Name: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Genre: Open-world RPG
Platforms: PC (reviewed), PS3, Xbox 360
Price: £37.91 on Xbox 360 from Amazon
£37.91 on PS3 from Amazon
£29.98 on PC from Amazon
Sweeping vistas, dank dungeons and deathly dragons, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim has finally arrived. An open, sprawling role-player, has it turned out to be the game of the year that all the hype suggested it would? Read on to find out.
Though a city dweller, I pride myself on my strong sense of direction. Pop me down wherever you like, I’ll still manage to get on the well beaten path and find my way around. While playing Bethesda Softworks’ latest role-playing fantasy epic, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, I couldn’t help but wander off into the wilderness, happily losing myself in the living, breathing world the developers have painstakingly crafted. An enthralling, engrossing land, Skyrim’s is the most fully-realised world that gaming has ever seen.
It’s not the vast size of the world that is so overwhelmingly in deserve of praise, but that Bethesda Softworks have filled it with so much interesting content and so many compelling activities to carry out, letting you tackle them in virtually any order you choose. Skyrim offers freedom unrivalled by any other game out there. Whether battling demons in the dark heart of a dungeon, fishing for salmon, furnishing a Hobbit-like house, having a banter and a beer with the locals in the village tavern, running from a towering giant or scaling a snowy mountain peak in search of treasure, exciting adventure and meaningful discovery lies at every turn.
Building on the solid foundations laid by The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (and to a lesser extent Fallout 3), Skyrim refines the open-world design that Bethesda have been pioneering for many years to near perfection. For starters, there’s a far more intriguing main story than has previously featured in the series; dragons, after having been missing for generations, have returned and are terrorising the titular region of Skyrim’s settlements. As a “Dragonborn” with the giant lizard’s blood coursing through your veins, and against the backdrop of civil war and rebellion, it’s up to you to discover why these attacks are taking place, and put a stop to them. With a more flexible engine that allows the legions of non-playable characters to deliver their lines in a far more fluid fashion than before, and with a larger number of well-directed set-pieces, the story comes to life in a way the series has never managed before, backed by an orchestral score that rivals Hollywood’s finest in terms of grandeur.
As a result, the main quest line is a suitably epic adventure, far more worthy of your attention than in previous Bethesda games. But as ever with Elder Scrolls titles, true adventure lies in exploration. Venture out in any direction in the game and you’ll soon be offered a multitude of well-written optional side-quests, tempting ruins to explore and baddies to battle. Each location, be it a puzzle-filled, waterlogged ancient tomb or leaf-littered autumnal path, are a joy to explore, full of revealing lore and lived-in details that help build a feeling not only of a cohesive world, but one with an ancient history that existed long before you ever stepped foot in it. To see all the content on offer would take literally weeks of solid play, while the main quest line, guild quests (including the sneaky Thieves Guild, brawling Companions and menacing Dark Brotherhood) and randomly issued assignments alone could easily throw up 100+ plus hours worth of gameplay.
Combat will make up a major part of many of your adventures. It’s much improved over the often-floaty feeling attacks that characterised Oblivion’s battles. Using swords, axes, shields, maces, bows and projectile magic spells from your hands, there are again many options available to tackle Skyrim’s imaginative foes. Skyrim introduces a new dual-wielding system, letting you assign any combination of magic, weapons and shields (apart from gear that requires two hands to wield) to each hand. It adds greater flexibility to the way you approach fights, letting you simultaneously strike with a sword and use healing magic for instance, or (once you’ve unlocked the corresponding ability later on in the game) power up mega spells by equipping the same power in both hands. Even in the lesser-used 3rd person view, movement and striking during combat feels more visceral. Add in the random finishing-kill animations that play out after some battles conclude, and it’s a much more satisfying system overall.
The greatest battles come when faced with the much-hyped dragons. These replace the Oblivion gates of the last title in the series and can be seen as the game’s major boss battles. Sometimes scripted, sometimes randomly encountered, they’re often superb. Huge beasts, they swirl in the sky around you, performing bombing runs before crashing to the ground for close-quarters blows. They’re a fair challenge, and not over used, with the dragons themselves excellently realised. It’s great to see local villagers often run to your aid during these moments, adding a greater sense of desperation and danger to proceedings. Later in the game these battles lose their edge slightly as you become more powerful, and familiarity makes dragon attack patterns less terrifying, but they remain memorable high-points nonetheless.
Once you’ve defeated your first dragon you gain the ability to use Shouts. Working much like spells, but using none of your regenerating magicka reserves, they’re hidden in ancient scrolls and runes around the world. Again, finding all the new Shouts will push you to explore the furthest reaches of the map, which you’ll be gagging to do anyway. Shouts in themselves are great fun to use, with the ability to fire off shock-waves, slow time and summon beasts three of the best of the twenty-four in the game.
Like Oblivion, Skyrim uses a largely-passive levelling system that sees your character improve each separate skill through their use alone, instead of grinding and skill point distribution. Though each of the game’s 10 playable races have their own initial pros and cons, you quickly shape the skills of your character to suit your play style. The more you use healing magic, for instance, the greater your ability to quickly restore health will become. Once you’ve upgraded a few skills a couple of times, your character as a whole levels up, letting you add a passive “Perk” skill from a tree that can do everything from add a constant benefit to one-handed strikes to add a zoomed-view to bow and arrow attacks. Though the Perk menu looks lovely, presented like a constellation in the sky, it can be a real pain to navigate, making selecting a new bonus an unfortunately frustrating experience. Alongside with a handful of bugs that have slipped through the QA net (inevitable in a game this big) it’s one of the few annoyances in an otherwise-faultless effort.
Crafting systems are also refined, and play nicely into the game’s new job system which allows you to make a little money on the side by wood-chopping, tanning animal skins and forging gear before selling your wares on to traders. Along your travels you’ll collect all kinds of alchemical ingredients for potion making and raw materials for crafting, some of which (like firewood) can be gathered from jobs like woodcutting, or fused together using a blacksmith’s tools. At first your limited knowledge of alchemy will mean only a few of each ingredient’s properties will be known to you, making for weaker concoctions, but the more you preserve and seek out rare ingredients, the more potent your creations become. Likewise, high quality materials needed for strong weapons and armour, and the skill to craft them, will initially elude you, but become available through further exploration and crafting practice. All in, both systems are far more rewarding than the efforts that preceded them in previous games.
Having played the game on all three platforms (Xbox 360, PS3 and PC), the game looks inevitably at its best on a high-spec PC. Console versions manage a superb job of making the game run at a consistent frame-rate considering the lengthy draw distances and busy landscapes, but cant match a top-notch PC for detail or ambient effects. The scale of the game will push all but the most powerful of PC gaming rigs to their upper limits once every graphical flourish is turned up on, but there are a few simple tweaks that can be made to squeeze the very best out of the game. Read our guide to doing so by clicking here. Imaginative and superbly executed, Skyrim is a visual treat whichever system you choose to play it on.
Massive in scope, yet minutely detailed, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is a game to savour. Whether you’re cleaving away at dragons, hunting deer or simply taking in the breathtaking scenery, you’ll never be at a loss for interesting things to do. Bolstered by a stirring score, story and excellent art direction, even a handful of notable bugs can’t remove you from the immersive experience on offer here. In a year that’s spoiled RPG fans rotten with The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings and Dark Souls, that Skyrim manages to feel so superior to both is a revelation. Prepare to lose many hours of your life exploring the misty peaks of this stunning adventure.