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The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Review

Review; Dec. 13, 2011; Channels: Video Games; By Edward Kaczynski
Bethesda delivers an epic victory

It’s impossible to review a game like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim without comparing it to its predecessors. Bethesda has always taken great care to keep the spirit of The Elder Scrolls alive while altering and enhancing gameplay between every title, and Skyrim is no exception. A revamped interface, altered character creation and a brand new graphics engine create an atmosphere both familiar and new.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Taking place roughly 200 years after the (bittersweet) conclusion of Oblivion, Skyrim focuses on the return of the dragons, long considered to be myth in the Elder Scrolls canon. The eradication of the Septim bloodline has allowed lesser monarchs to claim the throne, allowing the Empire to crumble into decadence and entropy, with multiple provinces seceding over the two-century gap. The titular province of Skyrim is in open revolt against the Empire and engaged in a civil war within its Nine Holds. The High Elves have sought to dominate the planet with their own newly established kingdom having conquered and enslaved the Khajit and the Wood Elf races and have entered into a tenuous, fragile peace with the Empire – a peace the Skyrim rebellion threatens to disrupt.

Like all the other games in the Elder Scrolls series, Skyrim gives you almost total freedom in the choices you can make, the places you can go, the skills you choose, and the level and manner in which you can interact with the world. For some, this results in the creation of an epic hero in the style of Odysseus or Beowulf. For others, the birth of an evil the likes of which Tamriel has never seen. And for almost everybody, untold amounts of looting and pillaging everything not nailed down or on fire. (Actually, that’s not strictly true – in some cases, the crap you steal is on fire.)

Bethesda really stepped up to the plate in terms of world design and atmosphere. Where Oblivion had an artificial, city-centric feel, Skyrim takes it in a more natural, sprawling direction. This includes villages, cottages, thorps, barrows, forts, mills, and dungeons – of which, there are hundreds – none of which seem to clash in terms of pacing or placement. While Skyrim (the province) is roughly the same size as Oblivion’s Cyrodil, it’s separated and spread out by natural boundaries such as mountains, ravines, cliffs, and rivers, giving it a far larger feel than its forerunner. The best way to describe it, I suppose, is to say that Skyrim feels more like a real world than any of the previous Elder Scrolls titles.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Screenshots
Click the image to view game screenshots

Gameplay is both recognizable and alien in comparison to previous Elder Scrolls titles. Melee combat has frequently been frustrating because, in an attempt to keep things challenging, Bethesda has always adopted the “scaled-leveling” system. You might have noticed this in Oblivion, where after the player reaches a certain level, rats and mudcrabs disappear from the world, and all wildlife becomes bears. All wildlife because the idea was that all creatures are to present some form of challenge, no matter how tough you were. (Thankfully, Cyrodil is a virtual world and doesn't suffer from the ill-effects of an ecosystem that throws itself wildly out-of-whack with the progression of a single sentient being.)

While the idea is novel, if I’m playing a 67th level scourge of Oblivion and Daedric God-Killer, I shouldn’t have trouble sticking a sword in Smokey the Bear – if I feel like starting a forest fire, he should know, just by looking at me, to back the fuck off and let this shit happen. Sure, it might present a challenge, but the frustration of losing a demigod to the local wildlife was more than I could handle. 

Skyrim takes a better approach to this – the scaled leveling still exists, to a point, but ecological destabilization doesn’t occur just because you got better at swinging a sword. This, again, goes into the natural feel of the game.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Screenshots

Sound-wise, the game is pretty much perfect – the Dragonkin language being developed in both written and speaking form is a brilliantly subtle touch. The inventory and magic interfaces are, at first, more than a bit clunky and unintuitive. They were developed to imitate the iPod interface, which is obvious once you realize it but doesn’t seem possible beforehand. Still, like most things, clunky and intuitive make way to familiarity with time and practice.

Load times are, in truth, excessively large, and they only get larger as you get further and further into the game. I mean, you’re doing more, exploring more, and the world continues whether or not you’re present. So it’s conceivable, and it makes sense, that all that crap has to load before you can begin. But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s annoying as all hell. It makes you resist entering or leaving areas or buildings until you're absolutely sure you need to, simply because the waiting gets tedious. Keep a book nearby to read while you wait for the next screen to load up.

I guess the only truly negative thing one can say regarding Skyrim is a common failing to the entire Elder Scrolls series – in fact, a failing common to every major title Bethesda has ever released – is the massive amount of bugs present within the game. Some are minor, some are major, and some are complete and utter show-stoppers. This isn’t a surprise. Hell, this isn’t even a “roll-your-eyes-and-sigh-loudly” type moment. This is an accepted fact. And Bethesda is the only company that can get away with releasing a title like that.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Screenshots

There’s a reason for this. In fact, there’s a few. The obvious one – and the one your average gamer will give right off the bat – is that this game is enormous. It’s 16 square miles of terrain, quests, random monsters, and coding, and by giving the players the ability to do whatever they want whenever they want, you’re introducing variable after variable after variable. Stuff isn’t going to always run as smooth as it should – it would be impossible for the tech team at Bethesda to anticipate every conceivable choice, and thus, prepare for it.

That said…

The other reason Bethesda can get away with releasing the bug-fests that it does is because, as a community of gamers, we let them. Like a battered spouse, we’re constantly making excuses for Bethesda’s behavior because we know it's only hurting us because it loves us so much. We, in fact, go to the trouble of hiding the bruises by creating thousands upon thousands of mods for Bethesda's titles. The community has simply accepted that they’re going to pick up Bethesda’s slack, knowing that Bethesda isn’t going to change, but hoping that it’s going to do a little better next time.

And we’re going to believe it. And we’re going to like it. Because if Skyrim’s release has shown us anything, when we sit and complain about how buggy and unstable The Elder Scrolls VI or Fallout 4 is, we’re going to be complaining with three-and-a-half-million other players – on the first day.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Screenshots

Do the math. When Bethesda can rake in $210 million dollars in a single weekend, why spend months of time finding and fixing bugs? Especially when the community is just going to fix it for them. (At least for PC. Console players are going to have to hope Bethesda takes their concerns seriously enough to release a patch.)

The bottom line: Skyrim is a beautiful game. Skyrim is a well-developed piece of software. Skyrim is a forward-only time machine (in that it will suck hours and hours of your life away) and an excuse to buy a next-gen console if your PC can’t run it. Skyrim is so addictive and so distracting that it’s difficult to say anything bad about it. It would be a disservice to anyone who considers themselves a true gamer to miss this one.


Review Score


Titles rated M (Mature) have content that may be suitable for persons ages 17 and older. Titles in this category may contain intense violence, blood and gore, sexual content and/or strong language.

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