Ironically, your first experience in Skyrim will be controlled, on-rails, and wholly detached from the rest of the game. You’re lead from point to point with little input or choice, and it feels strikingly similar to most other modern titles. I like to think that this was developer Bethesda’s way of easing your transition from other games into an experience that I can only describe as overwhelmingly enticing. After the preliminary sequence, you’re set free, both literally and metaphorically.
A vast landscape opens up before you, with jagged peaks rising defiantly above mist-shrouded valleys. The glint of waterways and lakes shimmer in the distance, while brilliant clouds drift lazily through the sky. A gust of chilly wind runs down the mountain behind you, whipping up a mist of icy snow from the surrounding rocks. Your first steps feel momentous; the initial foray into an unknown world of seemingly limitless possibility.
This is Skyrim, where secrets lie deep in ancient dungeons and dragons haunt the skies. In the northernmost province of Tamriel, mistrust runs rampant after the assassination of their Nordic king and civil war erupts over ties to the Empire. As the last pieces of an ancient prophecy fall into place, Alduin, the ancient dragon god of destruction, begins to stir. It is into this tumultuous world which you are thrust, tasked with nothing less than saving humanity; you are Dovahkiin, last of the Dragonborn.
For now, however, saving the world can wait. After all, how can you be expected to concentrate on such a monumental task with all these lovely distractions? You’re a recently released man or woman (or anthropomorphic cat-creature or lizard for that matter) and the world is your oyster; its time to go exploring! Everything here is wonderfully crafted to be believable and interesting, and nothing is off-limits, from the lowest valley to the highest peak rising in the distance. Bethesda gives you an open invitation to dive into one of the most comprehensive, dynamic and enjoyable worlds ever created in a video game. It’s a forgivable, and entirely understandable, offense to completely ignore the main quest and simply wander the world.
It is impossible to bottle the delicious elixir of Skyrim into one review. The vast world and everything it contains is simply too massive and varied to distill into mere words. When first confronted with the prospect of reviewing Skyrim, I was ecstatic. However, once reality set in, I had to face the daunting prospect of actually conveying its contents in a meaningful way.
How could I inform the reader of every significant facet of a game that could very well take a player hundreds of hours to finish one play-through? I tossed around the idea of presenting a series of unique or hilarious encounters and experiences I had while playing through the game. However, this would force me to spoil some of the games most unique charms. I then thought about writing out a comically long list of the features contained within the game. A list which, even compacted into the most concise of words, would, out of necessity, span the entirety of this review.
I instead decided to simply narrate a day in the life of my character in Skyrim. While my first “complete” (as if that word could ever be truly ascribed to Skyrim) playthrough ended with a whopping 113 hours of gameplay, this particular day occurred roughly 30 hours into the game. Most titles are content when their entire campaign spans 30 hours, but I had only touched a tiny portion of Skyrim in that time.
While most role playing games have you select certain stat points and perks at the start of the game, Skyrim only asks one question; what do you look like? You’ll choose from one of the ten playable races, customize your appearance, and that’s it. By only requiring the player to choose their race and sex, we avoid one of the most common flaws of RPGs. Normally, you’re required to build a basic character without actually knowing what skills you will find most useful during the game. You’re locked into a character that may not even be a good fit for you or how you like to play.
Skyrim allows you to craft a character based on the actions you use the most. Rather than pre-selecting a character class with defined attributes, you’ll consciously and unconsciously sculpt a character over the course of the game based on how you play. My character is a morally questionable wood-elf with a taste for long-range archery and stealing anything not nailed down. You’re free to play however you like, and I chose to be a big jerk.
My day began in the town of Whiterun, where I had recently finished running wild with the fighting Guild know as the Companions. They had presented me with a hairy proposition that I needed time to mull over, so I departed from their company for the time being. Whiterun is situated on the edge of the vast plains of Skyrim, near the foot of the largest mountain in the world. Low, lodge-style thatch housing is the typical design, with a pleasant aqueduct cascading through the main square. Geographically and politically, Whiterun sits in the middle. You won’t feel overt tones of support for either side in the civil war, the Legion or the Stormcloaks, like you do in some of the other cities. Its one of 5 major cities in Skyrim, with a handful of smaller settlements scattered about as well. The sun was just beginning to rise and the town was empty except a few beggars and the night-watch guard.
