I am an escaped prisoner who survived the headman's block through a chance meeting with fate. I made pacts with felled powers for trinkets and ran for my life from packs of wolves through forests and frozen wastes of the far north. I picked the pockets of Jarls and killed in the name of the Night Mother. I bore witness to the end of days for Skyrim and stood toe-to-toe against the dragons of the world. I shouted men off of mountains and forged armor using the hearts of my enemies.
I never cooked or chopped wood, but I did make a lot of daggers.
The easy thing is to say that The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is more of what Oblivion was, but that would ignore how much of it isn't. It's also a game that will split opinions. Anyone hoping for a return to the series' statistics-heavy past will find no comfort here. If Skyrim is any indication, the stats are never coming back. I've played through the series since Arena and seen it develop over the years, and it's plain to see that Skyrim embraces its action roots while clinging on to enough RPG elements to keep it in the family.
The player starts out as another nameless prisoner, this time on the way to the headsman's block in a town within the borders of Skyrim. You're guilty by association, and you're unceremoniously offloaded to an Imperial officer, at which point the game opens up the character creation system. After tweaking my appearance, race, and adding in a few scars and face paint, I was ready to go, but dying doesn't make for much of a story. Someone crashes the party long enough for you to break free and discover that dragons have returned to Tamriel. To give you an idea of what a big deal this is, dragons have been hinted at in the series' 20-year history but were never "officially" seen by fans except for one instance in the Elder Scrolls offshoot, Redguard.
I'll get this out of the way: Skyrim's main story didn't take me long to complete. At most, it took around six hours to get through it. The caveat is that it was after I had spent a bunch of hours on tasks outside of it. Many of the quests aren't related to the main story, such as rising up to the top of the College of Winterhold or becoming the best thief in the land, but they can easily take just as long as the main story (or longer!) and have as much detail. You can spend countless hours doing random stuff in Skyrim without even starting on the main quest.
Most of Skyrim's quests and dialogue trees are simple, linear affairs, but there are a few that try to put a twist on things, such as one quest that asks you to draw blood from certain races to unlock a mystery. Others even have a few lasting consequences, especially if you decide to support one side or another in the brewing civil war side-story, which can change the political outlook of the region — and consequently lock out other quests. As for talking to NPCs, Oblivion's persuasion "wheel" is thankfully gone, leaving only the choices and the chance that your Speech skill could be high enough to "persuade" or "intimidate" a character.
Or you can completely ignore that and focus on the main quest or crawl through the next dungeon. They no longer have the copy-paste feel of Oblivion's, though all of the tombs and burial cairns can make Skyrim seem like a giant, icy morgue. Others, like the Dwemer ruins, are filled with strange, steampunkish wonders and stone paths twisting through underground caverns. A number of these even have puzzles to solve and traps to avoid, though it's not particularly rough on the brain cells or the hit points.
Skyrim is also the first Elder Scrolls game that I have played on a console, and the interface fits the control pad quite well. Everything is a few button presses and d-pad taps away, though a sorting command would have been welcome, given how much one can collect over the course of the game.
The quick selection system for equipment and spells is often that, but it's also bugged with lag. Tapping the d-pad up or down brings up a list of the items you've tagged for quick use, and you can even set two items for fast switching. The problem is that after opening the menu, it also randomly forced me to abandon the d-pad and use the analog stick — though there was some delay in starting it. At first, it was hardly noticeable, but after many hours, the lag and the randomly forced switching between the d-pad and analog stick begin to grate.
Beyond that, Skyrim brings a lot more to the table. Shouts are the new "superpowers" that allow you, as the newly discovered "Dragonborn," to use your voice as a weapon. These have a variety of effects, such as freezing enemies in ice or slowing down time, though it depends on which ones you can find. Recharge times vary to balance the more powerful "words." The words are incredibly useful, but not all of them are free. Finding them is one thing, but unlocking them requires beating dragons in combat and then absorbing their souls.
The 1982 fantasy film "Dragonslayer" is considered the gold standard of dragon fights, and this has apparently not been lost on Bethesda's artists. The dragons in Skyrim can fight, whether it's laying down a breath of napalm during a flyby or on the ground, when they try to bite you and spit your corpse back out. All the while, Jeremy Soule's epic soundtrack plays in the background. These are definitely among the highlights of the game, and there are more than enough dragons to go around. Facing down one is akin to a small boss fight: a literal tooth-and-nail struggle for supremacy. They're not all dumb beasts, but the ones that actually have something to say won't show up until much later in the main story line.
