Monday, June 30, 2014

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim review

For the last few years, I was of the opinion that the best game of the last generation was Red Dead Redemption.  It is most definitely a masterpiece and thoroughly deserving of the 10 of 10 score I gave it.  However, when I tried to go back and replay it a second time last year, I just wasn't that into it.  I can't really put my finger on why - there are just some experiences where it's hard to feel the magic when you've experienced it all before, I guess.

The same can't be said of Skyrim, however.  A few months ago I decided to replay the whole game again from the beginning, with all the DLC that was released incorporated into my new adventure from the very start.  Because of the sheer scope of the game, and because you can choose your race, there is a fair amount of replayability to the game - admittedly by the time you've been playing for around 100 hours your character will probably be much the same as anyone else’s, because by then you will have had to develop most of the skill trees in order to keep levelling up - but for a long time the experience will still feel your own.

I may be pretty late with this review, but I still felt it was worth the time to write it, as this is by far my favourite game from the Xbox 360, PS3 and Wii generation.  The Mass Effect and Dragon Age series could have both been contenders, but unfortunately both had sequels that ended in a slightly disappointing manner.  Now, there are some of you out there that will probably not be impressed that the platform I played Skyrim on is the Xbox 360, as PC owners not only get better graphics, faster loading times and a more stable base game experience overall, but they also have access to hour upon hour of extra content created by extremely talented mod creators.  It is indeed true that the PC version is the definitive Skyrim experience, but the console version is still an amazing achievement it its own right.  Am I jealous of the fact that my hideously slow PC can't run the game? Yes, I am somewhat.  I have still enjoyed the Xbox version immensely though.

Just a quick note - I will be reviewing the DLC for the game separately, with short opinions on by Hearthfire and Dawnguard coming soon.  I am taking a little break from Skyrim to enjoy Watch Dogs, Mario Kart 8 and some other titles for a little while, so my review for the Dragonborn DLC will be along a little later.  Now, time to end this somewhat lengthy into, and break down what I think of the game.

Graphics: 9 out of 10
Skyrim on the Xbox 360 is for the most part, a really beautiful game.  Standing on the balcony of my homestead, and looking out on the valley below as the sun rises slowly above the trees, is quite a magical experience.  Likewise, trudging through the northern tundra with a fierce blizzard obscuring my view actually gives me chills in real life, even on a warm spring day.

Dungeons are heavy with atmosphere, with some great lighting effects and some really well designed creatures to slay.  The dragons are of course a big feature of the game, and are quite the sight to behold.  They may start to lose their wonder after you've slain several dozen of them, but when you see their shadow dart across the night sky and hear their roar reverberate around the mountains, you can't help but be impressed.

The main reason I knocked the game down a single point in this category is because at certain points, there's no doubt that the sheer size and scope of the game is pushing the Xbox 360 hardware to its absolute limit.  Frame rates can get a little dodgy outside, and the game has frozen up on me completely man times.  Load times also become noticeably longer with older characters, as the game has a lot more data and variables it needs to keep track of.  That the game still keeps running as well as it does though is overall extremely impressive, and I was able to overlook these small niggles.

Sound and Music: 10 out of 10
The Skyrim soundtrack composed by Jeremy Soule is absolutely amazing.  From big bombastic pieces like main theme of the game, to quieter and relaxing pieces like Kyne's Piece or Far Horizons, every single track is a thing of beauty.

In one of my recent reviews for Geometry Wars Galaxies on the Wii, I commented how great sound design in a game is a thing to be cherished, and Skyrim is a perfect example of just how much it adds to the overall experience, especially if you have a surround sound system.  From the immensely satisfying sound that a well-placed arrow makes as it thunks into a bandits head, to the sounds that play when you read a spell book or level up, Skyrim is a true exemplar in this regard.  The sound mix is also very well separated, so with a 5.1 set up you will be able to tell in which direction enemies are attacking from.

