Writing a review for Skyrim is a lot like sitting down to play it, there is so much content that it’s hard to figure out where to start. The entire package is so unlike any gaming experience that I’ve had before, including Oblivion, that trying to put a description of it down on paper almost seems an injustice to the game. All I can do is kneel at the altar of The Elder Scrolls and hope that I can convey some of the mystifying, intangible properties that booting up the game with a controller in your hand will bestow upon the player.
Skyrim retains the all too familiar Elder Scrolls formula of you beginning the game shackled, as a prisoner. As the gameplay begins, you pick the race and appearance of your character. Your choices, however, end there. Unlike it’s predecessors, the game does not ask you to choose a class or distribute any skill points. Your class (and I use that term loosely) is wholly determined by your play style. If you decide to make the most of your magic skills, your talents in magic increase and, in turn, become more effective, making you a better mage. Much like the Fallout series, you also gain skill points as you level up. These skill points can be placed in any number of skill trees that also help to mold your character into the form you want. The use of this mechanic is unique and very nonrestrictive . It allows you to not only shape your character exactly how you want him or her, but also allows the game to adapt to the way you are playing at the same time. If, half way through your journey, you feel like moving away from your stealth-thief class and morphing into a heavy equipment-warrior class, you are completely free to do so. It’s fantastic that the game adapts to your decisions and play style in this way.
After the short introductory section in which you first dip your toes into the waters of Skyrim, you are set into the world with nothing but your wits and the equipment on your back. From there the game immediately opens up to a deep, rich world the likes of which I have never seen before. There is no hand-holding or “go here” objective markers thrown at you. You are simply a fledgling Dovahkiin, thrust into the world to find your own way. And when I say find your own way, I mean exactly that. Oh sure, you’re able to trudge through the main quest line and save the world; but you are as equally free to buy a house, get married, and start earning money as an armorer. Or perhaps you choose to murder the townsfolk and display their collected heads in your underground lair. That is exactly what makes Skyrim so spectacular; the freedom it affords you.
Don’t get me wrong, Bethesda has created a compelling main quest line involving the salvation of the territory from a sudden resurgence of dragons plaguing the land. However, because of the insane number of quests that you can stumble upon and the interesting stories behind these quests, it never feels like you are forced, or even prodded into rushing through the main story line. The adventure to rid Skyrim of these pesky dragons simply feels like another possible avenue for you to follow in a land full of adventures.
Combat will feel familiar to fans of the Elder Scrolls series, with the exception of a few minor tweaks. Equipping gear for combat, like most of the rest of the game, is dealt with in a unique and highly customizable way. While you have the ability to use both hands, how you choose to use those hands in combat is completely up to you. If your play style suits a more reserved approach, you may end up equipping a sword in one hand and shield in the other. However, if you tend to be the “do as much damage as possible”, heavy hitting, Rambo type of adventurer; perhaps a two-handed battle-axe is more your style. Aside from the equipment, you also have magic spells at your disposal which you may equip in either hand, or both hands if you wish to make a bigger impact with your spells. Any combination of the above is possible, and the game gives you the freedom to shape your combat style in any way you see fit. Although the combat still seem stilted at times, the addition of the highly customizable approach to how you take on any battle helps to nullify the impact of the stiff, “block or bash” movement.
Another addition to your combat repertoire is the ability to use dragon shouts. As a dragon born, the blood of the ancient Dovah courses through your veins giving you the ability to speak the dragon language and unleash special abilities. These range from being able to slow time to summoning an elder dragon to aid you in your battles. In theory, the dragon shouts seem to be a great addition to your arsenal. However, in my experience, they tend to feel more like additional spells than powerful and unique abilities. I found myself using the shouts less and less until they eventually fell almost completely by the wayside. With that said, I must point out that this was my personal experience. My character fell into a stealthy, backstabbing, assassin type role which didn’t have much call for magic. On the flip side of the coin, I can see a melee fighter or mages making much better use of these powers.
