EPIC FANTASY REBORN The next chapter in the highly anticipated Elder Scrolls saga arrives from the makers of the 2006 and 2008 Games of the Year, Bethesda Game Studios. Skyrim reimagines and revolutionizes the open-world fantasy epic, bringing to life a complete virtual world open for you to explore any way you choose.
What We Think:
You may be wondering why a site called Indie Game Reviewer is covering The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim – a massive AAA title from a well-established company like Bethesda that will sell millions of copies. Let me explain:
Way back when Oblivion was named game of the year and there was all sorts of hubbub around Bethesda’s upcoming post-apocalyptic FPS “Fallout 3”, I jumped into the fecund Elder Scrolls modding community and downloaded everything I could to see how far I could push the engine and make the game look and play as good as it possibly could on my souped up PC, often to the chagrin of my gf who would load her last save to discover that things weren’t quite the same as the last time she had left it.
Just like DOOM evolved into a better, more imaginative and multiplayer game through its transparent code sharing and custom mod user base – (and arguably established the foundation for the biggest games on the market today) the Elder Scrolls community rose up to the challenge and made a good thing better, investing their own blood, sweat and tears to improve an exciting concept to its ultimate potential. And perhaps the contribution from these indie devs deserves as much credit for the astounding result that is Skyrim as the 150+ employees who lovingly built this exemplary title. (In other words – WordPress is incredible, but it can not be attributed to the mind of one man – its success and ubiquity are a tribute to its community).
As an aside, I do not wish in the very slightest to take away from the work done by the Bethesda team. The care and passion they have poured into their work should be commended at every level and they deserve all the accolades they are due. Having said that, let’s press on:
In Oblivion mod-land, independently created mods (that now number in the hundreds, if not thousands) included everything from better flora wherein harvested plants would actually remove the blossoms so that you’d know you had already picked them (Realistic Flora and Harvest[Flora] mods), to enhanced night skies, city beautification, weather, AI hacks that altered the aggro range for guards and dozens more.
Skyrim seems to have included all of these mods and much more. In fact, even on the now venerable XBOX 360 platform it looks like the dream-modded version of all its predecessors.
From the very first frame, Skyrim thrusts you into an incredibly well-shot movie experience that guides you along its rails through character creation, gameplay tutorials and plot without ever breaking stride.
My first play session lasted 12 straight hours, and a lot of that time involved me staring at the screen, mouth agape, in total wonder at what I was seeing. I often found myself just gazing at the scenery (thanks are in order to Natural Environments and Qarl’s Texture Pack mods for raising the bar). I even got busted by my girlfriend for taking pictures of the screen with my point and shoot camera. In response to her quizzical stare, I scrolled back a couple of pics on the camera and showed her some of her snaps from her recent trip to Lake Tahoe. The images were almost interchangeable. It looks that good.
Much of this is due to the implementation of Bethesda’s new Creation Engine that includes dynamic lighting, depth of field, allows shadows to be cast by any object in the game, and even weight on the branches of trees in tandem with the Havok Behavior Toolset. Whereas in previous iterations Elder Scrolls displayed snow as a texture map, with the Creation Engine, snow falls and weighs upon the world dynamically. Water looks real. Mist forms and burns off the mountain peaks. Flocks of birds fly by at random intervals, appearing to dart and wheel with the winds that you can almost feel whipping through the valleys between mountain crags.
But it isn’t just about looks; in fact the gameplay is so much more seamless – from the way that you have conversations (gone are the default clunky subtitles that used to render the recorded speech both redundant and bothersome and force an NPC closeup – in fact now the third-person view is a full-featured play experience unto itself – special thanks to the Third Person Crosshair mod for showing the way) to the fluidity of the HUD (kudos to BTmod for showing, not telling how to do it), the streamlined approach to crafting your own wares (from alchemy to smithing which are now not only intuitive but totally enjoyable), to the questing to-do list. Add to which, and this is really no aside, Skyrim features what the devs call the Radiant Quest System – procedurally generated quests based on your progression and choices in the game that essentially means you will never run out of things to do.
Everything is improved in this paradigm-shifter, and at long last the Elder Scrolls franchise feels not so much like a massive experimental RPG as it does a legitimately engaging, cinematic gaming experience for the times.
There are too many improvements to list, but I must address a few more, since Bethesda deserves huge props for listening to its audience as well as it has. Riding a horse is now a much easier and pleasurable experience, in spite of the many hilarious physics-defying screenshots that have emerged of mounted riders scaling cliffsides at 75 degree angles.
Managing one’s inventory is no longer a case study in frustration. Level-synced items are a thing of the past, which truly makes this an open-world experience. (This was modded in Oblivion by Francesco’s leveled creatures/items mod).
The leveling up process is not only simplified, but a thing of beauty – a dedicated and gorgeous astrologically-themed interface that actually makes sense; I always dreaded leveling up in previous chapters of the franchise because not only was I overwhelmed with options, but rarely did I really sense an impact in the decisions I was making. This is no longer a problem. Now you are presented with three options at each level – Magicka, Health or Stamina as a base bonus, and subsequently a perk (certainly derived from Fallout 3 etc) along a talent tree. The elegance is in the presentation, and in this case, the graphical treatment makes all the difference.
