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Video Game Review: The Elder Scrolls V – Skyrim
Posted By Adam Robert Thomas On December 4, 2011 @ 9:50 am In Games,Video Games | 15 Comments
Release Date: November 11th, 2011
Platform: Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PC
Developer: Bethesda Game Studios
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Genre: Nonlinear Action-RPG/ Single Player MMO
ESRB: M for Mature
When it comes to size, there’s a fine line between agreeing with the Texas motto of “Bigger is Better,” and wondering if such largess isn’t there to compensate for shortcomings someone doesn’t want you to notice. In the realm of epic fantasy, and especially in video game versions of the genre, a sweeping scope is often one of the more obvious ways of getting the “epic” to be a part of the equation. Yet, and maybe it’s just me, I always have a hard time figuring out which side of the fine line Bethesda games fall on.
Bethesda’s slogan is “The more you play with us, the bigger we get” and boy is that ever the truth, seeing as millions played Fallout 3 and now they come back with the latest offering in their marquee series, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and it’s their biggest game to date. Not in terms of landmass, as that honor still falls to the horribly buggy Elder Scrolls 2: Daggerfall (which still holds the world record  for largest game), but in terms of pure density. There are so many things for the player to do, hidden tombs to find, monsters to kill, potions to make, and stuff to buy in Skyrim that if you get enraptured by its gigantic world, you could find yourself traipsing around killing demons for months on end or at least until the sequel gets here.
So yes, Skyrim is large, certainly. But is such size there to enrich the experience of exploring the fantastic dual-mooned world of Nirn? Or is the company’s adherence to producing exorbitant amounts of content a smokescreen to mask the fact that they don’t really know how to make the fundamentals of a game all that good anymore, if they ever knew how in the first place?
Let’s start with the fantasy basics, which might well be as good a descriptor for what The Elder Scrolls series is all about. Skyrim is the name of cold, northern regions of a continent called Tamriel, on a planet called Nirn; a magical land home to elves, orcs, skeleton warriors right out of a Harryhausen film, and more than enough prophecy and legend than you can shake a Tolkien at. If that level of fantasy geekery gives you acne and a dateless Saturday night just thinking about it, Skyrim is definitely not going to be your cup of mead.
Skyrim itself (the region I mean) is the homeland of the Nords, the hardy race of men who throughout the series are basically surrogate Vikings, complete with their own surrogate northern European chunk of Valhalla, er, I mean “Sovengarde.” The Nords are engaged in a civil war as brütal as the heavy metal their progeny will end up loving, and it’s at a near end to this conflict where you’ll enter the game in the tradition of all its preceding entries: as a prisoner for a crime you didn’t even know you’ve committed yet. The twist here is that moments before your head is separated from your shoulders during an execution of the charismatic rebel leader Ulfric Stormcloak, the most standard fantasy monster of them all (which had until this point been absent from the Elder Scolls series), a dragon, appears and upends the town you’re in. Amidst the chaos caused by the winged T-Rex with fiery halitosis you’ll escape into the rest of the winter wonderland that is Skyrim proper.
If you decide to continue with this primary storyline, you’ll discover that you are “Dragonborn”; part of a long lost lineage of some import, as they are the only bipedal beings capable of actually killing dragons. You’ll find that it is of course your destiny to save Skyrim and the world itself from these terrible lizards, which you can do . . . but probably won’t for a while. In all likelihood you’ll spend most of your days in Skyrim doing the ten thousand other things there are to do first; just because you’re a prophesied hero doesn’t mean you’re all that good at prioritization or time management!
Buying property, getting married, hunting deer, mining for gold, or reading the copious amount of in-game literature (seriously, there are multivolume novels to read here) can easily overwhelm, and that’s not counting the well over 300 unique locations, from haunted graves and monster filled caves to explore between any given destination on your path. A path, that as per Bethesda standard, is completely nonlinear and never forces you along any given route or to go along at any pace other than your own. This extreme level of freedom of choice can be paralyzing at times, but in the best possible way: you can legitimately want to while away your time in Skyrim doing anything BUT the main quest, since this is about as enrapturing a virtual world as you’ll find, at least until the next one comes out.
