Developer: Bethesda Game Studios / Publisher: Bethesda Softworks / Price: $59.99 / Rating: Mature [Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Sexual Themes, Use of Alcohol] / Played on: Xbox 360
Do you have a job that you care about? Or perhaps a family that loves you? Maybe some life goals or ambitions? If so I can’t, in good faith, recommend that you play The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Not because it’s a bad game, no. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Veterans of Bethesda’s particular flavor of open-world RPGs know all too well their unparalleled ability to suck hours, days, and even weeks away from your real life with their rich and expansive game worlds. And the latest installment reaches new levels of dangerous with improvements so numerous it’s difficult to believe that the previous game, Oblivion, was even part of the same hardware generation.
Skyrim, the Northern most province in Tamriel, has seen better days. The only thing worse than the civil war that rages within its borders is the return of the havoc-wreaking Dragons, making their appearance for the first time in hundreds of years. It’s these events that act as the backdrop for your own adventure. As with all the Elder Scrolls games, you start off with a blank slate. Your tale is for you to define and Bethesda has proved consistently to be an expert in providing the ideal tools, mechanics, and world to foster that flexibility. You are the painter; they provide you with the brushes and canvas. Do you want to be a treacherous Dark Elf that hails from Morrowind or a badass, axe-wielding Nord that’s out to save the innocent? It’s incredibly satisfying to immerse yourself in the mind of your character, think like they would, and create their history; the world of Skyrim provides near countless opportunities to do this.
While Skyrim’s non-linear nature means that the main quest lacks its sometimes-attempted sense of urgency, it’s also, like, one percent of the consumable content. There are so many rich storylines and interesting encounters to discover off the beaten path. You may choose to research strange artifacts at the Mage College of Winterhold or take part in the double- crossings and intricate plots tearing apart the mysterious members of the Thieves’ Guild. Or maybe you just want to butt into the day-to-day drama of townsfolk. The mundane times in Skyrim are just as engrossing as the dramatic times.
Without a doubt the defining characteristic of Skyrim is player autonomy. From the moment you escape the game’s opening dragon attack, you’re free to go wherever you please. There’s plenty to point you in the direction of your main objective to unite Skyrim and vanquish Dragons, but you’ve got the freedom find that route how and where you want. You’ll find that, even more so than Bethesda’s previous RPGs, exploration is always rewarding. Just pick a direction and walk. You might come across a group of Orcs hunting a bear or an abandoned farmhouse full of loot. Go visit a city and chat up its citizens. They all have something interesting to say and, in many cases, have a task for you, too. I can’t express enough just how much there is to do in Skyrim. It’s especially impressive considering how each of these experiences manages to feel unique and impactful. The amount of worthwhile content here is really staggering.
Melee combat still kind of feels like you’re whacking enemies with a Nerf sword rather than an actual blade, although the newly introduced cinematic–you might say VATS-like–finishing moves definitely helps give your bludgeonings some punch. But the greatest improvement over Oblivion’s combat comes in Skyrim’s spell system. The ability to apply a spell to each hand (and quickly swap between them with the game’s totally awesome Favorites menu) generates huge potential for getting creative with your spell combinations. One of my personal favorites was popping enemies with the Fury spell that would cause them to start attacking the closest entity (usually another enemy), waiting for one of them to die, then reanimating their corpse to fight for me as a mindless zombie. Layer on your Dragon Shouts (that provide powers as varied as slowing down time to summoning a dragon to fight for you) and even a couple of secret abilities (yes, you can become a werewolf) and it’s easy to see this is a pretty robust combat system. And that’s without considering all of your crafting skills like enchanting, alchemy, and blacksmithing, which can be used to enhance or augment your combat skills.
Speaking of skills, Skyrim’s streamlined system does away with classes altogether and instead opts for more of a “specialize as you go” methodology. As you play the game, you can level up your 18 skills (which includes everything from two-handed weapons to speech to destruction spells to enchanting). The more frequently you use them, the more they level up. Additionally, each skill has a perk tree associated with it that you commit points to each time your character levels up. It’s an interesting twist on the standard leveling structure of RPGs because rather than locking you into a specific play style from the get go, it encourages you to play around with everything until you find your preference. It’s perfect for indecisive players like myself.
The scope and beauty of the land of Skyrim cannot be understated: the far away mountain vistas and snowy landscapes, the lively cities and the dark and varied dungeons all characterize the world. The lack of copy-and-paste level design that’s plagued Bethesda’s previous games is gone, giving a lived-in and handcrafted look to the world. Few can create a sense of “place” like Bethesda.
Of course. this is a Bethesda RPG so expecting technical weirdness is not unjustified. Aside from frame rate drops and some texture pop-in, I occasionally witnessed more jarring issues like unnatural looking character animations, missing sky boxes, and my character’s frighteningly disappearing face. But the fleeting nature of these occasional issues means they will hardly detract from your experience but are worth stating nonetheless.
I felt many emotions while playing Skyrim: tranquility, tension, awe. Sure, this was partially due to a lot of the moments I’ve already talked about here but none of it would have really made as much of an impact if it weren’t for the game’s tremendous soundtrack. It’s serene, it’s epic, it’s loud, and it’s subtle. And despite your free will, it always manages to kick in the right track at just the right time.
Sometimes I feel like role-playing games have forgotten about the whole “roleplaying” part of the genre. So it’s refreshing to play a game like Skyrim that imbues so much effort into immersing you in its world. Quit your job. Divorce your spouse. Give your children up for adoption. Do whatever you need to do to find the time to play Skyrim.
9.5 / 10