Bethesda is a developer that seems to have a kind of sadomasochistic flair for game creation. Each time it releases a flagship title, it pushes the bar so much higher, that it makes the inevitable uphill struggle to best its predecessor that much harder.
With the mighty Oblivion garnering such wide-spread praise, any follow up would surely have a Mehrunes Dagon-sized task ahead of it. This is the challenge that’s fallen to Skyrim, and after a long wait, we finally get to see if the next adventure in The Elder Scrolls is enough to eclipse its amazing forerunner.
It’s a bit nippy
Set in the titular Skyrim, a frozen region in the north of the game world of Tamriel, and home to the Viking-like Nord race, the game revolves around the return of dragons to the world. Long absent from the Elder Scrolls universe, these dragons, quite understandably, cause a little bit of concern amongst the various citizens of Skyrim, and you’re cast as a mysterious hero who just so happens to be ‘dragonborn’. This trait, something that usually resides within the Imperial royal bloodline, allows you to absorb and use the powers of dragons, and to use your very voice as a powerful weapon.
Quite why you’re bestowed with this particular ability and why the dragons have returned you’ll have to find out during the story. Alongside this there’s also all manner of political upheaval, warring factions to deal with and much, much, much more. Well, it’s an Elder Scroll game, so we’re used to packing in the quest lines aren’t we?
The world of Skyrim, like Cyrodiil before it, looks great and is truly enormous. It’s a vast world of rolling snow-capped mountains, grassy plains, swamps, settlements and more dungeons and crypts than you’d care to mention. This is, as ever, fully open, and there are no limitations as to where you can go, or what you can do, barring some needed limits for story-based content.
As you begin the game you are, in true Elder Scrolls tradition, a prisoner. You’re on the way to be executed and during this the game skilfully weaves in the character creation. Not long after this opening you’re set free into the world, and as with previous games in the series, this is initially a daunting prospect. However, with Skyrim, this isn’t just daunting due to an uncertainty of where to go or what to do, but also as the world is a very dangerous place.
Bring a big stick
On starting the game, and as a veteran of the series, one of my first thoughts was that Skyrim is much more difficult than previous games. True, I opted for the expert difficulty, but it wasn’t long before I was getting into fights and situations that I simply wasn’t ready for, fights that I thought would be no problem. This didn’t happen all that often in Oblivion, but here you’ll find yourself accepting quests that, when you reach your destination, you’ll just end up getting your backside handed to you. In fact, even in the very first city you come to, you’ll find a faction you can join (similar to the Fighter’s Guild from Oblivion) whose very first mission will see you up against foes that can one or two-hit kill you.
This level of difficulty isn’t something that I’ve personally found before in the series, and Skyrim is all the better for it, offering plenty of the way of challenge, and forcing you to rethink your approach, not only in levelling up before another attempt, but also carefully considering weapons, skills and abilities you’ll need to employ. Some areas of the world are obviously tailored for higher level characters, something that previous games have saved for inevitable DLC.
These character abilities have been reworked quite a bit here, including the combat, an element that many still felt was lacking in Oblivion. Now, combat is much more visceral, and has more meat to it. Once again you can attack with quick slashes or hits, and can hold down the attack button for stronger, power hits, but this all uses stamina. As you swing, your stamina drains and when you run out, you’ll find yourself unable to attack, leaving you wide open to retaliation. This adds a big tactical element to each and every fight, and blocking has also been tweaked, and is an essential skill to master. Also using stamina, blocking attacks, using parries and shield pushes is a skill you must practise if you’re going to survive here, and without it, any melee-focused player will have no chance.
Each confrontation is a real fight, and the mindless button mashing you could employ in Oblivion is all but gone. If you simply run in swinging, you’ll probably and up dead soon after in many fights, especially against some of the game’s new, and dangerous foes.
You can also dual wield weapons this time around, although you lose the ability to block if you do so. Still, bearing a sword in one hand and an axe in the other does give you an offensive edge, and makes short work of some foes.
Magic is handled differently too. To use it you have to equip a spell in one hand, and then cast is as you would use a weapon attack. This means you can attack with a sword in the right hand, and fling fireballs with your left. You can even dual wield spells, casting lighting bolts with one hand and ice blasts with the other. It’s a flexible system, and one that makes for a much more well-rounded combat system. Ranged combat with bows is similar to Oblivion, but arrow flight is faster and more accurate, and it all feels a little more refined, with better physics. I would have liked a little more attention to this to be honest, but it’s workable, and is still an improvement over Oblivion.
All of these changes make combat a much more enjoyable experience than before, and the added difficulty, and more reliance on skill and timing makes it much more rewarding too, especially when you’re treated to one of the new, Fallout V.A.T.S-style finishing moves.
I quest, therefore I am
To say that Skyrim is packed with content would be a colossal understatement of immense proportions. This is a game that, for some, may simply never end. The sheer number of missions, quests, side quests, NPC tasks, and other diversions is staggering, even more so than Oblivion.
