The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim review

Posted: November 13, 2011 by ryanlecocq in Reviews

This is your brain on Skyrim.

The past two Elder Scrolls games have had a huge advantage going in as they have both featured a shiny new graphics engine at the beginning of a tech generation.  As a result, they were both the most impressive looking RPGs around when they released.  Skyrim is running on a modified version of the same engine as Oblivion, making it the fourth of this generation.  This means I’ve already played 3 very similar games in the past few years.  So going in, I was prepared for a game that was just a cash-in sequel to ride out the end of the console generation.

The first couple hours didn’t immediately dispel this notion.  The title screen greets you with a boisterous barbarian choir rendition of the ES theme that is a bit much if you’re looking through a jaded glass.  Then the introductory stages of the game fit pretty much with my expectation of an incremental step up from Fallout 3.  At a certain point though, I realized the game was winning me over.  It wasn’t one big, huge thing like walking out a door and seeing an amazing vista unlike any other game.  It was every single other aspect, from the menus to the music.  Skyrim is kind of like the Bad News Bears ES game, it triumphs based on it’s unique skills and character, rather than raw power.  The more I got into the game and it’s world, the more that title theme grew on me and now I sing along every time.

The music has been dramatically stepped up in other ways as well.  I was expecting the bellowing male choir bits, but was pleasantly surprised by the broader range of voices and instruments throughout the soundtrack.  Combined with the excellent atmosphere, it makes the world extremely compelling and believable.  Speaking of which, I do want to mention more about the game’s atmosphere and effects before I go back to playing it.  Although the overall graphics haven’t changed significantly, the realism is far better due to the improved weather and environmental effects.  The snowstorms are the best I’ve seen in a game and the way mists roil over the surface of mountainsides is downright mesmerizing.  Bethesda has totally mastered this technology and the results will frequently surprise and amaze you as you play.

I was at first a little underwhelmed by the difficulty of dragons, but there are some tougher ones later on.  If it were my game I would have made the initial ones more of a threat, but I understand in the game’s world why they were weaker.  Laguna also pointed out to me that the AI routine they use is a modified version of those giant manta rays in Morrowind, which explains why they sometimes behave completely moronically.

As I said above, the simplicity of the menus initially impressed me, but it’s not all sunshine and butterflies.  I had a few snags, mainly that it took me longer than ideal to find disease effects and even longer to discover how to hotkey items and spells.  The former caused me to become a vampire, which was a serious inconvenience.  The latter just made me less effective for hours of gameplay.  I consider myself a fairly competent gamer, so if I have a hard time figuring out the basic system and it isn’t clearly explained in tutorials, the system is probably a bit obtuse.  Several other functions and abilities have gone completely “under the hood” and I would argue maybe too many.  At least having the one old-fashioned standard of a character status screen would have eliminated most of these issues.

I will still defend the simplified UI overall.  Making skills like athletics and hand-to-hand into derived values was an excellent choice as many players in the past would devote many of their limited total levels to increasing these.  It also eliminates the ability of players to increase their agility and athletics to the point where they can outrun anything and leap over a city wall to evade guards.  All of this is sensible design.  Many processes like Enchantment have been greatly simplified as well to make them much more approachable.  You can still craft just as complex items and potions, it’s just simpler.  It really is a shame that there are a few glaring flaws with the concept.  I’ve really been looking forward to the next generation of RPG user interfaces.  Fable, Final Fantasy and now The Elder Scrolls have all now tried and ultimately come up short of the new paradigm.  Well the pressure’s on you Bioware, Mass Effect 3 better have the best damned menus of all time.

The script and lore are totally top notch.  I considered Oblivion and Fallout 3 to be pretty average videogame plots, though told with grandeur.  Skyrim is more like a really great plot told with subtlety.  The basic plot you get from only mashing through the main quest is pretty standard fantasy stuff.  Where the substance comes in is through the sidequests and the books and documents scattered about Skyrim.  If you look a little off the beaten path and read a few dusty tomes, you’ll soon realize that this game tells the culmination of a cycle that has spanned thousands of years.  You’ll also get a better perspective on the events you see played out in the main plot.  There is almost always more to what’s going on than just a simple dramatic betrayal or a seemingly pointless string of fetch quests.  Bethesda deserves top honors as the best videogame Dungeon Masters around, crafting a world with rich lore that rewards players for reading it.

Overall Skyrim is another Bethesda game, consistent in quality and replay value.  It innovates some and takes a few missteps, just like the last 10 Bethesda games.  Like the Toyota Corolla it always stays top of it’s class and gets a little better every year, but as a result its’ growth looks like one of those evolution timelines where each monkey looks a little more human.  The best succinct praise I can give Skyrim is that it’s an excellent send-off to this generation of RPGs.  Skyrim fully masters the Gamebryo -I mean Creation *cough*- engine and pushes gameplay design introduced by Oblivion to it’s fullest.  The game will wow you with it’s epic battles and tense dungeons, but you may find the interface pulls you out of the immersion at a few points.  Definitely not a disappointment and a worthy time-sink for completionists.


  1. James Black says:

    The thing I love about Skrim, as it has endeared itself to me, is the diversity of characters I get to see. Though my friend Levi and I rolled Khajit thieves, our buddy Craig has chosen High elf mage. Mike is Orc, Bryce is Breton. Our good author Ryan is himself an Imperial. All of these characters have such a diverse set of abilities and watching one play is not at all like watching the other. It truly is an ultimate display of how well they have mastered this engine, and how diverse a group of characters it can hold.

  2. James Black says:

    My brother is Nord, focusing on his shield. Nobody rolled lizard man! I’ll have to try that next maybe…

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