Skyrim. By now that should be a name you know, even if you are not a gamer or even a nerd in general. From the time it was announced and until it was released it amassed a large following, both from the fans of the previous games as well as new people being introduced to the Elder Scrolls series. So what is Skyrim? It is an open world RPG set in a magical fantasy world that have existed for nearly 20 years, though the series never got major commercial success before the release of Morrowind in 2002, moving the series out of the cult classics lists. But the earlier games are due for their own reviews, so it is time to go on with the review of Skyrim.
The Main Story
The story is an important part of the overall impression of the game, often dividing an excellent game from an amazing one. But how is the story in Skyrim?
This is something many dislike about the game. The story is far from original and most fans of western RPGs and fantasy in general will likely recognize it pretty fast. While the originality of the story is not as important as how it is told, the game does little to inspire during the course of its main quest. Going into this one should not expect the next Mass Effect, but to say the story is horrible would be a lie. It is decent, but nothing that stands out.
The Personal Story
In this game the stories you will remember the most is the ones you make for yourself by setting goals and limitations for your character. Roleplaying is not necessary to enjoy the game, but those who take the time it will add a lot to the experience. While it is technically not a part of the game the game is designed around giving the players the freedom to so and I feel it deserves being mentioned in a review.
The gameplay is the bread and butter of any game and when the story, as earlier mentioned, is not the strongest part of the game the gameplay have to make up for it.
One of the biggest changes to the way your character plays is that you can assign any spell or weapon to either of your hands, with the exception of the ones who require both hands to use.
Combat is a major part of the game, being required in many of the quests, when traveling and when exploring a dungeon. The system Skyrim uses is far from complex and fast paced, but personally I find it to be pretty good. But how does it look from a more neutral approach? I would say it is still decent, but like most RPGs the combat is primarily affected by the stats of the character. To attack you simply tap whatever button or key you mapped the hand you want to attack with and for a heavy attack, called Power Attack, you press it and hold it for a couple of seconds. Active blocking(the ability to decide when your character try to block attacks) and the option to use the shield or weapon to stagger an opponent adds to the combat depth, but how deep this combat system gets is fairly limited. There are three main ways to go about melee combat: Using a weapon and a shield, a two-handed weapon or dual wielding two one-handed weapons. Each has their own pros and cons, like dual wielding preventing the character from blocking. One can also use a one-handed weapon alone, but this plays more or less the same way as using a two-handed weapon.
Ranged combat with a bow is also very simple. You hold the attack button to draw an arrow and let go to release it. As I mentioned the combat is based more on your characters stats and equipment than the players skill, but don’t disregard it as boring or say it doesn’t encourage interaction.
Against some of the stronger enemies in the game your stats alone are often not enough to win and it is here the combat starts to become interesting. You character have, unlike the previous games, a set default speed which is only affected by the weight of the armor and weapon you have equipped. When fighting the stronger enemies position and mobility is the key to winning a melee battle. Those who have played Oblivion will find the combat very familiar, though it has been improved. The weapons feel like they actually have some weight behind them this time around and the default speed removes the option of simply running backwards while shooting your enemies with arrows.
Magic is, like melee combat, one of the way one can approach the game. Most of the spells in the game is guided towards comabt and this is something that have been heavily criticized by fans of the previous games. Sad as it is to mention there have been many cuts to the spell-effects, mostly the ones that can be classified as “utility”-spells.
The cuts include effects like “Open Lock”, “Waterwalking”, “Feather”, “Fortify Skill” and “Burden” are not included, limiting the options for non-combat based magic. As for the magic that is included in the game it is, in my opinion, better than the same effects from earlier. There have been added more variety in the nature of the Destruction spells, ranging from shooting fire or lightning from your hands like the Emperor of the Galactic Empire does to more traditional bolts with varying effects to runes you place on the ground. The Destruction school of magic is clearly the one who have received the biggest improvement.
In addition to Destruction the other schools of magic are Alteration, Illusion, Conjuration and Restoration. Some effects have been relocated compared to the previous installments in the series, but the spells themselves generally have a very straightforward usage. One thing they did add to all the magic schools the option to dual cast spells for increased power. These is done by having the same spell in both hands and activate them both at the same time, granted that you have the necessary perk for your character to do it.
The stealth in the game is divided into two categories: Assassinations and stealing. The process is simple: Go into sneak mode and you will see an “eye” around the characters crosshair. If you are out of sight it will be closed and the more alerted the NPCs and monsters are alerted to your presence the more it will open. When the eye is fully open there is someone who sees you. If someone is alerted to your presence is based on the Sneak skill, the lighting and how much noise you make.
When you are sneaking you can pickpocket people(chances of success is based on the Pickpocket skill) or attack them for a Sneak Attack bonus which is based on the type of weapon and which perks you have.
