Aenne Schumann, Randy Lamberson, and Marc Lynch team up to tackle the enormity of Bethesda’s newest release.
I have been riding for three days straight now with little food and no sleep. The mountain I’m climbing seems to go on forever, the peak nowhere in sight. Heavy snow drifts and thick, ancient trees block my way, forcing me to hack my way as I delve deeper into the brush, only to return to more freezing snow-covered terrain. Have I been traveling in circles? Wait, what’s this? Do my eyes deceive me? I see the stone walls of High Hrothgar, I am finally here!
Off to the right I can hear running water. I should get a quick drink and wash before entering into the presence of the ancient ones. As I approach the small waterfall trickling into a secluded lake, I notice a shadow behind the water getting bigger. A guttural rumble emerges from its direction as it breaks through the falling water, peering at me as if it’s claimed its next meal. I can make it out now, a Snow Troll. I am so tired, I don’t know if I can even lift my blade. No time to think about it though, it’s approaching too fast. By the strength of my ancestors I will not die today! I am a warrior; I am Dovahkiin.
With arcane verses and intricate gestures I can bend the very elements of ice, fire, and lightning to my will while spirits, demons, and tools from other dimensions are my thralls to summon at a moment’s notice. Weapons and apparel are strengthened through my own inner focus with enchantments to make even the basest weapon an otherworldly force. The flora and fauna of Tamriel provide me with endless supplies from which I can concoct potent liquids; powerful elixirs with which I can bolster my talents and deadly poisons to fell my enemies. You may cut through my magical barriers, but Magicka is what sustains me, and my wounds will heal before your very eyes. The powers of the aether are at my beck and call. I am a mage; I am Dovahkiin.
I sit down to enjoy my supper and thank Talos for the feast I am about to eat. I have a whole loaf of bread, baked fresh this morning in Whiterun, accompanied by a plateful of the sharpest goat and eidar cheeses. I have four bottles of Honningmead Brew sitting on the table; it will be a good night. The leeks had been grilled to perfection and the potatoes baked to a golden brown. I had fillets of salmon and slaughterfish and some warm apple cabbage soup to wash it down the gullet. The main course and shining star of the meal before me is the mammoth steak. Have you ever had mammoth before? It really doesn’t taste much different to goat meat, but the richies in Skyrim go crazy for it. It’s quite the task to slay a mammoth and thus it sells for a hefty price. Therefore, everyone who thinks they’re of any importance eats it. Oh, I forgot to mention, I also have home-made apple pie for dessert. And the best part of my meal? It was all free!
Dark as night, I was, silent as the dew on a crisp autumn morning. Those silly nobles didn’t even see me as I generously helped myself to a gluttonous portion of their food stock. I could have robbed them out of hearth and home but luckily for them, all I wanted was a nice meal. I am a thief; I am Dovahkiin.
In The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, there is nothing but choice ahead of you. What teams like BioWare have integrated into a guided story, Bethesda Studios have structured an entire game around. Do you wish to command powers borrowed from daedra and the Divines and walk the path of the Mage? Or would you instead prefer to rely on your own inner strengths and rush headlong into battle as the Warrior? Perhaps you would rather mirror the style of the Thief, slipping through shadows like a whisper and taking out your enemies before they even know you are there. Or maybe you have something else in mind…
No matter your path, however, the Dovahkiin is a legend reborn in the province of Skyrim. Dragons have inexplicably returned to Tamriel and are wreaking havoc in its northern reaches. Seemingly the only one capable of putting down these beasts for good is the Dovahkiin; the Dragonborn. You.
Lying beneath the surface of Skyrim’s rather straightforward problem however, are political struggles, racial tensions, and warring factions. It seems you won’t just be able to strike down these winged terrors and go on with your life. No, the many peoples of Skyrim are going to make it difficult for you.
