The Elder Scrolls series makes a return! Bethesda promises that it has made improvements on the series since Oblivion.
Ask anyone who played ESIV: Oblivion, and you would be hard pressed to find any dissent. It had something for every RPG gamer: deep character customization, a variety of interesting weapons, and dozens of intriguing side quests and NPCs.
Five years later, Bethesda is trying to top themselves all over again. Oblivion just got done celebrating its fifth anniversary and it doesn’t look a day older than two. You can still pick up a copy of it and play it to death. With that said, how in the world could Bethesda Softworks take the series even further? Oblivion was pretty damn good. Well, they topped themselves. So without further delay, let’s talk about what makes The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim potentially the game of the year.
The story is incredibly intricate and deep in comparison to Oblivion. You are an imperial prisoner, who was mistakenly rounded up for execution. Before the empire can follow through with your beheading, a gigantic dragon destroys their town, leaving you and a future friend as some of the last survivors. You venture off with him to go find a starting point in your saved life, only to find out that you are a part of special lineage. I won’t tell you what, but it’s the catalyst for the entire game.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is a story of its own, as in it’s of no relation to Oblivion. The opening sequence of the game really defines two very important things:
1. The story is incredibly intricate and deep in comparison to Oblivion
2. This world is much bigger.
Those two things were completely vital in besting one of the best games of all time. To be very blunt about it, Skyrim nailed those things.
The story unfolds slowly, subtly buildings up to a powerful reveal. Like the best stories, it has you hooked from the start, and keeps you engaged, adding more and more intrigue as it goes along. As you go from town to town doing task after task, you will learn little bits of the story, but it's not until many hours later that you hit a *major* turning point. Once that point, which I'll not spoil for you, is revealed, then you will find your adventure full of action at every step. You will encounter many daunting dragons while simultaneously contending with an ongoing civil war. Suffice it to say that multiple great plots are intertwined and unfolded to the player in spectacular fashion. What makes Skyrim’s story more intriguing than Oblivion’s is that you feel like everything you do in the main story is purposeful. Unlike Oblivion, which at times felt like it was dragging on after you continually have to shut down Oblivion gates (sorry, it did), Skyrim feels like you’re going to make or break the land. Of course, players are not literally pressed to move forward. You are free to explore Skyrim at your leisure, but the story's pace is as fast as you want to be. Some may prefer to play through the main quest first, then revisit the game a second or third time with a new character, or to explore additional side quests. Not to take anything away from Oblivion, but Skyrim reaches a new level of depth and replay value that this series had not previously seen. I won’t go on with what you should expect, but you won’t want to put it down for a second. Thinking about it now makes me want to play it, but regretfully I have a first-person shooter to take care of first (SIGH, feel bad for the reviewer who gets free games).
Now, let’s get to the second ‘important thing’, the world. Story and characters are vital, but the game world is almost a character all on its own. The land has a history and it's firmly established with every visual that you see around you. The visual attention to detail is noticeable immediately, and stirring. It's a technical feat, and a visual treat, and all on a single 360 disc. Endless landscapes that seem to go on forever with random, dynamic weather (snow storm, anyone?) make up the vast land of Skyrim. Explore hills and mountains, valleys, rivers, swamps, beautifully rendered waterfalls, and dilapidated abandoned cities of yesteryear. Climb these mountains and look off into the distance; you can clearly make out other parts of the land in rich detail. If you're looking for castle from a mountaintop then more than likely you'll find it, if it is close enough. Much like the story in Skyrim, the world has depth to it and it feels like it expands forever. It's about four times the size of Oblivion, and that's just the parts that I've visited these last two weeks. I'm still discovering new things about the land and new little bits of history from the places I run into.
The combination of both story and huge tracks of land equal out to one of the biggest draws of the game. It almost guarantees that you’ll be enthralled with the experience. And that’s before you get involved with battles, quests and living within the world.
