Grizzly Gaming

Friday, December 2, 2011

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim - FUS RO DAH!

“The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.” The reason a lot of your friends haven’t been around lately. The reason why this blog hasn’t been updated in weeks. And it’s the game you’re probably wishing you were playing instead of reading this. “Skyrim” is nothing short of epic and developer Bethesda Softworks has a massive hit on its hands. Hell, “Skyrim” is the first Western RPG to be awarded a perfect 40/40 by the well-known Japanese gaming magazine “Famitsu.” This review, honestly, won’t be very in depth. Not because there isn’t much to discuss about this game – actually it’s the opposite. Trying to convey the experience that is “Skyrim” is like trying to describe the ocean to someone from Kansas – you can give someone an idea of what it’s like but they’ll never truly understand unless they experience it first hand. And trust me, you need to experience “Skyrim” first hand.

This installment of the popular Bethesda series takes players to the frozen northlands of Skyrim. The ancestral home of the Nords, Skyrim is embroiled in major political upheaval. As the Empire tries to extend its reach and power into Skyrim, it has been met with a significant amount of resistance from a group of Nords known as Stormcloaks. Led by the charismatic Ulfric Stormcloak, the rebellion is accusing the Empire of trying to diminish their traditional ways of life, while the Stormcloaks are seen as nothing but troublemakers stirring up unnecessary resentment for Empire. Players are free to choose a side in this brewing civil war, but aren’t forced to choose as there is a bigger threat facing Skyrim. Dragons, once thought to be only legend, have returned to Skyrim and are every day endangering more and more of the land’s citizens.

With dragons raining down death on the innocent people and a growing political rift, Skyrim is a dangerous place to be. At the game’s outset, players take up the (usual for Bethesda games) role of a random prisoner who, through unforeseen circumstances, is set free and given free reign. After spending a short amount of time on the main quest, it is revealed that the player is a Dovahkiin – a dragonborn, one born with the soul and blood of a dragon. As a dragonborn, the player is also able to use Shouts, the language of the dragon. Though it takes a lifetime for most to learn even the simplest Shout, being a dragonborn gives you an innate knowledge of Shouts and are able to use them effortlessly.

Now is about the time where writing this review will become difficult. Not just because I’d much (MUCH) rather be playing Skyrim than writing about it but because outside of improved graphics, updated gameplay and an improved engine, not much has changed for the “Elder Scrolls” series. Which, depending on whether you’re a fan of Bethesda’s games, could be great or unsettling.

The most obvious change to longtime fans of the series will be the major graphical overhaul. Those familiar with the way “Oblivion,” “Fallout 3,” and “Fallout: New Vegas” looked will most likely need to do a double-take when seeing “Skyrim” for the first time. Using an entirely new engine, “Skyrim” offers some of the most intensely vibrant and breathtaking environments ever seen in video games. More times than I can count I’ve stopped questing just to look around and take in my surroundings. From rocky plains, dense forests and the numerous jutting mountain ranges, complete with swirling snow that is rendered in real time, I often get more caught up taking in the sights of Skyrim than with finding a new home for my war axe inside the face of a roving bandit (aka a long-winded way of saying I’m usually more interested in looking at pretty stuff than fighting people).

Character models and animation also benefit greatly from the enhanced engine. For example, those who played “Oblivion” will remember (perhaps not so fondly) how your character seemingly skated around the environment when played in the third-person view or how character models looked less like actual people and more like a cloning experiment gone horribly wrong. Character actions/animations in “Skyrim” have a much more visceral feel and look about them, giving players a deeper connection to the world they are affecting. Also, improved character models make NPCs (non-player characters) seem more like actual inhabitants of the world around you and less like pieces of the environment.

To further compliment the incredible visual aspects of “Skyrim,” Bethesda has once again composed and included an amazing arrangement of music and sound design. The music runs the gamut from soft, subtle melodies to pounding and epic at a moment’s notice and always at just the right time. The sound of swords clanging off shields, the sound of a dragon’s leathery wings flapping as it rains down death or the creak of musty skeletons as they advance on you all sound crisp and clear.

