Skyrim: Bethesda's Strange, Beguiling, Magnificent Dance with Dragons

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You begin in a prison cart, hands bound, juddering down a mountain path as a chorus of French horns plays a mournful melody. You'll spend a lot of time navigating Skyrim's mountains—whether you're climbing through their snowy heights or just staring up their slopes, they're a physical presence unlike any you've experienced in a game. They surround you on all sides, their tops shrouded in rolling banks of clouds and reaching for what seems like miles toward the stratosphere. The clouds sometimes descend from the highest slopes, filling pine-thick valleys or rocky, scrub-covered flatland with curls of fog.

The sun pushes through those clouds as you trundle along, in the company of thieves and rebels. Bright hues cascade over woodland and ice-rimed stone, chasing away the gloom. You're a prisoner, because you're always a prisoner at the outset in an Elder Scrolls game, though never of them—they work harder to unfetter you than anything else in this genre.

And then the dragons show up, because this is a game about dragons showing up, as if to rectify their absence from prior installments. And we're not talking the tender-bellied, winged lizards native to so many fantasy settings, but cruel-barbed, hook-mouthed horrors that can stun with ice-like cones of pure sound. Will you escape? How? And go where? The answer's...

"We have heard of those princes' heroic campaigns..."

...maybe you'll follow the so-called "main story," easily the series' most mature, but whose purpose, fittingly, seems to be as introduction to Skyrim's footpaths, locales, and wilds, after which the real story—the one you'll craft as you discover just how much unprecedented detail Bethesda's baked into every square inch of Skyrim's vast geography—can begin. Maybe you'll do your best to confound the game's logic, flaunting the law, even killing capriciously. Or maybe you'll just wander, an itinerant swashbuckler, taking work as you find it. It's hard not to wander. The game world's so thoroughly realized and lovingly rendered, well, good luck not abandoning whatever quest you're tracking just to see where the river over there goes, or what that strange light halfway up a mountain is.

A confession: I haven't finished Skyrim yet, so I don't know how it ends, except that I do, because it doesn't end, and there's no such thing as "finished" here, unless you count achievements, which you shouldn't—they account for a fraction of Skyrim's sights and sounds. I've clocked over 50 hours so far and I'm nowhere close. I've squatted in dozens of one-of-a-kind barrows deciphering puzzles, paddled through streams and over waterfalls, altered ledgers in shops to sabotage record-keeping, burned bee hives for profit, forged then refined hide helms using component parts, gone splelunking for strange gems, broken out of prison, broken into prison to do dark deeds, gone hunting for the truth about legends stumbled upon in books shelved in out-of-the-way dungeons, bought and outfitted a home, cooked food using scavenged and bought ingredients over that home's fire pit, planted filched goods to incriminate others, betrayed confidants, visited vast mystical trees the size of redwoods deep beneath the ground, taken a literal tour of a museum of curiosities, and stared in wonder—honest-to-goodness wonder—at the shimmering auroras that on rare occasion fill Skyrim's cold, arctic skies.

"When wind blows up and stormy weather makes clouds scud and the skies weep..."

Of course the closer you look, the more you're liable to find small discontinuities, a natural consequence of giving gamers more than they've ever had before and implying the world's deeper still. It's a world that sports a tentative albeit cosmetic economy. Woodsmen chop wood, and you can too. Blacksmiths craft weaponry and armor composed from realistic components, as can you. Log cutters even hook logs and roll them onto platforms that send them rolling over whirring saw-blades to fall in piles of timber. Alas, the economic import of these activities is only so deep. The log piles never deplete, and no one picks up the cut pieces, which endlessly reset to prevent spatial overflow. There's no economic interplay between towns, no trade routes to violate or caravans to plunder (though there are other things above and beyond Oblivion's knight-on-horseback patrols). While there's a patina of David Braben's Elite here, it's to set the mood—enjoy the Hollywood facade, in other words, just don't look past its doors and windows.

But that's as it should be, given Skyrim's scale and scope. Sometimes objects exist just to further your sense of place: a meadery housing oak barrels of ale, harvestable potato plants and leeks in a garden outside a family farm, a grain mill with a functional millstone, a chance meeting with revelers in a twilight glade who'll offer to share a bottle of ale, and so on. Half the time you'll spend just exploring for the sake of exploring, bumping into local flavor, admiring the world's variety and versatility, deeper than anything you've encountered before, from Liberty City to Bethesda's own postapocalyptic Washington D.C. Bethesda wasn't kidding when it said Skyrim would come brimming with unique content—make that more by several orders of magnitude, then.

Even the game's extensive nether regions feel like the hand-sculpted, cheerless, cobwebbed, alien axe-murdering death-traps they're meant to, filled with icon-matching puzzles, body-skewering spikes, swinging half-moon blades, flammable pools of glistening liquid, and so forth. Speaking of, and to borrow a Gollum-ism, the area designers have been all kinds of tricksy: At one point while dungeon-delving, a steel grate collapsed under my feet, dropping me into a pool of water. Fumbling for a way out, I located a handle and pulled...which slammed shut the grate above me. I almost drowned before finding...well, I won't spoil it for you, but it's the thing that's been missing from prior Elder Scrolls games—the sense that every twist is unique, every turn handcrafted.

