Shut Up and Take My Money
I broke my new game policy for Elder Scrolls: Skyrim for one reason: Because it is The Elder Scrolls. The only other company I will wait in line at midnight for is Valve, and thanks to Steam and digital distribution all I have to do is wait in line at my computer. In this case, however, I decided to forego my PC fanboyisms and give Skyrim a shot on the Playstation 3.
If you never finished Oblivion and don't want the game spoiled, don't play Skyrim. Skyrim spoils the ending for Oblivion right off the bat. 200 years have passed since Oblivion, so don't expect any cameo characters (although there are very familiar last names you may meet in your travels). When the king of Skyrim is assassinated, a civil war breaks out between the secessionist Nord and the supporters of the Empire. Your story starts as you are being led to execution for your part in the secessionist movement, when the town comes under attack by a massive dragon, laying out a perfect time to teach you the ropes (funny how these situations just happen to arise). I'm just pulling Bethesda's leg when I joke about how your apparently well-trained fighter now needs to be taught how to swing a sword or mix a potion.
The old Elder Scrolls systems are still here, down to the Pokemon-style "are you a boy or a girl" questions that help you set up your character. Unlike Oblivion, however, you won't be setting yourself up with a starting class. Rather Skyrim thrusts you into the world with low but not useless stats all around. It's been a while since I've played Oblivion, but I can't shake the feeling that leveling has sped up since then, given I have completed maybe ten quests and my warrior is already level 5. The heads up display goes for the minimalism approach, at times showing nothing more than a compass. Your health and stamina displays disappear when not in use, returning whenever you enter combat or sprint.
Combat is one of Skyrim's greatest assets over Oblivion, particularly because the weapons you swing now feel as though they have actual weight. Compared to previous Elder Scrolls, which felt more like swinging cardboard weapons (and wearing cardboard armor), crushing a bandit's head with your mace carries a lot more power. I admit I had my doubts about the inclusion of a VATs-style "finishing move" system, but watching your character beat someone's skull in from a third person view just adds a bit of cinematic touch. Bethesda didn't mention this to my knowledge, but NPCs can perform finishing moves on you. Encountering a boss with a quarter of my health left, suddenly the camera angle changes and he shishkabobs my face on the end of his sword. Surprising. Awesome. Ranged combat is still as underwhelming as it was in Oblivion. Pulling a bow and arrow doesn't have the same feeling of impact, and at times it is almost feels like Morrowind's system of hitting but still missing.
The AI apparently hit the training yard since Oblivion. While your typical bandits and thieves pose a threat only in numbers, your more trained foes have become far more efficient at blocking and taking opportunity shots. They'll still stupidly stumble on to their own traps, but you'll need to stay on your toes in most combat situations. Your primary antagonist in the game are the dragons, and boy are those bastards tough. Unlike the Big Daddy's in Bioshock, whose power was overwhelmingly hyped, these dragons will murder you and quickly. Oblivion's level-matching system is mostly gone, and occasionally you will encounter a creature that will bust your head in with a single swing. Take caution, save often, especially when traveling long distances outdoors.
And speaking of leveling up, you no longer have to sleep to level up. When you level up in Skyrim, the game first asks you to increase your magicka, health, or stamina, each of which has its own effects. You are then given a point to spend in a skill of your choice, to give it a perk, and every skill has its own sprawling branch of perks. Want to be a master potion maker? You can put points into increasing the effects of your potions/poisons. Personally I leveled out my one-handed sword skill to give my one handed swords an 80% boost in damage. The leveling system is rather intimidating, especially early on if you aren't completely sure where you want to take your character.
Skyrim also integrates a rather complex crafting system, starting with the potion system. Potions are made at specific tools found in towns and around the world, and I'm sorry to say that you will no longer be making health potions by combining a wheel of cheese with a wedge of cheese, because food and ingredients are now their own separate categories. Creating potions is a process of trial and error, mixing ingredients to unlock their potential uses and leveling up in the process so you can unlock more uses. The potions you craft are also worth a good amount of gold, so anything you have no use for can be vendored for some quick gold. You'll want to grab a pickaxe and soon, because the dungeons you enter are full of metals which you can use to create armor. Cooking is in the game, but is not a skill you can level up.
The crafting system is essentially a way to force players to actually travel on foot rather than quick travel. You'll still find a majority of potion ingredients by harvesting them from plants, and you'll need to kill animals (with a bow for those that run away) to obtain their hides which can be tanned and then used to make armor.
My only gripe with Skyrim is that it follows the Oblivion form of a false sense of urgency. Yes, I should get over to that town and inform them that a dragon is on its way as we speak to burn everything, but I can spend a few days completing side-quests, gathering flowers, and draining the bank accounts of the local merchants with my loot, knowing that the dragon will politely wait until I show up to give the warning. For a land on the brink of total apocalyptic destruction, and being their only hope for safety, I sure do have a lot of free time on my hands.
Skyrim is one of those games where there is so much to do that to try and convey it all in this review would be impossible without writing a novel. At its core, Skyrim is Oblivion but with many of the flaws and limitations fixed. Bethesda delivers once again with a fantastically built world, a beautiful and immersive soundtrack, and gameplay that will keep you engaged for countless hours.
This is one of the rare times I will suggest a game as worth its $59.99 price tag. I only give the PS3 version a 4.5 out of 5 because of the framerate issues currently affecting the game.