If you like first-person shooters, 2011 is the year for you – big-budget titles such as Modern Warfare 3 and Battlefield 3 have all hit shelves in recent weeks, to widespread critical acclaim. But what if you prefer a good old ol' RPG? Well, in that case, look no further than Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, the new fantasy epic from the team at Bethesda. Skyrim hits shelves tomorrow. How does it stack up, you ask? Let's go to the reviews.
"Unlike its 2006 predecessor The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, which at times felt like a carbon copy of Generic Fantasy Map #40192, the world of Skyrim is a Viking-inspired treasure trove of flavor and charm," writes Jason Schreier of Wired. "Every city has its own personality. Many have their own cultures, each fraught with racial conflicts and frightening adversaries. Gone are Oblivion’s bland medieval cities and repetitive demonic gates. Speaking with Skyrim director Todd Howard earlier this week, I asked him if there was any one element of the game he thought the team had really knocked out of the park. His answer was quick and to the point: 'The world.' I have to agree."
"There's a story, which guides the player's progress to an extent," writes Nick Cowen of the Guardian. "It begins with an escape from the headsman's chopping block and then the player is cut loose in the massive world of Skyrim with the barest essentials in information about themselves and the land they now inhabit. Skyrim is plagued on two fronts – by a bloody civil war and by the return of a race of dragons that, until recently, were extinct. The player is also aware that they are the last of a race called the Dragonborn, and they are also all that stands between Skyrim and its ultimate destruction. Still, that's enough to be getting on with, eh? The plot then proceeds to reveal its pleasures by inches, one mission and side-quest at a time."
The hero, and his beard
"Skyrim is not a great leap from Oblivion, or even Morrowind, but it is the finest chapter in the series to date: an unforgettable journey into another world, and a bracing emancipation from the linearity that typifies modern gaming," writes the team at CVG. "One of the biggest changes is how you create your hero. By the time you'd escaped the sewers in Oblivion you had already decided your class and base stats. When you start Skyrim, the only things you get to choose are your race, sex and appearance. The editor is fantastic, frankly, with a wealth of sliders and presets, as well as something sorely missing from Oblivion - a large selection of beards."
Even the leveling process is full of "wonder," writes Jason Wilson of GamePro. "I've always appreciated that you level up in The Elder Scrolls by using your skills, and nothing's different about this in Skyrim. But this game has fewer skills than before, and after 65 hours of playing, I didn't miss the skills such as Athletics or Blunt, and not just because I prefer to fight with magic. The perks, which grant abilities along skill trees, make Skyrim's approach to your players' skills engrossing; I felt more powerful and capable as I leveled up, something I didn't feel as much in Oblivion. And the way the skill trees are laid out as glowing constellations is gorgeous. It's unique."
The world, part two
"[M]aybe you'll follow the so-called 'main story,' easily the series' most mature, but whose purpose, fittingly, seems to be as introduction to Skyrim's footpaths, locales, and wilds, after which the real story – the one you'll craft as you discover just how much unprecedented detail Bethesda's baked into every square inch of Skyrim's vast geography – can begin," writes Matt Peckham of PC World. "Maybe you'll do your best to confound the game's logic, flaunting the law, even killing capriciously. Or maybe you'll just wander, an itinerant swashbuckler, taking work as you find it. It's hard not to wander. The game world's so thoroughly realized and lovingly rendered, well, good luck not abandoning whatever quest you're tracking just to see where the river over there goes, or what that strange light halfway up a mountain is."
Over at VentureBeat, Sebastian Haley calls the Skyrim visuals "underwhelming... Seeing characters not react realistically to events and damage rips me out of the intended immersion. And yes, there are some very rough patches in the graphics throughout the vast world. The much-touted animations can be particularly wonky, but there are also some extremely notable textures that stand out, not just compared to the rest of the game, but compared to all other games from 2011 as well," Haley writes. "It’s almost as if you can chart which areas or items were created earlier in development and then never retouched to meet the game’s generally high standards."
The supporting cast
"Non-player characters also have their own look and feel," writes Larry Frum of CNN. "But it's this person-to-person interaction where some of the detail breaks down. When your character walks into a room, everyone turns to face you. On one quest, I entered a party and all the party-goers kept looking at me while they were walking around the room -- or even into each other. Even while talking to someone else, their eyes were locked on my position. It was creepy. The animation of the non-player characters also seems stiff and repetitive when compared to the rest of the richly detailed and free-flowing environment. They will also occasionally walk themselves into corners and not be able to figure a way out. Poor things."
The last word
"Other RPGs such as Disgaea and Final Fantasy XII may rival the total hours of gameplay one can derive from Skyrim," writes Haley of VentureBeat, "but they can only do so through mass quantities of grinding. What they can’t rival is Skyrim’s incalculable amount of content and the sheer variety it has to offer, which I’m fairly certain topples even that of several existing MMOs. Whether it’s story quests, randomly stumbling upon a new dungeon, seeking out dragons, micromanaging everything you’ve collected and crafted, or doing dastardly deeds for the Daedric gods, Skyrim is indescribably massive. And, despite a handful of notable shortcomings, more often than not it is jaw-droppingly beautiful and thoroughly satisfying to play."