It’s amazing just how large some games can become. In the case of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, it’s even more astounding that it’s actually all just a part of an even bigger universe. The lore from this first person RPG experience is so vast, so expansive; it’s hard to imagine anyone wanting to tackle the whole. But what really separates this game from the flock, is the part where every single implementation of its undeniable atmosphere is done to near perfection. With its unrivaled environment and plethora of content, it sets a new standard, redefining the RPG genre and possibly the industry as a whole.
The story of any chosen character race starts in a town called Helgen, where the execution of a man will take place that just murdered the king. That is, until a sudden dragon attack changes not only the situation, but the entire shift of all political and social context within the lands of Skyrim. Soon after that, the player will get involved in a wide variety of issues concerning the land and its people, in just about any possible way; each with a set of choices and consequences. What befalls the world’s fate from there on is left to the discretion of the avid adventurer, but one thing is certain: There will be lots to accomplish in this vivid universe.
It’s impossible for a game of this magnitude to boast the most pristine textures throughout its gargantuan map, filled with towns, cities, hideouts, caves, desolate towers and so much more. Still, what is presented is well up to par and very capable to set one of the grandest atmospheres ever built. Every so often, a scenery of aurora borealis, a distant nightfall or a looming fire in on the horizon will strike awe in anyone viewing it and perhaps even stop players in their tracks, just to marvel at its glory. This is exponentially amplified by the most driving music to ever grace a game. The powerful and rising choirs and orchestras, which dynamically flow along the pace of the game, feel so personally implemented; it remains an emotional high point well throughout its virtually endless timespan.
All these inspiring settings and locales, all a mere stone throw away, offer a free roaming experience that can only be called an ‘exploration addiction’. With literally hundreds of interest points across the tundra’s, mountains and swamps, there is always a new place that looks alluring to check out. This way, it’s well possible to lose entire days without realizing; that’s how immersive this game becomes. Of course, this wouldn’t be possible without compelling gameplay to back it up, but Skyrim makes good use of its vast source material in order to create as much appealing and differing content as it can.
As the one that is Dragonborn, all people, both good and bad, will turn their attention to the adventurer’s gaze. That may result in various attacks from stray bandits, wild animals to even powerful giants or huge dragons. When wandering the fields, it’s possible to suddenly see the skies turn black as a shadow descends upon the lands, after which the clamoring choirs start their chant. These intense dragon battles are an incredible and unexpected rush each time and as the scenery reacts to it in realtime, it might also ensue to some interesting scenarios. But mostly, people that do not mean any direct harm will need aid; aid that only the Dragonborn can provide.
Interacting and solving problems for common people as well as widespread political and corporate conflicts get displayed in a wide variety of quests. Simple fetch errands get switched up with conversation skills, stealth missions, finesse, killing and lots of dungeon crawling. Most of the time, people will require an unruly patch of land to be ‘cleansed’ from its inhabitants, whatever those may be. Combat is divided between 3 main groups of magic, ranged and melee. And even though not every attack method is as developed as others, the game allows them to be combined and switched up seamlessly in any situations. Choosing one path does not ultimately block the other and in the end, some of all the tricks will come natural towards gameplay.
This is somewhat credited to being able to equip and combine skills in both hands, which for instance allows for a fiery spell while bludgeoning a scary spider with a mace. Naturally, some weapons require both hands and can’t be combined, but a quick access menu of selected “favorites” can be prompted to quickly alternate between styles. Yet, the menu choices of Skyrim are definitely one of its low points. By leaving all choices on the left hand side of the menu, the interface trades in practical use for a visually appealing design; leaving the whole to be more convoluted than it should be. It’s definitely something that can be grown accustomed to quickly, but it’s a strange design choice that makes some skills and interaction like shopping a little more complex.
Additionally, each race receives a special power that can be activated once a day or the Dragonborn’s unique traits can absorb dragon souls and learn their tongue, in the form of powerful shouts. This rechargeable power offers another boost to some of the trickier battles along the way.
There is, of course, not only combat and dungeon crawling in Skyrim. In fact, there’s literally a whole different world outside of the action portion of the game, where other skills can be applied. There are skill trees for smithing, alchemy and enchanting and those all have their respective background, such as making leather out of pelts, collecting ingredients or mining for ore. It’s also possible to cook, chop firewood or complete simple, repetitive labor. And to top off the complete immersion factor, Skyrim also has a wide range of completely random occurrences or ripple effects felt of prior actions. This truly makes the game feel alive.
But the strongest point, which only further amplifies the atmosphere, is that any progression feels natural and helps in leveling the character. As such, there are no useless skills and all of them feel like an integral part of the game, which makes any interaction a joy to do, rather than a repetitive chore. Each level, it’s also possible to choose between a raise in health, magic or stamina used for attacking, plus a perk in any skill tree that helps specialize in certain traits. Becoming better in speech will allow for better dialogue and will ultimately level the character’s prowess even more. Carrying heavy armor soaks up damage and becoming more proficient allows armor rating to go up or weight to be less strenuous. There are a hundred examples and most feel like they’re thought out properly and balanced, instead of just tacked on.
Yet, for being the most exhilarating experience in gaming in a long while, tis not all gold that shines. Skyrim is also filled with tons of small imperfections. Whether they are visual or technical issues, the world and its people have inconsistencies plagued throughout it, blemishing the perfect diamond shine of the game within. Characters disappear in textures, errors in intelligence create breakdowns in society, people stick unnaturally to sceneries or things just randomly appear and disappear; there are dozens of glitches in the system. But still, not a single one or not even several mishaps combined denote any of the magical experience in the atmosphere and varying content that is just so vast that anything else dwindles before it.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is an instant legend amongst games. It’s a game so inspiring, so vast, so superlative to any emotion, it’s an immediate must for any self-respecting gamer; even if the roleplaying genre is less desirable to them. The experience that gets created by its unique atmosphere is unrivaled and easily outmatches even the strongest titles in its generation. It’s far from perfect, but it shows that true perfection comes with minor discrepancies that, while not at all welcome, can be accepted when anything else is so far above the current standard; anything else seems like a distant memory. It’s, again, hard to believe a game this large can also possess so much content that is in every way also equally compelling and well-implemented, but Skyrim delivers on all fronts. With hundreds of hours on the clock, it’s still possible to find new and exciting things throughout its lands and there will always be some dragons to kill. This game is a true contender for awards and anyone would do themselves a service by owning their very own copy.
Editor's note: Upon release, the PS3 version suffered from terrible slowdown and hindering after a certain point, which weren't gamebreaking, but required frequent rest. It has since been patched. The Xbox 360 version on its side has longer load times throughout the game and its separate set of technical issues. These are the only notable differentials between versions.