Interestingly, a spell that is above your level can still be learned, but Bethesda elegantly manages this by simple virtue of the fact that you won’t yet have enough Magicka stores to cast it.
Another side-effect of this open-level world, in spite of the Radiant Quest System mentioned above, is that you will sometimes find yourself grinding away at local wildlife when seemingly every quest progression knocks you flat on your ass. I found this to be the case around levels 10 through 12 for example. But not to worry, there are over 350 “places” (that include dungeons, caves, open-area situations and otherwise) already built into the world for you to work it out.
In 2010, indie FPS Amnesia demonstrated the power of good sound design by scaring the wits out of players with little more than cleverly placed stereo cues. In Skyrim, the same effect can be found with a highly dynamic sound palette that whispers and booms, giving critical spatial auditory cues about the landscape and its threats.
Verbal performances are top notch, employing naturalistic, casual albeit emotional exchanges with literally every character onscreen. This may be due, in no small part to the extraordinary talent pool assembled for this outing. Central characters are voiced by the likes of Christopher Plummer, Max Von Sydow, Michael Hogan, Joan Allen and even everyone’s favorite Wonder Woman – Lynda Carter. In all there are over 60,000 lines of recorded dialogue.
Um, holy s$%#! That means that there are also more than one actor for each of the races – in other words no more Craig Sechler as “all the elves”. In fact the voice production was so rich, that even voicers for NPC’s like “common woman” had much to say. Read actress Ellen Dubin‘s interview about working on some of the “background” characters.
The music in Skyrim, composed by Jeremy Soule is utterly sublime – fully orchestrated 20th century compositions featuring a 30 person choir that always seem perfectly suited for any given setting. Again, I often found myself just daydreaming in a dark corner of some random dungeon just so I could hear the music play through. When the music wasn’t preparing me for calamities of epic proportions, it afforded Brian Eno-esque contemplations to back the indelible oil-painting-grade panoramas of flowing waterfalls bursting through diffused sunlight poking through symbolically shaped rents in the granite domes beneath which I prepared my equipment for the next confrontation.
The only thing I wish Bethesda had implemented from its recent Fallout titles is the V.A.T.S. system. I may catch some heat for this, perhaps because it might make the role-players feel the game is less naturalistic, or immersive or something, but swinging weapons at wolves in the hinterlands can still feel like a rather sloppy affair. Sometimes you simply can’t see what you are swinging at, or you are able to strike an enemy that appears to be ten feet away. In either case, I have become so accustomed to using V.A.T.S. to deal with combat that this felt like a sore omission in favor of the purists. If you can use V.A.T.S. on a mutant mole rat in Fallout Vegas, why not on a hinterland bear or Sabretooth?
Also, there is still the occasional, if not frequent annoyance with NPC pathfinding where I would often be in mid-conversation with an NPC as they are fidgeting to get through a portal to another zone, and a pile-up of escaping NPCs would ensue leading to a mess of arms, legs and faces piling up behind my chatty informant.
Similarly, there were often verbal cues that would repeat to annoyance, as if I was being pushed to clear out of an area. Examples that come to mind are in Helgen when you are told to search the chests for a weapon (which gets repeated on a 2 second loop), or the Jarl of Whiterun’s son who kept telling me I should leave to the point that I was tempted to knock his head off with my two-handed warhammer just to get him to shut up, but in spite of the lack of a moral thermometer, I just didn’t feel like sabotaging my faction standing with the Imperials. Fortunately, children can not be harmed in the game, regardless of how you feel about them, a carry-over from the laws of previous games, which I agree with.
I also wish the devs had implemented fast travel from interiors as was demonstrated by the Fast Travel From Interiors mod: not sure if this is a “law of the universe” decision or a technical one, but in the game play, it just feels like an unneeded time suck.
Finally, with the initial launch there are bugs that still need be worked out. Bethesda is already working on a patch for XBOX 360 gamers to correct graphical issues that arise when playing from a version of the game that has been installed to the hard drive. At this time they recommend only playing from the disc (which is a bit of a buzzkill since those load times between zones can eat up a lot of your already-shortened daylight hours).
Also, there were a few funny instances where trying to select the Magic screen froze the game solid and we had to restart the console. It may have been a corrupted save/zone, but we were able to recreate the problem six or seven times and had to revert to an earlier save. (This happened during the Golden Dragon Claw quest). But I am quite sure these will get resolved in the next patch.
Oh, and there are no glitches that I have found thus far in hunting dragons. In fact, the experience of doing so is truly awesome. I don’t know how they did it, but they got it right.
How Can It Be Wrong When It Feels So Right?
You won’t need my small voice in the chorus of opera singers to tell you that Skyrim is an absolute masterwork in gaming. But I’ll say it anyway. This is as good as it gets. You can not ask for a more engaging, astounding, entertaining, cinematic (yes I’m looking at you Carmack) experience for the PC or gaming console anywhere else in the market today. I felt it was important to give proper respects to the indie devs that also helped make it that way.
And behold, the top ten lists on Skyrim mods have already begun!
1, 2: As noted in the Wikipedia entry for the game found at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Elder_Scrolls_V:_Skyrim
The Elder Scrolls Mod Resources
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