Review: Skyrim

Next Story

Eyeing Deal Flow, Bain Capital Ventures Heads West; Opens Silicon Valley Office

Short version:

While Skyrim does almost nothing to address the weaknesses of its predecessors, it expands on the strengths to such an extent that even its most substantial flaws seem microscopic. You may not lose yourself in the unimaginative combat and story, but the world Bethesda has created is so huge and so beautifully realized that you won’t care.

Pros:

  • vast, vast world to explore
  • dungeons and caves are wonderfully differentiated
  • graphics and sound are for the most part incredible to behold

Cons:

  • Combat isn’t very visceral, and victories and losses feel unearned
  • Menus and interface are terrible
  • While the world is wide open, most quests and dungeons are very linear
  • Bugs abound, especially with physics

Full review:

Let me just say right off the bat that I have not finished the main campaign. However, having put around 40 hours into the game so far, I felt I had enough to go on for a review. There will necessarily be some spoilers here, but I’ll try to refrain from specifics.

Also: be sure to open screenshots in a new window or tab to see them in their original resolution. They are also slightly more dark and compressed than they looked in-game because of the original bitmap compression.

Graphics & Sound

Skyrim is, as I’m sure you know, a beautiful game. But like many of us playing it, it has good angles and bad angles. Fortunately, 90% of the game is good angles: the wide-open terrain of the overworld, the majestic towers and walls of the cities, and dank and decaying tombs and barrows, the wonderfully-modeled monsters and objects, all of these things are difficult to fault. The landscapes of the mountains can often be truly breathtaking, and many times I stopped for a moment to appreciate the view the way you might if you were hiking. And not simply because it looks good “for a game,” but because it was beautiful enough to warrant a moment of appreciation. Similarly, many of the tombs and dungeons you explore have excellent looks to them and great attention to detail.

So what I have to criticize is certainly a small minority of the game, and while you’ll notice the same thing in your playthroughs, it rarely detracts from the game. Humans are probably Skyrim’s weakest link graphically; while people certainly look better than they did in the previous games, and look natural enough when they’re doing certain normal things, there was little attention given to many of their animations, and they walk with a strange combination of woodiness and gliding. It’s 2011, the world is rendered with astonishing richness, yet its denizens slide up steps like ghosts. It’s a little sad that the opening scene of the game is a demonstration of its least-appealing visual aspects.

And the faces are still, alas, not so hot. Quest characters and many shopkeepers and such look all right (and to Bethesda’s credit, are extremely varied), but many simply don’t, and people all seem to be the same medium height and build. The Nords seem to have eliminated the short, the tall, and the overweight from their population entirely.

Low-resolution textures and low-poly models are plenty, though they can usually be overlooked and at any rate are among dozens if not hundreds of other, more well-done items. Decals are particularly disappointing; while I appreciate that blood, scorching, and frost marks should be created, there has to be a better way to do it than the simple models and repeating textures we are given.

The sound and music are excellent. Weapons and materials produce a variety of noises when struck, there are a number of different footstep sounds, and creatures all emit distinctive noises when you’re in their vicinity. The atmospheric noises are good, too, with deep rumbles accompanying visual effects in caves, satisfying swishes and thwocks from arrows, and lots of great-sounding nature noises, from wind and rain to wildlife.

The soundtrack is, for once, not only worth keeping on (I usually mute game music) but worth listening to closely. The eerie pieces accompanying your spelunking and graverobbing expeditions is clearly meant to evoke the quieter moments of Indiana Jones, while different themes fade in and out naturally for various different settings, from windblown cliffs to forests to city markets. It’s all beautifully done but for the most part low-key. Bravo to the music team.

The combat music could do with a little tweaking, though: it’s the same intense piece whether you’re fighting an ancient reanimated warlord and his zombie thralls or if your’e wandering in a marsh and accidentally alert a mudcrab. In the first case it raises the tension – in the second, it feels absurd.

The weakest part of the sound is almost certainly the humans, both in scripting and delivery. Naturally putting together a game like Skyrim entails the use of many voice actors, and quality varies. But some of the lines are done so poorly that I wonder whether the designers listened to them at all. And the repetition of some lines is really disappointing. It’s a little shameful that every crypt and castle is unique, yet blacksmiths throughout the land all use the same stock phrases.

