Published on November 22nd, 2011 | by Chris Hayes43
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim – An HCG Review
Bethesda Game Studios is a name that is ingrained into the head of every RPG fan. Made popular by their legendary flagship franchise, The Elder Scrolls series, Bethesda has redefined Western RPG’s several times over the last 15 years; and with Skyrim, they’ve done it once again. Skyrim isn’t perfect, but is a wonderful diversion.
The new world that Bethesda has crafted is simply astonishing. It feels real. There were many places in Morrowind (TES III) and Oblivion (TES IV) that felt 100% like fantasy. That cannot be said of Skyrim. Every place on the map feels like it actually exists here on planet Earth; from the rugged, snow covered crags in the north, to great, grassy plains in the south. There is a vast number of climates and environments to experience here: dark evergreen forests, windswept plains, brooding mountains, arctic tundra, hazy swamps and more. In addition to the landscapes, there are the cities. There are five major cities in the province of Skyrim, and each has it’s own architecture and culture. One city features stick-built houses, while another offers medieval stonework buildings, and yet another sees more natural buildings that have been carved into the rocky hillsides. This may not be the biggest world in a video game, but it’s certainly one of the more varied offerings. That’s not to say that Skyrim is a small place by any means. It is at least as large as The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, and due to some changes, it feels quite a bit bigger.
With Skyrim, Bethesda took a long, hard look at all of the gameplay elements from their previous two games (Fallout 3 and ES Oblivion), and decided to totally rewrite most of the book.
To start with, the Elder Scrolls team did away with the whole leveling system from Oblivion. Now, players have no initial specializations. Normally, in an Elder Scrolls game, when you create your character, you choose specific areas to specialize in (One Handed weapons, Archery, Destruction magic, etc.). That’s been taken away in Skryim. Now, you simply play according to your preference, and your character gains skill in that area. This means that you can level every category to 100 (the maximum skill level). The specialization now comes from perks. Each level you gain grants you one perk point to spend, and each category now has it’s own perk tree. So, while you could level your One Handed skill to 100, you won’t be nearly as effective as someone who has dumped several perk points into their one handed tree. Perks can provide things like better damage, or better chances with a particular weapon type. In Skyrim, you can be good at anything, but if you want to be great at something, that’s where you’ll spend your perk points.
Each level also comes with the opportunity to increase your Magicka, Health, or Stamina. You’re Magicka determines how many spells you can cast, how long certain spells will last, or possibly, if you can even cast certain spells. You’re health determines how many hits you can take before you go down, and your Stamina governs how many melee hits you can dish out, and how far you can sprint. You can preform melee attacks without stamina, but the stronger attacks that deal much more damage will require stamina.
Speaking of attacks, the new combat system is terrific. Melee combat is now more than two characters whacking each other with fancy looking sticks with damage modifiers doing all the work behind the scenes. Combat has something of an ebb and flow if you’re holding a melee weapon now. Also, the bows feel wonderful and can be great tools for stealth. The magic system has also been improved and feels much more lifelike, more weighty than it has in the past. Best of all, you can dual wield anything that’s one handed. You can have a traditional Sword and Shield combo, or you can opt for the more unique, Flame spell and Shield combo. Be it two one handed weapons, two spells, or any combination of the two, it can be used.
The crafting system has also received an overhaul. Players can now craft weapons and armor, as well as enhancing plundered weapons, and armor. Enchanting weapons is also possible, and basically involves placing a magical effect on a weapon to enhance it’s use.
Finally, we’ll look at movement. One of the biggest changes that Bethesda has brought to Skryim is the way that characters can move about the world. Yes, there is still fast-travel, and yes there are horses (which are significantly improved), but there are no Speed and Acrobatics skills. Both have been removed, for the better. In Skyrim you’re character moves just as fast (or slow) at level 25, as they do at level 1. This may bother some, but this is one of the key reasons why Skyrim feels bigger than Oblivion. It simply takes much longer to traverse at high levels, and that’s a good thing! Also, with no acrobatics to level, you won’t be bounding over mountains as in Oblivion. In Skyrim, mountains are much more serious. They house many of the tougher enemies in the game, and will seldom be the shortcut that you were hoping for.
The User Interface
The UI in Elder Scrolls games has always been one of the series week points. Sadly, that trend continues here, but for completely different reasons. In the past, the UI has failed due to being too cumbersome. It often provided plenty of information, but was difficult to use or navigate quickly.
