An overdose of things to do.
The Elder Scrolls series has always been groundbreaking to some degree. The first games had randomly generated algorithms and they were still too large for their own good. Morrowind was a big undertake back in the late '90s up to its release in 2002. Oblivion is often mentioned as the one title to have 'kicked out' the new generation of games for real on consoles. A massive feat during the initial days of brand new hardware on PS3 and Xbox 360. So it's not a misunderstanding to say Skyrim was highly anticipated and anything other than a superb game would be considered a flop.
I have to admit a new Elder Scrolls game was something I had been waiting since I completed Oblivion and thought it was one of the best games I had played, as well as obviously one of the best current generation had to offer. Knowing Bethesda's fame I knew I could expect two things, a massive experience as well as a glitchy final product. We can say Bethesda hasn't let us down on both, for the best and for the worst.
I'll be as transparent as I can be to say that I haven't had many problems playing Skyrim long after its release, during its first days many bugs were reported but it seems Bethesda has done a good job fixing their final product and providing the most fluid experience they could. Still, playing through an Elder Scrolls game without having any hiccups is something we can only dream about, known glitches like an invincible final boss or some minor graphical oddities will happen along the way, nothing you can't overcome though.
Comparing to Oblivion (which was glitchy as heck) and Morrowind (which is the High King of Glitchland) it seems Skyrim come off as the cleanest release yet. Something that sounds odd really, Bethesda had a reputation back in the day of releasing badly polished games, it almost made them go under before Morrowind came along, and this stigma was understandable as much as we know it won't go away easily. The oddness that strikes is that the industry these days seem much more urgent, in the sense that publishers often rush development so the profit may come earlier.
The fixing begins afterward with patches and DLC. After all, why take 3 years to develop something that will be sold for 60 dollars while you can take 2 years, release a briefer product for those exactly 60 dollars and spend another year to make DLC which will create another easy income. With publishers and shareholders on your back rushing their profit, it's hard to say no. The concept is already there anyway. The fact Bethesda swam against the tide is interesting enough, making the profit Bethesda acquired so far seem pretty well-earned.
Thinking back to the Oblivion days I could quickly name everything that springs to mind about that iteration which I thought wasn't stellar. First the glitches, no one enjoys losing game saves, especially after 20 hours playing a game as complex as an Elder Scrolls. As I've said earlier this part is pretty much covered. It's important to take in consideration that making a glitch-less game is nearly impossible, especially a game as immense as an RPG of this caliber.
Hell, Pong had glitches, I wouldn't expect no one at Bethesda to be the reincarnation of Jesus and make this one completely clean. So far so good, the problems seem much scarce in comparison to the last two big releases of the Elder Scrolls series, so I would consider this aspect a great success for them. You just have to keep in mind that problems will arise, but most of them seem to be easily sorted out.
Secondly, I thought Oblivion was too big for its own good. Sure it had many places to explore and all, that's perfectly fine, I wouldn't want it straight forward at all, but you can't simply have a gigantic world and expect people to be marveled. You got to inject a purpose in it. Why would I care closing the dozen and dozens of Oblivion gates if nothing would be gained from it? The answer is, I wouldn't.
You don't actually need to gift the player with something valuable in-game, you could simply put a message on the map saying "well, congratulations for closing this senseless gate, you didn't need to, but you closed it! Thanks for playing!". Of course not using those exactly words but you get the picture. So many places to visit and the game doesn't track which ones you've completed and which ones you haven't. Not too encouraging if you ask me.
Skyrim rights the wrongs of the past and actually lists on the map which dungeons are completed and which ones aren't. It's hard to say if every one of them is tracked but most of them seem to be. It can either be a deep cavern full of high-class assassins equipped with the most protective glass armor you can find along with the deadliest enchanted sword there is; or it could be just some plains in the middle of nowhere inhabited by a bear, a wolf and a giant spider. Completionists applaud.
The third problem Oblivion had was its underwhelming main story. You could easily complete it in less than 10 hours and go delve into side-quests which represented 90% of the play-time. I'm not trying to fool myself into thinking an Elder Scrolls story will be as well thought-out as a Bioware game is for example. The focus is completely different, but there's really no need to get sloppy.
This time around they managed to forge a main story that's pretty interesting as well as make it have more influence toward some side-quests. The problems the main character faces seems much more latent in everyday people's lives than ever before. This sure counts many points on immersion since part of what makes this game memorable is the constant feeling you have a choice and you have a chance of helping other people or yourself. People with problems won't be scarce as you traverse through he game, the outcome of it is in your hands.
Those are what I would call my 3 primary problems with Oblivion. All of them have had significant improvements in Skyrim. When you take whatever was working on an installment and make a sequel that takes in consideration the successes while fixing what was sub-par in quality, that's when I call it a complete success.
