Most reviews of Skyrim, if they’re being honest, will start with some sort of disclaimer that states how far the reviewer has gotten into the game and what they have and haven’t done. This is fair enough; while I’d usually prefer that they finish it games journalists are busy people and Skyrim is a huge game. It’s simply not possible for them to see the whole thing if they want to get their review out while it’s still relevant. So most reviews of Skyrim, if they’re being honest, have been written on the basis of a dozen or so hours with the game.
Even so I should be clear about just how much of the game I’ve seen. There are still unexplored locations on my map. There are still uncompleted quests in my quest log. There are achievements I don’t have and the Miscellaneous section is just full of stuff I didn’t bother with. I have by no means seen everything Skyrim has to offer. However, I am fairly confident that I’ve seen most of it – all the major questlines, all of the major locations and about 80-85% of the dungeons. So with that in mind I think that I’ve experienced enough of Skyrim to make the following statement with a reasonable degree of authority:
Unless Arkham City turns out to be something very, very special, Skyrim is my game of the year.
If you’d asked me two weeks ago what my chances were of saying that I’d literally have laughed in your face. I enjoyed Oblivion at the time but in retrospect I saw it as something of a misfire in every respect – uninspired art direction, boring repetitive level design, a plot that couldn’t have done less to interest the player if it had tried and voice acting that has become legendary in its awfulness. Fallout 3 was a step in the right direction but it suffered from the same general malaise in its inability to build a coherent world. When I ordered Skyrim I wasn’t expecting much – an above average asshole simulator, perhaps, but those don’t usually give a game much in the way of genuine quality or longevity. Which is why I was so surprised to discover that Skyrim delivers in almost every area where Oblivion failed. Bethesda have done something almost unheard of in game development: they’ve learned from (most of) their mistakes.
So what it is that Skyrim does so right? It’s something of a triple whammy. The trademark Elder Scrolls open world gameplay is present and correct, but what makes it particularly compelling this time around is that that open world is utterly, devastatingly beautiful. Even on my aging rig, even with the graphics turned down to medium, the Nordic environment of Skyrim is never anything short of stunning. It’s one of those games where you can lose fifteen minutes just gawping at the weather effects; I was staggered that the snowstorms that periodically showed up from time to time had snow which consistently blew in the same direction in the game world rather than being a simple filter over my screen which remained nailed to my field of view. There’s plenty of variety in the locations too – fjords, glaciers, frozen cities, dwarven ruins, jagged tundra, misty lowlands, temperate plains and majestic peaks can all be found on Skyrim’s vast, vast world map. Simply walking around in the world of Skyrim is an unalloyed pleasure, and it’s this which is probably the game’s single biggest strength – like Minecraft, if the player is having fun just looking at the environment and wondering what it’ll throw at them next then the developers are already halfway to having them hooked.
Still, there’s little point in walking (or riding) around in Skyrim if there’s nowhere to go, which is where the second factor comes in: Bethesda appear to have hired some level designers who know what they’re doing. I won’t say that the dungeons didn’t start to get repetitive after a while; for all the scope of the overworld there’s only 3-4 dungeon types and maybe a dozen enemy types to be found in said dungeons. However, this feeling didn’t start to set in until the fortieth dungeon or so, which is thirty-nine dungeons past the same point in Oblivion. The Skyrim dungeon designers did well to keep my interest for that long, and there’s a good balance of traps, puzzles and whacking things to be found in each one. Most of them are very linear with only one way forward and a shortcut back to the start once you’ve finished, but those are the ones designed to be completed in 10-15 minutes. There’s more meaty fare to be found in the various Dwemer ruins which are properly sprawling complexes covering four or five separate dungeon levels. Of course getting into a Dwemer ruin is a challenge in and of itself, which makes exploring them a real event above and beyond the bite-size caves and barrows the game usually serves up. It’s a nice touch, especially when combined with the unusual mechanical decor of the environment and the bizarre automata which populate it.
