was the game that pushed me over the edge on getting an Xbox 360 back in 2006. I poured well over a hundred hours in to that game, earned every non-DLC achievement, balked at horse armor, and had many an adventure exploring that grand world. Since then we've seen the Elder Scrolls franchise work its way in to a few other Bethesda titles, influencing the Fallout games of 2008 and 2010. And now here we are, six years later and a proper Elder Scrolls game has arrived. Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim has descended on to the gaming landscape, and in what can only be considered the most epic outing yet for the franchise, Skyrim will send gamers on a quest that at times has some of the most awe-inspiring moments in gaming, and then shows a rough exterior that has the cynic in me up in arms. Do I think Skyrim is a great game? Absolutely! A fun game? Without a doubt! But it also suffers from a number of technical flaws that a critical eye simply cannot ignore.
Your adventure begins two hundred years after the events of Oblivion. As a prisoner on the back of a cart, bound for Helgen, a city near the border between Skyrim and Cyrodiil, you've been picked up with members of the Stormcloak and their leader Ulfric Stormcloak who is to stand trial for the murder of the High-King of Skyrim. Your own trial is cut short once a dragon decides it's high time to come in and trash the party, and from there a hasty escape from Helgen sends you off on your epic quest to battle Alduin, the dragon who is said to bring about the end of the world. This game is definitely one you'll be spending a lot of time with, even with the recent reveal that testers can get through the game in about two and a half hours. I've spent over forty hours with the game, and I honestly thought I was at the final boss before I wrapped up this review. Turns out that was not the case, and I hadn't even managed to find time to hit up the Dark Brotherhood or Thieves Guild to see what they had to offer a devious Dragonborn who was up to no good.
There's plenty of lore and story to explore in this game, if it's not dragons that are out to destroy Skyrim, there's the elves who wish to seize control of the region from the Nords, who are involved in their own civil war. Then there are the Blades, a lost group who fought the dragons the last time they threatened all of Skyrim who will aide you as you learn the truth behind your Dragonborn roots and what your future holds. There's an incredible wealth of reading to do in this game too with all the books littered throughout the game. You could spends days reading up on the history of Skyrim and still only scratch the surface of the history of the Nords and the land that they inhabit. It's obvious that the story of Skyrim has been a labor of love and it shows in the writing and the presentation. Events that happen throughout Skyrim feel organic as they occur. Nothing beats riding up on a small town and seeing a dragon fly overhead, ready to torch the town, or having a random thief come up to you asking you to hold on to his sword (no that isn't a euphemism) and reclaiming it later. Even when you let the game idle, Alduin will come around and keep an eye on you. The world of Skyrim and it's characters that inhabit it also feel just right. The white northern tundra gives off that viking vibe and the Nord race live and exist in it to the point of almost being cliché, with each town lorded over by a Jarl, who sits upon his throne like a great viking king.
If there were a game that could make the case that we're due for a new generation of hardware, it would probably have to be Skyrim. While it looks absolutely fantastic thanks to the new Creation engine, it also suffers from a lot of limitations that are imposed by the hardware. The world itself is quite impressive to behold at times, with amazing effects like wisps of snow coming off of ridges thanks to strong winds, or the aurora borealis appearing in the night sky when there's no cloud cover. Little effects like watching rain fall on a body of water never fails to impress. Even watching snow fall, or walking through a whiteout, they all give you a moment where you could (and should) just stop and stare, the first time I stopped at a river and watched elk run along the bank and fish fight to swim upstream, I was at a loss for words. But then there are times where you see the level of detail field rear its ugly head when you're walking around on a clear day. You'll see things off in the distance change from lower resolution textures and then pop in to their higher res version, and hillsides will have a lower population of trees until you move in closer, these were problems that were present in Oblivion and it's a bit disappointing to see them happening so many years later. Some of the textures throughout the world don't look that great, and you get a taste of that rather early in the game as you escape Helgen, but don't let this initial look turn you off, because once you are out in the world, the game really shines, but again I think this game makes the case that we could use a new generation of hardware to really showcase how good this game could look.
The character models fare a lot better though and they have a rough quality about them that shows in their faces and clothing that fits the setting perfectly. The improvements to the Argonian and Khajiit races look fantastic and the facial expressions of all races have been re-tooled and feel a lot less stiff and stilted this time around. The creature models are also a lot more imposing, with the Falmer and trolls being terrifying to look at. Best of all, those dragons, they are frightening and massive beasts, and incredibly well detailed to boot. It's gut check time when you see one nearby. Are you ready for this fight? Probably not, but that's not going to stop you is it? Of course not, you need those dragon souls to unlock more Thu'ums, or shouts that only the Dragonborn can wield.
