Become the Dragonborn – A Review of “Skyrim”
Every so often, a video game series has a Milestone. For Halo, it was Reach. For Resident Evil, it was RE4. For Zelda, it looks like it may be Skyward Sword. I have to quickly specify that “Milestone” doesn’t just mean “really good” here; a Milestone Game is one that fixes everything that was broken about a series; Reach, for example did away with (AT LONG LAST) manually animated characters, bringing in (THANK GOD) motion capturing so that cutscenes finally didn’t look ridiculous. It also (and more importantly) added abilities that should’ve been in the series from the very beginning and gave us a much more mature plot without constant fist bumps. With Zelda, Skyward Sword seems to finally change tons of gameplay elements that grew stale (just as RE4 did for Resident Evil).
The point: Skyrim is a Milestone Game for the Elder Scrolls series. Is it absolutely perfect in every way? No—there are flaws. However, is it so, so damn good that (I am not kidding) ANYONE can pick it up and play it? Yes. Unless you don’t like the fantasy genre, sandbox games, dragons, exploration, and wonder, you should really, really enjoy this game.
Much Has Changed, Much Has Stayed the Same
Skyrim takes everything you’ve loved (or hated [or have yet to experience]) about the series and streamlines it so incredibly well that it’s probably going to make returning fans cry and new players vomit on themselves in awe. For you ES veterans out there, everything from leveling up to dungeons, from the GUI (gamer user interface [or HUD]) to interactions with NPC’s is faster, cleaner, and more awesome; here are a few things I thought worth elaborating on:
The graphics are significantly more awesome than Oblivion’s, of course. They’re that kind of Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater / Resident Evil 4 awesome though; you will see inconsistencies because this game, like Snake Eater and RE4 is really pushing the hardware (and that always immediately makes up for the one weird looking bush out of a hundred [at least to me]).
Dungeons are shorter and way more varied (in graphics and gameplay) than previews left us to believe. There are still the hours long ones Oblivion favored, but in most cases, expect veering off your road to check out a cave to be a blissfully trim (but still awesome) affair.
Leveling up is split into two questions (one being “Health, Magicka, or Stamina?”, the other being “Which perk in this epic mass of perk constellations do you want?” [which isn't exactly faster but is way cooler and more engaging]).
There are new skills that are also streamlined and awesome, like Smithing, which is so much more fun and addicting than Armorer that it’s insane (although the word “armorer” was more engaging than that skill was in Oblivion).
The Creation Engine doesn’t lock you onto NPC’s faces when you speak to them, making interactions with characters more fluid and realisitc. At first, you think, “Cool!” but you don’t understand the applications this update can be put to. In short, it makes the experience way, way more engrossing.
And the GUI (Gamer User Interface) looks it was designed by a barbarian who wears suits all day and chases his mead with cognac. And on top of that, it has countless shortcuts to make sure you can, for example, always read a book you’re looking at or not lose track of the countless mini-quests that sandbox games have previously left completely to your memory.
Perhaps the best way to understand is to consider the difference between sixty, 2-3 hour long Oblivion Gates and the moving, unpredictable dragons that replace them as the game’s main threat.
What does all of this really mean for someone who’s never played an Elder Scrolls game before? About 90% of the kinks are gone. It’s time to stop missing out.
Especially because all of these technical changes don’t detract from the world’s charm at all. Towns are less expansive just like dungeons, but just like those dungeons, towns have benefited from more condensed creativity; to be sure, there are still filler characters who don’t say much to you, but each one of them benefits from character design that would’ve been spent on 20 NPC’s in Oblivion. The result? You actually feel like you’re talking to real people, not just the same 6 archetypes over and over again. And because this couples with awesome writing and the same level of cultural detail that the Elder Scrolls series has always had, Skyrim becomes the most engrossing interactive fantasy experience out there. I mean, it’s you versus dragons; how much more fantasy does it get? I will go out on a limb, as a fantasy writer, and say that if you fancy yourself a world-builder, you need to play this game. Seriously, you’ll cap at Level 90 for World-Building if you don’t.