At its core, The Elder Scrolls V is an action RPG with an open world concept like no other. However, the more time you spend within its confines, the more you’ll come to realize that Bethesda have created an immense virtual world that lives and breathes. Skyrim not only has its own history to be found through exploration of ruins and NPC conversations, but it borrows and blends with history from past installments of The Elder Scrolls. Mentions of the Oblivion Crisis (Oblivion) and the eruption of Red Mountain (Morrowind) contribute to the in-game dialogue. Books, some familiar and some new, provide even more detail into the lore of Tamriel throughout its four eras.
The three main factions that best match up with the old guilds of previous The Elder Scrolls titles are those of the Companions (Fighter’s Guild with a twist), the College of Winterhold (Mage’s Guild), and the Thieves Guild. Each has a unique storyline to follow as you complete various tasks to rise through the ranks. Indeed, many quest chains provide intriguing adventures that delve into dungeons and ruins around the northern province.
Many game mechanics from the past have been retained, such as combat, sneaking, alchemy, and enchanting, though their implementation has been changed for the better. Alchemy and enchanting are much more straightforward, requiring specific tables to conduct their respective activities. Crafting has been drastically improved in that you can create your own weapons, armor and jewelry, as well as refine the materials necessary.
Those who play the role of the thief will find their fingers itching with all of the various tools and items lying about in shops and houses. True to The Elder Scrolls’ form, nearly everything in the world can be interacted with. Magic users will find their role greatly improved as well with the ability to dual-cast spells for greater power or even cast two separate spells in tandem for greater effect. Melee characters may also dual wield, but might find it more effective to boast a shield in their off-hand for blocking.
The levelling system, however, is the largest change of them all. No more will players find themselves confused by the intricate, maintenance-heavy progression system from past Elder Scrolls games. Bethesda have done away with the major/minor distinction on skills and have instead opted to have every skill contribute to your character’s level. Borrowing from Fallout’s highly acclaimed Perk system, players can sink points into the various skills to obtain extra abilities in their chosen skill trees.
AI pathing is the major drawback in Skyrim. Many times you will find companions and escorts alike running off into the wilds to get themselves around a small outcropping that would normally only require a short hop. Likewise the the spell that shows you a path to your next goal will not always lead you true; one time it tried to take me directly through a wall.
The art direction in Skyrim goes beyond impressive. Each dungeon, cave, ruin, and city is unique and extremely detailed. Every loose item is placed with care and the environs are vibrant and full of life. The night sky dances with various hues and colors in its Aurora Borealis-like presentation. It still may be difficult to make a drop-dead gorgeous character, but the models are certainly much more refined than past titles.
One of the only drawbacks to the sheer immensity of the world is that you lose your own sense of presence when wandering in the wilderness. Bushes and tree limbs do not bend away from you as you walk by, but rather pass through like the textures they are. This is easily forgivable, however, whenever you look at the world from any vantage that gives you a view.
Though loading times are significant between locations, once the world around you has been fleshed out there is very little lag as you traverse the land of Skyrim. On both consoles we have noticed some blurring and problems with varying light levels that do detract from the overall experience as well, but it is still far from a game-ending problem. Besides, the ongoing texture streaming problem on 360 seems to be solved by running the game from the disk rather than the HD. Also, patches for both consoles are due soon.
Skyrim’s soundtrack was drawing attention even before the game had been released, making appearances in teaser trailers in the months leading up to release. That attention is well-founded, as the music of this title is perfectly suited to its environment and genre. Rising tempos and heavy chants accompany dragon attacks while lighter melodies play you through each town and village. While each NPC is not given a specific voice, this task would be nigh on impossible in any case. A bit more variety would have been welcome, but neither was it expected.
Skyrim is easily game of the year material and could even be a near perfect game if it weren’t for the instances of graphical inconsistencies and horrible pathfinding. Bethesda have crafted a virtual world for players to get lost in to not only discover its many stories, but also to create their own. Mage, warrior, thief, or whatever else; each have a place in Skryim that is not overshadowed by the other. Lovable glitches aside, Elder Scrolls V is an immersive experience that will hold onto the masses for weeks to come. When you enter Skyrim, you are no longer the player. You, are Dovahkiin.
Tested on 360, PS3