The true Neverending Story.
While I’ve had dozens upon dozens of hours on both The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind and The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, never once did I settle down long enough to reach the conclusion of either game, or its expansion packs. Truth be told, those worlds were so engrossing, and inviting so much exploration and sidetracking, that I never even minded that there was a core portion in which I was neglecting. Why would I feel bad anyway….I was looking for Thieves Guilds, or trying to level my spell casting abilities for the fun of it. Even with some bugs here and there, both titles and their associated expansions provided a quality and open world that too few titles even came close to. With The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, everything admirable and addicting from the previous titles have been incorporated, tweaked to an nth degree, while some of the more notorious blemishes still have their presence in about the same frequency.
The last couple of Elder Scrolls titles have offered a game world filled to the brim with interactivity, changes in scenery and a sense of “anything is possible” when tackling issues. Don’t like the way that guy looked at you earlier? Find him at home and silence him in his sleep. Down on gold and need to remedy the situation? Why not steal some items behind a clerks back and resell them elsewhere? From gathering alchemy ingredients to training your archery skills, there was never a moment where players couldn’t find something to do. Skyrim has this feeling once again, with many of its facets more finely tuned than before.
A significant reason that previous aspects feel as finely tuned as they are comes from the menu systems. Whether its the players inventory or working on tanning or alchemy, menu navigation throughout is a bit more streamlined, with less clutter, and a more distinct direction in which the player can work with. It definitely makes equipping items, setting other items as “favorites” and even leveling a breeze. It may not seem like a change that one should be clamoring over, but it quickens the pace of things, not to mention it does have a sleek look to it.
In fact, Skyrim as a whole has a sleek look to it. From the snow-capped mountain areas to the dingy underground caverns, Skyrim could definitely be considered one of the more visually stunning titles in this current generation. Humanoid models, while still a bit iffy here and there, do look more impressive and believable than those found within Oblivion. Animations, from other living creatures to even the surrounding foliage, are impressive, and meshes commendably well with the rest of the package. Entering a mist filled cave is a thrill like no other, as it’s not only hard to make out what’s in the distance, but at times it feels like that mist is encompassing the player sitting in front of their television, blurring the lines between fantasy and reality. One of the more appreciated changes found in Skyrim is the fact that initiating a conversation with any major NPC doesn’t trigger an obnoxious close up with them. Having to deal with these mostly unnecessary close ups between Oblivion, Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas, it’s a refreshing change of pace, as minor as it may sound. On top of all that, playing in a third person view doesn’t introduce an avatar with a robotic animation, but a more “realistic” portrayal of a running, walking or sneaking character. Not flawless by any stretch of the imagination, but more plausible than before.
Actually controlling that avatar feels about the same as it did in Bethesda’s previous titles. The more weighted down the character is, the more impeded his or her speed will be. Jumping still seems a little floaty, though it’s not a major issue at all. The ability to dual wield adds a dimension to the gameplay that more than encourages experimentation. Have a bow sneak attack to start things off, then switch to a one hander/fire spell combo to finish the opponent off. Or hell, you can even have two spells at once; have a healing spell readied in the offhand while freezing a bandit with your main hand. With somewhat smarter enemy AI thrown in, combat throughout Skyrim comes one of the more fascinating aspects, more so than ever before. It’s a good way to work melee and spell casting at the same time, and see which one is the preferred method of dispatching those that stand in your way.
While many of the audio cues have carried over from Oblivion, they are still fitting to the actions that they accompany. That’s about the middle ground to the audio presentation, however. On the more positive side, the musical composition is not only a hand in hand fit between mood, atmosphere and piece, but could very well be one of the very best in this generation. Whether it signifies an imminent battle or leisurely exploration of the main world, Skyrim manages to have a near perfect fit for each situation, and just begs for players to crank up their volume and embrace every second of it. On the other hand, the voice acting, while more than passable, has its share of disappointments. In a general sense, the performances do seem stronger than any Elder Scrolls of Fallout title over the last five years, but I couldn’t help but feel that a bit more emphasis could have been put into it. On top of that, NPC’s have this irritating habit of trying to talk simultaneously, making a few key moments nearly hard to discern without putting subtitles on. It’s not an issue secluded to towns either, as any conversations ending or segwaying nearby another friendly NPC will prompt this annoying audio anomaly.
Skyrim its self is a massive world, with what seems like a never-ending supply of deviance from the main plot. I went into a bar once and someone challenged me to a drinking contest for a staff. After three drinks, I was blacked out and woke up in some unknown temple, where the story arc takes some odd, yet hilarious twists and turns. Even getting to some of the random points on the map prove to be a challenge, with several bandits coming down the steps to a tower, attempting to prevent you from getting to the top. One time I was literally minding my own business as I ran through the plains, when some guy came running up to me, telling me to hold onto something and that he’ll be coming back for it. He ran off, only to have some ranger chasing him down, asking if I had seen a thief that stole something from him. I lied and said I did not see this fiend, and walked away, keeping the item I was given to hold onto. Then there are the dragons….oh the dragons. The randomness and variety offered throughout my journey through Skyrim are easily more than even several open world titles combined.