This isn’t to say that the various plots of the game’s primary quests and storylines aren’t interesting. In fact, they’re actually the best their writers have yet conceived of. The civil war is fascinating, and both sides of the conflict are portrayed evenly, forcing you to actually question your own moral compass regarding the players involved. There are several full blown murder mysteries to figure out; one sees you trying to get to the bottom of terrorism in a city of stone and has you enter a medieval Alcatraz, and the various guilds’ stories are quite entertaining. The fighter’s guild known as “The Companions” forces you consider whether or not all that goes bump in the night is truly evil, and the Thieves Guild plot naturally weaves a tale of betrayal and criminal intrigue, and even includes a helping of some Indiana Jones style tomb raiding and shadowy mysticism for good measure.
Actually, it’s the main plot line that ends up perhaps the most underwhelming. It’s not terrible, but despite starting out strong and featuring an assorted cast of the most classically trained celebrity actors available, from Max Von Sydow and Jane Lynch to Christopher freaking Plummer, it mostly ends up a long and protracted vocabulary lesson about Dragon language in order to fight the game’s big nasty final boss in a battle that proves anticlimactic. Which fits since, well, it provides no ending. Once you finally complete it, there’s no conclusion or sense that what you’ve done will change the future of this mystical land except in ways you won’t see; you’re simply plopped back into the world with a couple of new powers and a feeling that everything else you do is protracted retirement for a legendary hero.
This lack of ending is dramatically unsatisfying, but seems to be in response to fan criticism of Bethesda’s last game, Fallout 3, where players complained that they were “forced” to end their adventure due to such arbitrary things like “story” or “narrative resolution.” This led the designers to make a game they want you to play forever; the obvious solution of writing in an epilogue, but still allowing the player to keep going on afterwards is ignored in favor of a ‘Radiant Story’ system that dynamically generates new stuff for you to do . . . endlessly.
Acquiescing to fan demands in this manner proves that, at least, Bethesda does listen to its community, and they’re definitely learning from their previous works. A lot of Fallout 3 design is present in Skyrim, just with different aesthetics and usually improved upon. The leveling system to improve your character borrows the concept of “perks” from Fallout and the inventory menu takes the “frankly-clunky-in-retrospect” pip-boy, and replaces it with a clean, smooth, and direct interface. They also took a cue from the V.A.T.S. system and added in dramatic slow motion attacks that show off a much improved set of character animations that no longer have as much of the stilted, wooden quality that was almost as much a Bethesda trademark as anything else they’re known for.
Certainly, the improvements to artistry and craftsmanship don’t stop with animation, for Skyrim is quite wondrous to view. Gorgeous vistas of beautiful, almost painted, mountains sit in every backdrop and wondrous lighting effects ensure that the magic you’ll be hurling at bandits crackles to life. Topping this off is a score that never fails to get your blood pumping when danger is afoot; the opening theme alone is such an enormous achievement of a war chant that every time I boot the game up I feel like I should don a horned helmet and pillage the nearest village with a battle ax!
So far, Skyrim seems like a nearly perfect game, doesn’t it? It contains a vast world filled with as much gaming as ten Call of Dutys and it doesn’t even contain a multiplayer mode! How could such a grand adventure that can prove to be so enthralling that its fans have already made numerous Youtube videos  shouting its praises even before it released possibly have a downside?
Let’s have some real talk for a minute. The folks from Maryland that made this, while certainly possessing a group of talented writers, only really understand ONE thing when it comes to gaming: making more “stuff.” The sidequests are stuff to do, the weapons are stuff to make, the dungeons are stuff to find, and everywhere you’ll just find more and more stuff. To grossly bowdlerize a Carlin routine, Skyrim is a game where you do stuff to get stuff so you can get stuff with that stuff and you store that stuff in your house, which is just a place to store all the stuff you already got.
Yes, it’s always fun to find more stuff. But if in film, it’s not about the tale but how it’s told, in gaming, it’s not about what the player is doing but how they’re doing it, and unfortunately Skyrim is constantly presenting a case of the most boring and conventional means of doing everything. Or to put it another, more direct, way: the actual playing of Skyrim is mediocre and filled with half-baked concepts.
Most obviously, there’s the combat system, which is a bit different depending on your preferences, and again, improved from previous iterations, but still wrought with issues. Ranged combat is easily the better example, since the focus is still on a first person perspective and firing missiles (magical or otherwise) is naturally suited from this point of view. Some positive tweaks have been made to melee combat by including a “stagger” state, but for the most part, fighting with a blade is a testament to imprecise hit detection because it’s entirely too precise (i.e. you can swing a sword through an enemy and hit the guy behind him because your cursor is now on the second foe) and how often you can interrupt an enemy’s attacks by bashing them with your pommel or shield, which effectively makes the least lethal attack in the game’s minimal melee repertoire the most deadly by a Nordic mile – especially if you get the perk that disarms foes, which turns even the occasionally decent battle into a slaughterfest.
