The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim is the latest in a franchise that has dominated the open world RPG. In 2006, Oblivion wowed audiences with it’s huge sprawling vistas and incredible wealth of content. Yet, five years is literally an age in gaming and while we are still using the same hardware, what can be done with it has evolved hugely. So does Skyrim raise the bar for the series or rehash Oblivion’s past glory? Well it is easy to say that Skyrim has improved upon Oblivion in every way.
The most notable upgrade is the new graphics engine Bethesda created for the game. Oblivion may have looked amazing in 2006 but now it looks pretty terrible and Bethesda have addressed this with a stunning graphics engine that squeezes so much more out of your console than you thought possible. There are still graphical limitations due to the huge open world, but everything from textures to the design have been overhauled and they look beautiful. The first thing you will notice is how much better your character looks. Races such as Khajiit and Argonian are much better realised, with more realistic fur and scale effects respectively. Humans, Elves and Orcs also look much more realistic with a huge range of skin tones and dirt effects as well as a far superior set of facial features to work with. Yes, all the men are buff as hell and all the women super slim, but there is still a huge range of options to play with. I decided to be a Nord as I felt Skyrim has really pushed you in this direction. Nords are native to Skyrim (the other races are not and as such, are less common) and the character used in all the trailers is an archetypal Nord so it isn’t surprising that I felt an inclination towards that race but it wasn’t my deciding factor. My deciding factor was the awesome range of facial hair that you can kit your character out with and being a bearded man myself I could not resist. Yes you can give beards to all the male characters but the Nords look the coolest.
Once you get into the game, you realise just how much effort has gone into improving the Elder Scrolls formula. For anyone who has played Oblivion or Morrowind, Skyrim will feel familiar for sure but all those familiar mechanics have been fine tuned. The dialogue for example is a much less jarring experience. You no longer zoom into the interview style crop but keep the same view that you had on initiating conversation. The dialogue tree is also less intrusive, taking up less of the screen and generally looking nicer. The combat has also been tuned. You now get a crosshair when in third person mode (hurrah) and can now wield duel weapons and spells. The latter has been taken straight from Bioshock but that’s cool because it was a great idea. Being able to use both hands defensively and offensively is great, your character can be left handed for a start but there are also increases in power from duel-casting spells and using two weapons at once. Another huge improvement is the lock-picking. My god, nothing annoyed me more than lock-picking in Oblivion. It was a total pile of shite. Thankfully, Bethesda have taken a lot of things from Fallout 3 and all these recycled ideas work well in the Elder Scrolls world.
Another Fallout 3 mechanic to make a huge improvement to Skyrim is perks. In fact the leveling up has been completely overhauled and is soooo much better now. No longer does running and jumping give you xp (and nor should it!) instead, you gain experience as you use things rather than pumping points into areas to increase their effectiveness. This means you don’t have to choose to level up lockpicking stats when you really want that extra bit of damage with a sword, just by picking locks and whacking people you will get the desired results. The more you use a skill the higher its level raises (also raising your master level bar) which increases the amount of perks available on leveling up. All perks cost one point but require a different level to be unlocked. Perk points can be saved too, so if you are one level away from a sweet perk just hold out a while longer! This system gives you much more freedom than before as you are not forced to decide at the start of a 60 hour game how you will play it. Instead, you just play that mother and it moulds its self to you.
Other than the tweaks, Skyrim plays as you would expect it. You pick up missions from conversations and eaves dropping. You can drop in and out of any mission at any time and multitask as well. How you progress is basically up to you as it has been before but there is a stronger sense of purpose this time around. This is due to the dragons. Dragons are a mix of random encounters, area encounters and story battles. Each one is slightly different and ranges in strength but they are consistent, helping to gel you to the story even when you are out killing for the Dark Brotherhood or gathering ingredients. Killing dragons is also important as it unlocks your Dragon Shouts.
Each Dragon Shout has three levels which are represented by words in the dragon language. To unlock a single word, you must slay a dragon and consume its soul. Shouts can be found all over Skyrim, some you will find haphazardly and some will come through story progression. Shouts are a great tactical advantage, giving a range of effects and can be selected from the quick menu along side magic and weapons. Unlike unique traits, shouts are not limited to daily usage but have a cool down time. This can be reduced with specific items. Shouts sound awesome and make you feel super bad ass which is something you never felt in Oblivion. I mean who wouldn’t want to kill someone by shouting at them…..yeah ok, but in a game it’s cool.
The sense of badass, born to be wild, Dan-yell Day Lewis of your character helps cement you to the story. You want to progress in the main quest is it takes you through the journey of the dragonborn. Oblivion’s main story was just one of many missions and was often not the most exciting. I certainly enjoyed rising through the ranks of the brotherhood only to kill my brothers and sisters a lot more than closing the gates of Oblivion. Skyrim still has some cool side missions, and will drag you from the beat and track for days but, you feel the main quest tugging at you. As soon as I killed my first dragon I left the main quest in search of assassination fame and fortune but the constant chatter about the greybeards and the dragonborn built up a huge amount of anticipation for my next step on the main quest.
In addition to a vastly superior story is a much better voice cast. No you don’t get anyone of the class of Patrick Stewart but, they couldn’t afford him for long anyway. Skyrim doesn’t have the same voice actor talking to himself (as different people) nor does it have about 5 actors filling out hundreds of roles. Some of the Nords sound hilarious mind, obviously Bethesda don’t know the difference between Norway and Austria as many of the Nords sound like Arnie. Still, the fact that races have accents helps to give people a sense of culture. I won’t lie, the sound effects aren’t amazing, they don’t mix naturally into the sound scape and are quite limited. Dragons sound cool though, helping to find them.
If the sound effects are a small let down, the music more than makes up for it. For a start, Jeremy Soule‘s Elder Scrolls theme is beyond epic this time around. It literally blows my mind when I hear it. The ambient music is also much more dynamic, reacting to your situation and (finally) incorporating the main theme during gameplay. This is especially noticeable during battles against dragons, but also during story sections and exploring interesting places.
It has been well publicised that Skyrim has some bugs. This was almost inevitable with a game of Skyrim’s scope. Mostly these are small graphical problems and wont effect your overall enjoyment of the game. Still, there is already a patch available and I there will be more to follow.
Skyrim achieves what Fallout 3 achieved, which is a world that doesn’t just allow you to explore, but pushes you out the door with a sandwich and a banana. You are often forced to travel huge distances but each time you do, you discover new places and people. This is fundamentally the biggest success of an open world game because, if you didn’t enjoy exploring there is no point in the game being open. What Bethesda have done is create a world for you to live out all of your deepest, darkest fantasy fantasies. I’ve barely touched the surface of what Skyrim has to offer but the fun is finding it for your self. You can expect a lot of water cooler chat with your Skyrim buddies because everyone will experience the game differently.
Skyrim is out now on Xbox 360, PS3 and PC.