doctor_kaz's The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (PC) review

A very typical Bethesda game, in both good ways and bad

Morrowind had problems. They were addressed somewhat in Oblivion. But then Oblivion had problems, which were addressed somewhat in Fallout 3. For Skyrim, Bethesda stuck with the same basic formula as their other huge open-ended fantasy role playing games, but they also imported a lot of the good parts about Fallout 3. Those good parts included a slightly smaller world with more focus on design, more interesting quests and dialog, and better choice and consequences. Most of the flaws with Morrowind and Oblivion can be traced to Bethesda’s tendency to build huge, massive free worlds and then populate them with generic content. Skyrim, ultimately, shares a lot of those flaws, but they have been at least improved upon with Skyrim.

That’s not to say that the game is perfect. Like every other Bethesda game, you eventually reach that point in the game where you sense the treadmill under your feet. Merchants who started the game selling cheap iron weapons and furs are carrying glass weapons and armor by the end of the game, for some reason. Before long, you will notice that the low level fodder populating most dungeons hasn’t gotten any better, but they are sometimes lorded over by a ridiculously hard boss. After plundering a bunch of dungeons, you may find that you have lots of gold, but very little that is worth buying, because all of the merchants’ wares are scaled to your level. Skyrim, however, does a better job of keeping you engaged for a long time than Oblivion managed to do, thanks to a lot of interesting quests and dungeons.

Skyrim does share some big flaws with Oblivion though. Remember how Oblivion had those Oblivion gates, and they were supposed to be the best part of the game? They ended up being a flop. Dragons are Skyrim’s “Oblivion gates”. They are supposed to be the star attraction, but, instead, they are also a flop. Fighting them is sort of klunky, and it encourages cheesy tactics. I was completely lacking in archery skills, so I killed a few dragons by letting guards shoot them down, and then I finished them off with my sword. You get a great reward for killing them – the ability to use a new power or “shout”. Even with that reward though, I never went about seeking dragons.

All of Bethesda’s previous games have gotten a lot of mileage out of being technological marvels that were ahead of their time. Oblivion, especially, was incredible with its combination of cutting edge graphics and physics. Skyrim is the first of their games that isn’t more impressive than its peers of the time. The game lacks the “wow” factor that Morrowind and Oblivion gave you when you start it up. This is probably the strongest evidence to date that technology has hit a hard plateau. It might be a blessing in disguise though, because it has allowed Bethesda to devote more resources to designing the game itself, instead of the technology.

Where Skyrim excels is in its attention to detail, and the crafting of the characters, the quests, and the world. Quests feel unique and are usually accompanied by a mini storyline. NPCs have tons of dialog, much of it well written. You no longer communicate by referencing one word subjects. Instead, you communicate with full lines of dialog. It is an improvement that makes conversations feel like more than an exercise in playing with all of the menu options until you exhaust them.

The citizens of Skyrim each appear to have a useful function in the world, be it operating a shop or acting as the king’s advisor. When you aren’t talking with NPCs, they usually go about their business or sometimes carry on side conversations. You can listen in on them and often get some interesting information. Even if it is not critical to a quest, it is kind of fun to eaves drop on a unique conversation that a jarl has with his advisor. Skyrim has an immersive, realistic feel that its predecessors have lacked, because it no longer feels like the same few items copied and pasted all over the world.

The world of Skyrim, itself, is very interesting. A combination of harsh climate and civil war has hardened the country’s people. Like Morrowind, it feels like a unique place. The lore and the history surrounding the current civil war is at least somewhat interesting. This is a stark contrast to the world in Oblivion, which could have been named “The United States of Generica”. Skyrim has character. Oblivion didn’t.

One trend that continues with Skyrim is the ability to join up with factions and complete that factions storyline. There is a Thieves’ Guild, the Imperial Guard, and at least a few others. I didn’t play them all, It is probably hard to create a character that can complete all of their quests. As a brute melee character specializing in heavy armor and two handed weapons, I quickly joined The Companions, a fighters’ guild whose members all have an interesting supernatural “gift”. They are at war with another organization known as the “Silver Hand”. That set of missions ended up being my favorite storyline of the game.

