The Good: Incredibly expansive adventure loaded with quests, sidequests, and sidequests to sidequests, plus tons of equipment and other cool stuff. Good leveling system. The Bad: User interface is a little clunky. Some bizarre gameplay moments. The Ugly: A few killer bugs persist.
It’s difficult writing a review for a game like Skyrim. The extensive countryside is chock full of dungeons, keeps, bandit camps, and ruins, and each one has a story behind it. The usual twenty hours or so that I give to a game review hardly scratches the surface. Even a hundred hours is probably only approaching halfway through. In my first ten hours I didn’t get onto the primary plotline at all, choosing instead to do some exploring, play around with a couple of different character types, pick up some side quests, earn a little gold and gain some experience. There are dragons loose in the kingdom and civil war has broken out in Skyrim (you learn that from the opening movie), but I’ll get to that in good time. Right now I’ve got a really cool flaming long bow, and I’m dying to find some bandits and try it out. So for those who want to just get out into the countryside and do some hacking and slashing, have at it. You can also choose to talk to the world’s hundreds(?) of residents about themselves and their lives, pick up quest and subquest threads, and gather pieces of the rich history of this place. To those who have touted the open sandboxness of other RPGs in the past, pick up a copy of Skyrim and see what a truly open world looks like. It does make it difficult to figure out where to even begin a game review though.
For people who have played previous entries in the series, I can say that the game for the most part structurally is unchanged. The first- or third-person camera perspective works as it did in Oblivion, and the exterior activity of traveling around the countryside while nearby structures appear on your compass is the same. Conversations with NPCs still takes place using a menu style interface in which you select questions and responses from a list. Skyrim, the northernmost kingdom in Tamriel, is a cold and rocky and inhospitable region compared to the rolling, more verdant hills of Cyrodil (the kingdom in which Oblivion is set), and is positively littered with dungeon-like structures for you to explore. I think Skyrim is bigger and there is more stuff, but that’s hard to feel from a gameplayer perspective – both games are immense. Combat has been changed in that you can wield items in your left and right hands independently. Sword and shield, sword and spell, mace and dagger, two different spells, two of the same spell (in which case they reinforce each other) – go hog wild and see what works for you. The lock-picking minigame is simpler – yay! Character creation has been distilled to its very essence. You pick a name and a race, customize your look if you like, and you’re ready to go. The different races have different career leanings, but you’re never locked in as a fighter or a thief or a wizard – you get to choose how your character progresses as you go along. There are only three character stats – health, stamina, and magicka – and each level you get to increase one of the three. You also get a skill point which can be spent (or saved for later) among eighteen skill trees like archery or stealth or destruction magic to gain a particular buff to that skill (improved stealth, greater damage with bows, etc). The skills are linked to skill scores in your character, so if you’ve been sneaking around a lot you should have a very high stealth score, and that allows you to buy the highest stealth skill buffs. So early on, when the levels and skill points are coming quickly, you can focus down on some skill tree and stick to one career, but there’s really nothing stopping you from changing your whole focus at any time, say working at a forge and improving your blacksmith skills, and making a career of that, or throwing spells and becoming a magic user. Well-rounded or idiot savant; it’s up to you.
The interface is minimized and I like that. The screen for the most part is clear of character stats until you bring them up allowing you to see as much of the world as possible without distraction. I will make a complaint about keyboard controls, which seem to have been sort of stuck in as an afterthought, the game primarily geared towards gamepad players. You cannot, for example, bind a weapon to a hotkey. You can put a weapon (or any item) onto a favorites list, call up that list whenever, and select the items you want with simple mouse clicks. But I found that very quickly the favorites list became overwhelming. I’ve got a one-handed melee weapon, a two-handed melee weapon, a shield, a ranged weapon, three offensive spells and two defensive ones, plus some potions and scrolls – it’s too much. That list opens up, and it takes me ten seconds to find the item I want and then click it into the correct hand.
It has been awhile since I played Oblivion, so I don’t exactly remember what that game looks like, but I think this one looks quite good. From a distance the vistas are sweeping and breathtaking, and then when you walk up and look at any given rock or bush the textures are small enough that they still look good. People’s mouths still don’t line up all that well with what they’re saying, but it does seem better. There are hundreds if not thousands if not tens of thousands of lines of recorded dialog, and though you do hear some comments repeatedly it doesn’t happen often. The music sets the whole mood of the game, much as it did in Oblivion. I understand they got the same guy to write this music as well, but he’s tapped into a whole different feeling, evoking the cold, the mountains. Good stuff.
The game unfortunately has some killer bugs, as I recall Oblivion did when it was first released, and Morrowind before that as well. I’ve been dumped to the desktop a couple of times, more than a couple of times. Save early, save often. I’ve gotten stuck in the scenery and been forced to load a previous save game. I’ve had my computer/console freeze solid and had to reboot. And some lesser bugs, such as having people talk nearby while I’m trying to have a conversation with an NPC and the dialog being hard to hear, or having an NPC interaction camera lock up on a wall or a chair instead of the person I’m talking to, there are those as well. I’ve also had a person talk to me from somewhere (the next room? the next floor up?) as if he was right in front of me. Enemy and NPC pathfinding can be kind of questionable at times, leading to them running in place against a piece of furniture or a rock or some other feature of the landscape. Finally there are some peculiar gameplay features, such as the ability to eat 40 heads of cabbage in combat to heal up. Or you can run outside if you find yourself losing a battle in some building, and no one seems to bother to follow you out. I once shot an arrow into a woman staring at a fireplace, then hid in the shadows while she looked for me. She gave up eventually, left the arrow sticking out of her back, and went back to looking at the fireplace. Not exactly the sharpest tool in the shed. And speaking of dumb, the NPCs that you sometimes pick up as sidekicks work fine if you favor running into every situation with sword drawn, but if you want to try and sneak in or use any other strategy they’re useless, and often stand in the way, and they get stuck on things plenty.
I recall when I was in graduate school, something like 17 or 18 years ago, playing The Elder Scrolls: Arena. There was a dead king, an usurper to the throne, and some staff broken into eight pieces to reassemble, but that was all just cake icing; a thin excuse to go dungeon crawling. Flash forward to today and I’m playing Skyrim, which, if I can count on my fingers and toes correctly, is the seventh (Arena, BattleSpire, Daggerfall, Redguard, Morrowind, Oblivion – not counting expansion packs) adventure set in the world of Tamriel, and with each successive game the world becomes more expansive, more immersive, and more complex. The history of the place, much of which you yourself lived through in previous games, could fill a dozen books. And it does! – you can find those books scattered around in Skyrim and read them. The folks at Bethesda have built themselves quite a world, and while not perfect it is a joy to inhabit for a couple of hundred hours.