Intimidating and persuasion is based on the Speech skill and, in the case of intimidation, your characters level. The skill also affects the price you can buy and sell items at stores and with the end tire perks you can increase the amount of money the vendors have for bartering. Sometimes in quests you will be presented a persuasion and/or intimidation option, but it is usually only to achieve the same result as you normally would a little faster. The concept is fine, but I feel that much potential have been lost.
One of the new additions to the series is the addition of the Thu’um, or Dragon Shouts as they are commonly known, which is an ancient form of magic used by the Nords and the Dragons. To unlock a shout you need to have found a Word of Power on a Word Wall and you will need a dragonsoul(which you get after killing a dragon).
The shouts themselves are powerful, ranging from the standard Unrelenting Force, which can throw enemies away, to the Storm Call, which calls in a lightning storm from the skies to smite your enemies. These effects are not dependent on magica like the spells of the magic schools so even no-magic warriors will be able to use them without penalty. As the Word Wall are scattered around the world and in the dungeons it gives an extra advantage to dungeons delving and exploration.
Crafting in Skyrim is divided into four subcategories: Alchemy, Enchanting, Smithing and Cooking.
Alchemy is now considered a part of the stealth archetype and is based around using the ingredients one can find around the world or on dead enemies to make helpful potions and deadly poisons. To use the alchemy you will need an Alchemy Lab which can be found at various places around the world. To learn the different effects of an ingredients you can either use a trial and error by combining them in the Alchemy Lab, or you can eat an ingredient to learn one, or more depending on the perks your character have, effects. You can also find recipes around, but reading these will not unlock the ability to see the effect on the ingredient themselves.
Enchanting returns in Skyrim as a skill. The biggest innovations to the skill is the addition of disenchanting and the removal of the requirement for knowing a spell with the desired effect. Now you have to disenchant an item with the effect you desire before you can use it yourself, but this will destroy the enchanted item. To enchant an item you will need a filled soulgem, an item and you have to know an effect that said item can be enchanted with. The strength of the enchantment depends on your enchanting skill, perks and the strength of the soul you use.
Smithing is the combat specialized crafting and include making and improving armor and weapons as well as crafting jewelry. Your character will have a few basic options for this skill, such as the ability to make iron and hide equipment, but to craft higher tiers of equipment you will need the perks associated with the material and these can only be unlocked in the Smithing skills Perktree.
To craft a new item you will need the required materials(ingots, leather, leather strips and/or any special components) which can be done at any forge or anvil in the world. To temper your equipment you will need a grindstone, in the case of weapons, or a workbench, for armor, as well as a single component. When you have the perk required to make forge a certain material you also get a tempering bonus, allowing you to upgrade them even further.
Cooking is the last of the crafting types and is the only one not tied to a skill. Too cook food you simply find the components you need to make a certain dish, find a cooking pot(they are very common) and then chose it from the options you have. Even though it doesn’t have the drastic effects of the other crafting types it can give some good bonuses that last much longer than any potion would, like vegetable soup that restores your health and stamina one point per second in 720 seconds.
The quests in Skyrim not connected to a guild are divided into two categories: Radiant quests and full quests. The radiant quests are rather simple and can be found in the “Miscellaneous” section of the quest log. They mostly include fetch and kill quests, but there are also objectives that will lead to full quests.
The full quests have their own entry in the quest log and are more often than not more fleshed out than their radiant counterparts, having several parts or twists. They commonly have more to do with the lore of the world as well, but this is not always the case.
In addition to the other things you can do in the game there is also small odd jobs like chopping wood and harvesting crops that you can do for NPCs.
The NPCs are the non-player characters that inhabit the world and are the source for most of the quests in the game.
I will go ahead and say that like the earlier installments in the series the majority of the NPCs in Skyrim are not deep, often being limited to a few lines of dialog and a schedule they follow during their life, often simple things like “Go to bed” or “Clean store”. There are some deeper characters in the world, like Ulfric Stormcloak, but there is little I can say without spoiling certain quests and quest lines.
The NPCs behavior is based on a fairly simple AI system. They will be hostile to enemies and friendly towards allies and neutral people. The path finding is fairly bad as the NPCs will gladly walk right into a trap they should know is there and they will use the shortest and not the safest way to their desired location.
In combat they seem to have a few different behaviors, like aggressive or defensive, though this may just be affected by the equipment they carry.
One of the welcome changes to the NPCs was the way the player interacts with them. The time will not mysteriously stop anymore, freezing everyone else in place, but the NPCs will go about their business as usual.
