Review: Skyrim

After the misstep of Oblivion, Skyrim is a gorgeous and well-executed return to form for the Elder Scrolls series.  While the world's a bit smaller, it benefits from strong artistic direction and a brilliant aesthetic, coupled with a good PC port and powerful modding tools.  A definite one to get for fans of the series.
Review: Skyrim
Date published: Dec 29, 2011
2 / 3 stars

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is an open-world CRPG developed by Bethesda Game Studios and published by their parent company, Bethesda Softworks.  After the mild abortion that was Oblivion, Skyrim feels like a return to form for the Elder Scrolls series: an atmospheric sandbox that tries to immerse you up to your eyeballs in a fantastic and interesting realm, and mostly succeeds. Some of the bugs are particularly jarring, and the gameplay balance needs as much tweaking as any other TES game ever did, but if you can forgive these bugs and the gameplay balance then you're in for an RPG the likes of which is rare now.

If all you want to know is if Skyrim is worth buying, then you can stop here: it is.  If you want to break it down a little more than that, however, read on!

Skyrim is obviously a console port,
but it's at least quite a competent one

It was the topic of quite some controversy when Skyrim was first released that it was obviously a console port from its control scheme that it was a console port.  To see a classical PC series going the way of the console was rather quite upsetting for a great deal many people, primarialy because console RPGs and console games in general tend to be much less complex affairs than PC games, and this is particularly a problem with the strategy and RPG genres, to which the appeal is largely the complexity of the underlying systems.  Indeed RPGs have a whole language of topics such as the tropes in stats, the infamous THAC0, min/maxing, powergaming, metagaming, and the like, to communicate different terms in these often-complicated systems.  For the most part, Skyrim mostly survives intact, in that regard, to the relief of many.

The PC port for Skyrim is mostly competent.  Most of the bugs that remain in Skyrim are the usual plethora of cross-platform bugs that Bethesda refuses to fix (they have a reputation for not fixing bugs that don't outright break the game) and make no mistake, those are still largely inexcusable, especially this long after release, but they are not port specific.  There is a wide variety of PC options, you can tweak the game to work on anything from a potato to a godly PC made from wood of the True Cross by the dwarves of Moria just fine (with accompanying mods with hyper-resolution textures) and the game runs pretty fine, other than one big pet peeve - it really, really does not like being alt-tabbed, and it's best to avoid that, which seems an odd thing to miss  with a PC port given that Skyrim is actually the one port I can say that for.  Quite curious really.

Controls in Skyrim take more than a little getting used to

I smite thee!
I don’t really expect most games to be at all historically-accurate in terms of fighting styles, but they could at least endeavour to be somewhat realistic-seeming.
Most of the prebaked scripted finishing sequences in Skyrim are laughable at best, with the character leaving themselves quite vulnerable to other attackers doing those moves, which works as well as it sounds.

That the controls are meant for a console controller really show, though.  You can use mouse and keyboard just fine, but it's a shoehorned arrangement that is quite different from previous games in the Elder Scrolls series and it takes some getting used to.  This introduces a fair amount of awkwardness into controls that weren't particularly well-known for being intuitive to begin with and as such the game can feel rather clunky sometimes.

Nowhere does this become more apparent with the combat, which along with its scripted finishing move malarkey feels more like you're watching a fight sometimes more than fighting, though thankfully you can stale down on this (and some mods remove this essentially entirely) but the combat has the classical Elder Scrolls combat of feeling very light and wiffy, without any real impact to the blows, and the overdrawn and quite silly animations in the finishing moves don't really help fix that in any significant way, especially when you have gore flying from an animated cut that doesn't even actually connect with the enemy.  Its rather sometimes like watching a martial arts film and getting the wrong camera angle so you can tell the shots aren't connecting.  This wiffy combat feels all the more clumsy for controls that make precise targetting impossible and essentially reduce combat to a case of just hacking at something until it falls over.

Swtiching between magic and melee/ranged combat remains as smooth as a mechanical buttfuck too, kind of a classic bugbear of the series really, with using a variety of spells is made all the more difficult by the presence of a VERY console-like radial wheel system that to this day three years later I find far too clumsy to use with anything approaching regularity and mostly avoid, as such my spells tend to lean on one or two spells exclusively, because without that system you have to switch using the inventory screen every time, though at least the game is polite enough to pause for you to do so.

One of the more annoying aspects of the game is not the controls per se, but that lack of control.  Striking a "critical hit" against an enemy that kills them results in the game slowing down, the camera blurring and zooming in, and the character executing an entirely overdrawn and overly flashy finishing move that never fails to overextend and expose the character, leaving you quite vulnerable to the five buddies of the person you are attacking that are no doubt queuing up to shove their sword up your arse to the hilt while you whale away at their friend in some of the silliest strikes I've seen in a fantasy game in a long time.  I don't expect carefully-researched historical fighting styles in my games, far from really, I do expect games to be entertaining and therefore generally flash over substance in that regard, but usually that comes by way of the player character having the typical fantasy superman problem of being able to cleave through multiple opponents, cut through armour, or the like, not in them being bumbling and incompetent fighters.  Yeah, I suppose that's not going to bother a lot of people how the strikes are, but taking away control for several long seconds for pre-baked finishing moves tend to more often than not, especially when other enemies can still strike you and your ability to defend yourself gets removed.

