The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim review
Skyrim, the fifth instlament in Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls series, may well be the biggest and the best yet.
There is no multiplayer, no co-op. There are few overblown set-pieces, barely a moment where players are left trailing behind some feckless NPC in the recently ubiquitous gaming pursuit of ‘follow the man’. There is no breadcrumb trail, no mini-map, and no contextual tooltip popping up every eight seconds to remind us that hitting a certain button makes rewarding things happen. There are no quick time events and there is, in fact, nothing across the length and breadth of Skyrim to hint at the notion that we’re as dumb as gaming’s incessant mothering often intimates. In Skyrim, we are free.
Which is beguiling. The series’ traditional opener is back – prisoner steps off ship, or in this case prison wagon – and an escape is undertaken thanks to the timely arrival of a Storm Dragon. The player, along with a fellow prisoner, runs for the hills. Out of sight of their imperial captors, Skyrim’s casual attitude towards focus begins in earnest. Sure, players can follow their new Nordic friend back to his village where they will be treated as a hero to both he and his people and offered room and board by a comely fighting wench.
But adventure lies in every direction. Unlike Oblivion, whose side-quests were primarily made up of lengthy chains supplied by the world’s four guilds – Mages, The Dark Brotherhood (assassins), Thieves and Fighters – major quest chains are to be found everywhere. Even when side-tracked, with Skyrim’s stream of things to see and people to do, it takes a very focused player not to become side-tracked from his or her own side-tracking. Arrival in a town with, say, a mind to speak to a specific individual can quickly become lost in the five or six other quest offers stumbled upon in finding your way there.
Time limits are frequent in modern videogames; ‘megalomaniac du jour’ threatens to blow up New York within the next 24 hours unless one man can defeat an army of a thousand trained killers, or whatnot. Games tend to press urgency as their primary motivator. Skyrim is the antithesis. Time is its most abundant commodity, and it’s structured in such a way that no matter how you may choose to spend it, none ever feels wasted.
The Elder Scrolls series’ approach to levelling is back, this time honed to perfection. As before, the repetition of a specific action incurs the natural consequence of improvement. Levels gained in each skill are added to the player’s cumulative total XP, which then levels up periodically. On gaining a level, players are offered two benefits. The first affects basic stats and is a simple choice from three; Magicka, Health or Stamina. The second is a choice of perk, which will accentuate abilities in any one of well over a hundred possible ways.
Perks are split into schools of training, each represented by a star constellation. They account for just about any action performed in the game, from combat abilities such as One-handed weapon, Archery or Destruction, through to more passive skills such as Alchemy, Enchanting and Smithing. Throughout our time in Skyrim for this review, we tried out a mere smattering of ways to approach things. Setting our own moral agenda – not stealing and not killing unless attacked – we completed quests using Destruction magic, Conjuration of demons and, later, snuck pretty much everywhere, approaching enemies unheard and using Archery to administer a stylish-looking head piercing.
Within each discipline, perks amplify the natural betterment endued by the standard gaining of levels. The sneak skill, for example, is increased by skulking about and not being heard. The more the player does it, the less likely he or she is to be detected, with each level unlocking perks in the Sneak skill tree, which can then activate when levelling up overall. Perks in Sneak include bonuses for weapon damage while undetected; triple for bows, fifteen times damage for daggers. Like so much of the beautifully thought-out world of Skyrim, these have been layered in such a way as to encourage players to graduate. Begin with ranged, then the knife like some medieval incarnation of Léon. Clever, no?
Smarter still is, to quote the late Douglas Adams’, ‘the fundamental interconnectedness of all things’. There is a cause-effect relationship that is more complex and more evident than that seen elsewhere. An anecdotal example: inside a random house, a child has a human corpse on an altar of sorts. There are a few wild plants around it, a dead dragonfly, a note scrawled in blood. His eyes light up at the sight of his surprise visitor. ‘You’re here. I can’t believe you actually came.’
