Skyrim Reviewed

It wasn’t until I ascended the frigid 7000 steps of the Throat of the World and made my way to the doorstep of High Hrothgar that I finally took a moment for myself. I stood there, gazing over the region atop the tallest mountain in the land thinking of my travels. I’d already ventured through several of the best dungeons Bethesda has ever made, looted relics from antiquated treasure chests, fiercely battled dragons and even visited a freezing Norse castle. But it wasn’t until this particular moment where from my rugged snowy perspective it hit me that Skyrim is a game that takes its time to show you all of it's riches. It’s an utterly fantastic experience that’s marred by only a few missteps.

A Gorgeously Crafted World
Skyrim is the best looking open world game I’ve ever played on a console, mostly due to the care Bethesda paid to the minute details--it’s mind numbing! Look closely you’ll find a frosty haze blowing over the ridged mountains, individual branches dancing in the wind and even skeletons bursting into pieces going clickety-clack all over the ground. One of my personal favorites? The small crystals that form around your equipment--complete with a chilly crackling sound--as ice spells are cast your way.

The world of Skyrim breaths and seems to organically live an unscripted life and things will go on despite your presence. As I roamed around I always felt that something great was happening both in front and behind me. It made me believe that I could turn a corner and anything could happen.

The larger, more grander things are great too. Not once did I find two similar looking rock formations. The mountain ranges are particularly jaw-dropping, in fact I bet I could identify most of them by their unique formations. All the major cities have their own look and feel about them, supporting diverse cultures within those walls. I got a sense that some cities are older than others, and built from different regional materials by different masters. The variety and realism helps build an identity for each location, and it works.

With as much attention as Bethesda paid to the details I was surprised to find tracks weren’t left in the snow. There were no fancy water effect on the screen, for instance walking under a waterfall left no drips and rain seems to never hit me. A few rare textures looked a bit too smeared. In some of the ice caves I found highly pixelated wall textures.

A screenshot of some of the rough and rarely found textures in Skyrim (Xbox 360, captured with my iPhone 4S).

Character models moved away from Oblivion’s caricature-esque aesthetic and are now slightly more realistic. Generally they’re good enough and certainly not ugly, but in some cases the character models looked a little generic. In fact in some cases they looked like they might belong in a Gothic game instead of The Elder Scrolls game. Thankfully there is enough diversity that rarely did I find the same two people walking around (though I did scratch my head that the exact same kids seem to be running around the cities).

Honestly these things hardly matter as Skyrim is just so good looking and these minor faults are easy to overlook.

The Norse Gods Cheer You On
Without giving away too much, Skyrim opens up at a higher pace than previous Elder Scrolls games. I didn't think it was particularly great but it’s a fairly fun start . The scripted sequences look a little dated. NPC movement is distractingly stiff and they still awkwardly turn on a dime. It hardly matters though because once the game opened up, I quickly forgot all about that.

The leveling process in Skyrim is more enjoyable and rewarding than Oblivion’s, and that is thanks in part to the new perk system borrowed from Fallout 3. As I progressed and refined my skills, I felt markedly more capable and powerful. Enemies who easily overpowered me early on in the game were killed with one shout as I neared the end of the game. One of my favorite moments when leveling up is the sounds of the Norse cheering you on as you progress.

The autosave system now utilizes 3 slots, just in case you get yourself into a bind. It’s a good system too as it saves after sleeping, waiting, loading, fast-travels and immediately after you slay a dragon. Still I highly recommend creating 5 of your own save slots and rotating through those as well. I ran into a particularly nasty bug that halted my progression through the main quest line. After contacting Bethesda I was informed that this was a known issue and a patch was on the way. That (day-1) patch is now available and has indeed addressed the issue--but beware.

Some random gameplay notes: It’s never disclosed in the manual or the tutorial but the player can pick up items by pressing and holding the A or X button. The lockpicking mechanic is just like the one found in Fallout 3, and investing in perks is actually worthwhile. There are books laying around everywhere and some do a good job of foreshadow encounters you may have and others bump up your skill level. The kill-cam from Fallout 3 has made it’s way into the game and yes it still can miss some of the action. There are treasure maps too, much like the ones found in Red Dead Redemption that even include crude draws leading to hidden booty. Gone are the item caps and vendor’s now have money pools that refresh every 24 hours. The amount seems to be directly tied to the player’s level.

