Saturday, January 14, 2012

VIDEO GAME REVIEW: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

I have a shocking confession to make, and it may be one that renders the rest of this review invalid: I've never really played an Elder Scrolls game. Or more accurately, I never really completed an Elder Scrolls game.  I played Morrowind briefly back on original Xbox and put a dozen or so hours into Oblivion before stopping forever because of poor performance on my PC. So even though the series is massively popular and the fact that expansive RPGs are some of my favorite games, I went into Skyrim with only Fallout 3 as a point of reference to compare it to. As someone who skipped Fallout: New Vegas entirely because I assumed it would control my life I probably should have done the exact same thing again.

The main quest takes somewhere between 20-25 hours to complete if you rush through it like I did and it involves the return of Dragons to the world. Along the way you'll meet a wide range of characters from the reclusive Grey-Beards that live on the top of a mountain to the last remnants of an ancient order of dragon-slayers called the Blades. In Skyrim you play as the only person in the world with the ability to defeat an immortal black dragon, Alduin, from destroying the world and everyone in it. 

The most obvious improvement over previous games in the series has got to be the visuals, it's not jaw droppingly  gorgeous from a technical standpoint, but the art direction is unbelievable. Taking a walk in any direction is mind-numbingly gorgeous, if it wasn't for the multitude of creatures trying to kill you it would be a beautiful place for a vacation. Bethesda has littered the world of Skyrim with incomprehensibly high mountains and lush vistas. In the higher elevations there's violent wind and snow, in the lower elevations there's plant life and streams. A wide variety of species inhabits the world and it feels like a vibrant and breathing world. A fight with one of these creatures never feels tedious, and a fight with a dragon is terrifying until you've built up your character enough that you are a worthy opponent. If I have a criticism for the game it's that the dragons are too difficult in the early portion of the game.

The leveling system in Skyrim is great, you get experience in everything you do in the game and as those levels progress so does your overall level. Once you have leveled up you can then select a specialized skill similar to the perks system in Fallout 3. The result of the system is both something that resembles most RPGs but also provides considerable depth,  the branching skill tree system makes it one of the deepest in recent memory.

As far as the game itself, it's as non-linear as it gets. You are free to accomplish whatever tasks you wish in any order you want. You can easily take well over 100 hours to actually complete Skyrim, but there's very little chance that even in that massive amount of time that you'll find everything that the massive world has to offer. My favorite way to progress through the game is to just go exploring in a direction at random and finding towns and NPCs. I've found that you don't have to travel very far to find something cool and interesting to do, and it seems that even the small tasks often lead to larger and more time consuming quests. Playing Skyrim is probably the closest I'll ever get to being able to pretend that I'm in The Goonies. It's just a wonderfully designed game, and it very may well be one that "never ends", as if such a thing is possible. I'm certainly hoping it is and nearly 40 hours in there's simply no end in sight.

I'm not going to give a score to Skyrim because such a thing is arbitrary and I'm not writing for a large publication that relies on ranking titles against each other for readers. Just know that I will treasure the experiences I've had in Skyrim for quite a long time and that it's gotten to the point that it's taken over my life. My only hope in my quest for free time not spent playing Skyrim is the death of my beloved Xbox. Please help me.

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