Getting me to review Skyrim is a lot like getting Charlie Sheen to review a metric tonne of cocaine. Sure, it’ll be blast, but just you try getting that review out of him. I lost weeks, nay– months to the previous Elder Scrolls games, why oh why did I think that this would be any different…
With most games, addiction’s clammy hand will only keep its hold on you for as long as it takes to wade through the main storyline, or in the case of the more open RPG games, when you hit the level limit. It’s a magical feeling, and when you emerge pale, squinty and atrophied into the harsh day’s light: it’s just like being reborn.
Until you realise all over again that real life, is in fact rubbish. It takes far too much time to level up and the difficulty is permanently ramped up just a notch too hard. So instead you crawl back into the comfort of your cosy dark lair, clutching the next new game release by your creepy spindly fingers to repeat the whole process again.
And this is the thing with the Elder Scrolls games, not only are they addictive enough to warrant a specialist wing in the Betty Ford Clinic, but they are so epically massive it becomes very difficult to shake that persistent looming figure coaxing you to gain “just one more level, then you can sleep” or whispering in your ear that there’s always “enough time for another tiny, tiny side quest”. Yup that addiction guy is an absolute dick.
Now, I don’t want to go on too much about what you’ll find in the world of Skyrim because as an adventure game half the fun is in the exploration and discovery, every player’s experience will be slightly different. I, for example, eschew the popular hack n’ slash mega-buff hero type in favour of something more, well, misanthropic.
With the anal retentiveness of Gok Wan’s evil OCD brother, an entire hour had passed before I had finally crafted and styled my character. For review purposes (and because thievery is fun, kids) I chose to go with a Wood-Elf stealth-bastard. A sticky-fingered archer with a penchant for running away like a little girl when the shit hits the fan.
One of the first things I noticed after a few minutes of leaping around like a kleptomaniac Spock on a space-hopper was that unlike previous Elder Scrolls games the ‘acrobatic’ skill could no longer be improved merely by obsessively jumping from a to b and spontaneously launching yourself from every ankle-breakingly high wall or rock you happened to notice. Indeed, the acrobatic skill has been removed completely which is as disappointing as it is embarrassing; camply bounding across the landscape to the imaginary sniggers of the local townsfolk. Bastards.
The next thing I noticed, being a PC gamer, was how the horizontal mouse sensitivity was far greater than that of the vertical, as if your character was wearing some sort of medieval NHS neck brace. This was eventually remedied by reluctantly reverting the visual settings to a less ambitious setting, that is to say, a setting that would return more than 5 frames per second. A boy can dream.
While we’re on the subject of eye candy, the graphical improvement on Oblivion hits you square in the face like a heavy, but very shiny, sexy kipper. Aside from some heavy-handed HDR and the sun shadows that move in shifts every 10 seconds rather than fluidly and gradually, the visuals are hard to fault– wait, that isn’t doing them justice at all, they are absolutely flipping gorgeous.
It’s clear this is as a result of the game artist’s hard graft, rather than relying on the engine to take the slack. The detail of the models, textures and subtle touches around the towns are testament to the sheer amount of love poured into Skyrim by Bethesda’s artists.
I challenge anyone’s jaw not to drop when they first battle a dragon. The nature in which your scaly foe interacts with the environment, particularly within towns is stunning, convincing and of course, a bit terrifying.
You’re not alone either: guards in towns will assist in the fight against any uninvited beastly guests and you can enlist various companions to help you quest throughout the land as you bravely stand by and watch them take a pummelling on your behalf. Handy… except for the fact that their IQ is lower than a ham sandwich and occasionally they will just stand there staring at you, sneering disconcertingly.
One thing that has always plagued my immersion in RPG games, particularly that of the Bethesda ilk, is that I’m a really lazy reader. The reason this was a problem (for lazy bastards like me) was that the vast majority of the quests (and therefore storyline development) in the previous Elder Scrolls games were presented via huge reams of text, as if the entire world was populated by mardy housemates who refused to communicate with you by any means other than by scrawling shitty notes to get you to do stuff.
