REVIEW: The Elder Scrolls series is vociferously defended by ardent fans, and with good reason.
A long pedigree and a dedication to ambitious, expansive gameplay often results in enormously detailed environments. But with this ambition comes complexity, and complexity creates bugs. The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion was particularly susceptible to broken dialogue, buggy AI and system crashes.
Where other game developers may have been content to work through these issues, gently eradicating faults and churning out a safe successor to please shareholders, Bethesda Game Studios went back to the drawing board. Skyrim is five years in the making, overseen by the series' stalwart director Todd Howard, crafted carefully and with precision. This is no mere paint-by-numbers RPG; there is a ruthless persistence burned into every encounter. Throughout each ordeal the player is reminded that every conceivable outcome has been studied, checked and laboured over by people who actually give a damn.
The province of Skyrim is a cold, mountainous region frequently beset with violent snowstorms at altitude. Death is easy, a concept reinforced during the opening and now ubiquitous prisoner scene where the player is second in line for execution.
Having just completed the extensive character class selection and customisation, there's little sense of surprise when fate intervenes to prevent Skyrim from becoming the shortest RPG in history. Indeed, the entire scenario is beset by choppy animation and indiscriminate pauses, but happily, the game soon settles into a confident stride when the player is afforded the freedom to roam.
The immediate impression Skyrim makes is one of vastness. The effect is masterfully enhanced with picturesque mountains, sweeping valleys and snow-blanketed outcroppings providing the illusion of depth. The cloud-strewn sky comes into focus after a brief light bloom replicating the players' own focal adjustment. The rivers bubble, whirl and crash over waterfalls whilst indifferent elk look on. Up close, textures lack extreme definition - there is a hardware limitation at play - but at a distance, all is blended to create a living world of remarkable beauty.
Adding to the atmosphere is the incredibly potent score, ably composed by Jeremy Soule. Each encounter is enhanced with dramatic drumbeats, orchestral intermissions and gothic chanting. It's spine-tingling stuff, the mark of absolute quality, and it acts as a backbone to drive home the sense of fear and trepidation accompanying each memorable moment.
Towns are occupied by a varied cast of NPC characters, most more or less content to go about their daily obligations between sunrise and sunset, oblivious to the player. Snippets of conversation can be overheard, even behind closed doors, giving the impression that the world of Skyrim is much more than merely a backdrop. Whilst the NPCs themselves show sufficient variation, it's clear that some voice actors pulled double duty, and the jarring inclusion of American accents seems wholly out of place in this Nord-inspired fantasy world.
Quests are obtained in virtually every corner of Skyrim. They're offered freely, and can be extracted merely by interrupting NPC chatter. They're picked up out in the wild, and granted upon completion of other quests. Some relate to the core of the story arc, while others are merely distractions barely relevant to the greater turmoil - but all play a part in the overall experience, adding depth and colour to an already hugely complex experience.
No eye candy can distract from the central tenet of any RPG: player development. Virtually all combinations of single-handed weapons and spells can be utilised in either hand, and spells can even be equipped in both hands to increase their damage. As players perform an action they gain skill points particular to that act. For example, hitting with a sword will award points in one-handed weapons while casting a healing spell will increase the player's aptitude in restoration magic.
These points also contribute to an overall level, at which time the player can choose one perk from 18 different ability trees stylised as constellations. These range from armour enhancements to weapon techniques, schools of magic, stealth attributes and crafting acumen. Not only is the requisite precursory ability required to advance up each constellation, a minimum number of skill points in that proficiency type also accompanies each passive upgrade. So while in theory players can be a heavily armoured mage who excels at pick pocketing, at least early on, specialising as one of the three RPG archetypes proves most practical.
However, the real showpiece of the skills and abilities is the Dragon Shouts. These words of power are brilliantly interwoven into the game world. While some necessary "words" are taught to the player at prescribed moments in the main story arc, a great many more are learned by being discovered and read from Dragon Walls. These Walls are frequently buried deep in the bowels of the game's more than 150 dungeons, and guarded by a full bestiary of adversaries. As such, the exploration of dungeons is more than a mere loot, experience or resource grind, it's a hugely rewarding task in the player's own quest for greater character power.
The Shouts themselves are often spectacular to behold: inclement weather can be dissipated, or a tumultuous storm called down. In order to unlock a newly discovered word, the player must consume a dragon soul acquired from a vanquished wyrm, thus necessitating more exploration. It's truly an eloquent system.
But the real strength of Skyrim lies in its ability to treat the player with a level of respect not often seen in recent RPG releases. There is very little hand-holding. No real sense that the game has taken over the players' ability to think independently. It's not always possible to know the outcome of a skirmish until it's attempted. No real knowledge of what actions are likely to be damaging or beneficial, only the overwhelming sense that each decision will be persistent, meaningful, and likely to be revisited at a point in time beyond the control of the participant.
Skyrim represents the most ambitious undertaking thus far from Bethesda Game Studios. It's a stunning example of the pursuit of perfection, remarkable in its scope, and nearly flawless in its execution.
Where Oblivion may have caused many to sit on the fence when faced with any new Elder Scrolls release, Skyrim stands tall in redemption. It is, without any shadow of doubt, the best RPG experience available right now.
Ups: A massive and consistent game world that always rewards exploration, usually in unlikely ways. Massive body of lore underpins the game world. Intuitive skill system. Dragon AI makes encounters dynamic. Spectacular visual splendour. Clean interface. Incredible soundtrack.
Downs: Not enough voice actors. Some early choppiness.