Five years. The length of an average console generation. The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion ushered in the current generation and let everyone know what the tech was capable of, and it also ate many gamers’ lives, where being eaten never felt so great. Five years of anticipation is, as they say, a lot to live up to. So The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim comes marching along with its massive ad campaign, making sure everyone knows of its imminent release. Does Skyrim have the clout to back up its swagger?
Yes. Yes it does.
Note: We’ve been careful to make what we believe to be a spoiler-free review.
Update: Some PS3 users have experienced a serious problem where after roughly 25 hours of play time, the game loses performance until it becomes very choppy, and for some people it's unplayable. Since it doesn't affect all users, it doesn't change our score, but beware if you're planning on playing on PS3.
Stepping into Skyrim’s world is like wrapping yourself in a furry, Nordic cloak that smells like your childhood blanket. Yes, the Oblivion you remember fondly is back – everything that made the last Elder Scrolls so lovable has returned. Yet now it’s a bit wilder, a bit rougher, and a bit more dangerous, and boy is the game better for it. Whereas Cyrodiil, the province from Oblivion, was a fairly typical temperate climate with deciduous forests and gentle rolling hills, Skyrim is a bitter, cold northern region (remember those impassable mountains in the north of Cyrodiil? Skyrim is just beyond them). This doesn’t mean the game world is a monotonous frozen waste: the land is diverse, but it has a wonderful “tone” to it that is very much Viking Axe Clanking and Visible Frosty Breaths Huddled Around Crackling Fires. It’s forbidding, slightly bleak, and yet also incredibly cozy when you come in from the cold.
Perhaps never before has a game world so perfectly balanced a feeling of a completely inviting attitude with intimidating danger. Oblivion could scare you with its bears and trolls. Pfft. Skyrim has freaking giants that will kill you in one thwomp of their mighty clubs, and of course, here there be dragons. Every battle with a dragon is epic, from the first sound of a distant roar, to the glimpse of a soaring beast through the treeline, to the fantastic swoop and crash as the monster lands and unleashes its fiery breath. The art, animation and sound design for the dragons is stupendous across the board. At first the dragons look generic, but closer inspection reveals fantastic subtle details in their anatomy. Our favorite aspect, though, is the sound of their breath attacks, which isn’t just the whoosh of flames, but also has a secondary sound like a giant flute, providing musical character and power to these mighty beasts.
Oblivion was a beautiful game for its time, and Skyrim has only so many resources to work with (on consoles at least), but Bethesda has squeezed every drop of beauty it could out of simple attention to detail and imaginative art design. Note how cold winds visibly kick up off rocks, how salmon leap up small waterfalls, how the towns are built on majestic cliffs and have the coziest hearths you’ve ever seen. Make sure to go out on a clear night in the northern part of the land and just watch the sky. Skyrim will inspire awe at many turns, and when you think you’ve seen it all, it will surprise you yet again.
It seems like an innocuous addition – whoop de do, we can have a weapon or spell in either hand. It changes a lot. Let’s say you go for dual wielding weapons. Nothing special, since you just slash faster, right? But wait: consider magic weapons. Now you could wield a paralyzing weapon in one hand and a magicka-draining one in the other. The combinations become endless. We focused on a mage-type character, so we barely ever used weapons at all. Instead, we dual-wielded spells. To give an idea of combat depth, we’ll break down a typical fight.
We start with Summon Ice Atronach in one hand, Ironflesh in another. While summoning our elemental tank, we reinforce our defenses. Next we swap to Wall of Ice in one hand and Lightning Bolt in the other. While spraying defensive damage-over-time ice all over the floor, we’re simultaneously damaging and destroying the magicka of our target with lightning. Once our ice field is properly laid down, we swap that hand to Lightning Bolt so that we have Bolt in both hands. Normally, firing the same spell with both hands results in two bolts, but since we purchased the Dual Casting perk, we get a different animation where both hands create a single, super-powerful bolt. Since we also spent a perk point on another dual-casting related perk, our dual-cast bolts additionally stagger the opponent. If we get in danger, we swap to dual-cast healing for super-mega recovery. Or we could refresh our defensive spells while also healing. Getting crazy enough for you?
You probably know by now that Skyrim features a new system where you slay dragons, absorb their souls, and then use those souls to unlock Shouts in the dragon language. We don’t want to give any of the mystery away, so we won’t go into details. Just know that the Shouts are friggen’ awesome and you’ll be shouting the crap out of your enemies and greedily hunting down dragons and the Word Walls that unlock pieces of Shouts. Know that some important Shouts are unlocked during the main story quest, so you might not want to ignore the story (more reasons on that below).
We’re still not sure how we feel about the new system for managing all your items and spells, as it has advantages and disadvantages over Oblivion’s. Oblivion had the favorites wheel, which limited what you could have quick access to. Skyrim simply has a favorites list, which you can add anything you want to. It seems super handy at first, but depending on what you want to do, it becomes unwieldy. Since we played a mage, we purchased a lot of spells. Eventually our favorites list became so long that it was no longer convenient. We ended up balancing usage of quick slots (of which you have only two on consoles; PC users get ten), favorites, and then actually going into the main spell list to juggle all the spells we wanted to cast. It’s not intuitive, but if you get used to it you can be pretty fast – but no matter what, you’ll be plunging through multiple layers of menus or scrolling through long lists a lot if you want to make use of every tool at your disposal.
We imagine if your focus is on melee combat the system won’t grow out of control, since you’ll just swap between a few spells and items. However we should note that the quickslot system is one of the strangest, most unintuitive systems we’ve ever encountered. You can assign one thing to Left on the d-pad and one thing to Right (again, PC players get to use all the number keys, making things much easier). We figured that pressing left would equip that thing in our left hand, and then pressing left again would swap back to whatever we were originally holding. Instead, it equips the item to both hands. It’s hard to explain, but prepare to be baffled when you first start playing with quickslots. This system could have been much better, but it works well enough after you get used to it.
On the next page we'll look at some non-combat systems...