Thursday, January 5, 2012

REVIEW: Skyrim

I've reviewed Skyrim twice and written two editorials about it, and still keep on playing, logging something like 90 hours or so in total. That may seem like a ridiculous commitment for a game, but remember that a long-running TV show (like Lost, the last thing I followed with any enthusiasm) runs about 100 hours, and Skyrim is every bit as rich and varied as Lost. 

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is vast. It is epic. It achieves moments of grandeur unlike anything I have encountered in three decades of roleplaying, both conventional and electronic. Yes, it is flawed in places, but these are the flaws of a system that occasionally breaks down under the immense strain created by pushing current technology to its very limits.

Players familiar with its immediate predecessors from Bethesda Softworks—The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and Fallout 3—will see much that is familiar, on the surface. This is a still an open-world, action-oriented RPG, heavy on dialog and filled with quests, places to go and things to kill.

But everything is simply better this time around. The potential hinted at in Oblivion and developed further in Fallout 3 is now fully manifested in Skyrim. Bethesda has created a dynamic, highly-developed fantasy world populated with an immensely diverse selection of characters and spread across the most fully realized landscape ever seen in an electronic game.

There is much to love in Skyrim, but the biggest star of the show isn’t the graphics, the story, the character, or even the gameplay, but Skyrim itself. This world just cries out for exploration, from its sunlit valleys to its frozen mountain peeks, from the depths of monster-haunted dungeons to the frozen plains where peaceful giants (deadly if provoked) act as shepherds for wooly mammoths. Farms, homesteads, fortresses, and ancient ruins dot the landscape, beckoning travelers. The different cities each have a unique character and even a socioeconomic profile, from grand imperial seats to squalid, poverty-blighted areas where thieves and cutthroats lurk in shadows. Never has a fantasy world been so thoroughly and appealingly realized in a video or computer game, not even World of Warcraft.

Within this world, the NPCs (non-player characters) go about their lives in a more dynamic way that we’ve ever seen, farming, trading, crafting, stealing, drinking, brawling, flirting, and just living out their lives. It’s hard to tell just how dynamic the economic model really is, but there’s no question that the fortunes of people and locations fluctuate with time and the actions of the player. Driving off a threat helps a town or city return to normal, and people’s actions and moods change accordingly.

Skyrim is not a true sequel to Oblivion, but a new series set in the same world. The action picks up 200 years after the end of Oblivion. The Empire has begun to recede, and with the assassination of the High King of the Skyrim region, the area is slowly descending into chaos and civil war. The natives of Skyrim, known as the Nords, are divided into various camps: those who want to remain in the Empire, those who want out, those who want to manipulate either side for power, and those who just want to keep their heads down and avoid trouble.

You begin the game by choosing a race and appearance for your character. This doesn’t effect the plotline of the game, but it does effect interactions with individual characters. The world of Skyrim is highly race-conscious, with xenophobia leading to inevitable conflict. Whatever race you choose, you start the game as a prisoner on his way to execution, suspected of being a member of the rebel group known as the Stormcloaks. The execution is interrupted by the shocking reappearance of dragons, which had long since vanished from the land.

From there, you learn that you are yourself “Dragonborn,” meaning you are able to speak the “language” of dragons. Known as “shouts,” this dragon language enables you to harness incredible power, but also marks you as someone destined to play a major role in the fate of Skyrim. Soon, you find yourself meeting a wide array of people and factions, each with their own needs and agendas. People appear offering opportunities for adventure, treasure, and a chance to uncover the mystery of the return of the dragons. Some are just folks who need your help, and you can assist them or not depending upon your desires.

Factions are groups that provide certain benefits and potentially align you with certain forces. You can join the Empire or rebellion, become an assassin or thief, rise to be Archmage of the magical college, or follow any number of other paths to carve out a unique career in the world of Skyrim. Impress the local leader, and you can even buy a home and decorate it.

The Dragonborn mystery is really the central plotline of Skyrim, but you can pick it up or drop as you please. The difficulty level scales along with your skill level, so no matter what order you tackle missions, the strength of the enemies will match your character’s abilities. No matter how you approach the Dragonborn plot, dragons will appear throughout the world. These dragon battles are large and somewhat challenging, but not so difficult as to become frustrating. Plus, at the end of each battle, you absorb the soul of the defeated dragon, thus adding more opportunities to expand your selection of shouts.

The combat mechanics are quite simple but provide for ample flexibility. Each of your character’s hands is bound to a button and can be assigned a weapon, shield, or spell. Favorite spells and gear can be called up while the game pauses, allowing you to cast a spell, switch to weapon and shield, and then switch back to a spell, with each hand acting independently. The spells themselves come in a wide array of categories, such as healing, summoning, attacks, traps, and more. The game also features an incredibly robust crafting element that allows you to make, improve, and sell all manner of items from armor to potions.

A character earns points towards his next level as he performs tasks and defeats foes, and with each new level comes one “perk” point. These perks are a complex matrix of enhancements to various skills, adding bonuses and new abilities in order to gradually customize your character around your style of play. Thus, you can spend points to enhance anything from haggling and lockpicking to shield bashing, sword skills, and spell power. As these points are spent, each character develops a unique set of abilities.

The flaws in Skyrim are intermittent and mostly technical. The game crashes occasionally on all platforms, and there are graphical glitches aplenty. Frankly, for a game of this size and complexity, I expected far more of these problems than I found, and the ones I did encounter rarely had a huge impact on the overall experience. I’ve seen far worse in far less ambitious games.

And this is an ambitious game, perhaps moreso than any other open world game yet created. It is a masterpiece of worldbuilding and epic storytelling, rich in content and featuring an immense amount of gameplay. It’s impossible to say how long it would take to see and do everything in the game, but Bethesda has claimed 300 hours of potential gameplay. It’s easy to believe. This is a monster of a game, and a masterpiece of interactive art.


Alf said...

Excellent review, Tom! Very well-written and evocative. You've made me want to dive back in for more (I did a brief Redbox tour of the game). I miss the surreal landscapes of Morrowind so Skyrim (like Oblivion) felt gorgeous but so....literal. (That being said, I did love seeing those fish jumping up the waterfalls.) But it sounds like the story has much more to it than I had thought. Looks like I will need to try it again.

Thomas L. McDonald said...

Thanks Alf! There's a lot of meat on the bone with Skyrim, and the scenery is just so beautiful. It's a very different beast than the earlier TES games, but worth the time.

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