Have you come up for air yet? The Wall Street Journal‘s review of SKYRIM reminds us all that the game we’ve been playing is one of the most immersive, epic RPGs ever to come down the pipe. In my experience, I’ve found that it’s less fun and more…compulsive. You do things in the game because you should and because you’re driven to and while I suppose that is fun, it’s a different kind than you’ll get from higher-octane games that take a more linear path through the story.
But don’t take my word for it. Read this!
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is a celebration of fantasy gaming. It operates on a grand scale, but doesn’t lose sight of intimate details; it’s elaborate, but eminently fun and very playable.
The latest installment in the Bethesda Game Studios role-playing series came out in the U.S. Friday for the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and PC after around three years of development. It follows the highly regarded Oblivion chapter, which sold around three million copies in its first year. I played the PS3 version. Suggested retail price is $59.99, and it’s worth every penny.
Skyrim includes a paper map that’s fairly useless, with not a tip or Howard Johnson’s to be found, and it’s just as hard to fold as gas-station maps in the real world.
I hadn’t played any of the previous Elder Scrolls games, so I was starting with a fairly clean slate. I did play and review quasi-rival, Fable III, last year and didn’t much like it. It seemed a bit pretentious, and despite having a lot of nifty, expensive elements in the game, Lionhead Studios didn’t meld it all together very well. I had an almost 180-degree feeling about Skyrim. It just all works – music, plot, character development, animation and the like.
The list of superlatives starts with the game’s animated opening sequence. Unlike a lot of other games, both RPG and otherwise, the developers don’t spin a convoluted, cockamamie yarn that leaves you scratching your head. There are no baffling references to previous versions of the game, so newbies start on equal footing with Elder Scrolls veterans.
Without spoiling the game too much, you’re a prisoner on your way to your own beheading. You’re sitting in a wagon with other prisoners. The graphics are astounding. You can see your destination in 100% clarity, in almost perfect perspective, at a distance. The shadows change as you pass under trees. Branches and banners wave and sway in the wind. Puffs of fog blow past the wagon you’re tied up in. The other unfortunates in the wagon with you do the talking, all except for this one dude who has a rag stuffed in his mouth. In the first seven minutes or so, you discover your head’s on the block because of your alliance with the Stormcloaks, who killed the king of Skyrim. You watch the head roll of the person in front of you in an almost Monty Python-like, matter-of-fact way. Just as you’re about to get the chop, a dragon destroys the village, and you’re off.
Amazingly detailed character development sets this game apart from all other RPG games I’ve played and begins during roll call for your execution. You need to select whether you’re going to be a human, elf or a two-legged anthropomorph. You can adjust shape of eyes, coloration, hairstyle and other attributes to customize the appearance of your protagonist. Each character has different strengths, weaknesses and tendencies, so you’re already taking a big step in your approach to gameplay just moments after you’ve started. I played as a human Nord, good with the sword. My son later made himself a Wood Elf, who was excellent at hiding and pickpocketing. When it was clear that I stunk at swordplay, I started using his character and fared much better in my quest.
A word about the quest. If there’s any downside to Skyrim, it’s that the plot is a bit muddled and mushier than in Fable III and other RPG games. I normally get a game ahead of release and spend several days playing it and shut out all outside noise from other reviewers or the publisher. This time, I got the game on its day of release. After reading the manual and a few blurbs on the Bethesda website about the game, I still didn’t quite get what I was supposed to do at the start. So, I found myself scouring other reviews and Wikipedia to see what I was missing.
To summarize, I gather that my character, who is “dragon-born,” is expected to hunt down the dragon Alduin – the one who actually saved my life by destroying the village where I was to be beheaded. As you wander around the different towns and villages on mini-quests, you get pretty sucked into interactions with non-playable characters, the various fauna of the kingdom or are faced with puzzles you need to solve or challenges you need to overcome, like how to defeat two giants blocking your way or how to get past or around a battle-axe wielding bandit blocking a bridge. As such, you’re so wrapped up in the sandbox, non-linear progression of the game that it’s easy to forget what the bigger picture is or what the actual next linear step in your quest is supposed to be.
But that quest’s mushiness, along with the choice of characters and traits you pick and equipment and skills you pick up and the decisions you make to treat someone you meet as friend or foe, are also what makes this game excellent. Even when it seems you’re all by your lonesome in the woods, you’re never bored, because you know that there’s a challenge or interaction just ahead. You’re never sure if the woman in the cabin whose door you knock on is good or evil or if the animal you see on the roadside is going to flee or attack. That keeps you on your toes. You don’t know if you should go left or right or over the mountaintop. I complained in my review of Fable III that the game was too linear. I would much rather have too much choice of direction, strategy and mission than not enough, and Skyrim gives me that.
