I have never cared much for dragon-slaying, wizards and warlocks and all that stuff, preferring instead to visit the future and fly to the stars. But I might just change my mind about fantasy settings thanks to Skyrim, the fifth and latest of Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls role playing games for the PC and consoles. It’s not only the first Elder Scrolls game that I’ve played for more than a few days without losing interest, it’s also among the best games I’ve played in the last year.
Once, many moons ago, I wrote a review of The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, which at the time was a brand new fantasy role-playing game from Bethesda and the fourth in a long-running series. Although the review reads as a fairly glowing account of the game, I am here to report to you — only six years after the fact — that I grew bored with it after a couple of weeks (maybe 20 hours of gameplay, if that?) and loaned the game to a friend. I never got it back. In fact, since my friend took it with him to China, I think it’s on the other side of the world now. It should speak volumes about my feelings toward the game that this doesn’t bother me.
This past fall, the next chapter in the Elder Scrolls game series, entitled Skyrim, arrived. It was heralded by weeks, if not months, of pre-release hype and anticipation. Since the new game’s formula looked appreciably similar to Oblivion, and I’ve always much preferred sci-fi/cyberpunk games to medieval fantasy games, I decided to ignore it. But over Christmas my curiosity (and all the praise on the Internet) got the better of me, so, with a gift card I received for the holiday, I purchased a copy of Skyrim for the Xbox 360. Could it hold my interest longer than Oblivion?
So far, it has — and at level 24, I’m easily twice as deep into Skyrim than I ever was into Oblivion. In fact, there hasn’t been another disc in my Xbox’s drive since Skyrim took up residence. Although it’s really the same type of game with its hub-based, open-world exploratory RPG model, somehow Skyrim and Oblivion feel like very different games. In Skyrim, I have yet to encounter a single quest, boss fight or gameplay trope that has irritated or bored me. Contrast this to the sealing of Oblivion gates in the previous game, a recurring boss-style task so frustrating and annoying that it served as the final death knell for my interest in continuing to play. Skyrim’s equivalent, if it can be called that, are its dragon battles, which come off as the complete opposite: challenging without being cheap or hair-pulling, epic in importance and effect, and very personal to your character. In other words, fun. You know, what games are supposed to be?
In fact, my experience with Skyrim has been so enjoyable that I daresay this will be the first fantasy RPG that I intend to play through to completion. And that says a lot coming from a guy who actually finishes maybe 10-15% of the games he buys, for a variety of reasons I won’t go into — not the least of which is being unable to afford the luxury of the time commitment necessary to do so.
As with all of the Elder Scrolls games, Skyrim places you on the ancient and fantastical continent of Tamriel, an empire of men, elves, orcs and even anthropomorphic cats and reptiles. You’ll design your own player character (which can be any of the above races, with features you can customize quite extensively) and embark upon his or her destiny — an epic one, indeed, as you will quickly learn that you are the fabled dovahkiin, or Dragonborn. The coming of the dovahkiin is heralded by legend as a heroic figure who will come to Tamriel’s rescue when the mythical dragons return to reclaim the land. And what do you know: in the game’s opening moments, the dragons make their terrifying return, proving that they are not so mythical after all.
Throughout the game’s main quest line, you’ll use your unique abilities, known as Shouts, to combat the dragons by effectively speaking their own powerful and destructive language. You’ll unlock new Shouts from the depths of Skyrim’s past as you explore the game and find them buried in ancient tombs and ruins. And each time you encounter a dragon on the field of combat — an event that is often random — you’ll find yourself engaged in a battle that’s every bit as exciting and powerful as the last, if not more. Seriously, slaying dragons just never gets old.
