The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim review (PC)

Skyrim Dragon

Five years have passed since our trip into Oblivion and, at last, Bethesda have brought us Skyrim—another open-world sandbox role-playing game that The Elder Scrolls series has become renowned for.

Set 200-years after the events of Oblivion and the death of Uriel Septum VII and the sacrifice of his son, Martin, you are Doväkiin, you are Dragonborn and the last of your kind.

The game opens with you waking on a cart, shackled along with three other prisoners on our way to the headsman’s block. You were apprehended during an Imperial ambush of a Stormcloak patrol – the Stormcloaks being burly, blue-eyed Nords with a penchant for ice and Horker fat, who also happen to be a rebel faction trying to wrest control of Skyrim, homeland of the Nords, from the Empire.

Back at the headsman’s block, the dragon, Alduin, the first-born of Akatosh – world-eater and harbinger of the apocalypse – pops over and inadvertently, and literally, saves your neck (from a very sharp-looking axe).

And so begins your tale as a Dragonborn.

Skyrim screenshot - Horse

Beware the giant’s club

Skyrim is remarkably divergent from Oblivion, and in many ways goes back to the oft-touted greatness of Morrowind – and does a spectacular job of modernising it. There are some noticeable changes that some die-hard fanatics are bound not to be chuffed about: there is no more spell-making, you don’t pick your birth-sign any longer, and there is no class with pre-determined major and minor skills to choose from.

While fanatics no doubt see this as problematic, the rest of us see this as (mostly) progressive. The lack of a class with pre-determined major and minor skills means that you can finally play the way you want to and level accordingly. A “perk” system has instead been implemented whereby a point can be allocated to a preferred skill each time a character levels; improving and granting special abilities to skills specialised in.

Spell-making is a pretty grey area. Yes, it’s nice to be able to customise your own spells but at the same time you have to admit: a fireball stays a fireball. It doesn’t make sense for a fireball to become stronger depending on how much money you throw at it and should, instead, become stronger the more you specialise in Destruction magic and level. I haven’t really come across any good argument why the standardisation of spells is a bad thing.

And as for birth-signs, well, go to a standing stone of your choice and activate its power. Problem sorted.

Combat is huge fun. Mages are capable of wielding spells in both hands and can combine spells to increase their force, damage or duration. Melee combat is pretty much hacking and slashing, holding down buttons to charge attacks. There are also some truly excellent coup de grâce manoeuvres which see enemies decapitated or run through.

Skyrim screenshot - The Companions

Shout, shout, let it all out

Shouts are a new kind of magic in Skyrim, unique to the Greybeards (monks who have devoted their lives to learning the language of the Dovah—dragons) who take years to learn what the Dragonborn can learn in seconds. Shouts are similar to magic, although way more fun to use.

The first shout you learn is Unrelenting Force which staggers or even tosses opponents away from you as it becomes stronger; other shouts grant you fire- or ice-breath and can even turn you ethereal for a while, or distract enemies by throwing your voice.

Shouts can be unlocked by finding words on dragon walls and spending dragon souls to unlock. Dragon souls can, of course, be obtained by slaying dragons.

That’s what’s unique about the Doväkiin—they can absorb the souls (and, knowledge) of the dragon they slay.

And there are many dragons to slay!

Skyrim screenshot - Dragon Roar

Be the Dragonborn – but do everything else, too

Side-quests can easily keep you occupied in Skyrim for literal days on end. They are plentiful and mostly great fun to do.

However, Bethesda still haven’t learnt much about non-linear narrative. A good example of this is when stumbling across an abandoned house in Markarth;  if you enter that house where the priest lives, you’ll be forced to kill him. If you want to finish that quest-line, you’ll be forced to beat a helpless priest to death in a cage to appease a daedra lord.

You cannot destroy the daedra’s altar or find any sort of justice; there’s only one way to finish it.

You do get little choices every so often with the side-quest, but they end up being meaningless; such as saying that you won’t serve a daedra – and then being told that you are serving the daedra anyway.

The only real “choice” of any significance is whether or not you side with the Empire or the Stormcloaks. Everything else – and I mean everything else – is an entirely linear narrative. But face it, if you’re playing an Elder Scrolls game, you’re certainly not playing it for the brilliant narrative and awe-inspiring moral choices and witnessing the culmination thereof.

But Skyrim’s quests and stories are still hugely enjoyable and fun. There are times when the lack of choice makes you feel cornered and unhappy with the development of your hero’s story and personal moral code, but this is completely overshadowed by the sheer enormity of what your character can do in the world.

Skyrim screenshot - Ruined Fort

But wait, there’s more!

