Guest Author - James Shea
An open-world action RPG from Bethesda Softworks, "Skyrim" is buggy in some places, but fun overall.
"Skyrim" is the 5th game in the Elder Scrolls series, and like its forebears is an open-world fantasy RPG with action elements to it. This installment is based in the snowy reaches of Skyrim, contrasting with the swamps of Morrowind or the temperate environment of Cyrodil (the setting of TES IV: Oblivion). As such, "Skyrim" is based around viking-style cultures and draws inspiration from sources like Conan the Barbarian and other heroic fantasy.
Skyrim is a hybrid action game and RPG. It's an action game in that it's a FPS-style interface based around your right-hand and left-hand weapons or items. If you are holding a sword and shield, right-hand swings and left-hand blocks. Spells are used in the same fashion, being assigned to the right or left hand. Thus, you can swing a sword with one hand and throw fireballs with the other. If you have spells assigned to both hands, you can even combine them to make new effects. It's fairly intuitive, if a bit poorly implemented. It's not exactly responsive (trying to block with a shield in Skyrim is really slow and ponderous compared to, say, Dark Souls), but it's functional most of the time. I wouldn't say it's well done, but it's not intolerable either. The magic aspect is probably the most well-done part, since casting spells functions more like a traditional FPS than stabbing swords or shooting bows does.
The RPG elements of the game are taken down from previous versions to be more accessible to a wide range of audiences. In general, the player has a variety of skills - weapon skills, crafting skills, magic skills, sneaking skills, and so on - that improve through use. As a character's skill improves, they also gain levels and perks that can be assigned to provide various benefits. For example, a character focused on two-handed weapons could take perks that allow them to do more damage with 2H weapons, while character focused on magic could get more use out of spells before they need to rest or recharge. The amount of control that the player has over the RPG elements is reduced in a lot of ways from previous games (there's no assigning skills at the beginning, it's based solely on the race you choose), but in general it's still functional.
A big complaint I have is about the game's user interface. In an attempt to trim down the menus and make the game more accessible, Bethesda basically divided the menu into four parts: Skills, Magic, Equipment, and Map. The magic and equipment are basically handled like iPod menus: they're lists broken down into subcategories, and you have to go through everything in that subcategory to find what you want. This wouldn't be so bad if it wasn't for how the favorites system works: you tag items or spells and they get added to a favorites list. While you're in-game, you can open up the favorites list and pick the stuff you want to use. The bad part about this is that it's all in that one list. Every spell, weapon, piece of armor or shield you might need is going to be on your favorites list, so for example if you have a lot of different things you like to use you're going to have to scroll through them every time you want to switch. It's an obvious console move, since with a keyboard there's no reason not to be able to assign weapons to hotkeys or something along those lines.
Skyrim's main draw is that it's a huge open world, much like Bethesda's earlier game "Oblivion" and the 3D Fallout games (FO3 and New Vegas). In comparison to those games, Skyrim is far more vibrant and lively - though this may be due to the fact that there's less empty wastes in between towns in Skyrim. While the cities and towns don't exactly feel "alive", and the limited scripting for NPCs makes them feel repetitive in a few minutes, there's definitely a lot more content with regards to exploration and discovery in comparison to Oblivion. You can go to taverns and listen to bards sing or play music, or you can talk to people around town to find leads for adventures. One of the most important new elements is that, in addition to the normal bandits and wandering monsters of the wilderness, the player will occasionally be beset by flying, fire-breathing dragons. These creatures are meant to be intense, and in some cases they are. At lower levels the player may simply have to flee, while at higher levels they can be fairly easy fights. Defeating a dragon allows the player to steal its power, which can be used to gain new abilities.
A big part of the game's "open world" nature is what's in the world to interact with. Skyrim has a main quest, but I'd say that compared to other Bethesda games it's far easier to ignore and just go about your business exploring the world. There's dungeons to clear, side-quests to complete, loot to pilfer, and so on. The dungeons are in general pretty well done, with little puzzles or traps even in some random crypt full of bandits (though naturally most of the puzzles are saved for more plot-important areas). An aspect of the dungeons that I enjoyed was that many dungeons can be marked on your map through logical means, i.e. talking to people in towns about it or chasing bounties or something along those lines.
It's possible to get companions to join you on your quest, but compared to Fallout 3 or New Vegas this is an extremely lackluster feature. You can only have one companion at a time, and most of the companion options are totally indistinguishable. Almost all the companions have no conversation options besides giving orders or trading equipment, and almost every single one is a straight-up warrior (no mages or thieves or anything). I don't mind the fact that most of the companions are simple mercenaries instead of the more pigeonholed, lots-of-backstory characters of Fallout, but there's got to be some appeal to them.
The graphics are probably the most-improved aspect of the game compared to Oblivion. Almost all of the game's visual elements look great, from character models to environmental design. The weather effects in particular are absolutely amazing, and definitely help reinforce the "frozen north" concept that the game is trying to run with. While the metallic items in the game look strangely stone-like, overall the game's graphics are pretty great. The sound design is okay, but not really that great. Like previous Bethesda games, there's a relatively small number of voice actors used to create a common pool for every NPC in the game. There's enough diversity that this is difficult to notice at first, but when you start finding characters who have the exact same lines but in a different voice, you'll notice.
While I basically liked Skyrim overall, the game's obviously designed as sort of a front-loaded experience. They put all the nice dungeons and cool events in the beginning of the game, and by the end of the game they sort of stop caring. There's a faction war concept throughout the game, and victory for one side or the other means absolutely nothing. Nobody comments on it, nobody says anything, nothing in the world changes. There's a lot of smaller features of the game (marriage in particular) that seem like they were thrown together in a few hours so there'd be another bullet-point on the back of the box.
Skyrim's not a bad game. It's fun if you can get into it, and there's a decent amount of exploration to be had. However, the problems are so numerous that they sort of took me out of the experience. It felt like the design team was a little overambitious and instead of tightening up the content they already had went too far in trying to reach out and add new things. Overall, I give it an 8/10.
Purchased through Steam with our own funds.