Something both Oblivion and Skyrim have been criticized for is the essential NPCs, NPCs that are important for certain quests and therefore cannot be killed. Many complain that this is taking away some of the consequences in the game and putting needless limitations on the player. On the other hand the NPC AI can start to act strange at times and sometimes they can attack each other for no apparent reason.
In Oblivion voice acting for the NPCs was introduced and it makes a return in Skyrim. The acting itself is generally of good quality and more often than not in sync with the lip-syncing, but like its predecessor it have been criticized for re-using the same voice actors a few to many times.
Important NPCs like Ulfric and Tullius have their own voice actors.
The Player Character
Okay, this is one topic I am sure many have very different opinions on, considering a couple of the design choices Bethesda made. I am of course talking about the removal of classes, attributes and birtsigns.
The Removal of Classes
The removal of character classes is, like much in this department, a sore spot for many fans that got into the series from the previous games. Some would argue that removing the restrictions that comes with a class “dumbs down” the game, but before I take a stand on that I would like to take a closer look on the class system used in Morrowind and Oblivion, and the one in Skyrim.
In these games you choose or create a class and what skills that class is going to focus on and what skills are going to make the character level up. The skills you chose would start at a higher number and get a boost to their increase speed. And that is the advantages of the class.
Something that I have always thought was a weakness in Morrowind and Oblivion was that the class skills didn’t really matter. You can use a skill that is not a part of your class to the same effectiveness as a character who do have it as a part of its class as long as the skill number is the same and that does in my opinion go against the concept of having a class system in the first place.
The system, or lack thereof as some would argue, used in Skyrim the design philosophy is that you play who you want to play instead of choosing who you want to play. Want to be a warrior? Equip some armor and a weapon and a shield. A mage? Start to cast spells and wear robes. A Paladin? Don a suit of armor, pick up a weapon and start to use healing magic.
This system is, by concept, more suited for the skill system the Elder Scrolls series is known for, where you get better by using the skill and not be receiving the experience points from quests and killing mobs until you level up an can chose what you want to become better at.
However, removing the classes alone wouldn’t be enough to fix the problem of the previous systems so Bethesda also added perktrees to the skills. Each time the character levels up he will receive a perk point he can put in a skills perktree, if he meet the skill requirement and have the perquisite perks needed to unlock it. Since it is more perks than there is perkpoints this adds certain limitations to the character and add more specialization. No longer is it possible to be the best in all fields, at least in the vanilla game.
Personally I prefer the system used in Skyrim, simply because it gives the choices the player make each time he or she levels up more weight.
The Removal of Attributes
Now, this is one of the things many fans of the earlier Elder Scrolls games hate. The removal of the Attributes that were used to define characters physical and mental capabilities outside the skills.
There is little enough to say here, they were in the game and now they are gone. But why? Because they were broken. There, I said it. The attributes were, in Morrowind and Oblivion, ultimately broken because how much an attribute could increase when the character leveled was based on how much the skills related to the attribute had gone up. While it may sound like a good concept it, with aid from the upper cap on the attributes, guided the players towards a generic character with great stats in all areas. It even gave more reason for the character to increase non-class skills since they counted towards the attribute increase, making the class skills even less relevant. So they had two options for fixing it: Rewrite them or remove them. They chose the latter and added a choice each level to increase magica, health or stamina.
Now, the new system they use in Skyrim may sounds very simple, and it is, but I find that to be a good thing. Even though there are less numbers to look at I feel there is more depth to the new system. Each choice you make will limit you in other areas and you have to prioritize how you want your stats to be. A warrior will focus more on health and stamina and a mage will most likely put most of his levels into magica. A hybrid character like the Paladin or a Battlemage on the other hand is dependent on all of the stats and will not have as much health, stamina or magica as the warrior or mage. Many will argue that they should have rewritten how the attributes work, and maybe Bethesda should, but I take a simple system that works over a so called complex one that is broken any day.
The Removal of Birthsigns
This is the one major thing I really dislike about the changes to the character system. At the start of Morrowind and Oblivion you had to choose what sign your character was born under and this gave special advantages and, in some cases, disadvantages to the character. A good example is the Lord sign which gave you a non-skill related healing spell that couldn’t be silenced at the expense of making you more vulnerable to fire. Or the Mage sign that increased the characters base amount of magica without any drawback. What is worse is that they haven’t, unlike the classes and attributes, put anything in the game to take its place. Some might argue that the Standing Stones are the new Birthsigns, but I disagree. They are more akin to the Rune and Doom Stones from Oblivion.
Graphics and animation:
Something many gamers look for is graphics and animation. How do these fare in Skyrim?
I will go ahead and say that the graphics in the game are fine. They are not groundbreaking, but neither do they try to be. The environment looks beautiful, the character models look much better than earlier games and there are plentiful of small details on everything from tree stumps to armor. Not all sides of the graphics are equally beautiful, but the world is made to be taken in as a whole and if you do you will find them more than good enough.
