It was after clearing some buried Dwarven ruins deep in the mountains of Skyrim that I finally felt ready to start hunting dragons instead of letting them hunt me. I had spent about an hour hacking away at Daedra and skeletons, and hurling flames at frostbite spiders before slowly proceeding to the dungeon’s boss. Along the way I narrowly escaped traps, navigated through elaborate puzzles, and collected treasures from chests secured behind locked doors. The boss, some fearsome wizard, was far more difficult than I had anticipated, so I quickly switched between my frost-enchanted axe to a staff that shot sparks, and thus slowly eliminated the caster’s Magicka. Pinned against a wall and low on health, I had no other option than to let out a bellowing Shout—afforded to only those in Skyrim who train in the way of the dragon—and it toppled the wizard far enough away so I could heal before switching back to my axe to finish the boss with one final power attack. Adrenaline pumping, and newly acquired loot equipped, I left the ruins ready to go hunt dragons. I didn’t need to look far for as soon as I returned to the surface world, my controller violently vibrated, I heard a not-so-distant roar, and moments later a dragon circled above hungry for my Nord blood.
Two things are abundantly clear after playing The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. First, it’s absolutely amazing how easy it is to overlook technical and graphical bugs in such an enormous open-world RPG game. Considering I logged more time into the game than most people do a typical work week, I was impressed not to find one glitch that broke the game. There were, however, several minor Bethesda-style glitches, like floating horses or citizens inadvertently interrupting conversations, which made me laugh. But more importantly, Skyrim is, without any trepidation, one of the finest games ever, and it now holds a spot on my desert-island list.
It’s not only the thrill of fighting dragons, or the desire to learn more about your fate as Dragonborn, it’s simply the obsession that comes from the world of Skyrim and being more than just the hero of a game; you are citizen of the land and how you live in it is entirely in your hands. Do you want a noble path as a trusted warrior with the Imperial army, or do you want to take sides with the rebellion? Do you want to earn your coin by hunting for treasures, working some back-breaking job, or choosing a life as a thief by picking pockets and robbing shop keepers?
Hitting every aspect in a game as massive as Skyrim is impossible for a review. With that in mind I’ll be completely candid and simply state that I spent more than 50 hours in the game (yup, a lot of sleepless nights over the past two weeks), cleared countless dungeons and killed 20+ dragons, joined two guilds (even ruled one), owned a horse and house, did plenty of side quests, and completed the main quest. I did not, however, spend a lot of time doing random jobs, I did not max out my levels, and I did not explore every inch of the land.
Dragons, destiny, and a civil war
The land of Skyrim is engrossed in a civil war following the assassination of the king. The region is fragmented into two factions, those that want Skyrim to secede from the Empire, and those that do not. Of course, as is the case in the real world, most of the citizens in Skyrim are torn and not sure who to support. But, the loudest and strongest figures vie for control and manipulation, and players can choose to take sides, or stay out of the conflict to the best of their ability. Regardless, the war is in your face throughout the game, and it help shapes nearly all of your actions.
You play a pivotal role in the war simply because of your destiny as Dragonborn, a dragon hunter with the ability to learn ancient and powerful Shouts. Early encounters with dragons are predetermined and used to tell the story, but the vast majority of battles are relatively random, although once you learn the beast’s location, he’ll generally stay in the area so you can flee if you are not prepared.
Many view the dragons’ return to the land as a sign of end times, and you’ll quickly learn that Alduin, the Nordic god of destruction, has something to do with their reappearance. The main quest line sends you across Skyrim to learn more about dragons, Alduin, the civil war, and your destiny as Dragonborn.
While there are some visual and technical glitches, the overall presentation is immaculate. The levels are mostly diverse, but it’s the world of Skyrim that is truly breathtaking. Occasionally the night sky is lit by Northern Lights, and snow-covered mountains almost always experience blizzard-like conditions. From the details of trees, water, and grass, the landscape is simply gorgeous. The soundtrack helps round out that epic storybook feel, and easily draws players deep into this magical world.
