Holy crap! What is this? Forged by god’s very flame!
Note: Most screenshots contained in a massive gallery because there’s something like 60 of them.
Before we even begin, let me say this at the outset: I’ve barely scratched the surface of Skyrim. It’s simply not possible for me to go over everything in this review. I can talk about core gameplay mechanics, I can make references to Morrowind, Oblivion, and Fallout 3. I can say “I’ve seen this” or “I’ve done that” for a few thousand words. But at the end of it, it’s still just a fraction of all the things I could have done, things I saw but elected not to do, or things I haven’t even seen yet. I could spend 8 hours on the game and still have no real way to describe how the game pans out. By comparison, I spent 8 hours finishing Rage. Modern Warfare 3’s single player component is said to last four hours. Four flippin’ hours! Why the hell would anyone buy that over Skyrim?
In any event, I’ve been a fan of the series since Morrowind. Lots of people believe that Oblivion went backwards from Morrowind. In some ways I agree, in others though I think the progression wasn’t so bad. People whinge about the loss of levitation and the addition of fast travel, but in the grand scheme of things I don’t think any of that matters. People also whinged about the new combat system, but Morrowind’s combat system was “Press key until win” while stabbing with a dagger that constantly misses despite visibly striking at point-blank distance. Oblivion’s levelling system however did have major flaws. Apart from the fact that it could remove the challenge from a few areas, and you never ended up too powerful for the rest of the world, it also introduced a new problem with attributes and skills whereby you could actually cripple your own progression later on depending on how you used skills. For example if you exclusively used Blade you’d be able to give your Strength attribute a nice boost when you leveled up. If you focused on a few different skills from across the spectrum, like athletics, blade, destruction and lockpicking, you’d be able to boost all those skills but by a much smaller magnitude. Do that too often and you’d cripple your character which was a problem at later levels.
In talking about Skyrim’s raw mechanics we need to keep in mind how things were with Oblivion and Morrowind, as well as Fallout 3 to a lesser extent. Skyrim is a fantastic game, let me say that from the outset, which rekindles a lot of faith in Bethesda and the series in general. A lot of Fallout 3’s world was fairly uninspired (being endless rocks, just like a real wasteland!) while Oblivion copped a bit of flak for being too classical-woodland-fantasy in style. Fair enough but I mean that was supposed to be the area they were focusing on, so I don’t think it’s a super-fair criticism. I mean Morrowind was deliberately designed to be alien, with giant mushrooms and shit. Skyrim is basically a winter wonderland, with lots of clean waterfalls and streams, woodland, and snow. It’s a beautiful setting, as any screenshot will show you. Most of it isn’t technical innovation but outstanding art direction, which is higher praise than “It looks good because it’s got fifty thousand shaders on every surface.” And there’s a LOT to do in this world, as you’ll discover.
But first let’s talk about character progression. There are only three attributes: magicka, health, and stamina. Strength, intelligence, speed… all the others are gone. Racial selection is more about skill boosts and starting powers, and skills are ultimately the more important statistics to keep an eye on. This approach does solve the levelling problem; any combination of skill upgrades will progress you level and let you boost any one of your three attributes, so it doesn’t really matter if you’ve been using weapons or restoration; the boost you apply is the same. There are also no classes in the game, custom or otherwise. This is an essential point to note because it also avoids the class issues from the previous game, where to level up meant you must use your ‘major’ skills defined by your class build. In Skyrim, advancing any skill will contribute towards levelling up. But advancing your better-trained skills will contribute more to levelling. For example, if you take Destruction from 30 to 31, it’ll provide a bigger experience boost than taking Lockpicking from 10 to 11. In this way you effectively create your own class through gameplay and can rest assured that no matter what skill you’re using, you’re still gaining experience. It encourages specialisation but doesn’t penalise you for being a bit more multiskilled.
