The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Review
Developer: Bethesda Softworks
Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC
Reviewed on Xbox 360
"The Empire of Tamriel is on the edge. The High King of Skyrim has been murdered.
"Alliances form as claims to the throne are made. In the midst of this conflict, a far more dangerous, ancient evil is awakened. Dragons, long lost to the passages of the Elder Scrolls, have returned to Tamriel.
"The future of Skyrim, even the Empire itself, hangs in the balance as they wait for the prophesized Dragonborn to come; a hero born with the power of The Voice, and the only one who can stand amongst the dragons."
It's been a while since the very first Elder Scrolls game crossed my PC, but nothing in the series has quite matched the joy of discovering The Elder Scrolls: Arena nearly twenty years ago. Now I'm playing on a console, gamepad in hand, and more than a little bit older, but The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim has brought back that glorious joy of first discovering how enormous and flexible the Elder Scrolls universe is, with such deep lore and so many hidden treasures to explore. I spoke too soon last month when I said another game was the best game I'd played this year. I wrote that before I'd started in on Skyrim.
You may have heard that a certain Bethesda Softworks staff member managed a tremendous speed run of Skyrim. Unless you are hell-bent on completing Skyrim in the shortest possible time, there are hundreds of hours of exploration, quests, conversations and dungeons to experience in this most northern province of Tamriel. In the time it took that one man to finish the game, I'd barely slipped my bonds to emerge into the world, free to explore. Yes, I'm easily distracted in these large, open worlds, and love exploring the environments, so it might have delayed me when I chased torchbugs (and harvested their thoraxes to perform foul experiments in alchemy), worked as a day laborer (and was paid handsomely for harvesting cabbage) and climbed a nearby mountain to experience the view. But an hour or two later I finally got around to investigating and pursuing my fate as dragonborn.
Don't think from my exploration that Skyrim starts off slowly. In an interview I once did at Bethesda Softworks, I was told that it wouldn't be an Elder Scrolls game if you didn't start in prison. By that definition, Skyrim is barely an Elder Scrolls game. I started in irons, on a cart ride to my execution, vaguely reminiscent of a certain tram ride from another famous PC game that was just long enough for the exposition before I had a chance to decide on my characters' features. Then, stepping up to the executioner's block, my captors were assaulted by a dragon, bellowing fire onto all onlookers. After a splendid tutorial that introduced the important controls and armed me (while constantly pushed forward by fiery breath), I found myself stepping into the free air of the province of Skyrim, embroiled in a civil war. Like the very best games, I had a few pointers to suggest a direction, and the freedom to wander where I wanted.
Apparently, I'm not very good at following directions, because messengers would occasionally appear to remind me of other places I could go and explore to push the plot along. I'd spent so much time exploring hidden dungeons, emptying bandit camps and practicing my newfound alchemical and enchanting skills that when I got a note from an in-game friend that I had "demonstrated the power of your Thu'um" I was trying to remember what perverted act I might have accidentally performed before I remembered that I was, apparently, dragonborn, and should get around to training my shouts (special powers that manifest when speaking in the tongue of dragons), and might want to visit the Mage's College of Winterhold and train my already formidable magical powers (something every innkeeper in Skyrim had already told me to do). Really, that's the biggest strength of Skyrim. There's an unbelievable amount to do, and while the civil war and attacking dragons lend a slight sense of urgency, there are plenty of places to explore, and no real need to do them in anything other than your own preferred order.
I don't want to be an alchemist in Skyrim. Really – I enjoyed crafting in the game. It's pretty cool to mix useful potions in a glowing green alembic or empower a rune-encrusted table to craft enchanted items. But if I really had to do it, being an alchemist in Skyrim would suck. The easiest way to figure out the basic alchemical properties of objects in Skyrim is to taste them, and it seems like most everything is poisonous. That doesn't seem a great way to go about your day.
