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Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Review

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Developer: Bethesda Publisher: Bethesda
Release Date: November 11, 2011 Available On: PC, PS3 and Xbox 360

For nearly two decades, the Elder Scrolls series has enthralled players with dauntingly expansive virtual worlds rooted deeply in fantasy lore and endless quest opportunities. When linearity became the RPG norm in the 1990s, Elder Scrolls games overwhelmed players with more locations and quests than most could ever hope to discover or complete. With every stride in gaming technology each entry grew more complex, taking players to new, multi-faceted provinces throughout the continent of Tamriel – the overarching setting of Elder Scrolls universe. While other Western RPGs have helped popularize the open-ended, choice-driven experience, none do it in nearly the boundless fashion that Elder Scrolls games have been known for. With the exception of Bethesda’s own Fallout 3, Elder Scrolls’ sense of freedom remains unparalleled in the console realm.

Six years ago, Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion brought the series’ brand of freedom to the current generation. It strove for a greater sense of immersion with high definition visuals and dynamic non-playable characters (NPCs) that adhere to their own unique schedules. Oblivion also pushed for easier accessibility with a reworked (albeit simple) combat system, streamlined quest tracking and the ability to fast-travel to any previously-visited location. Unfortunately, it also had some faults, such as a lack of diversity in its dungeon, architecture and environment designs and overzealous enemy level-scaling that punished players as they gained experience levels by littering the world with disproportionately more difficult enemies. Regardless, Oblivion would remain one of the most tremendously engaging sandbox RPGs for most of this generation.

And Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is better in every possible way.

Two centuries after the events of Oblivion, the series’ fifth major entry brings players to the frigid northern province of Skyrim: homeland to the hardy and perpetually warring race of Nords. Following a brief character creation segment you are abruptly thrust into Skyrim’s harsh climates — weather-wise, political-wise and otherwise. A civil war is brewing between those who believe the Nords of Skyrim owe their allegiance to the Empire of Tamriel and those who believe the Empire threatens every tradition the Nords hold sacred. You begin the game as a mysterious prisoner caught in the crux of the conflict but things grow more complicated with the arrival of the fabled dragons who seem quite intent on destroying all civilization – one fiery breath at a time.

After an exciting opening sequence, Skyrim leaves you at your first major crossroads. You can choose to investigate the impending dragon crisis amidst a nation in conflict: kicking off the game’s main storyline — or you can do something else. And considering the seemingly infinite number of things that “something else” encompasses in the world of Skyrim, you can expect to be there for the long haul if you hope to do any significant amount of it.

Skyrim’s diversions are endless. You may explore Skyrim’s vast and topographically varied regions, ranging from icy, jagged peaks to gently-sloped plains. You may join one (or several) of Skyrim’s guilds and factions, each with their own involved plotlines and quests. You may opt to let distraction be your compass and pursue quests given by any NPCs or loot any dungeons you randomly stumble upon. You could spend over a hundred hours doing all of these things and still barely make a dent in Skyrim’s total assortment of offerings. Skyrim is a deeply engaging RPG and it will continue to be so as hours turn into days, days turn into weeks and girlfriends turn into ex-girlfriends.

Skyrim’s gameplay is fundamentally similar to Oblivion’s in that players traverse its vast landscape primarily on foot (horses and fast-travel are also options) and are free to swap between first and third person perspectives at will. Most will prefer the first-person view, at least during combat, where attacks have a noticeable feeling of weight behind them. Skyrim improves this formula by letting players dual-wield any combination of weapons, magic and shields by mapping them to each of the trigger buttons with ease.

Another key gameplay addition, Shouts, are supplemental magic spells that can be learned and upgraded as you explore certain dungeons throughout Skyrim. Each Shout includes properties such as freezing enemies solid, summoning lightning storms to strike multiple foes or, erm, clearing fog. While some Shouts are more useful than others in normal combat situations, they can be a welcome addition to your repertoire of mayhem.

