Friday, December 30, 2011

Review: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

It’s surprisingly difficult to review a game the size of Elder Scrolls: Skyrim. With a map so big that can take hours to walk from one side to the other, where does one begin? The incredible vistas? Meaty combat? Great story? I don’t know – so I’ll keep it simple. If you don’t already own this game, you should go and buy it. Skyrim is the best fantasy role-playing game I’ve ever had the pleasure to be absorbed by. While the previous title, Oblivion, was good, Skyrim is so much better in every way.

Set some 200 years after the events of Oblivion, in the chilly highlands of the province of Skyrim – home of the hardy, dangerous Nords (think Vikings and you’re almost there) - the game sets you in the fur-lined boots of a prisoner on his way to the chopping block. A few minutes later a dragon – one of the reptilian sky monsters long thought dead – turns up and rips the town a new one, and you’re cut loose in the world, with limitless freedom to explore and forge your legend.
After that, what happens is basically up to the gamer. You could become arch-mage or an honoured warrior, you could craft powerful poisons or just go sit in a bar and drink – the choice is yours. I personally favoured becoming a dragon-slaying mercenary prepared to do whatever the job – provided the coin was good. Oh, and save the world along the way.

A game of massive scope, Skyrim is rollercoaster adventure from start to finish. Literally everywhere you go in the snowy, frost-bound world there are quests awaiting you, be them simple go fetch one-liners or much deeper adventures. While the main plotline is lengthy and detailed (much more so than Oblivion’s rushed rubbish), the real meat of the game is found out in the wastes. Pretty soon you’ll find yourself doing everything from assassinations to clearing mines of giant spiders. At one point I even helped a mystical talking dog find his master. It’s that varied.

To keep you alive in the frozen beauty of Skyrim, the developers have provided a dizzying array of weapons, armour, magic powers and enchantments, keeping you hunting for the next big thing constantly.

The game also makes use of an entirely new branch of magic abilities, ‘shouts’. These powerful spells are learned as the game goes on, as your character isn’t just some border-hopping peasant but is in fact of the ‘Dohvakhin’ – the Dragonborn. How convenient... As one of these mystical people, imbued with the power to speak in the tongue of the dragon - and use their powers, the player can learn a variety of magical attacks and stat boosters from scraps of the ancient dragon language left in the world. Of course, in order to use these powers, you need a very special type of battery – dragons’ souls, and slaying these monsters is much more difficult than you would expect, with each encounter, both intended and random, proving a difficult fight.

The delightful part of exploring Skyrim’s frozen wastes is the sheer variety of both quests and random events, which instill the game with a wonderful variety. You could be making your way to a castle only to discover a cave full of necromancers summoning a demon, or get randomly attacked by a dragon while swimming across a lake – the game keeps you on your toes.
With a huge variety of scenery, from the high tips of ice-laced mountains to the deep green of meadows to the stygian darkness of the game’s many and varied caves (all of which have their own distinct feel – no copy-a-caves here), Skyrim looks amazing – from a distance.

While the sweeping vistas are brilliant to look at as you slide down a mountainside, get up close and the graphics can appear blocky and ugly, which is a little offputting. Gameplay bugs are also in attendance, featuring randomly spawning creatures, being talked to through walls and a werewolf armed with a battleaxe in its flesh-rending claws. My personal favourite was the housewife who yanked a broom out of her robes and charged a dragon with it – it morphed into a dagger after two swipes, then she got bitten in half...

The companions you meet on your path are also problematic at times, and while they can take a lot of aggro for the gamer, they’re often standing in the way, get lost easily or step into your arrows as you fire them. That said, it’s useful to have a pack horse along to carry all your loot, of which Skyrim is packed full.

But if you overlook these faults – which is very easy to do – Skyrim has a hell of a lot on offer for RPG fans old and new. Longtime Elder Scrolls devotees may be put off by some of the time-saving steps Bethesda took with Skyrim, such as keeping enchanting and alchemy to designated stations (found in all good wizards’ workshops). Learning new skills is also easier than before, and it’s possible to be a gifted archer, mage and two-handed axe-master at the same time (as well as a werewolf, which is really cool...).

Thankfully, Oblivion’s clunky menu interface has also had a tune-up. Gone are the complicated lists and in are constellation-based skill trees which have you looking to the skies when you level up. Similarly, equipping weapons, armour and magical abilities are also neater, and the addition of a ‘favourites’ list makes selecting that spell you really need while fending off frost trolls far easier.

There are some odd faults with the menu selection, however, which see the D-pad controls not responding when you enter the menus, leading to you having to go back to the game and back into the menu. This is infuriating in the middle of a fight and desperately needs a patch.
The combat on a whole, however, is by far the best yet in any Elder Scrolls game. The controls are sharp, the action intense and swinging a sword at an enemy actually feels right. The developers have also introduced Fallout-style slow motion kills, both for enemies and for players (I got eaten by a dragon - not pretty), which are rare enough to enjoy when they trigger.

All in all, Skyrim - despite its minor flaws - is as enchanting an adventure as I’ve ever had the pleasure to play. Its depth and breadth are second to none, and set in a beautifully realised, varied world which manages to inspire with every hour played (of which there are bound to be many). From the moment the game begins, you know you’re in for something special.

*Reviewed on Xbox 360

1 comments:

Funny. All Reviews of Skyrim so far seem to be written by Guys who never played a RPG before in their entire Life. For me, a gamer who liked RPGs since the C64, Skyrim is a very lame attempt at keeping the gamer interested. 0815-Quest-System, Fallout-Engine (yawn), and repetitive like hell, blown up to the max..
But somehow Bethesda managed to fool everyone into thinking "as long as there is elder scrolls written all over it we will get away with freaking everything".
so for me, a long time rpg fan, skyrim was one of THE disappointments of 2011.