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Andy Alderson travels deep into the lands of Tamriel to bring you this learned review...
As part of a twelve step exercise in self-improvement, I have decided to begin this review with pure, uncensored (and no doubt unpopular) honesty. When I sat down to put in the first of many, many hours to Skyrim, my initial reaction was mild disappointment. In the time since Oblivion and Fallout 3, I’d hoped that Bethesda might have addressed some of the weaker parts of their RPG formula.
However, as I arrive in Skyrim’s Helgen en route to what appears to be my own execution, I move around for the first time and discover that, yes, the first-person engine still feels floaty and weightless, and yes, the third-person view is still a bit comical, with its unconvincing animations and tenuous bond between man and scenery. And, upon being thrown into combat for the first time, I discover that circling your target repeatedly while mashing the right trigger is still a bizarrely effective combat tactic. So far, so Oblivion.
However, the disappointment fades as quickly as it arrived. Before I know it, my brain is swimming in the beautifully-crafted lore of the Elder Scrolls series and I’m swept away into an epically complex tale of conflict, intrigue and morality, all the while marvelling at the wonderfully-realised world it all occurs in. This, I remember, is why I love Elder Scrolls games. And Skyrim, without a doubt, is the best yet – a triumphant benchmark in fantasy RPG gaming; a game dripping with narrative ambition and, above all else, freedom.
Skyrim’s story is set a good two hundred years after the events of Oblivion and finds the Empire divided. Following a war with the rather snooty High Elves (I mean seriously, unless you’re a perpetual stoner, describing yourself as ‘High’ is a bit much, isn’t it?), Skyrim’s native Nord race begin to question their inclusion in the Empire and a separatist movement emerges, led by Ulfric Stormcloak. In a moment of true heroism, or dastardly betrayal, depending on which side you favour, Ulfric does away with the high king of Skyrim and a civil war begins. Oh, and a long-extinct race of dragons seems to be returning with the intention of destroying everything, as if there wasn’t enough to get a bit stressy about.
You, however, are the Dragonborn, a mysterious type with the ability to destroy dragons and absorb their souls. There’s an ancient prophecy about you and everything (there’s always an ancient prophecy). The Dragonborn also has the ability to learn and perform shouts, the game’s major new supernatural power. While it may seem that shouting strangers into submission is exclusively the reserve of British stag parties abroad, it seems the shout is equally popular in Skyrim. Using ancient Nordic words of power, The Dragonborn can learn a variety of shouts, with a variety of results, all of which you’ll need to advance through the main quest.
And it’s a fantastic main quest. Steeped in ambiguity and intrigue, the excellent quest design in Skyrim means that you’re constantly thinking. There’s no black and white in Skyrim and nothing is simple. In a world so divided, you’re constantly being pushed towards one side or the other and Bethesda has crafted the narrative and lore so cunningly, so meticulously that you’re never quite sure to whom you owe your allegiance, if anyone at all. Because of this, decisions feel important. While it may be pushing things a little far to say that the NPCs in Skyrim are all three dimensional, there’s a refreshing moral ambiguity at play and so when you find someone that you like, you’re also aware that they may have some serious skeletons in their closet.
It’s rarely obvious who you can trust and so, when you do find yourself a loyal travelling companion, you form a bizarre bond with them. You’ll hear a lot about Lydia, for instance, who is just one of the characters you can choose to accompany you through the game. While I spent a considerable amount of time inventing new swearwords due to her ridiculous behaviour (AI is still an issue, which we’ll get to in a bit), I could not let her die. It was inconceivable. We were the Jack and Vera Duckworth of fantasy RPG gaming. However, your experience could be entirely different - you can choose to ignore companionship and go it completely alone in Skyrim as (and I’ll be hammering this point home today) freedom is the gift Bethesda offers you.
There is a seemingly endless variety of ways to play the game. You could choose to avoid the main quest entirely and concentrate on joining a faction, for instance (like the guilds in Oblivion). Or you could roll pimp style and focus on making some Benjamins. Or, and this proved to be my favourite (at least to begin with), you could explore the world realistically with no fast travel. This allows you to experience the sheer vastness and beauty of the game world as well as the tension and paranoia of being alone in the wilderness. The sense of relief as you reach the gates of a new city is palpable. Sanctuary. Find an inn, sleep, ask around, help some people. Like a medieval A-Team. Or, you could become Skyrim’s most evil motherhugger, razing each town you encounter and rinsing the world for everything you can get. It’s all about choice, just be aware that choice rarely comes without consequence in Skyrim.
While previous Bethesda RPGs have followed the same formula, it has never been to this extent. The developer has tweaked the core mechanics to place as few limits on the player as possible. Gone are the classes of Oblivion, replaced with a much more freeform skill system. You aren’t limited to choosing a class in the early stages of the game, thus restricting your play style. Instead, while each race has some unique attributes - my Wood Elf is more resistant to disease and can summon animals to help in combat, for example – all skill trees are open to you so you can shift direction at any point. Obviously, while the sheer amount of skills and perks on offer means that a jack of all trades-type won’t get you very far, it’s an impressive tweak to the game mechanic.
Other brilliant new additions to the formula are crafting, enchanting and alchemy. While Oblivion’s dungeon crawling rewarded you with new weapons throughout, and Skyrim does the same, you can also create your own weapons, armour and potions. Simply gather the appropriate materials, make sure you have the requisite skills and create away. It’s an utterly absorbing process which can come to dominate entire Skyrim play sessions. I have literally spent hours at a time creating/improving weapons, armour and potions before taking them out into Skyrim to experiment. It may sound like a waste of time, but you’ll inevitably end up doing the same.
The sum total of this almost endless freedom is more than enough to paper over the cracks. And there are a few cracks to be found. As I mentioned before, friendly AI can be infuriating as the spurious pathfinding means that your companion will often take the long way round, leaving you alone in battle at crucial moments. They also have a tendency to charge unwisely into dangerous situations. The phrase “Lydia, NO!” has been heard a lot in my flat over the last few weeks. While the AI is frustrating, the quest bugs are worse. Most involve scripted events in quests not triggering, meaning you’ll find yourself having to frustratingly reload prior save games to advance. However, anyone familiar with Bethesda’s RPGs will know to save frequently to avoid incidences of controller-biting rage.
And, of course, an open world Bethesda RPG means you will encounter framerate issues. Oblivion ran like a demotivated fat man whenever you ventured outside a dungeon and you’ll be glad to know that, on the 360 version at least, performance is better (which is no mean feat given the improvement in the visuals). However, there are still moments when the game slows to slide-show pace for seemingly no reason. By all accounts, it seems as if PS3 gamers have struggled even more with framerate issues, all of which Bethesda has resolved to sort out via patching.
While some will point to this as bad design, it’s hard too gripe too much at the developer when you consider the sheer enormity and ambition of Skyrim. This is a game that will consume hundreds of hours of your life and has a huge amount of replay value thanks to the Radiant AI system which dynamically generates some (but not all) quests in the game. This means there are likely to be significant differences between your experience and your friends and this is the true heart of Skyrim. The joy of reading game forums and telling others how you approached certain situations, comparing your experience with friends’. It’s the reason why the Skyrim thread will stay on page one of your favourite gaming forum for a long time to come. This is as close to open world nirvana as you can find.
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