Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Xbox 360) Review

The Elder Scrolls franchise and I have an interesting history with one another.  My first foray into the series was with The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind - Game of the Year Edition on my Xbox, and I was absolutely blown away by the shear size of the game-world, the volume of Quests, and the beauty of the game's exploration.  I will never forget the first time I ventured into Vivec City, or Ebonheart, for example, and many small and fully functional towns and villages in-between.

Bethesda Game Studios had crafted such a massive and detailed game world, and with all the factions to join there was so much to do in the game.  All told, I must have spend somewhere around 60 to 70 hours before I actually decided to give up.  The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind - Game of Year Edition features some of the most poor in-game Quest sorting in a Journal that I've ever seen, so much so that I started having to keep a real world journal just to track what I was doing, and that's when it ceased to be fun and I began to really loose my feelings of accomplishment.

And so I sold it, (and bought it a few more times and sold it again) and The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind - Game of the Year Edition remains to this day as the greatest game I never finished.  As a result of this love/hate affair, I was hesitant to pick up The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion for my Xbox 360, but I did take a chance and loved it.

It was pure, digital crack, once again featured a vast game world with unparalleled exploration, a fun Main Quest, and several factions and guilds to join.  All told, I must have spent well over 200 hours playing The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion with several characters, a good bit more if you include its add-on "Knights of the Nine" and its official expansion set, "Shivering Isles," and I know I still haven't seen everything in it yet.  However I completed all major Quest lines and a significant amount of Side Quests and misc. objectives and finally retired the game after years of enjoyment.

On Remembrance Day of 2011, the long awaited sequel was finally released, and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim allowed gamers to return to Tamriel, to the province of Skyrim, to face a new threat.  Dragons, long since spoken of in rumour through previous games but believed to only be a legend, had returned to the world of Men and Elves, and they sought to conquer all.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is set 200 years after the events of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and its expansion, which is a first for the franchise as all four previous games were roughly set about ten years apart from one another.  Tamriel has indeed changed since last we visited it, as the Thalmor, a faction of High Elves, have taken control of their home province of Summerset Isle, resting it away from the Empire, and they conquered the Wood Elves of Valenwood and the Khajit of Elsweyr to form the Aldmeri Dominion.  And the Dominion made war on the Empire and almost conquered them.

An uneasy truce was finally reached, in which the Empire had to abandon the worship of their human god, Talos.  Many in the province of Skyrim took strong exception to this, and a civil war broke out where the Stormcloaks, lead by Ulfric Stormcloak, seek to liberate Skyrim from the weakened Empire.  Ulfric killed the High King of Skyrim and lead many skirmishes against the empire, but he was finally captured and brought to justice.

Thus, you begin your journey through The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim as a prisoner in a wagon, amongst others, caught trying to enter the province.  You are transported to the town of Helgen where you are to be executed by the Empire along with Ulfric Stormcloak himself when Alduin, the great dragon, attacks and lays waste to the town.  It is here you escape and begin your Quest to stop the Dragons threatening the world, shortly learning that you are Dragonborn, a person with the soul of a Dragon not seen since The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion when Martin Septim, last of the Septim-line, sacrificed himself to stop the Oblivion Crisis.  As Dragonborn, you absorb the souls of Dragons you slay and use these to learn Dragon Shouts, words in the Dragon tongue that augment your power.

In traditional Elder Scrolls fashion, you choose your character's race, gender, and can customize their appearance, however breaking away from the norm you do not get to choose a class or a birth sign.  Instead, you can play however you want and as you Level Up you earn Perks that you can apply to your Skills to enhance them.  Skills in general still become more effective the more you use them, so if you mainly use a sword and shield you'll become very proficient with melee weapons over time.  If you focus on archery you'll become an expert bowman in time, and if you focus on one or more of the Schools of Magic you'll become an expert spellcaster in time.

It is a far simpler system than what's come before, and I originally started off melee-focused but about halfway through my playthrough I easily switched up to archery with a bit of spells.  I have mixed feelings about this, as on the one hand, it's great you're not tied down to choices you made several hours earlier and you can really enjoy the game with any play style you like, but on the other hand your choices have less meaning and consequences.

