SummaryBethesda's very first masterpiece
The GoodThis is it. Bethesda had finally done their homework by listening to their fans, researching into what worked and not thus far in this most complicated genre of all, what made Morrowind so much deeper and more memorable than Oblivion -- and they released what is probably their best and most consistent game yet. All things considered, it is also among the best role-playing games ever made. But Bethesda needed all their blood, sweat and tears, all the hard experience from Arena to Fallout 3 to pull this feat.
Skyrim is best described as a distinctive, homogeneous experience in a dynamic open world. I think it is best played in huge chunks, in a wide-eyed, semi-meditative state, which is a prerogative of open-world RPG's, this pinnacle genre in video gaming. I'll try to break down the best components of this experience:
- As much as the vast open-world formula permits it, Bethesda creates free-roaming NPC's with true characters -- even if only some of them really stick out and even fewer are memorable. As expected, characters who are relevant to the main plot are fleshed out the most: Ulfric Stormcloak, his second-in-command Galmar, Esbern, and our clandestine associate Delphine, perhaps most of all. What is great though is that some of the less important characters end up being quite memorable too: Ancano, the mysterious Thalmor emissary in the College. Madanach, the disgruntled leader of the Forsworn. Kodlak Whitemane, the Companions' elderly foreman who even writes a lengthy diary that we can discover. And when I finally lost my loyal sidekick Lydia in some dungeon after days of doing quests together, I felt a genuine sense of emotional loss (even if she wasn't one of the more memorable NPC's), a very rare feeling in computer games.
- Politics are realistic, complex, convoluted, frustrating, as they should be. The internal and external struggles of the various factions are not sugarcoated for the player, it's all laid out as it is, and we need to figure our own way around the relations. The Empire, the Thalmor, the Stormcloaks, the Forsworn, the Blades, the Greybeards -- all their destinies are intertwined in a realistic way, all have their respective agendas that the player needs to figure out with minimal to no hand-holding. The fact that Skyrim's political landscape is not simplified for easier digestion is one of my favorite aspects of the game. It's a subtle, mature feature not advertised with hype, yet it helps the immersion tremendously.
- Many of the conversations are deep and involving -- for a Bethesda game. They are excellently written and are often quite long, which is taken for granted from some other developers like Obsidian, but it's a very pleasant surprise coming from this developer who were once notorious for their drone-like NPC's and deadpan dialogues. The crucial negotiation scene in High Hrothgar reminded me of the Castle Never trial scene in NWN2, as it achieved the same kind of tension, gravity and drama, which is awesome for a mostly non-scripted open-world role-playing game. Skyrim is probably the very first open-world RPG that lives up to the challenge posed by Obsidian's offerings in terms of dramatization and tension.
- Many of the quests are creative, exhilarating and unorthodox. The main plot line is haunted by a sense of wonder and is graced by many (scripted) scenes that are bound to be remembered as some of the most memorable scenes in gaming: the first dragon hunt at the Whiterun guard tower; the reading of the Elder Scroll on the mountaintop; the dragon trapping in Dragonreach; the greeting and cheering of a dozen flying dragons after the final battle. And Blackreach, a vast, eerie, otherworldly cavern with abandoned structures is one of the top five ingame locations I have encountered in a game EVER. Outside of actual real-life adventure travel, it is probably only open-world RPG's that are capable of achieving this sense of wonder, since it presupposes the element of boundless exploration in an intriguing region. It also presupposes a capability of sensing wonders in the players themselves, something that many jaded gamers of today seem incapable of -- in real life or virtual.
- There are about 330 books in Skyrim, and while I haven't read all of them, I took the time to read quite a few. This is part of why the game is a triumph: not one of the books is shallow, boring or badly written. Yes, I know that many were already included in earlier Bethesda games, and most of them are brief 3-4 page treatises. Yet all things considered, this has to be one of the first games that does take its own book reading feature very seriously. You can spend several hours just browsing through the ingame books and not be bored. What's even better is the way the books' material ties in directly with the actual gameplay. In most RPG's, ingame books are disconnected from the actual gameplay. Here, they complement it. You can read a lot about Alduin or the Wolf Queen, for instance, and later you get to meet both of them.
- Some towns are architecturally awesome and feel alive with daily bustle. Markarth and Whiterun, especially. I liked the vibe of Solitude and Riften as well. Again, this would not be such a feat in a "hands-off", closed-world RPG, but the fact that even towns are awesome and realistic in Skyrim makes the end product all the more irresistible.
So the game is not only huge and open-ended, but it includes characters, quests, books and towns with the high quality of smaller scale closed-world games: it's a culmination of the best of both worlds, not unified successfully until now.
The BadI finally got fed up with all of it around the 100 hours mark. That's quite a feat as the vast majority of contemporary RPG's stop being interesting (and usually run out of material) before 40-50 hours of gameplay. At this point, I couldn't stand to endure another bandit-infested fort, another Nord village, another steampunk Dwemer ruin, another mission update and so forth. It was too much, because Skyrim's world is very homogeneous. You'll find the exact same non-scripted stuff at the southern tip as on the icy northern reaches. Thus Skyrim's geographic and thematic realism is a mixed blessing; it can get grating, repetitive, predictable. But it's a long enjoyable ride until that point.
The skill system is radically simplified and streamlined, clearly the influence of mainstream console gaming (which itself is a blight on role-playing games). Much had been said about the classless system and the lack of skills like acrobatics. While all this can be interpreted as a dumbing down of game mechanics, I found that it doesn't hinder immersion, in fact maybe it promotes it: much like on a real-life adventure trip, in Skyrim all you need to really worry about is the actual surrounding environment instead of stats and dice rolls.
The Skyrim province and culture is quite blatantly inspired by Medieval Scandinavia, right down to the names and the looks of the people. I wish Bethesda took a more original approach than just "vikings on steroids".
I've used the already-famous SkyUI mod almost from day one, because I found the original UI insufferably dumbed-down and console-y. Its inventory management was so simplistic and awkward, it felt like it belongs to a lesser game.
Oh, the bugs. The 1.4 patch (as of early 2012) still failed to squash a number of serious show-stoppers. But us open-world RPG fans learned years ago that a major game is considered an "immature" release until it lives to see its first or even second birthday. By then the inevitable barrage of official and unofficial patches will have probably helped it to thoroughly playable status. (VTM: Bloodlines and Gothic 3 are prime examples of why it is useful to wait at least 2 years after initial release.) Judging by that, I'm sure I'll return to Skyrim around 2014 for another playthrough.
The Bottom Line"We’re checking [Skyrim] out aggressively. We like it. We’re big admirers of [Bethesda] and the product. We think we can do some wonderful things," says Bioware co-founder Ray Muzyka. That has to be the ultimate praise, even if it comes from an increasingly uninspired developer that has spent the last few years spiraling down from failure (Mass Effect 2) to failure (Dragon Age 2) to sellout (The Old Republic). Here's hoping that Skyrim will change the development path of RPG's for the rest of the decade, bringing back both Obsidian and Bioware to the right track.
Let's face it: Skyrim is an important moment in game history. Its success and greatness prove to the entire industry that hardcore, epic games are not only actually marketable, they are plain cooler than anything the more casual Wii/PS3 market can come up with. They are even capable of entering popular culture if the quality and marketing is right. This is going to be a great decade for hardcore role-playing game fans.