Dec 7, 2011

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The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Review

The Elder Scrolls name exudes a sense of nostalgia and rich tradition. Arena and Daggerfall brought niche RPG gameplay into the mainstream spotlight, while Morrowind redefined open-world gaming on both PC and console. The Elder Scrolls series has enraptured millions of gamers the world over, and Bethesda’s spotless history in crafting an irresponsibly deep and compelling experience cannot be denied. As an Xbox 360 launch title, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion set the stage for a surge of open-world adventures and Western RPGs on next-gen platforms. Five years later, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is finally here. Ever since Skyrim made its public debut at the 2010 VGAs, anticipation for this sandbox adventure has been climbing higher and higher. How could any game possibly make do on thousands of promises and expectations, set by both the studio and its legions of fans?  Ladies and gentlemen, breathe easy. Skyrim offers rich and rewarding gameplay, a beautifully intricate world, and an alarming amount of content. Bethesda’s latest carries the Elder Scrolls torch proudly and cements itself as one of this generation’s finest achievements.

Unfortunately, any further heights are held just out of reach by a disturbing lack of technical polish.

In true Elder Scrolls fashion, Skyrim is a first- or third-person RPG set in the fictional land of Tamriel. In a land that’s positively brimming with classic fantasy tropes, sword and sorcery clash as you forge your own path. Do you want to become a powerful warrior and gain a reputation among the kings and nobles for your honor and courage? Have at it. Would you rather spend your days bent over a blacksmith’s forge crafting weapons and armor to make a living, or dedicate yourself to studying the arcane arts in northern isolation? Knock yourself out. There are a million-and-one ways to play Skyrim and, as with every Elder Scrolls game, no one can tell you how. The adventures you embark upon, the actions you take, and the choices you make are the foundations upon which the series is built, and Skyrim (like its forebears) offers a massive world full of opportunities for these elements to take shape. You’ll wield magic of all varieties, carry swords and shields into battle, sneak through caves and homes, and pick off your enemies with bows from afar. You’ll do battle with rats and ancient mechanical guardians, complete quests for a host of factions, and find excitement and danger around every corner you dare to turn. If you care to, you may also embark on the game’s main story, which builds upon the events of both Morrowind and Oblivion.

Two hundred years after the defeat of Mehrunes Dagon at the hands of Martin Septim and the player, the continent of Tamriel is in turmoil. The eruption of Red Mountain in Morrowind has forced the Dark Elves to free their homeland. The Great War, brought on by the religious fanaticism and conquering passion of the Aldmeri Dominion, has ravaged Cyrodiil and its neighbors and left the Imperial Empire a shade of its former glory. Racial tension and the fuel of war are at an all-time high in the snowy northern province of Skyrim, as proud Nords fight to rid their homeland of the “traitorous” Imperial forces. As you – a nameless prisoner – are led to your execution, the feeling of hostility and distrust in the air is palpable. Before you’re able to plead your case, a rift opens in the sky, and the mythical dragons of legend are suddenly very, very real.

Shortly after Skyrim’s invasion begins, you realize that you have the power to absorb the souls of dragons. With souls in your possession, you can master the ancient dragon language and express it in a Thu’um, or Shout. That you can speak the language without any formal training is significant; it means you are Dovahkiin and, as the Elder Scrolls foretell, the only one who can save Skyrim from Alduin the World Eater. Skyrim is Bethesda’s most ambitious attempt at storytelling to date, and it shows. In this world, there is no conversation that occurs without purpose, no event that does not tie this epic tale of salvation together, no lore-stone left unturned. Before long, you’ll find yourself swept up in fulfilling your destiny and bringing peace to Tamriel. Of course, only the most naive adventurer would pretend that the game’s main quest is the only attraction, or even the most appealing. Almost all of the game’s quests (and certainly all of the faction storylines) are tied to the history of the world and interwoven in such a way that adds both excitement and emotional weight to your journey. Not every quest hits it out of the park and offers an incredible experience you won’t soon forget, but many do. Better still, every quest feels worthwhile in the context of this world and its mythology–a testament to just how cohesive and well realized Skyrim feels.

As soon as you are set loose in the world, you’re free to walk in whatever direction you wish and set off upon the grand quest of doing–well, whatever the hell you want. It’s this moment that defines the Elder Scrolls experience for many, and Skyrim doesn’t disappoint. After being treated with a story-heavy opening sequence that hides a tutorial in a heart-pounding escape, you’re asked to follow one of two potential allies to the next destination in the game’s main story. Needless to say, you don’t have to. I followed my new companion (a member of the Stormcloak rebellion) briefly before breaking off to hunt the first deer I saw. What happened next was three hours of adventuring and exploring that spanned numerous caves, a couple bandit camps, and a waterfall. I never caught that deer, but that single catalytic moment of deciding to give chase blossomed into a personal journey that ended only when I began nodding off in the wee hours of the morning.

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About Kyle Prahl

You can friend him on PSN (geist226) and follow him on Twitter: @PaybackPrahl