Saturday, December 10, 2011

Skyrim Review

Skyrim may be my favorite game of 2011, and that was after I had waited for Batman: Arkham City with great anticipation. Skyrim beat Arkham by enough that I may have to finish the Batman game next year.

Skyrim is the fifth game in the Elder Scroll series, the previous version being called "Oblivion."

Gameplay has improved significantly over Oblivion. Where Oblivion's skill based system was often confusing and complex, Skyrim has made it very straight forward to understand. The best part is you don't really create a character "class". Instead you can simply choose your own play style and your skills will level up appropriately. For instance, if you use the bow a lot, your Archery skill will naturally increase. I love the freedom of play style this offers.

Unlike the seemingly barren landscape of Oblivion, the land of Skyrim is vast and filled with adventures at every turn. I've wandered for hours and not reached an obvious border, though I know they are out there. And this game encourages exploration like no other game before it. Just heading back from one quest I ran into a new village and three new dungeon areas and finally had to call it quits for the day even though I was constantly tempted to look around "just one more bend in the road."

NPC's are a treat as well. Instead of the cardboard mannequin's of Oblivion, the NPC's in Skyrim are alive. You can sit, watch and listen as they go about their daily business. They react to your presence even if you don't approach them. Sometimes a new quest line will be opened up by an NPC who approaches my character asking for assistance. In another instance I entered an Inn and overheard a group discussing a problem that was plaguing the city. As a result I ended up accompanying one of the NPC's on a quest that took the better part of my evening to complete.

The entire experience is incredibly organic. Nothing like the silly "look for the exclamation mark over the NPC's head" of the MMO world.

Graphically the game is stunning. I sometimes just stand an gawk at the clouds hanging over the mountain peaks in the distance. No other game I know of presents the feeling of being in a very real living environment with vista's and scenery to match. 

There are something like eight or nine primary cities and hundreds of secondary locations throughout the Skyrim continent. And with rare exception, no two locations are alike. Dungeons are each designed to represent the specific architecture of the quest you are on. Each uniquely designed to offer a different set of challenges. And there are hundreds of them to explore.

Like Fallout 3, you can be ambivalent about the primary story line as much as you like. The quests are designed to lead you down multiple plot choices, but nothing ever forces you to go in a particular direction or finish every quest if you have no desire to do so. You can very easily play the game through with several characters and never get the same experience.

And as far as I can tell there is no "finish" to the story. You can continue playing and doing whatever you like long after the main quest chain has been completed.

The graphics of Skyrim do have issues. While it is easy to tweak the game to get good performance, the textures often look better at a distance than they do close up. Of course, I spend so much time gazing off into the distance looking for that next adventure, I am never bothered by the few muddy textures around me.

There are glitches. Skyrim is not just a computer game, it is a great big computer game with a vast complex environment and interactive items everywhere. So to expect it to be perfect is unrealistic. The flaws never are significant enough to destroy my immersion. I know there are obsessive types who will examine every brick and bristle when the occasional NPC that gets stuck in a conversation loop.

Combat is also loose in this game, especially if you are into Melee. Your character seems to swing their weapons wildly about in the air, and the system decides what kind of damage you did. There are times when I don't even appear to make contact with my target and yet they take damage. Compared to a game like the Batman Arkham games where melee combat is an amazing series of choreographed martial arts maneuvers, Skyrim can feel somewhat unresponsive.

Archery on the other hand is very satisfying. Nothing beats sneaking up on a target, setting up the perfect shot and getting the surprise attack bonus to take down a target in one shot. I play Skyrim almost like I do Batman, where I spend most of my time in stealth mode, slipping between the shadows and picking off my opponents one at a time whenever possible. Another thing I like is how the other NPC's will often be confused by the silent take down and spend time wandering around looking for where the shot came from. In fact one of my favorite tactics when facing a room full of bad guys is to shoot the one furthest away from me. Nine times out of ten his comrades will turn to see what happened to the fellow, and have their backs to me! Very satisfying, but ultimately fatal for the remaining characters.

Skyrim is really a top notch game despite a number of bugs in the current release. Frankly if the immense amount of content and imagination that Skyrim has to offer on the plus side does not make up for the rare problems, you probably won't be satisfied by a video game released this year.

Of course, if you prefer a multi-player experience, then Skyrim is not for you. I keep wishing Bethesda would add the ability to play these games in co-op mode.

Bethesda has now released several patches, and game play has been improving as a result. Since their games are known to have long shelf lives because of an active modding community, I expect they will continue to patch the game for the foreseeable future.

If you were a fan of Oblivion, Fallout 3 and/or Fallout 3: New Vegas, then I highly recommend Skyrim. Bethesda continues it's legacy of immense and immersive RPG's, each one better than the previous.

If you didn’t try those other games and are looking for a diversion for the long winter nights ahead, Skyrim would be a good choice.

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