Consequently I would get through most of the game without realising what the hell was going on, what the hell I was supposed to be doing, and where the hell I was supposed to be. But no more! Thankfully with the aid of technology and obvious considerable effort, Bethesda have pandered to the bone-idle and illiterate. All of Skyrim’s quests are provided in marvellous natural voice-o-sound. So what if several of the main character’s voice actors are recycled from time to time. Who cares that occasionally the person who’s talking to you will dive into a completely different accent mid-monologue. It’s a small price to pay to avoid ALL THAT INFERNAL READING.
Earlier I mentioned the removal of the jump skill, which is far from the only change in the skill system. The entire mechanic has had an overhaul and, dare I say, for the better. We still have our old friend XP, which creeps up every time your character improves a skill like sneaking, one-handed combat, lockpocking, that sort of thing. Each time you gain a level you are awarded a perk point, which can be assigned to a skill category of your choice, not dissimilar to Deus Ex: Human Revolution’s praxis system. It works rather well despite the interface (more of that later) and leads to those great decision making moments while trying to decide which perks will help you be more of a hero / total arse to the poor unsuspecting simpletons of Skyrim.
And simple they are. When you encounter an adversary that you can’t defeat in a straight fight (and trust me, if you aren’t playing a beefcake hack n’ slash character this will happen a lot) then you can nearly always find a way of glitching the AI to swing things to your advantage. Lurk in the shadows for long enough and they’ll forget you were ever there. “Oh, must’ve been my imagination” mutters Guard #2, Daeadric arrow protruding painfully from his forehead.
Ask any stealth game aficionado and they’ll tell you that this is nothing new though, and is probably a rant for another time. Besides, the stealth skill is a long way away from being dependable (ergo predictable) until it’s perked to the nines via the skill tree interface.
Ah yes, the interface. Where to begin?
Long story short: It’s a pig. A massive uninformative clumsy pig that came to the medieval themed party dressed as Adam Jenson. And look what happens when we colour the interface yellow. Seems familiar, doesn’t it.
Even when you overlook the modernist aesthetics of the thing, the system conveys about as much information as those crap speaker things on rail platforms, relying on you to hover over every single item to see what it does, or indeed is. Put simply, it’s broken.
And it’s buggy. SO buggy. I suppose this can only be expected from a project as ambitious as Skyrim. Such a game that very carefully treads the line between narrative and open-world gameplay is surely a monumental coding job and oversights are bound to happen. At best the open-world nature of Skyrim leads to some great unscripted moments and stories to tell, but at worst also leads to some glaring, occasionally hilarious, immersion-breaking bugs– like seeing a giant’s erstwhile opponent launched into the air limbs flailing after receiving a damn good clubbing. Sometimes though the bugs will be less of a laughing matter and the familiar unsolvable quests bug will occasionally rear it’s ugly noggin.
Most of the bugs will no doubt be ironed out eventually due to patches and the enthusiastic modding community, which have already started churning out graphical fixes, enhancements and even new features to enrich the Skyrim experience: if there’s any doubt in your mind about which platform to get it for, I would highly recommend the PC version for that reason alone.
And I know, it really shouldn’t be that way. It’s not big or clever to rely on third parties for a game to stand the test of time. It’s unfair to console gamers more than anything, but regardless of all of its many, many shortcomings, Skyrim is an epic, imaginative, immersive, beautiful game that sucks you in and refuses to let go until it’s good and ready, which let’s face it, could take a while.
Make no bones about it: Skyrim is an enormous step in the right direction for the RPG genre and is well deserved of the hundreds of hours (literally) it will spend wearing out your TV / monitor / eyes.Have a game you want to review and fancy yourself as a bit of a writer? Find out how to become a guest blogger. Or you could make a suggestion by following us on those new-fangled social media-thingers Facebook and Twitter.