Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim – A Detailed, Honest Review by Chad D.

To the best of my knowledge, there was no game of 2011 that was hyped more than The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.  A flashy reveal trailer accompanied by unforgettable, epic chanting seized the attention of millions, and words and phrases such as “Dovahkiin” and “Fus-Roh-Dah” became cemented in the vocabulary of gaming forums throughout the Web.  Now that the game has been out for a little more than a month, and I have had the opportunity to play through it, would I call it the best WRPG (Western Roleplaying Game) of all time?  The short answer is no, but it’s a game you won’t want to miss...

With a primarily Western audience, Skyrim was put into a tough position: try to appeal to the console crowd, where games such as Call of Duty and Gears of War reign supreme, or stick to the more niche, pure RPG roots the Elder Scrolls series has been known for.  Having played the game, it’s apparent that the developers decided to go with the former.  Gone are stats such as strength, endurance, etc., and in their place is a more streamlined system, with an emphasis on leveling to unlock “perks” meant to increase the capabilities of one’s character.  This change alone is enough to see the shift away from RPG mechanics, with the perk system providing instant gratification rather than the longer “rise to power” goals that are so traditional of RPGs.  However, the perk system is not bad in its own right; indeed, it offers a nice bit of strategy and customization possibilities that set it apart from other games in the series.  Only a small subset of perks can be gotten on a single character, so traditional RPG fans may have some fun planning ahead to make sure they end up with the perks that will maximize the potential of their characters.  Leveling in Skyrim is also much improved over leveling in the last game in the series, Oblivion, where enemies leveled with you and effectively made leveling pointless.  While Skyrim does have some enemies that level with you, there will always be some areas that will challenge your character and others that will pose no threat.  It’s a great compromise, and works well in practice.

Beyond leveling, there are other aspects of the series that have changed significantly.  New finishing moves in combat are welcome additions, and are obviously designed to appeal to FPS (First Person Shooter) fans.  Character races are more balanced, but the removal of stats has left most races feeling very similar to each other in playability.  The crafting system in the game is a great new feature, but has some balance issues, as crafted weapons and armor can feel overpowered at times, allowing one to mop the floor with enemies sporting regular equipment.  Dragons, having been marketed as a key addition to the game, don’t disappoint, but can be very glitchy, sometimes flying backwards or through solid objects.  If there’s one aspect of the game that’s sure to disappoint longtime fans of the series, it’s the removal of spellmaking (though I suspect this may be restored in future expansions or DLC).  The radiant story system is a blast, as it can create some very unique quest configurations and generate fun random events, increasing the replayability of the game.  Speaking of quests, the main quest, although fun, is quite a bit shorter than that of any of the previous games, and offers a final boss that can be killed in a single hit should certain character builds be used.  The main quest has never been the main feature of any of the games in the series, so this disappointment doesn’t mean much in the long run.

While Skyrim has gained quite a bit from focusing on action over RPG mechanics, it has also shed many features that I felt the series was known for.  The introduction to the game, for example, plays as a typical FPS game, with things blowing up everywhere and little to no choice provided to the player.  In fact, for the first fifteen minutes of the game control of the character is removed, and the player is forced to do exactly what the game tells them to.  As I said, in FPS games this is common, but in an open world game series like The Elder Scrolls this sequence feels out of place and unnecessary.  Luckily, the introduction quest is fairly short, and as such doesn’t greatly detract from the quality of the game.  What does hurt the game, however, is how much choice has been removed from the main quest and side quests in the game.  All dialogue options effectively lead to the same result, and many quests are impossible to get rid of once started.  Furthermore, the player is railroaded into potentially unwanted positions, such as seemingly being forced to join the Mages’ Guild and Thieves’ Guild in the main quest.  Yes, I know workarounds exist, but the first time one plays one will be completely unaware of these backdoors, and be forced into being called a mage or thief (or both!) for the entirety of the game.  The guilds can’t even be left once joined!  Another example of this railroading is during a specific Daedric quest, which a player playing a morally good character may begin due to being told that they will be fighting evil cultists.  However, this pretense turns out to be a fraud, and the player is forced to kill his innocent companion.  It is these types of situation that break roleplaying in the game, and make the game more like an action game, where the player is expected to have no qualms with doing everything the game has to offer in one playthrough.

To reiterate, I don’t hate Skyrim; far from it.  There are only certain aspects of the game that were hyped, but ended up being ultimately disappointing.  To express my love for the game, I’ll now talk about some things I do like.  First, the graphics are great, especially for a game primarily designed for consoles, but some textures are low quality, shadows are ugly, and water is laughable.  On the upside, the game’s locales are breathtaking and varied, which is much more than can be said about Oblivion.  The 150+ dungeons in the game are also very interesting and varied; again, more than can be said about Oblivion.  If you liked Oblivion’s soundtrack, you’ll love Skyrim’s, and you may also note how much better the sound effects in the game are.  This is to be expected, as Skyrim is a newer game, but it’s still worth pointing out.  Moving away from graphics, I do like how one’s character can get married in the game (even if it’s a bit pointless), and I also like how many different companions there are to choose from (even if they’re pretty dull and allow you to rob them for all they’re worth).  Enemies seem smarter in this game, and actually investigate sounds and corpses, but still can be seen at times to have poor pathing, and be unable to reach the player (jumping and crouching abilities for enemies would solve this nicely).  If one has the PC version of the game, however, future player made mods may solve these issues, and expand on the half-baked concepts presented in the vanilla game.

When I look back at Skyrim as a whole, I see a great game.  What I don’t see, however, is the game all the hype made Skyrim out to be.  Game breaking bugs still exist, RPG elements are removed, and many new features are unbalanced or relatively shallow.  If Skyrim is the first game you’ve played in the series, you’ll likely not pay much attention to these issues (unless you’re playing on the Playstation 3, where the game is literally unplayable due to lag).  If you’ve played past games, and liked Oblivion, you’ll love Skyrim for all of the improvements it’s brought.  If you’re a diehard RPG fan, and consider Morrowind to be the pinnacle of the series, unfortunately I’ll have to steer you away from playing Skyrim; your opinion won’t change.  I’m excited to see what new content is made for the game, as new expansions or patches may solve or alleviate some of my complaints, but as of now I have to give the game 9/10 (but only the Xbox 360 or PC versions; the broken PS3 version deserves no more than a 1/10).  If this is your first Elder Scrolls game, I’d recommend checking out some of the older games, if the graphics don’t matter much to you.  Who knows, perhaps you may be discover you like more traditional RPGs!  

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