Developer: Bethesda Softworks
Release Date: Out Now
Players/Online features: One
I should kick this off by explaining that I wasn't even remotely interested in Skyrim when it was announced, and I comfortably ignored all the hoo-hah and madness surrounding it, even when it had the audacity to infiltrate my daily BBC News intake as launch day approached and man-children from all corners of the globe started to combust with anticipation. The harsh truth is that I was too far busy skateboarding to play Morrowind, and Oblivion bored me to distraction the minute I got over the hilarity of the facial expressions and "hand-to-hand" combat, so as a relative newcomer to Elder Scrolls I really didn't share the rampant enthusiasm of my peers. How I ended up clocking up roughly 50 hours game time and losing a month of evenings is still a mystery to me, but I'd have to place the blame firmly at the feet of my fanboy co-workers and their vaguely aggressive recommendations.
Now, I will openly admit that I never really gave the prequels a proper chance, but as a defence I'd suggest that if a game doesn't grab you even gently by the nuts in the first couple of hours, it's doing something a bit wrong. Thankfully this time nuts were grabbed, and not very gently at all.
You see, your Skyrim adventure begins in shackles, sat in back of an imperial wagon with a couple of other captives, and as you rumble along surveying the countryside they gradually reveal that you're all on the way to have your heads lopped off for your (unspecified) crimes. Not cool, you think, but as this is still a cut-scene, there isn't a whole lot you can do. You arrive at a heavily guarded fort and after creating and naming your character - which I was relieved to discover is actually a fairly speedy and painless process - you're told to step up and accept your fate. Kneeling to rest your head on the block you hear a distant scream and what sounds like a rumble of thunder, and as you glance up to see your executioner raise his axe, a big old dragon lands on the battlements of a tower right behind him, and the whole place bursts into flames! After pausing to change your pants, you seize the moment and with the help of your remaining comrades from the ride in, you hotfoot it out of there while the scaly invader toasts your captors and generally makes a right proper mess.
As an opening sequence this is breathtaking, and even my expert narrative can't do it justice. The preamble builds tension nicely but is still vague enough to nurture the feeling of rising panic, and when the dragon made its entrance and control was suddenly handed over, any semblance of composure I thought I'd have acquired from 15-odd years of gaming deserted me entirely. It's an assault on the senses and I'm glad I hadn't watched any pre-release videos, because part of the brilliance came from having no idea what to expect, and I hope I'm not the only one who ran away rather more slowly than instructed so I could admire the scene unfolding around me.
This is pretty much where Skyrim ends as a shared experience, because from here on where you go, what you do and who you meet/kill is pretty much up in the air. I haven't spoken to a single person who has been to all the same places as me, taken the same paths through quests or helped the same people, it feels like a totally fluid gaming experience. The myriad tasks you're given are split up in your journal; plot-driving ones are each given their own branch so you can track your progress in more detail, all the rest dumped under 'Misc' to represent a handy reminder of when you're spending too much/not enough time actually advancing through the main body of the game. To purely focus on the primary quest line would be doing it the game a huge disservice though, and you're simply not playing right if you haven't set off with the intention to complete an important mission, only to find yourself half way across the map picking flowers for a farmer's widow just because she called you "strapping", and wondering where the last 3 hours of your life went.
For a game of this scale the plot is surprisingly good; you're dumped at the heart of a populace divided by civil war but united by its inability to deal with dragons, and your task is effectively to sort the whole state of affairs out. Interaction between characters and races generally makes sense and the consequences of your actions are (almost) always palpable, and there were only a handful of moments when I felt genuinely confused about why I was being asked to do something which, considering the sheer number and variety of events you're able to get involved in, is pretty darn impressive. At times it feels a little contrived but you always get the inkling that somewhere beneath the surface, buried in one of the hundreds of books you come across or learned as part of an obscure side-quest, there's a perfectly good explanation for every 'WTF?' moment you encounter.
Skyrim is not Ďall about youí though, and for every person who does want to bend your ear there are 10 others who couldn't pick you out of a line-up. This is part of what makes the Skyrim world so interesting, it lives and breathes, acts and reacts in such a brilliantly dynamic, organic way, you genuinely feel like you're playing a part in a much grander story. Clearly Bethesda put a colossal effort into evoking this sensation, and while I'd like to think that in modern games believable AI should be compulsory rather than noteworthy, you still have to respect the endeavour. Sadly there are odd occasions which ruin the illusion; a classic example of which can be demonstrated almost every time by shooting an enemy in the head and hiding, only to hear them mutter "hmm, must have been my imagination" as they wander back to their post or patrol route with the arrow still lodged in their skull. These moments are few and far between and, while undeniably a bit stupid, aren't really deal breakers once you accept and put aside the peculiarities of what is - generally speaking - an extremely immersive environment to be in. Grabbing a few books, an ale and a seat by the fire in your local pub, listening to a bard sing Ragnar the Red or eavesdropping on a couple of out-of-towners discussing nearby bandit raids is actually a viable game play option, such is the level of care and attention put into the quality of the ambience.
