"Excuse Me While I Kiss the Skyrim"
I was not a Morrowind fan. Sue me. I found its combat dull, its open world perplexing and unruly, and its charms inconsistent. Oblivion was an afterthought for me by the time it gained its critical and commercial steam. Despite its rabid anticipation by gamers and the press, I didn't hold out extraordinary hope for The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. That said, I approached it with open arms and I must say: this game is epic.
That's not an overstatement. From the countless hours you'll spend roaming the snowy peaks of its mountain ranges and hunting its grassy fields for elk and mammoth to the furious battles you'll have with giants, warriors, and the undead, Bethesda's tale manages to do something absolutely amazing. Skyrim takes your breath away, and in today's cynical pot-bellied marketplace this is no easy feat.
Gameplay is the best I've experienced in The Elder Scrolls saga, but it will be familiar to any fans of the series and efficient enough to capture the attention of casual gamers too. In an amalgamation of nearly every fantasy gaming convention ever passed off as a gameplay, Skyrim paints the on-screen action in broad strokes and lets players fill in the blanks. Of course, you can choose to be a warrior or mage, but the evolution of your talents, the speed of your progress, and even the development of your play style depends on you. Want to be a better archer? Shoot more arrows. Want to be a better warrior? Swing more blades. Experience is tracked in specific skills and an overall experience meter, which then offers perks at every new level gained. Using a smart and simple constellation system, players can literally write their character's destiny in the heavens while choosing buffs like higher damage for a particular type of attack, faster mana recharge rates, possible decapitations on foes, and so on. Even with all these options, you never feel like anything less than a force to be reckoned with (unlike Morrowind, in which my avatar Sven the Doombringer was emasculated by a pack of rats in chambermaid's cupboard).
Of course, none of this would matter if battles weren't intense and satisfying in Skyrim, and for the most part they are. Larger encounters with beasts like dragons and giants may seem like the main event, but even scrapping a squad of zombies can prove a real test. Enemy A.I. doesn't seem especially bright, but it is markedly aggressive, which often requires some strategy on your part. In addition, traps, hazards, and roaming enemies (like dragons) can make life more difficult when you're trying to settle a dispute. Luckily, the dual-wield system provides a lot of flexibility in offensive and defensive tactics (use a two-handed battle axe, double up on a fire spell for greater damage, or stick to the good old fashioned sword and shield, for example), and the much improved animation and hit detection lends more weight to the swing of an axe. It may not be up to the snuff of your favorite pure action hack-and-slasher, but this is the first time in the history of the series that the first person battles have felt so frantic, frenetic, and fun.
Bethesda's design philosophy extends to the mission structure of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, which allows for exploration and objective completion in no particular order. Should you go to the College of Winterhold to brush up on your spell-casting or take time to take out that Bandit leader and pickup some extra coin? Craft stronger weapons or mix up a batch of apple cabbage soup? From the opening titles to the end credits, Skyrim never stops asking what kind of world you want to live in. It's an impressive and dangerous choice for the developer: giving players supreme freedom to craft their experience sounds like a great idea, but it led to a lack of direction and a bit of frustration in past entries in the series. There is a stunning amount of liberty in your take on Bethesda's world, but this time the rockstar development team has taken careful steps to be sure that no one is left in the lurch. In addition to its simple map and destination system as well as a fast travel option for territories already discovered, a new spell allows you to navigate to the current objective.
Sound and art design are top notch in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. From the howl of a pack of wolves to the sinking of an arrow into an enemy's flesh, the world is fully and wonderfully realized; an operatic and downright Lucas-ian score accompanies you through the entire adventure, and who doesn't love the sound of burly Vikings murmuring and chanting when you find a new word of power or level up? Much has been said already about the game's visuals, but even as a step up from the impressive vistas of TES: Oblivion, Skyrim feels like a brilliant vision of a land of myth and lore. There is some pop in, and the closer you get to some objects the nicer their texture, to a point at which they can be a bit flat and cartoonish, but in a game this big that doesn't require much loading for exteriors (I experienced none), this is just nitpicking.
Bethesda has simply outdone itself, and in the process, most of the fantasy games on the market. This is a clear Game of the Year candidate. An epic story, beautiful environments, a solid battle system, and that's just for starters. There are items to craft, dungeons to master, towns to loot, and dragons to slay. There are blemishes here or there to be sure, but a gamer would have to be insane to miss this ride for their sake. Congratulations, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. After your perilous journey to the frozen pinnacle of gaming, your dungeons and dragons have warmed my heart.
GameDynamo's Score for The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (X360)
|Leon Hendrix III
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