Pretty much all the skills return, except for Blade, Blunt, Hand to Hand, Mysticism, Athletics/Scrobatics, Mercantile, and Armourer. Blade and Blunt have been scrapped, and in their place are skills for single and two-handed weapons. This means you can use a one handed axe or sword and get the same benefit. There’s no distinction between the two kinds of weapons. I think this is pretty good because nobody used Blunt except for warhammers, and it makes a bit more sense in terms of weapon usage and logical progression. Armourer has become Smithing, used to create and upgrade all manner of weapons and armour. Hand to hand is gone entirely though you can still fight with fists, but it’s used specifically to knock people out in tavern brawls. Mysticism’s spells have for the most part been shifted into the other areas. Athletics and acrobatics are gone entirely, while mercantile is essentially part of speech now. When you level up, you can select one perk for any of your skills. Each possible park is displayed in the Skills window, and parks have specific requirements before you can purchase them. It further encourages specialisation.
Combat has also changed slightly. Dual wielding is now possible, which includes dual weapons (except for bows, obviously). You can hold two daggers for instance, or a sword and a spell, or two spells, or the classic sword-and-board using whatever shield you like. Dual wielding (even including a sword and a spell) precludes you from blocking, so staying mobile is important. Also stamina management seems to play a larger part in the game this time; you tire more easily, or at least that’s how it seems to me. Magic has been changed a bit too. The three readily obtainable default spells aren’t just fireball, shock and healing. Rather, holding down the mouse button causes them to remain active continually. So instead of firing out a single fireball, you shoot out a jet of flames, or keep healing yourself so long as the button is held. Magic and weapons can be assigned to either the right or left hand, with your right hand being bound to LMB, and the left hand to LMB. Think dominant/offhand and it makes more sense. It’s a pretty slick system and it sure does make magic a hell of a lot more useful, and it makes combat a lot more frantic. Using potions and things remains the same, except for scrolls. Scrolls now require you to stand in place and charge by holding down LMB. When you release it, the spell fires. They’re all powerful spells, much more than a simple one-use version of a regular spell.
NPCs and monsters in the game world have also received a lovely upgrade. We’ll start with the monsters first. In Oblivion, pretty much anything set to hate you would attack you if you were within a 10 meter radius of them. They’d drop what they were doing and make a beeline for you. In Skyrim, this isn’t always the case. Lots of animals, and some monsters and NPCs will frequently engage in a standoff, roaring or glaring at you to warn you away. If you back off, they’ll ignore you again. Persist and they’ll attack. You might accidentally approach a bear den and startle the bear. If you don’t want to fight, you can back away and that’s the end of the confrontation. It’s a lot better than in Oblivion where every rat, wolf, Scamp and mudcrab would rush you at the slightest provocation.
NPCs are a hell of a lot better this time around. They aren’t so stiff and awkward. Animation and character design has taken a massive leap forward, far in advance of anything we’ve seen previously. Bethesda have also abandoned their previous policy of having something like 8 voice actors for every single person. There’s a nice mix of voices in here. None of the dialogue or writing is particularly inspiring and the performances aren’t anything to write home about, but the vast majority are highly competent and decently delivered. Or, to put it another way, nothing’s really bad. The biggest improvement is in the way conversations are held. In Oblivion (or Morrowind for that matter) talking to somebody caused the game world to freeze in place, while you and the NPC conversed. Time waits for no man though, and in Skyrim the game world keeps on keepin’ on while you talk to someone. Not everybody has a conversation menu this time around. People who will only ever give you pointless bits of rumour or gameworld fluff just speak their line when you go up and press the use key, similar to the background NPCs in Mass Effect. This isn’t to say all their dialogue is pointless or unimportant but they’re akin to the old “Rumour” NPCs in Oblivion who never talked about anything else.
The storyline for Skyrim starts out the same as the others; you’re a prisoner lumped in with a bunch of Stormcloaks, who are revolutionists fighting against Imperial rule in Skyrim. The game is set 200 years after Oblivion’s events took place, and the Stormcloaks want to overthrow Imperial rule while the Empire is somewhat weak, as was hinted at right at the end of Oblivion. From there you undertake a mandatory training quest to escape from your starting village, which has been turned to ash by a pissed off dragon. From there you’re largely left on your own. You can go follow the main storyline, or you can go off and cause trouble. If you do follow it, expect to fight dragons, which tend to be fairly epic battles. Killing dragons lets you learn their Shouts, which are powers separate from your magic skills. The first one for example knocks people to the floor in front of you. I’ve barely followed the main storyline to defeat the dragons.