It’s possible to earn money by cooking, chopping firewood or mining. Crafting weapons and armour is also a fun pastime and a decent money-earner if you’re into that sort of thing. It definitely adds to the immersion. Putting perks into smithing can unlock unique weapons and armours for crafting.

Marriage is something else that has been introduced to Skyrim. Wearing an amulet of Mara is like putting a huge sign around your neck saying, “ME WANT NOOKIE, MARRY ME.” You might be surprised how awkward this can make things.

There has been a significant amount of criticism by fans for the lack of Khajiit or Wood Elf marriage partners – you can marry Orcs and Argonians but no Khajiit or Wood Elf partners exist of either gender.

Vampirism is once again a part of the world and, along with it, lycanthropy. That’s right folks, you can turn into a cute, adorable and stinky werewoof. NPCs will actually comment on your wet-dog smell because they’re tactless like that. Vampirism works the same as it did in Oblivion, but lycanthropy could’ve been done a bit better. In Morrowind wearing silver was a BIG no-no – in Skyrim, wearing silver doesn’t affect you.

Of course, on top of all of that, old-time favourites like the Dark Brotherhood, Thieves’ Guild and the Mage Guild are back. The Dark Brotherhood has lost their way and no longer have a Listener, the Thieves’ Guild need to be returned to their former glory and the Mage Guild is somewhat frowned upon by the people of Winterhold after the sea destroyed most of the city while leaving the College untouched. Can you say… drama? Fortunately, that’s where the Doväkiin comes in to save the day and, of course, reach the highest position possible in each organisation.

Skyrim screenshot - Draugr Swarm

Size matters. Mostly.

The world of Skyrim is truly phenomenal. It’s big. Really big. Well, actually, it’s small. But not too small. It’s kind of average-sized, actually. It’s easy to get anywhere and everywhere quickly without a horse. In fact, it’s actually easier to get around without a horse. It’s entirely possible to get down most mountains by jumping from rock-to-rock. A horse actually seems slower and… time-consuming.

As with Oblivion, if you can see it in the distance, you can get there – and Skyrim’s mountains are gorgeous to behold.

Characters models are hugely improved on Oblivion’s. Khajiit and Argonians, for example, actually have non-human hands now. Elves have thin, delicate faces while other races have suitably unique features. It’s a big improvement on Oblivion’s Vaseline-gloss faces of ick.

Graphically, it’s difficult not to fall madly in love with Skyrim. The textures are all crisp and clear; the artistic direction is strong. Dragons, especially, look beautiful and it’s almost a shame to kill the fire-breathing pests.

The UI, on PC, is a bit of a disgrace, however. While minimalism can be attractive, it’s hard to overlook a four-directional overlay which is smoother to navigate by keyboard than it is by mouse. It’s also easy to select the wrong dialogue options during conversation.

The sound, as anyone who has previously heard Jeremey Soule’s work in Morrowind and Oblivion can attest to, is hugely moving – but in Skyrim it’s massive. The sounds are deep, heavy and inspiring. Soule has completely outdone himself—the music, the atmosphere, everything is incredible.

Everyone who has ever played Oblivion intimately, remembers each of the whole ten voices actors used in that game – and not many would remember them fondly except, possibly, those weird folk who remember everything a little differently to the rest of us. In Skyrim they have by large rectified this by instead employing over seventy voice actors. It makes a huge difference.

Well, it would, if they didn’t use the incredibly unique voice of actor Jim Cummings, probably best known as Disney’s Pete, so often. Also, that Nord guy with the Norwegian accent. Sweet heavens, they use him a lot.

Skyrim screenshot - Dragon Fight

Be the Dragonborn

As of this review there are a number of bugs present in Skyrim that affect people differently. If you’re getting constant crashes to desktop, try disabling the overlay of programs like XFire.

We also have an article with other tips and tweaks available.

Skyrim seems to have a couple of bugs that were still present in the old Gamebryo engine: erratic physics, bodies falling through floors and buildings, and the occasional appearance of the mouse cursor which, when clicking, results in the minimisation of Skyrim.

I’ll freely admit that I can’t stand what Bethesda like to call “non-linearity.” I hated Oblivion and its cookie-cutter playstyle and it’s faux “classless” mechanics. What I hated most about Oblivion was the fact that it was a game I wanted to enjoy very, very much but that I couldn’t.

Skyrim, however, has shown that Bethesda listen to their fans and have made significant improvements that work and work well. Skyrim is an incredibly enjoyable game deserving of praise.

Now… if only Bethesda would implement truly non-linear quests.

And give me a damn Khajiit mate!

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The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim review (PC)

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