“The games we normally call open worlds – the locked off cities and level-restricted grinding grounds – don’t compare to this. While everyone else is faffing around with how to control and restrict the player, Bethesda just put a fucking country in a box. It’s the best open world game I’ve ever played, the most liberating RPG I’ve ever played, and one of my favourite places in this or any other world.” – PC Gamer UK
After such a long wait and so much anticipation, it was inevitable that the release of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim be prone to a dash of anti-climax. It was also inevitable that it would be subject to the usual responses – hopes and dreams either dashed or realised, depending on your outlook and the percentage of troll blood in your ancestry. Most people were expecting the game to be another masterpiece, based on the developer Bethesda’s incredible track record, but there have been all too many instances when things do not live up to the hype: Age of Conan, anyone?
Another inevitable hurdle in the game’s reception would be the way it was compared with its forerunners. As a massive fan of the immediate predecessors in the series, The Elder Scrolls III and IV, hereafter, Morrowind and Oblivion respectively, I was all too well aware of the ways in which these two games had often been pitted against each other in the realms of opinion. Most would argue that Morrowind was more cerebral, better, more complex and more realistic as a game-world, if less well realised graphically and physically, through its engine. Some people loved Morrowind and loathed Oblivion; the latter had less variation in its armour types, simplified weapon proficiencies, more generically generated interior decoration; whilst others preferred Oblivion, largely because it still matched Morrowind for scale and diversity and on account of its excellent, if now dated engine and its initially stunning appearance.
I can understand many of the specific criticisms, but, having been won over utterly by both games, I find the overall judgements difficult to understand. The pros and cons of either still amounted to an unbelievably satisfying whole. Whatever one’s individual opinion about the games, and many people, from all walks of life, have loved both dearly, there was certainly no injustice in both games winning Game of the Year among many other awards. They are, beyond the shadow of a doubt, two of the greatest open-world role-playing experiences ever created and rightly deserve their place in the pantheon. Only Bioware’s Dragon Age Origins has reached such heights in recent times; a game stronger on story, containing far superior voice-acting and, I feel, a higher standard of writing; both in dialogue and exposition, in books, scrolls, etc. But it was a game that lacked openness. The world, though big, was tiny by comparison to the vast open spaces of The Elder Scrolls games. Dragon Age Origins should be seen more as a long awaited and finally worthy successor to Baldur’s Gate 2. Both are games with closed maps, linked by area transitions, with no scope for exploration outside designated areas. The Elder Scrolls series, on the other hand, with their vast, free-flowing open landscapes, “Put a fucking country in a box,” as the PC Gamer UK review puts it.
Being thus aware of the various qualities and differences of Morrowind and Oblivion, I was prepared to be confronted by Skyrim’s differences. It was inevitable that there would be some frustrating changes, inevitable stream-lining and simplification, but also a lot of innovation, improvement and added complexity and depth in other areas. Time could only tell as to what the overall impression would be, but I knew that Bethesda were unlikely to make a substandard product, especially considering the incredible success and quality of their main interim vehicle, Fallout 3.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim starts in media res.
You, the protagonist, have been captured along with a rebel leader and a few other randoms and are being transported in a wagon to a rendez-vous with a chopping block.
It’s a nice way to set the scene, which oddly reminded me of the taxi ride into Pala at the start of Far Cry 2. Upon arrival at the fortified town where the execution is to take place, one is called forward and asked to state one’s name.
Thus begins the process of character creation. Once this is done, one is led to the block, where one’s avatar exhibits a rather disappointingly passive acceptance of fate, and kneels before the executioner.
It is at this point that a dragon turns up and, quite literally, all hell breaks loose.
My first response, unfortunately, was a rather visceral disappointment with the graphics and textures of the game. The skins seemed decidedly low-res in some cases, and the textures were large and clunky when viewed up close. These reduced nicely into finer-looking detail when using a more distant zoom, yet having spent so long modding the textures in Oblivion and replacing 128 x 128 pixel skins with 2048 x 2048, for a disturbingly photorealistic finish, it felt oddly like a step back from its predecessor. I also noticed early on that the palette seemed rather wan and muted; the colours were not rich and seemed washed out in the pale light of this northernmost province of Tamriel. This all came as a bit of a shock, especially considering that when Oblivion was released it was pretty much at the pinnacle of graphical achievement; I thought Skyrim might be the game to surpass everything, looks wise. I never expected to be so disappointed that my graphics card could run it smoothly, at 40 fps, with everything maxed!
