To call Bethesda’s open-world RPGs “massive” would be an understatement of… well, massive proportions. There aren’t many games that can encompass such a wide landscape and still pack it full of interesting locations, characters, and stories. Does The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim continue this heritage even after Fallout 3‘s departure from Bethesda’s fantasy-leaning series?
Yes. Yes, yes, yes, a thousand times yes. Skyrim melds the remarkably user-friendly gameplay of Fallout 3 with the bread-and-butter writing and legend The Elder Scrolls series is known for.
The game opens with the character bound and on his or her way to the executioner. When a dragon, thought long gone, appears and disrupts the proceedings, the Dragon Born’s trial by fire proves to be as exhilarating and entertaining as the most action-oriented of games.
Truly, the balance between action and combat and core role-playing game mechanics is Skyrim’s greatest accomplishment. There are no stats to buff, no levels to grind to. Instead, using abilities repeatedly is the only way to build up your stats and unlock new points for the masterfully created perk system.
That’s really the inherent genius of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. It’s as open a world as the Rockstar epics we’ve come to know and love. You can play it like a hack-and-slash first-person combat game or you can lean heavily on the RPG mechanics to spec your character the way you want. There’s something so elegantly streamlined about the way you interact with the characters and the world. It can hardly feel like a Bethesda game at times.
As you increase your stats you’ll open up the constellations themselves to explore new abilities and powers. Something so elegant as to look to the heavens for your next dual-wielding ability or passive perk needs to be experienced to fully understand it’s genius.
The only way to progress your character through the unlimited number of levels is to DO, to remain as active as possible, and to seek out new enemies and quests. And see you shall. Seemingly every inch of Skyrim has fanciful new enemies to slay or new NPCs to converse with, each with their own unique story.
You’ll certainly want to as NPCs will send you out into the world to discover strange places and characters. Certainly interacting with the different races in Skyrim and hearing how they view the world will make for motivation enough, but it’s the quests themselves that will keep you conversing with people for more to do.
Quests genuinely refrain from becoming grocery errands or menial labor, meaning you’ll actually want to pick up the sidequests characters offer up to you. Even the less-than-key quests townspeople would hand out to you are tracked in submenus. Occasionally Fallout 3 would reintroduce NPCs to you by allowing them to nag you incessantly about something they asked you about way back when you were only level 5. Not so anymore.
Skyrim tracks everything you could possibly need and makes sure to make things conveniently accessible to you at any given time. Even the on-screen compass supports this design decision by using icons so you’ll know exactly what kind of landmark you’re looking for as you explore the massive open world.
And how have I made it this far without praising the game’s engine? Let’s face it. Fallout 3 and The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion were ugly by today’s standards. The characters themselves seemed to be hit repeatedly in the face with a shovel fresh from moving manure all day. Skyrim‘s new engine makes even the homeliest NPC look interesting and lively in his own right. Even menial items like the lowly potion ingredient make for graphical splendor in the game’s menus.
Combat and spells are made all the more visceral and enjoyable thanks to the slow-motion killcams and the effects they have on enemies and the environment. Lighting the world on first just to see what burns or raining electricity down on an opponent before switching to your two-handed battleaxe doesn’t get any better than this. So, what is there to complain about?
Even Bethesda’s writing is at it’s best in Skyrim, leaving only nagging technical issues left to complain. AI companions are as dumb as they come, frequently sticking right in your way, possibly while you’re trying exit a door or fighting a giant. Bethesda still hasn’t learned how to make paths to out of the way locations as obvious as they need to be. How many times do I have to attempt to walk up an unclimbable cliff before you’ll provide me with a trail of some kind?
Regardless, these are the kinds of issues that only professional critics will point out. The gamer in everyone will launch Skyrim in their PS3 and sit in awe at the masterpiece Bethesda Game Studios has created.
In terms of raw value, $60 seems like a paltry sum for the massive amounts of content and gameplay within Skyrim‘s heights. It will certainly prove to be the Game of the Year contender everyone can agree upon and continue that sentiment through 2012.
PlayStation LifeStyle’s Final Score
+ Excellent Game Design
+ Superb Writing and Exploration