The game runs well on my computer, which is fairly high-end, but a few tweaks to the config file are warranted, to eliminate mouse acceleration (deceleration, rather) and make a few things go a bit more smoothly. Watch the mod scene for improvements.

Combat & AI

Some changes have been made to the way you fight, and magic is much more practical than it was before. The left/right hand system is great in most situations, allowing you to, for example, have a shield ready while firing lightning at an enemy. Alternately, you could hack away at a mage while keeping a warding spell ready for when they try to magic you.

It feels a little weird having your right hand be the left mouse button and vice versa. A handedness option would be appreciated by many, I’m sure, but that’s a minor detail compared to the larger issues with combat.

The fact is that combat in games is all about a relationship between you and your antagonist, and your relationship with almost every single enemy in Skyrim is the same. Every wolf, skeleton, mage, fighter, and so on uses the same strategy: run directly at you by the shortest path possible and attack as soon as you’re within range. Then, once their health gets low, they run away to the next room or cower on the ground until you administer the coup de grace. A few trifling differences can be found in novelty mini-bosses and so on, but by and large every enemy acts the same.

Fighting isn’t bad, exactly, but it’s exactly as floaty as it has been for years in the series and you have no sense of the weight or reach of your weapon. You can tell if you hit or were blocked, but it’s really not very physical. Bows and magic are more satisfying, though the “stream” style spells you get have very little feedback.

Many will be disappointed to learn that the autoleveling system is still in place, though there are merciful exceptions. I’ve always though it rather stupid in Elder Scrolls games that you can pretty much enter any location at any level and have a good chance of beating it. Enemies level up with you, so that a bandit when you’re level five takes three arrows or five sword swipes, and a bandit when your’e level 30 takes the same. It really acts as a buzzkill when you level up, get a new perk, find a sweet new bow or axe, and feel like a badass — but the game just gives everyone slightly better armor and more hit points to compensate for your badassery. Setting the difficulty is no help, it just tweaks the variables. Bethesda really, really needs to adjust this system. There’s a feeling of awe in other open games when you enter an area and find yourself being killed in a single hit. “I’ve got to come back here when I’m more awesome,” you think. And when you go back to a previous area and can smush enemies with a single hit, you really feel that you’ve moved up in the world. That feeling is more or less absent in Skyrim.

Naturally this system enables all the game’s locations to be accessible throughout the game, and you’re never going to skip something because the dudes are too easy and the loot is probably weak. But there has to be a better way.

That’s not to say that I didn’t occasionally find myself in serious danger, but when I did, it often felt arbitrary. One time I found a bandit’s den with a few guys in it, nothing special, and then the head bandit rushed out and killed me in two hits. I had unwisely saved after alerting him so I needed to finish it, and it took me perhaps 30 tries, no exaggeration. I honestly don’t know how it was possible that he kept killing me; when I finally took him down, I found he had a fairly powerful magic axe, but nowhere near the level it would take to destroy me that way. And later, a mage killed me a number of times by casting spells way faster than he should have been able to. I rarely felt I won or lost in a fair fight.

Except with this guy, who didn’t stand a chance:

Magic weapons, by the way, are a bit unbalanced. A bow that does 20 fire damage, great. A bow that does 20 stamina damage? The guy will gain that back in like five seconds. Why even bother? There seemed to be a lack of unique enchantments, the kind of thing you’d find in Diablo games. Almost everything is just a regular item with extra damage of one type. I rarely found myself excited about finding one, since they were so generic. The few unique weapons I found (Red Eagle’s Bane, Dawnbreaker) were weaker than the gear I had when I found them. The local blacksmith carried better weapons.

There are a number of other problems: sneaking and bows are overpowered, two handed weapons are underpowered, dragons are too easy, multiple opponents often interfere with each other awkwardly, and so on. But you get the idea.

UI and interface

Skyrim’s menu systems are terrible, all of them. But instead of going through the details, I’ll just point you to this article at Gamasutra and its excellent sequel, which describe the many shortcomings in illustrated detail. Suffice it to say that the menus are counter-intuitive, inefficient, buggy, and obviously geared towards controller navigation. I look forward to the user-created replacements.

The World

I’ve saved the best for last. The world of Skyrim is the whole reason for playing. The dungeons and caves in Oblivion were disappointingly samey, reusing assets and often entire rooms or buildings. Skyrim… well, first of all, let’s talk about the overworld.

It’s huge.

