November 10, 2011
For those who are new to the series, the Elder Scrolls games, on a fundamental level, strive to offer players as much variety and freedom as possible within a fantasy setting. Everything from choosing your character's race and physical appearance, determining whether to focus on magic, melee or stealth combat (or a combination of the three), aligning yourself with vying factions and progressing through the main story is left entirely open. Skyrim's refinements, additions and subtle changes to this formula have lead to an Elder Scrolls game that has never been better at encouraging the player to be creative and shape their own experience.
Before getting into the specifics, let's take a moment to set the stage. It has been approximately 200 years since the Oblivion crisis of The Elder Scrolls IV, and a weakened and restless Empire has lead to instability throughout the land. Territory has been ceded to Elven nations known as the Dominion, and the Nords have begun a secession struggle against the Empire in the wake of the assassination of the High King of Skyrim. You begin as a prisoner on their way to execution for alleged collaboration with the rebellion, only to be saved when a dragon attacks, and subsequently devastates, the Imperial base. Skyrim's main plot arch revolves around the return of the dragons - led by Alduin, the Nordic God of Destruction - and what that means for the fate of the world.
Of course, being an open-world game, players are free to largely ignore or postpone progressing through the main story arch if they so choose. Beyond that, there's an abundance of intriguing factions and side stories to discover. Picking sides in the civil war between the Empire and Stormcloaks is particularly interesting because there's a great deal of ambiguity to it. Your choices are the seemingly oppressive Empire or the Nords who have added a few not-so-subtle doses of fascism to their quest for independence. Your choice of race at the beginning of Skyrim may very well impact where you fall in this struggle, something that permeates much of the game. Casual or overt racism will frequently influence how you are viewed. It's a great example of how the politics of Skyrim are thoughtfully integrated into the various side quests and factions you can pursue. That being said, some of the optional dungeons and missions can get a little repetitive, but not nearly enough to sour the experience.
The world of Skyrim, quests included, is the game's greatest asset and biggest accomplishment. Everything about it - from the gorgeous vistas, crippling quests, dynamic interactions with wildlife and compulsion to collect loot - encourages exploration. You can fast travel to places previously discovered or take carriage rides into new areas, but doing so will cause you to miss all of the wonderfully surprising moments that occur while wandering the unknown. Whether it's aiding a group of hunters in their quest to take down the combined force of mammoths and giants, stumbling across a cage-match between bear and seal or simply reaching the top of a massive mountain and gazing upon your path, there's always something to discover.
Did I mention the dynamic and frequent encounters with dragons? There's that too. They are seamlessly integrated into the world and could easily be minding their own business in the wilderness or ravaging a defenseless village. Either way, Skyrim greatly rewards you, as the sole Dragonborn, for slaying them. Dragonborns have dragon blood coursing through their veins, which allows them to harness the power of each dragon in the form of a shout. Shouts are powerful abilities ranging from breathing fire to creating whirlwind storms that are gained from your unique connection to the dragons. This fact also conveniently makes your character the protagonist. Go figure.
Beyond the dragon element, combat in Skyrim bares a strong resemblance to its predecessors, but thanks to a streamlined menu system and increased customization, is more versatile than ever. The menu neatly organizes your inventory - all of which are displayed as 3D objects - separating magic, items and skills in a way that allows for quick access during stressful combat scenarios. More importantly, Skyrim encourages players to be creative in how they approach a battle by allowing your two hands to hold any combination of items. You could go with the classic sword and shield, a lightning strike and mace, two identical fire spells, the possibilities are countless. While there is substantial variety, the one drawback is that combat continues to be relatively simple and execution is rigid at times - although the cinematic flare of critical strikes is a welcome addition.
Arguably the largest mechanical change in Skyrim is the way experience is gained. Simply put: players get experience based on the actions they take. If you decide to use your bow to dispense with enemies at a distance, you'll receive experience points directly toward archery. These individual skill points allow you to unlock new perks, such as increased arrow damage for archery. It's an ingeniously intuitive and elegant way to avoid forcing players down a pre-set path without proper context, and it nicely complements the generic leveling-up system that grants you points to put into the specific perks. Developers working on RPGs are on notice: this is how it should be done.
All of these refinements come alongside an incredible aesthetic package. The world of Skyrim is as vast and wide in scope than any Elder Scrolls iteration before it, but this time with astonishing detail and variety. I routinely found myself looking for good vantage points to catch a glimpse of the path I had just travelled. Discovering each of the major cities simply for their unique visual personalities is another reason to explore. Skyrim really is an impressive technical and artistic achievement, subject only to the occasional texture pop-in when the draw distance gets large. Bethesda also made a smart decision by getting rid of the facial close-ups in conversation, leaving the camera in place and taking the attention off the character models. In terms of sound design, the orchestral score does a good job of giving weight to battles and a sense of triumph to discovery. On the other hand, the voice-acting doesn't always hold up as well, with some questionable accents and rigid delivery.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is easily the best offering Bethesda Game Studios has put out to date. It takes everything that has made past Elder Scrolls and Fallout games the staple of the Western RPG, and expands on the trusted formula in a number of meaningful ways. The gorgeous setting, intriguing quests, versatile combat and thoughtful design choices all combine to give players a greater sense of freedom and flexibility than ever before. While far from a revolution, Skyrim nonetheless represents a well-crafted refinement of Bethesda's signature approach to the RPG.Editor's Choice
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim was reviewed on the Xbox 360. You can read more about GamingUnion.net's scoring policy here.