I have little to say about the animations other than that they are a step or three up from Oblivion, looking more natural.
Now, here is something I love about Skyrim, and the last two Elder Scrolls games for that matter. The World.
Meaning of an Open World
Some might be surprised this is listed, but to me it is an important part of the game. The games world is open. You can go wherever you want, at any time. Some places and dungeons will be restricted if they are of special importance to a major quest line later in the game, but by large all locations are open to the player from the get-go.
This is another hated mechanic in the game, but basically it works like this: The higher level your character is the higher the chances of meeting stronger enemies and finding stronger gear. What I feel many people are missing is that if you are to have a truly open world you will need to have this mechanic. If not the open world will be divided into zones and is, indirectly, linear.
I think they handled the enemy scaling wrong in Oblivion, leveling each enemy directly, but in Skyrim I think they are taking it in the right direction. You will still meet low level enemies when you are at a high level and most dungeons have a range of levels they work within(example 15-30) making sure that there are dungeons with enemies that are very dangerous to you at lower levels.
While the chances of finding high end gear increases as you level up I have barely found a few pieces of the top tiers(Daedric, Dragonbone/plate) since release, not even close to a full set, so I do not think it is too much of a problem, but I do think it needs to be tweaked for the next game.
The dungeons in Skyrim are the most fun in the Elder Scrolls games in my opinion. There are less optional or alternative paths, but they have added more traps and added puzzles as well as making the dungeons more interesting.
Without spoiling to much I can say that almost all dungeons in the game have their own stories to tell and there are plenty of quests waiting for the ones brave enough to delve into them.
In terms of looks and visuals I think they are the best in the series so far, but I have one major gripe with them: There is less of the small, hidden unique items that you could find so many of in Morrowind.
There are four main Guilds in the game as well as the option to choose side in the Civil War that is going on in the land of Skyrim. The guilds are the Companions, the College of Winterhold, the Thieves Guild and the Dark Brotherhood. The Companions are the warriors faction, replacing the Fighters Guild from previous games and the College of Winderhold is the new guild for mages. The stealth based factions, the Thieves Guild and the Dark Brotherhood is returning factions and focus on stealing and assassination respectively.
You can join all of the main guilds on any character, though you may find it difficult to complete a certain guild if you are not skilled in their respective fields. One issue I have seen mentioned over and over with the guilds is that they are very short, and they have the same problem as the main quest when it comes to the story.
The Civil War in Skyrim involves the Stormcloaks and the Imperial Legion. The factions are mutually exclusive and what side you chose will have certain consequences in the world.
The Stormcloaks are named after Ulfric Stormcloak who desires to rid Skyrim of the Empire because he believes the Empire is weak after they accepted the White Gold Concordat, a peace treaty with the Aldmeri Dominion though it is often claimed that the signing of the WGC was an act of submission. The rallying point of the Stormcloaks is the banning of Talos worship, the Godhero of Man and favored Son of Skyrim.
The Imperial Legion is led by General Tullius who is willing to do whatever it takes to put down the Stormcloak rebellion and return peace to Skyrim. They consider Ulfric a traitor and a power-hungry usurper who will do anything necessary to claim the throne for himself.
I have talked about the world itself, but what about the lore? Well, you are in luck if you are a fan of fantasy lore.
Books and the NPCs
Your main source for lore in the game is the books, followed by the NPCs. There are so many books in the game, both new ones and old ones, and the more important NPCs have often interesting stories that will make you wonder which side of it is true.
The Empire vs. Stormcloak Civil War
Now, I will not spoil anything about the lore surrounding the conflict, but I can say that after spending much time on the official Bethesda Skyrim Forum I have seen firsthand how much discussion this topic alone have made, going back and forth, referencing books, NPCs, earlier games and more. This topic inspires long, well written posts about why people think what they think and why others should agree with them only to be answered by a similar post that set a question mark on all the points that are made. This is the kind of lore I love in games, the one who inspire discussion even a half year after the game is released.
Something for the fans
In addition to the newly established lore there are plenty of nods to the less known parts of the lore as well, hidden in different quests, books and NPCs only waiting to be found.
The game is as of now very stable and personally I have had next to no bugs in the game at all, even though I have been playing since release. However, I must warn the PS3 gamers that their platform is the one with the most problems. Some seem to be doing nicely, and others can’t play the game at all.
So what is my final opinion on the game after I have pointed out the good and the bad with the game? It is a fantastic game, a must buy for anyone who enjoy open world games and a must try for anyone else. It has some issues, but for me it is running perfectly 99.9% of the time.