'Ere Be Dragons! The First Giantbomb User Review of Skyrim!
The RPG event of the year is finally here. If you're like me, not much else in the gaming world has gotten you as psyched as the arrival of Skyrim. As such, most of what I'm going to comment on in this review will not be much of a surprise to anyone who has been soaking up the snippets of Skyrim goodness that have been slowly released over the last year. Even without a demo, I think most will know what to expect from the new addition to the Elder Scrolls franchise, and likewise, I doubt anything I say will sway you either way as you'd have to have been living in a hole in the ground to not have decided if you wish to purchase Skyrim or not already. That said, opening the plastic wrap around the pre-order edition of Skyrim was still thrilling. The black box has that new-game smell, and surprisingly, weighs a fair bit. Inside are the goodies I had been expecting - a leather journal, limited edition case and of course, that beautifully detailed, coarse paper map. But the real treat I was searching for, the game itself, cannot yet be savored.
As I headed upstairs I mouthed "See you next year" at my girlfriend, expecting to never come down after being wrapped up in Skyrim goodness. I was happy to see I was the first of my friends to be playing Skyrim. Other than Dark Souls, a handful of arcade games and surprisingly Bulletstorm, I haven't really been on top of new game releases before, so it was great knowing I'd be the first in my circle of friends to play it. It has to be said, this game has racked up such a following and mythos now that simply playing and beholding it is similar to sampling fine wine or high culture. You feel privileged.
I was disappointed. Not at Skyrim, but at my TV. I broke the remote several years ago during a fit of rage at going negative 22 in Halo 3, so now with no widescreen option, my TV cuts off the bottom stamina/health/magicka bars and the compass on top. It is disappointing this has appeared in Skyrim when it was not a problem in Fallout or Oblivion, although solely for the fact I wanted to experience Skyrim in it's entirety. In addition, now lines scar one side of my TV after is began blinking one day a few months ago. Probably due to some small "collision" with a pen or handy object during another common fit of rage. Pshh, anger management? Skyrim has taught me I was simply practicing my dragon shouts!
First impression? I'll admit I was not immediately blown away as I was by Oblivion. When I first entered Oblivion the only RPG I'd played was Fable. It was also the first game I played on the Xbox 360 which had graphics I'd never seen before. Now however, I'm used to good graphics and pristine RPGs. As I spent the first few moments on that horse and cart, I rued the fact I was not a PC person, as it will undoubtedly have better graphics than any a console could muster. That said, the graphics do look better than Oblivion, and the sense of scale and space have improved vastly. And in advance, I apologize for any and all Oblivion/Skyrim comparisons I will inevitably make.
So I'll briefly outline the story (although as you know with open-world games such as this, story matters little when you're free to follow whatever path/quest you wish) without spoiling too much: You're a dragon borne, a descendant of the chosen line, and one of the only people who can slay the dragons who have now turned up after a long absence. You of course come to the head seat of saving the world by a series of chances and fate. Some would call it destiny. And at the same time as these bringers of the end times arrive, civil war has erupted between the somewhat racist and xenophobic Nords and the Imperials, and you must choose which side to fight for. Unlike the factions in Fallout, the ones in Skyrim are far more realistic and both sides have their redeeming and damning features - it's no longer simply "Are you good or evil" any more and for once I feel like I have to make a hard choice in an Elder Scrolls game (aside from that Dark Brotherhood mission where you have to kill the old lady. I struugled with that!). The main storyline is decent, but as always, you'll get the most satisfaction from the many, many, many side quests and areas. You'll be wandering along, find a new area and probably a new story, character or quest to follow.
It's safe to say that third person is now an option in Skyrim. The moonwalking of Oblivion and Fallout series is seriously toned down, although you can still see the flaws during stair-climbing and jumping, so for me, I'll continue playing Bethesda's series in first person. Fighting is still a bit hack and slash in first person, with occasional depth of field mishaps causing you to swing blindly, although it's exciting to see the slow-mo death cam from Fallout make its way to Skyrim. Despite the misgivings (and for me they were a bit sore since I'm a huge Dark Souls fan, with its third person smart combat) the combat does feel a lot more punchy than the previous games. When you swing, you feel it. When you connect, you feel the crunch. Arrows fly by your head, whistling your death and raising your heartbeat. The world draws you in and makes you feel like you're in a fantastic place, and yet one that is also grounded in reality. Each area you visit feel fresh and new, with a story and history which your mind can create easily as you venture on. From the little rabbits running around your feet, to salmon actually jumping up rivers, to pots of fire which break during battle, spewing flames around the room, to the crumbling ruins - it's all real down to the very last detail.
