Review: Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
[Note: I’ll try to avoid plot spoilers, but don’t hate me if there are some.]
First, let me say that Skyrim is not WoW. In fact, the Elder Scrolls series is about as far as one could get from WoW while still being a RPG videogame. Single player v. MMO. Exploration-based v. gameplay/mechanics-based. Generalist characters v. specialist characters. I might refer to WoW, but only so WoW peeps have a frame of reference. These are different games, both legendary and funtastic in their own right. Liking one does not mean you cannot like the other, but don’t feel like you must like one if you like the other.
Whereas Oblivion was Morrowind part 2, Skyrim is a completely new game. Skyrim retains the same focus on exploration, even more so than the condensed, generic map that was Oblivion, and far more gorgeous than the expansive yet bleak and dirty Vvardenfell. However, each Elder Scrolls game can be played and fully enjoyed without having played the previous games in the series. You might miss small bits of lore, but not having scaled Red Mountain or closed shut the doors of Oblivion will not impact your Dovahkiin experience.
Like previous Elder Scrolls incarnations, you begin life imprisoned for never-revealed crimes. The intro sequence thrusts you into the main plot while simultaneously acquainting you with the basics of the game. Once completed, Skyrim is your oyster.
Plot summary in one word: Dragons.
Plot summary in two words: Dragon killer.
Plot summary in enough words to be coherent: Dragons have returned to Skyrim, gone since ancient times. You are Dovahkiin, the Dragonborn, a fabled person capable of stealing the souls of dragons, which prevents them from being resurrected. You also have the ability to learn shouts, which have various effects including knocking opponents down and fire breathing. You can complete the main plot, some of it, or none.
But that’s just the tip of the main plot, which is one of many plots within Skyrim. There are guilds and factions to join, each with their own involved and intriguing stories. You can join them all, some, or none. And there are hundreds of side quests, some must be found, some are thrust upon you. You can do them…oh nevermind. You get the idea.
Like all RPGs, there’s a leveling system, which has been overhauled. The philosophy remains the same: you level what you do. However, the execution is much better in Skryim than in Oblivion or Morrowind. No more gaming the leveling system. There are 18 skills, each of which can be leveled to 100. To level a skill, you can train (book, trainer, or quest) or, the usual way, using that skill. Each time you level a skill, you get a notch towards your overall level. Once you have met the required number of notches, you ding, which grants you a boost to either magicka, health, or stamina, and awards a perk point.
Perks are Skyrim’s version of talent trees. Previously, leveling a skill made you more successful when using those skills: attacks became more powerful, crit more often, and missed less often. But that was it. No other rewards for leveling a skill. The perk system allows you to improve skills. Unlike WoW talent trees, you can improve any skill whether you use it or not (with some restrictions, namely “must be of skill level X to access this perk”.) This flexibility encourages players to try new skills. For example, I leveled Pickpocketing because of the Deep Pockets perk. I never leveled Pickpocketing in Oblivion and Morrowind because patience was not a virtual virtue of mine. Here, though, I had a reason to try it, and I found I really liked stripping people of their items while they wore them. That, and I never had an item that gave me +25% Pickpocketing success before. Like WoW talent trees, some perks are awesome (“Stagger when dual casting Fire spells? Done!”) and some are fail (“Prices are 10% better with the opposite sex? Who cares?”) Overall, the perk system greatly improves the game.
Gameplay is improved via the favorites system. On the 360, hit the d-pad and up pops a menu with your favorite spells and items for quick equipping. No more opening the full menu to find the sword with Soul Trap on it. Up, select sword (left- or right-hand equip), back to the action.
Combat mechanics remain much the same. Swordplay is a bit more user-involved than in Oblivion, but hacking and slashing like a spirit-stacking warrior will get the job done. Spells function like before though they seem slower. Might just be my memory. Sneaking is much improved: no more instant and permanent discovery unless you’re at or above lvl 75 Sneak. There’s more of a continuum, a scale of hiddenness. When you’re discovered, you’re discovered, but you actually have a chance at not being discovered instantly upon entering an area unless you’re a master of Sneak.
The addition of shouts is a positive change as it gives players fun, unique cooldowns. We have powers, but they’re on a 24-hour cooldown; waiting a day (game time) after every fight is annoying. Shouts also reinforce that we’re special. Oh sure, everyone calls us Dragonborn or Dovahkiin and we vacuum dragon souls, but shouts make us awesome. Morrowind and Oblivion didn’t have any mechanics that made us feel like the unique butterflies we are; Patrick Stewart tried, but for all we knew, he was thinking of Marina Sirtis when he told us we were the one from his dreams.
Another improvement is the killing blow animations. I was surprised the first time my character—a sneaky mage who uses one-handed weapons as back ups—struck a killing blow. In Oblivion and Morrowind, the only time the camera switched to third-person was to show the opponent’s killing blow on you. In Skyrim, you get to see your death as well as your enemy’s. My favorite was when I hopped on a dragon’s neck and bashed his face in with my Molag Bol. Awesome.
The character information screens could use some help. Equipping weapons and spells is faster, but the inventory system is painful, a major downgrade from Oblivion. As bad as it is for my character, the inventory system is particularly terrible when I store stuff in cupboards and chests in my house. Whereas other inventories have categories (weapons, armor, potions, books, etc), my home storage containers do not. Tis a pain in the ass finding the one item I need among the 100+ items in my cupboard. Almost feels like Bethesda either didn’t care about character storage or couldn’t code it in time for release.
Not being able to make arrows is annoying, but there are ways around that…
I play on the 360. I played Morrowind on the XBOX. I bought my 360 so I could play Oblivion as the computer I had back then could not handle Oblivion. Although I miss the additional functionality that the PC version offers, playing on the 360 means I get to play it on my high-def TV. Boo ya. Being in the living room means I can help with the baby instead of being sequestered in the computer room; marital harmony ftw. Also, controller trumps mouse.
