The Best and Worst of SKYRIM

(image credit, Bethesda)

Quests quested, dragons slain and bandits pushed off ledges by Hedgehog

I have a confession to make; I have yet to finish The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Despite logging around seventy hours with the title, I’ve barely scraped the surface of the main quest; an epic tale of civil war, lost sovereigns and, of course, the re-emergence of dragons. That said, my armoured adventurer – a level forty-six Khajiit spellthief with a focus on destruction magic, sneak and one-handed weapons – has undertaken many an adventure. He’s battled giant spiders, bandits, necromancers, dragons and the customary undead; a race of zombies called Draugr who fill the catacombs and ruins of the Nordic nation of Skyrim.

And believe me, this is one big place. Five major cities, half a dozen smaller ones, dozens of settlements and, according to Bethesda, hundreds of hand crafted dungeons, each one with enemies, puzzles and treasure galore.

But it’s not all smiles und sunshine and there are still some flaws in what many are considering to be Game of the Year. As such, allow me to present my own perspective on the best, and worst, that The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim has to offer.

The Best

 The World.

As I mentioned in the preamble, Skyrim is huge. The northernmost province in the country of Tamriel, where all previous Elder Scrolls games have taken place, this is an ancient locale with vast tundra, dense forests and craggy, treacherous mountains. As is customary for a Bethesda game – Oblivion, Fallout 3 – if you can see it, you can reach it and Skyrim never strays from this ideology.

Upon first emerging into the world you are presented with a wide vista; a mountainous, tree-lined expanse to explore. To your right, the mountain climbs high and disappears into the clouds. To the left, you can wade through dense undergrowth and tall trees. In the distance, in the direction of the sound of rapid white water, a ruin can be glimpsed, just barely, through falling snow.

I decided to take the path and follow it to Riverwood, the first settlement. A friend took a different route, crossing the rapids and heading straight into battle with bandits and a dragon.

You can head into the main quest, or jump right into the Thieves guild, based out of Riften. You can be a hero or a villain. You can break into a blacksmithy at night, steal all the materials and use them to create weapons and armour that you then sell to the very same blacksmith. You can collect books. You can collect cabbages. You can go anywhere, do anything, kill anyone. There is no curtailment here. The world is yours.

The People

Having moved away from Gamebryo and into their new Creation Engine, Bethesda have reworked characters from the ground up. Gone are the soulless, grey-eyed automatons of Oblivion, Fallout 3 and New Vegas. No longer does the world freeze in surreal tableau whenever you enter the most rudimentary of conversations. Here in Skyrim the people look great, the voice acting is much improved (with only a few shaky moments) and time continues to unfold around you, even when in conversation.

A Khajiit before the statue of Talos. (image credit, Bethesda)

The Dragons

Dragons are awesome; and I’ll admit I’ve held a fascination with the immense winged serpents ever since coming across Smaug (look it up) as a child. The dragons here are varied and look outstanding – slender, muscular bodies, rows of teeth and an impressive wingspan.

As the game progresses, the player will unlock a variety of such enemies; from blood dragons and frost dragons, to elder dragons and the main-quest-related named dragons, of which the primary antagonist Alduin, is prime.

The Progression

Some may, and do, consider this a failing of the game; another notch in the systematic dumbing down of videogames. While I agree that games on the whole are lowering the bar to the point where it’s already met (see the vapid snore-fest that is the Modern Warfare series) Skyrim’s removal of a tedious and unnecessary points-tallying system and endless micromanagement of your character’s stats is, to me, a blessing.

As you play, you gain points in particular skills; one-handed, heavy armour, destruction magic, illusion magic, smithing and so on. When you reach a numerical marker in enough skills, you level up. You assign perks to each skill, as they open up to you and then continue to play. No longer are you locked down to your mage, warrior or thief class as picked in the first half hour of a three-hundred hour game. You are what you play, as Todd Howard has said many, many… many times and it is a freeing, enjoyable exercise.

The Worst

 The Map

As much as I adore the world building in Skyrim; the map leaves a lot to be desired. While I understand what they were trying to accomplish in their gods-eye-view look down upon the vast world of the game, there is one task a map is designed to perform and as a way-finding system, the Skyrim map is awful.

