The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim – catchup review

  • Format: PS3 (version reviewed), 360, PC
  • Unleashed: Out Now
  • Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
  • Developer: Bethesda Game Studios
  • Players: 1
  • Site:

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is a rather difficult game to review. It is one of the most immersive titles of any generation, but is also rife with technical issues that would earn most games a critical panning. It is able to addict and infuriate, entice and repel; it represents everything that is wrong with the “release now, fix later” development model, yet manages to emerge smelling like roses. Skyrim is a difficult game to review, but is a great one all the same.

From the outset, Skyrim’s saviour is yours to mould. From a Sean Bean look-alike to a feline magician, you dictate everything from their fighting style to the shape of their eyebrows. However, no matter your cosmetic choices you will remain the Dragonborn: a prophesied slayer of dragons able to manipulate the Thuum – a deadly shout – and consume the souls of the ancient dragons that are terrorising your home.

The realm of Skyrim is nothing short of breath-taking. From snow-capped peaks to murky lowland swamps, it offers everything you could wish for in a distinctly Scandinavian setting. There have been more expansive video game worlds, but few have felt this genuine and worthy of exploration. Road trips across this vast landscape bring new characters, locations and extra missions, as Skyrim is ever careful to reward an intrepid explorer. To deny your wander lust is to deny Skyrim its strongest suit.

How you spend your time Skyrimming is entirely up to you, as Bethesda rarely ties you to the main quest-line. You are free to follow the direction of your choosing, be it that of a peaceful herbalist, spending your days foraging in the hills, or a serial killer skulking in city back streets, indulging yourself in young maidens and wealthy merchants. You could spend all your time collecting books, or even focus your efforts onto hurling cheese at unsuspecting Elk. No matter the direction you choose, the effect on the main narrative is negligible. Whether you are a bloodthirsty murderer or a cheese slinging freak, you are left with the same story, one that is entertaining enough to prevent you from ditching it entirely, yet not so engaging that you’ll be in any hurry to return.

The real meat of Skyrim is to be found in its extracurricular activities. A seemingly inexhaustible collection of side missions covering a spectrum of activities, from spelunking and grave robbing to quelling rebellions and aiding a talkative dog. The Dark Brotherhood assassination missions are the pick of the bunch, featuring a mix of interesting characters and scenarios that keep you eager to push forward through a lengthy, entirely optional tale.

Unfortunately, it’s not all regicide and mental jesters, as other missions highlight issues that begin to grate after extended play, in particular the incessant load screens that accompany almost every door and often ruin town-based missions. Not since the original Resident Evil have doors had such a profoundly negative affect on the flow of a game, as you’ll come to dread mini quests that feature more loading screens than action.

Combat is rather unrefined, though certainly enjoyable – a case of flailing your arms in the right direction and hoping for the best. Fortunately, levelling up is a far more nuanced affair, with a huge range of abilities on offer to help shape your combat experience. You might study one of any number of schools of magic, concentrate on ranged attacks or invest everything in your melee capabilities, though most likely you’ll opt for a bit of everything. On top of this, you may pour experience into other less violent but no less valuable traits, such as speech-craft and pickpocketing.

Once you tire of adventuring, or have become overburdened with loot, you will find a number of towns and villages ready and waiting. Here you will engage in all sorts of entrepreneurial activities such as turning ore into valuable armour and hard earned ingredients into handy elixirs. It is entirely possible to lose tens of hours honing your blacksmithing skills, bouncing from one merchant to the next with your latest collection of loot or sifting through treasures in one of a handful of available homesteads.

Aside from the load screens that worsen the longer you play, Skyrim is plagued by a number of issues that turn what could have been an era defining game into simply a great one. Playing on the PlayStation 3 (the platform that has had the worst of it) can at times be excruciating, as the further you progress the more you will come to notice lag and performance issues that do their best to ruin the experience.

Some of Skyrim’s foibles are rather harmless, entertaining even, and quite forgiveable. Break-dancing corpses and dead wedding guests never hurt anyone, and a salesman who attempts to sell you leeks after you have already cut their throat (and stolen their leeks), will make even the most hardened Dragonborn smile. What are less amusing are key NPCs that get stuck in walls, missing items and broken quests that every player will come across at some point. Issues such as these are being addressed with new patches, a quick fix that today’s developers are becoming increasingly reliant upon. What happened to only releasing a game once it’s ready?

As disappointing as these issues are, and it’s important that we do hold studios like Bethesda to account, they have to be viewed in context. In a game where you can drop a single arrow on a city pavement, only to return thirty hours later to find it exactly where you left it, it’s not surprising that dragons will occasionally take to flying backwards. Should we be disappointed by such faults? Of course, but if you dwell too much on these shortcomings then you are selling the Skyrim experience well short.

Bethesda has built the most memorable of worlds, and in Skyrim they have filled it with the kind of activities that are difficult for any RPG fan to resist. This is a game to lose yourself in, where an hour is never enough and every road will lead you somewhere new and worthwhile.

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Written by Matt M

Matt has been a gamer ever since Father Christmas left him a Master System II in the early 90's. Santa was clearly a Sega fan, as a Mega Drive and Saturn would follow in later years. Matt has long since broken free from the shackles of console monotheism and enjoys playing a wide range of games, almost as much as he enjoys meticulously ordering them on his living room shelves.

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