Monday, August 6, 2012

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim - Aan Lot Tey Do Ahkrin Ahrk Faal Suleyk Do Geinmaar

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is a game that has been out for about nine months now since its initial release on 11/11/11. I then received it as a Christmas present, but had not even played it until about three or four days before San Diego Comic-Con International 2012, at which point I temporarily stopped playing and then picked it back up as soon as I came back. My time not playing this game has been due to a combination of my college life as well as playing the games and watching the movies needed for the reviews that were posted on this blog throughout 2012 so far (you can view the exact volume to the right if you don't trust me). I have more than made up for my lack of play time however by playing whenever I could for three to four weeks, committing a total of 88 hours and 28 minutes (aka ~88.5 "man hours"). For further evidence, look no further than my beard, grown and cultivated to represent my dedication to this masterpiece.

Now I can say "I've played Skyrim for this long."
And now with my apologies out of the way, I'd like to officially open with a more proper introduction. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is the fifth entry in the popular Elder Scrolls RPG franchise by Bethesda. While I was never really that interested in the Elder Scrolls franchise to begin with, I was able to witness the initial hype surrounding the release of Skyrim, with a beautifully rendered teaser featuring living stone to tell only a mere portion of the tale the player would be able to live through. While admittedly I tried as hard as I could to avoid getting swept into the craze that would follow, the huge amount of hype generated by the internet, including the infamous "arrow in the knee" "jokes", and the fact that my friends liked it got me to get a copy of my own, which I finally got around to playing. Now that I've played it for so long, I understand why it has received universal acclaim.

The story, for those who are unfamiliar, is thus: You are the Dovahkiin, the dragonborn, someone who only turns up once in a lifetime. At the same time, Dragons, once thought to be extinct, have returned to Tamriel to wreak havoc on the land. They are led by the dragon god Alduin, who seeks to destroy the Empire in Skyrim and claim rule once more over the Nords. It is now up to you to harness the power of The Voice to strengthen your Thu'um, your shout, and defeat Alduin to restore peace in the world.

Being the kind of game that this is, that of the open world variety, it's hard to determine where to begin beyond this premise. In this case, it's probably best to begin with the gameplay, and boy is there plenty to talk about here.

The land of Skyrim is massive, riddled with enough places to go and things to keep you busy for a very long time. Thankfully, getting to these areas where you can do something isn't too much of a hassle, provided you know what you are doing. When going somewhere for the first time, you'll need to hoof it, which sounds like a pain at first until you actually begin your trek through the mountains and wilderness. The innumerable amount of locations you can discover along the way can really ease the travel time, providing you with places to go later on when somewhere you are required to go happens to be nearby. A great complimentary feature that helps make this work is the ability to fast travel, which means that, as long as you are outside, you can instantly go anywhere you have already been once, severely reducing the amount of walking needed. It is also possible to travel by horseback, which while allowing you to go slightly faster and up steeper inclines, can only be acquired, as far as I know, from either paying a pretty penny or stealing one from someone. In any case, you are actually better off walking in the long run, since a horse can be difficult to control at times.

No matter how you decide to go about your journey, you're bound to run into an enemy sooner or later. There are numerous groups that they may fall under, with such types as Giants, Trolls, Frostbite Spiders, Drauger, Dwemer Machines and more; these are just a couple I can name off the top of my head, but the sheer variety is actually exciting to discover, each type having many sub-types appropriate to their location. Sometimes their strength is on par with your level, with higher level variants spawning in place of their lower level counterparts to give you more of a challenge. What's more, they are all creative in their design and are rendered in stunning detail so that their appearance may match the visual their name may conjure up. With a very good spawn rate in the many dungeons and fairly balanced attack and defense ratings and abilities, I relished every victory and every death felt like my own fault in some way.

Of course, when you get involved in an encounter with one of these enemies, you'll need some of way of fending them off or, perhaps more desirably, killing them. It is through the excellent combat system that this task can be fulfilled, with multiple gameplay systems that help suit your personal play style. First off, the weapons are all interesting, with many different types to choose from, be they one or two-handed. The material that these are crafted or forged from may influence their weight, though it is up to you to decide if the damage output is worth taking up more of your maximum carry weight.

If physical attacks aren't your style, then you can opt to cast magic instead. There are a few disciplines of magic, including Illusion, Conjuration and Destruction (though there are a few more). Magic uses up some of your Magicka gauge depending on whether it's a single burst or a continuous use. You can learn additional spells by collecting and reading spell books scattered throughout the world, allowing more depth in the discipline(s) you choose to follow. It's also possible to temporarily use a spell you haven't learned yet by activating a magic scroll and using it from the spell menu to cast it. I personally used Destruction the most, which seems to have elemental magic, with a hint of Restoration for healing and Conjuration to summon forth a follower, although my play style didn't really involve heavy use of magic. Still, it's good to know that there are many options for magic-heavy players.

What makes combat more interesting however is the ability to dual-wield, meaning you can have something different in each of your hands. Since this applies to both magic and weapons, it's entirely possible to hold a one-handed weapon or shield in one hand and cast a spell in the other or have some combination of weapons, shields and spells in use at once. A two-handed weapon can also take up both slots, suiting my play style as a "human tank" (or Nord in this case), but this only further shows the great amount of depth dual-wielding allows. Sometimes it's fun to experiment with this and see the kinds of things you can do, such as dual-casting Flames to produce a Kamehameha style animation. The fact that combat on consoles uses the shoulder buttons makes it even easier to pull these things off.

