Since I first heard it was happening, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim has been my most anticipated game of the year, promising a return to the vast world that ate up my life in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. When I first bought my Xbox360, Oblivion was among the first round of games I bought, taking it on faith that I’d enjoy it, since I hadn’t played any of the previous Elder Scrolls games. I ended up spending over 120 hours on the initial playthrough, and being completely unready for it to end when I finished. I’ve even restarted it a few times just to spend more time in the world of Tamriel. Of course, I’m cheap, so I didn’t get the expansion packs right away – in fact, I didn’t get them until a few weeks ago, when Xbox Live had an amazing sale on them, and I didn’t get to finish them before Skyrim came out. I’ll get back to them, but for now, my life belongs to Skyrim.
So far, I’ve only scratched the surface of Skyrim‘s world, so this is not a review, but just a catalog of the some first impressions of the game so far. I’ve put in roughly ten hours, and have completed only a very little bit of the main quest line. I tend to like doing the other things first, so I’ve done a lot of little tasks like clearing out a cave of bandits, sorting out an unhappy love triangle, recovering a family sword, those kind of things. You get those just by wandering around and talking to people – it’s amazing how many people need stuff done for them! There are also larger, multi-part side quests, and I’ve done a few of those as well. Then there are guilds and factions you can join, each of which starts its own questline. I’ve joined two of those so far. If you’ve played Oblivion and all this sounds familiar, you’re right. This game is essentially exactly like Oblivion from the general design to the branching questlines and random tasks to the hack-and-slash combat. If you’ve played Oblivion, you already know whether you’re going to like Skyrim or not. I haven’t been disappointed one bit – it’s like being back in the world I love with updated graphics, slightly better combat, a face-lifted menu system (which I quite like, actually, compared with Oblivion‘s), and what promises to be an even bigger world.
The events in Skyrim take place some 200 years after the end of Oblivion. The line of Emperors has died out without an heir, and Skyrim (the northern section of Tamriel) is embroiled in a civil war between those who want to stay loyal to a declining Empire and those who want to secede. There’s also strife with the Elves, as a major natural disaster forced the migration of many dark Elves out of Morrowind (where the third Elder Scrolls game was set) and into Skyrim, where they are unwelcome by a large portion of the population. At the beginning, you’re captured along with a bunch of secessionists who are about to be executed (though you’re not necessarily with them; your backstory is unknown) when a dragon attacks. Dragons haven’t been seen for ages, but they’re back now, perhaps heralding the end of the world. You don’t get to fight this one yourself, but believe me, you’ll get to fight others. And it ain’t pretty. Turns out you have a special connection to the dragons, and that’s about as far as I’ve gotten in the story.
A lot of people disliked the combat in Oblivion, because it isn’t very nuanced, and it’s pretty much the same here. There’s no turn-based element or VAT system like Bethesda added for Fallout 3. You basically just run up and slash at something until it dies, or you die, but there is some amount of strategy to be employed. You can also use ranged attacks via bow or magic, you can heal yourself during combat via potions or magic, and you can boost specific stats with other potions for a brief period of time. You have a limited amount of magic you can use before it has to recharge, same with stamina (which controls sprinting and swinging melee weapons). Balancing all that against a powerful enemy (or a large number of smaller enemies) can be quite tricky, and I’ve already been through several fights that required multiple tries, regrouping and trying different tactics each time. You can have companions who will help you fight, but you can’t control them or give them direct orders, like you can in Mass Effect or Dragon Age. I’m perfectly okay with that, frankly – I have enough to deal with handling myself without micromanaging NPCs.
Let’s talk customization. You can choose any of about ten different races – various races of human, elf, even orc and khajit (a cat-like creature) – which all have their own strengths and weaknesses in terms of skillset. Some are better warriors, others are better at stealth, others have an affinity for magic. Of course, you can still do all these things no matter what race you are, but you’ll have to work harder at things your chosen race isn’t good at. You have enormous control, too, over your physical appearance – I think I spend an hour just creating my character. After getting into the game, I really like how skills are leveled based on how much you use them. Using destruction spells a lot with increase your destruction skill, using the bow a lot will increase your archery skill, etc. This is pretty standard (and just like Oblivion), but it always gives a little thrill to be using something a lot and see the skill climb high – after all, why bother leveling things I never use? There is a system of perks on top of the basic skill leveling that’s good, as well – reaching certain levels in a skill unlocks perks you can add – like if you’re high in destruction magic, you can get a perk that decreases the amount of magicka the spell uses. (I keep using destruction magic as an example because I’ve found it very useful, and have already leveled it up a lot and gotten several of the perks.) But really what this means is that depending on your starting class and how you choose to play, you can get through the game a number of ways. Most of the questlines would be the same, and the game doesn’t have a strong good/evil balance the way a lot of current RPGs do, but you can focus on melee, ranged, or magic combat, or on stealth and avoid combat more often.
The main questline can supposedly be completed in 20 hours or so, but I’m expecting to spend over 100 hours on this, with side quests and all. And the developers have even promised that there will be an endless number of the “miscellaneous” tasks based on an auto-generating algorithm so you can keep playing ever after finishing all the main quests and major side quests. I’m not sure how endlessly entertaining these endless tasks will be, but I know I certainly would’ve continued playing Oblivion if there had been anything left to do in it, so we’ll see. The pacing of the game, split between frenetic real-time combat and walking around talking to people, works really well for me – games full of only combat are not my favorite anymore. I prefer a little quiet time in between to explore and enjoy the world, and world-building is something Bethesda does really well. Each race and city has its own characteristics, and they’ll respond to you differently based on your own race and clothing – not enough to REALLY matter in terms of getting things done, but it adds a touch of nuance to interactions.
Overall Skyrim doesn’t add a lot to Oblivion other than being another chapter in the (very long) saga; there are no vast changes to gameplay and, indeed, a lot of the sidequests seem like they’ll be pretty similar. You can again join a mages’ guild, a mercenary guild, an assassin’s guild, and a thieves’ guild, and I think another one I haven’t found yet, plus you can choose to join either the Imperial or rebel legion. Character creation and combat are pretty similar. The menu system and to some degree the leveling system are overhauled for the better (fewer attributes, but more skills, and the addition of perks). They’ve also added or improved the ability to create and improve your items at forges, workbenches, alchemy labs, even cooking spits – not something I’ve done a lot of yet, but I definitely forsee myself doing more of it in the future. But most of those changes are minor or cosmetic, so if you were so-so on Oblivion and were hoping Skyrim would vastly up the ante, you may be disappointed. But if you, like me, only wanted Oblivion to go on forever, then go get immersed in Skyrim today. And if you’ve never played either, then, well…assess very carefully how many waking hours you want to spend on a game before you jump in. 🙂 I’m already getting antsy to fire it up tonight, the first game I’ve felt that way about since…Portal 2.
Anyone else losing their life to Skyrim right now? What other games are you playing?