The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is simultaneously breathtaking and incredibly irritating to play. Both sides of this highly opinionated sentence will be elaborated in great detail throughout this ever-evolving review. However, to begin I would like to first examine the context in which this game exists. Bethesda studios developed and produced this product for a variety of consoles. It comes as the 5th installment in the Elder Scrolls video game series, following the 2006 release of the critically acclaimed game Oblivion. As a major RPG lover myself, and one who spent countless hours in the world of Cyrodil; on all systems mind you (PS3, Xbox 360, and PC), I must say that I quickly bought into the hype surrounding Skyrim, to the extent that I purchased two copies as a pre-order package (one for myself on PS3, and one for my sister on Xbox 360). The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion was not a perfect game by any stretch of the imagination, but for it’s time it far surpasses most other role playing game experiences that I have ever had. I was completely enamored by the game play (even despite it’s flaws). But, as I am now older with much experience with a variety of Bethesda’s video games (from Morrowind and Oblivion in the Elder Scrolls series, to their more modern, post-apocalyptic scenarios depicted in Fallout 3). With this experience, my critique of Skyrim is much more mature. Not to mention, throwing over $120 dollars into two copies of the game is enough to justify any criticisms I have towards this game.
That mild back-story aside, I will begin by addressing what Bethesda did right in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. In most reviews of Skyrim you will undoubtedly hear about how this game “immerses” you into its world. This is undeniable in many aspects, and is one of the single most important aspects of any good role playing game. But in all seriousness, this should be one of the most basic elements that constructs a role-playing world. Fortunately, in most aspects Skyrim does a great job at immersing the player into its world as the Dragonborn (and just about anything else you wish to be, whether it be a member of the Dark Brotherhood, the Thieves Guild, the Companions, a Bard, among many other things). While this is not perfect in all respects, overall I have been compelled to sink many hours into this game.
The actual physical world that you will traverse is beautiful as well. I stood in awe the first few nights that I spent in Skyrim, gazing up at a distant planet or the moon (whichever it is) in the well-lit sky. At times and in certain locations, you could even see the Skyrim equivalent of the aura borealis. With that in mind, this is seriously one of the most picturesque video games currently available on the market; and has even led to what could almost be viewed as a “mini-game” for many people that involves gamers taking screenshots of the beautiful environments almost like photographers in this world. If you are playing this game in HD (and you should be!), the effect is even better. On the whole, the landscape is very well done and detailed to a superb degree considering just how much space exists in this game. Character models, as well as item and weapon models, are not as well done; however they still look great to your average viewer.
One strange aspect of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim that stands out to me, relative to other video games, is it’s sheer scope. Skyrim is the equivalent of the Lord of the Rings books and films combined, and in fact better represents what I wish a Lord of the Rings video game would be like (unlike the lackluster release War in the North which came out around the same time as Skyrim). The sound design and music in particular cause this game to stand out in my mind. With an original score (which can even be purchased in physical CD and MP3 form) composed by Jeremy Soule and a plethora of voice actors (or so Bethesda’s director Todd Howard would have us believe) allows the world to come to life in ways most RPG’s are unable to match.
The dialogue itself is fairly well done, though not nearly as good as Bethesda or most reviewers would have you believe. More often than not it is average or passable, with occasional moments of really good voice acting and discussions. Of particular note are discussions you have with a dragon named Paarthurnax. Still, the dialogue leaves much to be desired more often than not. A major irritating point that I will further elaborate on later is the fact that NPC’s will repeat the same line over and over, sometimes even 20 times as you are walking by them in a minute. Perhaps that is an exaggeration (or is it?), but the point is there. It is bad dialogue and game construction for your character to trigger the voices of general NPC’s every single time you pass remotely close to them.
Holistically, the gameplay in Skyrim is very enjoyable; though again not a perfect thing. In fact, the gameplay has stayed relatively similar to what you experience in the previous video game Oblivion. This is, of course, for better and for worse. To some degree one cannot expect to many drastic changes, but I feel more could have been done to make the game feel much more balanced. The fighting gameplay, for example, while it has been enhanced in many ways (and is ultimately better than Oblivion), is honestly not surpassing by much. The incorporation of final kill cams, using your shield as a blunt weapon, better archery, and duel wielding spells and weapons definitely make this experience much more visceral; but it ultimately handles in a very similar fashion. After a while, the gameplay becomes stale and you begin performing the same actions over and over. While perk trees (similar to those in Fallout 3) allow you to make some advances to your play style, such as allowing you to upgrade your archery to a point that allows you to zoom in and slow down time, these perks are often insignificant and only turn out to overpower you. This leads me to my next point of discussion (and yes, this is where I begin divulging on the bad aspects of this game):
The leveling system is downright terrible for most players. I have played through the game around three times at this point, and in collecting opinions and thoughts from friends and around the web; it has really come to my attention that scaling in this game feels extremely artificial, and makes the game overwhelmingly difficult after certain point points. During one playthrough, I decided to focus my energy on my Smithing perk tree (primarily so I could get some cool dragon armor and Daedric armor); only to find out that I was majorly overpowered by the time I hit level 100 in Smithing at around level ~25 or so in the game. It would seem that the enemies you fight are scaled to your base level, rather than a level that would make sense to compare with such as your “offensive” skills (one-handed, two-handed, destruction magic, and archery in particular). With most of these at their base levels in this particular playthrough, I felt like I was at a major disadvantage. As such, leveling is just plain bad in this game. While most people could overlook this, it is important to note that your playthrough is probably going to hit this problem.
