I am an avid fan of the elder scrolls series; the kind of person who carries around the 'pockets guide to the empire' in their pocket and has read every piece of game lore just so I can be "that guy" who is an expert on the subject. I have played morrowind and oblivion to the point of complete exhaustion, and I am approaching the same point with skyrim already. Along the way I took some notes on what I liked and disliked about the game so I can share and debate them with my fellow ES nerds. If you are a fan of the series like I am I think you will enjoy the review, if you are new to the series then take comfort in the fact that it is filled with a minimum level of nostalgia.
The World of The Game
I wanted to first start by talking about the world of the game itself. Skyrim presents itself well, with a certain sense of mystery and fashion that was greatly lacking in the previous elder scrolls release "Oblivion". In oblivion everything had a certain marshmallow feel to it. The characters, the story, and the environment were round and uninteresting, as if constructed from play-doh or marshmallow fluff.
Skyrim has a certain edge to it that reminds me a lot of morrowind. The environments are consistently harsh and unforgiving; the first time I was mauled by a bear or sent fifty feet into the air when I unwittingly picked a fight with a giant I smiled to myself, because the game had given me a reason to respect it.
The game stubbornly refuses to surrender all of its secrets and treasures without a good fight. There is a rather magic combination of static difficultly, mixed with mountainous terrains that were appropriately difficult to navigate, so that it just wasn't possible to see everything you wanted to see in one sitting. The world itself is also massive; it would take hundreds of hours to explore every dungeon and cavern within it. This is quite typical of the elderscrolls series in general, but in this game it seemed particularly well done.
The game also remained incredibly consistent with it strong nordic theme. It wasn't the winter wonderland they could have made it, nor was it dully repetitive so that the player was left saying "alright...its icy... I get it".
Skyrim also implemented it PC and NPC characters designs really well. The textures and models for the each race where much more interesting and distinct than before. The elves and orcs in particular looked much better even though I had a really hard time telling bretons and imperials apart (seriously, whats the difference?). The inclusion of facial hair, and finally children in the games, made the character variety much better.
Not only that, the way the characters interact with the player is much more interesting. The dialogue boxes have been streamlined, a la fallout 3 style which is not an unwelcome change. The characters still stand rather still and stare blankly at you while monologing, but at least now they shuffle their feet a little or make a couple of hand gestures. The voice acting is clearly done by only a few people, but at least its really good. The natives nords of Skyrim have a rather funny dutch-norwegian sort of accent, but its consistent and helps give skyrim as sense of its own unique character.
Lore, Story and Quests
The lore of skyrim was superbly done. While Oblivion mostly filled plot holes in the lore timeline, skyrim actually added a lot of rich things to it. To summarize; shortly after the Tiber Septim line ended, a regime of major league buttholes called the 'Thalmor' rose to power in the Summerset isles (province of the high elves). The used cunning and political espionage to bring Valenwood (home of the wood elves) and Elsewyre (home of the khajit) under their influence, and then wage war with the fledgeling empire. This eventually resulted in a sort of stalemate. There was a peace treaty signed that, among other things, banned the worship of Talos, a prominent religious figure in Skyrim in particular. Naturally this really pissed Nords off, and they never stop complaining about it throughout the entire game. It also sets the stage for the civil war you are given the option of choosing sides in.
What I liked most about this is that throughout the game the character is never given the option of resolving the conflict between the Thalmor (major league buttholes) or the empire (major league ineffectuals) directly. You see these thalmor guys kind of hanging out in courts and other places, making veiled threats and generally behaving snidely, but you don't ever have the option of either sideing with them or getting rid of them all together. This gives the game a certain sense of unresolvable angst that adds a huge dose of realism and depth to the game. I applaud Bethesda for doing such a good job creating a rich and complicated political landscape that adequately influences the world you explore.
In regards to the way that quests and storylines were presented (both the main quests and other factions) this was also done really well. I really like that no matter what you did, none of the players particularly liked you; which is good, because I never really particularly like the character I played either. Elder scrolls games you are more like a Greek legend then an archetypal hero; you consistently do great and amazing things, but you are just as likely to be murdering your own family as saving the townsfolk from evil monsters. So the fact that most of the people in the game are rather distrustful of you is wonderfully immersive. In Oblivion it seemed like every one kind of wanted to be your friend, if only you would sit and talk with them and run a few errands. Skryim makes you earn its respect which is altogether more rewarding and interesting.
That being said, the story and the quests themselves were rather disappointing. Oblivion did a really good job of breaking the trend of "go fetch this and kill that", while skyrim seems to have stubbornly returned to it. The dark brotherhood faction managed to raise the stakes high enough to make it interesting, even if they missed out on a few opportunities to make the plot line a little more cohesive. The fighters guilds and mages guild ripoffs, however, were much less so, and the civil war was disappointing to say the least. You could tell where the effort went in the development team, and that was in fancy finishing moves and elaborate environments. While I certainly appreciated these, I am greedy and went a quest line that is satisfying and interesting to complete as well.
To be fair though, Oblivion is the only bethesda game that has presented really well done quests, as the fallout series also suffered from the same kind of repetition. With each of these games, the character is placed in an interesting world and made to do rather uninteresting things. In Oblivion you do interesting things in a world that bores you. I would like to see them find a good middle ground.
