charistorches: – In Skyrim, you get to fight dragons. Huge, menacing, dangerous, very powerful dragons, and you either beat the snot out of them or get eaten. That’s the big selling point of the latest Elder Scrolls game: you fight a lot of dragons. I’m going to talk about other things first, but then come back to that. Just remember that a big part of this game involves bloody, tooth-tearing, armor-smelting dragon combat. If you don’t have that much time today, just skip to the last paragraph and then make up your mind about whether to buy this game.
Starting from ES: Oblivion’s vantage point, Skyrim takes you several hundred years into the future and far into the frozen north of Tamriel. It’s altogether a starker, darker, and more unnerving environment. Landscapes are blanketed with snow, blizzards are not uncommon, and the night sky is often as not lit by an aurora’s eerie blue glow. Within this setting, you’ll see most of the strengths displayed by earlier games in the franchise are out in full force. The world is truly massive, so big and rich that you’ll likely let the core plot fall by the wayside on many occasions as your quest log fills up with dozens of enticing missions. In a sense, although there is a backstory, a plot to unravel, many supporting characters that benefit from well-produced voice acting, and an end goal, from a designer’s standpoint the main objective of Skyrim seems to be just letting the complexity and substance of the world wash over you like a warm, medieval fun-bath. The graphics don’t hurt; close inspection brings out the rough edges and flat textures of the scenery, but taken as a panoramic whole, the view is truly impressive . Characters and beasts are well-animated, and the variety of people and animals you’ll encounter – including wolves, giants, mammoths, and cannibals – makes the environment look and feel like what it tries to emulate, namely, a big place full of independent organisms, running around, doing their things, bumping into each other and producing all the complexities of life that result. A few of the locations, like some caves and dungeons, evoke a sense of déjà-vu, but much more surprising is the number of places that could be just carbon-copies, but aren’t. Almost every village, hamlet, bluff, valley, castle, and hole in the ground feels unique and genuine. You may find yourself needing a sweater to ward off the Nordic cold, however balmy the weather might be on the other side of your screen.
The thing that undermines this sense of completeness most is the game’s bugginess. Though Skyrim uses a different engine from F3 or Oblivion, Bethesda has thoughtfully package many of our stalwart old favorites, such as the “creatures spawning in midair” bug, the “shut the hell up random townspeople, I’m trying to hear what this NPC is telling me” glitch, the “why are you talking to me, I’m over in the next room” issue, as well as perennial crowd-pleaser “I made the mistake of walking into a corner and now I have to reload.” Either they felt we’d all be lonely without our trusty error messages, or they’ve just sort of thrown up their hands at the idea of making games as big as the Elder Scrolls series that work any better than this.
All in all, though, the new gameplay options and general polished feel of the interface balance out the technical issues. Dragons are not just foes, they’re an integral part of the game’s most powerful weapons – magic spells called “shouts,” which let you slow time to a crawl or duplicate dragony abilities like fire-breathing. To use the shouts, you’ll need to learn to read and speak Dragon, and then go out and slay a few (after chatting them up politely, one hopes; no need to be rude) of the beasts to collect their souls. You still have a lot of leeway to play the game as you like it, be it straight-up hero, sneaky thief who likes to pick peoples’ locks while they sleep, or even a bloodsucking vampire if you (accidentally or purposefully) find yourself infected. Along the way you’ll get involved in rebellions, jailbreaks, dungeon crawls, and the intricacies of court functions and politics. Using weapons increases the damage they deal as your proficiency with them goes up, and the leveling system lets you spread points between three core attributes, as well as choose special abilities from a fairly elaborate system of perks. The third-person perspective works much better than it has before, and can quickly be swapped for the prototypical FPS view.
And then there’s the dragons. As far as dragon fighting goes, this game is probably the pinnacle of human achievement. They have the same problems as many of the other creatures, sometimes getting stuck and appearing in/disappearing from obviously wrong places. As before, though, this isn’t so important, because they are huge, awe-inspiring, very grouchy, and a joy to take on in single combat. Dragons are a plague on all of Skyrim, and it’s your job to smote them into ashy, smoldering skeletons and take their power. Does that sound fun? Of course it does. Terrifying and fun. Now go get out your credit card.