The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim – Staff Review #2

One of the highest-praised games of recent years, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim has a great deal going for it. With an enormous seamless world to explore and a highly flexible character development system, Skyrim is exceptionally easy to get lost in, with some of the most engaging role playing RPG fans have seen in a long time. On the whole, Skyrim deserves a great deal of the praise that has been heaped at its feet, but there are a few hitches in its design that are worth stating. Skyrim has a bit of awkward fumbling in its menu layout and a bit of difficulty with overly compartmentalized storytelling, as well as a troubling lack of subtlety in its art direction and a fair number of bugs and glitches even this far out of release. Ultimately, however, Skyrim’s vast and detailed world gives it an uncommonly broad appeal.

The plot of Skyrim is broken up into several different questlines, most of which are heavily compartmentalized and which interact fairly little with each other. The mainline plot has to do with the return of the Dragons, a mythic race not seen in Skyrim for millenia. The player is cast in the role of the Dragonborn, a legendary hero with the ability to use the breath attacks of Dragons, known as the Thu’um or Voice. The local prophecy of doom has the Dragonborn cast as the ultimate destroyer of the Dragons, which naturally sets up the main conflict of the game. All of this is set against the backdrop of civil war and political machinations, but since each questline mostly sticks to its own little boxes, the mainline quest can come off as being a bit dry. Character development and depth are a little bit lacking, too, with most characters short on motivation and personality.

Skyrim's landscape manages some genuinely breathtaking moments.
Skyrim’s landscape manages some genuinely breathtaking moments.

Besides the mainline quest, Skyrim offers a huge variety of secondary quests that have the player doing everything from recovering ancient artifacts to delivering packages. There are also a series of quests designed to appeal to certain character builds, such as joining the Thieves’ Guild, entering the Mage’s College, and climbing the ranks of the local knight group, called the Companions. The characters involved rarely get more development or direction in these quests than those in the main story, but I found these secondary quests much more interesting than the mainline story simply because they felt more personal.

Really, the big winner in the story is the setting itself. The Elder Scrolls already has a rich history, and a lot of that shows through in the detailed and frankly beautiful setting of Skyrim. The game gives you an enormous amount of setup for the history of Skyrim, the political and religious makeup of the land; heck, even the region’s geography is remarkably detailed. This does feed back into the actual story at some points, with some areas seeing more damage from the civil war because of their location. Although the setting is impressive, the game might have been better served by more substantial concepts in the actual story.

Combat in Skyrim is real-time and primarily first-person, which can make hand-to-hand combat a little awkward at first. Players have plenty of options, including one and two-handed weapons, bows, and a wide selection of both offensive and defensive magic. The game handles experience points in a learn-by-doing system, with the player getting experience in individual skills as they are used. So a player character that uses a great deal of Destruction-class magic will slowly gain levels in that specific skill, each individual level of which will count towards the character’s overall level. That level is then used to determine the strength of the character’s pool of Health, Stamina, and Magicka. However, most of the actual character building takes place in the Perk system, which allows the player to select special effects for a given skill when they level up. Players can use just about any skill in any category, and in fact the game encourages players to make use of all their abilities, since there is no real limit on how many skill levels a player can earn aside from the level cap. The number of Perks a player can get, however, is somewhat limited. Perks are also locked by skill level, meaning a player couldn’t, for example, level Blacksmithing to 100 and then learn Perks pertinent to their level 1 Enchanting skill. The end result is a highly flexible character building system which nevertheless requires players to pick and choose a build, knowing that some powers will always be out of their reach.

The biggest downside of such a flexible system is that it is rather easy to game. For example, crafting low-level items like Iron Daggers and Leather Bracers is a cheap, easy way to gain levels fairly quickly. The Perks gained from this can’t be spread around too much thanks to the aforementioned skill level locks, but it is still very easy to craft extremely high-level armor and weapons very early on. Just about every character will want to learn Blacksmithing and Enchanting skills at some point, which helps prevent this from becoming a huge issue. Still, it does cause some issues early in the game, with level five and ten characters wandering around in endgame armor and weapons.

As with the setting, the strongest points of Skyrim’s combat system have to do with its vast expanse of territory to explore. There are a huge variety of ways characters can be constructed, far beyond the normal Warrior/Thief/Mage triad. Its biggest issues have to do with the somewhat awkward pacing of Perks, which buries some borderline essential skills in skill trees, and the lack of variety in monsters. By and large, a high level character is still going to be fighting the same monsters as a low level one, thanks to level scaling and the use of physically similar but higher-ranked monsters. Overall, the system is fairly well designed, though perhaps not stunningly executed.

That stumbling in execution shows up frequently throughout Skyrim’s design, but is perhaps most noticeable in the menu layout. The main menu is separated into inventory, quests, and a few other sections, but things are broken up awkwardly. There is no single screen that shows the player character’s overall status, or makes it clear just how many things a character has equipped at once. Thankfully, the interface is reasonably adjustable, and things come together with a bit of time. It’s not that the menus are unworkable, but rather that they are needlessly complicated.

Skyrim, land of wooden longhouses and snow. And ale. Lots of ale.
Skyrim, land of wooden longhouses and snow. And ale. Lots of ale.

Skyrim has been widely praised for its visuals, and to be honest, the game deserves it. The world of Skyrim is gorgeous, with stunning, and more importantly believable natural vistas everywhere. It’s rare to see, for example, caves just sitting out in the middle of nowhere, or a stream that doesn’t flow from somewhere to somewhere. There are mountains where mountains should be, rather than around places the developers don’t want players to go yet. The flip side of this is the art direction, which focuses perhaps a bit too much on the Anglo-Saxon influence. It’s pretty clear what the developers were going for — a culture heavily based on Nordic elements — but Whiterun could have been called Sutton Hoo for all the faceplates and wooden longhouses. That isn’t to say that relying on a historical source is a bad thing, but the civilizations of Skyrim tend to be a bit too on the nose. Part of creating a believable fantasy realm is in playing with realistic elements to create a unique culture of your own, and Skyrim just doesn’t do enough of that.

Along the same lines, Skyrim’s music is excellently composed and fits the setting, but it’s unsubtle stuff. The OST is very heavy on the classical symphonic elements, and comes off as a high-end adventure movie soundtrack. The downside is that there are few, if any, surprises to be found.

Skyrim features a difficulty level which can be adjusted on the fly, but unlike many RPGs that feature level-scaled monsters, players are likely to need the difficulty bumped up a notch or two by the end of the game. The default difficulty setting is a bit out of whack, with the early game being more of a challenge than the late game will be for a reasonably built character. The time required to complete Skyrim is pretty variable, too; A player could probably finish the main quest line in as little as 20 hours, whereas a dedicated explorer could spend upwards of 90 hours wandering Skyrim and still be less than three-fourths done.

Again, this huge size and variety is Skyrim’s biggest asset. A player could easily get lost in the world of Skyrim, and if that isn’t a massive compliment then I don’t know what is. Conversely, Skyrim’s biggest Achilles’ heel is its predictability, the lack of subtlety and variety in its design. It’s my opinion that, between these two, Skyrim comes out well ahead of the curve. The game is enjoyable, immersive, and variable enough to keep players coming back for a long time, which in my book makes it a more than worthwhile pick for a vast swathe of the gaming public.

This game was played to completion, and reviewed using a retail copy purchased by the reviewer.

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