Leveling skills in Skyrim is reliant upon how much that skill is utilized throughout each use. Landing melee attacks on an enemy with a one handed weapon will help work the appropriate One Handed skills, while a reliance on replenishing health when needed, will raise Restoration skills. Through these skill gains as well, overall experience will be added, helping your character level. With each level gain, an option to raise Magicka, Health and Stamina is prompted, with ten points going into said stat when selected (one time per level.) A skill point will be rewarded as well, which can be used in the rather slick constellation-like ability trees that Skyrim presents. Within these constellation skill trees are further advancements to each skill, such as Lockpicking, Destruction, Pickpocketing and so on. The potency of certain attributes to these skills can be raised with these skill points, so long as that skill is at the appropriate level. Fancy yourself with Archery? With these skill points and the higher your Archery skills are at that current time, you can raise the strength of your sneak attacks to three times higher than normal, as well as having a chance to completely paralyze your prey for several seconds. Each skill trees has their own set of abilities to help mature the potency of said skills significantly. There’s a myriad of ways to create your own character to your own suiting, and Skyrim even gives a feeling of creating multiple characters, just to see how certain combinations would work out.
Though the overall journey and experience through Skyrim ranks as one of the most engrossing and fulfilling that I’ve seen in years, there are still a number of stumbling points. Often enough, while trekking through the massive world early on, wildlife and random bandits are sparse at best. After a minute or two of walking, I’ll come across a few wolves that I can train my stealth and archery skills on, but then it’s another wait of the same length after that. Even inside various caves and hideouts, the enemy population is rather meager. In that same early span of time, I could count the number of times I’ve been attacked by three or more adversaries on one hand, which is a bit baffling. There’s also a lack of variety with regards to enemies for the first couple dozen hours. After that, things start to pick up considerably, mostly due to exploration and such. Same goes for encountering creatures and other adversaries throughout your journeys.
As with most ambitious titles such as Skyrim, there are its shares of bugs or programming brain farts. I’ve had two instances in which no buttons would register their actions outside my camera, forcing me to boot my system off and start it back up, which thankfully were isolated to the first ten hours. Then there are the vibrating bulls in town, who get stuck in a haystack and begin to violently bounce around. Stealth killing an enemy while they have others around them prompts a curious search by the ones still alive. After a brief moment in time, they literally say things like “I guess it was the wind” and walk right over their deceased comrade. There are plenty of stealth based titles that have such logic impaired programming to it (Metal Gear Solid especially) but for such a vast, expansive game world to dip back into the mindless lapses such as this, it a bit unforgivable.
Mercenaries for hire have been added to the experience, and while they prove their uses in more than one way (a commendable method of hauling extra loot around when the main character is at their weight limit), there’s one major fault to them. While traversing through tight corridors, they act as roadblocks, impeding any progression past them. I have to commend Bethesda for giving NPC’s a sense of life and realism in terms of the inability to walk through people, but it backfires hard when trying to navigate through the narrow halls of a cave or even a small room. While the situation could be rectified beforehand by commanding your merc to wait in one spot, it’s unnecessary downtime dedicated to what sums up to telling your pet down to “sit” and “stay.” Also, are these things supposed to be descendants of Kal El? Kind of like how trying to kill certain key NPC’s reduces them to an “unconscious” state, a mercenary on their last legs will kneel down and be incapacitated briefly, and then pop back up as if nothing happened. During one of my random dragon encounters, my dark elf female mercenary was brutally mowed down by the dragon’s frozen breath repeatedly, even as she was on her knees and incapacitated. Once I fell the mammoth beast, she pops right back up, as if nothing happened. Oddly enough, and errant arrow from my bow hit my mercenary in the calf and killed her.
Out of every problem that Skyrim has, the most aggravating and more consistent are the hidden load times here and there. There are times when I would want to access my items and drop a few things. On occasions, it takes from 2-8 seconds to load up the ability to move the cursor and select what I desire. This happens especially when trying to access your mercenary and see what they are carrying. If it’s a massive haul, there is a noticeable freeze, which nothing can be done outside waiting for everything to situate its self. The general access times are tolerable, especially for a title of this magnitude, with the longest loads occurring on the initial load from the title screen. The pauses and delays that come up every so often when attempting to deal with anything involving both of the pause menus can nearly break the experience at times, especially if this problem comes up during a particularly hairy battle.
Issues notwithstanding, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is a new achievement in immersion in gameplay. More than any title under this umbrella has it become apparent that the world around the player is rich and full of new places to discover. It has a running start right out of the gates, but it gets its feet firmly planted onto the ground the longer you adventures take. No matter how you want to approach your character, you’ll appreciate the amount of customization and care that was put into character development. 75 hours in and I’m constantly finding new quests, story arcs and so on. Some of these story arcs have more meat to them than a few retail games have ad in the last few years. With the mind boggling number of killer titles released not only in the month of November but in the year 2011, Skyrim manages to reach for the stars and and shine brighter than any game has this year. If you want to engross yourself into a massive world of possibilities and space to explore, Skyrim is a must buy. If you value the time spent with loved ones, you may not see them for a very long time if you pick this one up.