Review: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Provides Mayhem and Wonder Galore
At a Glance
Wonder has always been at the heart of The Elder Scrolls. The wonder of discovering what sits on a mountain’s peak. The wonder of plunging into a cave hiding in the rock. The wonder of learning more about what’s now one of the oldest worlds in gaming. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim delivers on this wonder better than any game in the series.
One of the knocks on Oblivion, the fourth game in the Elder Scrolls series, is that it lacks some of the wonder of Morrowind (the series' third game). Fans worried that this would continue in Skyrim -- not just in the game's design, but also in the "Radiant" system, which has NPCs point players toward interesting locations and quests (instead of, say, discovering these on your own), and the streamlined skill system. As I traveled across Skyrim, wanderlust once again grabbed me, repeatedly throwing me off my main quest course and leading me to poke around caves, fortresses, and ruins. Skyrim embodies wonder to me.
The eerie tombs of the Nords, which crawl with undead just itching to use their embalming tools on you; the halls of the Dwemer, the long-dead dwarves of Tamriel that merge magic with mythology; shrines that sit high upon mountaintops, offering expansive views of Skyrim's stark, wintry beauty along with adventure; dungeons carved out of ice caverns -- the variety of locations in Skyrim continually evoked a sense of wonder for me, and rarely did I experience a "been there, done that" feeling while exploring the world. Even the towns and villages feel distinct.
You can even find wonder in the skill system. As with The Witcher 2, the streamlining doesn't hurt the game. I've always appreciated that you level up in The Elder Scrolls by using your skills, and nothing's different about this in Skyrim. But this game has fewer skills than before, and after 65 hours of playing, I didn't miss the skills such as Athletics or Blunt, and not just because I prefer to fight with magic. The perks, which grant abilities along skill trees, make Skyrim's approach to your players' skills engrossing; I felt more powerful and capable as I leveled up, something I didn't feel as much in Oblivion. And the way the skill trees are laid out as glowing constellations is gorgeous. It's unique.
Wonder appears in Skyrim in its tale of the Dragonborn. You character is an ancient legend stepping into the present day, a wielder of the Shout, the words of power used by the Dragons. As your Dragonborn learns more about the powers of their Shouts (via the main quest and some sidequests), you also learn more about Skyrim, its history, and the Dragons' role in Tamriel. This drives you to regularly dip into the main storyline. Dragons are so pervasive in fantasy that it's amazing they'd never been in Bethesda's games. The story takes you to some amazing places as well, concluding somewhere unexpected (again, that "wonder" thing). More importantly, unlike the series' past games, the main story made me want to finish it (in this case, so I could learn why the Dragons had returned).
The wonder comes from combat as well. Dual-wielding makes combat a blast, especially if you use magic. Equip the Sparks spell to both your hands and fry foes like Emperor Palpatine. I frequently put my most powerful destructive spell in one hand and either a spellward or healing spell in another, almost always giving myself a way to bail myself out of trouble when taking on a powerful foe. I even dabbled with a spell and a dagger or staff, or something that even proved to be more fun -- putting daggers in each of my hands, sneaking up on some low-level bandit, and shanking him with both.
As a Bethesda game, Skyrim not only carries an open-world pedigree, but also a tendency for technical issues. Surprisingly, I dealt with fewer issues than I have with any unpatched Bethesda game. I did laugh when the Dragon skeleton I left in the courtyard of the mages' college appeared at the school's entrance. I did giggle as my character slid down a mountain on his heels -- he should've died from a long fall instead. What does concern me is how the Creation Engine (Skyrim's game engine) sometimes places its foes and balances challenge, like when a Giant appeared right as I had just killed a Dragon. I hope this is a hiccup and not an issue that strikes others.
Like every other game in the series, Skyrim is going to eat hundreds of hours of my gaming time over the next few years. It has that sense of wonder that makes the Elder Scrolls games so great, and with the changes to skills, the Shouts, and dual-wielding, I think any gamer is going to have a lot of fun with Skyrim (and its eventual expansions) as well.
What Version Did I Play?
Bethesda sent GamePro the Xbox 360 version of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. I admit that I was not looking forward to playing this on a console for review; The Elder Scrolls is a PC series, and I feel it should be reviewed on a computer. Bethesda, however, has developed a system that makes juggling spells, potions, weapons, and Shouts easy -- certainly much better than with console versions of Oblivion. In your inventory, you can "Favorite" a spell, potion, weapon, or Shout, and you can pull these up by hitting Up on the D-pad. It's simple and effective, and I never had a problem adjusting weapons and spells during battle. I didn't miss using hotkeys as much I as I thought I would. But if you are playing the 360 version, please heed this warning: The game takes a long time to load, even when you install it to your hard drive.