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The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim review

by Steve Watts, Nov 10, 2011 5:01am PST

It's easy to get lost in the fantasy lands of Skyrim. The northern realm on the continent of Tamriel, home to all the Elder Scrolls games, offers a majestic setting for this fifth installment in the series. I wandered through its wilderness, hiked around crystal lakes, and climbed snow-peaked mountaintops oftentimes simply because I could. Seeing it all in first-person, as if through my own eyes, made my adventures an intensely personal experience. And though the occasional technical issue might momentarily break its spell, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim kept calling me back, long after I'd finished it for review.

My tale started with all the epic trappings befitting of a high-fantasy classic. The main quest centered on my fate as a Dragonborn, a legendary figure with the soul of a dragon. The game is light on hand-holding, though. Early on I thought a civil war between the Empire and rebellious Stormcloaks must surely be the overarching plot of the game. As I learned over the next several hours, it would be but one of the obstacles I'd face. Skyrim never particularly pushed me down the story's path. Instead, I slowly uncovered the most serious threat facing Skyrim, and then made a personal decision of when to deal with it.

Being Dragonborn had its perks. Once my identity was known, NPCs spoke with a kind of wonder and respect. It somewhat strained credulity when townsfolk would ask such a legendary figure to fetch a tusk or deliver a letter, but the title lent matters the necessary sense of great import during key story moments, when even royalty deferred to my authority.

My choices at those moments carried weight, and could have serious impacts on the world. Skyrim, though, bucks the trend in modern RPGs of labeling my actions as "good" or "bad." It left the interpretation of any consequences up to me. Similarly, most characters aren't defined as purely noble or selfish. The game contently let me live with my decisions, and their impact on those around me, without either patting me on the head or wagging a disdainful finger at me.

Bethesda's new game engine feels more iterative than completely fresh, but a few smart tweaks breathe new life into it. A revised menu system makes accessing quests, maps, and items much easier, and I constantly found myself using the new "Favorites" menu (accessible with the D-pad) for easy swapping among my best spells and weapons. The skill tree received an especially welcome revamp, separating skills into clearly-defined sets of constellations. It’s an elegant, visual solution that side-steps the confusion from traditional, obfuscating flow charts.

I created my hero as a mage from the reptilian race known as the Argonian. Experimenting with different combinations of spells never got old but the spell casting afforded me a healthy range advantage. Most of the enemies in the game ran directly at me, forcing me to fight a retreating battle, backing away while burning them with fire. Stronger enemies required a little more tactical approach, but in a game full of melee-wielding foes, being able to back away while chipping away with ranged spells felt almost unfair.

To even the odds, I experimented with melee weapons to get a feel for blocking and attacking. I was pleased with the results. Experience levels, which grant stat boosts and perks, rely on leveling up individual skills through frequent use. So when, after tens of hours, my Destruction ability was so overused it took a long time to reach the next level, I received better experience by changing things up. Only a casting or two of an Illusion or Conjuration spell, or switching to a one-handed sword would increase my proficiency with them. This system smartly incentivizes variety, breaking the easy to fall into habit of getting stuck in a rut using one set of combat skills throughout the entire game.

As well-realized as the world is, and as satisfying as it may be to burn and freeze enemies one at a time, poor AI decisions and the occasional bug disrupt the illusion. For example, once, when following a woman for a quest, she stepped off the path and straight into a waterfall. And during a few of the larger-scale combat moments with lots of moving parts, the game outright froze. These kinds of issues only happened a handful of times over the course of the entire game, but it was jarring to be pulled out of the experience so suddenly. A patch seemed to ease these troubles, but didn't quite eliminate them.

It's a testament to Skyrim, though; that when those problems occurred I would always feel compelled to immediately pick up where I left off. The game offers an almost overwhelming amount to do and see, and the conversations I had with its residents ranged from funny to harrowing, and some were even downright creepy. Skyrim manages to be simultaneously both massive and dense. Running out of interesting things to do is never a problem.

It may hew a bit closely to its ancestors -- including some of their technical hiccups -- but The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim easily takes its place as the best iteration of Bethesda's modern RPG style to date. The characters are smartly written, the combat is rewarding and varied, and the story feels appropriately majestic. But none of those factors compare to how much the setting itself impacted me. I simply fell in love with the world of Skyrim, and I plan to lose myself in it for some time to come.


[The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim review is based on a retail box copy of the Xbox 360 version, provided by the publisher, Bethesda Softworks.]





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