Finally there is the voice work.  There are a bunch of celebrity voices once again in this Bethesda release, and they all do a great job of reading their lines.  It's good that for the most part Nords speak with a strong Scandinavian accent, and they even got the legendary Max von Sydow to play the part of Esbern - quite a key character in the main plot line.  My only minor gripe would be that certain actors are a touch over used.  For example, while I am a fan of Claudia Christian due to the sterling work that she put into one of my favourite TV shows, Babylon 5, the fact that her voice pops up at least a dozen times does damage the sense of immersion I have just a tad.

This isn't How To Train Your Dragon - I don't think he's going to be your friend.
Game Mechanics: 9 out of 10
There are some that have called the real time combat of the Elder Scrolls series a little basic and clumsy, however I really like it.  Stealthily creeping through a dungeon with a bow and arrows and killing off enemies before they even know I'm there is especially satisfying, though perhaps a bit overpowered when combined with certain perks from the Stealth and Archery skill tree. I found myself depending on archery for most of the game, at least until I maxed it out at skill level 100 and was forced to start using other skills to level.  Though Bethesda did add the option for you to make a skill "legendary" and reset it to 15, doing this at level 30+ with your main combat skill is not a great idea as you will struggle to give your enemies a "Chinese Burn" let alone kill them!

The way you level is overall quite clever as basically the more you use a given skill the more it improves, and then once you've levelled individual skills a certain number of times you can increase your overall character level, choose whether to give Mana, Health or Stamina a permanent boost, and spend a skill point on a perk from one of the various skill trees.  Sticking with my Archery example, the corresponding skill tree includes perks that slow down time when you draw your bow, or do 3X the amount of base damage if the enemy hasn't detected you.  So you can see how this approach can be incredibly powerful (not to mention fun!).

The levelling is open to abuse for those willing to spend a bit of time making nails over and over again (to give a Blacksmithing example), though those willing to play the game properly and not resort to exploits will probably have a more enjoyable and immersive experience overall in the long run.

Value and Replayability: 10 out of 10
The sheer size and scope of Skyrim is quite frankly ludicrous, even in its most basic, unexpanded form.  You can (and I have) quite easily lose yourself in countless adventures for well over 100 hours.  Throwing the official DLC that's been released (and you might as well now that the Legendary Edition is available) and that number increases by another 30 hours or so (to give a conservative estimate).  If you're playing on a PC as I mentioned before, you can then delve into the world of fan created mods which includes such brilliant offerings Moonpath to Elseweyr and Falskaar - the latter of which features all new music composed just for the mod.  It's extremely impressive stuff.

Back to the 360 version though. Despite the lack of mods I was still more than satisfied with the amount of game on offer, and as I mentioned in the intro have even needed to take a little break before delving back into the Dragonborn DLC.  Not many people are likely to replay such a huge and time consuming game as this, but I did.  My first character was an Argonian called Deepdelver, and then I dabbled for a dozen or so hours with a Khajhit thief called Sta'bhim, before replaying the entire game and all the side stories with a Wood Elf called Dwyleth.  That adds up to over 200 hours in total, and I'm still going. When you consider that some games feature campaigns that last about 10 hours, and cost £55, that's amazing value for money.

Overall: 10 out of 10
There's no doubt that those of you who just don't like RPG's will not agree with me here but for me, there was no other game that came close to beating Skyrim in the last generation.  Those who do love their RPG's, particular action based ones, will be in absolute heaven for a long long time.  Those who aren't into this sort of experience still have many other worthy titles to enjoy.  Now, the only thing that could really beat Skyrim in my mind would be a new Fallout game on the next generation platforms, running on an enhanced Skyrim engine.  Sadly, another E3 has passed and we've still not had an official announcement regarding Fallout 4.  Hopefully it will come soon.  In the meantime, I will be spending more time in Skyrim as soon as I'm done in Chicago, the Mushroom Kingdom and Gotham!