Friends and foes
Skyrim’s population is mostly filled with local Nords, and while each of the nine or so major cities has a different feel, a different flavor, you’ll start to run into the same character architecture over and over again. Whether you are in Whiterun or Solitude, the guards repeat the same few quick lines, but it is nice to hear how they react to your actions throughout the game. Repetitive characters are a bit disappointing, and while it detracts a bit from the overall immersion, there are still plenty of small details that yank you back into this war-torn land.
While citizens can quickly become enemies with a fat fireball tossed into the local pub, the real enemies are found in the vast dungeons or roaming the enormous map. You can travel by foot or horseback, or take a caravan to the major cities, or fast travel to already discovered locations. This definitely makes life easier, but again takes a bit away from the immersion in the world.
Enemies are generally intelligent, but they can easily get stuck in doorways or refuse to traverse a small hill to fight you face-to-face. You can take advantage of the occasional poor enemy pathing, and even some bosses are best kept at a distance using some basic kitting techniques. But overall the enemies are diverse, creative, and occasionally difficult enough to provide a real challenge.
But nothing beats fighting dragons, period. These are the moments that make you run to the front of the TV screen in excitement. Defeating dragons takes skills and some luck, but it mostly takes practice. While some Shouts work extremely well against these enormous beasts, you really can’t beat swinging a blade at its face or side. Hearing that distant roar, the music change, and the controller vibrate is enough to still make my heart pump. You can spend days simply exploring Skyrim and hunting dragons, or you can let them find you. Like everything else in this game, the choice is up to you.
The fight is in your hands
Bethesda nailed the combat controls perfectly. Each hand is assigned to the respective left and right trigger buttons, while Shouts and sprint are also tied to the other triggers. Swinging an axe with your right hand feels a lot different than swinging a dagger or a mace. Similarly, dual wielding spells packs a powerful punch but requires a bit more coordination than casting a spell with one hand. You’ll feel the force of your mace bash through opponent’s leather armor, or feel your sword bounce off a shield.
Movement is also extremely responsive and you’ll truly feel the differences depending on what armor you are wearing. You can play the game in either first-person or third-person perspectives, and while I personally enjoyed first-person better, third-person is quite viable as the character isn’t centered on the screen. Instead, situating the character just to the side allows you see more on the screen, thus improving the chances you’ll see a baddie attempting to flank you.
Skyrim does away with character classes. Sure, you still pick a race and you can change your appearance at the beginning, but you won’t pick a class like a mage, warrior, priest, or thief. The game allows you to play all these classes at once, and skills develop depending on how much you use them. That means that if you prefer to play sword-and-board, you’ll progress faster in the warrior skill set as opposed to the magic or thief skills. Skyrim is at its best when players approach characters as hybrids. For example, 75 percent of my time was spent wielding a one-handed weapon in my right hand and a destruction spell in the left. But the rest of my time was spent sneaking and sniping opponents with my bow. Few other games do this hybrid leveling system as well as Skyrim.
Even the leveling system allows you to personalize your gameplay experience. When you earn a level you are given the chance to pick a perk, represented in constellations, from the three main schools of combat, magic, and stealth. I spent most of my points in the Destruction branch of the magic school, which boosted spells like Flames and Sparks.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is an endless game. Exploring its open world will keep you occupied for as long as you want it to, and the nearly countless dungeons, quests, sidequests, and guilds are means there is no reason to stop playing Skyrim. Even after I finished the final part of the main quest chain, there were no credits, no cinematics, no giant reward (other than personal gratification).
This is perhaps the best quality of Skyrim. At times I felt completely addicted and at no point did I want to give up. In fact, I can’t wait to dive back in and even start a new character. There is simply so much to do that you may never get bored. While we usually hope for DLC to extend the life of a game, right now there is really no need to go beyond what’s on the disc.
Skyrim is not perfect, but the flaws don’t keep it from being an excellent game. If you measure enjoyment on sure obsession and addiction, Skyrim is easily one of the greatest games of the generation, perhaps of all time. Open-world RPG fans have every reason to be excited; Bethesda truly delivered an extraordinary game.