Skyrim’s opening moves left me apathetic. I saw awkward animations, heard stilted voice acting, and weathered clumsy combat. I thought, “here we go again.” After putting tens of hours into The Elder Scrolls V, I know my initial thought wasn’t entirely wrong. Skyrim is not revolutionary and continues the Bethesda formula while making small, if positive, changes. My apathy, however, was misplaced. The introduction may be weak, but the heart of the game is not, and I gradually slid into a Skyrim coma.
For me, Skyrim tells the story of Fen the orc, torn from his mother’s womb by his ale-addled father. With maturity, he found the security of massive armor comforting, and thus came to be called Fen the Heavy despite his slight frame. He came to love all enclosed spaces, preferring even the roof of an inn to the sky. In Skyrim, where the sky seems so close, his fears of being swallowed by the vault of heaven were agonizing. In his flights from one dungeon to another, Fen quickly developed a stubborn hatred for all things above him. He spent more time snatching butterflies from the air than I care to admit. Butterflies, lightning bugs… and dragons.
Although they were more difficult to fell than insects, dragons did fall. The sudden reappearance of dragons alongside Fen the Heavy, Dragonborn of legend, could not be coincidence. Thus the main narrative unfolds. Prophecy, destiny, a draconian villain – these are the elements that relate a simple, linear story in the mode of ancient epics. Although lacking complex characters and player choice, the narrative goes well with the setting. Those seeking subplots and intrigue should look elsewhere in Skyrim, but the main quest succinctly summarizes the feel and scope of the game.
Home to the human Nords, Skyrim is a frigid region at the top of the Tamriel. From the tundra to the peaks of the Throat of the World to the glacial Sea of Ghosts, Skyrim offers sights of immense beauty. Skyrim is the greatest of the Elder Scrolls settings, shedding the generic flavor of Cyrodiil and the claustrophobia of Morrowind in favor of a coherent and unique frozen realm. Although the lore and culture are still weak points, the Nords have a distinct style at least, exhibited in government, architecture, and way of life. History books and legends may not have kept Fen’s attention, but this is the first Elder Scrolls setting that felt like a character in itself.
A sea of facial permutations, gender, race, and a name are all that stand between the player and his (or her) adventures. One must be racist, because race determines racial ability and starting skill ranks. Fen the orc, for example, started with high ranks in Heavy Armor and Two-handed Weapons, but average to low ranks in almost everything else. He also had the ability to go berserk, which improved his attack and defense for a short time. But don’t be too racist: the lack of a class system means any character can be anything. Skills improve with use a la past Elder Scrolls, which means an orc mageling and a high elf warrior are just as feasible as more stereotypical builds.
Improving skills makes them more effective and causes a character to gain levels. Beyond the usual MP/HP/stamina boost, each level grants a perk point. Accessible through the beautiful, but graceless constellation menu, perks are the real source of power. Many perks are customary, particularly for weapons. In fact, non-weapon skills such as Pickpocketing and Speechcraft offer the most original and exciting perks. Although Fen loves his heavy weapons and armor, I found myself yearning to max out every skill just to get great new abilities and bonuses. Leveling up, improving skill ranks, and choosing perks makes for addictive gameplay.
Exploration and compulsive questing contributes much to that unique species of addictiveness that only open-world RPGs lay claim to. One of the most disastrous failings of past Elder Scrolls games was the emptiness of their worlds. Cities and dungeons felt mechanical and randomly generated, and random exploration yielded next to nothing. Borrowing heavily from Fallout 3, Skyrim amends the issue with better level design and more sites of interest. Dungeons still feel repetitive after a while, however, and puzzles and traps that initially seem impressive feel overused later. Treasure acquisition has always felt off, but Skyrim finds a better balance. There’s always that treasure chest with an expert lock and nothing in it but ten septims and an empty tankard, though.
Skyrim’s questing is solid, though far from perfect. Bethesda still struggles with mundane quests and unimaginative mini-plots. Clearing caves of bandits and fetch quests are only interesting the first few times. A truly revolutionary open-world game might not have these scenarios, seen so often in RPGs. Fen also got bored with the multitude of quests that sent him off to find an object in a Nordic tomb, Skyrim’s most common dungeon type. On the contrary, some of the optional quests are more compelling than the main narrative. One of the questlines Fen found involves several fantastic surprises and one of the greatest rewards possible. I was also shocked to find that I genuinely cared about the group Fen had joined. For every creative quest, there are at least three dull ones, and The Elder Scrolls could sorely use a dose of imagination.
