We’ve seen the screenshots, watched the videos and heard the bluster – but it’s surely smoke and mirrors. There’s no way Skyrim can be that much better than Oblivion, right?
I mean, let’s take character creation. In un-modded Oblivion it was practically impossible to create a character that didn’t look as though he was grown in a bucket that had previously been used for storing unwashed cabbage and kept next to a pub toilet. Skyrim’s got to be the same.
Oh. Er. Hm. That’s actually… um.
… No, I can’t deal with that. Hang on.
That’s better. You may be able to create otherwise, but for me it has got to be pee-covered year-old cabbage, every time.
Yes, Skyrim really is that far improved over Oblivion (although in the interests of total disclosure I should point out that I thought far less of Oblivion than the rest of the planet). The world is better defined; there are more interesting things to do; there are better characters, superior mechanics, more varied quests. Bethesda have clearly learned a lot from Fallout 3, incorporating a lot of its better features into what is probably the best Elder Scrolls game yet.
It’s also big. Really big. Huge, massive, gargantuan, towering, titanic, and many other words you’ll find in a thesaurus. But don’t worry: I’m here. I’m with you. I’ll hold your hand. Don’t panic.
That said, it’s still a Bethesda game and it’s not without a few glaring issues, but we’ll deal with them in time.
The first big change is to the world itself, in a story context. 200 years have passed since Oblivion (in game time, that is – much as it might seem that way, Skyrim hasn’t been in development for quite that long) and things have changed a lot. The Empire has weakened significantly after the events of Oblivion, with a brief and wholly one-sided war against the Aldmeri Dominion leading to an uneasy truce that’s banned worship of the god Talos and resulted in the Empire becoming a sort of resentful puppet state for elves with superiority complexes.
The Nords are not best pleased by this development, and a civil war has erupted across the realm of Skyrim. The Nords hate the way they’ve been treated post-war and want their independence, while the Empire can’t afford to let such capable soldiers go should the war against the Dominion kick off again. While each side battles over the cities of Skyrim, elven inquisitors roam the lands rooting out and executing followers of the “false religion”… and then dragons appear.
Basically: things aren’t going well, and it really feels like it.
As this is an Elder Scrolls game, it’s entirely up to you how much you want to involve yourself in any one aspect of this. If you can’t be arsed with the civil war then you can devote yourself to the main plotline and deal with the pressing issue of the dragons; alternatively, you can completely ignore your destiny as Dragonborn and focus on taking back Skyrim for one faction or another. You can focus on side quests, or guild quests, or crafting, or exploring… or try to do everything at once and end up with a quest log that, at a glance, might look as though you’ve been transcribing War & Peace in your spare time.
Everything’s been streamlined and – much as that’s probably caused you to shudder uncontrollably – I actually think it’s been done rather well. There’s no more minigame for making people like you, for instance, and you you now talk to people in complete sentences. And the game doesn’t pause and zoom in on their freakish, mutant faces when you converse! It’s like we’re living in the future.
(You can still piss people off, though, as I discovered when – at level 2 – I found a roving band of Thalmor inquisitors and promptly informed them that there’s nothing wrong with worshipping Talos. And then I had to reload, on account of being dead.)
Also streamlined is the character generator. Aesthetics aside, your initial character creation really only changes things based on the race you pick, as that gives you a starting ability and sets up your initial stats. Following your daring escape at the beginning you’re led to three “Guardian Stones”, of which there are 13 scattered across Skyrim, mostly offering useful one-per-day powers. But these initial three – the Fighter, the Mage, and the Thief – boost how quickly you can level skills related to those archetypes.
Which means, basically, that you can change how you play whenever you want. If you’re bored of hacking people to bits with a two-handed weapon you can hop back to the stones and get a boost to levelling your sneaking or your magery. Much as The Elder Scrolls has never really locked you into one role, this makes it a hell of a lot easier to change your “class” whenever you want.
The levelling itself has been streamlined, too. Gone are the bullshit stats like Acrobatics; you’ll never level up because you spent an hour jumping on the spot. Instead, boosting a certain number of skills levels you up, awarding you a bonus to either max health, magicka, or stamina and a “perk” that can be spent in a skill tree. I approve: I like that most levels feel like more of a milestone, with new things to play with.