There's still a lot of button-mashing when it comes to swinging a weapon, but there's also more emphasis on timing and taking cover to avoid dying. Skyrim is a much tougher world than Cyrodiil's from Oblivion. Critical blows can deal out savage damage, and sometimes fights can end in seconds if the timing, and the odds, are right. Enemies will do exactly the same to you, especially the dragons, so don't foolishly wade into battle believing that a new set of steel armor is all you need to survive.
Dual-wielding reinforces the adrenaline approach, with either hand controlled with its own trigger button, and the same can also be said for assigned spells. Whether throwing ice and fire at the same time or using both hands to funnel twice as much righteous thunder at foes, players have an interesting layer of versatility against Skyrim's tougher enemies. With so many available spells, the game can sometimes feel like "Fallout with magic."
Enemies use power blows to break your defenses, attack from behind, or try and flank you, but you can use your shield to disrupt attacks. In one pitched battle against a particularly tough undead sorcerer, shield bashing helped to keep me from an early grave as I feinted and struck the enemy. It's no longer a matter of standing in place and sawing through trash mobs. Some foes are more than happy to leave you alone as long as you respect their personal space.
Oblivion's difficulty scaling is thankfully dropped, though some traces are still present. After intentionally skipping some early side-quests because I wanted to explore, I finally decided to tackle them and noticed that the undead foes held weapons of an advanced material that I didn't see until many levels later.
In general, Skyrim's environment feels far more sensible. Blindly entering certain regions and dungeons can often lead to quick and brutal deaths because of what is there — not because of what your level dictates to the enemy. Bandits no longer rush you enameled in glass and wielding daedric maces.
Spells of fire, ice and lightning can light up a battle, especially when they are coming from the hands of vampires or mages. Facing two or more master level vampires killed me faster than it took to load some areas of the game, making my ebony armor and magic shield feel useless. Barbarian sorcerers flung spells to tear me apart for simply standing on what might have been sacred ground.
Fallout can be seen in the "perks" system, which bolsters the series' long-standing passive bonuses. This leads me to think that Bethesda is actively trying to consolidate the two into something of an in-house GURPS-like system, though traditional aspects have been omitted. Choosing a birth sign for your character, for example, is replaced by finding special standing stones and picking one for a temporary benefit. If you don't like one, you can find another to use instead. Not every fan is going to like this revision of the title's mythos, but the system works well enough in keeping with many of the traditional trade-offs.
As skills level up through repeated use, they contribute to the character's level growth. Quests don't give out experience; at best, they offer chances to improve your skills by killing lots of things. When a character earns a level based on the cumulative upgrades from his skills, he earns a point that can be spent — or saved — to unlock or upgrade a perk. The customary 10-point upgrade improves one of three main attributes — health, magicka or stamina.
Health, magicka and stamina are all that are left from the attribute system that dates back to Arena. The trade-off is keeping the player focused on exploring and hacking at the lush world without worrying about statistics. To that end, it succeeds brilliantly. However, the previous system was pretty easy to work with, so I wonder if some sort of compromise could've been figured out.
Skyrim has also stripped out the "spellmaker" system. Visiting the Notre Dame of Magick yielded the same paltry selection of spells that's available in the rest of the game. Brawling, which seems to be a favorite Nord pastime, is covered by only one perk instead of its own skill. It's these little things that remind me of how much the series has left behind its statistics-heavy roots from Arena.
Skyrim's beauty is apparent when you pan the view from atop Sky Haven Temple or trek across the rock-strewn valleys or admire the rushing creeks and rivers. A huge collection of cities, dungeons and villages are strewn across the landscape, inviting players to walk through the region to find them all. The variety makes it a far more visually impressive place than Cyrodiil's forested hills. Plenty of top-shelf actors, including Max Von Sydow and Christopher Plummer, lend color to the NPCs by avoiding too many sound-alikes, which was a problem in Oblivion. Unlike Patrick Stewart's very brief turn in Oblivion, these characters stick around for a good stretch.
However, not all of Oblivion's baggage was dumped to the side. NPCs still behave as if you're someone they know by blurting out stuff to you in passing. Cities and towns feel lived in and yes, there are even kids running around. They'll still do some of the darndest things, such as talking to you nicely and, as soon as the conversation's over, tell you to get the hell out of their face. After so many hours, I took it in stride that Skyrim's people are just as rude as the Imperials in Cyrodiil.
In The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, the snow-capped peaks of the Nords relentlessly beckon me back to pry loose one more artifact, dungeon or secret. Skyrim's lavish world is tailor-made for adventurers who are eager to satisfy their curiosity of what is beyond the next bend in the road, not those who want to know which attribute scores play into which skill. There's little question that this is a gorgeous epic, but it's also a stark reminder of what it leaves behind.
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