As I wander through town, I overhear a guard fearfully commenting about a dragon sighting on a nearby peak. My map and quest log get automatically updated as soon as I hear the information and I’m free to check it out at my leisure or simply ignore it. You’ll pick up new locations and even quests just by listening to rumors or eavesdropping on conversations. Another guard comments on my weapon choice with a voice that sounds slightly European. The people of Skyrim can’t quite seem to decide on an accent. Sometimes they sound vaguely Scandinavian or Nordic, other times they sound like modern English, and sometimes they sound like Nords doing a poor Arnold Schwarzenegger impersonation. It’s something you’ll find off-putting at times and hilarious at others, and its one of those things that’s a shortcoming in a technical sense but kind of amiable in actuality.
Before I venture out into the world chasing dragons, I have a few things I need to take care of around town. I swing by the house I recently purchased to drop off some items I don’t want to sell but don’t want to lug around right now, taking up valuable carry weight. After ridding the town of a local problem, the Jarl anointed me as a Thane of Whiterun. In addition to giving me some pull with the local guards, it also gave me the option to purchase a house here in town. To sweeten the deal, they threw in Lydia, a Housecarl, to serve as my companion and bodyguard. Each of the major cities has a Jarl who governs the town and the surrounding area. Getting on their good side usually comes with some nice perks. Lydia greeted me as soon as I entered the front door, ready to assist me at a moments notice. Today, however, I’m rolling solo. I drop off the loot in my newly refurbished bedroom, bid my Housecarl adieu and head back outside.
Pulling up my quest menu, I scroll through all the quests I’ve discovered, looking for something interesting to do. Significant or intricate quest lines are separated under their own title from the more basic quest lines, which are grouped under the “Miscellaneous” quests. Just from exploring a small corner of the massive world map, I have generated an extensive list of quests that need doing. In fact, the thing I’ve found to be most difficult in Skyrim is getting my quest log down to a manageable size. Recalling the dragon sighting I overheard earlier, I locate it in the quests menu and make it active, bringing up a beacon on my map and heads-up display (HUD).
To ensure the destination was close enough to be reachable in a day, I brought up my world map. Now, this is no ordinary cloth map with clumsy drawings on it. This is a living relief map of the world, with every peak, valley and river accurately shown. The cloud cover is rendered in real time, meaning that if it’s cloudy in one part of the world, those clouds will be shown, as well as which way they are moving, on the map. Any location you’ve already discovered can be fast traveled to, but that takes most of the fun out of it. Already discovered locations will be shown in white and locations you’ve heard about but haven’t visited with be shown in black. You can even spot some of the larger undiscovered locations you haven’t heard of if you look hard enough. The dragon was last spotted on a peak to the west of me, and a small indicator on the map shows that it’s an active quest.
The people of Whiterun were now beginning to stir, moving about the town and working their merchandise stalls. I briefly entertained the idea of dropping by the local Inn for a drink and some work, but a past experience made me decide against it. A barroom fistfight with an overly confident bard turned sour when an errant haymaker accidently connected with a bystander of the fairer sex. The other onlookers, initially content to merely observe and shout encouragement, took offense to that, and the scene suddenly devolved an all out melee. Ironically, the guards coming to arrest me were the only thing that saved me from being cut down. I decided it was best to avoid the bars and stick with the task at hand today.
While there are plenty of things still for me to do in Whiterun, I have a taste for dragon fire and fresh mountain air. In addition to netting me some sweet loot, as a Dragonborn I have the ability to absorb the souls of Dragons. Dragon souls are required to unlock Shouts, which are powerful words in the Dragon language that are similar to spells. You will learn these shouts by discovering “word walls” or being instructed by certain people. Your shout is mapped to a dedicated button and can be used at will with a recharge period in between each shout. Be warned, however, that most folk don’t take too kindly to a Dragon shout to their face, or anywhere near them for that matter.
I head towards the main gate but, before I reach it, notice the local blacksmith outside working on her grindstone. Recalling that I had a weapon I would like to upgrade, I sidle up next to her and subtly tell her I want to rub my dagger on her grindstone. While that may sound dirty, it’s a legitimate request. Although my blacksmithing skill isn’t terribly well developed, I can still upgrade basic weapons to more refined, and damaging, versions. Upgrading or creating weapons and armor requires different ores and leather, depending on what you’re trying to make. You’ll need to have a higher blacksmith level than I had to upgrade superior or enchanted items. For now, I was content to upgrade my standard dagger to a sharper point and enchant it at an arcane enchanter later.
