens back to Oblivion‘s predecessor, Morrowind, in its unique stylized focus on conveying the specific characteristics of one very specific region. While Oblivion featured almost every kind of region imaginable, through the excuse of being “the heart of Tamriel”, Skyrim is considerably more concentrated on conveying the sense of being a cold, frozen, snowswept land. This doesn’t mean it has a myopic focus; rather, it allows the developers to explore the many shades and hues of atmosphere available within the Scandinavian / Nordic theme that so strongly characterizes Skyrim; indeed, they make few bones about it, going so far as to call the locals “Nords.” From the architecture to the local lore, the game is possessed of a strong thematic narrative, one that brings considerably more strength to every mountaintop cabin, to every cloud-topped cliff, to every underground barrow. This focus makes Skyrim a much richer experience, giving the player the sense that they really are part of a living area, and not just a random amalgam of different climates and offerings. What’s more, each individual explorable area feels utterly different, as though its history has crafted its reality; no more cookie-cutter environments. It’s a unique land with its own political and social mores, and it’s something that really brings the world to life.

The quests available throughout are practically endless, too. Speaking to some of the many folks in the inns, castles, and even randomly throughout the countryside will pack your quest log with things to do in no time at all. And sure, when you boil it down, there are plenty of fetch-and-kill quests—in fact, the vast majority of the game is made up of them—but many of the non-random quests are given enough texture, story, and NPC interaction to make them interesting.  The Daedric artefact quests have all returned, allowing you to embark on very personal quests to curry favour and special loot (and an Achievement); similarly, the leader of each individual region within Skyrim will often have strings of quests that will allow you to gain some influence, coin, and your own local home. There’s also any number of random quests that are generated through the game that provide you with an almost infinite number of things to do, should you choose to pursue them: this leader wants you to kill X bandit, this guildmaster wants you to retrieve Y object, etc. While they are obvious after a while, they remain entirely optional and give players the ability to immerse themselves as fully in the world as they wish. It’s also worth pointing out that, with Oblivion‘s best questlines having been the Dark Brotherhood and Thieves Guild, it’s perhaps no surprise that this holds true for Skyrim as well. Both feel appropriately epic, allowing for major achievements that end with outstanding rewards.

Eventually, these quests will also allow you to pick up a companion who will follow and fight alongside you for as long or as little as you wish. This, too, truly changes the combat experience for a wide range of character types, since you can eventually pick and choose from among a range of different types. Warriors may opt for a magic-oriented companion, whereas stealthy types would make best use of strong combat partners who will draw all the fire while the player operates from the shadows. It’s a brilliant addition, one that not only gives you an added pack mule for carrying loot but one that is also invincible save for one Achilles’ heel: you. Even when surrounded by an army of enemies, your companion will only fall to the ground and limp after losing all their health, only to spring back up once they regenerate a little. This is nullified the instant you accidentally strike them, which will instead kill them once and for all. As a result, close-quarters combat can get pretty damned stressful when you and your companion are both in the thick of it, as it’s quite easy for your broad strikes to nick them—or for your arrow to soar one inch too far to the right, felling your friend and bipedal backpack. Still, this niggle aside, they’re still fantastic from both a gameplay and role-playing perspective, and I often found myself selecting partners who I thought were a better fit in terms of personality than in terms of complementary skills.

