Skyrim delivers in spades

by Matthew Jones

If you’re using any form of social media and haven’t been living under a rock lately, chances are you’ve heard the word “Skyrim” used more than the word “and” in the past week. This action-role-playing game (RPG) title is the 14th to be released in Bethesda SoftworksThe Elder Scrolls series and the fifth title in the core series (which doesn’t include expansion packs or spinoff titles). Skyrim borrows a number of elements from all the earlier titles in the series and does so with a fair amount of success.

In a departure from the previous titles (and most computer role-playing games), the player does not pick a “class” or “profession” at the start of the game. You’ll choose from one of Tamriel’s ten races. Each has its own unique ability and starting aptitude. The game’s 18 skills are then divided equally between three schools representing the traditional archetypes of warrior, mage and thief. From that point onward, a character’s development is solely based on what skills the player makes use of the most. Want to become an expert mage? Start slinging spells. Want to be so stealthy you’re practically invisible? Start sneaking up on everything you encounter.

One of the long-missing features from the first two titles returning in Skyrim is a system of random quests. Referred to by Bethesda as the “Radiant Story” system, this allows quests to be dynamically altered to accommodate for the player’s previous actions. Innkeepers may direct the player to an unexplored dungeon to face an appropriately challenging encounter. The Thieves Guild may direct you to steal a particular item from a specific shop. These random quests work well in the majority of cases. I’m looking forward to seeing what the modding community does with the development tools once they’re released early next year.

Skyrim takes place 200 years after the events of the last instalment, Oblivion, and is set in the cold, Nordic-inspired province of Skyrim in the north. The player is immediately cast into the middle of a conflict between what remains of the old Empire and a faction of Skyrim’s inhabitants (the Stormcloaks) looking to re-establish its independence from the rest of the Empire. Furthermore, dragons have suddenly re-emerged, having been thought extinct for hundreds of years and are wreaking havoc across the province.

These two conflicts form the bulk of the hundreds of quests available in Skyrim, with other local factions like the Thieves Guild or the scorned magician’s College of Winterhelm providing additional quests and insight into the turbulent state of the province.

Early in the game, you discover your character is “Dovahkiin” (Dragonborn), which allows you to absorb the souls of defeated dragons. This allows your player to utilise a set of twenty powerful dragon shouts (discovered by exploring many of the ~300 points of interest within the game), with effects ranging from fire breathing to bursts of inhuman speed.

An entire team was set aside to work on dragons in Skyrim. So instead of the scripted encounters we’ve come to see in other titles when facing dragons, in Skyrim an encounter with a dragon can occur at any time, anywhere, with the dragon adapting to the environment by perching on houses and other available ledges.

The world itself is entirely handcrafted and is genuinely interesting to explore, with natural groves and grottos dotted across the landscape and daunting mountains to climb. If you’re the kind of gamer that gets a kick out of exploration and discovery, Skyrim delivers in spades.

Where Skyrim falls down and doesn’t compare well to its contemporary competitors in the genre is combat. Hand to hand melee is an unsatisfying experience, with blows barely looking like they register, and blocking lacking a visceral feel. There’s a lack of an ability to quickly dodge blows, which would be ideal for thief-style characters. Horseback combat is still not possible. In the face of games developed by much smaller studios (such as Taleworlds’ Mount & Blade) sporting a more tactical feel to combat and many options, this is an area where the series needs significant improvement. On the other hand, stealth-based combat is much more viable than it was in the previous titles and a lot of fun.

The user interface is most definitely designed with console gamers in mind and controls very well with a gamepad, but can be very unwieldy with a keyboard and mouse setup. This won’t be an issue if you’re playing on a console, but is worth being aware of if you’re going to be running it on a PC (as I did). Being a remarkably complex game, there are a few bugs present in the launch version. I only experienced a few crashes (often after many hours of gameplay), but your mileage may vary.

If Skyrim‘s modding tools are anywhere near as comprehensive as Oblivion’s, buying the PC version over the console ones is a sensible decision. The modding community facilitated numerous graphical upgrades to Oblivion, as well as interface overhauls, more quests and even a totally new game.

That said, there’s plenty in the “vanilla” version to get your money’s worth, especially if you’re the type of person that gets a real kick out of exploring and discovery (or just messing about like the chaps over at 3FL).

If you’re new to the whole thing and wouldn’t mind trying the earlier games in the series, Arena and Daggerfall can both be downloaded for free directly from the developer using those links.

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