The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is a big game. A big, fat game. I have already spent over forty hours playing and I can assure you what I haven’t done yet will take far more time than what I have. Lets take a quick look at what I have done (+) vs what I have yet to do (-):
+ Companions (warrior’s guild) quests
+ one Daedric quest
+ raid some dungeons
+ become werewolf
+ get married (hot lesbian werewolves!)
+ kill some dragons
+ fight two dragons at once
+ kill giant
– Mage’s Guild
– Thieve’s Guild
– Dark Brotherhood (assassins)
– 14 remaining Daedric quests
– join either side of the civil war
– steal things
– get any skill to 100
– do the other 5000 dungeons
– finish the quests for the Gray Beards
– go to prison
– become a vampire
– more stuff I don’t even know of
Am I forgetting anything? Oh thats right! I haven’t touched the main story line for more than a couple of hours, which is just enough to get me started on collecting shouts and killing dragons. I am currently sweeping up the last few epilogue missions of the Companions, who have taken up most of my time. Just as I wrapped up the bulk of their story, I married my werewolf sweety and she now travels around raiding dungeons with me.
Therein lies one of the best and most defining aspects of a Bethesda Elder Scrolls title: there is so much more to the game than the primary quest line without detracting from the quality of the story in any way (not just the lesbian lycanthropes). You could honestly have a satisfying and complete experience with this game without knowing what the full story of the Dragonborn plays out to be. You might never get to that as you become the leader of five different factions, serve the will of gods and demons and explore the vast, extremely beautiful world of Skyrim.
Taking it from the top
The playable characters in the previous two titles, Morrowind and Oblivion, began their stories as prisoners of the Empire. Skyrim follows suit, with an opening cinematic where you find yourself bound in the back of a cart with four other prisoners on your way to the chopping block. Unlike the other games, you do not find yourself released by the good will of an emperor, but rather by the timely arrival of a giant, world eating dragon named Alduin. You actually watch the dragon fly in as your head is on a chopping block. Naturally the ax-man finds keeping his ass out of the “on fire” condition more important than doing you in. At this point you escape with either one of the empire’s guards or one of your fellow until-recently-condemned prisoners.
Character creation is actually quite simpler in Skyrim, since it involves only a choice of race, gender and physical appearance. From there, your actions decide whether you are a mage, thief, warrior or some mixture of the three. There are no predefined classes in Skyrim, but rather a set of 18 skills, six of each attributed to one of the archtypes. Different races have different affinities to each skill, but if you want, you may raise the level of any or all of these skills by practicing them. You can be a great warrior cat in heavy armor with a big hammer, or an orc who wears robes and casts healing spells. Do you want to be a mage who does something other than cast fire and lightning from his fingertips? Well personally I think you’re damn weird but hey, thats an option!
Early on you can easily switch around what your play style may be. Your character’s skill gain can’t be reversed, but you can choose to start putting points into different skills at any time, just by using a weapon or spell associated with the skill. The leveling system is very gradual, so you’d have to play a lot of the game to get yourself past the point of trying something new. My personal progression has taken me from the Nord who casts lightning and swings a sword to the Nord who summons demons and swings an axe, sometimes two axes. Sometimes I let the werewolf blood lust take me and I go ape-shit all over a tower full of necromancers. Most games don’t let one character experience all of these options. Games that aren’t Skyrim, that is.
Once you’ve decided who you’re going to be, or as you experience the ongoing decision of who to be, you can approach this game in a couple of ways. You can just start running around looking for camps and caves full of bandits and spiders and treasure. This method works pretty well actually, as the developers put in a lot of miscellaneous quests that you’ll find without ever speaking to an NPC. If you find a slain adventurer’s journal or an old book that tells of a famous legend, you’ll be prompted to head in a direction that will offer a short story and some shiny loot. Your other option is to speak to the bartenders and townsfolk to see what’s going on and who needs your help. This path will also most likely lead you into a dungeon with a variety of baddies and some more shiny loot.
Whether you’d rather be the wandering adventurer or you have a plan on which guild you’re going to start running by level 15, Skyrim’s setup caters to either type of player. You may even find yourself going between both play styles. After finding the mysterious artifact in the old ruin, you may decide its spring break from the mages’ college and go galloping around Skyrim just to look for trouble.
I honestly can’t tell you what the end game experience may be because, well, I haven’t reached that point yet. I know that you can get to about level 80 if you max out all 18 skills in the game, at which point you are essentially a god. You may not have completed every quest at that point, so if you feel the need you may go squish all who are oppressing any random stranger you bump into who has a problem. But really if you’ve run out of stuff to do in Skyrim within six months of starting, you A) have way too much time on your hands, B) aren’t looking very hard, or C) its time to make a new character! Approaching the content with a different set of tactics and skills can be challenging and is honestly, quite fun even for someone who is still developing their first character.