He’s summoning a member of The Dark Brotherhood. That we arrived in timely fashion leads to a case of mistaken identity in which he pleads with us to kill the mistress of his former orphanage. We have a choice; kill her, refuse, or meet her and then decide. We go with the latter, only to find her as cruel as our ‘client’ has made out. Her death swiftly follows, as does the adulation of the children at the orphanage, who are finally free of their sadistic tormentor. Back at the house, the ‘client’ gifts us a valuable family heirloom, which we later sell, using our ill-gotten profit for a nice, new, shiny set of armour.
It’s several hours later when, strolling the streets and alleyways of Riften, the south-westernmost of Skyrim’s nine capital cities, that a messenger, exhausted and nervous, tells us of the difficulty he’s had in finding us before delivering us a note. On it is the black hand of The Dark Brotherhood, and scrawled in blood beneath, the words ‘We Know’. Chalk up another future problem we’ve created for ourselves. Our later dallyings with The Dark Brotherhood are both triggered and tainted by this event and, onwardly, those dallyings have a tangible effect on how we’re perceived both by the public at large and by any faction we may or may not already be in collusion with. Cause and effect. Permanent, irrevocable change.
The land of Skyrim is not only beguiling in its scale, but also sumptuous in its grandeur. Every detail, from simple brush plants strewn across hillsides in convincingly random fashion, to the gorgeous cloud-hugged peaks, to turquoise pools of hydrogeologic volcanism whose geysers cough water and steam high into the air. Every magnificent vista can be traveled to, every mountain climbed, every valley breached. And beneath Skyrim’s surface beauty lies a termite’s nest of dungeons and underground tunnels, each with its own secrets to be found and dangers to be faced. And Skyrim’s imagination goes far beyond mere dungeons; there are shipwrecks to be plundered, alternate planes of existence to be feared and even places in the clouds where the very gods hold council.
Many of the off-piste dungeons and other dire oubliettes are related to quests. Complete them and you’ll most likely have seen a majority of the game. But let’s throw in some perspective here. As well as copious exploration and minor quest completion, we decide to see one long chain to its end. It has nothing to do with the main story and is filled with fascinating characters, unique creatures and underground catacombs filled with beautiful ancient machines. This quest chain takes around ten hours, is gripping from beginning to end and results in some extremely worthwhile rewards. Yet, this ten hours – the length of many entire games – is, at a guess, no more than a couple of per cent of the whole.
Indeed, in the dozens of hours we spent in Skyrim, we played like a leaf in the wind; being carried along by whatever random gust we happened upon. It’s quite possible to do this almost indefinitely. Where one strand ends, another begins; tiny filaments of story branch off in a dozen different directions, tempting us ever-deeper into layer-upon-layer of Skyrim’s onion-like world.
Dragons, for a change, are everything promised. Whether the specific story encounter variety, or one of those that spawn randomly in the wilderness, each creates its own set of problems. Are you out in the open or is there cover available? Are there any guards in the vicinity that might lend a hand, or do you have a companion at your side who can sway the battle your way? One thing is certain; when their blood-curdling cry echoes through the mountains, it’s time both to hit the save option and to trawl your armoury for the weapons you reserve only for such occasions. The souls your dragonborn hero absorbs from them and the subsequent ‘Shouts’ he unlocks are well worth the fight.
Additionally, Skyrim’s UI is a huge step forward for console RPGs. Gone is the typical assignation of various skills and healing potions seen in pretty much everything else out there, in its place something so simple that it’s a wonder we’ve never seen it before. Spells, weapons, potions and powers are ‘favourited’ by hovering over them in the inventory and hitting Y. When needed, they can be put into action by hitting up on the D-pad, then selecting them from a scroll-down list while the game automatically pauses. This means that, mid-fight, you can switch between entire set-ups at will. Bow to spell, to sword and shield. Drink a potion, apply a poison. It’s never more than two buttons away. No sifting through inventory bric-a-brac, no dragging, dropping or awkward equipping.
Ultimately, what Bethesda has created is a picture-perfect playground designed to engender pure love in those willing to lose themselves within it. Steady improvement, exploration of both place and possibility, and entrenchment in a fantasy world deeply fleshed out by hundreds of readable books, nefarious characters, epic battles, and an incalculable number of quests. If these are your reasons for picking up a videogame, these things have never been executed with greater virtuosity.