Platforms: PC, X-Box 360, and Playstation 3
Price: $59.99 (all platforms) or $149.99 for the Collector's Edition
Skyrim, the name of the fifth installment of Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls RPG series, has become a major buzzword since the game’s release. People the world over post tweets and Facebook updates that allude to their having popped up for a breather but intending to return to Skyrim.
But if you haven’t yet been sucked into the wide-open world of Nords and trolls and elves and giants, and particularly if you have played an older Elder Scrolls game and didn’t care for it, you might be wondering if Skyrim is for you. The wild popularity and constant claims of addictive play make a pretty convincing case for giving it a try, after all.
To help you decide, I’ve tackled a few of the issues I see with the game and outlined the reasons I keep playing despite them. I’ve written about the important aspects of any RPG: the story, the role playing for which the genre is named, and interaction with non-player characters (NPCs). And, inevitably, I’ve compared Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls to BioWare’s Dragon Age.
What’s the Story in Skyrim Like?
The basic plot for Skyrim starts in classic story-telling territory: civil war. You begin in first-person view as a character with no name and no background, on your way to the executioner for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Without spoiling the long opening scene, let’s just say that something happens and you can choose to side with the Imperial forces or the rebels.
Lest this sound too much like Star Wars, the rebels use the name “Stormcloaks”. Okay, that would be a perfectly serviceable Star Wars name, too. I told you it was classic story territory. Naturally, the Imperial forces are from “away” and the Stormcloaks are downtrodden locals, at least in theory.
But, as with many RPGs, the story acts as a framework from which to hang side quests and character interaction. This story offers enough structure and interest to occupy you for a straight-forward run through the game but side quests and errands distract you at every turn, sometimes literally as you wind about the Medieval towns and villages.
“What is that NPC talking about?” you’ll think, and before you know it you’ve agreed to go retrieve the family sword from bandits or hunt down a spouse’s stash of booze. That’s the meat of any RPG, to what the bones are meant to give shape. These little side quests give your player character (PC) a reason to explore the backwaters of Skyrim where hidden gems pop up along the road every two miles.
Because you are meant to choose a side both have their flaws. Stormcloak Nords hate outsiders, including any other race you can play, though they’ll accept your help readily enough. The Imperial soldiers abuse their authority and outlaw the worship of the Nords’ most beloved deity, though if you delve deep enough you’ll find out why. There are no good guys, just like in Dragon Age 2. You pick whatever side you dislike least.
Characters, Interaction, and Role Playing
The stunning vistas and detailed environments can take an RPG only so far. Story, game play, and characters make or break a title. In Skyrim’s case, game play takes center stage.
The world of Elder Scrolls offers a rich, established history and the mechanics of building a character within that context occupies much of your attention. Do you spend your time and money training blacksmithing or potion-making? Should you focus on magic or weapons? Be a jack of all trades and you’ll do nothing well.
The skills screen springs up, gorgeous and cosmically detailed, with a huge wheel of constellations for all of these aspects. Bethesda has sprinkled NPCs throughout Skyrim that you can pay to train you and interactive alchemy tables and forges abound. You build your character from the ground up, with a basic set of skills depending on race, and decide along the way what abilities you value most.
Those complicated options and the time investment they require, however, detract from any emotional investment in your PC. The role you should be playing becomes a technical exercise in character building than an extension of yourself. Half an hour forging and improving armor may be satisfying and lucrative but it doesn’t advance the plot.
Were the NPCs fleshed-out you might get interested enough in them that you felt involved in the story. Unfortunately, Skyrim fails in this regard. With few exceptions the wooden characters evoke little emotion and the side quests on which they send you to fetch, carry, and kill become purely mechanisms to buff your stats.
Your companions exhibit almost no personality. Lydia trails you through months’ worth of game days and never find anything new to say, no matter the trials through which you take her. These supposed friends or followers bring you nothing more than utility as pack mules and damage soaks or dealers. As the saying goes, there’s no there there.
You’ll certainly find a few well-made characters with great voice acting and engaging stories. A particular gent in the forbidden wing of the Blue Palace leaps immediately to mind. Those few contrast sharply with the dozen (or more, as they mostly look alike) men that share Gideon Emery’s distinctive voice or the squabbling of yet another married couple who sound the same as the ones in the last little hamlet.
So How Does It Compare with Dragon Age?