And yes, there are bugs. Some are minor annoyances that require reloading the previous save, some are funny (I’ve seen mammoths fly), some prevent you from completing quests. They’re an unfortunate “feature” of all video games, open-world games in particular. If you cannot handle bugs, if you can’t stand such breaking of the fourth wall, then
stop playing video games perhaps Skyrim isn’t for you. If you still want to play it, get the PC version as the PC’s console function will allow you to fix or bypass many problems and updates from Bethesda are more easily downloaded. If it’s any consolation (no pun intended), Skyrim has a fraction of the bugs that Oblivion had, which had a fraction of the bugs Morrowind have (God bless that gloriously buggy game.)
My character is a sneaky Dark Elf destruction mage who loves blacksmithing so much, he married a blacksmith. My playstyle is basic: sneak attack openers, fireballs for closers, make weapons and steal all the things when not tromping through dungeons. I haven’t made any alts yet as I’ve been working on achievements, namely the lvl 50 achievement. I’ve completed the main quest, am grand master of the Thieves Guild and arch-mage of the College of Winterhold. I helped the Stormcloaks conquer Skyrim (because fuck Altmeri.) I started the Companions quest chain, but stopped. I haven’t started the Dark Brotherhood quest chain. I’m saving both the Companions and Dark Brotherhood stories for my next character. I have bought houses in Whiterun, Riften, Markath, and Solitude. The house in Windhelm would be mine, but I can’t ever seem to find the guards required to start the chain. I’ve got some Draedric items, but I’m saving most of those stories for my alt; achievements ftw.
- Explore. Wander off the path. Pick a direction and start walking.
- Stop and smell the roses…er, red mountain flowers.
- Enjoy the beautiful vistas.
- Save early, save often.
- Play the main quest line through on your first character. It will take you to the far corners of the map, and is a lot of fun.
- Turn on subtitles and read the quest texts.
- Read the in-game books.
- Empty bags regularly.
- Pick up items that have high value/weight ratios.
- Do the Whiterun quests and buy a house. It’s the cheapest house in the game (5000 gold) and it’s good to have a place to dump all your stuff.
- Get married. Some spouses are better than others, but marry who you want.
- Use a perk calculator.
- Take Smithing and Pickpocketing for quick levels
- Join the giants’ space program
- Level a combat skill to 100. Fire Storm ftw.
- Level a profession skill to 100. Dragonscale armor ftw.
- Join a faction and become its leader.
- Find a powerful item and modify your playstyle around it.
- Pick every lock.
- Go on a murderous rampage then reload from your last, pre-rampage save.
- Kite a dragon to a town and let the guards kill it.
- Or better yet, kite a dragon to a giant encampment for some giant+mammoth v. dragon action.
- Practice Archery on the birds flying above Solitude.
- Find all the Stones of Barenziah (I’m up to 8/24)
- Become a werewolf.
- Become a vampire.
- Shout someone to death.
- Conquer Skyrim for the Empire.
- Reclaim Skyrim for all true Nords.
- Activate a useful Guardian Stone, such as the Steed Stone. (Thanks, Jay!)
- Try to game the leveling system because you can’t. This isn’t Morrowind or Oblivion.
- Fast travel everywhere. At least not at the beginning. Skyrim begs to be explored. Fast travel is the antithesis of exploration.
- Fret over crashes and bugs. Accept them and move on with life.
- Min/max. This isn’t a gameplay-driven game. Find an enjoyable playstyle and go with it.
- Do everything on one character. Save quests for alts.
- Kill everyone. Murder leads to the Dark Brotherhood, sure, but wanton slaughter leads to quests that cannot be completed.
- Buy a horse. Save your money.
- Use the Elder Scrolls wiki as a crutch. Try to complete as much as possible on your own.
- Feel bad using the Elder Scrolls wiki when you come across a bug or tedious quest. Search underwater for a small treasure chest with only vague clues to guide me? Yeah, I’ll let someone else with more free time than me find that.
- Avoid Skyrim because you haven’t played Morrowind or Oblivion. The series is connected, but not nearly as much as other RPG series. They are more stand alone games that share common themes, but missing a game does not put you out of the loop. So you may miss out on some of the depth of the Dwemer storyline. No big loss. Read the Elder Scrolls wiki to get up to speed.
These are utility perks that most characters can use. Some have prerequisite perks, but none require leveling the skill past 50.
- Unhindered (Light Armor) = Lighten your load means you can carry more and you don’t get fatigued as quickly.
- Extra Pockets (Pickpocketing) = Increase carrying capacity by 100? Yes please.
- Haggling, Merchant, Bribery, and Persuasion (Speech) = Haggling and Merchant equal more money, Bribery and Persuasion allow you to keep that money or at least your freedom.
- Cushioned (Heavy Armor) = Great for the occasional misstep.
- Quick Reflexes (Block) = I haven’t tested this myself, but a slow-time effect while blocking would be handy even if you’re a caster.
- Magic Resistance (Alteration) = Takes the edge off those nasty fireballs.
- Recovery, Regeneration, and Respite (Restoration) = Heal stamina and health simultaneously? Faster magicka regen? More healing? Yes, yes, and more yes.
- Impact, Intense Flames (Destruction) = Impact, which staggers enemies when you hit them with a dual-cast Destruction spell, is the sweeter of the two. Intense Flames only works with fire spells.
- Stealth (Sneak) = 20% harder to detect while sneaking is quite nice especially on Thieves Guild quests (Thanks, Jay!)
- Eagle Eye (Archery) = Also good for scouting, surveilliance, and spying (Thanks, Jay!)