You seem to get quests from just about everywhere, be it talking to NPCs, overhearing conversations, joining guilds, reading books or even stumbling across random people in need in the middle of the wilderness. Your quest list is quickly filled up with all sorts of tasks, and you’re never short of anything to do. Add to this the new random quest system, which generates quests that can occur at any time and you’ve got an RPG that never stops giving.
These quests, especially main story and guild outings are some of the best of the series too. Dungeons are far more fleshed out, with better design, layouts, traps and even puzzles to solve, and there are plenty of excursions you’ll undertake to learn more dragon words to increase your voice powers, some of which are optional, and you may simply stumble upon if you’re lucky. And, the world itself, thanks to an improved Radiant AI system and a general enhancement in the environments, is even more lifelike than ever. This is a real, breathing, world you can get lost in, and Bethesda really has taken the open world RPG to another level, one that few will be able to beat. Every corner of the totally hand-designed world is dripping with detail and atmosphere. It’s simply breathtaking in its scale.
Cooking with Dada
The Elder Scrolls games have featured all sorts of crafting components before, such as enchanting and alchemy, and Skyrim follows suit, and ups the ante again. Now there’s a full crafting system for weapons and armour, and cooking. You can harvest ingredients to cook stat-benefiting dishes, and you can gather up materials to make or improve weapons. Swords can be sharpened on a grindstone, hides can be tanned to make leather strips and you can use ingots of metal to forge new blades. It’s an easy system to use, but one that really make it worthwhile hauling back animal remains or bits of scrap metal, something that most players found pointless in previous games. It’s cheaper to make your own weapons if you can, so there’s a real reason to try, and scouring dungeons for rare materials, or wandering the world for that elusive plant can be worth it.
I have the power
One area of Skyrim that’s changed quite a lot is the levelling system. As always you’ll get better at all things as you do them. So, the more you use a single-handed weapon, the better you’ll get. Spend a lot of time defending in heavy armour and your heavy armour stat will rise. As you level these up, your character level will rise and you can advance through the ranks.
This time, however, instead of putting points into various abilities like dexterity, luck and speed, there are only three core options to choose from, magicka, health and stamina and you pick only one of these each level. Other skills are now reassigned to a perk system similar to Fallout 3 and New Vegas. Each level you reach gives you one perk bonus. These are grouped into the usual Elder Scrolls categories like Destruction, Stealth, Archery, Speehcraft and more. Within each section are various perks, some restricted until a specified skill level is reached. Blocking, for example includes an initial ability to increase the effectiveness of blocking. This is then linked to others (via a constellation-like menu) that you can advance to only when your overall blocking skill is high enough.
It’s a great system, and whilst it’s a major departure from Oblivion, and one that some may see as dumbing down, it works very well, and further challenges players to consider what kind of character they want to play as. But, as is a staple of the series, this never locks you into a specific role, and you can always play exactly how you like. This has always been a strength of the series, and is still going strong here.
Other improvements in the game include a better companion system. Also taking a leaf out of Fallout‘s book, Skyrim lets you recruit followers that can aid you on your travels. One joined, you can trade items with them, using them as little more than mobile storage chests if you like, and you can also get them to perform tasks. Of course, fighting is their main raison d’être, and here they can be very useful, if occasionally a little dim, and prone to getting into trouble.
Now, as this is a Bethesda game, we have to expect one bad thing, and that’s bugs. With such a massive world and such a wide open game system to play with, it’s inevitable that some glitches and bugs find their way into the mix. Skyrim, however, seems to have gotten off lightly. Although I’ve noticed plenty of graphical glitching and clipping problems, not to mention some truly ugly low-res textures dotted around, on the whole this is a surprisingly tight release. Yes, the AI path finding is still pants at times, including enemies, which you can often get stuck on geometry so you can cheap-kill them, but this is a more polished release.
There may be few technical issues I’ve encountered, but the redesigned menu and hot key system is something I’m not too keen on. Although it’s not terrible, and I must admit, I’ve gotten used to it, I feel that the new system is clunky and unwieldy, especially in combat. Gone is the 8-way hot key system, and this is replaced by an expanding drop down list that pauses the game when you access it. There are two hotkeys you can use, but it’s far more restrictive than before and constantly pausing the game to go into the ‘quick’ menu to change weapons or spells really takes you out of the experience. It’s a very odd choice by Bethesda in my opinion, and I’d welcome the d-pad hotkey system from Oblivion, even if the Xbox controller’s diagonals are a nightmare.
With a decent story, absolutely immense world packed with endless quests and some much-improved combat and game mechanics, not to mention the excellent dragon confrontations, Skyrim has done what Oblivion also managed – it’s bettered its predecessor, and by quite some margin. Bethesda went all-out to craft a truly epic adventure that will keep RPG fans busy for a very long time to come, and succeeded.
As with previous games, though, this isn’t a title that’ll appeal to those looking for instant action or gratification, and it’s a slow burning masterpiece that rewards you the more you put into it, but if you’re looking for a deep, rewarding and downright huge title to get to grips with, you’ll find none more worthy of your money and time than Skyrim. This is immersive, time-devouring RPG gaming at its very finest, and once again the bar has been raised to a height that only Bethesda can seem to reach.
You can rent or buy The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim at Blockbuster.co.uk.