Eighteen years ago the most hardcore gamers of their time operated a lot differently than you and I do now. Those men and women didn’t have computers that were small enough to tote around in a backpack. They didn’t have fancy monitors or gaming keyboards and mice. And no… they didn’t even have graphical user interfaces like the one you’re using to read this review. What do you think one of them would say if we were to go back in time and show them the awesome new ways we have to game in the new millennium? They would probably recognize a monitor, keyboard or mouse if they saw one. What if they saw the name of one of the longest running video game series of all time? There are good reasons why The Elder Scrolls have been with us for so long. Dive in and I’ll show you why.
The latest perilous story from The Elder Scrolls takes us north into the icy mountains of Skyrim. 200 years have passed since the chosen hero of Cyrodiil thwarted the plans of an extremist cult, the Mythic Dawn, to tear open a permanent gate into the realm of Oblivion. Now, in present day Tamriel, fate will once again smile upon an unsuspecting soul and name them “Dovahkiin!” What’s a Dovahkhiin, you ask? Well, you see, it’s a being that was born with the body of a man and soul of a dragon. Some of the locals in Skyrim might call them a “Dragonborn.” Basically, having the soul of a dragon allows you to learn the language of dragons, which in turn, allows you to do a plethora of other awesome dragony things! Confused yet? That’s ok, let me start from the beginning.
Skyrim opens, as patrons of the series would expect, with your character bound as a prisoner of the Empirical Army. Two days earlier you had been captured alongside three rebels of the Empire while trying to cross the southern border into Cyrodiil. Now your fate seems bound to that of the rebels as you approach the town of Helgen where soldiers intend to remove your head. Following one of the Nordic rebels, you approach the Headsman’s block. The Headsman pulls back his axe… and viola! A dragon appears! Without hesitation, you must take advantage of some situational irony and make your way out of Helgen. Once you’ve made it to the next town you’re free to experience the game in its full, non-linear, mountain climbing, dungeon crawling, beast slaying goodness. Don’t worry, we’re not done talking about dragons. There are just some things better left explained in context!
You’re probably wondering how having the soul of a dragon helps you kill a winged serpent that’s several times your size. No, you won’t be able to guilt the dragons to death because you’re souls are kin. What you can do, on the other hand, is learn to speak the dragon language. Some words in the dragon language are referred to as words of power, or a Thu’um, and allow the speaker to control things like the elements, gravity, time, and even to call a dragon to help you destroy your foes! Following quickly after your departure from Riverwood you’ll be called upon by the Greybeards. The Greybeards are a group of men who have dedicated their lives to understanding and mastering the art of the Thu’um. They do not have souls of dragons, which means they had to spend decades learning to do what they’ll teach you in only a few minutes. Once they’ve taught you to speak the infamous Fus Ro Dah (Unrelenting Force), you’ll be sent on your way to tackle Skyrim however you choose. As you progress through the game, the Greybeards will give you hints about where to find more words of power which can either make a Thu’um stronger or give you all new words of power to use.
So, you’ve got your freedom, a nifty dragon shout and all the time in Tamriel. What’s next for the Dragonborn? Every fan of The Elder Scrolls should know the answer to this question. It’s time to ignore the main quest line and explore the world. But you can’t just wander aimlessly… you need side quests! When it comes to doing side quests, Skyrim really hits home by making the main quest line less than ten percent of the total quests. Don’t let this number discourage you — there are 244 quests in all and more than 300 points of interest on the map. Bethesda even provided us with a nice stats system that keeps track of how many quests and quest lines you’ve completed.
Most of the quests you’ll come across in Skyrim are not just busy tasks to distract you from the main plot. They’re more likely to be attached to a faction quest line. In this respect, many things will feel fondly familiar for fans of previous installments. You’ll have the opportunity to get your stealth on with the Thieves Guild, vicariously release your frustration with mankind in the Dark Brotherhood, and even get nostalgic with the Blades. In addition, other traditional factions in The Elder Scrolls have been replaced with some more culturally significant groups. The Companions are a group of fighters that function much like the Fighter’s Guild from earlier titles and instead of being referred to as a guild, mages gather at the College in Winterhold to train in the arcane arts. In addition, Skyrim brings a few new optional quests to spice things up. You’ll have the ability to join the Bard’s College and even turn the tide of the civil war by joining either the Empirical Army or the Stormcloaks in their struggle to gain control of the province. In case you forgot, the civil war is why the Empirical Army almost cut off your head in the prolog, so you know this quest line is worth checking out.
