Review: Skyrim

November 17, 2011

Cancel your social life. Seal the doors. Elder Scrolls is back. If you’ve been thinking about getting a divorce, now’s the time. You’ll hardly give your spouse a second thought; you’ll be too busy saving up coins to buy a new horse (mine just got eaten by a dragon).

Skyrim is unbelievably vast, an entire continent where you can watch mammoths roam the plains, stalk stags through forests, hike to the top of frozen mountains, catch salmon leaping from a river. You could happily ignore the main quest-line (kill some dragons, absorb their souls, take sides in an epic battle for the future of the realm) and still fill dozens of fruitful hours exploring this varied and surprising world: getting to know its inhabitants, slaying its oversized fauna, making out with its sexy men and ladies.

The gameplay is pretty close to developer Bethedsa’s last big hit, 2008 game of the year Fallout 3, and fans will spot parallels everywhere, right down to the drumroll played when you level up. Many of Fallout’s notorious glitches, however, have been ironed out (there’s notably less floating furniture and sticky bits of landscape) and the combat system is – thank god – much improved; gone are the quasi-turn based sequences, replaced by satisfying hack-and-slash skirmishes that require tactics as well as button-bashing.

The only area it really lags behind Fallout 3 is its lack of an obvious hook. The Fallout series stands out for its tongue-in-cheek 1950s Americana and distinctive steam-punk shanty towns. Skyrim, on the other hand, relies on fairly standard Tolkein tropes. The developers have clearly brainstormed every fantasy-cliché going, ending up with a bulging cast of elves, trolls, orcs, dwarves and wizards, all lifted wholesale from Lord of the Rings.

Thankfully, the feeling of familiarity falls away as you’re sucked into the complex, multi-layered plot and subtle Machiavellian political landscape. The paths you choose, friends or enemies you make, style of play, even the weapons you carry, influence events across the game. The sense of agency is unprecedented.

The depth of potential customisation is also ridiculous. You could spend an entire evening just designing a virtual face you will see for approximately ten seconds during your adventure (the point of view is either first person or over the shoulder) – there are ten playable races to choose from and you can even specify the amount (and shade) of dirt on your character’s face.

Skyrim’s makers say it could, in theory, last forever, with the game designed to spawn new missions ad infinitum (albeit most of these missions are of the “collect 10 boar skins” variety). Based on the first 30 hours of gameplay, that still sounds short.

First published in City A.M.