Monday, 7 May 2012

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim – reviewed by Howard Watts

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. I enter cautiously, and with some apprehension. The place is a mess. Plates, saucepans, goblets are strewn everywhere—the place looks as though it hasn’t been cleaned for hundreds of years. Cobwebs adorn the corners of the rooms, adding softness. Dirt and dust has gathered in dunes along the edges of the walls, sculpted by the shuffling footfalls of the cursed occupants.

Not a description of one of the many hundreds of locations I’ve found playing Skyrim, unfortunately an embarrassing snapshot of my neglected home, Skyrim having seized my attention like no other game I’ve played before. I’d like to make one thing clear from the beginning of this review: I’m not a huge fan of fantasy games. I prefer a blaster or BFG in my hands as I explore the perfect angular starship passageways of the many SF first/third person shooter games—I even traded Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion following a few minutes of play when I bought my first (now sadly deceased) PS3, due to its low graphic quality. Thankfully (I may regret using that word), Skyrim is a different beast altogether. It’s not as pretty as say the Uncharted or Call of Duty series of games, its colour palette somewhat lacking across the spectrum in comparison, but what Skyrim achieves perfectly is playability, and from that point of view it is unsurpassed—the game is quite simply astonishing.

From the very outset the player is presented with a choice of characters to play as, each exhibiting different characteristics and abilities that will aid progression though Skyrim’s world. I decided to participate as a Nord—a lowly human, somewhat Vikingesque. Once the first trial setting the story off is complete, the player has the whole of Skyrim’s huge world to explore as they see fit. This is what I love about open world games. The player can explore in any direction they choose. So, on Christmas Day, 2011 I began walking the world, and have been doing so every day bar one (today is January 30) since. Skyrim’s game world is incredible in its detail, encompassing all the staples of Fantasy you’d expect. You will stop and just stare at the river meandering through the lush green settlements below your mountainside path, and for a few moments forget your quest. The stacked waterfalls and snowy peaks, forests, glades of wild flowers and frozen shores kissed by packs of miniature islands of ice will have you shaking your head in amazement. You’ll struggle to climb mountainsides, swim against raging rivers as you head for the opposite shore, lest you find yourself at the mercy of jagged rapids and the fall to (perhaps) certain death below. These brief descriptions hardly do justice to the superb visuals the game presents the player, and mention only the exterior of the game world. Once caves, crypts, towns, cities, settlements, castles, shrines and tombs are explored the game really does make you wonder what you could possibly be presented with next…

Dragons come next—or rather form an integral part of the central narrative of the story based missions. Upon killing one, the player absorbs the dragon’s soul, and these can be “spent” against “shouts”, the magical enhancements to assist for the most part combat based play.

To progress though the game the player simply talks to the characters they meet while wandering the world. You’re presented with a choice of questions to ask, and once you decide to assist a character a quest is set in place. These quests are many and varied and can at times overlap and present the player with a moral dilemma. For example, last week I rented a room at a very pleasant inn. I slept for seven hours and expected (as is the norm) to wake and continue with whatever I was up to before sleeping. However, I awoke as a captive of the leader of the Dark Brotherhood. I was presented with a choice by her. There were three bound and hooded captives kneeling before me. I should interrogate each and decide which individual should die, otherwise I would be killed. I interviewed each—deciding two were worthy of my blade, but decided to turn it against my captor. Once she was despatched I released the hooded captives and was presented with a new quest, “Destroy the Dark Brotherhood”. Last month I spent a fortnight as a vampire: as the disease spread I searched for a cure and found a mage, a savioursomeone who could perform a ritual to cure me. However, as the disease matured I discovered I could not enter any civilised settlement without being attacked, including the village where my saviour waited for my return! I had only one option—to feed and remove my blood lust appearance. Only then was I allowed into settlements without being attacked by every inhabitant to collect the ingredients I needed for my cure.

The missions can mount up rapidly; some will be miscellaneous such as delivering a letter, finding a missing relative or retrieving an object, while others are central to the story and assist completion of the game’s core narrative. I’m concentrating on the miscellaneous, as these aid levelling up (I’m currently at level 43 out of 81). Levelling up presents you with myriad aspects of the character’s abilities to improve upon, be they one handed combat, sneaking, lockpicking, spells—the list goes on … But prospective participant, if what I’ve told you so far has you reaching for your wallet, beware. Practically everything in Skyrim can be useful. You can pick up almost any object you encounter—from various species of plants, to cups, saucers, wine bottles, power ups, potions, weapons, apparel. Upon despatching a combatant, you can loot their body for their clothes and weapons. Sometimes you’ll find an object to steer you on another mission, or a weapon that’s far superior to the one you’re carrying. However, the downside of this is you’re limited to the weight you can carry. Some items such as arrows weigh nothing, while others will overload your carry weight capacity, and prohibit you from running. Reduced to a pathetic shuffle, you’re unable to continue so have to either dump items where you stand, or store them in a chest you own in a bought or rented room. There are hundreds of different weapons—from the lowly steel dagger, up to a devastating battle axe imbued with the magical ability to inflict elemental damage. There are also various forms of armour, necklaces, helmets, rings, circlets, boots, and tunics, some with magical abilities which when combined with each other can make progress through the game much easier. If that’s not enough, magical items can be “disenchanted” at an Arcane Enchanter table, and their characteristics applied to another item. Oh, and at one point you’ll discover a dragon priest mask (of which there are eight with different benefits) which will become invaluable. Books can be read and collected, some revealing power-ups, others clues to treasure, some filling in Skyrim’s back-story. After a while you’ll begin to accept that anything can happen. Someone may run up to you with a letter, asking you to attend a meeting—a rabbit will cross your path with a predator in pursuit, assassins will run towards you as you merrily take in the view from a cobbled roadway. You’ll round a corner to see bandits attacking hunters, mages in a magical fight to the death. Then, out of nowhere a shadow will fall rapidly across you and a roar will fill the room as a dragon prepares to attack. Sound design has been very well executed. Voice acting for the most part is convincing—although it would have benefited the characterisation of the player’s chosen character to have an audible (and perhaps selectable at the beginning of the game when choosing the character’s appearance) voice when communicating with others. It just seems a little odd to select either a question, response or statement and not hear it. Objects have the right amount of presence as they’re dropped, opened or knocked over. Weapons clatter together with resounding metallic notes, shields give a deadened thump as you block an attack. A special mention must go at this point to the musical score by Jeremy Soule, as it matches the visuals perfectly. The scoring is beautifully subtle in places, and at times I find myself pausing the game just to listen to the wonderful orchestration. Yes, it can be a little derivative in places, there are certainly elements of Basil Poledouris’ Conan the Barbarian here (there’s also a voice actor that performs a fairly good Arnie impersonation), as well as similar elements to Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings pieces, but hey—I certainly wouldn’t want it any other way, as a different approach simply wouldn’t work.