If Oblivion's world felt somewhat sterile, Skyrim will surely impress most players. I wasn't one of the few that thought it was game-breaking, though I never fooled myself either. Even me could positively notice the improvements. Everything in Skyrim feels much more inviting, much more memorable. If traveling in Oblivion felt a giant mass of copy and paste, Skyrim will often leave the perception that the place you're in is indeed unique.
After much traveling through the world of Skyrim I can honestly say I noticed the overall aesthetics of each part of the map, each has its own soul, its own kind of problems, plants, terrains, enemies, and so on. If somebody were to show me a still image of the scenery and had me guess where that was, I might recognize it. I couldn't say that would happen often in Oblivion for example. And with that you feel much more inclined to put on your shoes and travel by foot instead of easy fast-traveling everywhere around.
That's actually something people complained when Oblivion came out, judging by Morrowind's lack of a fast-traveling system people often bashed Oblivion for getting too casual while nothing actually stopped them from not using it. The fact Bethesda gave you a choice means you could make a different one. But no, entitled people never back down, if fast-travel is there it's hard not to use it, they cried. Well, that wasn't Bethesda's fault you don't have any self-control over what you crave for.
But Morrowind had its fast-travel system, it was just "simpler". Caravans offered the service for those bored of spending most of the time walking. There's a catch though, you could only fast-travel from major cities to major cities. Nothing that wouldn't work out in the end just for getting closer to that cavern that stand on the other side of the map. This time Bethesda gives you even more choices. No crying there folks, choose your preferred method and stick to it.
The caravan system from Morrowind, even though it was a middle term from actually walking all the way and one-click traveling, is brought back for those weak-willed individuals. In front of any big city there will be a guy ready to charge you a few coins to take anywhere you want; fast and role-play like. The fact Bethesda took the time to give you even more choices of traveling is pretty good indicative, especially speaking of a middle ground that could easily be called obsolete.
The good old Elder Scrolls formula is present here, but with a few changes here and there. If you still have in mind that Oblivion/Morrowind formula of major/minor skills you can pretty much scratch that this time around. The leveling system has taken a major shift, you won't need to mind those major/minor skills anymore. Basically everything is simpler now, kills stuff, deal and take damage, use spells and create potions, create and upgrade armor and weapons, talk to people, buy persuade and intimidate them. Anything you do counts toward certain skills.
Now that's not entirely new, if you haggle enough in Skyrim you'll level up speechcraft just like in Oblivion, with the exception that every skill you level up actually counts toward your level, not just major and minor skills from previous games. It feels better because the game throws much less choices for you to choose at the very beginning, but it also feels it's been dumbed-down a little. It's hard to care because the old system was a little unwieldy at times, and not intuitive at all.
For example, something that received a simpler edge this time is the moment you actually level up, in past games you had to rest and meditate about what you had learned. As silly as it sounded it felt right, you've had your share of battles, cuts and bruises, now sit back, relax and think through about what you've learned. Sounds pretty right to me. This time you can level up anytime, even during fights, simply bring up the menu and choose to do so. It also replenishes you health, stamina and magicka, which is some kind of poor people's full restore potion.
When you level up you choose which skill you want to boost -- health, magicka or stamina -- and voilà, like magic you know your stuff and became stronger. The new system might be weird at first, but it works. TO bring a little more depth into it the perks were added as well. Every time you level up a character level you receive one perk which can be placed within a skill tree for further abilities. Like 20% to 100% more protective shield while using it (shield tree), the ability to forge enchanted weapons (smithing tree) and upped prowess when using warhammers (dual-wielding tree).
You have a certain amount of perks to use and a certain level is required to up each of them. Another rule is that you can't add a perk to a skill away from the root unless you get there by adding the respective lesser perks before. Like trying to add the last perk of the smithing tree if you haven't even added the first one yet, you have to follow the path and go climbing the abilities with perks.
The new system works pretty well, it's certainly much more intuitive and user-friendly than the major/minor skills from the previous installments, it might feel dumbed-down at first -- especially after your first level up and you search for a bed to sleep and realize it had no effect, at least I learned that the role-play way -- but the perks add enough depth to let people create truly unique sets of characters that focus on different sets of abilities.
If you remember Morrowind days you might remember the days of hand-to-hand combat, light, medium and heavy armor, unarmored, blunt, spear, axe, short blade and many other skills to boost. Oblivion had reduced the number significantly, and now Skyrim bring only the essential. One handed skills governs any blade wielded by one hand, be it a sword or a dagger. Dual wielding will govern any weapons wielded by both hands, be it a huge warhammer or a simple dual-wielding sword. No unarmed skill, no hand-to-hard skill.
Of course many skills were overkill in Morrowind, not so much in Oblivion but we still have a much scarce set of them to level up. The biggest loss in my opinion would be athletics, it felt so right that actually move around, swimming and jumping you would train you body and would be able to move faster both through land and water. The fact water doubled the amount you trained the skill also made so much sense since you were training both the upper and the lower parts of you body, instead of just your legs.