As you can see, even something as simple as leaving town has taken me through all sorts of diversions and distractions. Finally, however, I reach the exit to the town. Any time you enter or exit any indoor areas, be it a cave, a house or ruined outpost, as well as any of the 5 major cities, you’re taken to a loading screen. The load times can be significant for the larger areas, but installing the game to the hard drive will noticeably decrease them. On the loading screen, there will be some artifact or other interesting item that you can view in full 3D, zooming and rotating the item at will. You can also view any item in your inventory in a similar manner, and some items hold secret codes that you’ll need to discover in order to access certain areas. While this sounds interesting on paper, its application is unfortunately limited and basic, and I feel that there is some missed potential there. Regardless, it’s still a cool way to look at every intricate detail of your items.
Immediately after exiting Whiterun, I was beset upon by thugs with no warning, and my confusion did little to stop them from attacking. Neither did the Whiterun guards for that matter, who, after witnessing blades being drawn, simply ran away rather coming to my aid. Spineless cowards! Unfortunately, I had no time to direct my ire at the guards due to the fact that three thugs were directing their blades at my face. I’m a scrawny wood-elf thief; I’m not built for face-to-face confrontation. As a result, the fight went less than stellar for me a few times (prompting me to reload my latest saved file).
After finally disposing of them by running out of reach before shooting them full of arrows, I found a contract on one of their bodies, indicating that they had been hired by someone I had robbed a while back. My bad, I guess. I paid the worthless guards back by picking each of their pockets clean of gold and valuables. Like I said, I’m not built for face-to-face confrontations; I prefer a more indirect route.
With a roll of drums, I was notified that my pick-pocketing skill had increased, and as a result, my overall level had also increased. If you use a certain skill, it will rank up, which in turns contributes to your overall level. Each new level rewards you with a skill point, which may be used to unlock “perks” in any of the numerous skill categories. For example, the archery skill tree has perks that, among others, give you more damage with bows, the ability to zoom while aiming, or additional arrows from fallen foes. For this level, I chose to increase the probability to successfully steal stuff from people who are sleeping. Like I said, I’m kind of a jerk.
Finally, I’m able to leave the confines of Whiterun and head out into the world proper. A haunting tune begins to play, providing an invigorating companion as I survey the expanse in front of me. The music in Skyrim is top-notch, providing refreshing background noise while you explore the world or adding punctuation to battles. Gazing out across snow-clad mountain tops below a brilliant night sky while Skyrim’s music plays is an unparalleled experience in video games. It just feels like an adventure.
However, it was still early morning in my day, and I had a dragon to slay. A horse-drawn carriage was parked outside the Whiterun stables, offering rides to any of the major locations, but I preferred going on foot for now. Choosing to forgo the main road, I cut across the field of a nearby farm, picked the farmers pocket, jumped into the river and emerged on the other side. I could make out my destination mountain top in the far-off distance, with tattered clouds hanging about its peak, and I set my sights towards its base.
Alas! My lofty ambitions were sidetracked by a pair of blue butterflies drifting across my field of view. I immediately gave chase, oblivious to any dangers of the surrounding landscape, desperate to pluck their delicate wings from their body. Before you recoil in disgust, understand that the flora and fauna of Skyrim can be mixed into various potions or consumed to replenish health or learn new alchemic properties. You may castigate my butterfly massacre now, but I’ll wager 100 gold septims that you’ll find yourself chasing butterflies, picking snowberries, or diving for salmon on more than one occasion yourself.
Much of your time will be spent with some odd insect or flower in your mouth. Like a child who never seems to learn his lesson, I eagerly stuffed any newly discovered plant or animal into my mouth, hoping to learn its unique characteristics in the most primitive way possible. I’m a hands-on kind of learner. With my taste for butterfly satiated for the time being, I turned my focus back towards my initial mountain-top goal.
A light rain began to fall, blanketing the landscape in a misty gray shroud. The rumble of distant thunder indicated that the light rain could soon become a heavy downpour. I noticed a ruined tower on my overhead compass somewhere to the southeast and, in line with my earlier lack of focus, began to head in that direction. The irresistible urge to discover new things is an itch that Skyrim is all too willing to scratch.