Get good at Blocking and you can unlock the ability to stun enemies with a shield bash or to entirely negate damage from arrows as long as they hit your shield, while One-Handed will give bonus damage and extra power attacks. And Smithing? Well, if you spend perks in Smithing, you’ll be able to create far stronger equipment.
Crafting is another big plus point for Skyrim. In addition to the standard alchemy (which now lets you “catch” butterflies, resulting in a moment of abject horror when I realised this made my character pull their wings off) you can gather ore from mineral veins and pelts from animals, smelt or tan it into metal or leather, and then turn those into weapons and armour of pants-wetting quality, valuable jewellery to sell, or upgrades for the equipment you have.
Surprisingly, this renewed focus on crafting comes at the expense of spell crafting, which is gone. You can make potions, enchant items, smelt ore, and smith your own gear… but you can no longer design your own spells. It’s something that’s going to be a sticking point for the hardcore, I suspect, though it didn’t bother me overmuch. It’s now a little harder to abuse the system to create an absurdly unbalanced character, and it’s given Bethesda a bit of room to create some unique and entertaining spells, but I doubt that’ll be much comfort to those who liked breaking the game with 100-point spells that lasted for an entire second.
And then there’s the combat.
Maybe it’s because I’ve spent awhile playing Dark Souls, but the combat doesn’t really do it for me. Oh, it’s leaps and bounds ahead of Oblivion – there’s much more of a sense of push-and-pull, the animations are better, and the attacks are more varied – but if you focus on melee, it’s all-too-often a case of running at someone and pressing right trigger until they fall over.
Magic and sneakery mix this up a bit, thankfully. Thieves work as you’d expect: sneak around, lurk in corners, do absurd damage with stealth attacks. Mages can ready a spell in either hand – say, a warding shield in the left, and a lightning spell in the right – or equip the same one in both hands for a powerful dual-cast, and there are enough spells that you can normally have a bit of fun with fights. Playing with all the tools is a lot more fun than playing as a straight one-class character.
The one thing that does make the combat a lot more interesting are the Dragonborn powers you get if you proceed along the main quest for a little while. Our protagonist, you see, is a Dragonborn, capable of “Shouts” – forceful uses of the dragon language that have a variety of effects, from teleporting ten feet forward to incinerating anything in his or her path.
Everyone has access to these. They don’t use magicka and they’re not assigned to either of your hands so you can use them in addition to everything else, and while I don’t want to spoil all the things they can do, I will say that one of my favourites is actually the first you get (aptly titled Unrelenting Force) as it hurls enemies backwards like ragdolls and stuns them for a few seconds while they get up – which they never will, if you Shout them off a cliff.
The Shouts themselves are unlocked via two mechanics. Firstly, you need to find the actual words, which tend to be locked away at the very end of specific dungeons. This, I love: I felt a genuine thrill at clearing a dungeon and then seeing a huge black wall with glowing blue runes carved into it, not knowing what new power I was about to get access to.
Once you’ve found the words, you need to unlock them in your menu by using Dragon Souls. How do you get Dragon Souls? You kill dragons.
This I do not love so much, and this is the one area in which I do feel Bethesda employed a bit of bluster. Before release we were informed that dragon encounters were randomised, that they had access to different abilities, that they fought differently and had clever AI. This is all probably true. It doesn’t mask the fact that fighting them is bloody boring.
That’s not always the case, admittedly. The first few dragon encounters in the game are rightly terrifying, and equally awe-inspiring. The dragons themselves are beautiful, swooping across the landscape to breathe fire or ice, maybe hovering in place to blast something, maybe landing for a second to take a bite at your head.
Early on they’re tough bastards to crack, too, with huge health reserves and attacks that do frankly absurd amounts of damage; my first (unscripted) encounter with a dragon was a fraught, tense, and chaotic battle on a narrow, ice-capped cliff, which came to a dramatic close when an arrow pierced its side and it plummeted, blasting a huge crater where it fell.
My second battle was a bit easier, because the dragon was less interested in me and was more concerned with picking on a nearby grizzly bear. Perhaps its mother was killed by bears? I don’t know. I never really found an appropriate time to ask. That’s not the sort of question you just suddenly spring on a thirty-foot long killing machine.
Skip forward 10 hours, though, and dragons were no longer dreadful, terrible enemies to be feared and respected. They were enemies that would swoop in and out of view, and I would shoot at them with my bow until they landed, at which point I would hack them to death with my sword. Rinse, repeat.