Almost de facto companions by sheer virtue of their constant presence are the dragons themselves. Oh, make no mistake: they’re out to destroy you, your friends, and indeed all life throughout Skyrim. And after a certain early point, they’re prone to appearing almost anywhere: wandering through a random village, and soon you’ll hear the ominous cries from above, a huge shadow will cross your path, and then guards are nocking their arrows and the soundtrack shifts into Active But Creepy Mode. And a hearty congratulations must go out to Bethesda for achieving what has been the Holy Grail of FPS RPGs: infusing their open world with dragons that are both dangerous and impressive. Whether armed with frost or fire, these airborne beasts are a wonder to behold, strafing your position and soaring off into the distance before doubling back, often perching on a nearby building or rock before blasting you and anyone else within range. This often also leads to moments of great hilarity; for instance, one dragon I was chasing instead decided mid-fight to focus on a nearby group of bandits, rushing over and blasting them before soaring further up a mountain to harass a coven of witches. In the early going, they’re also quite daunting to take down, requiring no small amount of arrows and assistance. This eventually gives way to considerably easier fights as you progress in levels, but it’s never any less fun, not to mention rewarding, as they also grant you the ability to unlock non-magical skills that range from seeing your enemies through walls to calling lightning down from the sky. It’s something that keeps you seeking out dragons, as well as the ruins that contain the formulae for said skills, while also keeping the world very much a place of perpetual wonder.

Indeed, the world of Skyrim is one filled with no end of fantastic little touches that make you feel as though you’re a very small part of a very large and rich land. The series’ tradition of containing a fantastic collection of books continues here, furthering the lore of the world if you so choose to partake of it. They offer a number of opportunities to learn about the current state of politics, religion, culture, traditions, and more. It’s really through these books that the lore really shine, letting you sample it without ramming it down your throat, and it’s great to see that your owned houses now also contain usable and arrangeable bookcases. There are many other great little touches, too: innkeepers walk over to show you to the room you’ve rented, and sitting down in an inn will have the waitress come over and ask what you want before showing you the menu. Characters around you will often have great conversations that add to the atmosphere, and NPCs will frequently make reference to things that you’ve done or to specific talents you possess. For the beauty of the broad strokes, it’s the finer points that really make you feel as though Skyrim was made specifically for you.

However, as is characteristic for these enormous, sprawling games, there are countless bugs.  One of the more famous ones which has stricken my game as well is one where a certain character appears in front of a city’s stables and not only refuses to leave, but gradually replicates himself. As he’s also invulnerable, you’re stuck watching as each time you pass, there are more (I currently have six). Also, countless instances of quests not pulling themselves from your log after you complete them, quest items not leaving your inventory after completion (and since you can’t drop quest items, they’re there forever), and the “show me where this is” quest feature pointing you nowhere. The menu can be fairly counterintuitive at times, and my biggest personal gripe with it is the long delay it often forces you to wait through before you can actually navigate it. What’s more, I’ve also had to reload a number of times from hours prior simply to try and work around some of the more damaging bugs. How problematic these are for you will ultimately depend on how thoroughly you enjoy the game, and how much leeway you’re willing to accord it.

To this point, this review has been but a tiny taste of what Skyrim has to offer, and it should be said that longevity in games is not always a good thing. Praise is often heaped upon any game that can provide the player with a strong, lean six-hour experience, rather than padding it out unnecessarily. It could be argued that the rarest of things in gaming is one that provides endless value without repetition or padding; and it is with that in mind that I am forced to admit that, after endless side-quest pursuit and exploration, I’m creeping up on my 200-hour mark in Skyrim, and I’m nowhere near finishing the game. This is an astounding achievement for any game, and approached only by the likes of Oblivion and Fallout 3 in terms of maintaining consistent quality and entertainment through an absolutely ridiculous number of hours. In many significant ways, Skyrim tops them all, and threatens to become the best non-MMORPG timesink of the modern era.

There’s no way around it: with its brilliant attention to detail and its carefully constructed world, Skyrim is now the gold standard for open-world RPGs. It stands head and shoulders above its older brother, Oblivion, both in terms of thematic consistency and sheer overwhelming scope. While Oblivion expanded its world and playtime through endless fights against the Daedric horde, Skyrim instead invests that energy back into itself, encouraging the player to simply enjoy and explore the vast expanse that is this snowy and strife-packed province. Bethesda has changed the series’ formula just enough to make it stronger, while refining its core ideas just enough to make it positively addictive. From civil war to dragons, from castles to dungeons, Skyrim is a dazzling achievement in gaming, and one that belongs in any RPG fan’s collection; all hail the king.

(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)

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