Underneath the sheen of new technology and a revamped interface, I could still feel Skyrim’s roots deeply tied to Oblivion. Heavy melee attacks still feel powerfully slow like they could crush a truck. Spell casting feels even more mystical thanks to new animations and dual-wielding. Archery is now a viable option and blocking melee attack still feels you are in an automobile accident. So much fun with so many ways to kill.

Though the overall experience has been streamlined, and improvements have been made across the board, I don’t think Skyrim is going to bring in many new players to the series. The world is about the same size as Oblivion but it’s now more densely packed with an (almost) overwhelming amount of things to do.

Found this guy sleeping under his bed. Must have heard a dragon! (Xbox 360, captured with my iPhone 4S)

A New Way To Interface
Let’s just get this out of the way--functionally the new mapping system is leagues above the one found in Oblivion! It does everything it should, and even marks dungeons you’ve already cleared so there’s no confusion. Imagine Google Maps filled with dragons and castles.

The rest of the interface has also been completely overhauled to make things more accessible. Although it works fairly well and the simplicity grew on me it’s not as great as I hoped. For example, early on in the game I had a hard time determining which weapons were single-handed versus double-handed because it isn’t not specified anywhere in the interface. I eventually realized one-handed weapons are displayed vertically and two-handed weapons diagonally.

The new favorites system is well done as it pauses the action to allow quick access to your custom built list. Access favorites by pressing either up or down on the D-Pad. It’s a waste that both buttons do the same thing where as left and right can be bound to different items or abilities.

The quest log has been greatly improved as main quests and larger side-quests are clearly displayed, noted and easily viewable including bullet-points for specific tasks. The smaller quests--like item deliveries or bandit contracts--are all grouped into one smaller area and also displayed as bullet-point. No more scrolling!

Floating at a table, drinking some mead...like you do. (Xbox 360, captured with my iPhone 4S)

Skyrim is in dire need of a character page. Not just so we can marvel at how awesome our character looks in our hard-to-obtain loot (like in Oblivion) but so we can make sure every item slot is filled. I know it sounds nuts but there were a few times where I found myself bootless or shirtless because a quest stripped me of my clothes or I just plain forgot to equip. Unfortunately the game lacks the ability to directly compare two inventory items. Instead Skyrim only focused against what I was wearing.

I think the ability to save weapon/armor sets would be helpful. One of the characters I played was a Mage/Thief hybrid.  During various missions I was required to use their specialty garb and re-equiping head to toe was a drag.

In terms of Guild progression and standings, Oblivion made it easy by placing all the relevant information on one page. It was quick, concise and I knew my ranking in each guild. I was stunned to see Skyrim has nothing of the sort! At times I found myself confused as to where I stood within each faction because they have endless contracts to acquire. I missed collecting accolades like trophies.

Quest markers have been improved. The player can now see the objective marker through walls and in some cases it helped me find those nasty, little, obscure quest items. There is a chance some players might find this less challenging and it could diminishes those serendipitous moments.

Overall I do wish the game exposed more of the low-level character stuff. Experience points and money are often awarded for completing quests but only money is ever shown to the player. Details regarding experience points are nowhere to be found in the Skill menu where the bulk of your information resides. There is a meter to show one’s progression within a level so you can get an idea where you stand, but there are no numbers associated with it. I found myself wanting more granularity with character statistics.

Sure the new interface is more functional--particularly the map--but gone is the ability to sort items in your inventory. Oblivion’s interface was overflowing with character with it’s sliding metal latches and parchment-looking backgrounds. Unfortunately I found Skyrim’s new minimalistic interface not only missing some much needed features, but also lacking personality. What a stark contrast from the beautiful world of Skyrim--boring and lifeless.

New Dungeons, New Puzzles and Some Repeating
One of the best things about Skyrim is wonderful dungeon design. All are excitingly unique, interesting to explore, filled with more puzzles and traps, and bubbling over with atmosphere. It’s all there! The crackling of the rocky walls dirt particles sprinkled through beams of sunlight dusting over you and the dreary drip of water in the background. These dungeons are a testamite to Bethesda’s hard work to improve the dungeon exploring experience.

I believe the addition of more traps was a wise move because I found myself walking more slowly through the dungeons, and I suspect this was intentional in design. One of my favorite things about the new designs is that all the dungeons I visited now do a good job of looping the player back to the entrance. Rigged treasure chests now have visible traps giving the player the opportunity to disarm using the lockpicking skill. The puzzle elements are a nice touch but they lack variety to keep it interesting. Remember the demo that we’ve all seen of the claw and the door puzzle? Well unfortunately it’s recycled many many times. Does it really matter though? Incorporating puzzles is still a welcome change.

