Release Date: November 11, 2011

Developer: Bethesda Game Studios

Platform: PS3 / X360 / PC

This is going to be a rather long review, because there’s so much to talk about and I don’t want to miss any important points about the game. So if you’re looking for an in-depth Skyrim review, you’ve come to the right place. So let’s just jump right into this shall we…?

Let’s start with the intro. I wanted to cover this specific part of the game because I felt the need to criticize it before anything else. The game begins with a view of a cart being pulled by horse. If you manage to figure out that you can move the camera, you will see three other gentlemen sitting on it with you, bound and, in the case of one of them, gagged.

Then two of the men start conversing. Since this isn’t a cutscene, the camera doesn’t focus on them when they speak, so you have to manually look around to see who’s talking. All you can see is the ground, trees and the sky, but you’re basically staring at the face of a hill and the game doesn’t let you see what’s behind you either. Oh and also it’s quite foggy.

Eventually you arrive at the gates of a fortress village where you’re being taken to be executed by the imperial soldiers that await. Your crimes are not made clear in the game itself but apparently your character was caught crossing the border into Skyrim illegally. On your way into town, you can see the leader of the Imperial Legion speaking to members of the racist High Elf group known as the Thalmor. Then finally, the carts are parked and you proceed to get off. Then an Imperial soldier with a list asks you who you are, and then you see the character creation screen.

Now that I’ve summarized that beginning portion of the game, I’d like to criticize it as it’s meant to be a player’s first impression of the game, and it doesn’t really display the core experience at all. For one thing, your character is completely immobilized and can’t do anything. Skyrim is all about exploring, just like any Elder Scrolls game (except for the first one), it attracts people who want to get lost in it’s world, because that’s what it’s best for. The developers should be spending this time trying to sell the player on the mysterious and rich world that they’re going to be exploring before they begin, but instead what we see is a plot dump which might have been more interesting had they not thrown around so much jargon which ultimately just gets filtered out by anybody who doesn’t understand all the names. Also, the fact that the character creation screen shows up right when they’re about to send you to the chopping block really breaks the flow of the scenes before it because there’s no longer any tension or worry that your character will actually die.

After all of this nonsense, the player is put through a very simple and constrained dungeon to learn the basics of gameplay and then eventually lets you leave through a cave exit, and you are treated to a fantastic view of Skyrim in all it’s glory, and you feel free to go wherever you’d like. This is the feeling that the game should have started with, but instead only introduces you to 20 minutes into the game.

Exploration is really the highlight of the game, so there’s a lot to say on this subject. As soon as you begin to look around, you can see the amount of sheer detail. Every plant, tree and rock was placed there by hand, there wasn’t any slacking in that regard. The rivers actually have water that flows, and it looks convincingly real, there’s even mist in the air at any point where the water falls, and there are fish that swim in the water like salmon, if you wanted to, you could try your hand at catching them as they jump out of the falls. There are woodland animals everywhere, and depending on what geographical location you’re in, you’ll see different species of deer, or you might see giant spiders in some places, different species of bears, sabre cats, foxes, wolves, etc. Towering vistas, beautiful forests, swamps and vast rolling plains. The game is absolutely beautiful in terms of it’s environment, and as a result is very enticing and fun to explore. The sense of adventure is so strong and immersive that it really is the main reason to play this game, as with any main Elder Scrolls title (except Arena).

It would be quite easy to feel relaxed in the land of Skyrim if there wasn’t always something waiting around a corner to completely destroy you (if and when you unlock dragons in the game, that only makes things less relaxing). Based on how you level up your skills in the game, the difficulty of the game will vary. If you specialize in a single type of weapon say, two-handed, and only leveled up in a few skills then you’ll probably not be intimidated by the majority of creatures or enemies in Skyrim, as you would probably make quick work of them, but if you were a jack-of-all-trades and used all types of weapons among other things, then coming across a Frost Troll would be a much more terrifying experience for you.