My next response was that the characters felt a little flat. Not, thankfully, as pre-generated and soulless as the speakers of Oblivion, but still, not anything like as dynamic, passionate and emotionally engaging as those in Dragon-Age Origins. I had, ever since hearing Max von Sydow’s voice-over in the trailer, been expecting a game replete with very theatrical, naturalistic and emotive voice-work, yet the NPCs in Skyrim seemed to have a slightly false pitch in their voices. They sounded like actors, reading, whereas the voice artists of Dragon Age Origins were thrillingly human.
My next minor issue with the game arose in the process of character creation. I only have myself to blame, both for not reading the manual or checking the on-screen menus as closely as possible, yet when called forward and asked to state my name to the executioner’s scribe, I chose my race and name, and totally failed to notice the full range of other character generation options across the top of the screen. I had expected more prompting, as both Morrowind and Oblivion had guided one through character creation more closely and in a more staggered fashion. Naively, I assumed, as had been the case in Oblivion, that first I would be asked my name and later asked further details, such as class, appearance etc. Not so! Shoot me.
Indeed, I had to play the opening a second time in order to realise that this was, in fact THE moment when one created one’s character entirely, and that the absence of a choice of class or profession, was, indeed, real. There are no classes in Skyrim. It’s as simple as that. One’s starting skills are determined purely by race, and skills advancement happens according either to skill use, training with trainers or by finding tomes that teach skill increases. The rate of advance can, however, be effected by a particular blessing, say an enchantment from a moonstone, like the sign of the warrior, for example. This seemed rather annoying, as I had always enjoyed designing custom classes and selecting skills appropriate to my desired build. Still, I was willing to give it a go, and the perks trees now attached to each skill, which look suspiciously familiar to the feats and enhancements of MMOs like World of Warcraft and Dungeons and Dragons Online, acted in the stead of class and profession. Either way, as much as we all loathe tutorials in games, the absence of more explicit guidance at the point of character generation seems like an oversight in a game so long, involved and complex. I wonder how many others might click through and be stuck with a generic head and body set?
My initial impression of the interface was not exactly positive. It had the stench of console about it and, whilst generally smooth-running, it has some awful glitches in it that will take a patch or two to iron out. I had a lot of trouble with the loot-all R button, causing a CTD on many occasions. It was often difficult to scroll from one item or category to the next, as the mouse would not always highlight the desired option. Patches ought to fix this, so it’s unlikely to remain an issue. Yet I was surprised that something so fundamental, structurally, had not been ironed out completely. Ideally, a new user interface mod will remove all the console-like elements altogether and replace it with a more PC friendly UI.
Having said all this, I was keeping a very open mind. Dragon Age Origins had initially looked disappointing to me, again on account of chunky textures and OTT armours and weapons, which too often had a plastic or rubbery sheen and seemed to lack real, physical weight. Yet I grew to love that game quite unreservedly because of its many other amazing qualities. Indeed, in time, the look of Dragon Age Origins won me over as well. It moved well, the colours were rich and intense, it had just enough epic landscapes and vistas, the interface, was, I felt, quite beautiful, and, oh, the soundtrack was great. At times, a tad bombastic, but on the whole, it was entrancing and reeked of adventure!
The default volume setting for Skyrim’s music is a mere 70% of max, possibly less, and at first I found myself wondering, where is the music? As a massive fan of the soundtracks of Morrowind and Oblivion (Indeed, they are on my iPod!) I was looking forward to hearing Bethesda’s latest efforts on this front. Once I’d adjusted the volume and could hear things perfectly well, I was very impressed. The soundtrack is extremely unobtrusive. It is beautiful, cold and spacious, like the best efforts of twentieth-century minimalism. It is both haunting and lulling and segues almost effortlessly between disquieting and soothing the player. Where appropriate it comes on all epic and grandiose, yet most of the time it acts to create a mood and emotional space that fits the windblown, icy landscape. It is a very impressive soundtrack indeed, and one of the many things which come together to make Skyrim one of the greatest gaming experiences ever.
And the simple fact of the matter is, initial concerns aside, Skyrim really is an astonishingly beautiful and amazing game. The world is not only massive, but it is endlessly interesting and engrossing. There are, yes, a lot of snow-covered mountains, which risk giving it a very samey feel across the board, yet there are sufficient sunlit river valleys, stretches of coastline, marshes, swamps, glades, dales, caves, grottos, lakes, ancient ruins, forts, bandit camps, farmsteads, villages, towns, and, of course, great and beautiful cities to give the game a feeling of intense variety. It is surprisingly surprising, and one of the major improvements on both Oblivion and Morrowind is the diversity of the caves and forts one can enter. In Oblivion these locations, the old mines, forts and Ayleid ruins, tended to repeat the same types of interiors and encounters, though in a wide variety of lay-outs. Such locations in Skyrim, so far as I can tell after a relatively short playing experience, but also based on anecdotal evidence from other players, seem to be far more original and varied in their design and content. As one reviewer stated, Skyrim is also the best Indiana Jones game ever made.