Unlike role-playing games from BioWare, Bethesda’s Skyrim doesn’t spend a lot of time on lengthy cutscenes or dialog sequences that set up the story or delve deep into character backgrounds. Instead, it takes the uniquely Bethesda tack of offering you a world so open and non-linear that you may be literally staggered by the sheer amount of things to do, places to go and people to meet — all in whatever order you choose. While BioWare’s Mass Effect 2 lets you recruit team members in whatever order you want, threads of a linear story reverberate throughout, and the number of ways to approach each situation is limited — usually to a “Paragon” or “Renegade” option. Things in Skyrim are a lot less black and white. You can be a force for good or for evil, or a force for yourself alone as you pick pockets and rob both sides of a conflict, laughing all the way to the bank. You can join the rebellion, the Imperial Army, or just side with the Dark Brotherhood of Assassins to kill indisciminately. It seems that you can even join multiple factions and play them off each other like a good double agent. Endless amusement.
I noted in my review of Oblivion that the game was strikingly beautiful, both in visuals and in sound. Skyrim builds upon that beauty, offering what are truly the most picturesque and breathtaking environments that I’ve ever seen in an open-world game. The sound design is excellent, and Jeremy Soule’s epic musical score is nothing short of fantastic. However, Skyrim still suffers from the traditional “Bethesda problem” of too few voice actors. In a humongous world filled with characters of both great and small importance, you’ll notice only a handful of unique voices spread throughout the world. Individuals of some races (such as the cat-like Kajiit) even use the same actor for every male or female. Fortunately there are some notable exceptions, with unique voices provided by celebrities like Max von Sydow, Michael Hogan and Christopher Plummer.
Your own character in Skyrim doesn’t speak at all, as is typical of Bethesda games (and they still have that same dead-eyed stare that Bethesda has made famous), instead taking the Gordon Freeman path to player self-insertion — the idea being that it’s easier to envision yourself in the role of a character who presents no discernable personality of his or her own. Personally, I have an easier time identifying with a man like Commander Shepard from BioWare’s Mass Effect, whose personality is definitely established, but shaped heavily by the actions and conversation arcs you select.
Speaking of your player character, the fact that Skyrim is an RPG of course means that there are plenty of player skills, perks and advancement on offer. The game presents its vast array of perks through an attractive constellation system, where each skill has a patron star and a number of perks that you can put points into for extra abilities. The leveling system in Skyrim is a big improvement over Oblivion; unlike that game, where even the lowliest monsters leveled along with you, Skyrim appears to have more of a traditional system where you are allowed to level up beyond certain enemies, while high-level foes will destroy you if you enounter them too early in your own development. Even better, you advance individual skills by actually using them — meaning that your enchanting skill improves only if you enchant items, not just because you put skill points into it at your next level-up. (You can also pay experts to train you in certain skills if you don’t want to spend the grind time, though it gets expensive.)
The sheer scale of Skyrim is perhaps its most awe-inspiring feature. The world map is enormous, even if you only visit the established forts and cities that are clearly marked. Venture off the beaten path, however, and it will rarely be more than a few minutes before you encounter something awesome: a cave filled with gold or other exotic ores that you can mine; a ruined Dwemer city to explore; a haunted fortress; a magical rock formation (a la Stonehenge) that you can use to bestow upon yourself myriad ethereal powers. There’s also plenty of danger out there in the mountains and valleys of Skyrim, from hunters and bandits to rogue battlemages and ferocious cave bears and sabrecats.
Bethesda balances all of this openness with its customary fast-travel system, which allows you to jump immediately to any place on the map that you have previously reached by foot (meaning that you still need to make the trek the first time, preventing you from blowing through the game too easily). You can also save anywhere and anytime, which is a welcome ability in these days of checkpoint saves and other technologically unnecessary cockblockery.
All of this comes together in a truly compelling game that will almost surely have even players like me, who don’t normally enjoy the fantasy setting, riveted to their consoles for hours. I’ve even started getting into the lore of Tamriel and its various cultures, much of which can be absorbed through the hundreds of actual books scattered throughout the game world. Thanks to an enterprising blogger, you can even download the books of Skyrim in ePUB format and read them on your eReader or iOS device.
After a few hours in Oblivion were all I needed to decide that game wasn’t for me, a few hours in Skyrim have conversely proved to be but a scintillating appetizer for a much greater experience that I’m now obsessed with seeing through. Fans of RPGs or fantasy lore should not, under any circumstances, miss it.