When Todd Howard of Bethesda Game Studios walked out on stage during last year’s Spike Video Game Awards, I flipped my shit. I’d awaited word of the fifth Elder Scrolls title mere hours into Oblivion, the fourth Elder Scrolls, when I realized it wasn’t everything I hoped it would be.
Oblivion was a great game—don’t get me wrong. But it didn’t live up to hype train Bethesda built. The environment looked like it was smeared with Vaseline. Every NPC sounded the same. The dungeons were bland. My character was absolutely hideous. The leveling system was problematic. And so on.
Bethesda would have to fix these issues, I thought. Any developer worth their grain of salt—and Bethesda is worth a lot of salt—would. It would be the Elder Scrolls game that got it right. It would bring back the magic I felt during my time with Morrowind, the third Elder Scrolls title.
After the announcement trailer for The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim finished and it’s launch date of 11/11/11 came on screen, I knew it would be a long, long wait.
I counted every one of the 355 days, but sweet Talos it’s finally here.
As I said above, Oblivion hasn’t aged well. While it was a technical marvel back in the ancient days of 2006, the entire game looks like it’s been beaten with an ugly stick. The once revered draw distance is now laughable, and the residents of Cyrodiil look like the horrible love children of Jocelyn Wildenstein and Gary Busey.
I don’t think Skyrim is going to suffer the same fate. At least not to the same extent. Pardon the cliche, but the province of Skyrim is absolutely stunning. When you climb up High Hrothgar beneath the aurora borealis, you’ll know what I mean.
It’s a very visually diverse province. While everywhere does look rather cold and snowy, Bethesda does a good job of diversifying the landscape. The frozen fields of ice around Winterhold are contrasted by the vast, rather lush tundra around Whiterun. There’s some dense forests, boiling hot pools and a lot of towering mountains. It all goes a long way to keeping the game visually appealing after 50 or more hours of play.
The attention to detail is staggering as well. It makes me wonder if the poor 3D modelers over at Bethesda enjoy their jobs. Detailing every little plant and trinket seems like a grueling gig. Every item, from a set of Daedric armor to individual butterfly wings, can be zoomed in on in your inventory and scrutinized. The detail is impressive, but this isn’t exactly something new to The Elder Scrolls. They have always been known for their almost obsessive attention to detail.
I don’t think those who worked on character models got paid as much as the item modelers, though. It’s entirely possible to create a physically attractive character (unlike in Oblivion), but under certain light just about every NPC is a little fugly. It’s a shallow gripe, I know, but dammit, I want my RPG characters to be pretty so I don’t have to be.
Perhaps the biggest visual change of all is the new interface. The clunky menus in Oblivion are gone, having been replaced by an Apple-like design. Scrolling through your inventory with the slick, black and gray interface is never cumbersome. The individual categories alleviate the need to scroll through hundreds of items. To check your skills you look up to the stars to some pretty constellations, and to look at the map the game zooms out from your feet.
The new favorites menu, accessed with a single button, is a step up from the favorites wheel from Oblivion. If you’re planning on playing a magic-oriented character, however, you’re going to be pausing the game often to scroll through dozens of spells, weapons and dragon shouts. It can get cumbersome and slow down the action, but I don’t really see how Bethesda could have solved this issue short from nerfing the amount of spells available to mages.
However, the presentation isn’t all sunshine and lollipops. With a game of this scope there’s bound to be glitches, and trust me, there are glitches. Combining a certain mask and robe lead to my character’s physical body disappearing. I found some floating bushes and some wolves stuck in a wall. NPCs appeared out of nowhere a few times, and the game froze a bit too frequently during my first few hours with the game.
The loading times on consoles are also an annoyance. Installing the game to your Xbox 360 does alleviate this problem to a degree, but at the same time the game loses some of its graphical edge. It’s a weird side effect of installing and I hope Bethesda fixes it soon, because spending time in a town, running in and out of houses with 10 second loading screens, is very tiresome.
But overall, for a game of this magnitude, it’s polished. These nasty bugs and loading times, unfortunately, come with the genre; however, I experienced no game breaking bugs, which also comes with most open-world games. It’s impressive that you can walk from one end of Skyrim to another with very little loading textures and pop-in.
In other words, Skyrim’s presentation is leaps and bounds above its predecessors and direct competition, but there’s definitely room for improvement.
Character progression is the most important part of any RPG. It was a shame, then, that Oblivion’s character progression was fundamentally flawed. In The Elder Scrolls games, for those unaware, every time you use a skill, such as marksman, your skill with bows increases. In Oblivion, you leveled up every time you increased 10 skills. Upon level up, you selected three attributes to raise (strength, intelligence, luck etc).
Sounds fine so far. But these attributes only raised a certain amount based on how much you used the related skill. For example, every time you raised the marksman skill, upon level up you could raise its governing attribute (agility) a point further, for a max of five points. If you only raised marksman twice before level up, you could only add two points to your agility skill.
This led to two issues. First, it wasn’t worth it to spend a point on agility if you were only going to raise it by two. And second, with the game’s notorious level scaling, it became almost impossible at later levels if you didn’t raise your skills by five every time. Thus serious players were forced to micromanage their leveling in order to get the most out of their character. The organic nature of playing the game how you wanted required a bit too much math, and nobody likes math.
That’s why I’m so damn happy Skyrim did away with the attributes altogether. If you use a skill, you get better in it, and you never have to worry about wasting your levels. These attributes have been narrowed down to three that are separate from your skills (magicka, health and stamina) and by the perks system.
