There are few games that arrive with as much anticipation as an Elder Scrolls game. Bethesda Studios’ fantasy franchise has moved across platforms and yet it has maintained a sense of epicness that few games manage to equal. That said, when you put this sucker into your PC or console, you ought to know up front that it is a beast. It is a time-sucking vortex that will demand you keep playing well into the early hours. You will easily be playing for 6 hours at a clip and not even notice it. What’s worse is that those 6 hours will be spent barely making a dent in the total run time of over 130 hours. That’s how immersive it is. And that is what makes it such a great game.
OK, so let’s back up and get a bit of story: Skyrim is the fifth installment in the Elder Scrolls series, which take place across the Empire of Tamriel. In this particular installment, you are in (not surprisingly) Skyrim, the northernmost region of Tamriel, a region of mountains and snow that is home to a strong, proud and tough people known as the Nords (think Vikings). As the game begins, Skyrim is embroiled in civil war between the Imperial forces and the rebellious Stormcloaks. As before, you begin the game a prisoner – in this instance, a prisoner on your way to your execution. But you are not alone. Alongside you is the leader of the Stormcloak rebellion, Jarl Ulfric Stormcloak, who murdered the High King of Skyrim in single combat, and his top lieutenants. Just as you are about to have your head separated from your body, a large dragon shows up and starts tearing things up. One problem: dragons haven’t been seen in centuries. And this is no regular dragon, this is Alduin, the World-Eater; destined to consume the world at the end of all time. The dragon’s attack results in an opening for your character to escape and begin your adventuring.
It is these two stories — the return of the dragons and the civil war of Skyrim – that propel the rest of the game’s various stories and factions. You will encounter leaders, thieves, mages, merchants, warriors and people of all races who will either help you or try to stop you on your quests to uncover your destiny as the Dragonborn – the hero of legend who can take the souls of dragons and use their power against them. You will uncover ancient legends, battle all sorts of foes and eventually even enter Sovngarde (the Valhalla of Skyrim’s Nords) as you try to stop Alduin and his dragons.
One of the things the game gets right is that, unlike previous RPGs, you are not forced to pick a particular style of fighting or skills set at the start – i.e. you don’t have to pick whether you want to be a mage or an archer or a warrior at the onset. You just pick your race, sex and name and then start with the game. As you go along, you get to try out everything – fighting with one weapon and shield, fighting with two weapons or one large weapon, being a mage, a thief, a warrior, etc. So eventually you settle on the fighting style that applies to your preferences.
Furthermore, the more you do something, the better you get at it. Want better armor? Smith daggers and increase your smiting. Want to be a better mage? Use magic more often and not just in combat. You want to be a better archer? Use your bow and arrows to take out enemies. Eventually, you will get better at your preferred skills. Not only that, but every time you level up, you get a Perks point which you can use on improving these skills. So that if you want to smith better armor, you level smiting up and then use a Perks point to let you make better armor like Orc armor or Dwarven armor.
In the meantime, prepare yourself for a lot of walking and wandering. Quests in Skyrim break down into a number of basic types: 1. Fetching quests (where someone asks you to retrieve something for them). 2. Elimination quests (where someone asks you to go someplace and eliminate an opponent – a bandit chief, a giant or a dragon being the three most common). 3. Main story quests (which will involve going somewhere and investigating the return of the dragons or getting training in your new Dragonborn powers).
But as I said, this is just the short version. The lands of Skyrim are vast and getting from one place to another is not easy – well, not until you’ve found those places and can “fast travel” between destinations. Even then, you’ll want to just run around the place and uncover the various tombs, mountain passes and forgotten ruins that dot the land. You’ll find all sorts of treasure, gear and opponents while giving you a chance to encounter and fight dragons.
Fighting dragons is both the highlight of the game and one of the more frustrating aspects. Some appear at random while others guard specific tombs or mountain outposts. Fighting them involves getting their attention, forcing them to land and then killing them. And trust me, there’ll be times when you’ll spend a lot of effort in trying to get a circling dragon’s attention only to find the dragon flying away while some wolves decide to get in your way. The bigger problem, though, is that the method to fight and kill dragon doesn’t deviate. Eventually, you become strong enough that the fights with dragons become less exciting and more routine – which should not be the case at all. All the same, when that music kicks in, it’s tough to not feel cool about taking a dragon on.
The rest of the opponents vary from mildly annoying to tough as nails. Just about everything will attack you at one point or another. But having your dragon Shouts (the powers of a dragon) to wielding all sorts of magical weaponry will give you the edge when facing down undead warriors or legions of giant monster spiders. The only time you will really have a problem is when you’re outnumbered or surrounded or if you’ve entered into a fight without potions or food to replenish your health.
But if you think all you’ll do is fight dragons and other foes and walking, then wait. As you increase in status, you will have the opportunity to buy houses in various cities across Skyrim. Housing acts as both bases of operations for you – where you can store gear and supplies without fear of them disappearing or burdening you – as well as goals in their own right. Trust me, you’ll be spending time and money in improving your home and making it look great. From filling the bookshelves to decorating it with some of the awesome weaponry you’ll get along the way, it’s amusing to think how much effort you’ll put into your house. You’ll also spend a lot of time cooking, smiting, enchanting and making potions. All of these skills will go towards keeping you alive when you encounter a dragon priest or some vengeful spirits or other foe.
It’s a sign of Skyrim’s quality and of the creators’ skills that the writing is so strong. Take for example, the civil war storyline. It’d be easy to just take the side of the Stormcloaks. You are with them being led to your death. In a simpler game, they would be the plucky rebels fighting an oppressive Empire that’s forcing them to abandon their faith and their god. Instead, you find that Ulfric is a conceited ass who is out for his own glory and that the Stormcloaks are a bit on the nationalistic/racist side who’d rid Skyrim of all other races but the Nords. So who do you support? The overbearing Empire with its bureaucrats or the fascist Stormcloaks with their corrupt sidekicks?
Obviously making things shades of gray as opposed to black and white makes the game more mature than the normal action/adventure game. But this streak of gray runs throughout the game. Do you side with the cult of cannibals when that will give you great power? Do you sacrifice a priest of a demon to another demon? Are you just after power when power is what you need to survive or do you dare turn your back on a potentially-dangerous ally and let him/her live?
A lot of this is due to lessons that Bethesda has learned from making the great Fallout 3 and its direct sequel Fallout: New Vegas. In fact, the influence of those games is felt in much of Skyrim’s layout, processes and rewards. The quests that used to take a lot in earlier Elder Scrolls games like Morrowind and Oblivion are more streamlined and straightforward. I do wish that the individuation of the game experience went as far as in the Fallout games by allowing you to make your own individual armor and weapons – letting you be as unique a “Dovahkiin” as you wish to be.
This is what, ultimately, makes The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim such a great game. Each person playing it will do it differently. Sure, we will all get to the same destinations, but the paths travelled and the methods used will be different. And the game does not hold your hand and walk you through how to achieve anything. You want to take on an enemy much stronger than you? Go right ahead. If you win, great. If you die, it’s on you. You want to spend hours becoming a great blacksmith or a great enchanter? Go right ahead. When compared to games like Call of Duty or Gears of War, which are so full of cutscenes and breaks, it’s refreshing to get a game that lets your every choice and decision rest entirely on what you want to do.
I’ll admit that this is not a game for everyone. You have to have a love of high fantasy. You have to be willing to invest the time, the effort and the OCD into this game. And you have to be willing to say goodbye to friends and family for a while in order to complete this game. But if you’re into this kind of game and into this kind of adventure, Skyrim is like no other game before. This is like Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time but for grown-ups.