The reason for this is because enemies in the game level up with you, so if you want to do a little of everything, then good luck not dying constantly. This really is a problem because that means that Skyrim doesn’t suit everyone’s playstyle, only people who want to specialize in just a few things (which, frankly, gets pretty boring). It also means that you could be savior of the world already but then when you get bored and decide to mix it up you’ll find yourself getting killed by regular enemies again. Point in case, the enemies stay the same level as you, but while you’re juggling non-combat-related skill trees, they aren’t.

Now for the dungeons. If you’re playing this game with the intent of actually accomplishing anything, you have to go into dungeons, kill enemies and loot lots and lots of things. If you take advantage of fast travel all the time, then you will probably be spending 90% of your game time in dungeons, and depriving yourself of the beautiful outdoor environments (and also a possible ambush from a dragon or 2, or other unwelcome parties). The dungeons are not complete copy pasta like they were in Oblivion, but there is still clearly much that was copied and pasted, only in parts instead of entire dungeons being identical. The deepest dungeons in the game tend to be Dwemer ruins and this type of dungeon is also typically the most dangerous in the game as well as the most unique looking. There are many different types of dungeons as well, sometimes there’s a dungeon that can only be accessed from another dungeon, and sometimes there’s a dungeon within a dungeon within a dungeon. Yeah, I have to say it… DUNGEONCEPTION!

But overall the dungeon experience itself is not horribly repetitive all the time, if you stick to doing quests regarding the places then it makes things a lot more interesting. Most dungeons do have their own individual stories which is pretty mind blowing in it’s own right, or are simply very unique in some way or another. Even after playing the game for a very long period of time, I still managed to come across a dungeon or two that made me say “Woah! This is really crazy, I’ve never seen this happen in this game before!”

There’s not too much good to say about the combat system, however, since the combat mechanics are very simple and shallow. You have health, magicka (mana) and stamina bars that factor into what you’re able to do and how long you live. You can swing your main-handed weapon with one button, and block (or swing an off handed weapon) with the other. There is also a meter that cools down after you use a dragon shout.

All of The Elder Scrolls games have had strong emphasis on combat, but really it seems to have devolved since Daggerfall and Morrowind. There’s still strategy involved, but in many cases in Skyrim, it’s just how strong the enemies are that determines whether or not you succeed. Most of the time I found myself pausing in the middle of combat to consume lots of potions and then inevitably dying to whatever strong enemies were ahead if I ran out of them.

Ultimately the combat gets kinda boring over time, you can become incredibly overpowered if you specialize in stealth and archery, to the point where you might be able to kill a dragon with a single shot. I find that stealth gameplay is more deep and interesting simply because there’s more strategy involved, and it takes more skill to shoot something with a bow or backstab with a dagger than it does to attack enemies head on, and this is coming from a guy who prefers two-handed melee weapons in most games. Also the lack of intuitive melee hitboxes in the game means that wide horizontal swings with a weapon are pointless as you’ll only hit what you’re looking directly at (except maybe in a few specific cases).

Among the skill trees that aren’t related to combat, Smithing, Alchemy and Enchanting are the most interesting. With the more passive ones being Lockpicking, Pickpocketing and Speech which basically only serve to make you better at those particular things.

Smithing is fun in concept, but the overall lack of equipment that’s in the game to create makes you feel somewhat limited. There are only 14 armor sets in the game, and you aren’t able to craft all of them, also the grind of smithing if you intend to max it out is pretty much just a grind, you collect lots of materials and make the same cheap item over and over. But once you get it up considerably high and can add nice upgrades to your weapons, you feel pretty good about it.

Alchemy requires a lot of time spent collecting ingredients, and in fact consuming the ingredients, before you can try making potions and poisons with them. You consume an ingredient to see what effects it gives, and then you combine it with an ingredient that produces a supporting effect. So naturally if you want to make health potions then you use 2 different ingredients that have health restoration as an effect. If you try to randomly mash ingredients together then you’ll be lucky to come out of it with a potion of any sort, you’ll probably just waste the ingredients that you gathered after many days of adventuring. Alchemy is, in my opinion, the most rewarding skill tree and it can prove quite invaluable, the only problem is that it really does take quite a long time to make practical use of it. I mean sure, leveling it up isn’t too difficult, but at the end of the day all you’re probably going to want are health restore potions and magicka potions.

