The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
It’s been a long, hard day. Your character, Cleos, champion of Azura and ruthless Nord of Eastmarch, is bruised and broken from his latest endeavour down in the bowels of Bleak Falls Barrow. Walking through the hold of Whiterun in the lazy afternoon sun, he spots a quaint settlement rising above the horizon, it must be Rorikstead. He checks his gold – just a couple shy of a hundred, enough for a chunk of Eidar cheese, a leg of goat and some grilled leeks, washed down with a bottleful (or three) of Black-Briar Mead. His stomach rumbles at the thought, and he speeds up his strides. The town looks to be a few miles away, but on his way, he hears voices to the east, over a hill. Chanting, laughing, cursing, it can only be the forsworn. Cleos could easily pass on by unnoticed, ending the day by a warm hearth in a feather bed, but it’s not in his nature – combat is his calling. He unsheathes his greatsword Vengeance, and charges up onto the bluff, shouting the name of his house at the top of his lungs; his work is not yet done.
“The world has fallen back in love with fantasy, and fans of the genre cannot stop thinking about dragons, flagons and able destriers.”It’s easy to get a little carried away playing Skyrim, the fifth title in Bethesda’s epic Elder Scrolls series. Thanks largely in part to the high fantasy afforded by George R.R. Martin’s fantastic books in the Song of Ice and Fire saga, the world has fallen back in love with fantasy, and fans of the genre cannot stop thinking about dragons, flagons and able destriers.
It helps that Bethesda have nailed the fantasy aspect, with a stunningly realised world full of depth and immense detail. Exploration is Skyrim’s tour de force. Cities, towns, villages, tombs, dungeons, camps, shacks, caves, mines, farms, creeks, mills, forts, shipwrecks, grottos, swamps, lookouts, colleges, cabins, summits, sanctuaries, museums and ruins are what to expect for the eager adventurist, and each stands apart as a unique place with its own tale, its own inhabitants and their own stories.
Oblivion was criticised for its lack of variety in the many dungeons and caves that littered the world map. Assets would repeat ad infinitum, and it was easy to become jaded. Even the general environment would stir up cases of déjà vu. With Skyrim the opposite is true. The province of Skyrim is an explorer’s dream, rewarding players not just with loot but with stunning vistas, mysterious swamps and ominous lairs. The option to fast travel is an incredibly tough decision to make, as the journeys you make to your next adventure or quest are what makes Skyrim such a joy to play. With your trusty compass pointing out your next marker, the intrigue generated by a new icon of unexplored territory is often hard to ignore. A quest can take a week of gameplay for all the distractions on offer, leaving the poor characters you agreed to meet waiting for days – and they will wait.
“A quest can take a week of gameplay for all the distractions on offer, leaving the poor characters you agreed to meet waiting for days – and they will wait.”Freedom is gifted to the player after a suitably fiery opening, and from then on you never feel chained to a particular task, quest, or location. After completing the first few quests you’ll have found your footing, and feel prepared to tackle the world in its entirety, traversing the magnificent holds in search of guts and glory. And just what exactly awaits the curious player? There’s blacksmithing, where ore becomes ingot to forge steel and silver worthy of battle, after tanning animal pelts into hard leather. For the budding alchemist, a plethora of potions and poisons are asking to be made, as you scour the land for the many ingredients needed. Fancy the life of a bounty hunter? Just ask the town steward, and embark on an escapade to snuff out the leader of a group causing problems in the realm. Sneak around like a thief, and live the life of a sewer dwelling rat, pickpocketing the rich and breaking into houses in the dead of night. Become a vital cog in the midst of a civil war, where a rebellion gains ground. Buy a house, marry a spouse, and revel in a home cooked meal at the end of a long day of plundering.