For Signs, instead of choosing one at the game's beginning and being stuck with it there are Standing Stones found throughout the province of Skyrim, and touching a stone will align you with the Sign that it represents.  Thus, you can change your Sign any time you wish by Fast Traveling to and touching the appropriate Stone (once you discover them all).  How The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim handles character development is the way games are going today, simpler with less hard choices, however the system does still work as no one forces you to change your play style or Sign and really, the overall game does indeed feel like an Elder Scrolls title.

In fact, I personally found The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim felt very much like The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, far more so than The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.  The nature of the Quests and factions, the people inhabiting the province, the level of violence, maturity, and drug and sexual references all seemed more in line with the darker tone of The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, and I personally loved that.  In a sense, it felt like I was playing through the greatest game I never finished again, save that this time I did complete it.

In addition to the Main Quest, which you're free to explore and complete or ignore as you see fit, there are several factions with their own Questlines to join.  Players can become members of The Companions (Fighter's Guild), The College of Winterhold (Mage's Guild, which joining is oddly required for the Main Quest, even if you're playing as a non-magic character), the Thieves Guild, and the Dark Brotherhood (Assassin's Guild).  Each Questline is fully fleshed out and will take several hours to complete, adding a significant amount of substance to the game and the game's world.

I personally really enjoyed the Companions Questline as well as that of the Dark Brotherhood, which I felt was one of the best written in the game.  The Thieves Guild Questline has an excellent story but I wasn't as keen on the Questline's layout and misc. jobs you had to keep doing during it.  I personally wasn't so fond of the College of Winterhold Questline, as I've never been a big magic-user, but I went through it anyway.

In addition, you can also partake in the Civil War Questline by joining either the Imperial Legion or the Stormcloaks, and you can then pacify or liberate Skyrim.  This Questline does tie into the Main Questline but is not required, and I actually completed it afterwards.

I joined the Imperial Legion in The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind - Game of the Year Edition but sold my Imperial Armour shortly afterwards, which was apparently a bad idea as no one would talk to you if you were "out of uniform," and disappointingly I was unable to move forward with the Questline any further.  The Legion was present in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, but you're unable to join them, so I was excited to sign up with the Legion here in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.  Once I played through it, however, I found the Civil War to be the poorest and blandest Questline in the entire game, in stark contrast to the quality design of everything else.  Most of the Quests are simply raiding enemy forts and killing all enemies within; very repetitive and, honestly, boring.  I confess I was truly disappointed here, but again, as only one Questline in a vast game it's not the end of the world.

And what a world Bethesda Game Studios has crafted for us.  The province of Skyrim is, without a doubt, beautiful.  From lush forests, to open plains, to mountain ranges and peaks, a whole series of environments are present and they're all there to fully explore.  This is what I've always loved about the franchise the most, simply to start walking and find what there is to find.  And in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, there's lots to find.  From random beasts, bandits, and Dragons in the wild to caves, forts, towns, and villages to explore, without any exaggeration there's no shortage of anything to do in Skyrim.

Truly, the environment artists, character artists, modelers, and effects teams outdid themselves.  Textures are crisp and clean, the world is supremely detailed, rugged, and lived-in, and full day and night cycles along with weather patterns are present.  Characters animate smoothly and cleanly and like in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, townsfolk have actual schedules where they go about their lives eating, sleeping, and working on set routines.  I also love how if you're using a Torch in a dungeon, for example, and then you unequip it, you're character is momentarily light-blinded as your "eyes" adjust.  This occurs if you look into the sun or other strong light sources as well, and adds a great sense of realism to the world.  My only visual gripe with the game is that certain stone textures with snow on them, specifically those found at Nordic ruins, look very flat and the snow looks painted on once you get up close.  This is something you get used to after a time, but you'll see it a good bit throughout the game and it did pull me out of my sense of immersion occasionally.

Audio wise, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is extremely well done.  The voice acting is varied and spot on, employing far more voice actors than what was offered in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.  Every Imperial no longer sounds alike, ever Dark Elf no longer sounds alike, and every Orc no longer sounds alike.  There's a few voice actors per race now, and you'll definitely hear many inhabitants who sound the same, that's unavoidable for a game this size, but it's less noticeable or bothersome as it was in the previous game.