Nowhere in the game is this more of a problem than the main quest. The idea of "the voice" is original and interesting. Sending mobs soaring through the air with the boom of your vocal cords is incredibly satisfying; and the ground work bethesda laid with its lore (even though most gamers will never read it) is really good. The problem is, throughout the main quest all you ever do is seek out people to help you explain what the hell is going on. When you find them, they all tell you the same thing; blah blah your the dragon born, blah blah you have to kill the dragons. The intensity of the main quest is pretty much a flat line all the way through. In oblivion, at least, towns and cities were getting destroyed around you and you were given something to let you know this whole 'end of the world' thing is pretty serious. That never happens in Skyrim.
Combat and Level System
I think many of use long time ES fans would agree that ES games have always been deep and interesting but not necessarily fun to play. Oblivion fixed this somewhat but the combat system in it was lacking quite a few "certain somethings". I think in skyrim Bethesda has finally made a combat system that is actually exciting and fun. The hardest of hardcore RPG fans might scoff at fancy finishing moves but I found them incredibly fun and satisfying. The first time I cut off another players head and watched it roll across the floor... pure bliss. It reminded me a lot of the satisfaction I would get from making a player head explode in fallout 3, without any of the awkwardness of the VATS system.
There is a great deal of variety in combat, whether you want to swing giant war hammers at people faces, or do something more tactical with a sword and shield. You can also pick targets from afar with archery, hacking them to pieces with dual wielded axes, or mix in a combination of each of these. Spell casting animations are quite epic, and the ability to dual cast spells gives me a certain kind of nerd stiffy I haven't had sense watching dragon ball z. Kamaha...maha.... burst into flames and explode into ash.
The creatures you fight are incredibly well animated. I was particularity impressed with the giants and mammoths you encounter in the wild. Something about their movement conveyed how massive they are very well. They looked both majestic and terrible at the same time, an experience I don't think I have ever had in a game before. The dragon fights were also very exciting and challenging, even if a little repetitive and predictable after a certain point. I also really enjoyed how the draugr zombies would rise from coffins to attack you, and spider monsters would descend from the ceiling. In a dwemmer ruin, you never knew if what you thought was a statue of a dwemer machination was suddenly going to spring to life and take your head off.
The level system in Skyrim has been greatly simplified; something that has assuredly pissed of many RPG fans. Overall I am a fan of nearly all the changes they have made. I think Bethesda has done a really good job of taking out everything that is not fun about their games and replacing them with something that is fun. In skyrim I have never had to worry about whether or not I was leveling the right skills in the right combination with each other to maximize my stat bonus every level, because your character doesn't have stats at all anymore (other then magicka, health, and fatigue that is). Again, while this might detract from realism, it does make the game much easier and less tedious to play. Bethesda correctly recognized this, and took the opportunity to make skyrim a much more challenging game then previous ES games. The perks you choose as you level your character have a meaningful impact on how well your character does in the game. I have found myself staring hard at the perk tree for more then ten minutes, trying to decide which perks I needed and how they were gong to aid more in comat.
That being said, the game suffers from some massive imbalances. At the highest levels offensive spell casting is incredibly powerful, but at lower levels is almost completely useless. Death to mobs and your character happen quickly in this game, which just doesn't favor a tactical spell caster. If you can manage to blast away all your foes before they get close all the better, but if they get to swing their point sticks, and you aren't wearing any armor because you need robes to give bonuses to your magical abilities, then your character is going to fall apart like tissue paper. The problem is there just isn't enough perks to go around... if you want your character to survive more then a couple hits you need armor and armor perks, if you want your armor to be worth a damn you need smithing skills to improve it, and by the time you spend your perks on these you need a sword to hold you over between casting spells. Then its not long before your sword does about ten times more damage then your weak fireballs, and the enemies are are facing at this level laugh at your feeble attempts to singe their clothes. Before you know it the mage character you sought out to create has become another brawny sword fighter with a few useless magic tricks.
In addition, while many of the more useless skills have disappeared, they have been replaced with equally useless skills. Enchanting is incredibly powerful, but nearly impossible to level up. Alteration magic just doesn't have much utility, and illusion is almost completely useless. Conjuration and destruction at least have some pretty decent offensive abilities, especially used together, but are difficult to level and suffer massively from scaling issues as you level up. There is still a lockpicking skill, which I guess kind of makes sense, and a speech skill which at least lets you take the easy route in some dialogue motivated quests. I can't for the life of me understand why they created a pick pocking skill, because I have yet to use. If I want the loot on a particular NPC it is often simply and better to just kill them and loot the pockets of their corpse.
Bethesda is moving in the right direction here, but I think they are going to have to do some major reworking for the next ES release. It was clear their design was focused around making the game more fun, but they seemed to fudge up a lot of balance issues along the way.
I will be brief in my conclusion, because I was not so brief anywhere else in this review. Skyrim is a great game and probably the best ES game made so far. The gaming industry is suffering a lot from repetition and unoriginal and generic games. Skyrim stands out strongly in the mob of first person shooters and inane mini games that seem to be the norm right now. I think, as far as RPGs go, it is the best released in years with really only the Mass Effect series to compete with it. For those that have already played the game, I think you can agree with me. For those that have not played it, its really worth giving a try.
I encourage you to insult, disagree, praise, or otherwise discuss the game with me and the other fans. My review serves little purpose if only to be swallowed and digested in a forum like this. So, please, do post your own opinion along side mine.