Before we get into the technicalities of the gameplay, let’s keep talking about the visuals. Creation is good
Bethesda created the Creation Engine specifically for Skyrim. The Creation Engine allows for dynamic weather effects, better textures that add weight to objects (such as trees, rocks, etc), and it allows for distant details to pop, rather than to look flat. You can see this in great abundance as you travel the land of Skyrim. You can tell through no great effort that things have been improved in regards to lighting, textures and shadows. Even the fluid motion of the people around you is notably better than Oblivion. When you see the clouds moving through a snowy night, or lights fluctuating in the sky, you'll want to going to sit back and take it in, it's that impressive. Expect to be 'wowed' early and often. With that said, this game engine comparison isn’t to be applied to Frostbite 2 or the IW 5.0 engines, rather I’m solely comparing it to Oblivion’s Gamebryo engine. It would be enormously unfair to compare an FPS to an action RPG, as they truly reside in two different visual worlds.
Anyway, expect to be blown away with how Skyrim looks and feels as you explore it. It’s quite amazing.
Let’s get down to the nitty-gritty with this game. You’ll find a lot of improvements in previous frustrations that Oblivion’s gameplay lent. The first thing we should discuss is the use of stamina.
Let's shift gears to specifics. Stamina has a more prominent role in Skyrim than it did in Oblivion. Stamina now allows you to sprint, swing viciously, and achieve solid power attacks on enemies. One of the cooler improvements of stamina is a V.A.T.-like blow to your enemies. While not going through the same process of choosing a limb in Fallout 3, you get that 'result' moment that happens in Fallout when you successfully land a hard blow. For example, the first group of bandits I happened upon in Skyrim came at me, two at a time. I took down one bandit by simply slashing back and forth with the crappy sword I picked up in a river town. The second bandit charged at me and I surprised them with a stamina driven power attack. The camera pulled back to show both of us and I drove my sword into the belly of the bandit in slow motion V.A.T. style. I remember shouting a bit of ‘Oh! Shit!’ as the scene was positively satisfying to watch. Stamina attacks vary depending on the weapon you have equipped. And there's nothing quite as cool as hopping on a dragon and bashing its head in with a large fiery hammer in a slow motion sequence.
(I had to apologize to my daughters who were around at the time – I still feel bad)
It’s a good use of stamina and one that comes in a variety of different attacks depending on the weapon. There’s nothing quite as thrilling as hopping on a dragon and bashing its head in with a large fiery hammer in a slow motion sequence; very satisfying stuff.
Stamina has a more prominent role in Skyrim than it did in Oblivion. Don’t get me wrong, stamina was still important in Oblivion, but it’s especially vital this time around.
The leveling system has dramatically improved, and yet simplified. Once you level up, you have the choice to either increase your stamina, magic, or life. The natural progression of difficulty in the game will force you to start upgrading magic and stamina first. After leveling up one of the three main elements of your character, you'll be taken to a screen full of constellations. Each constellation represents a certain attribute for your character. The attributes include heavy armor, stealth, and speech. Each attribute is upgraded inside the constellation, and each star represents a higher level of the attribute in question. Each higher attribute can only be upgraded if you've reached a particular level of that particular attribute (confused yet?). For example, if I have used my restoration magic enough times, my character will systematically upgrade and improve in that area. Once I reach a certain level in restoration, and I level up, I can then further improve the restoration constellation until I gain a 'mastery' in it. It's leaps and bounds better than the Bioware-like leveling system included in Oblivion. More importantly, it's easier to follow and manage.
One concern that kept coming up again over the last few months is how Skyrim would handle monsters and character level balance. The monsters in Oblivion seemed to level up with the character, which created an unfair scale. Well, like many things with Skyrim when compared to Oblivion, things changed. Bethesda created a world where the player always has a chance and, more importantly, can be dominant when faced with the same enemy they fought when they were a lower level. If you had a tough time fighting a bear at level 5, then you shouldn't have any issues with it when you reach level 10. The bear will not level with the character; it will simply stay the same bear. With that said, the higher up enemies don't get easier when you're a lower level. The first hour of the game had me die by the hands of a giant four times until I realized I probably couldn't take that creature out. You must understand that the leveling system for both players and enemies is kept honest, so strategy is vital in this game. I'll give you two examples of this; the first example stays with the giant: After a few deaths I had to find a way to get around this fellow. He was fast, brutish and could take me out with a few swings of his hammer. Instead of going head-to-head with him, I found a broken down tower. The tower had a small entrance. Getting it? No? Okay, I angered the giant enough to have him follow me and ran straight for the tower. The big lug couldn't get into the tower's entrance, but I had a straight shot at him the entire time. After a while, I brought the giant down, improved my arrow leveling (used a bow the entire time) and got XP from defeating a monster bigger than me. It worked out, but was kept honest.