Dragon Age: Origins and Skyrim share one basic world fact: they thought dragons were no more. They were wrong. What that means to story and game play, however, differs wildly. In the former, the title names the toughest opponents and the ultimate boss. In the latter, they’re a nuisance and a tool.
Skyrim’s character design plays a large part in the player’s disconnect I mentioned above. While you can customize your PC and play a cat-person, a lizard, or more than one race of elf there’s no getting around the fact that, compared to Dragon Age, the people in this game come in various flavors of ugly. They exist in a realistically filthy and hard world and it shows in the dirt-smeared visages worn by the cares of peasant life.
In particular, the men’s hairstyles longer the shaved head look dreadful. For all of the realism in the settings and the dirt the people remain mannequins, standing stiffly in place while you speak to them outside of small hand or arm movements. Many don’t even look at you when you’re speaking to them. And even when the voice acting indicates interest or a heated conversation the NPCs look bored.
Dragon Age: Origins demonstrated a similar helmet-hair problem but at least the main characters and the NPCs gestured and turned to you during interaction. When you had an important conversation everything stopped (including random passersby who drowned out the person giving you information) and the camera focused you and your character on that one thing.
The NPCs in Dragon Age reacted to the decisions you made. The things that make Bioware’s RPGs so excellent fall far down the list of priorities of the Elder Scroll series. In Skyrim, lore lives in books you can only read when you find one in the game unless you carry them around—no codex to review at your leisure. Your character doesn’t care about anyone and, dragonborn or not, no one seems to care much about you.
You can “bond” with Lydia, for instance, to the point where she will present you with a gift should you leave her home and then return to her. Yet she never sounds warm toward you for more than a single line. She gives you the same rote responses to the same few requests in every other situation.
NPCs and random guards can sound impressed by your exploits but never like they give a damn that you, personally, survived. In fact some of them sound a little disappointed to see you back with their sap or sword.
You may manage to create a normal-looking character in Skyrim’s creator with its focus on dirt and skin tone but it doesn’t much matter. You never see his or her face unless your PC has just been tossed aside by a giant or dragon and is lying dead, waiting for the game to reload, or the camera was at the right angle when you clicked to craft something.
If you choose to play the game in first-person view, something I generally find easier for combat, you see nothing but your hands. Click back a bit and you can see your own back but the camera remains tied to your point of view so when you turn it your character turns too look, too.
I presume Bethesda intended you to feel like you were looking out of your character’s eyes. Since your PC exhibits all the personality of a wet paper bag, however, the move, becomes another technicality like so much else in the game.
Skyrim utterly lacks the drama of the Dragon Age series. No one seems too fussed about the war or the dragons. Most folks seem a lot more interested in their crops or the item they’d like you to recover. The lack of NPC interaction cuts you off from the action in the game, such as it is. The things you should care about become nothing more than a yet another tool to help you level up and learn a new skill.
As a side note, Skyrim handles armor very well. The pieces you and your companions don look grungy and rustic, fitting perfectly with the setting and the fact that you can make them yourself. I saw little clipping or other movement issues, likely due to their more-simplified forms. Enormous pouldrons look great on heavy armor but when they clip through an NPCs head in cut scenes (I’m looking at you, King Cailan) they do more harm than good. The elven stuff just looks cool.
The Lowdown on Combat and Skills
In playing the game, I can only assume that the designers of Skyrim put combat last on their priority list. The same wooden problem you see in one-on-one interaction rears its ugly head when fighting, doubly so for what should have been impressive, slow-motion finishing moves.
Now Dragon Age: Origins gave you similar slash-and-hack action in combat but when they stopped you cold for a critical hit kill it was well worth the effort. And, though Dragon Age 2 was released before Skyrim, it seems almost unfair to compare the fluidity of the two. Combat in the latter plays like 1998: stiff, clunky, and often silly if your character and opponent don’t line up well (I’m looking at you, wolves). You’ll find the idea of DA2’s flips and spins in the Elder Scrolls world laughable.
Magic generally consists of pointing your staff or the palm of your hand at someone and shooting the proper essence—be it snow or flames or a ball of warped space that summons a creature—to where you want it. Scrolls perform spells for non-magic-users and their animation is no more impressive. But shouting, on the other hand…shouting looks cool.
