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
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.
A warm (and cold) welcome
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
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
Dual wielding is more than just flashy style
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?
Shout at the d… ragon
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).
The new favorites system
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...
For the carebears
Skyrim’s crafting system is robust to say the least. You can’t
create spells anymore (for reasons we outline below), but you can still perform
alchemy and enchant items, and now you can create and improve items with
Smithing, which is divided amongst tasks at forges, smelting furnaces,
workbenches, grindstones, and tanning racks. Like the idea of having the
baddest-ass set of weapons and armor in the land? You can spend insane hours
seeking out rare ores, mining them, and then working them into the exact items
you want. You can even cook food now, although it doesn’t have its own skill
path and is a simple supplemental way of giving you healing options.
If you enjoy the role-playing aspect of RPGs, the diverse
cast of characters to interact with, gain as followers, and follow intrigue
plots with is downright staggering. With even better writing and voice acting
this time around (with voices provided by no less than Christopher Plummer, Max
Von Sydow, and Joan Allen), meeting and talking to people is like its own game.
Addressing Oblivion’s irritations
A little over a year ago we posted an article proposing what
we wanted to see from the fifth Elder Scrolls game, so we thought it would be
interesting to see whether Bethesda was thinking along the same lines. Let’s
break it down:
We asked for an
intuitive skill system. Skyrim responded beautifully. The system is
extremely simple on the surface, but super deep with options. Each time you
level up, you simply choose to increase Magicka, Health, or Stamina, and then
you have one perk point to spend. Perk slots are unlocked based on how high of
a skill you have in a given area – for example, in order to spend a point on a
perk that makes casting Novice level Destruction spells cost half as much
Magicka, you need to have built up Destruction to 20 or whatever. That’s really
it. However, there are so many perk slots available, the possibilities are
staggering. It’s totally freeform, easy to understand, and exciting when you
see the crazy stuff available at the higher perk slots. Also, if you can’t
decide what to purchase, you can save your perk points for later.
We asked for monsters
that scale properly, or don’t scale at all. Oblivion’s weird scaling of
monster power meant that as you leveled up, monsters could actually out level
you, filling the game with random difficulty road blocks. Skyrim has invisibly
solved this problem. The monster scaling is so sublime it’s likely you’ll never
notice it – for us the game was always challenging throughout, yet never
impossible. If we were smart and used every strength of our character’s
specialties, we did fine. If we played lazily, we died horribly. We’ve heard
that Skyrim’s dungeons level up as you do – until you enter them, and once you
enter one, its level is fixed, so if it’s too tough for you, you can leave,
level up, and come back later powerful enough to tackle it. We’ll say, though,
that no dungeon was ever too tough on our first pass, yet never disappointingly
We asked for balanced
player tools. Oblivion provided tools that became useless (like bows) or
became overpowered (like spell crafting). Skyrim has done an admirable job
tackling these problems, even if it didn’t solve them completely. Making your
own spells is out (sorry spellcrafters, but those super spells were stupidly
overpowered), but there are more regular spells available. Bows are better
simply because the game provides more enemies that attack from range instead of
rushing you and negating the bows’ usefulness – and if you don’t invest in spells,
you’ll want bows to deal with flying dragons. We also have yet to encounter the
way-too-good vampiric weapons that removed the need for tactics in melee.
Summoned creatures are still a bit too good, but overall the balance is vastly
improved (taking into account that power players may yet discover the
We asked for more
than five NPCs. Oblivion had a cast of about 15 (so we exaggerated). Skyrim
has 70. Also we don’t recall seeing obvious copy-and-paste NPC faces
We asked for
better-looking women. Hmmm. We guess they look a bit better? They’re not
quite the horror-beasts from Oblivion, but we had a difficult time making our
female character into anything other than a geriatric recovering bulimic. We
guess the excuse could be that the cold north is not kind to youthful flesh.
We asked for better
(or no) encumbrance. Erm, we had a problem with the encumbrance in Skyrim
for a good portion of the game, but it’s because we were being stupid. Granted,
the game doesn’t do a good job of informing you that you can have a follower
NPC carry stuff for you (essentially doubling your encumbrance), but perhaps we
should have figured it out. Regardless, you’ll learn to hate dragon bones,
because damn those things are heavy and yet valuable, so get ready to drop crap
all around every dragon corpse you encounter.