"He was formidable in battle yet behaved with honour..."

Some of the game's boldest choices involve omissions. It's indicative of how much the Elder Scrolls games have matured that they've finally abandoned classic Dungeons & Dragons attributes like "Strength" and "Intelligence" in favor of more pragmatic skills, say your flair with a given weapon, magical idiom, or criminal tool. As in Morrowind and Oblivion, progression depends on use, so if you want to be a better pickpocket, then pickpocket, or a better enchanter, enchant. Raise enough of those skills and you'll level up, whereby Bethesda folds in Fallout 3's brilliant perk system and lets you select from unique skill-specific abilities. Many offer over a dozen to choose from, several with their own rank-based subsets. And we're talking more than rote integer boosting: Pick "Silent Roll" under "Sneak," for instance, and sprinting while sneaking will execute a silent forward roll, or pick "Bullseye" under "Archery" and you'll gain a chance to paralyze your target for several seconds. It altogether amounts to one of the most intricate, cleverly-integrated, and satisfying character development systems yet implemented in a game.

Bringing those skills to bear on the world's inhabitants—and I'm thinking of the ones involving weapons and spells here—feels more physically present than it did in Oblivion, though in close combat, it still amounts to hammering your gamepad (or mouse's) left and right triggers. Combat's never been Bethesda's strong point, and while Skyrim one-ups Oblivion's battle mechanics with better connective physics and cool Fallout-3-like flourishes or "finishing moves," there's still room for improvement. This is shoot-the-moon wishing, but I'd love to see an Elder Scrolls game with Dark Souls' tactical versatility, or the Thief series' attention to light and shadow instead of Skyrim's simple distance and line-of-sight metrics. There's also an occasional sense of physical disconnection from the world that can mar your experience of it, such as characters that "glide" over the ground when walking, or your ability to stand, literally, inside the skeletal remains of slain foes (especially weird when they're big as houses). The "Creation" engine's collision detection could do with some touching up, though the only outright bug I encountered involved a horse floating hundreds of feet in the air (unless it was a magic horse, of course).

But these are minor quibbles. Wouldn't it also be nice, after all these years playing cat burglar types, to be able to scale buildings like Ubisoft's Ezio and sneak in through upper-storey windows? But now I'm asking for a game this isn't, and if "better than decent combat" is Skyrim's chief flaw, with everything else on tap here, I'm flirting with unreasonable to expect more from it.

"They extolled his heroic nature and exploits..."

Skyrim may, given the recent surge of interest in George R.R. Martin's books, seem like Bethesda's Song of Ice and Fire—it's riddled with enough political intrigue, and its individuals follow narrative arcs that turn on complex choices. But since so much of Skyrim's allure involves its setting, it's worth mentioning the page it borrows from the Old English epic Beowulf (epic, heroic, Scandanavian, and the source for all those boldface quotes), which it then folds into the second Lord of the Rings movie. The province of Skyrim could be Weta's Rohan, a flat, rocky, scrub-covered bowl surrounded on all sides by cloud-crowned mountains—mountains not like the Rockies or Himalayas, but rather the Alps, climbing in piles of cinereous rock toward gnarled, windswept peaks. It's like stepping into one of filmmaker Peter Jackson's New Zealand backdrops, only weirder (or if you want a fitting Anglo-Saxon pun, wyrd-er). Bethesda's said it wanted more of an exotic Morrowind feel for Skyrim, after Oblivion's boilerplate medieval setting. Gone are Oblivion's bosky dells, crennelated castle walls, and demonic other-worlds, replaced by wind-scoured ruins, eldritch barrows, and secluded mountain monastaries. The company's even found a way—and in one case, an incredibly creepy one—to bring children into the series.

It's all part of Bethesda's painstaking workmanship, to surprise gamers by crafting a world that marries the familiar and the alien. This is also, by the way, the game other roleplaying games have in some sense been striving to become, before even The Elder Scrolls: Arena emerged, unlooked-for, in 1994, with its then-unparalleled macro-level approach. Arena traded depth for scope—you could see all the way from one side of Tamriel (the continent of which Skyrim's one province) to the other, but little of substance between. Daggerfall, Morrowind, and Oblivion have each drawn their world-cameras closer, zooming from continents to regions on down to individual provinces, each more vividly colored than the last, the company balancing what it dreams of doing—full-on world simulation—with what time, resources, and the technology allow.

Skyrim represents the culmination of that balancing act, of all Bethesda's learned and mastered about epic nonlinear play. It's a triumph of freeform design, less a roleplaying game like so many popular D&D-haunted others than a glimpse of what it might be like to inhabit another world, its rules and interface folding seamlessly into the gameplay instead of snapping you out of the moment with byzantine menus and soul-numbing math. If someone asks you where games are headed, you can point to this.

PCW Score: 100%

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