While I was taking a stroll outside on a hot sunny day, a flash of a shadow raced over the ground in front of me. With horror on my face I jumped around scanning the skies for what could only mean my imminent death. The glare from the sun makes it really difficult to see anything – and it’s then that the flying creature catches my eye. Someone is going to die, and it won’t be me!
As I draw my arrow out of its quiver, the creature makes an arcing turn and is now coming right for me. The bow creaks under the pressure as the arrow is pulled back. With a snap I release the arrow and it finds its target a few moments later. With a thud the dead eagle lands at my feet.
Whoops! I guess that wasn’t a dragon after all!
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, the latest in a long series of superb role-playing games from Bethesda Softworks, is not really what I would call a casual game. In this age of quick fixes and ‘Lite’ games, you don’t often find a game that will take you a few hundred hours to fully appreciate. This is not a quick ‘pick up and play’ game where gratification comes in the first few minutes. It takes a certain level of investment to make this game flourish. And I will be investing into it well into the future.
In the beginning
The game kicks off with your character being transported in bonds to Helgen for execution. It’s clear the world is about to be immersed in a civil war with rebels having just killed the High King, when out of the blue a dragon appears for the first time in hundreds of years. It is in this world that you need to find your place.
Skyrim is a huge living world and is simply amazing in both its scale and its scope. Mountains tower above the clouds with swirls of cold air dancing around the cliffs. Butterflies flutter around flowers (both of which can be harvested) while eagles soar in the sky. Bunnies hop in the forests while giant elk avoid sabre cats to stay alive. A bear and a giant face off against each other on a snow covered plateau against a backdrop of the aurora lights. To say that Skyrim is detailed and beautiful is a gross understatement.
While nature goes about its business, people are also doing their own thing. Every character you meet will have a story. Soldiers are either unhappy about their current post, or a lady you meet in a square will tell you about her dreams to open up her own shop one day. And everyone seems to have their allegiance to either the rebel uprising or the Imperials who seek to protect the land.
Since this is an Elder Scrolls role-playing game, you’ll start off by creating your own character with a few races to choose from, but unlike previous games you do not get to choose any skills. The race you play as will have a few small benefits, like the Nords having a benefit of using double handed weapons better than other races – all skills are learned through practice. So by using a bow and arrow more, your skill with these weapons increases. And as your skill increases you can unlock certain perks. When your bow and arrow skill is sufficiently high you can unlock higher damager perks, better aim perks and many more.
This meothd of skills progression also enables you to mix your traditional RPG classes into a Jack-of-all-trades. If you feel like it you can have an Orc that can perform destructive magic while still being well trained in dual-wielding weapons and remaining a skilled blacksmith, you can go for it!
Combat has been refined a lot in this instalment of The Elder Scrolls. Items and spells can be assigned to each hand, for example. By using a spell in one hand and a weapon in the other, you can vary your combat style without changing gear. At the same time you can choose to double-up on the spells, one in each hand, and cast them together to create new and more powerful effects. Or if you choose you can mix weapons up to perform great combos during melee combat.
Combat feels pretty good and is rather slick, but don’t expect melee combat that can match dedicated action games. It feels a little clumsy at times especially when your character is surrounded and you’re just flailing your arms around wildly.
Dragons feature prominently in Skyrim, and can be terrifying when encountered in the early game. As you can tell from my anecdote, I often got a fright when casually walking around and then seeing an eagle’s shadow on the ground. These dragons are very big and have different powers. Apparently not all dragons blow fire out their mouths, and these ones can also freeze you.
Bringing down one of these bad boys is very gratifying. Dragons will fly over you and swoop down low to blast you with their freezing or fiery breath. Their presence is amplified by the way the earth shakes as they pass over you. Shooting them down takes a long time and a lot of skill, but when they crash down in a ball of dust you feel very powerful! They do perch themselves on houses or simply on the ground at times, but I let them fly off so that I can kill them in the air – it just feels so much more gratifying!
Very early on in the game you learn that you are a ‘dragon born,’ the only real human who can defeat a dragon. This also means that when you kill a dragon you gain their soul. Dragon souls allow you to use another special power, called ‘Shouts.’ These Shouts are ancient words in the dragon’s language with different powers – think of them almost as Force powers in the Star Wars universe. You can forcefully push your foes, or you can breathe fire or ice.
The story of Skyrim is quite an extensive one. You have your main story plot that will see you investigate the appearance of the dragons, and choose sides in the looming civil war, but you can also join various factions along the way to get more quests. The ‘Companions’ are essentially your fighter’s guild, and you have various mages guilds, thieves’ guilds and many more to join. Then you have random characters asking you for favours adding to your quest list. Thankfully the journal will sort your quests for you and make sure you can differentiate between the side-quests and the main plot quests.
Skyrim also has a way of keeping you busy well after the story has been completed. The game will get you to perform seemingly random side-quests assigned to you by equally random characters, but the game knows that you haven’t been to the far east of the huge world, and will send you on a quest to some undiscovered cave. Or it knows that you haven’t yet met any vampires and will send you to a tomb where vampires hang out. This way you get to see the whole, marvellous world without ever feeling like it’s a chore.
The world of Skyrim is so big you will travel for hours on end, but this has been addressed in interesting ways as well. Areas that have been visited before can be accessed from the map and allows fast travel to these areas.
You can also eventually buy a horse that will run longer and faster than you can. The horse also makes for a great companion and will defend you with its life. In fact, I had a pleasant surprise when I encountered two giants in the hills: My human companion took one hit from the giant and had to bow out of the fight, but my Nordic hero fought bravely and managed to subdue the first giant. When he turned around bruised and battered, ready to face the second giant, he noticed his horse had successfully kicked the giant to death.
This funny thing happened…
Stories like these are the very essence of what makes Skyrim such a great game. It’s such a diverse and meticulously created world that you will surely experience things that nobody will experience. Little things like putting buckets on people’s heads so that they can’t see you robbing them blind (pun intended). Or that chickens will report your bad behaviour to the police (this has been fixed before release, I am told). You can even go on a drunken spree and then trace your steps after you wake up, kind of like the movie Hangover.
You can also get married and settle down in your own home, furnish it with all the loot collected from your escapades, and you can collect just about any type of flower and use it in potions and lotions. You can climb every mountain you can see, all the way to the top – if you can think of it, you can probably do it in Skyrim.
A few problems do exist in the amazing world. In the PC version, the mouse is very unresponsive in the menus and often feels like I am not clicking on the right buttons, and like I said some of the melee combat can feel unresponsive. There are a few odd graphical glitches and I had a problem unlocking some of my Dragon Shouts. But these technical problems are far overshadowed by the immense achievement that is Skyrim.
Squeezing the awesomeness of Skyrim into a review of a few pages is simply not possible – Skyrim is the most immersive and complete game I have ever played. It has a few snags but when you consider the immense amount of data and variables that come into play I’m surprised that it’s as solid and stable as it is.
It is beautiful, it is funny, it is serious and it is amazing. It has swallowed more than 40 hours of my life thus far, and it will swallow a lot more. I am surprised I managed to pull myself away long enough to write this review.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is my game of the year.
- The Good: The world, people, places, fauna and flora of Skyrim; anything is possible; most immersive gameplay; Dragons!
- The Bad: A few technical glitches
- The Beautiful: Staring at aurora lights at night, standing over a dragon you’ve just slayed