Arguably the game’s biggest contributions are the dragon battles which you will encounter fairly frequently during your time in Skyrim. Generally more intense than most other foes, dragon skirmishes offer a mix of ranged and close combat opportunities. Upon discovering you, dragons will often circle above and conduct swoop attacks while occasionally landing nearby for a more concentrated melee assault. Sense of accomplishment aside, winning these battles can be very gratifying as you absorb the soul of each dragon that falls slain to your blade (or axe, or bow or magic). Further, dragon souls are your currency to unlock any Shouts you may have learned.

Compared to Oblivion’s skewed difficulty scaling, Skyrim strikes a great balance by keeping battles challenging enough to be engaging without ever feeling unfair. Players must accept the fact that they will be initially underpowered against some enemies but can look forward to more rewarding encounters as they gain levels. Skyrim’s level progression is in itself rewarding since players can focus on improving whatever skills they use frequently without having to adhere to a predefined set of specialty skills to advance levels (another of Oblivion’s gaffes). With each level gained, players may also choose new perks which grant handy new abilities to enhance the skills they’ve grown proficient in.

Despite the breadth of its world, Skyrim is a visually stunning game. Its uniquely gorgeous regions are enriched with rampantly flowing rivers, golden-hued autumnal forests, glistening tundra and other arresting sights. Further inspection reveals leaping salmon, falling leaves, swirling powder and numerous other intricacies that show off the game’s excellent attention to detail. Skyrim’s cities are equally impressive: ranging from a ridge-top capitol arched above a bay to a fortress-like settlement built entirely into a mountainside.

The inhabitants of Skyrim add immensely to its atmospheric setting. They’re well-animated and expressive (read: not outrageously hideous) and interact with each other in amusing and often unexpected ways. Repeating bits of dialogue aside, NPCs are backed by solid voicework and help instill a convincing sense that Skyrim is home to a complex and politically-volatile society.

Even more impressive than Skyrim’s superb visuals and voicework is its fantastically composed soundtrack. During your time in Skyrim, its brilliant string, woodwind and choral arrangements will be your most enduring companions. As you trek through serene evergreen forests and fight dragons atop harsh alpine summits, the eclectic score adapts wonderfully to just about every situation. Ambient background effects, such as chirping birds and rustling wind, help to further immerse you into Skyrim’s infinitely gripping world.

It’s just too bad the game couldn’t be perfect.

As can be expected from any game of this scale, Skyrim has its share of glitches which range in extremity. They can be amusing (enemies falling through floors); or annoying (map markers that don’t update; useful NPCs that are randomly found dead); or maddening (occasional freezes and crashes; getting stuck in walls). On one hand, it may be unreasonable to expect a single testing team to catch everything in a title that no two people will ever play the same way. It’s also likely that many of these bugs will be resolved with future updates. But for now, players should be prepared to face these imperfections – which stand out all the more amidst an otherwise perfectly enjoyable experience.

Ultimately, Skyrim is a game of accomplishments. Between the immensity of its vistas and its endless array of tales to tell and quests to conquer, Skyrim’s sheer value lies in stern defiance of the fleeting interactive set-pieces that games have largely become. Its visual and aural achievements grossly outweigh any of its technical blemishes while its numerous gameplay enhancements propel it to the forefront of its highly revered lineage.

And yet, to miss it may prove as wise as it is foolish. Perhaps to a fault, Skyrim is an enormously immersive experience that demands a legitimately concerning amount of time and involvement from its players to explore adequately – and that may well be its greatest accomplishment of all. As gamers reflect on this generation’s high points in the coming years, the towering peaks of Skyrim will undoubtedly rest among its highest.

Graphics: 9.5
Sound: 9.5
Gameplay: 9
Creativity: 9
Replay Value/Game Length: 10
Final: 9.4 out of 10
Written by Brian Vines Write a User Review