Not only is the player unable to zoom in to a level where roads could be seen, thus making the frequent Point A to Point B investigations cumbersome, but quite often atmospheric effects (clouds, if you will) will obscure the map entirely thus making it impossible to see below the cloud layer and thus making it impossible to use the map for the sole purpose for which a map is designed.

I’m really not sure who thought that having clouds obscure sections of the map – different sections, depending on what the local weather was at the time – was a good idea, but that person was wrong.

The world map. See, clouds. Everywhere. (image credit, PC Mag)

The Giants

Throughout the game you will fight a great number of dragons. I’m on about thirty right now. They’re pretty hard, certainly when you get into Blood, Elder and Ancient dragons and not to mention that some of the named dragons are, to put it bluntly, a total bitch to take down.

I say this because you can spend five minutes taking down one of these winged beasts, filling it with arrows, shocking it with lightning and when it finally crashes to the ground, bashing at it with a sword or a mace or a big stick until it finally dies in a cascade of fire and glowy soul-stealing goodness.

I say this because immediately afterwards, once your health has recharged to full, you can walk up to a giant and for no reason other than he doesn’t like your shoes, be beaten down unceremoniously and killed within seconds.

That’s right: Giants have more health and do more damage than dragons, the games primary antagonist. If that seems odd to you, it means you haven’t recently received severe head trauma. Unlike whoever decided that giants should be higher on the monster-scale than forty-foot, winged, fire breathing lizards.

The Glitches

Wow. To be fair, this is an immense, open world game with almost no curtailment on player action or exploration so I cut Bethesda a lot of slack. That said; man are there some bugs in this game.

Followers routinely walk in the path of long-range spells like Flames or Sparks, get injured and swear a new blood oath towards the player’s utter destruction. Dragons fly backwards (this has recently been patched). Textures load at the lowest possible resolution in one part of the map whilst all the textures around it are crisp and gorgeous; in a room shod in a dozen wooden floorboards one could load with a low-resolution texture and the rest will be fine.

One time, I was traipsing through a dungeon and after killing five or six Draugr I came across a Nordic pillar puzzle, the object of which is to spin the pillars to allow images to match some earlier clue. They’re easy enough, and provide a moment of contemplation in an often exclusively monster-killing exercise. Except the pillars wouldn’t turn. The context appeared on screen, Press X To Turn, and so I pressed X. Nothing. I pressed it again. Nothing.

I reloaded the last save (save often people), killed the Draugr once more and when I returned to the pillars, there was no problem. But glitches of this kind are not uncommon in the world of Skyrim.

The Favourites

This is a minor gripe, so I saved it for last. Skyrim allows you to, in a similar vein to Oblivions radial hotkeys menu, assign a favourites mark to any spell, weapon, armour, potion or miscellaneous item in your inventory. This, truly, is a great feature. Why is it in this section of gripes and unpleasantries? Because the implementation of said excellent feature is cumbersome at best.

The reason for this is that there is one favourites list. For everything. I’m playing on PS3, which means that I access the favourites menu by pressing up or down on the d-pad. This gives me a list of everything I have favourited. Seems simple enough, right? Well in addition to that, I can assign a sort of “insta-key” for two items, accessed with the left and right d-pad buttons.

To me this seems idiotic. A much better system would be up/down for item favourites like weapons and armour and left/right for spells and shouts. When you’re a spellthief like myself with an array of weapons and spells, all of which are regularly used, this single-list favourites menu is a bothersome and lengthy exercise.

The Verdict

 The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is, at its heart, an epic role-playing adventure of monsters and mystery. Set against the background of the Nordic civil war – a war you can, I should add, take part in should you wish to do so – it is a richly woven narrative unlike gamers have seen in a long while. But it’s so much more than just the best fantasy epic. It’s also a great swordplay game, a great deer-hunting game and a great magic game.

It has flaws, what game doesn’t, but the payoff is worth the occasional low-res floorboard or the oft times idiotic NPCs.

I have yet t0 complete Skyrim. To be honest, I’m not even sure you can. But it’s certainly worth trying. If you’re a fan of fantasy roleplaying then, to be honest, you’re probably already playing this game. If you’re not already playing it however, do yourself a favour; grab a copy, take a few weeks off work and say goodbye to your family for a while.

The dragons have returned. Skyrim awaits.

Score: 9/10


 You can harass the author of this post on twitter: @CAricHanley