Though the visuals have received a major overhaul, the actual gameplay of “Skyrim” hasn’t changed a whole lot since “Oblivion.” Spells and weapons can be used by either hand and dual wielding spells can offer a supercharged version of that spell. Equipping a spell/weapon/shield in either hand can still be done through the inventory menu but “Skyrim” also features an incredibly useful “Favorites” menu. Accessed with the D-pad, any weapon, spell, potion, or piece of armor can be quickly equipped to either hand without needing to open the menu proper.

Speaking of menus, gone is the cumbersome and sometimes complicated menu system of “Oblivion.” Now, the most important aspects of your inventory can be accessed with the press of a button and a flick of the left stick. Pressing the B button brings up the menu selection screen. Up opens your skills, right opens your inventory (like weapons, armor, potions, books, etc.), down opens your map and left opens your magic menu. While the magic and inventory menus are fairly straightforward (also, just a note, your Active Effects are listed at the bottom of the magic menu so you can tell if you’re just suffering from a simple poisoning or picked up a full-blown case of vampirism), the map and skills menu have changed slightly.

Well the map is still a map – that can’t really change all too much. However, the look of it may catch you off guard at first. Rather than a hand-drawn representation of the game world (you know, like a map you’re holding and looking at) the map in “Skyrim” is a zoomed-out overview of the game world itself. Think of it as Google Earth view of Skyrim. As stylish as it is, I sometimes find myself wanting a more traditional looking map. The way the map is now it even includes cloud cover and can obscure your view of details on the ground, sometimes forcing additional exploring that could’ve been avoided with a clearer map. I appreciate Bethesda trying to do something different with the map but most of the time, I’d rather have a regular ol’ map.

While the change to the map wasn’t all that great, the latest stylization of the skills menu is perfect. Each skill tree (of which there are many) is now represented by a constellation. The great thing about “Skyrim’s” skill trees is that any character has the ability to become proficient in any skill. Some character races start off with increased stats in select trees (such as elves or bretons with magic) but in “Skryim,” the more a skill is used, the more it will level up and there is no pool of overall XP. What this means is, completing quests do not offer up XP points as a reward. Increasing individual skills goes to earning your next level, which offers an increase to magicka, health or stamina as well as a skill point that can be added to any skill tree. “Skyrim” is incredibly flexible in terms of allowing the creation of a character that perfectly suits your style of play. My character for instance (a level 41 Imperial named Ulf), is mainly a melee fighter who uses heavy armor and healing spells. As such, the majority of my points were invested into One-Handed weapons, Heavy Armor, Blocking, Smithing (to create some heavy-duty armor and weapons) and Restoration magic with a handful of points in things like Lockpicking, Archery, and Destruction magic.

Though creating a character has been cleaned up and streamlined, combat is largely the same as it was in “Oblivion.” The left and right trigger use whatever is equipped to that hand and combat usually boils down to “mash on the triggers until everything is dead.” To be honest, not every engagement is this simplistic. But for all that Bethesda has talked up the improved combat system, I haven’t noticed much difference between this game and its predecessor.

Even though the combat system may be largely similar to the previous “Elder Scrolls” game, the level of detail that is included in every aspect of “Skyrim” is just astounding. The amount of content available in “Skyrim,” and the variety of that content, can keep the average person occupied for an almost indefinite amount of time. Even a gamer like me, who becomes obsessed with seeing as much of a new game as possible, will probably never see all that “Skyrim” has to offer – it’s just that massive.

Sure, the overwhelming size and amount of content in “Skyrim” could be enough to frighten many away. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve seen plenty of friends’ gaming habits change substantially and many (socially well-adjusted) gamers just won’t have the time required to sink into “Skyrim.” But those who choose to delve into the amazing fantasy world will no doubt find more than enough to keep occupied with and will be treated to what will, no doubt, be the 2011 Game of the Year (sorry, Batman, you need to work on your timing better).


Blogger SteveA10 said...

Great job, Joe!

January 25, 2012 at 2:26 PM  

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An avid gamer and long-time pro wrestling fan, stay tuned to Grizzly Gaming and the Delco Elbow Drop for game reviews and pro wrestling news.

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