User Review of the Week: Skyrim

We've not been able to get a User Review up for a few weeks! It's been an exciting month with things like the Playfire giveaway event, and of course massive titles including Tomb Raider and SimCity have launched more recently! (Two games that many of us at GMG are very excited about)

This week's substantial User Review of the Week is brought to you by Endyo, with a long look at Skyrim. Of course, we'll be amazed if any of you still haven't played Skyrim, it's a must-play.

More Quality Elder Scrolls Goodness

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is one of those titles that you know well before the release date that it will kick the face off of your schedule and bury you in more content than seems should fit on your hard drive.  That’s just the way Elder Scrolls games work.  Personally, I started with Morrowind as many modern gamers did.  We suffered a bit through Oblivion, but knew that we were only at a turning point.  One that made the game more accessible and lively and didn’t have you aimlessly wandering a vast landscape based on a jumbled set of journal entries.  Bethesda certainly had a challenge laid before them and I’m glad to see they didn’t back down or sacrifice the core qualities that made this series what it is.

If you’ve played any modern Elder Scrolls game, starting out in Skyrim is not all that surprising.  You know you’ll be designing a character and experiencing a fairly talkative introduction.  Of course, Skyrim changes it up a bit by having a ridiculously over–the-top dragon attack event immediately after that, before you even get to pick up a weapon or cast a spell.  You’ll find that you’ll have fewer character skill options than you did in Morrowind or Oblivion, basically none, but a wide selection of physical appearance and race options that will have some minor influence on how the game plays out for you.  What Skyrim does better than most RPGs on the market is allowing you to dictate your gameplay style primarily based on what you choose to do. For instance, if you pick up a sword and shield, you’ll be gaining skill in one handed weapons and blocking.  Whatever armor you choose, you’ll gain levels within that as well.  All of which contribute to the overall leveling structure.  When you finally do level up, having performed enough tasks with your chosen skills, you’ll be given a menu that allows you to place a single perk point into a perk tree of your choice.  It isn’t wholly dependent on the actions you’ve taken to raise your level, but each perk you choose has a particular skill level (for instance 20 one handed skill) that must be attained first.  This proves to allow you to do as you choose to level up, but have a bit of freedom in the skills you choose to master and at what time you choose to upgrade them.

Using your skills can be a bit of a mixture of satisfying to somewhat lackluster.  You’ll find that casting certain spells feels fantastically powerful and significant while other spells and much of the melee combat can get a bit repetitive and seem bland.  A few weapons, particularly the two handed varieties, feel quite weighty and give reasonably satisfying results on impact, but ultimately the hours you invest in the game, you most likely won’t even be aware of the weapon outside of recharging the enchantments.   Archery can allow for some exciting sneaking sniper-like shots that will make you feel like you’re playing an old Thief game, but as many have found, later in the game this becomes so significantly powerful that you may lose interest in using it at all. One redeeming factor of all of this is that weapons you find and upgrades you can perform upon them definitely make the adventure a little more engaging from a combat perspective.  Being able to create what you perceive is the ultimate weapon or armor is a pleasant experience.  

Outside of direct combat skills and spells, there are plenty of skills associated with old favorites like sneaking, lock picking, illusion, persuasion, crafting, and so on.  These are all leveled quite logically, by doing what you’d normally do, and add to the depth of the game.  Some of the skills from previous Elder Scrolls games are gone, like athleticism and medium armor,  but outside of acknowledging their non-existence, you won’t really miss them unless you found some deep satisfaction in jumping everywhere you go or having that specific type of armor.  The skill and perk system is pretty well made in Skyrim and it shouldn’t leave you looking for more even though it lacks the detail of previous games in the series.  The more streamlined approach is a joy for anyone who isn’t tied to spending long hours min-maxing on stat sheets and most likely acceptable to those that do and understand the reasoning behind it.

An element of Skyrim that I found appealing that often isn’t talked about much in reviews is how well some of the quests are laid out.  Some seemingly simple quest could start from picking up a book and flipping through it.  Then it may lead to a large arc of tracking down clues, finding specific items, and talking to certain people to get to the end.  These are things that aren’t part of the main quest or even any of the side quest chains, just things that happen in the world.   It is wildly impressive to me that Bethesda would take the time to invest in decent writing and recording voices and audio for a quest a player may literally never come across.  Even after over 100 hours in game, I find new quests of this nature.  Quests that are part of the proper side quests and of course the main quest are equal and often greater in quality than these random quests, but that is what one would expect from a triple A title.  It’s the little things that really get me going.