After playing for a few hours, when I realised just how smoothly my avatar moved, how freely everything flowed, how vast and open the range of choices were to me, the initial reaction to the game’s appearance fell away and I saw it for the masterpiece that it is. So much effort has been put into this, and it shows. Yes, Bethesda pushed hard to meet their 11 / 11 / 11 deadline, but then, almost all new releases are at least slightly buggy these days, and if the designers don’t sort it out, the players will. Of course, we, the paying public should not be expected to beta-test games, but with something on the scale and complexity of Skyrim, a few issues here and there are inevitable. Nothing, as yet, has proven game-breaking, but then, I’ve clocked up a mere twenty-four hours and explored about one fiftieth of the map available to me, in which time I’ve accepted far more quests and undertakings than I have completed.
The game really does look beautiful. The landscapes are breath-taking, the cities fill one with a sense of awe and the mountains are a source of tireless eye-candy. Skyrim takes after its predecessors in many ways. Both Morrowind and Oblivion chose to focus on a particular province of the continent of Tamriel, Morrowind and Cyrodiil respectively, and Skyrim is named after the province it depicts; the northernmost, mountainous home of the Nords. We are thus treated to a lot of unashamedly Norse-themed architecture, clothing and local culture, which gives the world a rich cultural uniformity. The other races and people are all represented here again, though it took me a long time to find a Khajiit or Argonian! These two races look absolutely magnificent, particularly in the faces; though the feline Khajiit fur could certainly use a texture upgrade.
Like its predecessors, Skyrim also offers a main plot to give the player an overall sense of purpose, yet the game-world is so vast and the hundreds, if not thousands of often lengthy and fully-realised side-quests make it possible to play the game for literally hundreds of hours, without ever actually furthering this plot one jot. Indeed, on my second run-through of Oblivion, I entirely ignored the main plot entirely and engaged instead with all the other subplots, along with new quests and diversions made available by the vast community of dedicated modders.
Rarely will two playing experiences be the same. Comparing notes with a colleague at work, I learned that he is playing an Argonian (lizard-man) thief. So far, he has not furthered the central plot by a single step, but has instead joined The Companions and Dark Brotherhood and has been running quests for these two groups. The Companions are a group of do-gooding mercenaries who replace the fighters’ guilds of previous games, whilst the Dark Brotherhood return once again as a group of Daedra-worshipping assassins. There are further groups one can join in the game, each spawning a long, long list of often very lengthy and involved quests, right around the world of Skyrim.
The main plot itself offers real variation. The province of Skyrim, long ruled by the empire founded by Tiber Septim, has recently rebelled under a Nordic king and is in the thick of a civil war. The player can choose to support the rebellion of Ulfric Greycloak, or side with the Empire. In a sense, this a subplot to the principal plot whereby dragons are coming back to life and harassing the province of Skyrim; whilst the civil war rages, the province is weakened and some suspect a plot by the Thalmor, a group of evil elves, to take advantage of the situation.
No doubt the players chosen path will result in a very different journey through these central storylines; or, indeed, no progressing of the story whatsoever. After all, in a world where one can murder, pick-pocket, break into and rob pretty well every single NPC in the game, there are many other ways to entertain oneself. One can buy horses and property, decorate one’s house, acquire companions, and, I’ve heard it said, even marry in game. As with Morrowind and Oblivion, it is possible to pick up pretty well any of the millions of objects in the game; fruit, vegetables, cutlery; baskets, tableware, cooking pots, books (all of which can be read), scrolls, quills, inkpots, armour, weapons, clothing, jewellery… Just don’t get caught if it doesn’t belong to you. If you carry a pick-axe around with you, it’s possible to extract ores from seams and deposits in the mountains, caves or mines of Skyrim, smelt the ores, then use the refined metals to improve items. Indeed, one could focus entirely on crafting, alchemy, smithing, cooking, tanning and enchanting if one so desired; the pursuit of recipes and materials would, in itself, make a very satisfying game.
So, perhaps inevitably, once I’d gotten out there and really started running around looking at things, the game pulled me in like a black hole. When, after seemingly hours of climbing hostile, stunningly beautiful snowy mountains, skidding down snow drifts, crossing misty, sunlit streams, I caught my first sight of the ocean to the north, I felt tears welling in my eyes at the sheer beauty of the view. What followed is what makes these games so utterly unique.
