Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim review

    This is a review that's long overdue and seems like something I should do since it's one of my favorite video games of all time. Of course, I should also be working on my book(s) and trying to get my resume sent to as many colleges as possible.  Plus, being a husband. Decisions, decisions. Oh, well, I might as well talk about Skyrim.

    The premise of Skyrim is that you are a wandering traveler in the fantasy continent of Tamriel. While traveling to the Nordic-themed province of Skyrim, you were accidentally caught up in a battle of between the local rebellion and the reigning government. From there, the story arcs off into an epic tale of destiny, dragons, and so on with a dark subversive bent. It's not George R.R. Martin but Skyrim is a place where the threat of fantasy monsters isn't funny but a matter of life-and-death.

Did anyone wear this helmet for very long?
    For those familiar with Bethesda role-playing games, Skyrim follows the formula. There is a massive world of literally hundreds of locations to visit and an equally huge cast of characters. Forget Dragon Age: Origins' forty hours of gaming, you can literally sink hundreds into Skyrim. I don't think I've had the same level of addiction to any game save, maybe, Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas. I also think Skyrim trumps those games in terms of how much time I'm willing to spend in their locations.

    At the risk of short-changing the story, I'd say the chief draw of Skyrim is the breathtaking visuals. I've literally wandered around for hours, just looking at the beautiful interactive artwork the developers have created. The nation of Skyrim is an amazing place with waterfalls, mountains, valleys, and natural beauty hard to put into words. This is probably the most beautiful place created by Bethesda and may be one of the most fully-realized fantasy worlds in gaming.

Gorgeous locations and people.
     The characters in the game are similarly beautiful with every one of them individually hand-crafted to appear as lovely as possible. Compared to Oblivion's god awful ugly characters, Skyrim is like a collection of models. That's not to say everyone is beautiful but people look a great deal more human and those who are, are lovely. Many times, I just found myself wandering around the gameworld taking in all the sights like I was a tourist from the Imperial capital.

    There's six major story arcs in the main portion of the game with an an additional story arc available for download called Dawnguard. These story arcs are each individually self-contained, which may trouble some role-players out there. You could become leader of the greatest warriors guild in Skyrim, the archmage of the only mage's college in the country, and so on but when you show up at any of the other Factions you'll be treated as just another guy off the street.

The number of repeated voice actors is a bit distracting.
    My favorite of the plot arcs has to be Thieves Guild plotline. This plotline and the Dark Brotherhood story arc are among the best written in the game but, unfortunately, aren't the sort of thing the average good-aligned player character is going to want to pursue. The other plots are still exceptionally enjoyable, though, with only the Mage College storyline being sort of on the 'meh' side for me. Unfortunately, the two primary quests of the Civil War and quest to defeat Alduin feel underdeveloped by comparison to these two evil quests. They could have used a bit more polish to make them soar and are merely serviceable when combined, let alone taken individually.

     The gameplay in Skyrim is pretty much an enhanced version of Oblivion's, though it nicely does away with that game's insane scaling issues. A perk system makes better character customization possible with a wide variety of interesting bonuses to choose from if you get your score high enough. Leveling is accomplished by using your skills and raising them, though simple combat won't get you high-level alone. You will have to do Speech checks, learn to use magic, or any of the other traits to max out your leveling. Some gamers may dislike this but I considered it an excellent opportunity to vary my play style.

The giants are more intimidating than the dragons, especially with ragdolling that may be unintentional.
    Even when you complete the main quest, that doesn't mean there's still not plenty more to do. There's literally hundreds of smaller quests to do across the map and countless dungeons fit for monster bashing. There's also the introduction of "Radiant Quests" where the game generates artificial quests for you to do. These aren't really all that interesting but it's an attempt to provide unlimited content and I approve.

    Character content-wise, the game has quite a few memorable NPCs like Ulfric Stormcloak, Jarl Balgruuf, Maven Blackbriar, Paarthurnax, High Queen Elisef, General Tullius, and more I can name off the top of my head. Lore is integrated well with the setting's gamey bits so the majority of tombs you visit will have some sort of story associated with them, even if it's something off-kilter like a necromancer who wants a bunch of ghostly milkmaid sex slaves (that was a weird one). The Companions are, sadly, woefully underdeveloped and deserved better but there's a few stand-out ones.

Love the glowing eyes effect.
    Fans of zombies, in particular, will love this game due to the Draugr. They manage to combine all the appeal of mummies (an underused enemy in stories) with the ravenous mindless undead. You'll be facing a lot of them too, since it seems Skyrim is a country with more tombs than people. The funeral costs must be staggering.

    Gameplay-wise, Skyrim is basically the same as Oblivion but much smoother with a better perk interface. You still go around using your skills in order to master them, which can be tedious but still encourages you to try out a wide variety of approaches to level up. I very much enjoyed playing the magic knight with a spell in one hand and a sword in the other. Indeed, with the Daedric Armor, I basically became Darth Vader.  Combat has a strong visceral sense to it and you really feel like a badass whenever you kill a dragon. I felt this way when I was fighting my 60th dragon let alone my first or second.

Have you been to the Cloud District? Of course you have.
     Despite Skyrim being one of my favorite video games of all time, it's not a game without flaws. Bluntly, the bugs at the initial release were horrible and there was no excuse for some of the glitches I encountered in-game. My initial playthrough had a glitch during a particularly important quest which literally prevented me from finishing that story arc. It was saved, too, so I couldn't reload and hope it sorted itself out. So, really, when Skyrim first came out it was only a 9/10 despite my love for it.

     It's been out awhile, however, so there have been numerous patches since then. So, I'm comfortable giving Skyrim a 10 out of 10 ranking. I do think this is one of the major flaws of needlessly constrictive release dates, however. Good art takes time. In any case, thank you all for reading, I'm off to go slay some dragons!


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