Skyrim uses the same basic role playing mechanics as previous Elder Scrolls games. You have a set of skills related to basic abilities like melee fighting, magic, item crafting, and so-on. There are no experience points. To increase your abilities, you use them in the world. This system feels more realistic, but it is flawed, just like it was in Morrowind and Oblivion. The lack of quest XP robs you of a great incentive to do most quests. Lots of quests reward you with just gold or an item that you aren’t going to use. The way that your abilities increase with use encourages you to focus heavily on just one or two combat tactics, lest you spread yourself too thinly and make it impossible to win a tough fight. The game’s heavy emphasis on combat forces you to think twice about using your speech ability or picking a lock. Enemy encounters are still scaled somewhat to your level. It isn’t horrible like Oblivion was, but that scaling still can make life miserable for a character with a high level, but not enough combat skills.

One improvement that Skryim makes in the role playing is that it gives you a perk for each level. These perks can change the game pretty significantly. They can give you access to new abilities, cause your attacks to do extra damage, or reduce the amount of magicka (i.e. mana) that it takes to cast a spell.

Regardless of the path that you take, there is a mind-boggling amount of content in this game. It feels smaller than Oblivion and Morrowind, but there is probably still enough material for you to play for 80 hours and still avoid big parts of the game. I played through the main storyline, did lots of side quests, explored lots of areas, but I never got around to the Thieves’ Guild or the Dark Brotherhood. There is more than enough quantity here to make the level of quality pretty amazing.

Surprisingly, Skyrim is a pretty average looking game. The engine is tethered to the outdated Xbox 360, which means that the graphics have hit a ceiling. Graphics are about on par with Fallout 3, albeit with a wider variety of scenery. That is not an insult, because Fallout 3 was a great looking game. However, in 2011, there were at least a few games that looked better than Skyrim – The Witcher 2 and Batman: Arkham City to name a couple. Skyrim would be pretty close to those games though, were it not for another surprising graphical flaw – gray. Yes, folks, the monochrome plague has now spread to the Elder Scrolls series. Indoor areas still sometimes look great, thanks to the huge variety of furniture and colorful decorations that you will see. Outdoor areas, however, are highly plain and repetitive. Some of this problem is due to the setting, since Skyrim’s cold weather climate naturally means that vegetation will be more sparse. However, the coloring in the world is still way too bland. Flowers barely have any color and trees’ leaves barely have any green. Dragons, which should look brilliant, are bland too. Most of the terrain is gray rocks, gray/brown dirt, and brown vegetation. Even the water has no color. It’s a huge disappointment, especially for this series. A major draw of this series has always been marveling at the scenery while experiencing the joy of discovery. This game is sorely lacking in the scenery part.

Speaking of problems, Skyrim has an absolutely awful interface. If you thought that the interface for Oblivion was too console-centric, then just wait until you see this abomination. Skyrim is the new leader in the race to the bottom. There is no paper doll for your character, and no inventory screen per se, as much as just a set of menus that pop up. The click-and-drag and drag-and-drop functionalities that made great PC RPGs playable a decade ago are nonexistent here. Inventory management and assigning hotkeys always takes twice as many mouse clicks as it should. Worst of all, the mouse barely works in the menus now. Since the menus were all designed to be scrolled through by a controller, they respond very poorly to the mouse. They respond so poorly that you will frequently select the wrong dialog option in conversation, because you will be pointing at option 1 and option 2 will be highlighted. In other words, Skyrim can’t produce the same basic functionality that computer games had as far back as the early ‘90s. Like I said – it’s a race to the bottom.

Skyrim is mostly an improvement over Oblivion. Bethesda is one of the few developers in the business today that makes a serious effort to improve on every single game, and take some chances in the process. The biggest improvement over Elder Scrolls IV is the character of the world and its interesting inhabitants. Unfortunately though, Skyrim shares too many flaws with Fallout 3 and Oblivion for it to achieve true greatness. Even with its improvements, the atrocious and unoptimized interface for the PC version is inexcusable. On top of that, I’m really sick of gray games. Nevertheless, Skyrim is an easy game to recommend.

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