Finally there’s the amount of world-building that’s going on behind the scenes. Two hundred years have passed in-game since Oblivion, and since I wasn’t really paying attention to that plot the first time around there’s a lot to catch up on. During the tutorial I floundered a bit as the game expected me to know who the Stormcloaks were and what their beef with the Empire was without ever giving me the chance to find out on my own. Once I became a free agent, though, things got much much better. There’s hundreds of books to be read, many NPCs which will give rundowns of the various elements of backstory when questioned and – excellently – a lot of subtle touches which show the player what is going on rather than explicitly telling them (the Briarheart thing is just creepy). The main questline about dragons inexplicably returning from the grave to terrorise Skyrim takes place against the backdrop of a civil war between Empire-aligned legionaries and rebel Stormcloaks, and a considerable amount of thought has gone into painting neither side as overtly good or bad. Sure, the Stormcloaks may despise elves and by extension all non-human races, but they have a reason to since the Empire is basically a puppet government of the elven Aldmeri Dominion that’s banned worship of the Nords’ principle god. It’s all very nuanced and shades-of-grey, taking a leaf out of New Vegas’s book rather than doing Bioware’s thing of making me choose between doing something vaguely good or doing something unspeakably evil and getting a free sandwich toaster along with -2 to my morality score.
That’s not to say that Skyrim doesn’t do unspeakable evil, of course. There’s six showcase questlines in the game; the main quest, of course, along with quests for fighters, mages, thieves and the obligatory Dark Brotherhood killing-people-for-fun-and-profit gig. The Dark Brotherhood is where the comically villainous among us go to hang out and it does veer off into Planescape: Torment levels of psychosis at points; I know there’s a couple of people on Sekrit who didn’t do that particular questline because they had moral objections to it. The other guild quests are similarly well thought out, while the dragons thing has a denouement that I thought was a bit of an anticlimax but since it starts off very strongly I’m inclined to forgive it. This leaves the Stormcloaks vs. Empire questline, and I have to say that after the game went to so much effort to set the whole civil war situation up I’m very disappointed that the actual civil war quests are by far the weakest part of the game, mostly involving going into a fort and massacring hordes of faceless opposing faction goons until I’d reached my quota and the fort was “taken”. It’s a tragic waste of what was to me potentially the most interesting aspect of the game’s world.
But hey, five decent questlines out of six is a marked improvement on Bethesda’s usual record, and they’re backed up by twenty-odd miscellaneous quests which are all of a similar quality. Bethesda have also improved the mechanical aspects of the game, streamlining the vast panoply of skills so that they make slightly more sense and implementing a skill tree system instead of having the skills give passive bonuses once they pass arbitrary milestones. This mostly works well – I have reservations about lumping all one-handed weapons together into the same skill tree, but nobody can argue that the removal of the Blacksmith skill wasn’t a good idea. I played a
swordmace n’ board character and I enjoyed the combat very much after I’d unlocked a few perks in the respective skill trees, especially the shield bash. However, I do have to wonder if this streamlining has come at the cost of making a truly unique character; halfway through the game I’d pretty much maxed out all the useful talents in the shield, mace and armour trees and so I started dumping points into Sneak. This led to the rather ludicrous scenario of my heavily armoured orc warrior combat rolling up behind people so that he could bop them on the head with a sneak attack.
What else? The UI is very badly designed but this is never more than an inconvenience unless you’re trying to bulk craft items to powerlevel smithing/enchanting. The voice acting is uniformly awful again, and the truly weird thing about it is that Bethesda have intentionally gotten different voice actors to read the same dialogue responses for, e.g., opening up a store dialogue. This means I got to hear the line “Some call it junk, I call it treasure,” far more times than I ever wanted to and it actually makes the problem of voicing the hundreds of characters in Skyrim even worse, since you’re now hearing the same lines over and over again no matter who you talk to. The Radiant AI is as entertainingly psychotic as it ever was, with guards stabbing hapless merchants to death because they’d had the temerity to try to stop me from robbing them blind and had accidentally caught the guard on the backswing. These are relatively minor complaints, though.
I’ll wrap up by trying to explain the overall reason I like Skyrim so much. It’s because it’s a sandbox RPG which exists in a world where game development is increasingly trying to ape movies by delivering tightly-focused, linear, “cinematic” experiences which are very pretty but which have about as much gameplay value as sitting back in a chair and watching said movies at the cinema. It’s because it’s stayed true to its roots where so many of its contemporaries have compromised and dumbed down as the years have gone on. And it’s because the changes it has made have mostly succeeded in fixing many of the series’ past mistakes. It is, in other words, the epitome of what game developers should strive for: not perfect – never perfect – but full of ambition and vision. It’s ironic that this is something so at odds with mainstream game development today; doubly so that Skyrim is selling ridiculously well in spite of it, with over 280,000 concurrent players on Steam alone just after release. It’s not often you’ll hear me say this, but Bethesda deserve every single one. They finally did good.