Fans of the Elder Scrolls series, have no fear. Upon loading up the game, a familiar situation unfolds. Bound by your hands, riding in the back of a horse-drawn cart, your story begins on your way to a town called Helgen. There, you and the other prisoners have a date with a chopping block and the most intimidating basket you’ve ever seen. As you are unloaded one by one, a man asks to take down your name for their official records.
Thus begins the character creation process. The usual race choices are all there. An assortment of preset Elf, Human, Orc, Khajiit (the infamous half-cat, half-men) and lizard-like Argonian are presented for you to choose from. From there, the choices get more intricate, including nose shape, cheek height, complexion, scars or amount of dirt on your face. The process finishes with you finally choosing a name.
The live-action trailer for the game definitely swayed me here. Well, that and my pension for picking any warrior race and class combination in most RPGs I play. Even before receiving our review copy, I had visions of a stocky barbarian hacking his way through anything that crossed his path. With my bearded Nord created and named, I was ready to face my judgement.
Bethesda wastes no time introducing elements of the main quest line in those first few minutes. A king has been assassinated, and you’re standing amongst some of the accused. The country of Skyrim is amidst a civil war between the factions of Tamriel. Unfortunately, your name is called and it’s your turn to face the hooded man with the executioner’s axe. I won’t ruin anything for you, but he clearly doesn’t succeed in making you a few inches shorter.
Once out of Helgen, Skyrim opens up to you. This is an Elder Scrolls game, after all. There is only one task set before you that follows the main story, but nothing is stopping you from running off in any other direction to make a story of your own. There has to be a swear jar at Bethesda Studios with the word “linear” written on it.
For this installment of Elder Scrolls, Bethesda has done away with typical class choices and stat management. Instead, your character develops into its own class based on the abilities you utilize the most. All forms of weapons, armor, abilities and spells are available to you at level one. It’s simply up to the player to decide how they want to use them.
Each ability has points attributed to it. Abilities level through the simple act of doing, or through the purchase of training from an NPC. Level any combination of abilities ten times and your character gains a level. When your character levels, you choose between upgrading one of three stats: magicka, health or stamina. Health is self explanatory, magicka is the resource used to cast spells and stamina lets you sprint, block or use power attacks.
From there, you gain a perk. At each level you earn a point to spend in one of 18 ability trees. Shaped like constellations, these each upgrade one facet of your character. Some of the trees include damaging spells, your ability to sneak around undetected, archery and armor types. If you’re indecisive, simply save the perks for later. There are real options…what a wonderful concept.
Sprinkled throughout the terrain of Skyrim, waiting for you to discover them, are the Guardian Stones. Each stone offers some sort of increased stat or unique spell. Only one of these stones can be active at a time, so look for them often and choose wisely.
While you’re out there, take a look around. Traveling through Skyrim is an experience in and of itself. The settings Bethesda created are absolutely stunning. Items in towns, dungeons or lying beside the corpse you just created can all be picked up, inspected and added to your inventory. There was a point where I had so many random objects in my inventory that I could no longer run. I was sadly forced to drop half of the contents of my bags on the side of the road. But what if I need one of those four wooden plates later?
The little things you find in this game are almost more impressive than the scale and grandeur of the open world. Bethesda isn’t guilty of attention to detail, they're guilty of an obsession for detail. And, it’s not just in the visuals. It’s in the quest and dungeon design, the voice acting and the music. This is medieval fantasy at its best.
So, what makes your character so special and what is everyone so anxious about? As it turns out, you are a Dragonborn. A legendary human tasked with defending Tamriel against destruction. You have the innate ability to understand and use the dragon language. As the game progresses, you are introduced to this power in the form of dragon shouts. Some shouts are given or taught to you, but most have to be discovered in the open world.
Even after you learn the first word associated with the shout, the task is not complete. Each shout is a combination of three words. The shout becomes more powerful as you learn each word in the series. In order to fully absorb and begin using the shout, you must defeat a dragon and take in its soul, another unique ability of the Dragonborn.
You just so happen to discover your special abilities at the most opportune time. Skyrim’s dragons were extinct for hundreds of years, but someone has set about resurrecting them from their ancient graves. Your main objective, if you chose to follow it, is to discover more about your Dragonborn heritage and seek out the ones responsible for the dragons returning.
Questing is very straightforward. From the get-go, the main quest line will constantly lead you in the right direction for that part of the story. I constantly want to refer to anything outside the realm of the main story as a side-quest, but that would be disingenuous. Every task you do, no matter how small it starts, can lead into hours of new exploration and story.
This is made much easier with the compass slider at the top of the screen. Not only does it include a marker for the direction of your current quest objective, but shadowed icons appear when an undiscovered location of interest is nearby. Those same icons are colored in when viewed on the slider or map. Quick traveling allows you to easily navigate the vastness of Skyrim as long as you have previously visited that location.