Huge in area, but many games tout square mileage greater than Skyrim’s. The difference is that nothing in Skyrim is wasted space or cut-and-paste scenery. Every meadow, every cliff, every log, every glacier, every mountain, every town, every ruin, every lake, every everything is hand-crafted, natural, beautiful, and purposeful. I can’t overstate how very real the land of Skyrim looks and feels.

And yet it is enormously varied, as well. The swamps around Markath are a whole different territory from the woodsy hills near Riverdale, which are different from the snow-swept peaks of Winterhold. And you can go everywhere. Like, pretty much everywhere. Only the highest peaks and ornamental features are unable to be clambered up (buggily or otherwise). There are trails and roads to follow, but if you choose to beat your own path, nature is wide-open to you, if you’re game to take on a few bears (which, despite a tame early encounter, are probably more dangerous than dragons). And whether your’e on or off the path, the scene is lavishly sculpted just the same.

The attention to detail and go-anywhere aspect make the world seem even bigger than is — not that it’s necessary to do so, because the world is already gigantic. Once you do a little traveling and get a sense of the scale, the map starts to make sense. Originally I thought “okay, there’s a big mountain in the middle, a few towns around it, and some wildlife around them. But not only did I underestimate the size, number, and richness of the landscape, but I neglected to account for the size and depth of the many barrows, holds, tombs, caves, and so on.

I was complaining to a friend that generally (so far in the game at the time, and under the influence of my previous experience with Oblivion) the caves and dungeons were generally of a medium size, sometimes with a boss, and usually with treasure at the end, and you can get through them in 20 or 30 minutes. At the time that was what I had found in Skyrim, but I’m happy to say that those impressions have been almost totally reversed.

Sure, there are the bandit cubbyholes and medium-sized mines that you can pop into and clear out in 15 minutes or half an hour. But literally the next place I entered after discussing the lack of depth with my friend was probably four times deeper than anything I had found since. It probably took me an hour and a half to clear. And it was really my first foray into the Indiana Jones-style delvings that really make you feel, more than any game I’ve ever played, that you’re truly in an ancient tomb, going places no one has been for centuries, and opening doors that probably should have stayed closed.

The one complaint I have is that most of these dungeons are very linear and all you can really do is advance, not explore. They also use the slight cop-out of conveniently returning you to the entrance via a back stairway or passage. Really, no one thought to force this door open, which leads directly to the throne-room of the undead king, who laid sleeping behind ten locked doors and innumerable traps for a thousand years?

This linearity was beginning to bother me (as much as it can, since the dungeons are all different and all very fun) when I found Blackreach.

Oh, Blackreach. Spoiler warning.

Do yourself a favor if you haven’t done this yet. Go to Winterhold and travel north until nearly the end of the map, where there will be a “cave” icon indicating a door in an iceberg. Inside is a guy who will send you on the most insanely huge side quest I’ve ever seen in a game.

Picture this: At the top of a mountain, buried by snow, are the tops of some towers. Entering the towers, you must decent through a dungeon (in the generic sense) of machinery and ice. At the bottom of this dungeon is another dungeon, the actual ruins of the Dwemer buildings, which are better-maintained and more full of mechanical monsters. At the bottom of this dungeon, you will find the entrance (only accessible via the quest, as I found out) to Blackreach:



Blackreach is one of the most astonishing pieces of world design I’ve ever seen. And within this massive and incredibly beautiful underground world larger than any of the game’s cities by far, there are further sub-dungeons, and dungeons within those! I remind you that to my knowledge this quest is not only optional, but hidden in an obscure location at the very edge of the map! (Update: Oops, it actually is a main story quest, though I came across it randomly. That’s what I get for not finishing the game first.)

This review is already too long, so I’ll stop, but I wanted to highlight Blackreach as an example of everything this game does right.

Conclusion

Despite the serious faults in many of the game mechanics, Skyrim is a triumph because what it succeeds in outweighs those flaws (which may be fixed by patches and mods) by an enormous amount. The world is the richest and most lovingly created that I’ve ever seen in a game, and you are completely free to explore it at your own rate, in your own way, and for a long, long time. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to playing. Despite 35 hours of exploration, and rather efficient exploration at that if I may say so, I have yet to even lay eyes on half of the world, much less explore their hidden depths. I expect to be occupied with Skyrim for days and weeks to come, and look back to revisiting it years from now. A genuine modern classic.