Quests aren’t perfect though; there are some underlying issues that can affect gameplay.  For instance, when I started playing initially, I wanted to get into the game as much as possible, so I turned off quest markers in hopes of having an experience more like Morrowind.  However, I found that even simple quests, such as going to a place and finding an object, became incredibly difficult as some objects would blend in to their backgrounds or not be clearly marked in any way.  I spend upwards of half an hour running around a small crypt of a few hallways looking for a necklace that was completely invisible to my mildly color deficient eyes.  So I’ve spent the rest of the game with the quest markers on feeling like my time was spent being guided by arrows.  The caverns and dungeons quests often resolve in are also a bit bland for my tastes.  The vast majority are just a twisting hallway that leads to the quest resolution and a “hidden” doorway that leads back to the entrance.   For a while this isn’t something you notice, but as dozens of hours are dumped in to the game, it becomes a glaringly obvious issue.  I can certainly see the reasoning behind it, as even when navigating the halls of a dungeon set up in this manner, you can easily get lost and turned around for a bit.  The walls of a crypt really start to look the similar in the dark.

Skyrim is receives equal parts love and disdain for its graphical quality.  While it’s a massive step up from Oblivion, some textures can still be muddy and blotchy (even with the HD texture patch) and certain elements seem as though they should have some additional liveliness.  I, however, stand more on the side of appreciation for what Bethesda has achieved with Skyrim’s engine.   Even on a lower end computer, it can create vistas of a quality that should be acceptable, but it really shines on the Ultra setting.  You’ll often be standing on one of the many mountains of Skyrim looking out over a vast wilderness with wispy clouds and blowing snow and you’ll feel the chill of that wind and the bite of that cold.  While some of the vegetation is a bit sparse and features to the land seem to wither away as you view them up close, the game shines in those broad grandiose views of what has been created.  The characters in particular have come a looooong way since Oblivion’s odd faces with awkward close-ups.  Animations are tighter and more realistic and facial expressions actually make you believe these people are conveying emotions rather than being pulled around by strings.  However, as appealing as the graphical design is, it is enhanced a great deal by community mods.  These will enhance textures, add more vegetation, make people more unique and exciting, and jus t simply make Skyrim better than it is.  I added a water texture that makes looking at a lake so wonderful that occasionally I find myself just standing on a dock admiring the beauty of what someone created.  Mods, just as they were with previous Elder Scrolls games, are a wonderful and welcome addition to the game.

The sounds of Skyrim are of a pretty high quality.  Little bits of audio really help with the immersion of the game.  Weapons clashing against armor sound just as you’d expect and spells crackle and sizzle with their respective elements and properties.  All  that pales in comparison to the soundtrack.  The score of Skyrim is more extensive and of better quality than many movies.  Jeremy Soule has gone above and beyond with these tracks and it helps set the mood for the entire game.  Even the iconic Elder Scrolls theme with its soft woodwinds and strings was worked over to include a truly Nordic sounding male choir that just makes it so “Skyrimmy” that you can’t help but think of the game when it’s played.  It probably helps that they play it every time you’re in combat – which is often.

If there are some particulars about Skyrim that I don’t like, and there are, it’s mostly in elements that dig in like a tiny pebble in your shoe as you go along.  Stuff you’d never really notice until you do, and then it’s painfully annoying.  For instance, I don’t mind the random dragon attacks, but I do mind that everyone around you, even seemingly incapable citizens of towns leap to help you fight a giant deadly death-breathing beast.   Why are they doing this?  They should be running away to their homes and hiding like they do in the intro.  I mean the whole premise is that dragons have been MIA for thousands of years and only exist in lore as terrible things.  Beyond that, there are the issues that happen with the inventory and menu.  The menu is clearly designed to be used with a controller because highlighting of objects and text seems to happen independently of your cursor.  This leads to often misclicking choices and items because what you have the cursor on hasn’t been highlighted.  There are some mods that give you a much better organized inventory, but the issue with highlighted objects is still ever-present and ever-annoying.

However, when taken as a whole, some issues can be overlooked and accepted.  The game itself does a great job making you feel like you’re part of something living.  Maybe not quite as much so as the hustle and bustle of GTA games, but much better than previous iterations in the Elder Scrolls lineage.  Skyrim is immensely enjoyable to a point that you’ll have probably invested at least a few dozen, if not a few hundred hours in the game before you finally put it down.  The fact that it is so moddable and has a stable of quite well crafted mods already available on top of a decent set of DLC means you can pretty much play this game as much as you’d like.  You have a wide variety of tasks and quests all with rich story elements told through text, voice, and in-game books at your disposal.  It’s hard to find an open world RPG with so much beauty and detail that isn’t fundamentally flawed in some respect.  Skyrim delivers on just about every front and is a must-have for any RPG fan or PC gamer.

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GMG Trivia: Team Member Al decided to share some of his favourite things with us today. He tells us his top five drinks, in a very vague way.