Character interaction has always been one of Bethesda’s primary weaknesses. As they hone their open-world skills, AI and animation get more realistic, but even in Skyrim, I never believed in the NPCs. Graphical shortcomings are one thing, but inconsistent voice acting doesn’t help either. In addition, the script feels generic and inauthentic. American English might work in post-apocalyptic D.C., but not in Skyrim. Prematurely birthed, Fen is an easily distracted dullard, but even I found my mind wandering during prolonged conversations. Sometimes, like Fen, I just wanted to coax the guts out of a troll with my axe.
Even Oblivion’s most loyal adherents readily admit to the awful faults of its combat. Thankfully, when Fen the Heavy drives a warhammer into someone’s temple, it feels like he’s hitting something. Reaction and animation still aren’t perfect, but I only occasionally found combat a chore. Two-handed, one-handed, archery, sword-and-shield, magic, and dual-wielding are all viable means of slaughter. In fact, a character can even dual-wield magic spells or mix styles: fire in one hand, sword in the other. Racial abilities and Shouts imbue combat with added complexity. Gifts of the draconic language, Shouts bestow the ability to breathe fire and knock enemies back, among other things. Power attacks of various kinds, combat perks, and alchemical additives make combat versatile and fun.
That being said, the system just can’t handle every combat situation. Luck seems to play an all-too-important role in many encounters, particularly complicated situations such as multiple-foe battles. And dragon fights. The much-touted dragon battles too often break down into obnoxious contests of luck. A Shout obtained in the main quest makes these battles less frustrating, but the controls still struggle to meet player needs. Seeing the passing shadow of a dragon should instill fear, but sometimes Fen just felt fed up. First-person combat without guns is a challenge, and Bethesda shows increasing aptitude for it, but there are still moments of frustration, dodgy controls, and capricious difficulty.
A game as complicated and large as Skyrim will always have weaknesses, blemishes, and moments of NPC idiocy, but the fifth Elder Scrolls is undoubtedly an absorbing game. I level many complaints against Skyrim, but I truly enjoy spending time in its icy clutches. A real role can be played in Skyrim, down to the mundane tasks of taking meals and sleeping, or working at the smithy for a few hours. Crafting systems allow a character to make just about any piece of equipment possible, and they’re often better than found items. Crime opens another realm of possibility, as does marriage, and there are homes for sale to be decorated and filled to the roof with thousands of that one item so aesthetically pleasing to you. Or just break out your compass and head into the wilderness, killing every butterfly in sight. The moments of simple existence in another world are what make Skyrim special.
To make that world all the more immersive, Bethesda crafted a new graphical engine based on the one used in their previous two games. Environments are pretty and imposing, and characters see a much-needed upgrade from their hideous Oblivion counterparts. Unfortunately, the 360 version has a texture loading glitch that permeates the world with incongruously ugly surfaces. I foresee an early remedy from Bethesda for this. Skyrim can’t quite compete with other games of today graphically, but seeing the night sky light up for the first time is a profound moment. Being caught in a blizzard, staring at misty mountains from afar, and greeting the sun after a storm make for equally memorable moments. Skyrim also features one of the better fantasy RPG soundtracks in recent memory. It feels appropriately cold and Nordicly heroic. I don’t remember paying heed to Jeremy Soule’s work on past Elder Scrolls games, but Skyrim’s soundtrack demands attention.
Oblivion is in my top five most overrated RPGs of all time, while Fallout 3 is one of my favorite current-gen RPGs. The Elder Scrolls V sits somewhere between the two. Indeed, Skyrim strongly resembles its predecessors at times, and the catalogue of small changes and minor additions makes it more of the same. Skyrim takes few risks. Perhaps the only risk it takes is failing to match up to its competition in individual areas. Other RPGs released this year have better stories, sharper graphics, and more visceral combat. Skyrim doesn’t really care. The latest Elder Scrolls has such confidence in the allure of its open-world structure that it shirks the need to compete. And, it largely succeeds in being better than the sum of its parts. So grab a tankard of mead, wrap yourself in a tundra beast’s hide, and stoke the meadhall’s fire. There is a long winter ahead.