Other than a charge, there are no unique attacks, no combinations, counters or dodges to learn, no strategy to consider when picking a weapon other than speed and block effectiveness. To make matters duller, playing with an axe functions the same as with a sword or mace other than minor passive effects. It’s a system that never evolves or feels like much care was put into it.
A similar lack of care is present in the AI. There are plenty of bugs, certainly, but it’s the obvious fact that the designers must’ve usually said “Eh, works well enough” nine times out of ten and created completely repetitious, boring and rote attack patterns that are all exploitable in one form or another that’s the major issue. This is easily seen in the game’s stealth system, where you can shoot an arrow at an enemy, wait a few seconds from the shadows and watch as they get back to whatever it was they were doing, completely forgetting the fact that an arrow is protruding from their skull, although, maybe that’s due to the arrow? Regardless, the bandit that’s conversing with his recently perforated friend should probably notice something is amiss.
But the really irritating aspects of the design are the myriad little things. Dying enemies get on their knees and pray for mercy, which is a neat concept but if it’s granted, literally all of them get up and attack, forgetting that you’re the guy who just stabbed them out of a kidney. You can ride around on a horse, but it does nothing when attacked and you can’t fight back so long as you’re riding it; you can sit there with wolves biting away like mad with no reaction until you get off your trusty steed, when all of a sudden it tramples them to death faster than you can unsheathe your weapon. Huh? And all of the terrain, as beautiful and varied as it is, has no sense of friction or texture; when you walk along the plains of Whiterun, you’ll get the same traction as on a graveled mountain slope, swimming through a lake, or running on an ice floe, since basic physics and momentum apparently don’t exist in Skyrim.
The list of the “other stuff,” that is, the stuff that’s wrong with the game (or just bizarrely inconsistent) goes on just as long as what it does right. Picking locks, a crime, freezes time, which means as long as you aren’t completely idiotic and doing it right in front of a guard, you’ll never worry about getting caught making the one threat it contains moot. If you become friendly with someone, you can take almost everything they own out of their home and no one bats an eye. Food is present as an alternate form of healing, and traps are deadly at first, but if you raise your health a bit, both become a waste of time. Paralyze poison is powerful enough to be game breaking while poisons that actually hurt enemies are comparatively useless. Even with an expanded voice cast, you’ll still constantly encounter instances of the same voice actor talking to himself through two different NPCs. I could seriously go on here, and I’m not even getting into bugs other than to say that there are enough here to call for fumigation.
For as many improvements as have been made to this game over their last, it simply seems that Bethesda just doesn’t really know much about making games. Literally every aspect of Skyrim has been done before by other developers and done better, even in the same genre. Dark Souls had far better combat with both sword and sorcery. Thief: The Dark Project, which came out in 1998, still has a better stealth system. Zelda games have consistently made horseback riding and world navigation more fun and engaging. Pretty much every other game since the dawn of the NES understands that you should probably have less friction on ice than on a paved road!
Really though, this level of general mediocrity is expected in a game that crams more content onto its disc than most developers produce for the duration of their careers, and with the ridiculous level of freedom granted to the player. When those are the aspects a developer focuses on, of course other elements, even ones considered integral in other games, fall by the wayside.
But that’s just a reason, and not an excuse. No, the real question is simple: does the mediocrity of the game’s individual elements outweigh the sheer density of its world and the enjoyment you’ll find there?
That’s going to depend on whether you like the world enough, and are able to enjoy Skyrim less as a game, and more as (fittingly for this site), a novel. If you can get into the mythos and lore the game presents you with. If you can care about the characters that you’ll meet along the journey that you’ll have your hand in creating. Can you love the world itself?
For my part, I can. Skyrim is a beautiful place, and I found it easy to fall for, and I know I’m not alone in this, as it’s already sold millions at retail. But I can’t help but feel that The Elder Scrolls is sort of like your average licensed game that ties in with an established franchise of far better quality, it’s just that in this case, the people who made the original are also the same people making the crappy game adaptation.
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URLs in this post:
 world record: http://www.bethblog.com/2008/02/29/guinness-reveals-elder-scrolls-records/
 Youtube videos: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c9eGtyqz4gY