Author’s note: The following review focuses on the core Skyrim game released in 2011, The DLC expansions Dawnguard and Dragonborn will be reviewed some time later.
Overview: A solid freeform RPG that manages to avoid losing most of what makes it an Elder Scrolls game despite several compromised story elements and a clear mechanical focus on the console market.
Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls series has long had an interesting love-hate relationship with, for lack of a better term, mainstream fantasy. As Oblivion took aesthetic cues from the Lord of the Rings movies, Skyrim takes design notes from Game of Thrones. While succeeding in some respects yet failing in others, both have failed to achieve the same level as the series current zenith, Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. That being said, while clearly making concessions in order to make its 11/11/11 deadline and reach out to a broader market, Skyrim manages to recover most of the glory of entries past.
Story and world-wise, the heart and soul of an RPG, Skyrim does an excellent job overall but some spots clearly could have used more time in the development cycle. The main quest pits the player against the dragon king Alduin, known in Elder Scrolls lore as the World-Eater and a general bringer of world-ending cataclysms, and takes gamers on an appropriately epic roller coaster ride climaxing in a final battle outside the gates of Sovngarde itself, the setting’s version of Valhalla. And the world itself is beautiful, a landscape of expansive steppes, evergreen rainforests, snowy tundra, hot spring swamps, and massive underground caverns.
Unfortunately, not everything lives up to the exquisiteness of the location or the grand nature of the main quest. The civil war between the Imperials and the rebel Stormcloaks, the main subplot running parallel to the reappearance of the dragons, is perhaps the game’s biggest example of not everything having the same level of polish. Dialog between NPCs on both sides make it apparent that the civil war was supposed to be larger, something akin to the political intrigues of George R. R. Martin’s fantasy epic. Regretfully, players expecting something similar to the antics of the three Great Houses in Morrowind will be somewhat disappointed. Instead of scheming merchant-princes, oath bound warriors, and oppressive wizards constantly trying to one-up each other; Skryim has General Tullis of the Imperial Legion and Ulfric Stormcloak of the rebel movement of the same name. Ulfric Stormcloak is a xenophobic nationalist struggling to protect his people’s culture and traditions, warts and all, from a homogenizing foreign influence. Tullis is a dry, unremarkable jackboot thug of a general that lacks personality and understanding of the people he’s fighting in equally great measure. While some players believe the presentation is slanted towards the Stormcloaks and to be fair there is some justification for that assessment, the reality is that the game only succeeds in making both factions relatively uninteresting. The minor factions that replace the traditional guilds from previous games are a similar mixed affair with their relative interest value directly proportional to how many hoops the player has to jump through to get in contact with them. Skyrim may very well be the first Elder Scrolls game where it is more entertaining to be a free-roaming adventurer then to get involved in faction politics.
Taking a step forward in some regards while taking a step back in others is a theme that extends to the game’s mechanics as well. The Elder Scrolls series has long had a tradition of allowing players to create their own spells, enchanted items, and potions extending as far back as Daggerfall back in 1996. And while spell making has been removed, likely for balance reasons, blacksmithing has become a proper skill instead of a simple way to repair item durability on the cheap. Of the returning crafting skills, alchemy has remained largely unchanged while item enchanting has adopted a system less nonsensically restrictive then Oblivion’s reliance on sigil stones. Destroying an enchanted item to learn its enchantments may seem extreme but it works, the cost of one item ultimately offset by the ability to manufacture dozens.
Spell making was not the only thing removed. The athletics and acrobatics skills are gone and a number of staple spells and spell schools have been inexplicably cut out. Mysticism is no more, with its spells being folded into Conjuration or Alteration, and the three most useful Alteration spells; Unlock, Feather, and Fly/Levitate, are strangely absent. While aspiring wizards benefit heavily from the new dual-wielding mechanic, even more so then thieves and berserkers fighting with a blade in each hand, the magic system feels more hollow then previous entries in the series thanks to the lack of non-combat spells.
Speaking further on the controls, while clearly designed with a controller in mind, the control scheme manages to function reasonably well despite being somewhat clunky with a keyboard and mouse set-up. The system for hot keying shouts, spells, and weapons is particularly guilty of this, forcing players to tag items as “favorites” before allowing them to bind said item to a hotkey.
Yet despite its flaws and the occasional crashes, Skyrim has a certain charm to it that will still entice fans of role-playing games and keep them occupied for many hours. At its core the game still manages to capture that most important element of a successful video game, fun. The main quest is a high-fantasy thrill ride that’s worth the price of admission and the providence of Skyrim is lavishly sprinkled with all manner of interesting places to see, people to meet, and monsters to slay.
Verdict: An excellent game only truly marred by the evidence that it could have been even so much more. Four out of five stars.