Review: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (PS3)

Title: The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim
Format: Blu-ray Disc
Release Date: November 11, 2011
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Developer: Bethesda Game Studios
Original MSRP: $59.99
ESRB Rating: M

Where does one begin reviewing a game like Skyrim?  Do I tell you that I have been playing it since release date and have enjoyed every moment of it?  Do I tell you about how magnificent the scenery unfolds before your eyes, or how the character models have improved greatly from the previous game?  Or how about expressing that the NPCs come to life with brilliant voice-acting that no longer sounds like its coming from robotic AI?

Yeah, I do have to tell you all of those things, because a review needs to elaborate on the individual elements that make Skyrim the game that it is.  But I will do so out of that requirement, because what I would rather tell you about is the experience of Skyrim.

I’ve been a fan of the Elder Scrolls series since the days of running Arena on my IBM computer in my college dorm room.  Before that, I was playing role-playing games on my Sega Master System, Genesis, and Super Nintendo, with the occasional Gold Box Dungeons and Dragons game on my VIC 20.  So, from out of nowhere comes this game that promised thousands of square miles of virtual world to explore.  There wasn’t much more that needed to be said.  I picked up the game and I installed the 10 or so floppy discs into my computer.  Everything from the decorated instruction manual, to the ability to create this custom character from a choice of different races.  From the living world that included its own calendar year (which had different towns celebrating holidays with convenient sales on weapons and items), to the promised-enormous world that actually covered all of the states that were later divided into the games we are familiar with (Morrowind, Cyrodiil, Skyrim).

Every game in the series has managed to improve upon its promise of a living-breathing world.  And while games like Morrowind, Oblivion, and Skyrim do not cover nearly the insane amount of virtual miles as Arena and Daggerfall, the real estate sacrifice was made in favor of making every inch of the world as believably-beautiful as a hand-crafted virtual world could be.  And one thing that should be noted is that this world is not a canned world that can only be viewed by a camera positioned on a controlled rail.  Everything has to be crafted with the expectation that a player can approach anything in the game and observe it closely.  This makes the task even more of a challenge for the folks at Bethesda, but it is a challenge that they have taken, and the result of their work isn’t seen in high scores from the press, or some YouTube video of a fella’ yelling at the screen about how Skyrim’s graphics are “off the wall.”

The result of their work came from a very simple emotion that I experience when I visited my first town in Skyrim.  The rain was coming down, and a small river was raging to my left.  There was a slight breeze making its way through the pine trees, and I could smell it.  I live in the suburbs, so the scent wasn’t coming from my asphalt encrusted neighborhood.  It was coming from a simple math equation.  The combination of those sights and sounds, all executed with such attention that it allowed my brain to add the remaining sensation, the smell.   I realize that Skyrim is far from being the only game to employ a rain element, and truth be told, visually, I have seen better rain.  Again, it’s the combination of the hazy lighting and fog, the sound of the wind, the distant effect of the river, some people talking in the distance, the creaking wood coming from some unknown source, and a simple dog barking in the background.  We’ve all been in that environment.  And we know what it sounds like and what it looks like, so our mind automatically fills in the blanks.  The fact that Skyrim allows you to walk around in this setting with full control of where you go is what sets apart this game (or series) from anything else.

Thus, I ventured forth with this initial experience, anticipating the world that would eventually unfold before me.  I refrain from spoiling any story elements, particularly because story and exposition is one thing that Skyrim has improved upon, and I don’t say this lightly.  While I admit that this may simply be my experience, I was never really attached to the narrative of Morrowind or Oblivion.  I knew well-enough what was going on, but I never actually felt like I was anyone important.  Oh, to be certain, I was treated like someone important by the NPCs in the game, but I always humbly felt that anyone could do what I was doing in the game.  My adventures in Skyrim and (once again) the combination of well-written dialogue, and NPC expression, not to mention the situation that some of these quests put me in, bestowed upon me a level of self-worth that I hadn’t experienced in an Elder game.  I actually felt like a badass with the ability to speak the long-forgotten tongue of dragons.  These people needed me.  I could dual wield blades, and I looked like a legendary warrior (thanks art department).  People spoke about the “Dragon Born” when I walked by, and there was a dead dragon corpse at the entrance to town.  Yeah, that’s right, folks.  I did that.   The shop-keeper’s sister flirted with me when I entered his shop, and old women trusted me with their problems.

But if these NPCs had been robotic drones that approached each other and discussed the weather for 20 seconds before returning to their predetermined paths, I wouldn’t have believed in their love for me so much.  It’s the fact that I walked in on conversations that seemed to continue long after I had walked away that made their praise so believable.  These folks have lives and discuss situations with one another.  Some of these situations were actually indicative of future quests.