The combat system in Oblivion was a major deterrent for me, and as I understand it is widely regarded as one of the weaknesses of the Elder Scrolls series, but Bethesda have stuck by it and chosen to improve rather than completely overhaul. Adding dual-wielding was a no-brainer but it works particularly well for spell casting and made playing a mage a lot more appealing, especially when you factor in the ability to combine or supercharge spells for a ton of additional ways to wreak havoc, or more likely, get utterly distracted by the gorgeous lighting effects. Hand-to-hand combat has been beefed up with the addition of powerful, slow-motion finishers which look great but become repetitive very quickly, and 'Shouts' which can turn the tide of battle in your favour in an instant, but only if you've used a dragon soul to 'activate' them. I can't overstate how much these improvements have made a difference, but there's still something about it that feels more like swatting flies than crushing skulls and for that reason I ended up becoming a sneaky Archer almost by default, for me it happened to be both the most entertaining and most effective way to get stuff done. That said, perseverance is rewarded and through practice and improving skills, across the board the combat system does become significantly more playable than I expected.
Character progression has been reworked so that virtually everything you do improves one aspect of your skill set or another, and together they combine to advance your overall level - at which point you can choose to boost your Magicka, Health or Stamina by 10 points. You also unlock a skill point which you can invest in perks, which effectively form talent trees allowing you to tailor your character to your play style - a system that works quite nicely, and enables you to focus in on mutually beneficial skills or spread them around to cover all your bases. Gaining overall levels off the back of boosting individual skills is a simple enough concept, and theoretically an ideal formula for a game with such freedom, but at times it seems rather imbalanced when put in to practice. Consider that I made a single level from over 2 hours of hacking up Bandits in a huge Silver mine, and a further 3 levels in 20 minutes by creating a stack of gear from the ore I'd picked up in the process. I actually found that just by being thorough I was picking up skills and levels faster than I wanted to - something that will appeal to those amongst you that bought the game on launch day alongside 48 cans of Red Bull, but I was hoping for progression to feel a bit more genuine.
It will come as no surprise to anyone that Skyrim looks pretty damn good, in some places it's fantastic, and the level of detail throughout the vast game environment is something special. The first time you climb to the top of a hill or mountain to take in the panorama is startling similar to doing the same thing in real life, and that's testament to the care with which every aspect of the landscape is modelled. The transition between different times of day and different weather systems is particularly good, subtle enough that you don't notice while it's happening but effective enough to give you remarkably believable visual diversity. They've achieved one of the best night-time effects I've ever seen - you feel suitably vulnerable out in the wild but empowered and predatory whilst sneaking between shadows inside an enemy fort - exactly as it should be.
Character modelling is mostly good as well, and facial expressions are so far ahead of Oblivion that I don't even find them remotely funny anymore, but in third-person perspective (which is optional but ended up being my preference) the movement animation is still quite rudimentary. Sneak, walk, run and sprint are fine, but the minute you strafe or encounter an awkward slope it all goes a bit crazy legs and looks horribly outdated, especially when the majority of the NPC and enemy animation is so neat by comparison. Either a smidgen of laziness crept in or it's a genuine oversight, perhaps anticipating that the majority of people would use the traditional first-person view, but still a shame from my point-of-view.
The overall quality of presentation that Bethesda achieved with Skyrim is probably what impressed me the most; there is an astonishing amount of data squeezed onto the disk. Everything is highly polished and with incredible depth, things like the variety and calibre of the ambient sounds and the fact that you can examine every single item in the game in full 3D from your inventory screen are lengths they didn't need to go to, they just wanted to. The library of voice samples must be enormous and are predominantly very good, the constellation-inspired design of the character menu is a treat in itself, and there are countless other things which are lovingly crafted but which you immediately take for granted because they're part of a much, much bigger picture.
And it's because of the beauty of the bigger picture that we let Skyrim off for all its niggles - believe me, there are plenty. I could write another couple of thousand words about the gameplay and graphical glitches, dodgy physics and annoying bugs, but the fact of the matter is that creating a game of this magnitude without any mistakes would have been nothing short of a miracle. It's not for everyone and I imagine that it won't convert many who didn't like Morrowind or Oblivion, but as one of those people I would urge you to give a spin and see for yourself. A three-day rental would be plenty of time to make up your mind and should you like it, there are an absolute truckload of second-hand copies out there thanks to people who didn't. If you're already an Elder Scrolls fan I don't need to tell you what to do, and chances are you're far too busy living out your days as a humble village blacksmith to be reading this review anyway.
- Incredibly immersive and atmospheric. - The dragons are just magnificent. - Practically unlimited things to do. - A lovingly crafted, gorgeous interface. - Your horse can walk up/down vertical slopes!
- Intrusive loading times. - Some questionable animation. - More than a few gameplay and graphical glitches. - No ability to abandon/restart quests. - Occasionally epically stupid AI. - Arrows in the head still arenít fatal? - Your horse can walk up/down vertical slopes!