Also available on: PS3, PC
Developer: Bethesda Softworks
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Genre: Role-playing game
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is the sequel to Bethesda's much-loved and multi-award winning role-playing game Oblivion, a title that caused jaws to drop, social lives to vanish and daylight to disappear for millions of gamers. Featuring one of the most sizeable, stunning and ambitious worlds ever created, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion was epic in every sense of the word, a true defining moment for both the video game medium and fantasy genre.
Five years later, with outdoor activities back on the agenda, colour returning to cheeks and fractured relationships with loved ones finally on the mend, we're invited to do it all over again in a sequel that's bigger, better and more beautiful than before. Welcome to Skyrim - be sure to pack a toothbrush because it'll be a while before you leave!
One of the game's biggest strengths is the sense of discovery that comes with every forward step, encounter, conversation and quest. It's in this spirit that we choose not to divulge too much information about the plot and the title's excellent opening scenes. Needless to say, the introduction sees players flit between frying pan and fire, and it's not long before your in-game character embarks on a quest spanning the entire length and breadth of Skyrim.
The story is told almost exclusively through interactions with other characters. Whether it's baying mobs at public executions, wise men in the farthest reaches of the world, or drunkards begging in the street, conversation is key to discovering the ins and outs of this stunning Nordic realm. Despite a few issues with characters speaking over the top of each other, conversations flow far better than before, and the irritating conversational camera zoom is thankfully a thing of the past.
With ancient beasts and ethereal enemies on the loose, not to mention a tense and bloody political climate, this is a world well worth discovering, and the overall story, sub-stories and snippets are hugely entertaining, albeit slightly conventional. Reading the tomes of historical and fictional literature further increases immersion, and it's nice to see one or two volumes dedicated to the Oblivion crisis.
When faced with such a breathtaking landscape, however, we can't help but feel that the developers could have taken the plot from an old episode of EastEnders and we would have still been blown away. Put simply, Skyrim is a visual masterpiece. We're not sure how they've managed to squeeze it all in - especially without the constant loading times that plagued its predecessor - but Bethesda has crafted something truly special.
Clearly influenced by Scandinavian folklore, architecture and mythology, the world is full of towering snow-capped mountains, boggy marshes, thick, dense forests, glistening lakes and majestic waterfalls. Ancient ruins cast their shadow over nearby villages and mighty sea vessels dock in cities shrouded in mist, while farms, tombs, caves and ancient artefacts are never far away, not to mention the warm glow of a nice drinking hall or tavern.
The living, breathing land is populated by multiple races, each with their own routines, agendas and political motivations, be it bandits looking to rob and steal, witches and mages conjuring goodness knows what deep within the woods, and the feline Khajiit confined to the outskirts of each settlement. Meanwhile, vicious beasts roam the countryside, trolls terrorise the mountains, and giants protect mammoths and sacred sites from external threats - so be sure to keep your distance.
In terms of gameplay, Skyrim's intuitive action will feel familiar to longtime fans, and shouldn't prove problematic for newcomers. Weapons, shields and spells are assigned to the trigger buttons, with experience gained every time players perform a particular action. Use two-handed swords, for example, and players will be able to unlock additional double-handed melee damage from the corresponding skill tree - as well as levelling up their magic, health or stamina, of course.
Skill points can be earned with increased haste by visiting Guardian Stones and praying to the relevant God. This allows players to backtrack somewhat and explore all branches of combat, especially handy for indecisive types, or when faced with a troublesome mission requiring a change of tact. The ability to quickly change weapons and spells and use items with the D-Pad is another handy feature, ensuring that mages, warriors and beasts can be dealt with efficiently and without trawling through countless menu screens.
Dragon Shouts also make their debut, allowing players to learn skills and powers associated with the scaly beasts of the sky. Whether intentional or not, we found that Shouts better enabled us to deal with, or escape from, groups of enemies, something that was extremely tricky in the last game. They're also used to solve puzzles in the game's multiple dungeons.
An early power grants the user the ability to push back and knock down groups of enemies (a bit like Force Push from Star Wars), which levels the playing field when surrounded by four guards armed to the teeth. Dragon Dash, meanwhile, enabled us to quickly advance through a set of gates on a timer deep underground. Shouts exist separately from magic, but have their own recharge time, ensuring they can't be used cheaply and continuously.
To be honest, we're only really scratching the surface of what's involved in Skyrim. We're doubtful we've seen or sampled half of what's on offer, despite clocking up tens of hours of gameplay and completing the main quest. Characters can be extensively customised, guilds, armies and organisations are constantly recruiting, and missions yield different results depending on choices made and methods used, while random encounters with troubled souls are never more than a stone's throw away. Skyrim is chock-full of surprises, teeming with depth and absolutely brimming with replayability.
Unfortunately, in a game as huge as Skyrim there are bound to be a few glitches, and predictably, frame-rate issues and stray lighting/shadow effects crop up from time to time. Artificial intelligence is also a little hit-and-miss, with sidekicks and compatriots occasionally getting lost or alerting enemies at times when you'd prefer to hang back. The map can also be difficult to decipher, especially when trying to figure out the quickest route (or sometimes the only route) to a township beyond or at the top of a mountain.
Other issues are really a matter of patience and preference. Skyrim is best played at a slow pace, with exploration - or at least the desire to explore - a big factor in levels of enjoyment. Presumably, not everybody will have the desire to spend an hour travelling to new locations, which, despite fast travel, is essential for unlocking places on the map. Constant looting can also become a pain, with very few enemies offering anything of use or value - save for a bit of gold - after the first few dungeons. Dungeons, too, are a little samey and sometimes have a tendency to drag.
Minor issues aside, Skyrim is hotter than a dragon's backside after three courses at a curry house, and if you're the sort of person who favours tunics over T-shirts or prefers a tankard of mead to a pint of Stella, chances are this is the game for you. Likewise, if a deep combat system, an engaging plot, a wonderful cast of characters and a stunning, open-ended game world sounds like something you might be interested in, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim should be at the top of your list.
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