The soundtrack though, the game's soundtrack is without question exceptional.  Jeremy Soule has done a superb job with the music for The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.  The core music features several remixed tracks from The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, which I absolutely love.  Remixed in a Nordic fashion, the tracks are both powerful and instill a strong sense of nostalgia in me.  Beyond this, there are many new tracks of the same overall theme, and many subtler and more passive tunes for various villages, inns, or general outdoor exploration.  Even after hearing the soundtrack for countless hours, I'm far from tired of it, it's that moving and well composed.

Gameplay-wise, if you've played any of the previous Elder Scrolls games on a console, you'll likely be right at home here.  Instead of using the D-Pad for 8 programmable slots (one per direction), you can now Favourite items in your inventory and pressing "Up" on the D-Pad pauses the game and accesses this list, allowing you to equip Weapons, Spells, Shouts, etc. with ease.It's a simple and intuitive layout that works.

Another change is that Armour no longer wears down and breaks, again simplifying the overall experience.  You can now train in Smithing to improve the quality of your Armour, but you no longer need to worry about something breaking on you in combat.  Alchemy functions very similar to as it did in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, save that you now bring your ingredients to an Alchemy table in your home or at a store, removing the need to carry Alchemical tools around.  Regrettably, the franchise now imposes a cap on the amount of Gold a merchant carries on them.  What this means is that if, like me you collect a lot of stuff to sell, it can take you a long time to sell it all off as you need to wait for merchant's to get more Gold, which usually takes a few days.  I've literally spent several hours selling stuff because of this limitation, and while more realistic I actually found it more aggravating than anything.

Unlike past games, you can actually find or hire a permanent Follower to share in your adventures.  Your Follower will attack enemies and perform other basic tasks, and you can also give him/her items to better equip them or to simply serve as a mule for you.  I actually found AI followers in the game to be very useful, and they actually helped me take down many enemies.  On occasion they'd block a doorway and prevent me from moving through, which was annoying, but I ultimately just used the Shout Unrelenting Force to "push" them out of the way, and their benefits far outweighed this inconvenience.

The Dragon battles are a lot of fun and quite welcome to the franchise.  As random encounters in the game world, they function somewhat like Oblivion Gates in the previous game.  After you complete a certain Quest in the Main Questline, Dragons may randomly appear and attack you, or you'll see one off in the distance and you can pursue or ignore it.  A Dragon will fly around and attack, and sometimes land and try to chomp or hit you.  It's far more fluid and engaging than what it sounds, and many Dragon battles were great highlights for me.  When you kill a Dragon, or any enemy for that matter, you may be treated to a great killcam animation, where it shifts to third person and you see your character perform a clean decapitation, assassination, or arrow shot to kill the enemy.  I personally loved these as they  added a nice cinematic quality to the game.

Like the previous titles, there's a host of books to read and enjoy scattered throughout the province.  In towns, dungeons, or libraries, you'll come across Tomes that increase your Skills by reading them as well as getting a neat bit of fiction to enjoy.  Many books appeared in earlier games, and many are new to The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.  I read all that I could find, and must have spent several hours simply reading in the game.  For me, it all adds to the realism and superb history of Tamriel.  The game world truly feels alive and with substance, and there's so much lore and history present hear.  Just entering the capitol of Solitude or visiting the town of Dawnstar, quite the experience.

Unlike my playthroughs in past games, I decided to tackle all of the Quests with one character.  I played as a male Redguard named Nathan, and since launch day it took me approximately 250 hours to complete everything and earn all the retail Achievements.  Technically I'm not done everything yet, as there's still several Side Quests and misc. objectives in my Journal, but at this point I think enough's enough.

Like all Bethesda Game Studios games, there's a host of odd bugs that you'll experience throughout, including some that can break Quests, but for me I only had a few Misc. Objectives bug up and no major Questlines had these issues.  For any normal game I'd criticize this far more, but given the sheer scope of all that's offered in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim I find this quite forgivable and, knowing the developer, expected.

At 250 hours though, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim has truly provided me with an epic and extensive experience.  Aside from some relatively minor frustrations, I've absolutely loved it and the biggest con is how much of my life it took up.  Without question, this is an amazing Single Player game and a superb role playing game.  If, for some reason, you haven't experienced The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim yet, I strongly encourage you to do so on any platform, that is, provided you have the free time to live another life.  Well done Bethesda Game Studios, you've clearly proved that quality Single Player only games are far from dead, far from lacking innovation, and far from missing replay value.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is a supreme accomplishment for the art form, and one of the greatest and most immersive gaming experiences I've ever had.

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