And this freedom extends not only to the act of exploration and the hundreds of quests you’ll complete, but character development. Your character is the ultimate expression of your play-style. After creating one using the extensive editor – and agonising over options like what race to be, or whether you really need a scar or two – you’ll soon realise that the real decision lies in which skills to hone. Each skill is governed by how you play the game - skulking in the shadows will rank up your sneak ability, while using a healing spell will improve your restoration magic. Your character and their stats are no longer defined by a title chosen at the beginning. Want to be a necromancer? Play like one, and have bandits fear your undead army. Got a penchant for persuasion? Invest in merchants and sell all your wares, and expect to double quest rewards and bribe guards as your speech improves. Ranking up skills are the means behind levelling up, which allows an increase in health, magic or stamina, as well as an invaluable point perk. Working a lot like Fallout 3’s excellent perks system, expect a few headaches as you try and choose which to unlock.
“Arguably, however, the most memorable stories lie in the journals dotted around the caves and cabins of Skyrim.”Story is often the driving factor behind an RPG, but in Skyrim, the gameplay is the more compelling force. That’s not to say the story isn’t worth mentioning. The main questline is an intriguing tale of dragons and prophets, where you discover the legend of what it is to be dragonborn, gaining a few handy abilities in the process. Arguably, however, the most memorable stories lie in the journals dotted around the caves and cabins of Skyrim. You’ll learn about a banished alchemist, hellbent and focused on raising an army of rats, or a reclusive necrophiliac intent on luring female victims into his cave to ‘experiment’ on. Books are everywhere, too, containing brilliantly written passages that add history and context to your surroundings, as well as level up skills on occasion.
And of course, you’ll be making up your own stories as you wander the land. How about when you rained death from above on a whole mammoth like a true, admittedly cowardly marksman? Or that time on the coast of the Sea of Ghosts where you endured a lengthy melee with a particularly beardy bandit chief, camped out by the Wreck of the Pride of Tel Vos. Or the moment you stumbled upon a riverside shack, only to find a vicious cave bear waiting inside, with the bloody remains of its previous occupier nearby. And who could forget the glory you gained when you saved the city of Morthal from the persistent assault of a blood dragon.
Dragons are a superb addition to the world of Skyrim, and the fact their appearances are not scripted – bar when part of a quest – make them all the more special. Their entrance is met with a sweeping orchestral score and a thundering of chants, as they glide over trees and around mountain peaks. Their behaviour is considered but not completely robotic, making each battle feel new and exciting. One encounter will end quickly, as the dragon takes a beating from roaming giants, while another will have you notching arrows in vain as you’re taunted from above. These encounters are largely dictated by your surroundings – towns and cities will give a dragon roofs to perch atop, letting them pick off their targets, while wide, flat expanses will give them ample time to soar through the skies before swooping down to breath fire or frost onto the player below.
“Bethesda have created a masterpiece of a world, dominated by towering mountains and black ice, luscious swamps and shimmering lakes.”These environments are the beating heart of Skyrim’s success. Without them, its lands would not be worth exploring. Bethesda have created a masterpiece of a world, dominated by towering mountains and black ice, luscious swamps and shimmering lakes. Scaling a mountain, an aurora borealis will light up the night sky as you notice the snow getting thicker, and an icy mist settling in. A succession of rivers will run through barren tundra, leading to a waterfall where at the base lies a locked chest, the contents property of a bandit camp member not trusting of his backstabbing companions. It is highly likely that most players’ fondest experiences of Skyrim will come from the times they decided to explore, and the richness in detail and artistic beauty present in the environment makes everything ten times more rewarding.
Technically, Skyrim is fantastic, but in creating memorable experiences, it is an utter triumph. Bugs are rare and often minor, and the same pitfalls that have plagued previous titles are still present, but you’ll learn to ignore these slight mishaps, and embrace the positives – the expertly crafted locations, the numerous systems available, the varied quests, the wonderful aesthetic and aural vision. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is a magnificent hive of creativity and technical clout, and holds a world so open it frequently threatens to overwhelm. Skyrim is forever charming and consistently engaging, and will carve a completely different adventure for every player put under its dazzling spell.
Ten out of ten