PC Gaming- Skyrim Review

After spending 63 hours over the last month in Skyrim, I’m nowhere even close to completing what the game has to offer. However, I do feel that it’s time I wrote up a review. I’ve been looking for something other than SEO and social media to write about here, and this fits the bill nicely! No doubt you have already read a dozen or more reviews by now as well as forming your own opinion of the game; so hopefully, my take on things won’t bore you too excessively.

I would never tell the geeks on the message boards I hang around with this, but my first Elder Scrolls game was actually Morrowind on the original XBOX. I loved the game and couldn’t believe how it presented such a wide open world and just sort of let you treat it as a sandbox to do whatever you wanted. I spent many hours in the game, however, after the second time my 50+ hour save was corrupted I gave the game to a friend because I was so frustrated. He proceeded to play it for the next 3 years as he recovered from back surgery, culminating in an incident where he so over-enchanted his crafting gear that when he tried to make another potion, the XBOX gave him the equivalent of a BSOD and just quit out to the main menu. Now that’s powergaming!

Oblivion was the second iteration I played of an Elder Scrolls game, and unfortunately, was just a bit too ambitious for my hardware at the time. I bought the game and tried…gamely…to play it, however, FPS dropping to 4 every time a wolf attacks is not a good recipe for fun.  I got a new PC last November, and as such reinstalled Oblivion and the DLC as well as the Shivering Isles expansion. I proceeded to play maybe 40% of the way through the main quest about a dozen times with different toons, loving the intricacy and detail in the world but hating the way the plot “advanced”- and particularly hating the Oblivion gates, which were ugly and powerfully unfun. I still haven’t beaten the main questline in Oblivion, and probably never will. I have, however, looked up the plot synopsis and ending on Wikipedia, and it appears to be very good. The world was also beautiful and rife with possibility.

That brings us to Skyrim, my GOTY for 2011 barring The Old Republic being the best MMO since sliced bread. Skyrim places you in the series’ setting of Tamriel, a swords-and-sorcery high fantasy setting allowing for dragons, daedra, elves, orcs- all the standards we’ve come to expect from the genre. Much like the other games, Skyrim starts with you as a prisoner on your way to be executed, when Some Big Shit Goes Down and you are set free to make your own way through the world. TES games are unique in that you don’t distribute points manually to make your character get better- instead, you will find yourself becoming more adept at what it is you do most. So, swing a one-handed sword a lot and you’ll find your 1-handed skill going up. Pick a bunch of pockets, and it will become easier. Cast lighting bolts, Emperor-style, and your Destruction magic skill will go up. (Side note for series veterans: the Athletics and Acrobatics skills are gone from the trees, I guess Bethesda finally figured out that it’s game breaking to allow someone to tape down their space bar, jump for 3 hours while they watch a movie, and come back to their PC to have Spiderman in armor ready to go break stuff). This means that over time, you will feel your character get better at whatever their concentrated skill focus is- my Breton battlemage (lightning on the left hand, Ebony sword on the right) went from barely slicing the skin on orcs to sending enemies flying 40 feet with finishing blows and first-person decapitations for critical strikes. The player also gets Perks when they advance a level, allowing for rewards based on customization. Spread your perks too thin, and you’ll be getting things like a 10% increase to heavy armor. Specialize in one school of destruction and max out the perk tree, however, and that will lead to things like “double-casting lightning spells will disintegrate enemies. Pretty sweet, and it rewards the player for customizing their toon and not trying to be a jack-of-all-trades. This also increases replay value!

One of the other things that’s unique about Skyrim as opposed to some of the other RPGs you may have played in the past is that it is completely non-linear. As soon as the opening sequence ends (it’s pretty thrilling, for the record, but too long to sit through to roll multiple characters. Make a save before the game starts asking you to define your character so you don’t have to keep revisiting  the introduction) the player is free to do…whatever they want, to whomever they want. You can go anywhere, do anything, kill (almost) anyone, work on your alchemy, smithing, or cooking skills, or simply just explore the land. (Minor spoiler alert- you should advance the main quest at least to the point where you fight the first dragon; you will be missing out on a pretty major part of the game if you don’t. I kind of wish the game forced you to do that fight as it’s pretty crucial to having fun in the game that you do). There are several factions in the game- some of which include the returning Thieves’ Guild and Dark Brotherhood- and some new ones as well, including the Companions and the College of Winterhold. You complete a quest line ranging anywhere from 7 to dozens of quests long, and eventually come to be seen as a powerful figure within those individual factions. As with all Elder Scrolls games, Skyrim is not a direct, linear sequel to Oblivion, so there are newly introduced factions like the Empire and the Stormcloaks that see you through choosing up sides in a Civil War or the Greybeards, who request your assistance defeating an ancient terror that has returned to the province.

The graphics are honestly nothing special up close, the character models aren’t even as good looking or differentiated as they were in Oblivion; though you don’t have to zoom in on an NPC’s face to talk to them anymore, the game lets you converse at waist level like a normal conversation. However, the vistas and dungeons are spectacular- the feeling you get in a TES game of limitless possibility is definitely enhanced by the long draw distance and detail in the graphics. I found myself thinking “self, everything in Skyrim is so….bleak!”, and wishing for some beautiful lush vistas like those in Oblivion- but it just wouldn’t fit the setting. Besides, there are some hidden gems that will temporarily warm you up as you explore the icy reaches of Skyrim’s vistas. Don’t expect any awesome cutscenes, though- as is tradition  with TES games all of the story is told with in-game assets, and if you don’t pay attention you might miss a major conversation or event. The game definitely does not hold your hand, and you’ll find yourself looking up on the Internet why you’re doing a particular quest once your journal starts to fill up if you go too long in between play sessions. I’ve completed over 100 quests and still feel like I’m about half done with the game.

Combat is much improved from Oblivion but I have heard people complain that it lacks “meatiness”. For me, zapping enemies from range and then slicing at them with my one-handed sword has been a viscerally satisfying experience, but the one complaint I do agree with is that dungeons and areas may be filled with 90% mobs that you will easily defeat, and then the boss one-shots you. There could have been a bit more thought put into balance, there, and perhaps save scumming wouldn’t be so rampant. That reminds me, it’s also trivially easy to break the game through abuse of the smithing, alchemy or enchanting schools. You can forge a thousand iron daggers and improve them, and be walking around in full Dragonscale armor at level 1, which is sort of silly, but who am I to tell you how to enjoy your game? The biggest combat improvement is that enemies no longer scale as they did in Oblivion, which could lead to situations like a group of bandits on the side of the road wearing full glass armor. Bethesda seems to have listened to its’ player’s complaints that they want to feel more powerful over time, and that leveling up in Oblivion actually made the character weaker in relation to the scaling enemies. None of that in Skyrim though, if you enter a dungeon at level 8 the enemies are locked at level 8. Go ahead and come back at 30 and blast them into powder if you want- much like traditional TES games, the player becomes basically a walking god by the end. That’s a good thing, because it’s reported that a player needs from 200-300 hours to see all the content in Skyrim,.

My biggest problem with the game is trying to finish enough of the main quests that I won’t feel guilty putting it down when The Old Republic comes out, a week from tomorrow. My goal is to finish major story arcs (the game tracks for you how many you’ve completed) in time for TOR, then pick Skyrim back up when the first expansion pack comes out. See you out there!

 

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