Review: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

I’m an axe-wielding Imperial Dragonborn named Rose. I travel the countryside and protect those in need…when I’m not stealing the food off of their table. My Shouts are lethal. My Thu’um is impressive…or so I’ve been told. I’m wanted in several locations for thievery, but my status as a Thane keeps me in good standing with the public. But when I go to bed, I’m a 22-year-old video game writer who’s unfortunately stuck in the real world without any special powers of note. Well, I can sense when a TV is on without looking. Does that count?

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim allows for all of those fantastic exploits, and much more. While hanging onto the threads of the main plot is a behemoth task in itself, the near ridiculous amount of quests to take on that offer nearly as much fulfillment as the journey throughout the Nord homeland trying to uncover the exact reasons why majestic dragons have returned to wreak havoc upon the land. It’s an enormous, often intimidating game that plays you as much as you play it.

You’ll be exploring the continent of Tamriel, a land rich with intriguing and involving lore, most of which that can be found scattered throughout the numerous tomes found in the dungeons, strongholds, and villages you’ll pass through during any one of the numerous errands you’ll undertake. It’s obvious that the Elder Scrolls lore has been lovingly imbued into nearly reach of the continent, which should delight long-time followers of the series and invoke many of the same feelings its predecessor, Morrowind, did.

It’s up to you to create and customize the character you’ll be spending all your future nights with, and Skyrim offers a wealth of options with which to do so. Choose between Nord, Imperial, Dark Elf, Argonian, and other familiar Elder Scrolls mainstays, then re-skin your avatar from the hair on their head down to the shoes on their feet. While the character editor is nowhere near as engaging or complete as, say, that found in Saints Row: The Third, it’s still quite robust. I came away with a wild-looking, raven-haired Imperial with a bloody handprint emblazoned across her cheeks. And though she has a face only a mother could love, she’s been my conduit through which I could communicate with the vast continent of Tamriel.

After you’ve established the look you want to carry with you throughout your adventure, though, you won’t be choosing a class. Instead, you’ll grow into your specialization throughout the game as you play. With my own game, I favored swinging an enormous, two-handed battle axe. Thus, I gained proficiency in two-handed weaponry. I had a penchant for using heavy armor to protect my character, so as I took blows while equipped with hulking pieces of armor, I received experience for doing so. Skyrim awards proficiencies according to your play style and does the same for all skill trees, including magicka and other skill sets.

Despite the skill progression that occurs naturally throughout the shape of your game, you still do (like most RPGs) have more tangible control over how your character will grow. When you level up, you’re given the opportunity to beef up one of your main attributes, such as health, magicka, and stamina. With each level you’re also allotted a perk point to spend on enhancements aside from magicka, etc. This flexible leveling system allows for minute customization and a little more freedom, though can also be a little overwhelming for newcomers to the series.

As far as putting those customizations to good use, combat resembles that of most other Bethesda outings. A hefty swing of your sword rarely connects in a satisfying manner with your prey, often evoking feelings of flailing a weapon around through the air rather than the clash of flesh and steel, though Fallout-inspired slow-motion kills tend to liven up combat that has otherwise dulled. Movement is less cumbersome than in the past thanks to the third-person views’ allowing for a more complete grasp of your surroundings rather than feeling like a Monitor floating around in Forge mode. Melee combat will likely be your go-to set of attacks, but magic is often interesting as well.

While magic plays an important role in your adventure, perhaps the most intriguing plot-related part of your arsenal is the ability to Shout in the language of dragons. You’ll discover words throughout the landscape that are in the dragons’ tongue, and once you do, words of power are unlocked and at your disposal. Defeating dragons and absorbing their souls grant these abilities as well. Shouts vary in efficacy and usage. Some send a powerful gust ripping through the air, some grant lightning-fast movement, and others grant you the ability to, like a dragon, breathe fire. Shouts are assigned their own cool down gauge and are used separately from the various other magic spells available.

The lore surrounding the Shouts, in reality, is more interesting and enchanting than the Shouts themselves. They can conjure some impressive destructive forces, but what is most interesting about the Shouts is the act of uncovering and absorbing them. It all seems so mystical, and it’s quite majestic to behold. The act of enacting a Shout is quick and simplistic. I preferred discovering the words of power rather than using Shouts.

There’s never a shortage of quests to undertake, whether you’re getting in good with a gang of cannibals, navigating through a series of underground tunnels, or traveling through “the Throat of the World” to speak to the Greybeards. Your quest log will be pleasantly plump with all the various undertakings expected of you. It’s often dizzying to think of exactly how many possible side missions you can take on, and when setting out on your journey it can be difficult to decide where you want to start and how to proceed. The waypoint system is a bit ineffective as well, offering mainly a general direction in which you should travel only with an arrow that is a little hard to discern where, exactly, it wants you to go, but that is usually corrected with a trip to the menu.

The gorgeous menu interface and navigational system is marred by unfortunate loading times, at least on the Xbox 360, and like many of Bethesda’s other offerings, hits the occasional road bump with disappearing corpses, stuttering movements, and the horrid game-interrupting bugs that tend to get you stuck within a part of the map, struggling to get away until you realize you’re doomed to loading your last save. It’s obnoxious, but something I’ve come to expect from Bethesda (which is quite unfortunate) and while the bugs are strange and usually come out of nowhere, the game is still very playable, unlike more game-shattering issues like we’ve seen with other high-profile games like The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword.

The wide world of The Elder Scrolls V: Skryim has nearly unlimited opportunities for dedicated gamers to live the life of fantasy and adventure you’ve always dreamt of. With the potential for hundreds of hours spent wandering from one area of the massive world to the next. There’s never a shortage of quests to complete, people to meet, or secrets to uncover, and that’s just when playing the main quest. While the game is still riddled with many of the same unsavory issues that seem to be a mainstay in most Bethesda titles, none are deal or game-breaking, and mere blemishes on an otherwise polished stone. Skyrim remains a sprawling journey that’s just perfect for those looking to spare a few hundred hours of their lives living as someone else. A hero. A Dragonborn.

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