The sound also plays a big part in this game. Although I do miss the subtle nuances of Oblivion, the guttural bellowing and roaring in Skyrim get the blood pumping, from the first menu, until you're faced with your first dragon. And thankfully, the "enemy-near" music isn't as annoying. It's a lot less obvious and will allow moments where you will jump out of your skin as a sharp snarl and attack happens behind you, as happened to me numerous times exploring the wolf-infested forests.
And that brings me to my favourite addition to the Elder Scrolls franchise - individuality! Even a die-hard Oblivion fan like myself found it hard to enjoy the continuous dungeon crawling when each looked almost identical. Well that is gone in Skyrim. Things look unique. Houses, rooms, trees (thank goodness!). They're all handmade to some extent, and I'm thankful to the Fallout series for bringing this through. And finally, the different races of Tamriel are finally shown. No more ugly elf face stretched over a human head! Elves look like elves. Orcs have broad heads. Females finally look doable! Although to be honest, who didn't wanna get frisky with some of those bretons in Anvil during Oblivion eh?
So graphically, there's no doubting that Skyrim is a good step forward. Mechanically however I feel sees the biggest improvement. The style of the game is sincere and easy to access. You can see the influence of Fallout throughout, from the menu font, to the perk system, to the slow-mo cams, to the individual terrain placement and of course the new lock-picking mini-game (no more tumblers!!). However, don't just think that Skyrim is Fallout in a fantasy world. Even just reading the game manual and settings you can see Bethesda improving on the faults of Skyrim's predecessors. Sure there are glitches (apparently - I have not encountered any as of yet other than a few floating items and a super rabbit able to sprint across water) but it's good to see the autosave system keep your last 3 autosaves just to make sure the game isn't as tarnished by game-breaking glitches as Fallout New Vegas was. And of course the revamped leveling system. Skyrim takes it another step further by allowing each skill to have extra perks added into it, although the same great system from Fallout remains. You wanna play like a hunter? Get out your bow and sneak around! Wanna be a mage? Find some spells, and use them! Although I never really found Oblivion's ranking system too restrictive because I never really deviated from the warrior class on any of my playthroughs (although I'm not too sure about the skills being reduced down to simply Health, Magicka and Stamina), it's nice to know that if I did want to change my game style halfway through I wouldn't have to begin all over. Although I doubt Skyrim will go as far as Fable by giving a sex change quest hehe...
The star progression system is actually very nicely done and gives you a hands-on approach to leveling, and indeed adds to the authenticity of the Nordic mythology, rousing images of Viking ships sailing by the stars while at the same time allowing you to plot your skills and perks carefully. The architecture is also quite stunning (even if those thatched roofs from Oblivion pop up every so often) and combined with the little details throughout, such as being able to examine every item in detail, it really immerses you further in the game. Occasionally the voice acting will bring you out of this daze of immersement, but generally, there's not much that makes you feel like the world is unbelievably fake and impossible. Finding new places no longer has that dread of "Do I really have to fight through another boring dungeon??" - instead with each pop-up of a new discovery, you're eager to get stuck in. Probably more than you'd like to, as there'll always be tonnes of quests and places to explore on your backlog!
While we're talking about quests, I feel the handling of missions has been vastly improved. Instead of having a quest entry pop up for every small task, now the main quests are separated from miscellaneous tasks which record less vital but still interesting side quests, such as visiting a nearby shrine or collecting wood for a certain NPC. These may lead on to larger quests, but generally it makes the divide between important quests and mundane tasks more obvious and allows you to divvy up your time more effectively.