A pair of deer went bounding off to my right, scared away by my tromping through the underbrush. As I watched them make their way down the hillside, I simply couldn’t resist; PETA members should probably skip this next part. I pulled out my bow (fire enchanted to kill and cook the meat in one shot) and took aim. Leading the antlered buck and adjusting slightly for elevation drop, I let loose. The arrow went whistling by the deer and clattered harmlessly against the rocks. Drat! Quickly notching another arrow, I took aim a little more carefully, as the deer were quickly moving out of reach. With a solid thunk, my second shot struck home. The deer immediately tumbled to the ground and down a small ridge, carried forward by its weight. While I did feet a little bad, it was too magnificent a shot not to allow a small celebratory smile. I found the carcass, harvested some antlers and hide, retrieved my arrow and turned, once again, back to my original goal.
The tower that had diverted me initially was now in sight; a mass of rock and wood peaking through the mist of rain and wispy clouds, stark against the morning sky. From past experiences, I knew these places are usually filled with any number of unscrupulous characters, so I crouched into a sneak position as I drew closer. Pulling up my favorites menu, I select the Detect Life spell for my left hand and my recently upgraded dagger for my right.
Any combination of weapons or spells can be assigned to either hand. If you want to be a duel-wielding swordsman, go ahead and put a blade in each hand and hack away. If you’re more magically inclined, why not throw a fireball spell in one hand and a hefty axe in the other? Or if you’d rather forgo the barbaric touch of physical weapons altogether, put a spell in each hand and dual cast them for devastating combinations or increased power. You can also place any item or spell into your favorites menu, which allows you to quickly select it without navigating through the standard menus. I tend to stick with bows and daggers, as those two weapons have some pretty powerful sneak bonuses.
While combat initially feels a little rough and simplistic, as you unlock new perks for shields, armor and weapons it expands to be more engaging and interesting. However, it’s not an action game by any means and the combat will never feel all that deep no matter how many perks you unlock. The Elder Scrolls games have never been praised for the combat system and, while Skyrim adds some much needed nuances, it’s still a pretty primitive system. Pulling the left trigger, my Detect Life spell burst to life, pulsing magical energy from my upraised left fist.
Four glowing red energy signatures indicated that there were four enemies, most likely bandits, taking up residence in the ruined tower. A stone arch bridge was delicately spanning the raging river below, and I could make out another enemy on the walkway. Noticing one bandit lounging idly outside the tower doorway, I switched back to my bow, crept a little closer through the underbrush, and stuck an arrow straight through his side. With a grunt, he collapsed in a heap. A small eye-like indicator showed that my stealth kill had not been detected. Moving in closer, I again drew my dagger and entered the tower.
An Orc bandit was sitting at a table, singing a tune about some girl from long ago. I snuck up behind him, picked his pocket, and then brought my blade across his throat. I did the same to a guard patrolling the stairwell. However, this last kill had alerted the bandit outside on the walkway. Switching now to a shield in my left hand and a sturdier weapon in my right, I prepared for battle.
I watched in amusement as the bandit, instead of charging me, slipped and fell off the high walkway into the shallows of the river below. Uttering one muffled grunt at impact, his body crumpled with a splash and the current carried him away. I crossed the bridge and began to make my way up the mountainside. A few moments later, perched on a rocky outcropping, I looked down and saw his water-logged corpse cast upon a sandy beach at the foot of a waterfall. As morbid as it may sound, it was simply too amazing not to watch and reflect on; this was all happening independent of my actions and completely unplanned. It wasn’t a set-piece or quicktime event that caused or pulled my vision towards the scene, it was simply the living world around me.
As I continued to climb the mountainside, the rain began to turn to snow. The snow then began to turn into a blizzard. Soon, I could barely see 10 feet in front of me, but I blindly made my way ever upward. Finally, I broke through to the peak of the mountain and the clouds and snow gave way to a brilliant vista. Crystal snow blanketed the harsh mountain top, and the tattered remnants of the storm were blowing away to the east, leaving a clear view of the vast plains far below. The sun was beginning to fall from the sky, and brilliant oranges, reds and purples painted the clouds. I switched to a third-person view to get a more scenic look.