Of course, the leveling of enemies and companion NPC’s is something that tends to happen in the “background,” so perhaps someone who is RPG-minded (like myself) could chalk these ridiculous issues up to a “supernatural occurrence” happening in the game. So, more importantly, lets look at the aspects of the game that would better be described as “physiological phenomena,” in that: you will see these things, note them, and find that they continue to piss you off as time goes on. I have a rather hefty list myself, so if you are a major Bethesda fan boy (or just love this game with your whole heart like it is a hot woman), I would suggest shielding your eyes (preferably with a ward spell).
First, I should discuss the rather small things that I find annoying; but ultimately not too devastating to the gaming experience. These include the way you interact with most NPC’s and shopkeepers. The dialogue options are very linear, and most times do not make sense at all. For example, when meeting with the Jarl of Whiterun for the first time; I had all of about 5 sentenced to say to him. For such an important person, and I myself having witnessed a very important event (that occurs in the very beginning of the game); one would think my character would have more to say before becoming the Jarl’s bitch and running errands like a teenager. This issue becomes worse as you see it happen with just about everyone you encounter. Buying and selling items with shopkeepers feels extremely cheap, and more often than not the items you have to sell are worth so much more then the money these characters have on hand. Of course, not all dialogue occurs directly between you and someone else. More often than not, you will just have random people talking to you about their (often important) lives. Very few people are unimportant in this game, actually. Even the homeless beggars have an apparent significant amount of value, because there are some that you can not even kill. This leads to yet another gameplay flaw that is bearable, but not enjoyable:
When you decide to play as a morally corrupt murderer, you can never fulfill your satisfaction in killing a whole group of people. Despite the pre-release claims that there are “very few unkillable characters,” I have managed to find several in each city; and often encounter at least one in most camps and strongholds around Skyrim. This destroys the immersion into my “evil” character. On top of this, your moral choices have no consequence. Killing and stealing, even hundreds of people and animals; and thousands of Septims worth of items, leads at best to a slap on the wrist. So you have to go to prison for a night? At best, this is an inconvenience. At worst, going to prison is a good thing where you are rewarded with opportunities to escape (which, I must admit, is pretty fun to do) and new storylines (particularly in a prison in Markarth).
Your actual character also manages to share two traits simultaneously at most point in the game: being of significant importance to this world, while also being treated like shit by most people. As the Dragonborn, leader of the Dark Brotherhood (the Assassin’s guild if you are unfamiliar), the leader of the Thieves guild, a member of the Companions, and so forth simultaneously; one would think I would be feared and respected. This is a major gameplay and immersion problem as far as I am concerned, because you are role-playing a very significant and insignificant character at the same time. You are supposedly the person, who has fulfilled a prophecy to destroy the evil dragon overlord Alduin, but kids still mock you, storekeepers yell at you and call the guards if you accidentally steal an apple, and homeless people still need to be paid to give you rumors.
Of course, these aspects lend to the humor of The Elder Scrolls video games; which can be enjoyable. Take for example the witty and unbearable piece of dialogue spoken by guards all over Skyrim: “I used to be an adventurer like you, until I took an arrow to the knee.” This is pure comedy gold, and makes Skyrim a better experience in some respects. But still, should this be a serious RPG experience; or just a game I am meant to play, find some good enjoyment in, then laugh at as I reflect on what I am actually doing in the game?
In all seriousness, after hundreds of hours you may not have seen every corner of this game, gone into every cave, or done every question (or even started the main one if you are that hardcore). But, actually finishing this game starts to feel like running a marathon. You are doing the same things over and over. More often than not, at most, you are fighting 2-3 enemies at a time (because any more would break the system). The environments begin to feel stale, though they were once breathtaking and captivating. The caves, which were hailed as “handcrafted” and “all unique” by Bethesda’s expert PR person Todd Howard are almost all mediocre at best. There are a few genuinely entertaining and unique ones, but these are few and far between. Textures are repeated constantly throughout this world, and ironically most notably in the caves. The mini-games you encounter, while adding to the games in many ways, also feel ultimately cheap and as if they could have provided much more to the gamer. For example, mining ore and smelting are as simple as clicking a button. It takes no “work” to actually do work in this game.
Speaking of working, on the Playstation 3 version of Skyrim; the game is plagued with bugs, lag, glitches, and even game freezes and crashes that makes this entire experience dehibilitating. Do gamers (and moreover consumers) deserve to buy products that do not work?
Even after multiple patches, Skyrim still continues to be dysfunctional for many players. While the PS3 sees these problems the worst, they do frequently arise on the Xbox 360 and PC versions as well. It is on this point alone that I have found Skyrim to be a very repulsive gaming experience. With all of it’s good attributes, the experience only seems to last up until a ~8-10mb sized save file (which comes quickly in this ever evolving world). I have played through the game several times, each of which I was forced to start anew because problems were so bad. As a critic of video games, I will not let these problems go; and dismiss them as mild nuisances when people are putting their hard earned money and time into this world. Undoubtedly, with PC mods and future patches I am sure that some of these problems will be resolved; and perhaps it will be at that time that I can put some of these negative qualities behind. Until then, it is important to maintain this note: Bethesda has released a buggy and unpolished video game, which may or may not work for you to its full extent.
Still, after all this I have only begun to touch the surface on what Skyrim represents. It would do this game no real justice to simply sum it up in a few words and slap a score on it, whether to amuse the hyped up crowd of gamers, or to impress advertisers and retailers trying to make some sales. If you want a cheap overview of what this game has in store for you as a gamer, then be sure to go to some other website. However, as is the nature of this website, these reviews and opinions evolve with time. While I have said much that is both good and bad with respect to The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, I again have only touched the surface.
If you have any thoughts on Skyrim or this particular review, be sure to let me know in the comments below!