In my first few minutes as a free man in Skyrim, I noticed a beautiful blue butterfly fluttering around in front of the spectacular craggy landscape. As I approached to get a closer look at the Lepidoptera specimen, I discovered I could collect it, and when I saw that I'd ripped the wings off the butterfly to save them as an alchemical ingredient, I was a little taken aback. Then I ate them. Why not? I gave things a little more pause when considering whether to sample spider's eggs or a yellowed troll toe, but I still gave them an expert nibble. After many hours of play, I discovered a lump of human flesh hoarded by goblin-like creatures in an ancient Dwarven ruin. It's an alchemical ingredient. Even in a game, do I really have a stomach for that? Perhaps I should have stuck to cooking venison stew at one of Skyrim's many hearths.
Being an alchemist in Skyrim is neither for the squeamish nor for those with a weak stomach, but being a mage is a tremendous experience. The Nords who live here frown upon it, and I can understand why. It's nice to have an enchanted weapon, or a healing potion if things get sketchy, but running up and bashing things is empowering. Double wielding is an aggressive form of death-defying dance, just as wielding a double-handed weapon mixes devastating physical power with a lot of sidestepping. Even wading into a melee with a shield and sword requires careful timing of blocks, light blows and heavy blows. It's satisfying, but straightforward. It's a style befitting those who like their combat simple, and want to hoist flagons of mead in the afterlife.
Being a mage is complicated, but rewarding in the way that only those who have flame, lightning and frost at their fingertips can understand. It doesn't hurt that you can create light, transmute ore, summon elemental creatures or even raise the dead to fight by your side. It's also possible to skulk around in the darkness, picking pockets and robbing homes of their hard earned wealth, but I just can't bring myself to resort to thievery. Sure, I'm good at picking locks – but only those I find on long-abandonded chests, I assure you.
The ultimate appeal of Skyrim (and the other Elder Scrolls) games is the ability to mix and match play styles. You can be a pure mage, or a warrior in heavy armor who dabbles in necromancy. There is plenty of magic to aid burglars in their trade, but spellsword and craftsman are equally valid choices. Skyrim is even better at this than in past games, as different choices seem better balanced and a perk system (that allows you to slightly better certain skills each level) forces meaningful choices while supporting your individual play style. By level 25, a frost mage will differ from a fire mage, a summoner won't resemble a healer, a warrior with a great sword and light armor will look completely different from a sword-and-shield fighter with light armor, and an archer will feel completely different from a thief. At higher levels, I preferred to craft and act the diplomat while dabbling in magic, so I wasn't much in a throw-down fight – but I always had plenty of potions to pull out of my sleeve, and enchanted armor to make sure I could carry them all.
There's little to complain about in Skyrim (unless, for some reason, you loathe rich, open fantastic worlds or simply have a moral objection to fighting things), but there are a few minor problems. Surprisingly, I encountered few glitches. The game never crashed on me, despite a lot of play, but there were occasional strange issues. I once found a wheelbarrow floating in the sky above a road, and the physics would sometimes send items hurtling off, but nothing out of the ordinary (or that I haven't encountered in virtually any other game). I did once fall through the floor of a tavern basement and was immediately teleported by some mysterious game-force back to solid ground, but it didn't even interrupt play.
My only substantive gripe is with Skyrim's followers. As a melee combatant, I found hirelings tremendously useful. A mercenary, war dog, follower or even a horse could be a tremendous boon in combat, helping me quickly decimate the horrifying creatures that populate Skyrim. As a mage (or even an archer), followers sucked. You'd think that even a stubborn Nord warrior, afraid of sinister magic wouldn't step in front of a fireball-flinging sorcerer, but they do. Followers (unless you can resummon them every few seconds) are really just expendable cover for your foes. I couldn't even keep a horse for cross-country trips without having it run into my destruction magic or just getting lost while chasing some wild wolf.
Skyrim is a truly remarkable game. The plot is fascinatingly engaging if you stick to the main quests, and there's surprising depth to the world even as you venture around the fringes of the province, where some stories are told through journals, and others simply through the death tableaux of a shipwreck, empty cell or midden below a mage's tower. As someone who loves exploring these worlds, Skyrim offers a (nearly) limitless landscape to wander.
The main plot will eventually wind to a close, but countless hours will pass before you've seen many of the game's locations, minor quests or subplots. I've been playing heavily for nearly two weeks, and I can't claim to have done nearly everything in Skyrim. Nor have I done enough. There is much more to see. Skyrim is the most fun you can have this side of Oblivion.