At this stage you’re probably wondering why I’m calling this the best Elder Scrolls game yet. From all of this it probably sounds mostly liked a marked improvement over Oblivion, but with issues of its own. Well, that’s because I’ve yet to talk about the best aspect of the game.
This, simply, is Skyrim’s world. The game is absolutely more than the sum of its parts, and the world is why.
Part of it is down to the unique towns. The crime-dominated Riften, with its underground network of inhabited sewers, is unlike the shining Imperial stronghold of Solitude. The snowy and compact castle town of Windhelm feels entirely different to the expansive, tundra-situated Rohan Whiterun.
Part of it is down to the characters, on the simple basis that there actually are characters. I’ve only once heard a voice actor talking to himself but, that aside, people feel unique. Only NPCs with something to say actually switch the game into dialogue mode, while others just spit out a line based on recent events, and different people feel like different people. An enthusiastic Whiterun storekeeper is not like the storekeeper in the dark elven slums of Windhelm.
Part of it is down to the map design. Oblivion’s Cyrodiil was a flat and somewhat dull expanse, but Skyrim – with its treacherous mountain paths, lush forests, wide tundra, and boggy swamps – feels like a place you’re exploring, and getting from A to B is rarely easy.
Part of it’s down to incidental detail, like being able to do menial tasks – chopping wood, or harvesting crops – for coin, or playing tag and hide-and-seek with village children. Part of it’s down to smart and unique dungeon design. Part of it’s down to the quests. While I’ve yet to see anything that matches Oblivion’s “Whodunit?” quest in terms of sheer ghoulish originality, the average quality is far higher here. Most quests in Skyrim have some sort of hook or twist, and the guild quests I’ve undertaken generally feed towards an ongoing plotline and normally have a great deal of character on their own.
Which is why it’s such a massive shame when Skyrim breaks that feeling of a cohesive and cogent world. I’m not talking about the (mercifully few) occasions when the scripting breaks, infuriating though they are, particularly if – like me – you end up with one NPC required for two quests, endlessly walking back and forth between the two locations. I’m also not talking about the fact that, while the vistas and general art direction in the game are stunning, many textures are mind-boggingly low-res when viewed from close up.
No, I’m talking about the occasions when the world just stops making sense. I can kinda deal with the in-game logic that I can break into a house, murder someone in cold blood, and have his brother walk in while I’m standing on the corpse with my dagger dripping still-warm blood… and then watch as he walks off again.
My suspension of disbelief is rocked more when I sign up with the rebels, assault a city, massacre a fort full of Imperial soldiers, and then walk into Solitude and have a friendly chat with the Imperial general who knows which side I’m on. Same thing goes with a botched assassination of a high-profile figure. Why does no-one remember me?
Skyrim is so intent on letting you do whatever you like that you rarely suffer any consequences. This has its benefits, certainly – it’d be no fun to be locked out of content simply because you screwed something up – but equally, without any form of consequence more serious than paying a tiny bounty, choices have no real meaning. It’s maddening, and greatly lessens the feeling that you’re having any impact on the world barring some incidental NPC dialogue.
I’d rather have to walk into Solitude in disguise or complete a series of quests to get back to “normal”, instead of simply talking to a guard and then having everyone pretend I wasn’t there.
That might sound petty (hell, it probably is) but I wasn’t kidding when I said that Skyrim is elevated beyond the sum of its parts by the world. Taken by themselves, none of the game’s elements – quests, story, combat, dungeon delving – are hugely impressive; it’s the cohesiveness lent by the jaw-dropping world that ties them together and transforms them from something that’s merely good into something that’s amazing. Anything that hampers that process is a big, big problem.
But, thankfully, this doesn’t crop up all that often, and I imagine most players will be able to ignore it anyway. The bottom line is that, most of the time, Skyrim is a genuinely amazing game. It still has flaws aplenty, and a fair few mechanics that could do with a bit more polish, but when I can honestly say that I’ve spent over 70 hours with one character alone, that I still have a quest log full of stuff to do, that I have a second character I need to get back to, and – more importantly – that I don’t regret a single damn hour of it, it’s hard to say that Skyrim is anything but a triumph.
Now if only there was a mod to turn off the bloody giant spiders. Brr.