Considering how many side quests are available, there are plenty of extra tasks to complete to keep the game fresh. These side quests and faction quest lines do a lot of productive things for your character development. For example, if a quest line has ten quests and each quest happens in a different point of interest, you’ll manage to unlock ten new locations on your map to fast travel to. Because the game play area is so large, you’ll need these fast travel points to avoid spending several extra hours traveling. Of course, you can’t forget all of the awesome unique armor, weapons and loot you’ll find!
While the side quests are fun, I was actually a little disappointed in the lack of depth Bethesda gave them this time around. In previous titles the faction quest lines were long, detailed and told a story that made it extremely easy to buy into the faction’s way of life. Those quests sometimes rivaled the length and difficulty of the main plot which I found particularly outstanding in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. As I mentioned before, there are lots of different factions and side quests to participate in which adds some much needed diversity to the game. But the faction quest lines in Skyrim were usually short and didn’t provide me with a sense of accomplishment like I had felt from doing them in Oblivion. For example, when I joined the Companions in Whiterun, I was able to complete the entire quest line in about two hours. Granted, my character was very well developed by the time I stumbled upon this faction, but the dungeons were short and it felt like I was being given rewards just for joining and doing petty tasks.
Dragons and quests aside, Skyrim has a ton of improvements over its older brother that are noteworthy. If you’ve played The Elder Scrolls games before, one of the first things you’ll notice that’s new about Skyrim are the character creation and development processes. Like older titles in the series, you’ll get the chance to customize your characters race, gender, and almost every facial feature one could fathom wanting to change. Certain races have special skills to take advantage of, like the High Elf’s quick magicka regeneration or the Khajiit’s night vision. This is actually where Skyrim takes the game in a new and more efficient direction.
You don’t have to spend a lot of extra time picking what skills you want your character to focus on. What’s better is that your race will have very little to do with what type of fighter you develop. If you favor playing the game with a great sword, all you have to do is use it and that skill will become more efficient. Tired of swinging a huge piece of steel? Throw up your mitts of fiery doom and destroy your foes with magic. It’s really that simple! One of my favorite parts about the new development system are perks. Similar to Bethesda’s reboot of Fallout, your character will gain a perk point that you can apply towards a certain skill as long as your skill level is high enough to receive it. For example, you won’t be able to gather materials and craft Daedric armor and weapons at the beginning of the game, you have to be a master at smithing before you can apply a perk point that enables you to do it. Early in the game you’ll find a nifty way to expedite the learning process of either melee, magic or stealth skills which will help you level up faster. I don’t want to give away too many of the game’s secrets though. You’ll have to learn that one on your own!
The music scores in the game are what most of us would expect from a medieval themed game. Most of the music has orchestral backing which adds to the epic proportions of the game and appropriate music is used for fighting, dialog, and general wilderness roaming. Bethesda even went as far as hiring new voice actors to add to the authentic feeling of a northern mountainous realm. Though they did still improve on the amount of stock responses the NPC’s give, Bethesda still seems to need help in this area. It’s easy to walk across a city and hear the infamous “Arrow to the knee” quote a few times from the guards. Again, this is a minor gripe, but it’s just too obvious to go unmentioned. All things considered, the voice acting is very good quality which Bethesda has enjoyed for all of their games for the past decade or so.
At the end of the day, when I’m done doing research about this game and playing through it for the second time, I know there will be a special place in my nerdy heart for The Elder Scrolls. Bethesda geared this series in a way that made Skyrim a title with a lot to live up to. They were able to improve the game’s visual quality enough to compete with current generation RPG’s in its class. They conceived an incredibly cohesive and interactive story. And they even managed to give us dragons to kill which hasn’t been a fun thing to do in video games for a long time. All of those great aspects of Skyrim certainly make up for any of my complaints about stock NPC responses, but I’m having a lot of trouble forgiving Bethesda for taking away the rich faction quest lines that I adore so much from Oblivion. If I was able to choose for Bethesda, I would have gladly sacrificed some area on the map to make room for extra quests on the disc. At any rate, the game is amazing. If you don’t find time to play it, you’ll be missing out on many years worth of quotes and hilarious internet memes on one of the most seamless and rich gameplay experiences to date.
I give The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim 4.5 Azura’s Star’s out of 5.