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SummaryBethesda marches forward
The GoodMy feelings for Elder Scrolls games changed from complete indifference to annoyance and finally admiration. Over the course of my game-playing career I've come to appreciate and enjoy all of its installments, from Arena to Oblivion. I eagerly anticipated Skyrim and was eventually rewarded with a game that, while not exactly re-inventing the formula, polishes and embellishes it to the utmost degree.
Skyrim has everything we love in Bethesda's RPGs - above all, of course, a huge, engrossing open world full of things to try out. I won't go into detail here; anyone familiar with the company's previous works will instantly recall the addictiveness of nearly unlimited exploration and the joy of methodically developing a character in a free-form way. Skyrim keeps everything intact: it is one gigantic, delicious chunk of gaming to entertain us for hours upon hours.
In this review I'll concentrate of what Skyrim does better than its predecessors. In two words, that would be "almost everything". Indeed, Skyrim is a clear example of developers actually listening to fans and working to improve and rectify whatever was wrong in their previous games. So much of the criticism leveled against Morrowind and Oblivion has been addressed that many of these predecessors' most aggravating issues disappeared almost fully.
Elder Scrolls games were gradually getting better at concealing the randomness of their enormous worlds, the artificial way they were constructed, the lack of personality in places and people. Skyrim feels much more "seamless", more homogeneous than Bethesda's previous games. Everything is designed with greater care, and it really shows. The NPCs are by far more life-like, more natural; locations ooze poetic atmosphere; the detail is overwhelming. It is hard to define this volatile sensation, but Skyrim does away with unpleasant stiffness that plagued all its predecessors. Its world may be covered by snow and ice, but it is much warmer.
Earlier games in the series had problems with dungeon design. Skyrim offers atmospheric, interesting dungeons which are a pleasure to explore. Long and reasonably complex (without the excesses of Daggerfall), they are rewarding and fairly unique in style. Many of them have puzzles and other clear distinguishing features, and some are very impressive in design and scope. Comparing them to the monotonous copy-pasted caves of Dragon Age II, we see that Bethesda beats the competitors at their own game.
The radiant AI of the NPCs works better than in Oblivion, and everyone seem to behave more naturally in general. A lot of effort has been put into personalizing NPC lines and updating them as the game evolves. One time I chatted with a nameless guard in a quiet town and he first commented upon recent political changes and then expressed his solidarity with my decision to use one-handed weapons. In short, the conversation felt more like a verbal exchange between two normal people than a few random lines rigidly stuck into a video game to fill space. This is just an example of how the developers of Skyrim paid attention to detail.
Combat system is, in essence, the same as in the previous game, but battles are more visceral and exciting. Combat just feels right, and is enjoyable throughout. One of the best things Skyrim does is fix the terrible level-scaling system of Oblivion. Some of the enemies still scale with you, but overall the effect is by far less noticeable. There is a sense of danger when an underleveled character encounters a stronger foe, and a sense of accomplishment when preparation and tactics lead to victory. The new skill trees are interesting and do not in the least interfere with the old system. On the contrary, they add another layer of depth and complement skill development very nicely. Leveling up is faster, clearer, more logical and less confusing than in any previous Elder Scrolls game. Archery and magic have clear advantages even when fighting regular enemies, and there is a good incentive to explore different development venues. Everything is better balanced and challenging in a good way.
The game's story is decidedly better than in Oblivion and has quite a few memorable moments. The main quests are interesting and take you to spectacular locations. Some of the scenes are genuinely thrilling; the first battle against the dragon, for example, masterfully conveys the feelings of awe and fear. Dragon battles in general are fascinating, and belong to the most exciting RPG confrontations in recent memory. Besides dragons, there is plenty of interesting wildlife; all kinds of creatures, from deer to mammoths, roam the countryside, and you'll fight ferocious bears and fearsome sabre cats. The game world breathes life; it has its own culture and traditions that are interesting to learn. Fortunately, they have removed the instant fast-travel from the previous game: in order to discover a new location, you actually have to manually venture there, enjoying the beautiful, yet often perilous journey.
The BadAll that said, I'd like to stress that Skyrim still is, for all purposes, a typical Bethesda game and has inherited some of the series' cardinal weaknesses. Though I love both games, Fallout: New Vegas was, in my opinion, a more impressive merging of open-ended RPG with memorable characters and setting. Writing in Skyrim (with the exception of Daggefall-age books) is more or less on par with Fallout 3; characters are a bit more interesting. But overall, there is still a certain lack of liveliness in character presentation and stale, formulaic conversations that have become associated with Bethesda's RPGs. There can be no comparison between the narrative quality of Skyrim and the brilliance of the writing in BioWare's and Obsidian's games. Skyrim is certainly an evolution, but not a revolution.
There are companions in Skyrim, but they are painfully silent. My faithful follower Lydia made nearly no comments and reacted indifferently to whatever happened around her. I hope that next time Bethesda will put more thought into dialogue with companions. It is one of the last barriers that they have to jump over in order to triumph over their colleagues in RPG-making.
The graphics of Skyrim worked for me, but didn't quite evoke the same sense of wonder as Morrowind and Oblivion had done in their time. Character graphics are quite unremarkable. Towns, dungeons and outdoor locations are clearly crafted with heart, but the occasional coarse texture may spoil the enjoyment. The homogeneous world is detailed, but the bleak northern landscape can get repetitive and rather depressing.
I only have minor complaints about the gameplay. I didn't like the lockpicking system and would prefer the mini-game from Oblivion instead. I missed the acrobatics skill; pity they don't let us perform crazy leaps by practicing jumping any more. And the interface is, as you might have heard, weird and uncomfortable. Eventually I got used to it, and I must say that large graphical items are a step forwards compared to the boring icons from the previous game; but irrational key bindings nearly drove me mad until I installed a patch.