Winner of several Game of the Year awards for 2011, I finally got to spend some quality time with Skyrim recently and I have to say I understand the hype. Granted, I have a serious inclination towards fantasy games and open world adventures, so this latest entry in the franchise already holds a very special place in my heart.
Sightplay - The graphics aren't anything to write home about. Some of the textures can look pretty ugly when closely inspected, but when I take the scale of what's presented on screen, especially outdoors, it can be positively breathtaking. For as in depth as the customization is during creating your characters face, messing about with stupefying amount of sliders seems inconsequential when you'll probably have your head buried underneath a helmet or cowl for most of the game anyway. Despite the lack of peak graphical integrity, it’s the design and aesthetics that do a wonderful job of crafting the sense of place that you are inhabiting. The Viking inspired culture mixed with classic fantasy archetypes are executed without fail, and the land truly seems alive. Sure the people you talk to might bend their neck impossibly when speaking to you. Or they might turn to face you while sharpening a sword on a grindstone, a dangerous way to conduct business. Or if you've played the game for a few hours, have seen some of the numerous (and often hilarious) glitches that take place. Even the visual errors seem to have a charm that make them amusing, rather than annoying. Maybe it’s my weakness for fantasy epics... and silly memes.
The adventuring visuals are spectacular. Monsters look deadly, animals look wild, and most importantly dragons look pretty badass. Even if you take cover from their roaring dragon breath behind a few twigs and use it as cover to whittle them down, completely shattering the sense of immersion in order to metagame (most certainly not a crime), and it still looks awesome. Magic looks properly mystical and ancient places feel as aged as they seem. I'd say this game is engaging visually, but not in the same way that something vibrant and colorful makes your brain feel electric, like Jet Set Radio. It’s more engaging in a kind of visual simmering sort of way. You begin to accept what you see on screen with a sense of cohesion that actually feels like a next generation effort.
Soundplay - The main theme to Skyrim has got to be one of the most memorable songs in video game history, and like the Game of Thrones intro song, seem to embody a true sense of fantasy that pulls you right in. The sound of weapons being readied, the sound of blows bouncing off shields, and especially the way magic spells sound when being cast all sound phenomenal. Unfortunately there is the same issue in Skyrim as in Fallout and Oblivion, that there are only so many voice actors to go around the vast amount of fleshed out NPCs. Even though its noticeable when these default voices carry over into numerous characters (sometimes to comedic effect), it is far from a deal breaker. Also I'd like to give a nod to the spells for sounding the way I imagine magic should sound.
Gameplay - The main half of this game is the adventuring you do out in the world. When you're out of the lively, but sometimes animatronic, cities it’s really the world you explore that highlights how fun the game can be. Like I said before I have a weakness for open ended gameplay that Bethesda is known to do quite well. It's simply how I prefer my video games to play out. It's the creatures you battle, the dragons you absorb, and the dungeons you clear that make this game a blast to play. It's rather tried and true if you've played Oblivion, and like in those entries the combat still feels rather familiar. Although you can more easily equip two things at once, magic included, the ranged combat still feels superior to the melee combat. Something about depth perception in the first person that just doesn't work well, but thankfully the game is well playable in the third person perspective (and its animated great too). First person combat is not simple to pull off, and yet Bethesda do it better than most.
The other half of this game is questing, and it's pretty damn near as fulfilling to me as a gamer, as the adventuring half of the game. To clarify what I mean by this, adventuring is when you're fighting the bad guys, questing is when you talk to people who hired you to kill the bad guys, and to explain to them that you killed their bad guys and are now demanding twice as much gold for the job (or you can do it for free maybe). It’s so well executed that it pulls you in and makes it feel like your interactions while questing matter more in Skyrim, than they would in most other games. The world is carefully crafted it shows the more you explore. Dragons are fun to fight against, and although a bit of cover from their breath makes them bosses you have to patiently whittle down, something about the mythos of it all makes it feel like a really epic encounter. The mod community for the PC version of Skyrim has, of course, already come out with some brilliant and hilarious new game additions to enhance the already wonderful experience.
Replay - Often times games struggle to provide even the most contrived plots, that sometimes they begin to blur into the same "make either: a)good karma choice. b)neutral karma choice. c) evil karma choice." Skyrim thankfully does not fall into that category of game, and you can play the game like that if the numerous quests don't tickle your fancy, speed running thru the dialogue if you choose to. To be honest it was the main story quests that I found to be the weakest overall. The two factions came off as unlikeable, and the endings weren't as numerous or interactive as they were in Fallout: New Vegas. However the game outside of that story line is positively massive and that's what I love about this style of gameplay.
Like other games of this ilk, it can be easily exploited and the leveling system seems to have a few design flaws that make metagamers (I raise my hand in occasional admission) froth at the mouth. Sure it’s easy to have a level 20 character in a few hours without much hassle, but it's avoidable. And even IF you glitch your way to the level cap, it would still take weeks to complete every quest, clear every dungeon, and kill every dragon (although they respawn).
Score - 5 out of 5. This game delivers, and in my opinion is some of the most fun I had with an RPG in a while. Perhaps it's the coincidental amount of pandering it felt like they were doing to me, because I loves me some open ended fantasy RPG goodness. If you have a fondness for this kind of setting, both story wise or gameplay wise, this is a title you simply cannot afford to miss.