If there was one way to describe The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, it would be to say that the videogame was ‘epic’. It’s an undertaking of epic proportions to embark on the quest to save Skyrim from the return of ancient dragons, that land which you are tasked with saving offers nothing less than an epic scale, and the errors, bugs and glitches you will encounter often damage the experience in an unforgettably epic way. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is a remarkable, challenging and utterly engaging experience, but it is also a dangerously flawed one.
The setting of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim as an indirect successor to The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion is not only in-keeping with the series’ tradition, but is also a wise move in terms of the delivery of the product. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is far from being a generational leap for the series in the same way that The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion was. In fact, were it not for the depth of the videogame, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim could be considered a brother to The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion as opposed to a successor. It’s this vastness that is offered as The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim’s greatest improvement on the previous instalments in the series: while it could be argued that the landmass is smaller than earlier titles, it’s so densely packed with gameplay variety that it can absorb several hours in just one small location. Entire days can be spent in and around just one town, if a player so wishes.
As stated above, the player is tasked with saving the land from marauding dragons. Caught up in such a fight at the very start of the videogame, the scene is set for a campaign in which the player commands every action, but has very little effect on the outcome. Unlike titles such as the Mass Effect series, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim’s core storyline is set in stone and the player can only affect it in a very binary manner. More open to interpretation however, is the subplot surrounding a rebellion uprising. Skyrim is the land of the Nords, but the passing of time has taken its toll on the land. The king has been assassinated, and in his stead a civil war has erupted. The player has the option to choose allegiance to either the imperialists who wish to remain under the guiding hand of the Empire, or those who wish to break free, allowing the Nords to rule Skyrim as their own. Of course, the smart player will soon learn that with this plotline not everything’s black and white, and playing one side against the other comes with consequences.
As would be expected with a new entry in Bethesda Softworks’ The Elder Scrolls series, players are free to explore as they wish, taking part in the preset storyline or establishing goals of their own. Interstitial quests are far more common in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim than previous titles, so much so that nearly every tavern, store or cave visited will herald a new opportunity to earn fame, fortune or favours. The amount of freedom afforded to the player is often so overwhelming that hours will be spent on a sidetracked mission that began with simply asking someone if they’d heard any rumours. However, this strength in player interpretation is also one of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim’s biggest mechanical flaws: pacing. While it may well be difficult to judge the correct timing of events in a videogame where the player is given so much room to execute their own freewill, the central storyline could well have been given a more rounded delivery. The chop-change between dungeon crawling and plot development is annoying at times, with early dungeons demanding hours of investment for little reward and later explorations frequently being far too short. It’s a minor annoyance at first, but one that will irritate to a greater extent the more as the player becomes more experienced.
Given that the player is free to play The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim in any manner they choose, as any character of their own design, Bethesda Softworks’ world could well be considered merely a playground for the player to establish their own stories in. And given the aforementioned denseness of activity in that world, opening a new chapter is never more than a few feet away. So what is it that draws the player through The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim in such a manner that it can be predicted, and tailored for? One of the biggest problems with The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion was that the development had gone to great lengths in order to make the difficultly level adjust to the prowess of the player battling through it: a bright idea with a flawed design. Just as with Silicon Knights’ Too Human, the difficulty level adjusted to the player so well that each new weapon, new piece of armour or new skill would have very little effect, as while you may have received a statistic boost, so did your enemies. Here in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, that system has undoubtedly been modified for the greater good. Dungeons and scripted events have been pre-assigned a difficulty, whether it be easy, average or hard, adjusted in relation to the player’s current level. This results in a system where the player will only be overwhelmed when their current mission suggests that they should be, and acquiring a new weapon or spell superior to your previous selection will offer distinct bonuses. Of course, being offered the opportunity to earn rewards that will significantly impact every aspect of your adventure from here-on-out is reason enough for many to find worth in the distractions littered throughout Skyrim.
In regards to the player’s progress, the levelling system in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim has seen a significant overhaul. The major and minor skills system has been completely abolished, and instead only a series of core disciplines exists. No longer will player earn improvements for simple actions such as walking or jumping, but rather only the more poignant activities such as combat, spellcasting and conversations. Each skill is still upgraded through use, and the overarching level dictates the opportunity to improve health, magicka or stamina: a single bonus granted upon each new level achieved. Additionally, players may also pick a new perk with each new level reached, offering bonuses to statistics or entirely new abilities, but should no perks you wish for be available the option is there to simply build a collection of perk upgrades for when you reach the point at which you may find them useful. The revision to the system may disappoint fans of the The Elder Scrolls series hoping for a return of the role-playing game (RPG) staples, but just as Mass Effect 2 arguably ‘dumbed down’ it’s statistical presentation from the original Mass Effect, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is far less concerned with numbers than action.
The variety of activities players will engage in throughout the many possible adventures available in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim’s is another significant strength, providing far more than the simply fetch-quests and combat that defined The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and Fallout 3. There has clearly been a great deal of effort applied to the presentation of objectives, as well as their delivery: some players argued that things were made too obvious to players in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, and that little was left for the sheer thrill of experimentation and discovery. Bethesda Softworks should of course be commended for listening to this feedback, but unfortunately they seem to have dialled it back too far. There are many occasions in which may miss an important aspect or forgo a reward simply due to a lack of signposting, and that the map is not directly accessibly only further frustrates, given the necessary regularity of its use.
The technical presentation of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is of a remarkably high standard, though individual pieces don’t compare well to other titles hitting the market this winter. For example, the character models are clearly inferior in their skin textures and lip-synchronisation to the likes of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 or Battlefield 3; however given the vastness of the presentation this relatively small issue is easily overlooked. The land of Skyrim is the most varied of all The Elder Scrolls titles, from its snowy peaks to the stunningly detailed green wilderness, from the small hamlets to its densely populated cities. The lack of variety in the presentation of dungeons was considered a weakpoint in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, and while efforts have clearly been made to rectify this issue in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, there’s still many cave like structures that look far too similar. The sound quality parallels the graphics almost exactly: while there are many new character voices, players will recognise many from The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.
As disappointing as it maybe, there’s no denying that The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is a bug ridden experience. From flying dogs to disappearing tables to floors that all of a sudden become hollow – all of which Electronic Theatre experienced within the first few hours of playing the videogame – The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim demands the player save their progress to avoid the irreparable damage of a bug-infested autosave as much as it does the irreparable damage of their own doing. Many of Bethesda Softworks’ recent productions have been incredibly glitchy but no less enjoyable because of it, sadly some of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim’s technological issues have a series affect on gameplay, potentially costing the player hours of gameplay: an unfortunate and unnecessary issue, which is clearly the videogame’s biggest flaw.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is undeniably one of the largest videogames of the year in terms of scope, variety and ambition. There is little else on the current-generation that can compare to the videogame in terms of depth, and even less that can promise to stay fresh after more than one hundred hours of play time. The player is afforded more freedom than in any traditional ‘free roaming’ videogame simply by the fact that when the player reaches their chosen destination nearly every corner holds interest: there are no inaccessible buildings in Skyrim, no characters unwilling to talk to you for at least a short while and no action that is without consequence. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is a flawed videogame, bug ridden during even the shortest period of play, but despite that fact it’s a videogame that will inevitably be considered one of the highlights of the current-generation.