- Release Date:2011-11-11
- In-universe Date:4E 201
- Series:The Elder Scrolls
Skyrim is a sight to behold. It’s incredible, really, what has been done here. I’m not just talking about the graphical presentation (which is beautiful, of course). Bethesda has created a world similar in size to Oblivion’s Cyrodil (about sixteen square miles), but for some reason it feels so much bigger. Maybe because there’s just more stuff here in Skyrim. There are mountains to climb, caves to explore, cities to visit, and bandit camps to raid. Playing Skyrim is as much like visiting a real foreign country as any video game is likely to get. There is so much depth to the immersion that it’s easy to lose track of time and space. You’ll consistently find yourself pleasantly surprised by the visual variety in the world’s details—it’s always fascinating and exciting to see what monsters or fauna you’ll find at the top of mountains or at the bottom of caves (or everything in between).
Not only are there lots of places to go, but there are lots of things to do, too – the game easily has hundreds of hours of gameplay. While I’ve admittedly only played for 30ish hours so far, I feel like I’m not going to get bored with it for a very, very long time. There are massive dragons to slay, complex storylines to uncover (and become a part of!), and intriguing people to meet. Speaking of the people, the NPCs (non-player characters) are the best in the series so far (sure, every now and then there’s some wooden dialogue, but with the sheer amount of content, it’s hard to expect the voice acting to really be exceptional all the way through. It’s certainly passable). You’ll often find NPCs going about their usual business regardless of what you’re doing. It’s almost like they have real lives, and your arrival therein is incidental. Not to say that the character you play is insignificant; it’s just that you feel like you’re in a real world. One time, I was walking through town and noticed some kids playing tag. I stopped one of them and they invited me to join. So, sure, I played tag for a couple of minutes. It’s simple little things like that that make up an immersive experience.
I could go on about the immersion, about how it’s possible to lift and move and steal and collect almost every single object: not just jewelry, weapons, and armor, but also books (all of which you can read), potatoes, and candlesticks. I could go on about how there are countless quests and side-quests, all of which feel natural and interesting. I could go on about how you can catch salmon in the river, harvest any kind of mushroom, buy a house, catch butterflies, slay dragons, murder, burglarize, or even marry. I could go on about how there are realistic consequences to your actions. I’ve had thugs hired to attack me and “teach me a lesson,” I’ve had the authorities chase me out of towns, and I’ve had people treat me differently (with respect or fear or disdain) based on my reputation in their neighborhood. It’s extraordinary.
But I’m going to talk about the gameplay a little bit. “How FUN is it really?” That is the question you want to ask me. Well, I’ll preface this discussion by admitting that I played Morrowind for an hour or two back in 2005 and I didn’t like it. It was too vague and sandboxy; there wasn’t a sense of urgency or direction. Then, with some encouragement from friends, I ended up playing Oblivion for a good little while (20 hours, maybe? Not sure. It’s been a long time). Not long enough to finish any of the quest lines, but long enough to get used to the sandbox gameplay. And long enough to, eventually, get bored and overwhelmed by it. There was a lot of space, for sure, but there was a lot of empty space. And after leaving the game alone for two years, it was hard to jump back into it and really feel like it was still compelling.
Skyrim seems, so far at least, to be different. It is certainly better than Oblivion. Time will have to tell how much better it is exactly, but it is better. And I am thinking it will grab my interest for much longer. The character progression feels much more natural; “leveling up” is much simpler and more intuitive than I’ve seen in pretty much any RPG. It’s harder to make fatal mistakes in your leveling choices, for sure—maybe a D&D purist would argue that this “cheapens” the true RPG experience, but despite my gaming experience, I think it’s a welcome change. You don’t have to worry too much about complicated stats or which skills to upgrade; your skills improve naturally as you use them. If you use a bow and arrow a lot, your archery skill increases, and if you use light armor a lot, your light armor skill increases, et cetera.
As far as combat goes, archery is just as fun as ever. Sneaking up on a camp of evil sorcerers in the wilderness and sneak-attacking them from the mountains is exhilarating and satisfying. But the melee combat is still sort of clunky, like it was in Oblivion. It’s not terrible, but it’s not that good.
I have to admit that my review on the combat portion of the gameplay will be limited; I haven’t really done any magic with my current character. It’s too complicated and expensive for my tastes.
My only real complaint with the gameplay is the menu’s user interface. I’ve dealt with bad UIs in the past, and particularly from Bethesda (Fallout 3, anyone?). But this one is just straight-up bad and feels unnatural. It wants me to use the TAB key to exit out of a menu, even though I’ve been trained by decades of gaming to use ESC. Sometimes it forces me to use the mouse, and sometimes it doesn’t recognize the mouse at all. It can’t make up its mind. I have the feeling that we PC gamers are going to have to get used to seeing bad UIs in cross-platform games from now on. That’s what happens when something is designed with consoles specifically in mind.
One more flaw that deserves mention is the weird glitches. My horse has, numerous times, decided to defy the laws of physics and fly above mountains. Also, I once attacked a bear and it got somehow stuck in the rock ceiling of a cave.
Overall, though, the flaws in this game aren’t glaring enough to distract from how breathtakingly beautiful, detailed, immersive, and straight-out fun the game can be. Skyrim is an experience. It’s exciting, interesting, and, in some cases (while wandering along a riverside and noticing the awesome attention to detail, for example), it’s so relaxing as to be nearly therapeutic.