I happened upon a pair of gentlemen arguing with a guard who was preventing them from entering the city because of their race and reputation.  The men were simply looking for a woman who had eluded them.  I listened in on the conversation and eventually asked the two men about the women.  This unlocked a quest that would have me looking for the woman myself.  But this was not the impressive part.  An hour or so later I was venturing through the wilderness on a trek to visit a nearby dungeon when I saw two men harassing a woman on the road.  I moved into investigate and listened in on their conversation.  It was the same men from before, interrogating a woman who they believed to be the one they were previously looking for.  As it turned out, she was not the right woman, and was pretty defensive about their accusations.  But that little moment gave life to the NPCs in ways that better facial expressions and higher-resolution textures could not.  Oh Skyrim excels in that department as well, but bringing a character to life takes a lot more than just pretty pictures and motion.  They were on their own journey, and if followed, they wouldn’t simply walk into a wall and stand there until you returned.  They conduct actions that are more-believable than those of previous games in the series.  This is just another added level of detail that makes Skyrim a serious improvement over Oblivion.  Yes, Oblivion did allow you to follow characters throughout town, but the conversations they had with each other is at a completely different level with this sequel.

But enough gushing about the magnificence that is the world of Skyrim.  Let’s get onto the individual elements that make this game.

I’ll start by describing the things that I felt needed work in Oblivion, and how they have been improved in SkyrimOblivion was a role-playing fan’s love letter.  It had pages and pages of menus, where you could look at your weapons and armor, check your status and the level of different attributes.  Two pages for quests and tasks, along with their current progress.   Of course this included a map, which highlighted local areas, as well as your location in the entire world.  While this level of management and detail was lovely for a role-playing goon like me, I have to admit that at times (particularly when jumping into the game after a long absence) I found it a little painful to  flip through.  I carried around so many items and weapons at times that figuring out which weapon was stronger required a bit of effort.  Yes, I realize that the weapon’s strength and weight were all listed to the right of the item’s name, but you still had to find your equipped item and compare these values.

Skyrim does away with some of the clutter for a more simplified interface.  Pressing the Circle button brings up a basic menu that is divided into Magic, Status, Map, and Items.  Within the items menu, you have a column that indicates whether you are looking at weapons, apparel, potions, etc etc.  But it’s the weapons and armor menu where I found the first improvement.  Role-playing gamers who have been playing Japanese role-playing games for the last decade are familiar with the red and green numbers.  You walk into a shop and check out an interesting weapon.  If it’s better than yours, there is a green number indicating the difference in strength from what you are currently holding.  If it’s not as powerful, then the numbers show up in red.  This has been a simple way to keep players from wasting time in shops.  Skyrim has employed this method of weapons/armor comparison, and it’s only limited by one thing.

Games like Dragon Age adopted this old method and understood that when you were buying a bow (while holding swords) that you were more interested in knowing how this new bow compared to the one you had equipped as a secondary weapon, but Skyrim doesn’t.  So if I am holding my swords, it stands to reason that my bow will always appear weaker.  So in order to see if the bow that I am inspecting is better than the one in my inventory, I have to do a bit more work.  Yes, it’s a shame that the system isn’t as intelligent as the one in Dragon Age, but at least Skyrim is moving in the right direction, and shopping for weapons (or simply picking them off the ground) is a lot less time-consuming when I know that what I am holding is better than the fancy-looking sword that the now-dead bandit was carrying.

I have never been a magic-user in Elder Scrolls games.  This just about goes for any role-playing game out there.  Skyrim changed that for me.  It probably has something to do with the fact that I can hold the R1 button down and my hand becomes a flame thrower as a result.  It also has something to do with the fact that I can equip flame magic on both hands and dual wield the hell out of my flame-thrower, electricity (Sith style), or blizzard.  Not only is the presentation of magic improved in Skyrim (with charred stone textures appearing where my flame touches, and icicles covering the environment where I unleash my blizzard spell), but it also makes utilizing it along side a melee weapon possible, so you don’t have to completely give up your love of melee in order to use magic.  At one point I found myself torching an enemy with my left hand while slicing him up with my right hand.  This also opens up the possibility of healing while you fight.

Granted, your swinging arm is limited and does not deliver as many blows per round, but it is possible to fight and heal, which becomes an extra powerful tool if you really put some points into restoration perks.  If you equip two healing spells at the same time, you can do a mega heal that can turn the tide in a losing battle.  Magic has never been more enjoyable for me than it has been in this game.  Opinions of this may vary with good reason (I don’t usually play wizards).  But in my experience playing with magic in games, this has been the most rewarding, and I really feel like Skyrim allows for some interesting combinations and experimentation.

Swordplay in Skyrim has also been improved in a number of ways (not least of all the ability to dual wield).  Oblivion isn’t always remembered for its amazing sword fights.  Yes, you could get into some serious skirmishes, but it always began and ended with you swinging from right to left with an occasional stronger attack.  It’s not that Skyrim introduced Soul Calibur-style combos to the mix, but what Bethesda accomplished with this sequel is simply making bladed combat more interesting, particularly in third-person view.

Animations look better and contact with the enemy feels less floaty (if you take my meaning).  Referring to the word “floaty” again, running and simply moving about also feels less so than in the previous game.  This makes the aforementioned third-person mechanic work a helluva lot better.  This is especially true when playing a sneaky bastard like I do.  Since your cross-hairs are positioned with an offset to your character, you can do a lot of your sniping work from the third-person if you choose to.  I sometimes find myself returning to first-person view for this because I can see a bit better, but I have been exploring most of Skyrim in third-person view, because I like seeing my character fight.  I did this with Oblivion as well, but now I can functionally do so in Skyrim.