The buggiest game you’ll ever love
You’ll probably hear far more praise for this game than criticism (unless you talk to the folks playing on the PC for the first few months – the menus and interface are ported from the console version and are terrible). However, if any other game had this number of bugs, quirks, and lack of polish for certain areas, it’d be considered far under-developed. Again, I’ve only scratched the surface, but there are many consistent AI and graphics errors.
My companions are great at catching up to me when I change environments, (entering a city or dungeon) but if I walk along with them behind me, they regularly get stuck on a small piece of environment. This has been true for certain NPCs in dungeons as well. Occasionally, I get to laugh at the stuck zombie while I pick them off with a ranged attack. However, I do need to give all the credit in the world to Lydia for finding her way back to me after a giant used her as a golf ball and sent her flying far beyond sight.
NPCs also don’t socially react to you quite appropriately. More than once I’ve had everyone in a room staring at me, even as they walked around or were speaking to someone else. The game recognizes putting someone else’s things into your inventory as stealing, but you can pick up items and move them around and the owner will think nothing of it. This has created a popular pastime of putting buckets on the NPC’s heads, just to see their non reaction. At one point I transformed into a werewolf and my companion (also a werewolf) became terrified of the beast in front of her and began to attack me. My favorite event so far, though, was sneaking into a house at 2 am to see what I might steal, only to find the ten year old girl already awake and walking around, telling me I’d better leave.
Spell effects can also be a bit iffy. I had one incident where I was attempting to recreate Emperor Palpatine’s dissertation on the finer points of joining the Dark Side (a.k.a. shoot bolts of lightning out of my hands), but instead simply held up my hand to see the enemy’s life bar drain. This was actually OK, because I could still imagine I was using Vader’s more subtle choke technique. Less cool was not seeing the ethereal sword I had just summoned and watching my character swing an empty arm at the enemy.
For some reason, I find myself giving the game a pass on all of its faults. Maybe I feel like the developers deserve some room for error considering the game has so much content, is so interactive and just so visually striking that they’ve clearly put a lot of time in to all the places that matter. Perhaps I’ve seen the games that came before and can see so many advances that I just think each game is part of a singular work in progress, like an ongoing beta for the ultimate game they’ll eventually release (and subsequently destroy the world). Honestly though, while these bugs and quirks are plentiful and easy to find, the game is so expansive that its really a much smaller percentage of error than you might find in other games.
Its not for everyone…
As great as I’ve found this game to be, I wouldn’t by any stretch say that it’s a game that all or even most gamers will enjoy and cling to. There’s a certain level of patience or possibly ADHD required to keep playing this game. The game auto-saves a ridiculous amount, but might still miss about half an hour to an hour’s worth of gameplay that can be lost if you aren’t manually saving every time you turn a corner. The quests can be sought out and done in turn, but the content is so jam-packed into the world that you’ll feel like you’re passing by a lot of opportunities and that you just can’t get everything done. It might be frustrating for some players since you just can’t keep up with the information pouring in and probably won’t remember exactly what this quest is doing in your queue.
It’s also possible to gimp yourself. If you’re experimenting with each skill too much, you’ll find the enemies are getting stronger while you stay fairly mediocre at the skills that should be protecting you and dealing the damage you need to get the job done. Skills and perks can’t be redistributed so when you choose a perk that doesn’t work quite as well as you hoped, you’re stuck with it unless you have an earlier save, potentially losing a lot of play time.
I’ll probably be playing this game well into next summer. I’ve honestly had to set time aside for other video games and set an alarm to tell me to go to bed. This game is why I limit myself to one single player only game a year, because I just sink right into them with no-one to remind me that things like sleep, food and work are important. Speaking of multiplayer, how great would this game be if you could invite a friend in? Even if it was the crappy “multiplayer” we got from Fable 2 it’d be a nice touch. I really think the game could allow your friend to take over for your NPC follower and limit how far away they can get without too much trouble. Its not like I’m asking for a second Dragonborn fighting with me with all their own mad loots!! Alas, it is but a dream… for now.
The Good: Boatloads of compelling stories, beautiful environment, and creative gameplay
The Bad: Tons of glitches/bugs and odd NPC behavior – a solid 5 stars w/o these issues.
The Ugly: Nothing about this game is ugly! How dare you suggest such blasphemy! The precious is a perfect game! Perfect! GOLLUM!