Growing up I read ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ books. Forget the fact that they were mostly poorly written garbage; they were great fun because it made me feel like I was in control of the narrative. That enjoyment of being in control of my own adventure and shaping the narrative based on my own choices is the driving force behind my love of role-playing games. It would seem that Bethesda Softworks Elder Scrolls franchise would be my ultimate gaming experience, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.
While I appreciate what Bethesda has been attempting to do with the Elder Scrolls series over the last 15+ years, create large sandboxes in which players can create their own adventures, I have never felt that they captured the essence I want out of a role-playing game. For me at least, The Elder Scrolls games have always been too wide open with too much freedom. Playing them was a daunting task and while I had fun in these giant sandboxes, I never felt like I was accomplishing anything in them. And now you are scratching your head, attempting to figure out the logic of having me review The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. To be honest with you, I did that myself and then I played Skyim and everything made sense.
That is not to say that Skyrim has changed my mind on previous Elder Scrolls games but rather to say that Skyrim manages to change the landscape of these types of games while somehow remaining as true to its roots as it ever has been. To put it simply, Skyrim is the ultimate choose your own adventure game and at the same time offers a sandbox for players to create their own adventure if they so choose.
The biggest failing of The Elder Scrolls series, for me, has always been the narrative behind the game. Why am I here in this game world? What is my purpose? Sure the games have always given you a primary quest in the opening sequences but once you are released into the world that primary quest takes a back seat to everything else the game has to offer. Some will say that the main quest in these games is just a guide post, an opening to the experience that the world itself has to offer. And maybe they are right but I have never felt satisfied with that, as those games attempt to make me forget those questions I asked. Skyrim though makes me want to find out the answers.
The narrative in Skyrim, while far more engaging than previous Elder Scrolls titles, is just a small piece in machine that makes Skyrim work. In fact, looking at the narrative separate from the game shows off its weaknesses, it is a fairly generic fantasy tale filled with genre clichés. However when coupled with the setting of Skyrim, a Nordic playground filled with dragons, these weaknesses seem positively fresh.
Bethesda has done a masterful work in bringing the world of Skyrim to life. The art direction is some of the best in any game ever. Every city, every town, every outpost has a unique feel to it and considering the massive amount of content that is in Skyrim it is utterly astounding. Because of this uniqueness to everything, exploration in Skyrim is something special and exploring is something players, regardless of if they follow the main quest or not, will be doing a lot of.
Adventuring in Skyrim is not a safe pastime, the land is filled with many things out to see a traveler’s demise. From roaming packs of wolves to gigantic dragons, Skyrim is fraught with danger. Fortunately, the game gives players a multitude of ways to survive. Nearly everything is an option in Skyrim. Hand to hand combat, ranged combat, and magical combat are all available to the player depending upon their personal play style. And for those that do not want to get their hands dirty unless they absolutely have to, sneaking around conflicts is a perfectly valid choice in a lot of situations.
How the game actually plays during these dramatic conflicts is something that may not please all players though. Melee combat is mediocre at its best and poorly executed at its worst. I never felt like I was in control of my sword as I attacked but rather my arms seemed to be on some weird hinge that reacted to my button presses causing me to flail around in an insane fashion. Magic and ranged attacks however, fare much better and are highly satisfying, once the skills get leveled up appropriately.
Skyrim uses a unique leveling system that is somewhat reminiscent of the one in Oblivion. Using a skill awards it experience points, however unlike Oblivion, most of the exploits have been diminished. Players now have to actively be in the process of doing said action for it to gain levels. For instance, sneaking around an empty field will not award experience to sneaking, one must actually be hidden from view of something. There are of course still ways to fool the system but players will have to work harder to accomplish it.
Taken as a whole, Skyrim is a wonderful game. However, a game as big in scope as this is bound to have its fair share of issues and Skyrim has plenty of them. These issues range in severity from minor engine breakdowns that create strange world instances, such as my companion following me across the open world while lying face down, to hard locks of the game that require a system restart. These technical issues are going to affect players differently but for the most part they did not impact things during this review to call them anything other than a minor annoyance.
Having played Elder Scrolls games for the last 15 years, Skyrim feels like the game that Bethesda has always wanted to make but could never accomplish because of technological limitations. While some will scoff because of the technical issues the game suffers from, but Skyrim is Bethesda’s most polished game to date.
It is not a perfect game, far from it, and a lot of what players will take out of it is a direct result of what players put into it, but Skyrim is an amazing piece of software. Role-playing fans, fantasy fans, and fans of open world games, owe it to themselves to play this game.
Pros: Strong narrative thread, vast open world, stellar art style
Cons: Repetitious dialog, bugs are a nuisance
5* out of 5
There have been reports of the game becoming nearly unplayable on the Playstation 3 after the save file reaches a critical mass. Nothing so dire as that happened during my review session, which was played on the XBOX 360, nor did it affect the play experience of fellow staffer Don Parsons, who is playing it on the PS3, thus the technological issues of that system did not impact the overall review in any way.