I walked down to the water at sunset, noticing that my avatar, the latest incarnation of Bethanie Brinsett, here dual-wielding shock spells, with a bitey Orcish sword as a side-arm, was tired, on account of the intensity of the frowns on her forehead. It was seven in the evening and, whilst it was not essentially necessary, I decided to look for a place to sleep. Further along the coast I spied a shipwreck, lying on its side on the beach. I made my way along the sand, staying close to the water and keeping an eye out for mudcrabs, all the while admiring the beautiful sunset.
Just as I reached the wreck, a dragon, randomly thrown into the mix, flew overhead and began swooping on some Tuskers – large, bloated crosses between a walrus, an elephant seal, and the maw of oblivion. Soon after its first sweep, the dragon spotted me. Not yet aware of the relative ease with which one can take down a dragon using combat tactics, I decided to take cover. I sprinted to the wrecked ship, jumped up onto the deck and pushed my way through the tilted door into the cabins. Once inside, it seemed I was safe from the dragon’s attack, yet what exactly lay inside the ship?
I spent the next fifteen minutes cautiously exploring the cabins and the hold. It was a big, cargo-carrying longship, now populated by oversized mudcrabs, including one of the most massive and savage ever encountered. Indeed, it brought to mind and gave credence to that all too common insult from Oblivion, often shouted by enemies: “I’ve fought mudcrabs more fearsome than you!” I worked my way through, electrocuting all the crabs – they were hostile, after all – then, after looting the hold, especially pleased to find some salt piles (an important reagent in cooking food, one of many new elements in the game) and other rare reagents and ingredients, I made my way to the angled bunks and slept until 0430AM.
Feeling fully rested, frowns now gone, I snuck out of the ship just before dawn, the sky already beginning to lighten. The coastline looked more beautiful than ever; the stars still visible in the wan pre-dawn twilight. Over the mountains, dark clouds gathered and the threat of snow was evident.
Fortunately, the dragon had long since cleared off, leaving a bunch of dead tuskers on the beach. I jumped down from the ship, looted their tusks and began my journey again, turning back inland through the wetlands that seemed to dominate this region of coastline. It wasn’t long before I caught my first sight of the city of Solitude on the horizon. Built atop a vast natural arch of rock, the town’s solid stone structures were perched high above a river that flowed beneath the arch. The sight was, once again, breath-takingly epic. With the pale sunlight glinting from the pools of water around me, the city of Solitude and its mountain backdrop, hung like a fantastic vision through the haze. I forded the river and began my approach…
Such experiences give games like Skyrim their enormously immersive quality. The touches of detail are often nothing short of delightful. In another instance, when raiding a fort occupied by bandits, having snuck in and assassinated the poor sod sitting by the fire in the front room, I heard a number of voices coming from nearby. Wearing headphones and marvelling continually at how accurate the directional properties of the in-game sounds were, I could hear everything perfectly clearly. There were three voices, and two were talking about other jobs they were planning, whilst the other chap was moaning about a girl who’d said she’d wait for him, but didn’t. I listened for a while to their conversations, baffled as to where on earth the voices were coming from. The room just off the entrance proved to be empty, and the voices were not carrying down the flight of stairs. It was then that I walked past the fire-place again and realised the voices were in fact coming down the chimney from a room directly above!
It is difficult to articulate the inner rejoicing that comes at moments such as these and, all I can say is, full marks to Bethesda for such exquisite touches, which proliferate throughout their products. So far, so utterly great. Skyrim will almost certainly take its place among the greats of gaming history, and may ultimately find itself elevated to the top of the list. It is nothing less than a masterpiece; a vast and painstakingly detailed work that, alongside its predecessors, and, indeed, its rivals, especially Bioware’s games such as Baldur’s Gate 2, Mass Effect and Dragon Age Origins, makes an increasingly strong case for the acceptance of computer games as one of the highest forms of artistic expression and story-telling, alongside literature and cinema. Skyrim is certainly one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.
It is worth mentioning that these screenshots appear quite static and, the surfaces somewhat flatter. The overall effect, including flickering shadows, shifting light sources, swaying foliage, dynamic weather, clashing weapons, sizzling magic, buzzing insects, rushing rivers, pounding falls, hammered anvils, snorting horses, huffing smelters, turning pages, pots and pans, clashes and bashes, singing birds and, indeed, singing bards, cannot be reproduced here.