Now the skill that somewhat governs this ability is boosting stamina upon leveling up, not the same effect as actually role-play and boost the good old-fashioned way. The stamina will also raise the amount of weigh your player can carry by 5 each time you choose it between levels. And of course will help the brave souls that ditched the shield to wield just a big sword with both hands with those massive swings. I guess the detailed and soulful world will have to suffice for people taking the road instead of the click-and-travel option.
Lockpicking, one of the most iconic features in the Elder Scrolls series received a pretty drastic change from Oblivion as well. In a way, it wouldn't make sense keeping the old system and not forge a new improved one, but at the same time it would be hard to come up with something that would excel Oblivion's in terms of originality and mostly real-life similarities while still having an edge of skill connected to it. After all, going back to Morrowind to a broken system where it was sorely based on level would be a terrible idea.
They came up with this system where the character uses a knife to twist stick into the keyway to twist the cylinder lock while maneuvering the lock pick at will. If Oblivion's method would allow extremely experienced lockpickers to go through the game with one single lockpick, I'm sure this won't happen now since it adds a small amount of luck for not breaking the lockpick. Finding the right spot of the pick to twist the lock is tricky at higher security locks, the location must be precise or you'll have one lockpick less in your inventory. In Oblivion raising all 5 tumblers would be tricky, but skill-based nonetheless.
As I've said the story take a step forward in terms of Elder Scrolls standard. It always had a rich lore, full of books telling tiny bits about the gigantic story behind everything that happens. I know, I'm always interested in learning a little bit more about the Elder Scrolls story myself, but even I can't deny the main story of the series isn't what drives people toward it. This series has always been about side-quests than about the richness of its story.
The fact many side-stories are told through various books scattered around the world actually confirms my theory. Most of these books tell of long-past stories about very specific individuals and events. It's always a great pleasure delving into the Elder Scrolls lore, but character and story development, in a more refined way is still not par with other RPGs, especially Bioware's for example. If you have the patience you'll have hundreds, maybe thousands of books to read about past events, wars, memorable characters, gods, other provinces and so on. If you're not much into it, nothing will actually stop you from fully enjoy playing it.
The main story revolves in the ,province of Skyrim, Nords homeland. Strange events are taking place when apparently dragons are coming back to life and spreading terror throughout the land. Nothing can actually be done about it since the one being wielding power to do it would be a Dovahkiin, dragon tongue for Dragonborn. A Dragonbord is an enlightened individual born with blood of dragons running through his veins and quite fit to fight dragons and absorb their soul.
I don't have to go too far and say that the character you control through the game is one of these Dragonborns. And it's up to you to stop this menage from spreading over the whole world. The main antagonist of the game is a dragon named Alduin, he's responsible for bringing dragons back to life and your primary goal during the main quest is finding a way and setting the context for you to be able to beat him. Quite engaging really, the story develops quite well.
But not everything going wrong in Skyrim has to do with dragons, Alduin and the end of the world. The land is being struck by a civil war against the empire and their allies in the region and a group of rebels entitled Stormcloaks. The empire seeks to maintain peace by a dubious treaty and imposing some restrictions to the general population, like the worship ban on Nords' God of choice, Talos. That made a lot of people angry and gave them the will to go ahead and rebel.
The Stormcloaks want the land of Skyrim free from the empire meddling methods and are not afraid to take on arms to do it. What is interesting about this conflict is that both have pretty good reasons for doing what they're doing, while both have pretty despicable attitudes as well. Take the Stormcloaks for example, they at first seem to want only the good of their land and their people, but that comes at the price of racism and race segregation. Their main city, Winterhold, has been having problems with other races beside Nords that are being bullied and segregated.
The south of the city is being used as a "trash disposal" for anyone who's not a Nord. Guards will look the other way if other races need help and the grand leader of the Stormcloaks, Ulfric Stormcloak, only seems to endorse these types of judgement, ignoring any cry for help. The fact you need to affiliate yourself to one of these groups in some side-quests actually brings the topics that in this game there's no greater good, just what you think is the less evil.
As for the length of the game fear not, it might pretty much be one of the biggest single-player experience you'll ever have. The main story that lasted 10 to 15 hours in Oblivion depending on how much in a hurry you were will last at least the double of that. If you go scratching some side-quests off your journal in the way you might as well break the 50 hours mark and not reach the end of Skyrim yet. The side-quests will add to a 120-200 hour experience. I wouldn't be surprised if more determined players broke the 300 hour mark at all.
As you can see the fifth Elder Scrolls is a massive gaming experience that will keep you immersed for a long while. The game presents so many things to do that the only only doubt in your mind should be what you're going to do next and not whether or not buy this game. The fact it hands out to players so much freedom and possibilities is quite an achievement and without a doubt this is the most technologically advanced Elder Scrolls to date. Anyone looking for a grand engaging experience should play this game.