The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim - Review
Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is a rather difficult game to review. It is one of the most immersive titles of any generation, one that has demanded over one hundred hours of my time in arguably the most competitive stretches in gaming history, but it is also an experience that is plagued by shoddy design and glitches that would earn most games a critical panning. Skyrim is able to addict and infuriate, entice and repel; it represents everything that is wrong with the "release now, fix later" development model, yet manages to emerge smelling like roses. Skyrim is a difficult game to review, but a great one all the same.
From the outset, Skyrim’s saviour is yours to mould. From a Sean Bean look-alike to a feline magician, you dictate everything from their fighting style to the shape of their eyebrows. However, no matter your cosmetic choices you will remain the Dragonborn: a prophesised slayer of dragons able to manipulate the Thuum - a deadly shout - and consume the souls of the ancient dragons that are terrorising your homeland.
The realm of Skyrim is nothing short of breath-taking. From snow-capped peaks to murky lowland swamps, it offers everything you could wish for in a distinctly Scandinavian setting. There have been more expansive video game worlds, but few have ever felt this genuine and worthy of exploration. Every part of the map is designed to serve a purpose, avoiding the typical lifelessness of automatically generated terrain that is featured in many other open world RPGs.
Although it is tempting to rely solely on fast travel, a useful mechanic that whisks you from one discovered landmark to another, it’s worth taking the time to make the journey in full, either on foot or horseback, so that you may bask in the beauty and detail of a world that is begging to be explored. These road trips bring new characters, locations and extra missions that would have otherwise gone undiscovered. Skyrim will always reward an intrepid explorer, and to deny your wander lust is to deny Skyrim its strongest suit.
How you spend your time Skyrimming is entirely up to you, as Bethesda rarely ties you to the main quest-line. You are free to follow the direction of your choosing, be it that of a peaceful herbalist, spending your days foraging in the hills, or a serial killer skulking in city backstreets, indulging yourself in young maidens and wealthy merchants. You could spend all your time collecting books, or even focus your efforts onto hurling cheese at unsuspecting Elk. No matter the direction you choose, and the opportunities are endless, the effect on the main narrative is negligible. Whether you are a bloodthirsty murderer or a cheese slinging freak, you are left with the same story, one that is entertaining enough to prevent you from ditching it entirely, yet not so engaging that you'll be in any hurry to return.
The real meat of Skyrim is to be found in its extracurricular activities. City streets are teeming with mission giving NPC’s, inns act as information hubs for intrepid sell swords and it feels as if every villager has a task that they are just bursting to share. Side missions cover a spectrum of activities, from spelunking and grave robbing to quelling rebellions and aiding a talkative dog. The Dark Brotherhood assassination missions are the pick of the bunch, featuring a mix of interesting characters and scenarios that keep you eager to push forward through a lengthy, optional tale.
Unfortunately, it’s not all regicide and mental jesters, as other optional missions highlight issues that begin to grate after extended play. Incessant load screens, at least on the PS3 version, will soon have you rejecting quests that require repeated movement from one building to another, through multiple door-opening load screens. Not since the original Resident Evil have doors had such a profoundly negative affect on the flow of a game. Often you’ll be left wondering why your next target couldn't be located somewhere in the same building, as opposed to two doors and two load screens down the road. Such strange mission design leads to some mini quests that offer more loading screens than action.
Combat is rather unrefined, though certainly enjoyable - a case of flailing your arms in the right direction and hoping for the best. Sometimes you find your target, other times you end up picking a fight with masonry or, even worse, killing one of your allies. Fortunately, levelling up is a far more nuanced affair, with a huge range of abilities on offer to help shape your combat experience. You might study one of any number of schools of magic, concentrate on ranged attacks or invest everything in your melee capabilities, though most likely you’ll opt for a bit of everything. On top of this, you may pour experience into other less violent but no less valuable traits, such as speech-craft and pickpocketing.
Skyrim is not a particularly challenging game, though the option to ramp up the difficulty is ever present. Dragons are a constant threat, liable to swoop in at any time and scatter the locals, and there is a real sense of excitement the first couple of times you are harried by these huge creatures. However, once you have reached a respectable level and fashioned capable armour, then the dragons become little more than an occasional nuisance, no more deserving of your attention than the two irate pagans that have been eyeing you up since Riften.
Once you tire of adventuring, or have become overburdened with loot, you will find numerous towns ready and waiting, each kitted out with its own legends and distinct culture. Here you will engage in all sorts of entrepreneurial activities such as turning ore into valuable armour and hard earned ingredients into handy elixirs. It is entirely possible to lose tens of hours honing your blacksmithing skills or bouncing from one merchant to the next, hawking your latest collection of loot. Then it’s off to your homestead where, if you are anything like me, you may peruse row upon row of books and sift through all manner of treasures stowed away, too valuable to discard and too curious to off load for coin.
Aside from the load screens that worsen the longer you play, Skyrim is plagued by a number of issues that turn what could have been an era defining game into simply a great one. Playing on the PlayStation 3 (the platform that has had the worst of it) can at times be excruciating, as once your save file creeps above a certain size - around 10MB for me - you will come to notice lag and performance issues that will do their best to ruin the experience.
Some of Skyrim's foibles are rather harmless, entertaining even, and quite forgivable. Breakdancing corpses and dead wedding guests never hurt anyone, and companions who suddenly lose all their clothing or a salesman who attempts to sell you leeks after you have already cut their throat (and stolen their leeks), will make even the most hardened Dragonborn smile. What are less amusing are key NPC's that get stuck in walls, missing items and broken quests that every player will come across at some point. Issues such as these are being fixed with new patches, a quick fix that today's developers are becoming increasingly reliant upon. What happened to only releasing a game once it’s ready?
As disappointing as these issues may be, and it’s important that we do hold studios like Bethesda to account, they have to be seen in context. In a game where you can drop a single arrow on a city pavement, only to return thirty hours later to find it still sat there, it’s not surprising that dragons will occasionally take to flying backwards. Should we be disappointed by such faults? Of course, but if you dwell too much on these shortcomings then you are selling the Skyrim experience well short.
Bethesda has built the most memorable of worlds, and in Skyrim they have filled it with the kind of activities that are difficult for any RPG fan to resist. This is a game to lose yourself in, where an hour is never enough and every road will lead you somewhere new and worthwhile.