Monday, 26 December 2011

Review: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

            Bleary eyed, blinded by the light of the natural world I stumble from the confines of my indoor cell. I of course am talking about my self incarceration at the hands of ‘The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim’. I will start by apologising that this has taken quite so long for me to write, you see I wanted to finish at least the main quest before writing a review and I got a little bit distracted. Well I say a little bit, I started the main quest line proper after about 80 hours of side quests, exploration and general dithering. So anyway, on with the show!

As anyone familiar with an ‘Elder Scrolls’ title will already know you begin the game as a nameless prisoner, you are treated to a bit of back-story as the cart transports you and a few others similarly on death row to the town square where you are scheduled to be decapitated. You step down from the cart and are then unleashed upon the character creation screen, you may be here for some time. Obviously the main thing you need to pick is your race, each has unique racial traits and abilities and slight variations in starting stats but go for what you like the look of best, part of the beauty of ‘Skyrim’ is that regardless of race you can be effective as whatever class you like, the only thing you have to compensate for is perhaps a slightly lower starting skill level which is overcome quickly enough at low levels. I looked at the various races and toyed with the idea of being an Argonian thief or a Redguard warrior, but then gave up all pretence that I was going to be anything but a Dunmer (Dark Elf) mage and rolled one of those. This is all I’m going to say about the story so as to avoid spoilers for any who have yet to experience it and to keep this from becoming a novella but trust me it’s rather good. Actually I retract that partially, I urge you to play the first few story quests until you have completed ‘The Way of the Voice’, this gives you a very useful skill which helps you hugely in more difficult fights. At the very least do ‘Dragon Rising’ before commencing your random wanderings since before that dragons will rarely if ever be seen.

The world of ‘Skyrim is simply huge, I genuinely can’t think of anything bigger, if you plan to trek from one end of the map to the other be prepared for a long walk. Luckily you are treated to breathtaking landscapes, skies, random weather and water effects that made me stop and just stare for a bit. This is the best way to experience Skyrim, aimlessly meandering around discovering caves, dungeons, castles and the like. Of course once you’ve found places you can quick travel which is hugely helpful, it would be insane to walk everywhere all the time. Even riding takes time and carts can only take you between major cities which is not always where you want to go but if your anything like me you wont always jump to the nearest possible location or go from waypoint to waypoint but will cover the map in places you haven’t necessarily been into but have discovered for quick travelling back to later on.

Apart from the main quest and general wandering of the world there are several side quests that are long enough to passed off as entire games these days as well as a ridiculous number miscellaneous quests and an infinite, yes infinite, amount of radiant quests. Yes the radiant quests are very straight forward affairs like ‘steal x from y’ or ‘go here and kill whoever’ but they’re there to be completed and you are rewarded each time. The ‘main’ side quests revolve around the major guilds or groups in the game: The College of Winterhold, The Dark Brotherhood, The Thieves Guild, The Civil War and The Companions all need your help and the Dark Brotherhood and Thieves Guild stories were incredibly strong in my opinion.

The game mechanics are a cross between ‘Oblivion’ in that they go up as you use them and a ‘Fallout’ style perk system. The fusion works very well for the most part and is what allows you to play whatever character you like. As you complete actions related to a spell, deal damage with Destruction magic or craft a weapon with Blacksmithing your skill level rises. Raise it enough and the level increases granting an amount of experience to your overall level corresponding to your current character level and the level of the skill increase. Put simply the higher level you are the higher the level of your skill increases need to b e to make a notable impression of the next level. Now this system makes a lot of sense, getting better by doing something is logical and feels more real than adding some points at level up to various areas, however it does have drawbacks. I shall use my thief character as an example of this. Being a thief I snuck about a lot, picked every lock I could find and stole from anybody’s pocket. Whilst hugely entertaining this meant that my sneaking skills levelled up frequently, resulting in my overall character level rising with it. Not a problem until you are out on a main quest perhaps and are faced with a tough enemy who has been levelled to match your character level. The issue is now abundantly clear, my combat and armour skills are drastically lower than the game expects them to be based on my character level which means that if my sneak attack from stealth doesn’t insta-kill the opponent I’m immediately in trouble. This isn’t helped by the games somewhat random decisions as to whether you’re hidden or not. There are times I’ve been detected but nobody is anywhere near but my target and they certainly hadn’t seen me since they weren’t trying to jam a sword in my neck.

That aside the combat system was surprisingly good. Melee combat from first person has always felt clunky and unnatural to me and whilst it is still not perfect it’s certainly the best I’ve ever experienced. Similar to ‘Fallout’ melee with added fancy finishing moves and a more fluid feel I found myself enjoying charging up to people spewing flames from my left hand before sticking them with the sword in my right. Obviously there are some issues; enemies have a tendency to jink radically to the sides meaning misses and frantically spinning round to try and locate them, Dragon Priests in particular are right bastards for this. The main combat mechanic I was massively impressed with was archery. Archery in video games has in my experience always been utter rubbish which saddens me, not so in ‘Skyrim’. Equipping a bow and taking to my quest I was apprehensive but had to try because I sort of wish I was Robin Hood, I hid in some shadows, held down the trigger and drew the string back, lined up the shot and loosed the arrow, ‘Thunk, scream, dead bandit’. Amazed I tried again on the next victim with the same results. If you can sneak up on your enemy to gain your X2 bonus (X3 if you take a perk) and have a perk or two to increase archery damage the first guy you shoot is probably going to die, letting you quickly eliminate or drastically weaken priority targets before drawing the next arrow and starting on the underlings. Immensely satisfying and I could finally use a bow in a game and not be horrifically underpowered. Once you take perks for zooming in and slowing down time (at a cost of draining stamina) you won’t often miss and can take out most small groups before they realise what’s going on.

Now this wouldn’t a ‘Skyrim’ discussion without talk of a few glitches here and there. This was of course expected as it usually is with a Bethesda title and there clearly are some. I elected to get the Xbox version as my desk is nowhere near comfortable enough to sit at for the sheer number of hours I would be spending in front of this game and I have had quite a few freezes on loading screens and one or two in game as well. Apart from that, the occasional frame rate dive and some issues with dragon corpses not behaving quite properly I only had one other issue. That said it was a big one. The first time I tried to complete the Thieves Guild quests the second one didn’t trigger, I was told who to speak to and should have been given the quest then and there but wasn’t. 20 hours later I decided to carry on that particular path so consulted my quest log to find no mention of the quest I thought should be there. Consulting a guide I found the person I was meant to talk to and they didn’t have the required speech option. A quick internet search told me this was apparently a common problem and there was nothing I could do about it.

In spite of its problems I simply adore this game; I dare not glance at my playtime anymore for fear of the sheer number of hours I’ve poured into the world of Tamriel. The vastness of the world, the beauty of the surroundings and the completely immersive experience as a whole make for a truly magnificent game. It has a feel to it unlike anything I’ve experience and while it may not be the greatest game ever made it easily puts most anything form the last few years to shame. This is an RPG worthy of your attention unlike some others I will not mention again, though you probably know to what I’m referring. Watch out for ‘Fallout 4’ or whatever they decide to call it. Using the engine from ‘Skyrim’ and keeping a few of it’s choice elements such as being able to save your perks for later rather than forcing you to take them at level up that game could further redefine the modern open world RPG. So that’s it, review over and didn’t make one ‘Arrow in the knee’ joke, somewhat proud of myself. Now it’s off to my new time sink ‘Star Wars: The Old Republic’, more on that to come in the near future!