Skyrim has the opposite problem. The UI is one of the sleekest, easiest to navigate UI’s ever put into an RPG. However, it’s very difficult to find all of the pertinent information all in one spot. A large portion of space is dedicated to showing off the items you have or the spells you want to equip, and while each item and spell looks fantastic, most RPG fans would rather have more information instead. Your character’s inventory is split up into categories (weapons, apparel, books, potions, etc.), and each category is listed alphabetically. I typically don’t mind this, but if I’m looking for a Potion of Strength, I have to look through about 30 “Potion of’s” before I find it. Alphabetical listings aren’t bad (it’s typically my preference), but a couple of filters would’ve been helpful.
Finally, as smooth as it is, the UI has very few real features. There is no ability to search for something specific, no option to “compare” two items (you have to do it manually by running up and down the list), and no way to see you’re character’s outfit in the menu. While Skyrim is played in the First Person view by default, many Elder Scrolls fans have become used to seeing how awesome their character looked through the equipment menu in the UI. Now, players have to equip an item, close out the UI, drop to 3rd person view, stop moving, and rotate the camera to see their new duds from the front. Yes, equipping things has become much easier (especially with the new Favorites option), but often, it almost seems pointless from a visual perspective to equip anything better than the rags you start with. I often forget what kind of armor I’m wearing or how good it is. That wasn’t an issue in Oblivion.
One of the big draws that Skyrim offers is the ability to fight dragons. Depending on where you go, dragon-lore can vary quite a bit in fantasy. Sometimes they speak, sometimes they can’t, sometimes they are benevolent, and sometimes they are evil, but they are always smart. Pulling off believable dragons may have been one of Bethesda’s biggest challenges, and they pulled it off brilliantly.
Dragons live in the mountains, and will randomly swoop down to see what’s going on. Sometimes you’ll be near a city, or in on of the games small town’s, other times you may be out on your own. Occasionally a dragon might soar overhead, make a bunch of noise, and leave, but many times, they spot you can swoop down for the kill. During a fight a dragon might hover above you and spew fire, or they might fly around “strafing” you and any other “enemies” (everyone is a dragon’s enemy). Maybe they won’t though, maybe they’ll perch on a building and attack from there, or maybe they’ll land full on the ground and bite at people. It’s difficult to tell what exactly a dragon will decide to do at any given moment, but it will always be exciting.
My only complaint with the dragons is that I have yet to see one come into a city. I’ve had them swoop down right outside a city’s gates, and I’ve seen them inside of small towns, but I have yet to see a dragon inside one of the five major cites. Still, that’s not a big issue, and everything else about the dragons is simply amazing.
Something that can be a sensitive issue with Bethesda’s games is the content. Bethesda is known for putting plenty of choices into their games, and Skyrim is no exception. You can, if you wish, “murder” an NPC. You can steal from NPC’s. You can lie about certain things on occasion. You can join The Thieves Guild or The Dark Brotherhood (an Assassin’s Guild) if you so choose. You can get married and even marry a character of the same gender if you want. The thing to remember here is that none of this content is forced on the character. It is all optional and can be avoided by players wishing to avoid that type of content.
As for content that is forced on the player, there is plenty of violence and a fair bit of blood. There are some swear words, but the Lord’s name is never abused, and the language is not strong (Language isn’t even mentioned on the ESRB rating). Part of the reason the Lord’s name is never misused is because the Elder Scrolls lore has it’s own deities. They are referred to as the 9 Divines. They are in the game, but the player isn’t forced to worship them or anything. They simply exist as part of the world. Some character’s don’t believe in them, others do. The presence of the 9 “divines” in the game reminds me largely of any major polytheistic religion. It’s there, but it’s phony. The ESRB rates Skyrim for Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Sexual Themes, and Use of Alcohol. I haven’t run into many instances of Sexual Themes, and the one’s that I would classify under that certainly weren’t inappropriate for an adult in any way. I’m not even sure they would be inappropriate for an older teen.
All in all, Skyrim is an amazing experience. It’s a true sandbox game that puts everything in the user’s hands. The world that has been crafted is stunning, and the improvements to the gameplay welcome indeed. The User Interface is still creating some minor quibbles, and some of the content may be too much for some people, but that doesn’t stop Skyrim from being one of the best fantasy filled outings every created.
I reviewed the PC version of this product, and have approximately 50 hours of playtime at the writing of this review.
– Chris Hayes