An example of all this is the occasion in which I entered the local Inn and a man challenged me to a drinking contest. Me, of all people. How dare he. Doesn’t he know who I am? Has he not heard of my exploits on Spring Break Daytona 2006? Needless to say, the contest began and I won handily. However, I woke up in a temple on the other side of the map to a priestess berating me and refusing to help me find my drinking buddy until I cleaned up after myself. How typical of me.
Every exchange in the game is voice-acted with the exception of your character. I honestly wish that could be different. The voice acting is so good that you will wind up staying near NPCs just to let them finish the leftover dialogue even when your new quest objective is given and you are no longer participating in the discourse.
I understand that these conversations would be even longer if your character spoke as well, but I feel like it would be worth the extra time. Games like The Witcher and Mass Effect create such a sense of ownership and interest in the main character through your interactions with NPCs. It may seem like too much to ask, but with Star Wars: The Old Republic being 100% voice-acted in an MMO of immense scale, it tells me anything is possible.
Despite what my girlfriend says, the game isn’t all talking and loading screens. Although, I did seem to notice it more once she mentioned it. Damn her! This only happens when a quest forces you to hop to and from different locales. Sadly, it’s enough to warrant me mentioning it here.
I loved the feel of combat in Skyrim. I spent most of my time in third-person view with a shield and mace. Your weapon swings have some real weight to them. Blocking was very tactile as well. Enemies’ power attacks would make your character stagger, not only shaking the controller, but the screen itself.
There are quite a few frustrations with combat, however. I played our review copy on my Xbox 360 and noticed some serious lag when initiating a fight. This was especially true when any sort of spell casting was involved. Bethesda announced a large patch for launch day to fix an assortment of problems they’re aware of. Hopefully this is one of them. I experienced my fair share of long loading screens, the game freezing and general framerate drops, but again, we’ll have to see how the game fairs post-patch.
There’s also a large disparity between mob difficulty. There are some monsters that I learned the hard way not to mess with. Giants, at almost any level, will kill you with one swing. Frost Trolls are some badass beasts, but can be slowly and carefully defeated. This makes sense to me.
When you encounter a dragon in the open world, you’ll be surprised at just how easy they are to kill. This doesn’t really make sense, even if you are a Dragonborn. This raging legendary creature, spewing fire and tossing NPCs into the air like rag dolls, is one of the simplest enemies to bring down. I wanted dragons to feel like mini bosses. Instead, the random mobs in dungeons will have you saving between kills and testing new survival strategies. You’d be surprised how quickly an overgrown silverfish and a skeleton with a bow and arrow can kill you.
I was so used to defeating dragons with ease that when I had my first showdown with a dragon from the main quest, I was shocked and angered how many times I died trying to beat him. I stopped counting, but it had to take a couple dozen tries. You might think that’s nothing to complain about, but this is coming from a guy who put up months of attempts on bosses in World of Warcraft. I’m no stranger to the phrase “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”
I eventually forced myself to turn the difficulty level down to finally kill the dragon and move the story along. As I mentioned, I built my character to perform best in heavy armor with a shield and one-handed weapon. This dragon’s fire breath was just too powerful even with blocking talented to resist magic and a few pieces of resist gear on. My most successful attempt before tuning down the difficulty was done by hiding behind a rock, waiting for the dragon to attack my companion and jumping out to fire off a few arrows and a dragon shout.
Up until this point, I’d hardly used a bow and arrow more than once or twice, so each arrow only did a small amount of damage. It’s the only way I could stay alive. Even when I waited for the dragon to attack someone else, as soon as I approached, he would switch to me and bring me down with a few breaths. Essentially, I was forced to play my character the opposite of the way I built him to have any hope of success at that difficulty.
I quickly got over this set back. In fact, almost all of the hang-ups I had about the game have faded away. Every time I ended a session, my opinion changed. The good seriously outweighs the bad. And here’s the best part: the little things that made the game less enjoyable can be fixed with a patch or avoided in the future.
Wait until you have one of those frustrating moments and then take a step back. Steal a horse and ride off into the sunset and gaze up at the stars once night comes. There is so much to discover in this game. It’s daunting to even think about, especially when you consider the content yet to be added. This much game usually comes with a subscription fee.
The game comes out tomorrow. I suggest you buy it and free up some space in your schedule. Even if you’ve never played an Elder Scrolls game before or played one in the past and hated it, play this game. Skyrim demands to be tested by any style of gamer.
CraveOnline received one advanced copy of Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim for the Xbox 360 from Bethesda Studios. We were held to the embargo date of November 10th, 2011. Before starting our review, we completed an unknown percentage of the game (over 20 hours) on the default difficulty setting unless noted otherwise. Seriously, this game is freaking massive.