It's hard to make a sequel that's bigger and better than the original. It's also hard to do this five times over. Did Bethesda pull it off, or will Skyrim ring hollow to fans of the series? Can dragons actually make a game better, or did they jump the shark? Read more to find out what I thought about the game.
Release Date: 11/11/11
Released For: PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
System Played On: PC
Hours Played: 11
Single Player Progress: I’ve killed six dragons so far.
Overall Thoughts: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim has been so anticipated it's hard to imagine a game like this can live up to expectations. There are so many things gamers wanted to see, and The Elder Scrolls is a franchise already defined by scope. Did it actually succeed? Mostly yes, but there are some glaring flaws that make the game fall just short of being perfect.
Let's start with the bad because that is going to be the much shorter list. With this latest entry to the series Bethesda has done a wonderful job of improving the graphics but at the cost of the UI. The menus are tremendously frustrating to navigate, especially if you are on the PC. All too often I would just barely miss a click when shopping or choosing an option in a menu and be forced to exit it entirely. Instead of the charming, character-filled scrolls or parchment of games past we are treated to shaded blocks with grey letters. This normally wouldn't be much of a problem but so much of the game is spent inside the menu it's hard to just ignore the UI.
Perhaps the most frustrating UI feature is the skills and perks system. Each skill is represented by a constellation on a horizontal scrolling list. Each star in that constellation represents a perk you may choose within that class each time you level up. The presentation is quite beautiful, but the functionality is stinted. Getting from one perk to another is tedious and frustrating, especially if there are three branches from one star. Comparing and contrasting the individual perks is also made frustrating and difficult.
The sad thing is the functionality of the UI could easily be fixed simply by making full use of the space on the screen and inserting more for the player to see. There is a lot of unused space in the UI, and it would be much better if players could see their characters' clothes change, or see multiple perks on the screen. Heck, it'd be better if the perks were in a standard like like the equipment and the constellation or the star changed depending on how you manipulated the list.
These faults are really only made more obvious by the fact that Skyrim is such a good game otherwise. Bethesda has done a fantastic job of introducing new features and addressing criticisms from the past game. Level progression is updated nicely. It feels natural now and you aren't punished for using your favorite skills. There is a new crafting system for food, alchemy, and even blacksmithing. They have also improved voice acting and character modeling which makes the world feel much more alive. I'll address those individually in a bit.
Level progression this time around is much more open and you start off with much more of a blank slate. You don't choose a class or primary skills. Instead all of your skills are given equal weight in determining your overall level progress. To replace the individual stats of previous games Bethesda has boiled everything down to the bare minimum. When you level up you can choose to enhance your Magika, Health, or Stamina. The simplicity is welcome in what in the past has been an overwhelming game. It makes the choices much clearer and easier. The tougher decisions are instead reserved for perks. The idea of the perks system is pretty well handled despite the clunky UI. With each level you can choose one perk out of all your skills. Those perks will have the occasional requirement of a specific level in the skill to stop you from advancing too much too soon, but that's good.
The difficulty of the game is also well balanced. It's easily scalable and this time the NPCs don't level up at the same rate you do. Instead, new NPCs and new enemies are introduced to the map the more your progress. These new NPCs will match your level still, but a rat will always be the same level rat as will a wolf or gods forbid an ice troll. Ice trolls are nasty and I will tell you right now: run away when you first see one. This also means that you can focus on your alchemy or smithing skills and the world won't leave you behind. Players don't have to ask if they should level a skill, it just comes organically and that's good.
The crafting system is also well worth the time invested in it. Players are able to craft items starting with the most raw materials. Though it may sound dull, I actually enjoyed the process of chopping the wood, mining for the minerals, and hunting for the leather before taking it back, refining everything, then crafting the individual pieces of armor, weapons of jewelry. It can definitely seem tedious to some but it's a nice, detailed skill to enjoy if that's your thing. There are mines worth exploring just to find new pockets of raw materials for harvesting, and the perks give access to new recipes to use those new materials you may discover.
Alchemy is a bit different this time. Food is no longer and alchemical ingredient, and can only be used in cooking. That means an apple cabbage stew can actually be just as valuable as a health potion on occasion. Potion making now revolves around specific stations in the game instead of always carrying around a mortar and pestle. Combining ingredients ends up being a lot more trial and error as you don't know any of the effects the ingredients have unless you either taste them or combine them with everything you have on hand. If you try the latter you will end up failing at making a lot of potions, but it's a learning process. This also makes potion making much less profitable initially than it was in Oblivion.
Where they really seemed to have surpassed Oblivion is in trying to turn Skyrim into much more of a living, breathing world. Character models are much more detailed and a lot less... let's call it doughy. The facial features are a lot more realistic, but still fall a little into that uncanny valley. The voice acting for the NPCs in the world of Skyrim is much better with a wide variety of accents and also actors behind the characters. You can tell what region a character is from just by listening to them speak, and that's a refreshing detail I enjoyed.
The gameplay is still incredibly tight. Sure, there are a lot of glitches graphically in the game, but all in all it feels very fluid and organic. The combat can be a little cut and dry on occasion, though. It boils down to running up, swinging your sword, then backing up, or casting a spell where you point. There isn't much more to it than that. The ability to individually set what each hand is doing is long overdue, but that doesn't make the mechanics that much deeper. If you enjoyed the combat in Oblivion you won't find it all that different, and that's not a bad thing.
Skyrim also has spent much more time on the cinematography of gameplay. Occasionally you will be greeted with critical hit kills which are in third person and look pretty impressive.The introduction of dragons adds to that, and when you get a critical hit kill on a dragon it is absolutely beautiful. The kill animations are fluid and I have yet to feel like gameplay was interrupted by them. Other developers should take note of this. Skyrim managed to create a more immersive, more cinematic game while striking a balance with player agency.
With so many sequels whose single player modes have felt like rehashes of their previous games, it’s refreshing to see a sequel that continues to push its bounds and still feel so wonderfully new. Bethesda and The Elder Scrolls continues to hold the title of the definitive American RPG. There is so much to explore and so much to find. This is a game that really has no end, and I am okay with that. I have so many open quests, and actually want to finish all of them just to progress and discover new parts of Skyrim. The world starts off as a blank map and the story is an empty book. So much is up to you to fill as you choose.
Recommendations: This game is a time sink. You will find yourself coming back over and over ready to accomplish something amazing in this new world, or even just to work on your crafting. Get this game only if you want to a thoroughly enjoyable, long single player experience. In a play time:price ratio, Skyrim is possibly the best value around. It’s easy to imagine that a few hundred hours can be spent playing Skyrim without even coming close to finishing all the quests or finding everything on the map. If you have played any of Bethesda’s previous games, get it. If you enjoy beautiful, cinematic games, get it. If you are curious about how an American RPG plays, definitely get it. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim could very easily be game of the year material in any category, but it is definitely the definitive RPG of the year and its only rival for single player so far is Batman: Arkham City. Even then, I am leaning towards Skyrim.
The clunky UI is doubly frustrating on the PC, but that's okay because there is a strong modding scene around all of The Elder Scrolls games, and I guarantee that it won't be much longer before the community fixes most of the problems I mentioned. Bethesda is also going to be releasing editing tools to make modding easier for PC players. If you can't wait that long, check out Gamefront's recommended tweaks to make the game that much more enjoyable. Long story short: get this game. What it does right outweighs what it does wrong by far. You will not be disappointed.