I’ve spent the past couple of days playing Skyrim, the fifth of the Elder Scrolls line. And although any game should be able to stand on its own merits, the Elder Scrolls has become such a fantasy action-RPG powerhouse, with a delicately intertwined story that flows from one game to the next, that it’s difficult not to discuss the previous entries a bit.
Actually let me clarify that. The story does flow from game to game, but at a respectable distance. It’s not like you finished the fourth game, and this one started a week later with the same characters in the same world. The fourth game is now nearly ancient history. 200 years have passed since the last one, and although the events of that game clearly had major impact (the Emperor was assassinated and his hidden son turned into a dragon and gave his life to defeat an evil dragon god from their pantheon of religious icons that have been there since game 1, leaving the realm without a successor and short a deity… it’s the sort of thing you don’t miss). It left a nice power vacuum to cause plenty of strife, which is a good point for a player character to turn up with some unusual mystical powers to start sorting some shit out.
And there we have our premise. Said mystical powers are being referred to as ‘dragonborn’, a trait that all the previous emperors have had, which is probably relevant to the one dude turning into one. In Skyrim, this translates into two important abilities for a player: 1) being the only person in the whole world that can permanently kill a dragon by eating its soul, and 2) using said souls to power a sort of dragon-voiced shout that has magic effects. Presently I can use a nice dragony freeze breath and a number of other cool options, for instance. Everything else about the gameplay and combat follows in the footsteps of the previous two games, 3 and 4, which were Morrowind (one of my favorites ever) and Oblivion (less favoritey but with a lot of positives). So if you’ve played those two you’ll have a good idea of how the magic and combat bits work.
People who started with Morrowind and Oblivion also know that for Oblivion, although a similar formula was used, they tried to fix it up and upgrade it. And they did, more or less, they just fucked up some of the other things. Skyrim is in turn an upgrade to Oblivion, righting a lot of the wrongs there. I say a lot because it’s definitely not all, which I base solely on the fact that spears are STILL gone, goddammit. Spears were fun in Morrowind, and why they decided Oblivion couldn’t handle them is beyond me. But they did make a major fix to the low end magic skills that I can’t praise in sufficiently-glowing terms. If you played Oblivion, do you remember that crapass starting fire skill? Takes a second, chucks a pitiful blob of glowing orange that’s roughly equivalent to splashing a bear with a cup of lukewarm tea, and that’s only assuming you aimed properly, which you didn’t. In Skyrim it’s a constant stream of lukewarm tea, like a flamethrower. It’s great! I mean it still does shit damage at the start but its vastly more useful. The spark, frost, and healing stuff does that too, which is just the BOMB in comparison to the old junk. Other than that it’s all the same formula, but that’s such a significant upgrade that it feels like the whole system is revamped.
The graphics are updated and the character/monster models look a lot less stupid than in Oblivion, though of course in Oblivion for the first year or so everyone was chuffed to bits that faces had more than four polygons that nobody noticed they all seem weirdly inanimate and wax-figureish. Skyrim looks a lot better. The environments look a lot different but once you’ve wandered around the land for a while you start to realize that all of the improvements are just the result of better textures and a deeper attention to detail. Well, there’s a bit more to it, like particle effects over waterfalls and whatnot, but regardless of how much effort went in it does look better. Most games reached the peak of possible audio effects years ago but Oblivion managed to let folks down by having about three voice actors and reusing them for EVERYONE. For the next game the developers got wise, and although they still only have maybe five, a couple are talented and varied voice actors. One of whom is the guy that voices Optimus Prime, and he’s been in the voicing biz forever with hundreds of voices. They’re all in the game, and they’re all easily recognized as him, so it’s like of like seeing a child trying to mimic a conversation between two dolls. It’s nowhere near as jarring as the one actor with the one voice talking to himself all the time as in Oblivion, and I don’t want to pretend it’s bad, but it is indeed noticeable.
The thing is, with the Elder Scrolls, they have the gameplay part almost down pat. Granted there are, and always will be, some issues, but the overall mechanic is still in play. The visuals will continue to remain on the sort of constantly-improving slope that will eventually reach the uncanny valley at about the same time all other games do, and the audio is what it is. All of that is beyond the point anymore, until and unless they decide to change it and fuck up hardcore. In the meantime, the focus is the story. These guys have become the masters of creating a fuckoff-huge world with a vast amount of story for you to go find your damn self. Which is done nicely here, again. But they also have to put in effort to make some of it seem epic. And they’ve done so by bringing back dragons to the land, and letting you fight them.
Fighting a dragon is an event, even if it happens off in the wild in an unscripted manner… yes, that happens too. That moment of fright when it spots you and throws itself into the air, assuming it wasn’t airborne already, and comes swooping in with a blast of flame is a really good way to start the sort of informal boss fight that it is. The fights are a challenge but not stupid-hard, or cheating-game-hard. You can take it down with a cheap bow and plenty of arrows, or throw spells at it, or if it lands, you can stab the damn thing. It’ll take a while but you’ll get there.
NPCs in the area will join you and once it’s dead, they’ll stand around contemplating their own mortality in the face of such a badass monster, and staring at you in awe for being the badass monster slayer that you are. That’s kind of pleasant. And yet at the same time, even though I won’t go back on my statement that it feels like a challenge, it doesn’t feel quite as dangerous as it could. There are a couple of missions I’ve been on with less epic undead bad guys who gave me no end of trouble. I wish I could fix the difficulty sliders to make just dragons harder, larger, and more epic, and leave the rest alone. Don’t get me wrong, it still feels cool to see one of them burn, but….
The main storyline relates to these dragons and why they’re back and blah blah, who cares. Any amount of discussion of the storyline is either going to be useless or a monstrous expenditure of time. The story is good, and leaves you feeling good about yourself. That’ll do. Side quests are plentiful as always and in one of these, for once, I felt the reward was truly epic rather than just finding another magic weapon. That reward was a new dragon power in which you can SUMMON A FUCKING THUNDERSTORM which will then proceed to lightning your enemies to DEATH. Which is very satisfying. My current save point in the game is a little while after having found that, and I’m off to find a dragon’s lair at which to experiment with it.
It’s hard, so far, to call Skyrim my favorite recent game. It’s extremely good, don’t get me wrong, but it’s getting compared to some other recent games that were the next in a line I already liked, and the other couple of them (one of them, Fallout: New Vegas, is by the same developer) both felt like bigger leaps forward from their predecessors. Perhaps that sort of jades me, like I was expecting Skyrim to be even better than Oblivion. But at the same time, Oblivion was really quite good, even with huge faults to it, and Skyrim is definitely a lot better. So maybe the curve of improvement is skewed here.
It is definitely an incredible game.