There is just too much to play this year, and having The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim released alongside all those other big games has set me back months. Bethesda's new titan of a game has done better than any other Elder Scrolls game before it, and has made a strong imprint on Internet culture and grabbed the attention of a whole new audience of people. Just the other day my brother-in-law asked “What is this Skyrim thing I keep hearing about? It's everywhere!” He is a total non-gamer, keep in mind. And as someone who has been following the series since Daggerfall, it is very strange to see just how big the franchise has become. Now comes the obligatory question of “but is it any good?” So, is it?
A Living World - There is one thing Skyrim does better than it's predecessor, which is offering a living, breathing world. Oblivion was a step in the right direction, but there were a few things which prevented it from becoming the revolution to the series which many thought it would be, like artificial map borders, some fairly wooden dialogue from generic NPC's, and a procedurally generated, ho-hum landscape. Skyrim fixes all of these issues, especially in the world itself; this is a sprawling, beautiful place that feels cold when it snows, that feels frightening in the dark, and where most players will not mind spending endless hours trekking around to find the endless secrets pit holds. At first I thought the map seemed a little small, but when I realized just how vertical things could get, my mind was changed completely. Make no mistake, there is a lot to see in Skyrim, and it is a beautiful sight to behold.
FUS ROH DAH! - The leveling structure, combat, and encounters are things that have been improved upon. Doing away with classes was a total blessing; you can shape characters any way you want with a slick and intuitive leveling system, and it opens up worlds of possibilities. In the early days of the Elder Scrolls, it wasn't uncommon to be able to fly around at will zapping guards from above, and performing all kinds of supernatural feats which defied the rules of the game. Since then, Bethesda has made the games more conservative in the favor of preserving balance, but the franchise has benefited because of this. It was also very nice to find enemies that could damn near one shot me, rather than the constantly moderated hordes presented in Oblivion that scaled to your level.
Promoting Synergy - When you ask someone “how far” they are in an Elder Scrolls game, you are generally asking how far they have proceeded down the main quest line. And though it is possible to simply take one obligatory quest over another until you have completed the expansive, epic storyline the game has to provide, Skyrim tries to prevent you from doing this at any cost. Simply put, you WILL get sidetracked in this game, and that is a really good thing. The total seperation of story quests from “other” quests is something I didn't particularly like in other games in the series, but in Skyrim, there is a very thin line between these sometimes. Because the world is so dense, and there are so many thousands of things to do, you will always find yourself “off the beaten path”, every now and then. This makes the game more immersive, and less of a race to the finish, and the balance they have found is frankly quite brilliant.
Living the Life - Skyrim is a game you play the way you want, and this helps to make the adventure much more grandiose and engrossing. The world around you changes in logical ways; killing a person accidentally in one town will not be an instant red alert for guards ten towns over. For the first time ever in a game, the world feels like it is constantly moving regardless of your stake in it. I was completing a side quest in a forest only to see a ghost running in the opposite direction. I followed him down to a tomb but decided to go the other way. Nothing was forcing my hand; the game continually provided me with options, but it didn't really care if I took them. Emulating roleplaying experiences in a virtual environment is a very difficult thing because we are generally being sent off to some location or another. But in the case of Skyrim, it handles this problem exceptionally well, and that is what makes it a unique experience.
DARK, DANK DUNGEONS
Swing and a Miss - Combat is getting better as the series evolves, but it hasn't quite reached that level of tension or cohesion that I would like from it yet. The game is a great simulation of hypothetical combat in a magical world, but it doesn't quite have the level of satisfaction and weight behind it that say, a game like Dark Souls does. It is getting better, and I am happy to see that. But certain elements, such as the third person view, are still completely underwhelming and useless causing me to wonder why they even exist at all.
Dragon Fly Free...Backward - Skyrim is a buggy, problematic experience, but one that fans of Bethesda have likely come to grips with. Insane things happen before your very eyes, like dragons flying backwards and giants smashing people into the infinite. The game also crashes and freezes without warning sometimes, and in general it has a really unpolished feel to it which will likely dissipate as more patches are released to the public. With a game like Skyrim, though, these things can be forgiven; it is a fantastic game that refuses to be bogged down by its issues. Anyone who has sat and played through this title without experiencing any frustrating bugs or just plain bizarre behavior from friendly and enemy artificial intelligence is either lying or simply not that perceptive.
FUS ROH DERP! - Another issue I had was that the artificial intelligence in this game sucks. The common tactic I used for nearly every difficult fight was “stand behind stone” or “stand on top of stone.” Enemies have an aggro range that would be more suitable in an MMO, and they will not fight very hard to reach you. When they do decide to attack, their strategy is usually to simply run towards you with their arms flailing. I have killed countless hordes of enemies simply by standing a few feet off the ground and firing hundreds of arrows into them, and have killed creatures twice my strength this way because they were too stupid to go around back to get to me. My own NPC's have also gotten stuck many a time, and these moments were a bit of a bummer as well.
A Road Too Well Traveled - Make no mistakes about it; Skyrim is a dungeon crawler, and that is what disappointed me most about the game. It sounds strange to say that, but the fact of the matter is that Skyrim is just a tad uncreative in its dungeon design. It's a real shame that in such a massive, amazing world, we have to spend most of it killing zombies and solving the same puzzles in a grind that has essentially taken the place of the Oblivion gates. (Something which dragons are also designed to do). The dungeons in the game are fantastic to look at, and have differing layouts and enemy types. In fact, they are a huge improvement from those seen in Oblivion. I simply would have enjoyed seeing more variety in the crawl, one that took advantage of an already fantastic and readily available environment, and one that would have felt more seamless than the old “open door, go into dungeon, beat dungeon, leave dungeon” routine. The constant random attacks by stupid bandits are also starting to get pretty old.
The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim is another great Elder Scrolls title that still suffers from some of the same old issues. For fans of the series, you are used to this stuff and you won't care either way. For newcomers, you will be so overwhelmed by the sheer volume of things to do in this huge world that it won't really bother you. As a longtime fan, I can honestly say there were some much needed improvements, but that this is still a very familiar, fun, and still rather unique experience. Because The Elder Scrolls games are so damn good, I couldn't ask for much more. But for the next release, it would be nice to see more time being spent fixing some of the problem areas that exist. Overall, this one of the best games of the year, and one that is completely deserving of your money and time. It is a lot of fun, no matter how you choose to play and regardless of its many problems. It certainly is the best Elder Scrolls title to date, it just didn't feel like a massive step up from its predecessor. Instead, it opted to take a more lateral approach, and in my opinion the experience suffered slightly this time around because of it.