If you're engaged in battle with a Dragon however, or if your in a situation where you need just a little more power than you already have, then you can utilize your Thu'um to perform a shout. These shouts come in many different flavors, including the internet popular Unrelenting Force shout (Fus Ro Dah) which has the power to stun or throw enemies, as well as other shouts with the ability to summon a lighting storm, set enemies on fire, slow time to a crawl, eliminate nasty weather and more. To gain a shout, you must first learn at least one of the three words associated with it, usually from a word wall in an area or dungeon, and then unlock each individual word in the shout with a dragon soul, obtained by killing a dragon and using your passive ability as the Dovahkiin to absorb their power. Shouts also have a cool down time, meaning that you'll need to wait a little while between shouts, the exact length of which is dependent on how many words in the shout you used by holding down the shout button. Shouting adds a bit more depth to the combat and grants the player a great sense of power as well an advantage on the battlefield. It is an essential skill that I simply could not do without and I actually enjoyed finding each word, sometimes even the need to fight for my life to get to it.

Your travels through Skyrim will also get you involved in several side quests of varying objectives. Usually it requires you to fetch something, but you may also be tasked with delivering items or letters across vast distances, which can sometimes give you a sense of the world around you and just how the inhabitants go about their day-to-day lives. Completing these quests can grant you valuable rewards like gold or other items for your inventory, but perhaps the most invaluable is the insight into the game world. In any case, performing side quests remains a way to get what you need and offer experience in many ways. Also, the radiant quests and ones with random objectives heavily contribute to the game's replay value (I again direct you to my beard).

I hate camera flash, don't you?
The two biggest quests however are those that affect the game the hardest, which are the Main Questline and  the Civil War Questline (sort of like "Main Quest part two"). Both are excellently written, with great character development that reveals the hidden depths of some of the most important NPCs in the game. The stories unfold in ways unimaginable, with the main quest's mysticism and exciting mysteries climaxing in a truly epic fashion that I haven't seen in gaming before. In Skyrim's civil war, while you can postpone it a long time, you are forced to pick between supporting the Empire's Imperials or the Stormcloak Rebellion (I picked the latter). Both have their own reasons for fighting, the Imperials wanting order and the Stormcloaks wanting their basic freedoms, and it is truly fascinating to learn about how each side functions and see how conflicting personalities collide. With engaging plots and spectacular endings, it makes playing through both campaigns absolutely worth it in the end.

In terms of sound, Skyrim has very good voice acting that matches the characters perfectly, but what really steals the experience is the score. With various pieces that match the situation very well and accentuate the right tone in combat or when just walking around, it provides the perfect soundtrack to your adventure and gives you the right feeling, whether it's the taste of victory or that you're in for a heck of a fight. On top of this, the main menu music, which also comes up sometimes when you fight dragons, is one of the most awesomely epic pieces of music I've ever heard in my entire life.

Graphically speaking, this game is simply beautiful. As I stated before, the character models are rendered with intricate detail that is amazing to look at, but the environments themselves are absolutely breathtaking. With a gradual and, as far as I know, realistic transition from a grassy area to a snowy mountain range coupled with dynamic weather, I couldn't help but be in awe at each new sight. The best example of this for me would be the 7,000 steps that lead up the side of a mountain to High Hrothgar. For me it achieved the feeling that long journeys like that would actually have been designed for: I felt a sense of peace in the real world and I was able to think more about the journey itself as a form of meditation; quite a feat if you ask me.

Now, while the game is very well designed, there's one thing that all of the good things can't quite overcome: glitches. If there's one thing this game is known for it would definitely be the glitches. I once killed a dragon and half of its body sunk into the ground, I've had enemies disappear through the game world never to be seen again, I've had a necessary quest dialogue be invisible and I've even faced a couple of lockups that caused me to reset my system. Despite the fact that I've been playing the PS3 version with all of the patches up to 1.5 installed (so the infamous lag problem never occurred), there are still glitches abound. I've seen what these patches are supposed to do and while some of the fixes add things that feel like they should have been in the game to begin with, including extra kill cams and combat on horseback, it's a little heartbreaking to know that such an amazing game can be held back by so many technical glitches that should have been ironed out before release, though I have a theory that they really needed to make the 11/11/11 deadline and decided they could fix it all later. It is for this reason that I don't think I can consider it a classic in a few years time, unlike games such as the absolutely perfect Batman: Arkham City, unless all of its patches and future DLC are compiled into a special edition disk down the road.

Another thing that I'd like to bring up is that throughout my playthrough, I couldn't help but feel similarities to Fallout 3, another game from Bethesda, due my lack of experience with the studio's titles. Differences from Fallout 3 however include the fact that weapons and armor don't deteriorate over time and thus don't require repairs; experience is gained not from killing enemies, discovering locations or completing quests, but rather from leveling up your various skills by performing actions related to their discipline; your health, magicka and stamina bars regenerate over time; perks are specific to improving different skills rather than your overall performance. The similarities however included the follower system and limited carry weight, as well as fast travelling and just the overall feeling that I had done it before. This isn't bad though, since I really liked Fallout 3 and considered this game to be a major improvement on its systems.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is a game worth playing. While riddled with glitches, it also plays host to one of the most intriguing storylines I have ever experienced and a very dynamic and awe-inspiring world. Fans of Bethesda games or those who are wondering if Skyrim is worth playing should definitely try this out. If you haven't played it yet, then perhaps the number of patches released has created a very good opportunity to give it a go, as it's a game you'll have a hard time wanting to put down. If you still need something to push you toward this game, then consider that you can literally kill dragons just by shouting (and you can even have a beard!).

And if you don't shave for a month, you too can have one.

For those of you wondering, the subtitle of this review is in Dragon Language from the game. It translates to: "A great tale of courage and the power of oneself."

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