One random character is fine, but what about a boss? Well, the game is so incredibly flexible about what you can and can't do, that I happened my way into a tower that I shouldn't have been in. If there is an example of non-linear gameplay then this is it. It was an elven tower that contained mechanical robots (yep, you read that right). The robots were easy, as were the few enemies inside, but the last 'thing' to go up against was this elven robot that was just absolutely brutal. After about two deaths I had to go giant on this sucker and use strategy to win. I propped myself up on some stairs and kept the arrows pumping. At the end, I leveled up my bow ability, got a massive amount of XP in the process (leveled nearly twice ) and I got a couple of items that were well out of my level league. Life was quite beautiful after that. Life was quite beautiful after that.
These are only two examples of how honest the leveling is in Skyrim. It allows you to do more than you should, but doesn't screw you in the process. It's incredibly balanced and it makes the world very real. What’s on the menu? Mmmm… good stuff
The menu system in Skyrim is dramatically different than Oblivion. Given how much time you are going to spend in the menu, that's significant. Oblivion mimicked pages in a book that you could flip back and forth between weapons, potions, etc. Again, it was very Bioware in this respect. Skyrim took the menus and went a different direction. The menus in Skyrim remind me more of a Blu-ray menu, even down to the navigation. You push B on the 360 remote to access the menu, which is broken up into ITEMS, MAP, MAGIC, and SKILLS. The menu then pops up on the left side of the screen where you can choose weapons, apparel, potions, keys, books, food, ingredients and miscellaneous items. You need only press over on the thumbstick to bring up the menu and then you can choose specific items. What's particularly cool about this is how you apply soul gems to weapons. If you have a magic weapon in your arsenal to recharge it you simply select it and press the RB button to bring up the soul gem. It's so damn easy, and I'm grateful for that. It seems like a very simple method of doing things, and some people might have loved the Oblivion menu system (I'm not a fan), but it's a vast improvement in my eyes when it comes to quick navigation. Now, having said that, I didn't like the quest menu. The quest menu, which can be accessed by pushing the START button, is a pain in the butt to navigate. You have to choose your quest then basically choose the chapter of your quest. Once chosen, you can press X on the controller to easily find out where the quest is. Sounds pretty simple, right? Well, after achieving level 25 in the game I'm still having issues with choosing and locating one quest. Sometimes by accident I will choose multiple quests and the map will lead me to somewhere I don't need to go. Once I realize I'm in the wrong place, and realize I have multiple quests selected, I curse and deselect the undesired quest. It's much easier to navigate than Oblivion's quest menu, but it's still not perfect. Anyway, in the grand scheme of things the improvement of the entire menu system in Skyrim is an essential portion of the enjoyment in the game. You may not believe me now, but you'll understand when you play it.
How long is it? It’s okay, you can get personal
I played this game for nearly two weeks, 5-6 hours at a time. I'm not done with it, and I'm not bored of it. You will get 100+ hours out of Skyrim easy, and there's plenty of DLC on the way, too. The shear size of the world, the amount of side quests and the main quest, will equal out to enough game time to warrant this purchase twice over. Getting back to what I said earlier, the side quests that you run into are not meaningless time fillers. It would have been easy for Bethesda to dial it in and just put piddly-sh*t quests in to extend the time, but they didn't. You'll go do quests because you'll be infatuated with the world that they created, that you are immersed in.
All of this equals out to high replay value. You'll want to go back and redo the entire game with a different race, or maybe treat people differently along the way to see different results of your actions. I have been a good guy through out my adventure, but I plan on being a bandit the next go around. You'll find new ways to play and new things you might not have discovered the first time around. There's so many different ways to play, the fun will just keep flowing well after you're done with the main quest. Bethesda did a bang up job with Oblivion, and they have repeated and improved the job with Skyrim.