Big Dragons And Shouting It Out
Yes these are literal shouts. Once you learn the words you obtain some cool and use abilities. Shouts can be unlocked using the souls of dragons and can then be leveled up 3 times. It’s a great addition to the game. I constantly used them regardless of my character class. I found no overwhelmingly powerful shout so I bounced around using various ones.

The Dragons in the Skyrim add a wonderful and exciting variable to those who roam the region. To me they never once felt scripted or predictable. Watching a dragon off in the distance swoop down and turn the plains into his playground was astonishingly cool. At one point in the game I was attacked by a dragon in one of the larger cities and complete chaos ensued. Guards quickly took out their bows and civilians ran for cover, but when all was said and done several people were fried to a crisp. It was just so cool to see that kind of interaction on an AI level, and it reminded me of the fun I use to have with Doom. Afterward, once the dragon was slain, NPCs gathered around the Dragon carcase and remarked how in all their years they’d never seen such a thing.

An interesting note is the Dragons’ skeletons remain persistent to the world, so even after you’ve completely looted their bodies the bones remain forever. It’s cool in theory but it did eventually lead to some silly situations. In one instance, every time I entered a city where I killed a dragon the body would randomly fall from the sky and land in different parts of town. This happened constantly and not a single NPC would take notice of it after the initial slaying. Another time a dragon died right in the middle of town and NPCs would walk right through the colossal skeleton.

The Dragon who's bones kept falling from the Sky in Whiterun. (Xbox 360, captured with my iPhone 4S)

There were moments when I heard a really loud roar over my head and as I looked up a dragon was swooping down for me--it was intense! I found the dragons a thrill to fight, particularly near the beginning of the game but once I reached a higher level (around level 30) they hardly posed a threat. Regardless of this and a few bugs these immense flying beast were a sight to behold and add a great element of surprise to the fighting.

Jobs, Horses, Sidekicks and Traveling
There is more to do in Skyrim than in previous Elderscrolls games. Dungeons and mountain sides are more abundant with ore which needs to be collected with a pickaxe. You can then head back to town and smelt the ore to make bars for crating weapons, armor and jewelry. You can chop wood, enchant, cook, finally put leather hides to good use and much more.

The horse riding experience is so much better as the animals are much much easier to control. Horses feel like they belong in the world and really get you around quickly. The controls don’t feel as authentic as the ones found in Red Dead Redemption, but they are close. I do wish there was a way to set the horses to a passive mode because yes my friends they attack enemies. Too many times I found myself scrambling to save my horses from certain death thus distracting me from the real fight. A few times my horse even attacked a dragon (hilarious!) And boy does this game need the ability to whistle for your horse--but at least they can swim now!

Sidekicks act as mules like in Fallout 3 and will automatically use the better, more applicable equipment that they carry. There were a few moments where my sidekick got in the way, and what made it frustrating is the fact that they were unmovable--who’s the Dragonborn here?! Also fair warning to horse riders, sidekicks do not hop along for the ride and are rather slow to follow. They often get stuck on trees and such.

Another travel option is the carriage. For a few gold pieces you can travel to any city in Skyrim, even if you’ve not visited it yet. Though I didn't use the carriage at all in my initial playthrough, I found myself using it a lot in my second.

Jeremy Soule provides an amazing aural landscape with his compositions. When the action picks up the deep bombastic tones of the Norse gods take over. Then when the action subsides it subtly flows over to a winter daydream. I know it sounds cheesy to say but I felt like the score spun it's own tale. I have no doubt this score will leave it’s mark on players much like the one in Oblivion. It truly is it’s own character in the game.

With Skyrim it’s clear to me that Bethesda has managed to bring everything together more cohesively than any of their previous games. The graphics are phenomenal, the sounds brought me farther into the experience, the combat is balanced and a ton of fun and the level progression is rewarding. I feel like this is the Elder Scrolls game we’ve always wanted Bethesda to make.


Mark said...

Feel free to leave me a comment! :)

Anonymous said...

Thanks a lot!
That guy under his bed was fun :)
But I have to admit not reading every detail right now - I still want to enjoy it first hand. One more night to cover, then I'm there as well :)


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