Like all recent Elder Scrolls games, Skyrim allows you to switch between a first and third-person perspective on the fly. In previous games, the third-person view left a lot to be desired, with awkward animations and environmental collisions tarnishing the immersion you would normally feel. It was mostly used as a vanity perspective to view how your character looked in their new armor. In Skyrim, however, both viewpoints have been overhauled to look fantastic. In first-person, visceral finishing moves have been added to give combat a more refined feel and casting or combining spells creates brilliant flashes of magical energy. The third-person view now looks much more natural, allowing you to use it to actually play in addition to admiring your character’s armor and weapons.
The scenery of Skyrim is nothing short of magnificent. Normally, I give a passing glance of appreciation to nice backdrops and move on with the game. With Skyrim, I literally stop playing and take a break to just look around. Nearly everywhere you go will display a panoramic vista of towering mountain peaks and misty valleys. Sure, the up close textures can sometimes leave something to be desired, but it’s easy to forgive when the massive landscapes look so stunning.
The roaring bellow of a Dragon shattered my peaceful musings. Quickly scanning the sky, I made out its huge frame circling overhead. It had already spotted me, and I quickly ran for cover. Before I made it to the refuge of an ancient stone house, I was bathed in a searing hot gush of dragon fire, igniting my clothes and tearing through my health.
Quickly consuming a few health potions and a resist fire potion, I drew an arrow and prepared for the Dragons next passing.
We battled. Arrows flew through the evening sky, flame bathed the mountain top and the shouts of Dragon and Dragonborn echoed down through the valleys. In the end, the Dragon came crashing to earth, leaving a scar across the ground as it fell from the sky. With a final roar, I made the killing blow. In a fiery blaze, the Dragon’s flesh was consumed and its soul flowed into mine, leaving only its monolithic skeleton as a reminder of our struggle.
I watched as twin moons rose above the horizon, crowned by a million stars. The northern lights began dancing through the sky, the purples and greens in stark contrast with the barren mountain. Far below to the east, the lights of a new city beckoned me back to civilization. To the west, the vast plains stretched out, dotted with waterways and rolling hills. To the north and south, the mountain range stretched out for what seemed like an eternity. “Where to now?”, I thought to myself. I turned and headed down the mountainside, eager and unsure about what lay ahead.
While I wanted to give the reader a sense of a typical day in Skyrim, that really is an effort in futility. Every player is going to have unique and crazy experiences that will be completely different than my own. Additionally, there are so many things I barely touched on that add charm, character and depth to the game. Just wandering off into the wilderness always turns up something interesting, and you can lose yourself for hours and hours with no specific goal in mind. There is a massive world with expansive dungeons, diverse landscapes, and creatures from the mundane to the fantastic.
To save you any heartache down the line, I want to temper any rampant expectations; if you didn’t enjoy Morrowind or Oblivion, you probably won’t like Skyrim either. It is an Elder Scrolls game through and through. However, advances in technology and design expertise have allowed Bethesda to bring their vision to life more than ever before. Fans and newcomers to the series will be blown away by both the sheer scope and the minute details of the game.
The rigidly controlled cinematic experience at the core of many games is at odds with the vast freedom granted to the player in Skyrim. Where other developers funnel you down corridors and through set pieces, firmly showing you the story and how much work they put into their game, Bethesda wants you to see everything. This is not the immediate sugar high of an on-rails rollercoaster, but the slow build of crafting something unique. Your character is the story, and the initial release from captivity and eventually saving the world are merely the bookends, not the narrative.
Despite having all of the qualifications of a “video game,” I still have trouble ascribing that label to Skyrim. It just feels like something more. It’s a fantasy world simulator, a look at what games might be in an alternate dimension, or some strange social experiment using gaming as a medium. Like life, Skyrim can at times feel tedious and repetitive but then, again like real life, there will be moments of brilliance where you can’t help but smile.
Skyrim is not perfect. There are bugs and glitches, NPC’s often react in ways no sane person should, combat is pretty basic and some things could have been done a little better. However, the sheer mass of what Skyrim contains crushes those concerns into oblivion. This is the most realistic, massive, and dense world I have ever seen in a video game.
Skyrim is the culmination of the unspoken promises that echoed through our heads when we first imagined interactive video games. While Skyrim is wholeheartedly a role-playing game at its core, only the most ardent anti-RPG players should think to pass it up. This is the game you should be playing over the coming holiday and into the days and months beyond. Immerse yourself it the world of Skyrim, revel in its glory and its oddities, and watch the skies traveler.
Review by: Nathan Twining
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