I’m scratching the surface with this review—I’ll admit it—I want to get back to it. To write in detail a comprehensive list of the game’s many attributes would not only take longer than I could devote time to, but would be too full of spoilers for you, and no doubt drive the editor of this fine publication stark raving mad. Okay, the game’s not without its problems, but I believe no game is perfect. I’ve experienced a few shearing of frames, the odd slow down in frame rate in heavily populated areas, several unfinished landscape segments atop mountains and one lock-up. My son’s PS3 has exhibited similar problems with several lock-ups—but I put that down to his somewhat rushed approach to game play—while writing this he has experienced two. It can be—no, is bloody well annoying to scale a mountain, picking your route carefully toward the summit, jumping from outcropping to outcropping, only to be greeted with a rather unapologetic “You can’t go that way” message at the top of the screen. Perhaps in the next instalment of The Elder Scrolls, the game world could be spherical, so the character can continue walking in any compass direction to ultimately arrive exactly where they began. There’s a slight halt in frame rate (I’m running the game on a 46" Samsung LCD at the maximum res—sadly no 3D support) heralding an adversary’s approach as you’re idly exploring. Partner characters can be assigned to carry items for you. My partner (a witch I rescued from a life of misery) now wears magical armour and a circlet, and carries a rather nice double-headed axe which inflicts frost damage that I equipped her with. Unfortunately on some occasions while entering into combat she decides to revert back to her black robes, releasing ice spikes at adversaries—some finding their way into my back as she attempts to defend me, despite my entering an area in “sneaking” mode. Saying that, I fully intend to marry her at some point—yes, you can do that also. Loading screens can become a little irritating at times, especially upon opening something as simple as a door, having just entered a cave with an identical loading screen wait.

Skyrim’s an experience on every gaming level, an experience not to be missed. The reports you’ve either read in game mags or on the net are true and I’m sorry to say I’m going to repeat them now as I come to a close—it will eat your life, you will be late, you will neglect your normal everyday duties—hell, this review was written two weeks later than I had planned, due to a little more “research”. But for such an experience of this quality Skyrim’s more than worth it. Just remember this should you decide to enter this alternate reality: there’s no such thing as too many lock picks…

The above review originally appeared in TQF40. Howard sent a further update on May 5:

I’ve resisted for six weeks or so, listened somewhat reluctantly to my son talk of his adventures in Skyrim, his discoveries of new locations, missions, and on occasions, glitches. Entering his room to ask if he has completed his homework, I stop and stare at his adventures, like an alcoholic passing a pub on his way to an AA meeting, taking a glimpse at the revelry inside.

Now I’ve returned. And as I sit here writing this on the fly, I find myself wanting to hurry along and complete it so I can return to the game’s reality to pick up where I left off yesterday…

I’ve found new locations—which initially I thought improbable. I’ve discovered new groups wanting my assistance with various tasks—some bordering on meaningless triviality (my son’s just entered the room and asked; “Shall I put Skyrim on for you dad?”!) others, dangerous and intricate, with worthy foes. I’ve met talking dragons, evil gods, and lowly blacksmiths with talking dogs. I’m also married to a rather buxom young warrior with a thirst for a fight, but don’t mention this to the wife.

When will this ever end?

I don’t know. And to be honest—I don’t care. Yes, it’s not perfect. Some mission tasks I’ve completed whilst just wandering the wilderness, before said missions were active, (killing the Hagraven, Petra for example) and when I try to complete them they remain as incomplete in my mission tab. A niggling glitch, but one I’m prepared to live with. Perhaps the next instalment will feature an option to father children; to train them, and pass onto them skills as my avatar grows old and incapable of swinging a Daedric axe with sufficient force to incapacitate a foe, or my eyesight too poor to score a headshot with an arrow, my mind too forgetful to remember enchantments. If I’ve learnt anything from my time playing this game, it’s that anything’s possible for the next instalment.

My son’s loading the game now—the score is filling my ears, I glance up and the loading screen draws me away from my laptop as I type this update. So I bid thee a fond farewell dear reader. Indeed, fare thee well.

1 comment:

  1. Haha, fantastic opener.

    I just bought a new laptop and I'm going to grab a copy of Skyrim as soon as I'm done replaying Half Life 2 for the first time in 8 years. I actually really love the feeling of getting sucked into a video game and having hours and hours go past, and all of a sudden it's 4 am and you didn't even realise. I suppose with MMORPGS and such it's unhealthy, but I've only had it happen very rarely, and it's a pretty unique experience - something no other art form can really accomplish.