Games like The Elder Scrolls series appeal to me on a level deep in my brain – a place that compels me to take anything that isn’t bolted down and stuff it in my pockets. When The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim hit my doorstep, I knew that I was about to embark on another 100 hours of stealing everything under the sky. Here are the confessions of Knightshade Dragon – a Skyrim hoarder.
The game opens with us riding in the back of a horse-drawn wagon. It is Morndas, the 17th of Last Seed, 4E 201. Captured by the Stormcloaks, we enter a village as our fellow captives pray to their respective Gods. Our fate seems sealed. As our fellow condemned step forward as their names are called, we are addressed to identify ourselves. It is at this moment that you’ll choose your race, body type, and characteristics. As with previous titles, your choices will have an impact on how you are treated, so choose wisely. The dragon that descends on the village as you are about to be executed won’t care what race you pick though – welcome to Skyrim.
Skyrim begins over 200 years after the events of Oblivion. The Emperer Uriel Septim is long since gone and civil war has broken out between the two ruling factions of the world. The Elder Scrolls have predicted the return of a dragon named Alduin – the Nordic God of Destruction. Our player is the last of the Doväkiin – the Dragonborn, and it is our destiny to save the world from Alduin’s wrath. Before we can become that hero however, it’s time to rid the citizenry of their shiny objects.
“I have a waited a long time for you, Champion of Old Tamriel.”
Soon after getting started you’ll be introduced to the new interface. Looting a body and then hitting B brings you to a four way compass marker – magic, map, items, and skills. Pressing in the appropriate direction brings up a vertical tab menu system that quickly shows you what you are carrying or wearing, and whether it will help or hinder your stats. The system is simplicity itself, and all items, magic, and skills are subdivided into larger pools like weapons, apparel, and books, keys, etc. Spell types are split into their respective schools like Destruction, Restoration, Conjuration, and Illusion. If all this sounds so much simpler than Oblivion, you would be absolutely correct. While some might worry that simplification is a bad thing, in my time with it I found it to flow more naturally.
Skyrim trims the fat, cutting down both on the number of stats to manage as well as the active skills methods which led to clear exploits in previous games. In fact, the choice of race has become more important than your initial chosen skills as each has some specific bonuses unique to them. Orcs can use a berserker rage, Argonians can breathe under water, and High Elves regenerate magic, as examples. The concept for Skyrim’s skill advancement is even simpler than that – simply do what you enjoy doing and you’ll get better at it. That part isn’t new, but being able to more tightly control your specializations based on your behavior and the items you put in your hand is absolutely new. Put a sword and shield in your hands and you’ll get better at both of those items through use. Casting Destruction spells like Fireball improves your Destruction magic. If you want to summon ever-larger creatures, then simply summon smaller ones until you get better at it. In my case it meant a healthy amount of stealth, lockpicking, pickpocketing, and when things got hairy, Destruction. With the correct perks selected you can use both hands with a single spell selected to combine it into a more powerful version. With weapons you can mix and match almost at will, selecting a pair of swords, a sword and staff, a pair of maces, or any combination therein. The system is flexible and reminds me of another fantastic AAA title called Bioshock – high praise indeed.
The real progression system kicks in when you level up. By adding to your own Health, Magica, or Stamina you’ll increase your hit points, magic pool, or stamina to swing weapons, use a bow, and deflect blows. Once you’ve made this critical choice (as it will somewhat define you as you begin to specialize) you’ll select your perk. Taking a note from their own stable of Fallout titles, you’ll be able to select perks that raise existing skill levels or grant new abilities. In my case it allowed me to not only pickpocket more effectively, but eventually I could relieve people of items that they had equipped! There is nothing quite so satisfying as taking a weapon off of somebody’s hip while still smiling to their face. The perks, as in Fallout, require a certain skill level to select. For instance, to get the Silent Roll perk you need a sneak level of 50. It ensures that the pacing remains consistent and balanced throughout the game without letting you select perks that tip the scales too far. The perks are plucked from the very constellations of Skyrim – a concept reflected in the selection interface by pressing up on the thumbstick to reach them. Each skill represents a point in the starmap, again feeding that part of my brain that insists on getting every point of the constellation.