What Skyrim does right, and where it bests Dragon Age, is the utter interactivity of your surroundings. When you bump into a stack of plates or kick a basket as you move about, the items react like they would in the real world, including the noise they make clanging off furniture and floors. Bash an enemy into a table and you get a scattering of food and plates that almost lets you ignore the fact that your sword didn’t actually connect with him in the first place.
Dozens of lootable items have been scattered around, including plants and insects in the wide landscape and the corpses of your fallen foes. While looting or using the items to make something new, however, the action of the game does not always pause. Enemies will attack you while you’re mixing up potions or enchanting some new armor.
If only the quest givers showed as much life as some of the frenetic people they send you to kill Skyrim might come across as exciting. As it is, battles and summoned creatures give you the only energetic portions of the game. So much else is dreadfully interesting but, in the end, more intellectual exercise than role playing.
The crucial dungeons in Skyrim fall prey to the same problem the Deep Roads did in the original Dragon Age: they’re interminably long and repetitive. Crawling an important dungeon in the former means ages slogging through tunnels and rooms lined with mummies, picking mushrooms and locks as you go.
Worse, in some cases you must jog the entire, empty length back to the entrance once you’ve beaten the boss. Enemies don’t respawn and the dungeons don’t have back doors, though some do offer shortcuts back to an earlier area.
You find traps and puzzles in Skyrim’s dungeons, the former well done and the latter a bit cheesy. Except on chests you can’t disarm the traps directly but you learn pretty quickly to look for pressure pads, switches, and handles. Most so-called puzzles offer unsubtle clues and a dead guy at the spot where you solve them.
If you want a comparison of combat between the two games, compare the dragon finishing moves from both. In Dragon Age you ride the writhing creature’s neck as it tries to throw you. Your character (relatively) realistically slices off the top of its head then tumbles off stylishly as it drops dead. In Skyrim you also leap atop the dying animal and then slap it on the side of its nose accompanied by clashing weapon noises until you irritate it to death.
So How about That Wide-Open World?
The open road has nothing on Skyrim’s landscape. Even the world map offers beautiful topography showing its verdant valleys and snow-capped peaks. Your character can explore just about every inch of it, including areas not really intended for walking—if you’re patient enough.
Linear though a quest may be, the road between its points often offers the least interesting path between A and B. Wildlife of all sorts dots the landscape. Elk shyly trot off at your approach and rabbits scurry for cover. Foxes look sweetly up at you as if begging you not to kill them for their pelts.
Insects flit about while wolves and saber cats stalk you from the underbrush. Even the waters teem with salmon and slaughterfish. Shores boast crabs, clams, and sea-lion-like horkers. You can even harvest honeycomb from beehives or fungus from dead trees.
Here lies the true addictive property of Skyrim. Take-able, usable things lie everywhere and picking them up becomes a balancing act between what you want to make or learn and how much you can carry. When you pass by a dozen clumps of lavender to make room for the ore you’re hoping to mine you exercise your PC’s dominion over this vast world.
The land of Skyrim is huge. You can easily spend a quiet hour meandering the meadows and snowfields picking berries and skinning wolves, but you don’t interact with many people when you do. For the most part, the Elder Scrolls world stays just how it has always been: intricate, immersive, and unexciting. Unless, that is, a dragon drops on your head or you mess with a giant’s pet mammoth.
Final Verdict: Why Do People Love Skyrim So Much?
Dozens of hours into the game I simply don’t care about anyone in Skyrim. Few people in it do, either, with the exception of a few Imperial soldiers and some passionate rebels.
I am, however, deeply interested in seeing what the next level of Destruction spells will let me do and in seeing how high I can get my Speechcraft. And of course there are dragons to kill and words to learn, caves to explore and peaks to scale. I still want to swim around catching fish and ride a horse from Winterhold to Helgen. That’s right, Dragon Age fans: Bethesda included horses.
Despite the bare-bones characters with their generally unappealing looks and lack of animation, I want to keep going. A hundred more ultimately-pointless quests await me, a thousand creatures haunt interminable dungeons I’ve yet to crawl, and maybe I’ll become a werewolf.
Have I gotten my money’s worth from Skyrim? Absolutely. Would I recommend it? Yes. Just don’t go in expecting an RPG that will take you on an emotional roller coaster ride like Dragon Age or Dragon Age 2. Bethesda does what they do very well but character development isn’t it.