It is difficult to imagine a game that had more to live up to than “The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim” and it is astonishing how easily Skyrim exceeds even those expectations. Given the games breadth, depth, and overall excellence in every facet of gameplay, Skyrim will certainly be on every ballot for game of the year, and I will be shocked if the game doesn’t run the table.
I will admit to some trepidation before Skyrim’s release. When I heard that Bethesda was discarding the game engine that worked so well in Oblivion, I panicked. While I understood the developer’s desire to not rest on its laurels and churn out an Oblivion clone (although, to be honest, that probably would have been fine with many gamers) there is always the fear that if the game is changed too much it could lose the attributes that made the previous games in the series so phenomenal. Fortunately, Skyrim stays true to the formula that makes the series great while the new engine brings marked improvements.
As good as Oblivion was, Skyrim looks almost next-gen by comparison. While Oblivion took place in Cyrodil, the heart of the empire, there is a wilder, frontier feel to the environment of Skyrim, the home of the Nords. The area is massive and features wind-swept plains, snow capped mountains, bubbling hot springs, and dense forests. Everything is exquisitely rendered and, at times, breathtaking. I began to understand the incredible scope of this game when I realized that I could walk all the way to the mountains I could see off on the horizon. They aren’t just there to make Skyrim look big, Skyrim actually IS that big. It boggles the mind that all of this game fits onto one disc.
Of course, a game is more than just graphics, and Skyrim has the story and gameplay to keep gamers riveted. There are two main storylines in Skyrim and it is difficult to say which is more important, but both are handled well. The first storyline revolves around the reemergence of the ancient mythical dragons, and the terror they are causing the people. The second, and perhaps even greater danger, is the simmering tension that is threatening to erupt into armed conflict between the Imperialists, allied with Cyrodil, and the Stormcloaks, who want independence for the people of Skyrim. In addition, there are hundreds of smaller stories. It seemed every character I came across had a back story, each one adding a little more depth to the game, and the attention to detail was staggering.
As incredible as the graphics and storyline are, the gameplay is where the game shines. Skyrim is whatever you wish to make of it. Very few games give the gamer the amount of freedom that Skyrim does. There is certainly a main story that moves forward, but when and how it moves forward is completely up to the player. My method was to almost disregard the main story and simply wander the countryside looking for trouble. Some players may want to focus on their magical abilities, some their martial prowess, and others may want to focus on skills like archery, sneaking, or pick-pocketing. The important thing to note is that no matter what path you choose you will be able to successfully progress through the game. The game doesn’t penalize you for playing the game however you want.
The leveling structure is another fantastic aspect of Skyrim. The feel of “grinding” that has become almost synonymous with RPGs is refreshingly absent. You don’t have to kill a set number of enemies or complete a set amount of quests. Everything you can do in Skyrim is divided into different skill trees, and by doing any of these things you level up that skill tree and your overall level. With each level you will receive a skill point to spend on whichever skill tree you like on a perk to improve that skill. The skill trees are a nice touch as they give the player something to look forward to and concrete evidence that your skills are improving, rather than just an amorphous skill number.
Now for the bad news, this game will test your self-discipline and could put a real strain on any real relationships you may be fortunate enough to have. I’ve been playing for a week and barely feel as if I’ve scratched the surface. The assertion of three hundred hours of game play may be an understatement, depending on how you play the game. On more than one occasion I found myself unwittingly playing until 2AM without even stopping to eat basic meals. I wish I could say I put the controller down, got a bit to eat and went to bed, but that would be a lie. I would usually continue to play until 4AM before completely crashing out. In fact, I know that when I finish this review I am going to go back to playing late into the night, even though I have work in the morning. I pray you have better self-control than I.
Skyrim is so good it’s scary. It is sure to become a benchmark game, to which all games that come after will be compared. Bethesda has created a beautiful, intelligent, engrossing, and exceptional work of art. I once told myself I would never do this, but I give “The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim” a perfect 10 out of 10.
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