Going back to my rampant hoarding problem, I knew I’d have to pop a few locks to fill my pockets. The lockpicking system is a familiar one. You’ll use the left stick to rotate the pick, and the right stick to rotate the lock. When the pick is in the right position, the lock will allow you to rotate it more, eventually opening it. Multiple lock levels mean you’ll have to be slower and more precise to crack a lock, but the game doesn’t stop you from attempting. Since the lock picks are very fragile, you’ll just end up using a stack of them to reach the creamy center of that locked safe.
“I saw a mudcrab the other day. Filthy creatures”
One of the most commonly cited issues with Oblivion was the repetition of the phrase above. The folks at Bethesda have always been good at listening to their fans and, much to their credit, addressed the possibility of repetitive dialog within Skyrim. The world is being torn apart by a conflict between two warring factions, and the people who inhabit the world are very aware of it. They don’t believe in the superstitions of Dragons, they complain about the oppressive rule of their Jarls, and they are very aware of your race. Being a dark elf in Skyrim means catching all sorts of oppression and racism, but being a dark elf thief just means you’ll hear all sorts of stern warnings from citizens and guards alike. In fact, it seems that the team has put a lot more effort into making the races unique in every way, and not just graphically. As the game progresses and the first dragons are seen in the world, NPCs will express a real fear. The world feels more alive than any Elder Scrolls title before it.
There is one area that has always been incredible for this series – the music. As with Morrowind and Oblivion, Skyrim gets the full orchestral treatment with Jeremy Soule at the helm once again. With the soundtrack spanning four CDs, there is no shortage of beautiful music for literally every occasion in the game. Quiet melodies blanket the lush forests, crisp and booming drums punctuate the blistering wind that whips through snowcapped mountaintops, and dulcet tones warm stately manors of the more affluent Jarls of the regions. There are few soundtracks that non-gamers could enjoy, but the soundtrack for Skyrim is beautiful music regardless of the consumer.
I can’t write a piece about giant dragon armies without talking about the language of the Doväkiin. The language of Dragons isn’t just window dressing, but an integral part of the game experience. As Dragonborn, you will eventually learn portions of the language of dragons. Every word a dragon utters is a word of power, and these words of power enable them (and eventually you) to control time, project force, alter the weather, and far more. You learn these words by recovering ancient stones that reveal the word itself, but these words can only be activated by infusing it with the soul of a dragon. These shouts, or Th’um, are comprised of up to three words that are incredibly powerful when combined. You speak these words by holding in the right bumper, and holding it for longer allows you to speak one, two, or three words from your selected shout. The language itself sounds gruff and aggressive. Since these words perfectly augment any self-made class you select, you’ll use these shouts pretty extensively.
Taking down a dragon or plumbing the depths of a Dwemer ruin doesn’t have to be a solo adventure. Through your actions you’ll eventually be able to recruit an entire host of various characters, bringing them to battle up to two at a time. These characters aren’t just equipment mules this time around, giving advice to the player, contributing to conversations, and generally interacting with the world. This version of the Radiant AI system delivers on the promises made in the past.
“You sleep rather soundly for a murderer.”
A big part of the Elder Scrolls titles is the interactions between the various guilds of the world. All of the guilds are present and accounted for, with each having their own sets of quests to complete beyond the main story line. As before, succeeding in the guild will grant you some level of mastery over that guild, but also as before, becoming the grandmaster of a guild doesn’t grant you a great deal beyond the various quest rewards. As awesome as it is to be Grandmaster of the Mage College, it would be even better if you could perhaps set some policy, get additional income from the guild itself, or other perks of the job. Still, these guild missions serve as a big highlight to the game, with the Dark Brotherhood being even darker than before. As for Knightshade Dragon, he found his way through the sewers and discovered the Thieves Guild, rapidly rising through the ranks as well as emptying the pockets of all of the members. Since the Guild lets him fence his various stolen items that he hasn’t placed into his cushy home in Whitehold, it was important for him to find this fence early.