Getting back to the mechanics, and without spoiling too much of the plot, the enemies in Skyrim are vastly improved upon, namely (obviously) dragons! Most enemies don't offer too much of a fight if you know what you're doing (which again, I find slightly disappointing coming from games that I love championing such as Shadow of the Colossus and Dark Souls), but thankfully not all will chase you around for an hour as they did in Oblivion (to quote another review, in a "Benny Hill-style chase"). Some will let you pass if they're in a lazy mood. Others are very hostile and will hunt you down. Overall, the enemies are far more advanced (even if they do stumble into their own traps still) and so if the way they're placed around the environment and dungeons - gone are the days of one zombie down every main passage and dead end. Instead they leap from catacombs in droves or inhabit posts as sentries, making for a far more believable and enjoyable dungeon crawl. But of course, the enemy which trumps them all is the dragon. I liken it to a Big Daddy fight from BioShock. It will be a hard fight that will sap all your resources and unless you're tactically minded, will punish you. The dragons however, are truly scary and definitely not as easy to kill as a Big Daddy. Every time they breathe fire and utter a dragon shout it sends shivers down my spine. When you encounter them for the first time in the game you'll see what I mean - they are smart, unpredictable and very scary. One second I'll think one is flying away. Then it's upon me, burning my flesh. However, like Dark Souls, the sense of accomplishment you get when defeating one is great.
Another game feature I was surprised to be surprised by was alchemy. No longer can you simply mash ingredients together without thinking. You can only perform it at alchemy stations (as with smithing and cooking). All effects of an ingredient are hidden and only when you have combined the correct ingredient's effects together will they produce a potion. It makes what used to be a boring and highly over-powered skill a far more enjoyable experience that is almost as mysterious and fun to solve and a dungeon. The combinations are endless and adds another level of realism to the game. That and the fact that food and ingredients are no longer in the same category - yes, no more ham and mutton combinations! And to compensate for this probable heavier use of ingredients for potions now that all is a mystery, when you harvest a plant it is harvested. No more fruitless attempts to gather herbs. This also allows for the plants' placements to be more realistic and less often, making harvesting what you need far more of a challenge than it was in Oblivion, with plants and mushrooms placed too often and too roughly. It's small but important changes like this where Skyrim really shines over its predecessors.
Dual wielding is a great improvement. I'm unsure if they got the idea from the success of BioShock 2's mechanics, but Skyrim's version does a great job and really gives your character lots of options. No more hand weapon and shield or spell defaults - you can wield two spells if you want, or something far different. It's variety which helps you really get inside your characters head. And as much as I hate to say it, this is one thing Skyrim has all over Dark Souls - your character. From the very first moment you create your character and see his (or her) scars and dirt, you feel connected. The story, role playing and decision-making is what will keep you coming back again and again, and definitely makes up for the small idiosyncrasies the game has.
There's not much else to say. If you like RPGs, you'll like Skyrim. If you enjoyed Fallout, Oblivion or any other Bethesda game, you'll enjoy Skyrim. If you like open worlds with lots to do and freedom both in character-creation and role playing and in exploration, you'll like Skyrim. Basically, if you like gaming, you'll like Skyrim. Although I was not as blown away as I was all those years ago with Oblivion, this does not mean Skyrim is at all a bad game. In fact, it's exactly the opposite. I love the game and feel it'll be one of the games of the genre for many years to come. You just can't beat an Elder Scrolls game, and it has something for everyone (especially with new concepts such as cooking, smithing and the like introduced). Everything is there for a great game and Skyrim certain lives up to its hype. Any game that can make me want to spend my summer huddled on a couch with a sore ass from sleepless night doing "just one more quest" and probably give me a poorer quality of health, is a game that demands respect!
So here I'll leave you. You and I both know Skyrim is worth every bit of the wait, it's just a matter of you getting out there, taking it for yourself and exploring. It's exciting knowing that in a world of games where you're on rails and starved for ingenious and self-driven gameplay *Cough* Looking at you Call of Duty campaign! *Cough* we can still count on Elder Scrolls to deliver games which have all the comforts of its predecessors and still make key improvements that make you feel like you're experiencing a new adventure that is unique to you and you alone. Now go Dragon born! Skyrim needs you!
If you'd like to hear more about my adventures and thoughts on Skyrim, probably more than I fit on one review (there's just no denying or escaping the fact Skyrim is huge and a few paragraphs cannot ever do it justice) then head over to my blog where I will be typing in some Skyrim Diary entries as I go along: Link here.