Exit Oblivion, Enter The Dragons
As incredible as The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion was in 2006, it hasn’t aged well. While it’s still capable of hooking players into tens of hours of questing, it looks terrible, it crashes periodically, its load times are excruciating, and its combat is lame.
An update is due, and Bethesda didn’t drop the ball when it came to Oblivion’s successor, Skyrim. Every aspect of the game is improved, and while some areas fare better than others, there is no way to start playing Skyrim without being sucked into a massive, epic adventure that consumes weeks of your time. Even at full price, Skyrim is a steal.
When you begin Skyrim, the first thing you will notice is that the new engine works wonders. This doesn’t look like, say, Battlefield 3—there’s no way a game this big could have that much detail—but it looks good, especially when you stare into the distance outdoors, and exploring the vast world that confronts you is a pleasure. The new graphical capabilities are especially noticeable when you talk to people; the camera no longer zooms in to reveal every awkward imperfection in the character models, and the lip-syncing has improved tenfold. The third-person view is actually usable, though it’s still not the best way to play. And while it’s probably not fair for me to compare load times—I played Oblivion on Xbox 360 from a disc, and Skyrim from a PC hard drive—I found traveling a lot more fun and less time consuming in Skyrim.
A huge and pretty world is nothing without a story big enough to fill it, and Skyrim’s plot, set 200 years after the events of Oblivion, is suitably epic. At the outset, you’re a captive—just as you were in Oblivion—and just as you’re about to be decapitated, a dragon attacks, giving you an opportunity to escape. It turns out that dragons are coming back from the dead, and you, as a “Dragonborn,” are one of the few people who are able to kill them.
The dragons are somewhat like Oblivion Gates—a recurring battle that appears across the land and rewards you handsomely when you win. Dragons are hardy but very beatable foes; even a melee-focused character can take one down, since they land on the ground frequently. Not only are dragon parts valuable, but you absorb some of each beast’s essence, which improves your capacity to learn “shouts,” special abilities that include everything from attacks to a fast sprint.
They are also like Oblivion Gates in that while they’re the main focus of the plot, they are a very, very small part of the game as a whole. Like its predecessor, Skyrim takes a “play it your way” approach—you can rush through the story missions if you want, but you can also join guilds, perform random tasks for countless people in each town, raid dungeons, explore the huge territory you’re given access to, or just walk around talking to everyone to learn their stories. The more you play different parts of the game, the more your character improves in those ways—basically customizing himself to your play style. If you don’t feel like working your way into a certain guild, fine, don’t bother. If you’re like me and think the “crafting” system is boring—all it entails is bringing items to a crafting station and pressing a button to finish the job—just ignore it unless you have a weapon you really want to improve. On the other hand, if you finish all of Skyrim’s content and want to keep going, the game offers an unlimited supply of simple, procedurally generated quests. In other words, Skyrim is carefully designed to let you do whatever you want without hitting roadblocks or running out of things to do.
The system governing character improvement has been overhauled for the better. Oblivion was overly complicated, with too many abilities that were grouped into too many different categories. With Skyrim, by contrast, you make two simple choices whenever you level up: You increase your health, your magicka, or your stamina, and you choose a perk that improves a more specific ability. As in most RPGs, players will probably find it most effective to specialize in a few areas rather than trying to level everything up evenly. I found it worked well to make myself incredibly lethal with one-handed weapons while also improving my blocking and healing.
The combat has been improved, too, though it’s still by far the weakest element of the game. Health regenerates, so you no longer have to rest for an hour every time you get away from your foes. You can equip whatever you want to your hands, but magic spells occupy a slot—meaning that you can dual wield, but you can no longer, for example, cast a healing spell while holding a shield and sword. Fortunately, you can set the weapons and spells you use most frequently to your “Favorites” and switch between them quickly, so it’s still possible to cast a quick spell in the middle of an intense fighting match. Bows and arrows are much easier to use. And the combat has taken a grisly visual turn, with much more blood and even a “kill cam” that zooms out to show you exactly how brutally you’re taking out some of the enemies.
However, the combat hasn’t really gotten any more visceral or kinetic—you’ll still feel like you’re awkwardly timing button presses rather than tactically administering harsh punishment. It’s still a matter of figuring out what combination of blows, magic spells, power hits, strafing, dodging, and blocking is the best way to kill off a certain enemy. And there are still very few memorable boss fights; the dragons are powerful and visually impressive, but even they don’t require very much strategy or pattern memorization. When the game throws a foe at you who’s a little too much to handle—which it does from time to time, despite scaling to level—you might resort to dropping the difficulty or abusing the quicksave feature.
There are other beneficial tweaks as well. Weapons and armor no longer degrade, which eliminates one of the more pointlessly fiddly elements of Oblivion. Merchants run out of money, which is more realistic but also more frustrating than the previous system. The lock picking has been replaced by the system from Fallout 3; you rotate a pick in the lock and try to force it rather than hitting tumblers and timing a button press. You can now end a conversation whenever you want, instead of navigating through the menu until the end.
The controls work quite well on PC—the Favorites system in particular allows you to do exactly what you want, when you want to do it. My only real complaint is that sometimes, clicking just off to the side of a menu item can close a conversation. And the sound is up to the series’ standards—you’ll hear lots of familiar music and noises, with some new material thrown in, and the voice acting is a definite step up from Oblivion.
Basically, if you’re even slightly interested in RPGs, Skyrim is a must-buy. More than any game before it, it manages to be exactly what you want it to be—it can be a tight and well-told story, an epic and wandering adventure, a hack-and-slash, a first-person brawler, a magical quest, or, most likely, a customized blend of all that. No matter how you play, it will consume your gaming hours for weeks at a time. The process of exploring the world, improving your character, killing dragons, and raiding dungeons has never been so expansive, or so addictive. There’s no way to tell whether Skyrim will look better in 2016 than Oblivion does today, but right here in 2011, it’s one of the best video games in existence.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 4.3 Graphics
A game this big can’t be much more detailed than Skyrim is. 4.4 Control
Menu navigation can be a pain, but otherwise the PC controls are great. 4.8 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
An exciting blend of classic Elder Scrolls tunes, new material, and decent voice acting. 4.8 Play Value
While the combat still needs improvement, this is one of the biggest and best video games in history. 4.7 Overall Rating – Must Buy
Not an average. See Rating legend below for a final score breakdown.
|Review Rating Legend|
|0.1 – 1.9 = Avoid||2.5 – 2.9 = Average||3.5 – 3.9 = Good||4.5 – 4.9 = Must Buy|
|2.0 – 2.4 = Poor||3.0 – 3.4 = Fair||4.0 – 4.4 = Great||5.0 = The Best|