Beyond the guilds, there are options to do more in Skyrim to better your situation. Every single thing in the game has some use or another. Pelting a freshly killed wolf and using a tanner station lets you process the pelt into leather or leather strips. This leather when combined with a forge or a workbench allows you to create new armor or improve your existing armor. Similarly, ore you mine or find allows you to create ingots to create weapons, armor, or improve both. Selecting additional perks grants you access to Elven item crafting, Plate armor, and even enchanted gear. Similarly, all of the various flora, fauna, and other items in the world can be combined using alchemy to discover and craft various potions and draughts. Again with a note from Fallout, there are also various books that can grant you spells or raise the level of your skills. You could spend hundreds of hours just gathering and crafting if you wanted – absolutely nothing goes to waste in the world of Skyrim.
“We welcome you freely, outlander.”
Much ado has been made about the animation system of the previous games in the Elder Scrolls series. Combat felt very ‘floaty’, and the character models often looked like they were stiff or sliding along the surfaces of the world. With Skyrim, the folks at Bethesda have built a complete new system called the Creation Engine. This engine allows greater density of items in the world, better dynamic lighting work, greater shadow detail, dynamic climate and inclement weather like rain and snow, and far more. In an interview, Todd Howard explained that there is now a system that allows the game to dynamically adjust things like conditional quests such as assassinations of targets or items to be stolen. While working through the various Thieves Guild missions I encountered an instance of this while recovering a specific artifact. I completed the mission, realized that I didn’t like the way it played out, backed up to a previous save, and found that the mission had completely changed. Skyrim already offers over 100 hours of gameplay, and introducing this sort of dynamism in response to what missions you complete and who you interact with just adds another layer of depth to the already deep world.
Graphically, the Creation Engine does a great job of rendering the world of Skyrim, and at a great level of density. Unfortunately, the aging Xbox 360 hardware suffers under the weight of the engine. There are times when the framerate stutters a bit, load times are roughly 12-15 seconds for large areas or 4-5 seconds for small areas, and there is a bit of pop-in at the further edges of the draw distance. Since the game uses the Havok engine, you’ll see similar issues that you may have seen in other titles. This means you’ll see dead bodies do the jitter dance, clipping issues, and the occasional odd levitation. During my play time in the world of Skyrim I also ran into one hard lock issue. None of these issues are new, but they are infrequent enough to be easily fixed.
Back in the world of Knightshade Dragon, it was time to get some up close and personal action with the weapons of Skyrim. Picking up a sword and shield, I found the combat to be a vast improvement over the previous title. Raising a shield to block an incoming strike staggered my character, and swinging my sword felt like it carried real weight. The only hitch is that the collision is a bit of a mixed bag. There were many times that my weapon clearly connected with almost no effect. I know Knightshade is a weak little thief, but there should be some effect, right? Still – the combat engine is so improved over its predecessor (especially for assassination when coupled with 6X damage) that almost any criticism is just nit picking.
“Yesterday, it was hard, today, it is easy.”
The most difficult reviews to write are games like Skyrim. Bad titles are easy to write reviews for as their flaws stick out in obvious ways. Skyrim delivers a mind blowing level of content wrapped in a package that would be worth the experience at twice the price. The flaws are so minor, especially when compared to all of the things that this game does right, that it’s difficult to even quantify anything less than a perfect score. Congratulations to Todd Howard and his team – Skyrim is, and by a dragon-sized margin, my top pick for RPG of the 2011. And now…off to pick more pockets.