It’s been about five years (or maybe two hundred?) since we last visited Tamriel, and it’s great to be back. Skyrim is so highly anticipated that the recent EB Games Expo couldn’t even provide a hands-on demo, and even the lines to see the extended E3 trailer on a big screen were huge. This game is almost everything you could hope for: A definite GOTY contender.
In the 200 years since Tamriel was invaded by demons from Oblivion, a civil war has erupted in Skyrim. The Stormcloaks, led by Ulfric, are rebelling against the Empire, and fighting for the pride of the Nords. At the same time, an Elder Scrolls prophecy has been fulfilled, and dragons have returned to Tamriel, sparking fears that Alduin will come to destroy the world. Fortunately, the Dragonborn (i.e. you) has also risen to challenge the dragons: Cue central conflict.
All this takes place in a breathtaking environment. As the northernmost province of Tamriel, Skyrim is characterised by craggy, snow-covered mountain ranges, pine forests, some open plains, and remarkably diverse dungeon settings. The environments are rendered with as much detail as possible in the current console generation, and I think we could expect even more from the PC release.
The world is heavily inspired by Norse landscapes and culture, so fans of Lord of the Rings will feel at home. However, don’t expect too much fidelity (this is a fantasy world after all): there is a smattering of Anglo-Saxon, some mis-spellings, a few accents that sound strangely like Dr Zoidberg, and although there are some pimped-out long houses, they are lacking any ventilation for their central fire-pits. Nonetheless there is a strong sense of place and a consistent atmosphere in Skyrim’s art direction, characterisation, and voice acting.
The world is a similar size to Cyrodiil in Oblivion, but has much more depth, with a large number of side missions and dungeons. There is often little to distinguish between the main missions and side missions (except for achievements), and so the whole mission structure is much more organic, even if some missions are fairly simple dungeon crawls. Bethesda’s much-vaunted radiant storytelling and AI is not much in evidence, but it probably works below the surface to generate the richness that we enjoy but may not consciously appreciate. The scale of the gameworld is phenomenal: This is a game that could easily eat up 100+ hours of your life, and it’s hard to do justice to it in any limited amount of time.
Aside from the new bits of story, the basic gameplay and RPG elements of Skyrim will be familiar to Elder Scrolls veterans, with some notable refinements. Bethesda has done away with the long character-building process and levelling up: at the beginning you merely select your sex, race and look, and the rest happens in-game.
Experience points are accrued simply by using any given skill, and enough skill progression allows a level-up. Instead of agonising over which attributes or skills to improve (strength and dexterity etc. are entirely done away with), you simply upgrade magicka, health or stamina and then start building perks along skill-set constellations. This presents a minimalist approach to character progression, which is very welcome if you would rather just get into the action.
This action is great, and the philosophy of Skyrim is evident in the minimalist HUD, which shows only a compass bar unless you lose health or magicka which needs to be displayed. The combat system of Elder Scrolls games has always been excellent, but like everything it is simpler and smoother. With a console controller, LT and RT control each hand: you can dual-wield any combination of weapons, shields, spell, scrolls and staves, but you can also equip the same spell in both hands for extra power. A quick button press takes you to a customisable quick-select menu, so you can easily switch between loadouts in the middle of a battle without needing to labour through menus.
In fact the refinement of the menu system is another great improvement. The B button takes you to a four-point compass for map, items, skills, and magic; the skills menu looks up to the heavens to see skill areas as constellations in the sky, with perks represented by stars which make up each constellation. It is therefore easy to see at a glance all the skills in the areas of combat, magic, and thievery, and get an immediate sense of which skills carry more perks. The more flexible character development means that you can adapt and develop your strategy as you go along, although the further you progress the harder it is to make radical changes (as is to be expected).
New gameplay mechanics also enhance the experience. As Dragonborn, you have the ability to learn words of power (special attacks) which allow you to knock back enemies, sprint quickly, or even breathe fire. It is now possible to bring along a companion for the adventure, which has its attendant frustrations (get out the doorway idiot!) but overall is excellent, allowing complementary strategies, a bit of backup, and a bit more challenge in protecting them. The companions, though two-dimensional, do actually help in battle and glitches are rare, although one companion who became obsessed with attacking enemies behind a locked door nearly had me throwing the controller through the TV. In fact, it is quite possible to become attached to particular companions to the extent of grieving a bit when they die.
Finally, the stars of the show are the dragons, and they are integrated in the mythology, narrative, and gameplay in a thoroughly satisfying way. The return of the dragons is seen as the final incursion of chaos in Skyrim; they are linked into the civil war narrative and they present boss battles during central missions, but they also roam the countryside to offer random challenges infinitely more awesome than your average mud crab.
Skyrim grows out of previous instalments of the franchise and offers mostly improvements, but some losses. Crafting is more fully developed: as well as enchanting items and alchemising potions, we can now cook food ingredients into lighter, more valuable and more effective foodstuffs, and we can also improve weapons and armour through smithing. Item degradation is entirely removed, which negates the need to pause mid-battle to repair armour (hang on… where’s my repair hammer?), but also removes the fun of spamming disintegrate on an enemy’s weapon to see it disappear, or degrading their armour so you can kill them with a toothpick. For my money, the removal of the discussion wheel was a loss: I quite enjoyed this feature of Oblivion, but I can see how it could be boring or frustrating for players who just wanted to get on with it.
Unfortunately there are some points which detract from Skyrim’s overall quality: although small, they are magnified because of the near-perfection of this game. Despite the incredibly rich narrative world, there is an undue reliance on exposition provided by NPCs. This was fine for Morrowind or even Oblivion, but is much harder to stomach given the innovative emergent narratives of, say, L.A. Noire or Heavy Rain. And the maddeningly repetitive small talk of NPCs and poor voice acting of some characters (first mission: Kill the preacher in Whiterun) does grate after a time.
However, raising these few points does feel like nit-picking on a game that presents a beautiful, rich world that you will want to spends weeks of your life in. It plays extremely well, and offers the most refined and sophisticated RPG experience in a franchise that is known for excellence. In a word, Skyrim is smokin’.