What I also love about Skyrim is it’s totally fine to find a non-lethal way to get the job done, and my wood elf got much more stealthy and sneaky, even hiding in plain sight sometimes, as the game progresses. You even get rewarded for it. You can, of course, always engage in hostilities if you want, and get stronger and stronger as a warrior.
You have 18 skills in the game, defined under the categories of health, stamina and magicka. The way you behave on your quest determines which skills are increased or decreased. You increase skills by using them over and over, by training with another character or finding and reading a skill book. That’s one of the cool things about Skyrim is the in-game books you can pick up. It adds a dimension to the game that I haven’t seen elsewhere. At a certain point, when your skills have increased multiple times, you’re offered a chance to “level up.” Again, you choose whether you want to improve your magicka, stamina or health. You gain “perks,” too, as the game progresses. Perks are new skill-based abilities.
My wood elf, for example, relied heavily on the magic of flames and spark shooting from my fingertips to slay or stun opponents. The visuals of that, by the way, are amazing. I’d always opt for the first-person view, instead of the more-cartoonish third person view. You can toggle that with a click of your stick. You can also go into or out of stealth mode by clicking a stick.
Somewhere about a half-hour into my Skyrim quest I realized I had picked up an astounding array of junk, from gold coins to novice monk’s cowls to armor and weaponry. It wasn’t at all clear to me sometimes whether what I had was useful or not or not. In that way, it’s kind of like real life. Every time you kill an opponent, you can search him or her and cherry pick what you want. You can see at a glance how heavy the item is, and if it’s a weapon, how damaging it will be to an opponent.
In the early going, I found two different kinds of bows – a hunting bow and and old Norse bow – and two different kinds of arrows. They fly differently, have different ranges and inflict different levels of damage, in what seems incredibly realistic use of physics in the game. I also discovered how fun and interesting it was to explore and complete quests atop a horse or in a horse-drawn wagon.
I earlier mentioned interaction with the game’s fauna. Several times I found myself under attack by wild animals, saved only by my flames and sparks. In the process, though, I accidentally charred my own horse a bit shortly after dismounting. At that point, my trusty steed became an enemy, rearing up and kicking me repeatedly and even following me. The message there is don’t try to barbecue your own horse, however inadvertently. That goes double for trying to hurt your friends in the game. There’s no better or faster way to turn them into enemies who will hunt you down and kill you, forcing you to flee to safety. And don’t even think about hurting children in the game. The game won’t allow it, and again, you get every character on the screen looking to cause you pain.
Your heads-up display is OK, nothing particularly special. There, you can see what direction you’re going in, the name of your target, your crosshairs, your favorite inventory items, your levels of health, stamina and magic, the number of arrows you have (if you have a bow) and the charge left on your enchanted weapons.
Voices in Skyrim are great. I saw a Wikipedia reference to 60,000 lines recorded by non-playable characters. The voices include Max von Sydow, Christopher Plummer and Lynda Carter (think “Wonder Woman”), among others. Some of the accents, though, are a bit hokey and the monologues and dialogues are just plain wooden or dumb, clearly in there to impart wisdom, at the expense of actual, emotional interaction.
The musical score, composed by Jeremy Soule, is astounding, and there are other nice touches from Bethesda. The music captures the on-screen emotions. There are booming choruses when you’re in full battle and wistful music when you’re crunching through snow in the woods on a lonely quest. The music truly enhances the game. I didn’t realize until I read it that the choir you hear singing in the game is singing in a special language created especially for Skyrim. And I learned that Bethesda created a 34-character alphabet for the game that was used to formulate a vocabulary.
That’s part of the keen attention to detail I mentioned at the top of this review, and it shows the joy and passion of Skyrim’s developers. As a gamer, I know I appreciated it and think it enhanced my engagement in the game.
If I have one quibble with anything, it’s with Skyrim’s graphics close-in graphics. When two characters need to occupy the same space, as when I delivered a coup de grace to an opponent, the slo-mo came on, my screen flickered, the characters kind of melded together into a blob, and my sword suddenly emerged through the back of my victim. He toppled to the ground in a very unrealistic way. I guess something had to give in development, but it’s something I hope Bethesda works on in the next version of the game, as it mars what’s otherwise a very slick-looking and believable fantasy world.
As my teenage nephew posted on his Facebook wall: “I’ve got stuff to do today…But I DON’T WANT TO DO STUFF. I just want to play Skyrim…” My sentiments exactly. Once you start playing Skyrim, no matter what time limit you set, you can’t stop playing. And that’s the real test of a great game.