If I had one complaint about Skyrim’s Favorite system (where you check-mark items that you plan to use frequently and have quick access to them via a quick menu) is that after a while, you end up liking a lot of things.  I have five favorite spells, and two sets of headgear that I like to switch between.  This is on top of my swords and bows, and two shouts.  So my Favorites menu is pretty large, and as a result,  it ends up becoming just another menu.  I almost wish that there was a favorite menu for weapons, armor, and magic, (accessible by pressing different directions with your digital pad) instead of one menu with all of my items.  If not that, it would also help if I could sort by type, so that I could easily replace my bow with my swords when the enemy closes the gap between long range and close range.  Not a score-changing gripe, but perhaps something that I would have added to the developer’s approach in making things a bit easier to manage.

Skyrim has to be judged as a package when considering a grade for visuals.  Sure, I can compare it to Uncharted 3’s visuals, or something like Killzone 3.  But again, it is unfair to judge the visuals in a game like this against other games with stronger visuals, because such judgement would not factor in the considerations that the developers had to make in order to bring a living world to life, and Skyrim is not canned.  It’s not an environment where invisible walls can limit you from discovering that no geometry exists on the other side of that building.  Daylight and Night are controlled lighting fixtures that will not change throughout your adventures in Uncharted (unless it’s by design, within the controller environment).

And despite all of this, Skyrim still manages to impress, with technological advancements that make some its environments comparable with some of the more linear games out there.  For example, I found the open world of this game to be more visually-impressive than Dragon Age 2, a game with self-contained mini maps.  This is not a dismissal of the amazing work done on those other games.  It’s simply a testament to what Bethesda’s artists have done in delivering such a large environment, while still managing to make it look next-generation.

Stonework doesn’t tile (or if it does, it is beyond the player’s view), valleys expand out before you with majestic trees and foliage that make every square inch of the environment a different experience, be it a lonely tree sitting on a small patch of land in a swampy bog, to the amazing vista of the sun setting (complete with rolling clouds) from an outcropping high upon a snowy mountain.  Skyrim also employs a stronger shadow system that has every item (including yourself) casting beautiful shadows.  This also plays an amazing role when you are sneaking around a dungeon and the torch-cast shadow of an enemy creeps into view before the actual source, giving you ample time to prepare your attack.  Skyrim’s visuals are nothing short of breathtaking, and for such a task to be accomplished, while still making every mountain in the background explorable, is an undertaking that only Bethesda’s experience in the field could accomplish.

Boot up Skyrim and you will be treated to a theme song that has already been cloned on YouTube in heavy metal, piano solo, and I’m sure there is probably a guy singing it somewhere, if you really look for it.  The theme is familiar to fans of the series, but it seems to me that every time this theme song is revisited, it gets better and better.  The music continues strong throughout the game.  At times it dips to simple ambiance, and some familiar town music cues make their way into this game to compliment similar village and town environments. The sound effects work in Skyrim also benefits the successful implementation of combat in the game in that sword collisions sound more effective (particularly when they make contact with the enemy).  You really get a sense that you are causing damage and beating the crap out of that troll.

This is rounded out by some amazing ambient sounds, delivered while exploring caverns and dungeons.  From the sound of water rushing in the distance, to that unnerving tell-tale effect of skeleton warriors approaching, Skyrim’s visuals only go as far as their sound compliments them.  As I initially mentioned, the sound work in Skyrim does so much to envelop you in the world which the visuals establish, that it would be extremely noticeable if the sound work was missing or poorly-done.  Fortunately, this is far from the case, and the sound design is strong enough that one can close their eyes and still imagine the location where his/her character is standing without the need for a visual representation.

This game is single player only.

It’s not the fancy graphics or splendid music that pushed me into giving Skyrim the score I ended up bestowing upon it.  It’s not the improved fighting system or better menu organization.  As gamers, particularly role-playing gamers, we look for the next experience that takes you from your living room into a virtual world that echos the realities you know, but places them in a fantastical setting with some unfamiliarities that separates the experience from that of simply walking outside of your house.  Skyrim receives my highest score because at one point in my play-through, I stood upon a rocky ledge, overlooking a magnificent valley below.  Ahead of me, beyond a distant mountain range, an orange haze marked the ending of the day, as low clouds rolled across the horizon.  The sound of a chilling wind filled my ears as it struggled through protesting rocky structures with a resounding howl.  Behind me was the cavern which I had recently cleared of bandits (my pockets a bit more full from the exploit).  This wasn’t a cinematic, and the mountains in the background were not pixel art, meant to be seen only from this vantage point.  I had 360 degrees-worth of choices to make at that point (270 degrees if you factor in the cliff-side behind me, but who’s counting).   It’s that knowledge of uncertainty and adventure, and that fact that the subsequent exploits were just as amazing as the previous ones, that guided me towards the score that I chose for Skyrim.


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