The world is enthralling and the time that you spend in-game will take you from one end of the territory to the other. Each of the 9 holds of Skyrim is unique and filled with its own architecture, culture, and characters so that they truly feel like worlds in and of themselves. By the time you have traversed the beautiful and diverse terrain, you can’t help but feel the depth of your travels. Hundreds of points of interest dot the landscape and the striking environments spread out between these locations are nothing short of breathtaking. Although the small textures of, say, the cobblestone street in a town are nothing to gawk at, there are times that I have crested the ridge of a mountain to find myself starting, slack-jawed, at a vast valley of foliage and decaying ruins that truly feel like they have not been seen by human eyes for centuries. With a vast array of environment types, from sodden swamps to blustery mountain peaks, your eyes will always find something upon which to feast.
The dungeons, though, may be where the game misses a step in the visual department. Although Bethesda has come a long way since Oblivion, they still have some distance to cover. Anyone familiar with the dungeons in Oblivion will tell you of the striking similarity you encounter when entering any dungeon there. With the overwhelming number of dungeons found throughout that game, most ended up using the same basic tile set and layout. Although you may round a familiar corner to see a section of the dungeon that you had entered before blocked off this time around, by in large the Oblivion dungeons all seemed churned out using the same cookie cutter formula. Apparently no such mold was used in the making of Skyrim. Every maze of tunnels was designed by hand, and I never found myself thinking that I had run down this hallway half a dozen times before. In Skyrim, your deja vu comes not from feeling like you have cleared this dungeon many times before, but from the fact that you have seen these types of stone hallways in your past travels. Over the course of clearing the hundreds of underground passages, the same small rotation of tile sets are used. Don’t get me wrong, the experience of pillaging a dwarven ruin feels much different from raging through a damp, underground cave. But, battling through damp cavern A tends to feel very similar to battling through damp cavern B. This is a small gripe however, and I find myself grateful that the folks at Bethesda took the time to painstakingly hand craft every dungeon, no matter if they used the same tile sets or not.
Yet another streamlined addition to the Skyrim experience is the much improved UI. Gone are the days of sifting through tabs in a menu for minutes at a time trying to find that elusive spell or piece of equipment that you are looking for. All of the bulky fat has been trimmed from the menu system, allowing easy access to all of your spells, equipment, skills and map with a few flicks of the analog stick. To go hand in hand with this improvement, there has also been the addition of a favorites menu. From the main menu, you simply have to mark, or “favorite”, anything you wish to have quick access to. Now, while playing, all you have to do is press on the d-pad and a small list appears, allowing you easy access to the assets you use the most. This alleviates much of the frustration associated with navigating the menus and allows for a smoother, more immersive gameplay experience.
Now we’ve come to the time in my review, friends, where giving this game a score becomes difficult. As you may have noticed, I felt this game deserved a perfect score. However, if you query as to whether Skyrim is a perfect game, my answer will have to be no. Any reviewer that is worth his salt will tell you that they’ve spent many an hour pondering this conundrum. Does a game have to be perfect to receive a perfect score? My answer is no, and Skyrim is a great example of why that is true. Sure, the game stutters in some small, insignificant ways. The game also has some undeniable bugs. However, the indescribable experience of playing a game like this imparts such an amazing sense of immersion and fun that any of those missteps can easily be forgiven. I could spend weeks writing about the wonders of Skyrim and end up with a 300 page strategy guide. I haven’t even touched on the random dragon battles, crafting your own armor and weapons, choosing a side in the raging civil war that has engulfed the land, or even buying and decorating your own house. There is so much content on this disc that I feel like I’m doing it a disservice by trying to describe it in detail. Skyrim is an experience and that is exactly how to partake of it; as an experience. My experience may be different from your experience and your experience may be different from the next person’s experience. Everyone owes it to themselves to partake of it in this way because Skyrim is truly a gaming experience unlike any I’ve ever had. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some dragons to slay…