We asked for
pallet-swapping of armor. Not important, but we wanted to customize our
character’s look. We didn’t see anything of the sort in Skyrim, but then we
didn’t skill up the Smithing path where you create your own weapons and armor.
We asked for a better
map. Functionally, there’s basically no improvement. You still have to
memorize which cities the guilds and your houses are in, and everything just
has an icon with a name on it. The map is in pretty 3D now, so thanks, we guess.
We asked for a
smaller world (or more level designers). Ah, now we’re getting to the good
stuff. Bethesda knew that Oblivion’s copy-paste dungeons got boring, but they
did the better solution – instead of making fewer total dungeons, they made
just as big of a world… and somehow made every dungeon we encountered unique.
We don’t know for sure the game has no copy-paste dungeon design, but we never
saw it. Hell, we wandered into random dungeons and encountered puzzles and designed boss encounters. This
improvement is the single best thing Bethesda did with Skryim, because that huge
world you see truly is huge - you can wander and discover and find delight and
wonder at every turn. Bravo, Bethesda, we salute your dedication (and feel
sorry for your level designers, who must have busted their asses).
Finally, we asked for
a bit less crashing. Believe it or not… they did it. The game did crash on
us, but it was exactly five times over perhaps 50 hours of play (on Xbox 360). Compared to
Oblivion’s crashing it’s a vast, vast improvement. Oblivion was guaranteed to
crash in any three-hour play session, whereas Skyrim ran crash-free during
eight-hour marathons. Note that there’s a day one patch that’s supposed to
address stability, but then the game froze on us not one hour after installing
the patch, so yeah. Also, on PC the game pretty much did what Oblivion did: crash every few hours. Such is the life of a PC gamer, though, and not every PC will have this problem.
On the next page, the verdict!
A proper epic quest
A lot of people we’ve talked to loved Oblivion but found its
actual main story thread boring. They’d play a bit of it and then go back to
sidequests and random messing around. Many seemed to not even bother to finish
the story and yet play for hundreds of hours. As we said before, we’ll spoil
nothing here. Just know that Skyrim’s story is leaps and bounds over Oblivion’s
and very much worth playing through. It’s not long – clocking perhaps ten hours
for an average player, but the game overall is absolutely gigantic, and we
predict it has the ability to provide considerably more hours of entertainment
Is it better than…
Oblivion? Yes. We think we’ve made it clear why. It’s
prettier, it’s deeper, the story is better, the dragons and shouts are stupidly
fun and exciting, it’s better balanced, it has dual-wielding, need we go on?
Fine: the skill system is more intuitive and somehow deeper, the dungeon
variety is mind-blowing, and you can have
a zombie walrus following you around and fighting for you.
Dead Island? Yes. Wait a minute, what’s this doing here? A
survival horror zombie game? Are we crazy? Think about it: Dead Island is
first-person, melee-combat centric, loot-focused, long as hell, has tons of
side missions and areas to explore, lets you build weapons, has skill trees,
and is full of bugs! Har har. Actually, Skyrim is significantly more polished
than Oblivion, and naturally more so than Dead Island. Okay, so maybe it’s not
fair to compare them, but not because of genre – it’s because of the gap in
quality and imagination. Dead Island has co-op though. Yeah.
Dark Souls? Yes. We all know Dark Souls is amazing. We’re
not going to compare difficulty because it’s not relevant here. The main
difference is the reward over time. Dark Souls is incredibly rewarding, but it
also features a lot of repetition and grinding. It seems long and huge because
it takes time to make progress in it, while Skyrim is just plain long and huge.
Skyrim just has more to show you, and it can’t be bothered to put barriers
between you and those things because then no one would see everything the game
has to offer, ever. And you will want to do everything in Skyrim. We love Dark
Souls, but Skyrim gets the edge here – not by much, mind you.
For those who skipped straight to the end
Skyrim is sprawling, generous, gorgeous and
ambitious. It does what few games can: thoroughly follow through on its
ambitions. It could be possible to play only this game for the next year and
still not discover all of its mysteries.