Sense of place, the intangible feeling of everything belonging within a game world’s narrative context, is perhaps the most important aspect of sandbox design. Taking that feeling and turning it into curiosity and wonder about what is around the bend—or in this case around the dankest, darkest cave tunnel, or tallest snowy peaks—is even more impressive, and difficult for developers to accomplish.
This is what makes the land of Skyrim such an interesting place to take in. With their latest effort, Bethesda Softworks has gotten closer to what Oblivion tried to be: a dynamic, nearly never-ending, fantasy journey with the less accessible RPG elements relegated to the background, and action shifted to the front. However, exploring the land, not enacting brutal, exploitative actions that so many mature titles lean on, is the aim of the game here. Simply ignoring your map compass and just going is so rewarding that it is hard to want to do any quest or guild work.
More so than Fallout 3 or Oblivion, Skyrim blends the right amount of swag, short narrative, and skill improvement to make each cave spelunked or bandit encampment pillaged feel like a miniature triumph. Encounters often happen unforeseen and lead to stories and quests, often with new weapons or gold—or many times just a new place to visit—as the carrot on the stick. This is a world that has a lot to see and do, and goes out of its way to show you as much as it can through an almost constant build up of tasks (all of which are conveniently placed in a handy quest log). By the time you sink a few hours in, you’ll easily have over a dozen different undertakings available in all corners of the huge game world. I’ve played over 40 hours at this point, and I’ve still got at least one capital city and probably over fifty different forts, caves, mountain peaks, tombs, and dragon burial grounds just waiting to be discovered.
Though the world dynamics work better than ever, some of the worst practices of the premier RPG developer still fester beneath the shining veneer of exploration, and drag Skyrim down from the peak that it manages to frequently reach. To wit, character interaction and quest design haven’t matured much since Bethesda’s last effort, Fallout 3. Though townsfolk do look more lifelike in facial and body details, they still don’t animate enough to look like anything other than pretty puppets. Even though Bethesda lets you exit conversations at any point and move the camera around during, the lack of any meaningful presentation still makes character dialogue too static.
The roster of voice actors has gotten bigger and better, and while they are mostly interesting and give good context for their missions, fetch quests still dominate your exchanges with them. Thankfully the dungeons and ruins that you are sent to have improved in layout and visual variety, but in a sort of twisted compensation, the enemies in said ruins aren’t fun to fight. Combat still ends up being a bash fest with periodic breaks for health potion guzzling, and many times enemies are overpowered. This wouldn’t be a problem if the game communicated to the player that “Bandit Leader X” is probably someone you don’t want to mess with, but there are no level indicators at all, leading to some cheap deaths on the “adept” difficulty level.
While the minimalistic interface is probably to blame for the lack of communicating danger, the trimming of menus and screens has improved the flow of play immensely. A new favorites bar makes switching to your axe, bow, spell, or dragon shout (I’ll get to that in a bit) of choice very simple and quick. Dual wielding, which is new for the series, is made easier by this as well since you can quickly switch from lightning bolt spell in one hand, and sword in the other to a bow or staff rather effortlessly. It is easy to use several play styles this way, so your character will likely end up as a hybrid of sorts. As I said before, swordplay still isn’t anything special, as there is a discernable lag between switching from a spell to weapon swing, but using a bow or magic spells is much more approachable, and enjoyable.
Cultivating multiple abilities—which include everything from lock picking and armor smithing, to alchemy and two-handed weapon combat—is simply done through experience, and I don’t mean that as a typical RPG points system. To get better at archery, you just use a bow for a few hours and your character’s skill points naturally progress. This is closer to what was promised for Oblivion, but wasn’t quite the case. This makes switching how you take on different quests and combat situations possible even late in your game. You aren’t locked into a specific set of proficiencies; the sky is truly the limit.
Speaking of skies, dragons make their debut appearance to the series in Skyrim, and though they aren’t benevolent, (which made the dragon tamer in my heart die a little) they are a good twist on the Elder Scrolls lore. Taking down these airborne reptiles is often challenging and harrowing as they circle above in wide arcs. Defeating one earns you its soul, which is used to unlock special spells called dragon shouts. The souls need to be combined with words in the dragon language, which are found on large tablets strewn throughout the land, predominantly in the main quest line. Though these are essentially just glorified magic, the effort needed to unlock them sets them apart from other incantations, and makes encounters with dragons (again, something that is plagued by the combat) necessary.
The story context for dragons, and the rest of the main quest line, is mostly good. Outside of that, the usual guilds and quest lines occupying the same standards of quality that they always have. The Thieves Guild, Dark Brotherhood, and Daedric quests are all pretty good in quality, with some not reaching quite the same highs that they might have in Oblivion. There is more of an attempt at cohesion and connection between different factions in Skyrim, so even if you’re doing a Thieves Guild quest, you might hear from or deal with members of the Dark Brotherhood. This isn’t always the case, especially with the main quest. You’re constantly told, “You have to save the world, NOW!” but that reinforcement is often shelved for whatever miscellaneous quest you decide to tackle. I didn’t see that particular dissonance as a problem though, considering that the world of Skyrim is so vast that it would’ve been nearly impossible to bridge every continuity gap.
The landscape and denizens of Skyrim mostly cover what slight missteps are made in the story. The various Elves, Nords, and Orcs of the north live in exactly what you would expect out of a Nordic territory. Harsh permafrost-covered tundra and cruel peaks characterize the land you explore, with northern lights and two moons creating a striking night sky. All of the mead halls and weatherworn stone cities share an aesthetic similarity, with each feeling distinct, yet related, supporting the notion that they were all crafted by the same people. Some of the less savory inhabitants such as ghouls and bandits thrive on dark rituals and thievery, hiding out in the sealed tombs of usurpers. Visually, all of the different areas and agents feel appropriate to the game world, and add to the great sense of scale that Skyrim brings about. Though it is claimed that this game is running on an all-new engine, it is pretty clear that it is just an extensively cleaned up version of Gamebryo running this game. Details are often switched for muddy textures, making the big picture much more appealing than the fine print. Glitches and bugs still rear their ugly heads often as well, but I didn’t have many of the lock up problems that plagued me in Fallout 3.
In the end, Skyrim is entrapped by a discernable sameness in its design. The quests themselves are interesting from a narrative standpoint, but actually playing through the same old dungeons with the same old clunky fighting wears the illusion of Skyrim’s world thin. Most of the enjoyable portions of this game arise when the bored mission objectives get out of the way and just let you find your own way. It is the best game that Bethesda has produced to date, and makes good on the promise that was made almost 6 years ago, but still finds itself chained by limitations associated with the scope of the vision. Taken as whole, Skyrim is great. Focus on the one or two areas that aren’t quite as great, and its easy to break this game down more than it deserves. Just remember that, and you’ll find one of the best fantasy RPGs to be released yet.
This review is based off of 40+ hours of play on the Xbox 360, retail version. About one third of the playtime was before a major patch fixed some significant graphical glitches and other assorted bugs. As such, those issues didn’t factor into this review since a majority of play was after the patch was released.