You'll be spending a lot of time roaming the hillsides trying to find these words of power and they offer a variety of abilities, from rendering you temporarily invulnerable to allowing for short range bursts of speed, they help in combat and in exploring and are well worth the effort to seek out, which really is half the fun. There are hundreds of locations to explore throughout Skyrim, and while most of them are really just random farms there are a number of caves and fortresses to go spelunking in. If you're really not up for exploring and require a bit more direction, you can stop off at any bar or inn to pick up information on the litany of jobs and side-quests that you can do, and these range from fetch quests to helping people clear out caves, and in a stroke of genius Bethesda decided to mark caves off once they are completed, so you don't have to waste time revisiting places looking for scraps of adventure. I think the best part of all in this, is that nothing you find goes to waste any more. With new abilities like smithing and tanning you can build your own gear with all those pelts you pick up from wolves or bears. You can also mine for minerals which in turn can be used to strengthen weapons and armor, couple that with enchanting and you'll probably find that the best armor in the game is something that you build yourself.
Strangely enough, quests and jobs aren't really your main way to level up in Skyrim. Instead Bethesda has opted for a more free-form approach. Upon initially starting the game you don't even choose a class, just your race and your gender, make some modifications to your looks and hair and from there you're off. Like Oblivion you gain skill points through the repeated actions available to you, pick locks to increase your lock picking skill, sneak around and stay hidden to increase the sneak skill, you get the idea. As you level up these skills they will give you experience that will help push you in to that next level. At this point you don't actually have to level up, you can remain at level one to finish the game, but you might want to level up at least a few times to give yourself a small boost to your hit points, magic, or your stamina. Bethesda has stripped down the leveling system, making it so that each level only increases one of those stats. You are also given a perk point which can then be used to power up one of the various skills you will find under each discipline. You can increase the power of your critical strikes, or lower the cost of your magic spells. One of my personal favorites was the ability to have more than one familiar present, to help equalize some of the tougher battles where you're outnumbered.
Since you'll be exploring a lot of places where you really shouldn't be poking around, you'll be doing a lot of fighting. Combat remains largely unchanged from Oblivion with the addition of dual-wielding weapons and magic, which gives the game a Bioshock 2 feel. It's also hilariously entertaining to send arcs of lightning and a stream of fire in one cone of death at your enemies. The enemy AI gets pretty vicious after you clear level ten, and deaths will come frequently, but the AI still has moments where it gets confused easily, particularly when you get yourself in places where the enemies cannot path to you, they turn tail and run far away, or try to get the high ground on you, but never quite find it. But when you're going toe to toe in melee combat the game is immensely satisfying, especially with the inclusion of cinematic kills that are lifted from the Fallout games, there's nothing quite like have a rough fight come to an epic finale as your mace, or axe, is brought down to deliver the killing blow.
And then there are the fights with dragons. These are almost always a challenge. One particularly harrowing battle had me ducking in and out of buildings while the dragon spewed fire at me, I'd fire off a couple of arrow shots and then hide to heal myself momentarily. The risk/reward assessment you have to make with each battle will weigh heavily on how you play the game, because they truly do offer you a big monetary reward for bringing them down, but you also wind up fighting in a wide open area in some instances. So do you risk having other enemies join in on the fight? Sometimes this actually works to your advantage as enemies will see the dragon as a bigger risk than you. I actually had one fight where I didn't even have to touch the dragon, the elves in the area brought it down for me. The people of Skyrim recognize the threat that these dragons pose and are not above ignoring you to try to take them down, which is an interesting dynamic to have in the game, of course they didn't ignore me once the larger threat had passed so it was a bit of a struggle for that bounty. I did have one unfortunate encounter where standing at the top of some stairs confused a dragon enough that he would not move and I'd be able to rain arrows upon him for an easy kill. But outside of that one instance every fight with a dragon feels like an epic encounter and is only heightened by the fantastic music.
Composer Jeremy Soule has created a memorable soundtrack that has great music that's appropriate for every moment of the game. The combat music in particular makes every battle an epic struggle for life and death, and even when you level up you're treated to a short sweeping epic chant that makes you feel like more of a bad-ass than any Call of Duty guitar riff ever could. The voice cast of the game is also really strong but has unfortunately over-used the 'viking male' and 'viking female' character voice. Honestly it just sounds like a Nordic Ezio Auditore is running around Skyrim, and now that I've put that notion in your head you probably can't un-hear it. I know I can't.
For all the negative things I had said in this review, are any of them deal breakers? No, but they are bits of polish that would really have helped push this game over the top. But as it stands Skyrim is a fantastic game, and probably one of the best of this generation. It's got an intriguing story, and you feel like you have more weight in the world of Skyrim than you ever did in Oblivion. At times it is a strikingly beautiful game, that first time I saw the aurora borealis in the sky it just clicked for me that this game was something special, and indeed it is. What Bethesda has created is not quite the revolution of the franchise that I was hoping for, but they have created a game that is immensely enjoyable. And now if you'll excuse me, my controller is vibrating and I see a dragon off in the distance.