The Elder Scrolls series of RPGs are usually met with the sort of frenzied anticipation you’d normally see surrounding a stadium tour by one of the world’s biggest bands. For a couple of years now we’ve heard whispers about Skyrim, the fifth Elder Scrolls chapter. Bethesda have been busy working away in near-secrecy, drip-feeding scant details to the gaming press and public from time to time to keep us all hooked.
Now the game’s out and in the wild, arriving in the same launch week as (arguably) the year’s biggest game (Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 in case you’ve been hiding under a rock) it’s been quite comforting to see my friends list on the Xbox, and my contacts list on the PS3 completely dominated by Skyrim and not the dappy shark-jumping shooter.
I’ve been immune to the lure of the Elder Scrolls series up till now. Skyrim is a deep and time-consuming RPG, the sort of game I usually run screaming from or in reality, I just don’t have time for. I’m not exactly big on sword and sorcery stuff anyway but didn’t want to miss the opportunity to review something that’s so far outside my comfort zone it might as well be a Fork Lift Simulator or a knitting game.
So it’s good to report that Skyrim is quite something. It’s fantastic. The PS3 is traditionally the platform that seems to get short shrift when it comes to multiplatform releases, but despite the usual lengthy asset install at the start of the game, Skyrim shapes up fairly well bar a few odd quirks and graphical glitches.
After a rather clichéd travel scene (why is it becoming such a common trend for games to begin with the central character travelling in the back of a car, a cart or some other form of transport?), initially setting up your character lets you choose between the common races in Skyrim. Choose your race, your build and various other characteristics and set yourself the personal challenge of trying to create a character that doesn’t look like they’ve been pushed face-first down a stone staircase.
The much-vaunted new game engine isn’t a great departure from what’s gone before with Oblivion or Fallout 3. Rough and workmanlike character models are complimented by fantastic art direction for objects and weapons, some sumptuous architecture and background graphics, and of course some deliciously detailed dragons.
It’s no secret or spoiler to tell you that this game revolves around these mythical beasts, and the game properly kicks off when a particularly nasty one attacks the town square where you’re about to be unceremoniously beheaded. It’s a spectacular scene that sets the tone for the rest of the game perfectly, giving the player the constant feeling that these mythical beasts are about to bring about the world’s end. Every shriek or deep rumble will have you frantically scanning the sky, hoping for a glimpse of the scaly beasts.
In Skyrim proper, you’re not just some ordinary everyday character. It soon becomes apparent that your destiny is tightly linked with the reappearance of the dragons and you will play a pivotal role in protecting the various inhabitants of Skyrim from these beasts.
I’m desperately trying not to give too much of Skyrim’s central storyline away, suffice to say that your character swiftly becomes adept in various skills dipping into magic, combat, stealth and thievery in equal measure.
I’ve always had a problem with games that “pretend” to offer you moral choices when really this usually boils down to punishing you for being evil, or rewarding you for being a paragon of virtue. To be fair to Skyrim, there’s less of a feeling that committing the odd petty criminal act will radically alter the whole direction your character takes in future, but there are times when you can be caught red handed and set back a good few steps on your quests with a lighter wallet and a strangely humbling sense of wanting to be a better person next time you venture out.
Skyrim is a looter’s paradise. If you play RPGs like I do, hoovering up just about every object you find (whether it’s of any use or not) you’re going to find plenty to keep you occupied here. I particularly loved the loading screens between major locations, where you get a fantastic detailed view of some of the game’s objects and can move your viewpoint around them for a closer look.
Buying and selling your wares is almost a game in itself. A nose for a bargain and improving your character-relational skills will pay dividends when dealing with in-game traders and merchants.
Crafting in the game is as deep and multi-faceted as trading too. Weapons, armour and apparel can all be made if you find a friendly blacksmith willing to lend you his forge. The same goes for potions and healing, so you can spend a heck of a lot of game time seeking out rare herbs or plants for the more complicated potions.
Interacting with other characters is simple, without the need for deep, branching conversations of no consequence. Even if you’re a lazy RPGer like me, you will reap rewards by paying close attention to what people say and also by trawling through the various books, notes and journals you’ll encounter throughout the game. Even the tiniest clue to a puzzle solution can be tucked away in a traveller’s journal, though most early puzzles are fairly simple and won’t tax your grey matter too much.
In summary, once it gets its dragon-like talons into you, Skyrim becomes something of an obsession. There have been so many great moments that I can only hint at without delving too deeply into spoiler territory but any game forum or facebook discussion on the game tells its own story. It’s almost like players are using another language as they describe the various encounters they’ve had with dragons, or the crazy ways their characters have met an untimely demise. Personally I’d cite the very first battle against a dragon and the rush you experience when you finally see its health gauge dribble away to nothing under an onslaught of attacks as being one of many true standout moments encountered so far.
It’s a gigantic all-encompassing time sink that will see off all the other games you’re juggling at the moment. The “odd hour or so” you promise yourself as you fire up the game can swiftly turn into an all-nighter as you become wrapped up in finding out the true nature of your character and what you’re capable of. If it can change the mind of a hardened anti-RPGer like me, then perhaps you’ll find it equally as enchanting and a welcome refreshing change from the usual action fare.