The new definition of epic
Role-playing games just ain’t what they used to be. The days of pulling together a party, trudging through turn-based combat systems, and suffering through 10-minute cutscenes in one’s quest to save the universe are definitely on the way out, and while some may lament the loss of this tried-and-true style of swords, sorcery, and storytelling, there’s no doubt that Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls series has done a lot to change the way we see the genre, focusing on open-world technology, real-time combat, and an impressive emphasis on freedom of choice.
I, for one, applauded this departure incessantly upon digging into their first current-gen effort, Oblivion, and despite some rough edges that kept it from being that ideal blend of Grand Theft Auto, Deus Ex, and D&D, the game made its mark on the industry with a resounding roar and left a lasting imprint—one that will undoubtedly inspire developers for years to come.
So, in light of that massive step forward, one had to wonder how Bethesda Game Studios could realistically hope to up the ante for The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. And their answer to this complicated question? Scrap everything but the soul of the storied series and rewrite the book on RPGs yet again.
Luckily for them, this risky move panned out in spades. Not to say that this isn’t an Elder Scrolls game (it definitely is), and you won’t catch me claiming that this isn’t a proper sequel to Oblivion (again, there’s no denying that one), but to call Skyrim anything short of the sneakiest reboot in industry history does it a disservice, because almost every aspect of the game’s been drastically improved, and it really shows.
For starters, the engine itself offers a much more appealing world to explore, and the art team did a bang-up job fleshing out the various environments, offering a host of novel places to explore. What’s more, the animation system also sees a significant boost, creating a sense of liveliness previously unseen in the world of Nirn. I will say that I often chuckled at how liberally Bethesda borrowed from the likes of J. R. R. Tolkien, Gary Gygax, and George R. R. Martin in the process, but hey, until someone steps up and licenses one of the above for a comparable title of the same ilk, I’ll take my dragons, mammoths, and dark elves on loan without too much grumbling—especially in a world this rich. And, as was the case in Oblivion, the sense of scale is remarkable, with tons of nooks and crannies ripe for exploration and a healthy dose of winter-themed environmental effects to set the tone. This is my favorite chunk of the Elder Scrolls universe to date, and Bethesda’s use of exploration as a mechanic is a real accomplishment.
But they didn’t just make things pretty. There’s a good bit of functional revision worth noting here, too. The interface has been completely redone as well, and while I wish they would’ve adopted the idea of “loadouts” used in most popular FPS titles on the market, the new system’s fast, clean, and a definite improvement over Oblivion. Swapping out weapons, leveraging single-use items, and casting spells are alll much less cumbersome, and in general, the decisions made here make tackling the game’s considerable depth much less annoying than versions past.
Another area that gets a big boost? The quest system. The system itself still has its quirks—such as occasional soft crashes and the map’s refusal to point you in the right direction on rare occasion—but the quests themselves are much richer than Oblivion’s offerings. You’ve still got a ton of “fetch-quest onions” to unravel here, but the AI scripting’s vastly improved on average, and Bethesda put a larger emphasis on making each side story a special spectacle in its own right, making the game’s 200-plus hours of content a real joy to experience.
Combat receives a healthy dose of revision as well, with the addition of dual-wielding, finishing moves, and improved animation that all add up to a more satisfying system that plays nice with the game’s new upgrade engine—built off the bones of Fallout 3’s popular “perks” trees. Gone is the emphasis on attributes—in its place, a wide-open forest of options that allow you to tweak to your heart’s content on your way to building the deadliest Dragonborn imaginable. I did miss the ability to focus on elements like speed and carrying capacity, but overall, I was really impressed with how these systems played into the game’s open nature, and the time you can sink into becoming a better blacksmith, merchant, or potion-pusher will continue to eat away at my free time long after the game’s shipped.
Dungeons, dwarven relics, and dragon souls aside, this sense of variety, in and of itself, is probably Skyrim’s biggest triumph. At its core, this game’s more than just about a solid plot or bringing a tabletop RPG to life on your flatscreen—it’s about tackling things your way. Not unlike Eidos Montreal’s aforementioned cyberpunk epic or the emergent gameplay of ArKane’s upcoming stealth-action shooter Dishonored, Skyrim places a premium on countless solutions to each quest, and if you’re willing to put in the time, you’ll be able to achieve a passable level of mastery in each.
It’s pretty damn empowering, honestly—and the sort of thing that few games even try to tackle. And though I still think it’s a necessary evil due to the game’s lack of multiplayer (which would instantly place a larger importance on picking a primary skill tree), it’s hard to argue with the idea that you can be a thieving, sword-swinging magical badass who knows no equal. The stunts I pulled during the game’s lengthy campaign were downright awesome, and they offered me countless opportunities to cackle with glee as I laid waste to random evildoers in the land of Tamriel.
Ultimately, The Elder Scrolls V affords you a rare opportunity to become a medieval-style superhero (or villain) on a level that other games only hint at, and it does so with gusto. And yeah, while a game of this magnitude would be hard-pressed to avoid the occasional glitch, there’s no denying the fact that Skyrim’s the real deal, raising the bar yet again in a genre in desperate need of a revival. There’s just so much to see and do here, and whether you’re attempting to unravel the mystery of your heritage as a shout-slanging Dragonborn or getting to the bottom of a drunken bender that serves as a hilarious cautionary tale for braggadocious drinkers everywhere, you’ll get sucked in to Skyrim—and it’ll blow you away. Dive in, already.
SUMMARY: One of the most immersive, amusing, engaging games this generation—and a worthy addition to any gaming library.
- THE GOOD: 200-plus hours of intense, open-ended RPG gaming
- THE BAD: Limited carrying capacities, no co-op, repetitive canned merchant dialogue
- THE UGLY: The amount of time I’ll continue to burn on this one
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is available on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC. Primary version reviewed was on the Xbox 360.