Fortify Health 20 Points for 300 secs on Self
Damage Fatigue 300 Points for 20 secs on Self
That doesn’t mean that the game is perfect though. I’m sure you’ve already heard about the issues PS3 players have been having, but that doesn’t mean the 360 version is void of glitches. Are the majority of them worth talking about? No, because they’re tiny. But here’s what you can expect to actually annoy you and here are some changes to the series that didn’t quite work:
GUIssues — Although pretty and helpful, the experimental GUI has some issues, particularly with storing, taking, and equipping items. While the former will just take some getting used to, alternations between pressing “A” to “Equip” or “LT/RT” to “Equip” will get just as confusing as the alternations between “X” to “Give/Store” and “X” to “Take All”. All of this makes storing equipment in your own house particularly messy; if you’re anything like me, you’ll grow to hate this after a long night of gaming when you tiredly store something in a chest at home by accidentally hitting “X” to “Store”, only to find it in the chest, highlight it again, hit “X” (for “Take All”) off reflex instead of “A” (for “Take” now) and find your inventory full of 300 pounds of loot that you now have to sort through all over again. Considering how well crafted the rest of the GUI is, you’re likely to forgive, but not forget—even when you get the hang of it.
What will you always remember though and never, ever forgive? The way the game never responds the first time you hit “A”. I thought it was just me until I asked Chaosrayne and he confirmed that yes, pressing “A” twice is almost always essential for interacting with creatures and navigating menus. Whether it’s Bethesda attempting to piss us off and get us to mash buttons like true sons of Skyrim is up for debate, but man is it working!
Alchemy? More like Lamechemy — To boot, although the magic system has been altered to make each school a unique facet of gameplay, Alchemy takes a major hit; to make potions, we’re asked to blindly combine ingredients for rewards that are sadly disappointing. Sure, experimenting will reveal the abilities of your ingredients, but after a bit of experimentation, your inventory will be full of 20 different potions that only really do 5 different things. Why? Because apparently only variations on the same basic handful of potions / poisons (Restore / Damage Health, Restore / Damage Magicka, Fortify / Weaken Resistance to Magicka and Elements) made it to Skyrim. There are definitely other effects, but they’re few and far between in an unrewarding magic system that just doesn’t compliment the game’s motif of pro-stabby-time-and-mead barbarism. Especially (for this former Alchemy aficionado) when you can’t even name the potions you make anymore. The alternative? Enchanting, which, oddly enough, still does let you name items to your heart’s content.
1% of the Skills Have 99% of the Awesome Perks — Whether or not the magic system’s change is a major snafu depends on you, but the priorities are clearly skewed in other areas too—namely, the game’s perks system; while Archery perks offer players the chance to, for example, zoom in and slow down time simultaneously for a sure shot, Alteration perks will pretty much only lower the cost of / strengthen the affect of the school’s spells. The end result is Bethesda unintentionally scripting your gameplay choices with positive reinforcement, but there are still so many choices that it’s not likely to kill the experience. Especially when you realize how hard Bethesda wants to support your choices for character growth; gone are the days of picking your class (before knowing how its skills worked) and sticking to it or you’re screwed. With skills like Smithing and Cooking filling the Enchanting and Alchemy holes on the warrior side of gameplay, you’re probably not going to feel left hanging no matter what kind of character you create.
Despite the flaws, there’s no doubt that Skyrim is the masterpiece of the Elder Scrolls series; any fan could tell you that Bethesda always makes sure the next installment of ES is always the best one. However, this one takes the series a step further by making it accessible for everyone; if you’ve thought of trying ES before but shied away because of your friend’s stories about spending hours in the sewers beneath the Imperial City, hopping the entire time to level up their jumping skill, you can rest assured that there’s none of that here. If you happen to like Fallout but also like swords and dragons, Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim will not disappoint. And if you love epic masterpieces of gaming… Well, welcome to Skyrim, brother.