Enchanting is without a doubt the most time consuming skill tree to level up in the whole game, but it is incredibly rewarding, and the variety of different enchantments that you can place on your armor and weapons is varied enough to be satisfying and very versatile. You have to collect Soul Gems of various different sizes from your adventures in Skyrim. You will find most of them in dungeons probably, and you have to use a spell called Soul Trap, or a Soul Trap enchantment on a weapon (which is infinitely more convenient) and then kill the enemy after the spell takes effect to trap their soul inside the gem. Then you use the gems as resources to make enchantments, the soul gem you use for your enchantment will determine the overall power of your enchantment, but your Enchanting level has a much greater influence on this. In order to obtain different types of enchantments to produce, you have to disenchant a piece of equipment that you found in Skyrim that was already enchanted, after you disenchant it, the item will be destroyed. Whatever enchantment that item had, you are now able to enchant other items with it. Ultimately, Enchanting is a skill worth investing in no matter what type of character you use.

Another highlight of the game is the soundtrack. It adds hugely not only to the immersion, but to the memorability and quality of the experience as a whole. Jeremy Soule is probably some kind of genius. He managed to write a song in the fictional Dragon language to the tune of the Elder Scrolls theme and make it rhyme to boot. But more importantly than that, he made it sound absolutely amazing, to the point where it fits the theme of Skyrim perfectly. When you hear this music you can really tell that it was made for Skyrim. It brings the atmosphere to a whole new level and really manifests the experience in the mind when listening to the music and reflecting on past experiences in the game. It’s basically a masterfully crafted way to instill nostalgia, just like with many classic games that captivated the hearts of children even until they were fully grown adults.

The battle themes sound very exciting and get the blood pumping, but I find that the calmer exploring tracks are where the soundtrack really shines. It’s so atmospheric and I think one song in particular, “Wind Guide You,” really just encapsulates the entire experience of Skyrim in the form of an audio track. On top of that, there are also a couple songs that were remade from Morrowind, and they sound pretty loyal to the original songs from that game, only a little more enhanced. When I heard those songs for the first time, I actually got really excited because I wasn’t expecting any cool drawbacks to Morrowind and it pleased me greatly.

And of course I have to cover the art direction, because while the graphical fidelity of Skyrim might not be the greatest (and for understandable reasons too), the artistic value of the visuals in the game does contain a lot of merit. Much more so than the game’s predecessor, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. This is one element that I feel was properly borrowed from Morrowind in that everything just looks better, not simply because there are more polygons, but because it has better art direction. The Orcs look fantastic, the Khajiit look amazing, as do the Argonians and the Dark Elves. But also just human characters in general look better. It was a very widely embraced change from Oblivion, and I am also very happy about it.

The armor and weapon designs in the game are also improved from what we saw in Oblivion. They look more realistic, more like actual armors and weapons to some degree. And that makes me very happy, especially as somebody who happens to be rather educated on weapons and armors as practical objects. It really helps my immersion if the equipment looks convincing enough.

There are issues with the levelling system and how it interacts with enemies in the game, and it’s perhaps the most crippling thing in the game, but difficulty settings help to counteract this problem. The game isn’t quite as much like Morrowind as I or many other fans might have hoped, but it’s still a great game in it’s own respect. It does, however, borrow some gameplay elements from Morrowind which is certainly something to be appreciated, especially given all the things that are in this game already.

Overall, Skyrim has many, many problems, but they are all seemingly insignificant given that the game does still fulfill it’s purpose. And that purpose is to be a rich and immersive action-adventure RPG with a solid gameplay experience.

Pros

  • Amazing exploration experience
  • Lots of stuff to do
  • Tons of dungeons
  • Beautiful environments
  • Incredible soundtrack
  • Fantastic art direction

Cons

  • Low variety of equipment
  • Cripplingly unbalanced enemy leveling system
  • Stealth skills are overpowered and magic skills are underpowered
  • Lack of an “unarmored” skill tree that was present in previous games
  • Close to impossible to relax outside in most locations
  • Shallow combat