There are also lots of other major factions in the world. The two big ones are the Imperial Army and the Stormcloaks, both of which are joinable and have a full quest line. The Thieves’ Guild makes a return, as does the Dark Brotherhood. The Mages and Fighters Guilds are replaced by new ones. The Mages’ Guild is now the College of Winterhold, a college of mages with a massive library. Magic appears to be treated with a bit of suspicion and disdain in Skyrim, which explains why the Mages’ Guild isn’t big like in the other games. The new Fighters’ Guild is called The Companions, a mercenary group. There are also a few others, like the Bard’s College, the Battle-Born, and the Silver Hand. There’s plenty of scope for gameply here.
Apart from that, you can also go get involved in endless side quests, lots of exploration, doing odd jobs like woodcutting or picking produce to sell to farmers, and all sorts of other things. Alchemy is also different this time around. Unlike in the previous games, alchemy can only be performed at an alchemy station, but there’s plenty of them around. Unlike Oblivion, you don’t necessarily have to know what an ingredient does before trying to use it in a potion. Eating any ingredient will reveal its first effect. To find subsequent effects you either need additional perks in alchemy, or to just drop random ingredients into a potion and hope for the best. For a potion to be created it must have ingredients that share the same effect. Trying to create a potion with ingredients that have unknown effects will either result in failure or success, with the additional effects for the ingredients you used being listed. Through experimentation you can reveal all the effects of your ingredients, unlike Oblivion where if you didn’t know the other effects of an ingredient you flat-out couldn’t use it. I like how it works, but I wish the old Mortar and Pestle was sill here.
The UI needs mentioning. Oblivion’s UI was universally hated by PC gamers; it was designed for a console with massive UI elements that could cope with low-resolution TV screens. Today 1080p (or at least 720p) is standard amongst LCD TVs, so UIs can be a bit cleaner. Skyrim’s UI isn’t as bad as Oblivion’s, but there’s still room for improvement. The UI is mostly text, and can be operated almost entirely from the keyboard. Items appear in lists, which can get a bit cluttered, but they’re still not quite as bad as in Oblivion. Items also have a 3D representation that you can zoom in on, and the game occasionally makes use of this by requiring you to closely examine an object. When examining something you can rotate it at will. The new map is vastly superior to Oblivion, as is the new journal. Both were abysmal in Oblivion. The Favourites list more or less replaces the quick-select number keys, but they’r actually still available if you read the manual carefully enough. Items can be assigned to the list, accessible by pressing Q. This pauses the game and lets you assign items to either hand.
There’s still a lot of things I haven’t covered, like making your own armour, enchanting, the new speechcraft options (the minigame is gone now), the imported lockpicking game from Fallout 3, and things like that. But I can’t go on forever, and there’s still so much more that I haven’t seen.
Lots of people have said that the series is going downhill. Many didn’t like how Oblivion removed some of the aspects of Morrowind. Personally I think what was lost between Morrowind and Oblivion wasn’t really important, and I think people’s main issue with Oblivion was that it wasn’t Morrowind’s mushroom landscape. Most of Oblivion’s changes made it to Skyrim, and in some ways there are even more removals which will no doubt upset a few diehard fans. But the gameworld is just so much better, skill progression and levelling is better handled, combat has been improved, magic is far more useful and fluid… there’s just so much more that Skyrim does which makes it the superior game. Oblivion got a bit too generic with its setting, which was a product of the series’ gameworld and lore. Skyrim isn’t the mushroom landscape of Oblivion but with all the fantastic things going on in the gameworld, it doens’t make a difference. This is easily worth the wait, even if it feels very different to start with. And with that, BRING ON THE MODS!