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Review: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

review-the-elder-scrolls-v-skyrim


146 hours in. Two skill trees maxed out. Bethesda is at it again; creating a cruel, cold-hearted timesink of an open world game that threatens socialization as we know it.

Title: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Genre: Fantasy, First-Person, Role Playing

Systems: PC, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3

Format: DVD, Digital Distro, Blu-Ray

Oblivion. Fallout 3. Fallout: New Vegas. If you’ve perhaps been around gaming longer than seven years, Morrowind. The legendary catalog of titles from Bethesda Softworks that launched and cemented its reputation as a triple-A developer/publisher. Add Skyrim to that list. It makes some tradeoffs compared to Bethesda’s previous titles in terms of depth vs. accessibility, but it makes great strides towards fixing some of the greatest issues in the otherwise stunning open world vistas.

Stiff, awkward animations in the previous games hurt the credibility of the NPCs and creatures. Skyrim, while still suffering from some awkwardness, blends the animations together much more smoothly and believably than any previous games. NPCs following you around actually have a little bit of a wind-up before moving, simulating the physical reality of overcoming inertia to start and stop movement. Fighting characters have wind-ups before bigger swings and a smaller one before regular swings. It looks like Bethesda’s been looking a little bit at the Modern Warfare series and how they did their NPC animations– while this means that a PC game has been taking lessons from a console game, the results have paid off damned well in terms of credibility. Ditto goes for the myriad creatures that inhabit a world of stunning natural beauty, even if still vanilla. Playing a hunter hunting deer that are at least halfway believable is so much more enjoyable than previously. It would not take long in Oblivion to get bored and break out the random destructive magic. At least now, you want to spend a couple hours really playing the hunter role and using bows, sneaking around, maybe poisoning your arrows, and if necessary, finishing the deed close-up with daggers before you even think about slinging a fireball at that astonished deer. Do I even need to mention what this does to gameplay for stealthy assassin-type characters? No, but I want to anyways: some of that Fallout 3 magic that was exploited in the VATS system is back in Skyrim, and though it cannot be triggered (someone should make a VATS Dragon Shout), often times your character will be able to pull off a sick animated kill that drops the target lifeless to the floor with a much more noticeable din than normal. What this means for assassins? Sneak up behind a humanoid enemy, hit the mouse button with a dagger drawn and chances are you’ll get a view of your character covering the target’s mouth before slitting the throat, all with an amount of reasonable, deliberate quickness that is a brutal thrill to behold while taking little enough time that your tactical flow isn’t broken. Because of this, good assassins can flow from target to target in a room pulling this stunt and silence it in under a minute without alerting anyone– and it looks awesome. Characters choosing a more overt bent to combat are easily as capable of getting cinematic kills, and depending on what weapon you have and what perks you have selected, it can turn out fairly awesome. It at least doesn’t turn out well for your opponents.

Is that a long paragraph? Well, that’s the longest one there’ll be for this review. The animations are that much goddamned better that I had to gush about it.

When considering other gameplay aspects, Skyrim is as open a world as its predecessors, but it seems to have made a few sacrifices of depth in the name of accessibility. That said, they tend to be very minor sacrifices that don’t break the enjoyability of gameplay, but people who enjoyed the math behind their characters before may find that it doesn’t factor in so much here. Your mileage may vary. Damage output, magicka cost, spell duration and magnitude and a number of other factors now are governed directly by skill levels as opposed to a hybrid system of personal attributes and skill levels. Additionally, the vast number of bonuses allocated at character generation are gone save for the racial bonuses. Dumbed down? Yes. It does not, however, make the game any less enjoyable. If anything, it opens up how you play your character. No longer are you going to pursue strictly the skills that provide the greatest attribute bonuses, leading to a possibly disastrously skewed build. You can practice what you will, when you will. A few environmental factors may play a role in your skill developments, but other than that, it’s really up to you how you practice those skills and how your character develops. Like the skills you’re practicing? Want them more powerful? Put a point into a skill Perk on the skill tree and reap the benefits, but only if you really want to. It’s really all up to you this time.

In terms of your in-game arsenal, that’s really doubly true. Warrior characters now have about as much capability to use magic as do the blue-blood magi thanks to the identity of the Dovahkiin, the Dragonborn, a being who is able to learn powerful Dragon Shouts and realize their power through the souls of dragons slain in mortal combat. These Shouts are inherent to your character as the Dovahkiin and not dependent at all on what your skill focus is, just how many of them you can find scattered throughout Skyrim. The effects are all over the place, ranging from specialized “voice throwing” that can distract the hell out of a patrolling guard, calling for animal assistance against your enemies, bending the weather to your will, or even pulling a Chuck Norris and shouting at Time to slow the fuck down. To be fair, the Shouts operate on a global cooldown timer and can be replenished by naught but time, so only magi will be able to fight with magic fully, but a warrior may have all the opportunity he/she needs to deal a finishing blow with a good foot of steel through a troll’s gullet. It’s a neat system, but I have to say, some of the Shouts don’t make sense for the whole shouty, ragey manly thematic element that something like a Shout brings to mind, and really they feel like elements that would be more at home with the magic system which I think feels sorta sparse in comparison.

Well, at least there’s dragons. Sorta like random boss battles with all the rewards commensurate with a boss. They fly, they breathe fire, frost, they snap at you with gigantic jaws, they can take your head off if you forgot to heal up, and they can fall HARD at your character’s feet if you hit them right. One of the true joys of the game is hitting a dragon hard enough in the air that it crash-lands into the ground, leaving a furrow tracing its point of impact and direction.

There are shortcomings, of course. Skyrim, like all of Bethesda’s open world juggernauts, is a basketcase of glitches and errors that will take the better part of a year to fully patch. Patch 1.2 cured a number of issues like dragons that flew backwards and NPCs that would show up to scripted wedding events dead (who invited the stiffs… *ba-dum-tch*), but introduced a few new ones: namely, damage resistances are broken. Minor issue. The more recently released 1.3 fixed the damage resistance issue and a few other stability issues, but people will still be getting random crashes to the desktop if they don’t save often. As to why, that’ll be somewhere else on this site, I’m sure.

Are there still credibility issues? Of course. Dragons can be slain by regular people. How’s that for taking away some of your Dragonborn mojo? Granted, it takes them more time and more manpower, where you can kill one yourself if your skills are properly combat-oriented (I get the best results as a mage), but seeing a town full of people not fleeing in terror like the lore repeatedly suggests and instead throwing fireballs, arrows and swinging wood axes really breaks the illusion here. Then again, so too does having a dragon never again be able to destroy a town as fully as one did in the introduction. Limitations of the engine, of course, and having destruction on such a scale might utterly break quests beyond the point of redemption. Or it might not. At this point, it’s a moot issue, but it’s something I hope Bethesda will think about in their next titles; about how to achieve destruction and reconstruction of buildings and quest storylines in the collateral.

Despite some nitpicks and some bugs that can occasionally break your game (but more often just result in funny or bewildering errors), Skyrim is easily worth your money. Fantastic new graphics and animations, open world gameplay and streamlined mechanics make it a title that will utterly command your time. Add to this the planned Construction Kit that’s coming out in January, and the community content will come flowing out on third party sites and the announced Steamworks functionality which I HOPE won’t staunch the free mods. Hope you weren’t planning on using that social life of yours…


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