Bethesda Game Studios has a knack for creating enormous playable worlds that give gamers hundreds of hours worth of play time. Just like what we saw in Fallout 3, The Elder Scrolls franchise gives players an incredible amount of freedom to do whatever they want, even if that doesn't include following the main story arc.
The follow-up (though notably not a direct sequel) to 2006's Oblivion, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim has easily been one of the most anticipated role-playing games in recent memory. It's the genre standout for this holiday season, and we've already been racking up the hours in the enormous land of Skyrim.
Say goodbye to your social life. Skyrim successfully conjures the same addictive "just-one-more-quest" mentality that the other Elder Scrolls games are so well known for creating. Even though Bethesda Game Studios' core attitude toward the series hasn't really evolved by leaps and bounds, there are enough clever and logical tweaks to the formula that result in an even more satisfying experience.
Leveling-up is a much more dynamic process now as players will automatically upgrade based on their own strengths. Love to use one-handed weapons? Your skill points will shoot up quicker the more you use daggers and small blades. Once a new level is achieved, players can then use an impressive constellation system to assign perks. There's a lot of stats to keep track of, but Skyrim presents all the data in a practical fashion.
Items, weapons, magic, and the game map are all easily accessible, but there is still no way to bind items to some sort of quick-equip system. Like other titles with similar functionality, it can occasionally break up the action.
In terms of presentation, Skyrim may not be oozing with the same voice talent and motion capture production values that games like Uncharted 3 and Batman: Arkham City are loaded with. In fact, some of the performances from non-playable characters are straight up bland. Instead, Skyrim's untouchable features lie in the mind-blowing size of the explorable land and the seemingly endless number of different story branches and arcs that can be discovered and completed.
Of course a game as massive as Skyrim isn't without its share of glitches. I've already downloaded an update to the game and it hasn't even hit stores yet. I'd highly recommend installing the game onto your system (if you're playing on Xbox 360) which should improve load times. Regardless, you still may run into some characters clipping through walls, your character getting stuck in objects, or quick little lags when opening up the menu system.
I've seen and played Skyrim on a number of occasions before receiving the final game and each time a developer was on hand to field questions, there would always be some mention--even if jokingly--about how Skyrim was perhaps "too big." To be clear, I'd never complain about a title offering too much in terms of gameplay and content, but there is a piece of me that regrets knowing I'll never be able to see every last detail the team has incorporated into the game.
Of course, this probably a good problem with the game--but be forewarned, Skyrim can be beyond overwhelming at times. It might be the most accessible Elder Scrolls game yet, but it is probably not something that "Joe" casual gamer can just pick up and digest. On the other hand, if there was ever a game to introduce an RPG-hopeful to, Skyrim is it.
In a holiday season that is flooded with triple-A blockbuster titles, it's safe to say that Skyrim is undoubtedly one the best values this holiday season.
To start with a confession, I'm not what you'd call a fan of dungeons, dragons, and the like (which is to say, the fantasy genre). In fact, my official 20-sided die D&D career came to an end somewhere around the sixth grade. So it may come as a surprise that I've spent more time playing the various Elder Scrolls games than probably any other gaming franchise, going all the way back to Morrowind on the PC back in 2001 (followed by Oblivion, and now Skyrim).
But if you look at it another way, it's not that out of character at all. I've always been especially interested in the creation of virtual worlds, and the ideas of choice and consequence in interactive entertainment. What always struck me as special about this game series is its long-standing commitment to building open worlds where players are as free as possible to create their own experiences. [For a more in-depth look at the challenges of building virtual worlds, read this.]
The conceit of Skyrim, beyond the dragons and elves, is that if you can see something, you can go there. That means nearly every building has a door you can enter and has people and things inside to interact with; and that the distant mountain or lake are places you can actually get to, if you're willing to spend the time hoofing it over there. Other games have played with a lot of the same concepts, but no one does it better than this team (the same guys behind the largely similar recent Fallout games).
What you end up is an experience that's almost a year's worth of games packed into one. Run through the dragon-filled main quest, or spend hours gathering resources, making potions, and building weapons to use or sell for a profit. Or, follow the distinct paths of the mages guild or the thieves guild (plus others), which are nearly full-length games by themselves. Even if, like me, you're not automatically up for sword-and-sorcery games, the open-end sense of freedom makes this a game more about how you play rather than what you're playing. And in a world full of games so linear you might as well be on an amusement park ride, that's a big difference.
Of course, Skyrim isn't perfect. Both the current generation of consoles and the basic engine underlying the Elder Scrolls and Fallout games are showing their age. Skyrim uses a cleaned-up version, but compared to recent games such as Battlefield 3, Rage, and Uncharted 3, it's downright ugly at times.
There's also a bit of a wax museum feel, as if you're talking to a series of preprogramed automatons, who can only go through a few stock conversations, and rarely react to changes in the world around them. Of course, these *are* automatons, to be sure, as all video game AI characters are--but the goal of a truly immersive game (or app, such as Siri) is to make you at least come close to forgetting that for a few minutes. Recent games such as Heavy Rain, Dragon Age, or even the Mass Effect series, have gone much further in this critical Turing-test-like area, and it's one part of this game that really pulls you out of it.
Even with those weaknesses, this is still a triumphant experience--albeit one that requires a serious investment of time to play. It'll be hours before you even begin to scratch the surface, and the game is not designed for short pick-up-and-play sessions--but after more than a few all-night Skyrim benders, it's well worth the lost sleep.