Every time you level you select one of the three attributes to raise and pick a perk. The perks are new to The Elder Scrolls, and are, in my opinion, the best thing new thing to happen to The Elder Scrolls since Todd Howard became the team lead. Most perks are passive, such as making your light armor 20 percent more effective or allowing you to cast apprentice level spells for 50 percent less magicka. But while passive, these effects have a very noticeable effect on your gameplay. The more active perks, as well, are stellar. Both types of perks make the character progression exciting, and you’ll eagerly await your next level up.
The combat, magic and stealth are also much improved. Combat in Oblivion felt floaty, like you were swinging at the air around an enemy and watching the health bar go down. Skyrim’s combat is still floaty, too, but Bethesda did a great job of covering it up. This is still an RPG, not an action game, so the combat is still a numbers game behind the scenes. But the force of each psychical impact makes combat feel like you’re hitting an enemy, not the air, and the finishing moves add to the illusion.
Magic is much improved as well. Bethesda took a few pages out of the BioShock book: dual wielding with the spells being visible in your hand. The end result is a much more versatile system. Both perks and being able to dual charge spells also help make the magic more interesting than in Oblivion.
Bethesda has also restricted each spell school to a fixed amount. Before, players could craft spells and increase their potency and effects. This led to some balance issues, and this is no longer the case in Skyrim. There’s only a certain amount of spells per spell school, and they unlock for purchase as your skill in that school goes up. For example, the spell book for conjuring frost atronachs unlocks when your conjuration skill reaches 50.
Last, but least changed, is the stealth gameplay. I haven’t noticed any fundamental differences in how enemies detect you in the game, only minor ones. Before, in Oblivion, the eye would just brighten if you were seen, and in Skyrim it opens and closes based on how much an enemy notices you. The perks, like everything else, do make stealth feel a more physical. Unlocking the assassin’s blade perk, that does 15x damage with daggers, makes backstabbing people more exciting. The same goes for the flashy stealth finishing moves.
Another important trope of an RPG is the exploration. Skyrim does it like no other. Oblivion did it well too, but most of the dungeons began to feel redundant. There was only so many times before fighting bandits, undead or the forces of nature grew boring. This isn’t the case with Skyrim.
I once stumbled upon a cave full of bandits. These guys wore animal skins and antlers and ran around with axes. Nothing but re-skinned bandits, I thought. I cleared out the cave, thinking that was it. But then I found a back door that led to a large vale between mountains. Turns out these guys are the foot soldiers of witches, and the head witch is a hagraven, a half-woman half-bird sorceress. I chased her through another cave as she disappeared before I could kill her each time. At our final confrontation on the side of the mountain, she summoned two frost trolls. It was exciting, and this was just one example of many surprises in the game.
In fact, there’s so many interesting things to see it’s very easy to lose track of what you’re doing. Multiple times I would be on my way to a set destination, walking through the woods, when I’d spy a cave. I’d jump into that cave and kill some vampires. I’d then find a book that discussed a certain mythical sword, and where to find it. I’d soon forget completely about my previous destination and head off to find this lost sword. And along the way to the lost sword, of course, I’d lose track again and find myself fighting a dragon atop a mountain. It’s simply awesome how much Bethesda has put in this world for you to do.
Oh, and speaking of dragons, you may have heard they’re flying around Skyrim. I’ve never been a big fan of dragons. I’ve always thought they’re an overused trope of the fantasy genre and rarely written in a new and interesting ways. But you probably don’t care about that. The dragon fights—the first few, anyway—are very exciting. They do get a little stale, there’s a ton of dragon fights, although they’re always worth fighting. Not a detriment to the game by any means, and are definitely a positive. I just wish they were replaced by some imaginative creature of Bethesda’s own design.
In short, the gameplay solved every problem I had with Oblivion’s. The leveling system is fixed. The combat is extremely solid and the world is a lot more interesting to explore. Right now, as I write this, I want to do nothing more than go find the next little mystery Skyrim has to offer. I’m positive there’s dozens more for me to find after 50+ hours of play.
The Elder Scrolls games aren’t known for strong, gripping narratives. Skyrim isn’t really any different. The main-quest line is certainly the best told of the series (the best Elder Scrolls story, I think, was Morrowind’s), but it’s not going to have you on the edge of your seat, wondering what’s going to happen next. The same goes for the game’s other factions. That isn’t to say these stories are write-offs, but rather not what’s important in an Elder Scrolls “story.”
What an Elder Scrolls story is known for is the rich world they’ve created. The province of Skyrim feels like a living world, full of living people with real issues – political issues. Racial issues are a big one in this world. If you head up to Windhelm, the Nordic residents are very eager to give the Elven races a bad time. The cat-like Kahjiit are stereotyped to be drug dealing thieves, and the High Elves think they’re pretty much better than everyone.
It all goes a long way to create a world that feels like it has always been there, and when you stop playing and complete the main quest, it will still continue on. The histories of the entire world of Nirn are written down in hundreds books and talked about by the world’s residents. The religions of the world and mythologies are also well thought out, and have been since Morrowind. Bethesda has created one of the richest worlds in gaming, and that’s no small feat.
I could easily write another 2,500 words on this game. Probably more. There’s so much content in the game that there’s no way I could cover it all in a reasonably sized review. Part of that is because I haven’t seen all this content myself. I haven’t even touched the Dark Brotherhood or the Thieves Guild. I’ve yet to create a stealth character to do those very things. I’ve perhaps explored a quarter of the entire game, and that’s after 50 hours of play.
The other part is because I really want to be playing this game right now instead of writing about it.
Anyway, I called it back in ’06. Bethesda would solve Oblivion’s issues with their next Elder Scrolls title, and they’ve exceeded my expectations. I won’t be awaiting word of The Elder Scrolls VI: Summerset Isles (I called it in 2011) because I was disappointed in Skyrim. Rather, this time I’ll be awaiting word of the next title because it’s the Elder Fucking Scrolls, and they’re terrific games.