The visual design of Skyrim is quite striking

It might look imposing, but it probably helps the
enemy more than it would you, practically speaking
I can only imagine how many good cloaks that the Dovakhiim must go through in a month.  Perhaps that is where all the money you get from stealing every random piece of dungeon dressing goes towards.  It makes more sense than most of the stuff in your standard fantasy setting.

The art department of Bethesda has always managed to make quite interesting visual design, in particular outdoing itself with Morrowind, but it's really outdone itself with Skyrim.  Things look great, and I'm not even talking about visual fidelity.  The design is catchy and interesting, and unlike Oblivion that had the scarce and frankly rather uninteresting/under-capitalised Ayelid ruins, the theme of Skyrim is much more like Morrowind, with the visual theme reinforced throughout the game world in a compelling and catchy way.  While one can argue in this day and age if a nordic or viking aesthetic is really all that fresh thing, it's pulled off in a pretty convincing manner.

The one complaint I have with the game is probably a predictable one if you've ever followed my Twitter - a lot of the stuff in the game is for form, not function.  Half of the arms and armour are probably as likely to maim the wielder or wearer than any of their opposition, in particular some of the "elven" or "orcish" items.  The orc armour has always looked like it was cobbled together by someone with arthritis that didn't understand how forging actually works, and to Bethesda's credit they've done their best to at least make it look like your typical "fantasy" weapon and armour fare, not that this makes it any more practical.  Yes, yes, I know, it's a video game, its meant for show, blah blah blah, I get it it - the reason I mention it is alongside the nordic arms and armour designed for Skyrim, all quite functional and usable (if a little prone to be a bit chainmail bikini in the female iteration) it really stands out and therefore looks a bit inconsistent.  Some armour is highly practical and functional, while the BETTER stuff is actually more gaudy and flashy?  One would thing it would be the other way around, as was certainly the case with honour guard type armour versus actual fighting armour in that inconvenient reality thing.

Locations in Skyrim are actually pretty well-thought out and rather beautiful though, with towns having actual functional layouts beyond just a bunch of the standard merchant fare, and the tried and true Elder Scrolls tradition of trying to make the locations actually seem like living and breathing places which takes after the Ultima series in quite a positive way.  Skyrim's towns and cities all seem pretty workable places, though there's definitely a few places that purport to be fortresses or the like that in a real siege situation would be indefensible, or at the very least very hard to defend.  I appreciate however that in those cases, these tend to be cities that are trying to be fortresses, which is to say that difficulty of defense comes from a real compromise of trying to contain a population in within walls, which always entails tradeoffs in terms of defense.

As an aside, that makes me think, the closest we've come to a true siege in the Elder Scrolls series is probably the end of Oblivion.

Campaign or main story of Skyrim is somewhat short

Say what you may about my main criticism of the game being "there isn't quite enough of it" - there really isn't, in Skyrim's case.  The main story campaign, a largely-forgettable and generic heroic destiny affair, can probably be completed in a scant few hours, and as my description probably indicates, it's pretty derivative and not particularly inspired writing.  While hardly all that surprising for an Elder Scrolls game, even Shivering Isles or Morrowind were quite short affairs, the quality is rather not inline with those two quite excellent past examples.  That was how those past installments "got away with it" really - they offered short but memorable experiences, whereas Skyrim offers a short but bland one, unfortunately.  There's a few interesting bits of lore that get added in with the new story of Skyrim, but they never really get capitalised on in a way that is all that interesting, and it's a shame.

In grand Elder Scrolls tradition,
there are powerful modding tools available

The good, the bad, and the ugly
At the risk of sounding like one of those 'professional' GJP editors, the greatest glory - and worst enemy - of Skyrim is its modding community, which consistently puts out great mods - and complete tat - and comes with it’s own cannibalistic community of fairly egotistical individuals.
Don’t even get me started on how 3/4 of mods I come across are for busty 'pretty' women.

The Elder Scrolls series has always had powerful modding abilities, something that Bethesda has capitalised on since Morrowind, providing "The Elder Scrolls Construction Kit" that allows a player to modify almost any aspect of the game they could desire, from the overworld map to interior maps, to item stats, dialogue, and more.  The editor is present once more in Skyrim, and remains just as easily used, having been refined further with a variety of small tweaks that allows aspiring mod-makers all the more ease in designing the world they describe.  This has always been the strength of the Elder Scrolls series and it's the same in Skyrim - don't like what's there, or don't think there's enough?  Well, add in more of your own!

This is bolstered all the more by the ease of those tools, and there is a healthy and thriving mod community around the game.  This is boon and bane both, because while there's a good variety of available mods for the game that are of quite high quality ones but those are the pieces of driftwood floating about a river of sometimes absolute tosh.  It's the dual-edged sword of easy mod tools, because when everyone can do it, you get all the more people modding, and not everyone that gets that itch is at all good at such a thing.

I am going to mention this briefly: if you do feel the itch to mod your Skyrim, you might want to be cautious about the modding community.  It's not Bethesda's fault so I'm not going to fault them for it in this review, but the community can be quite acerbic, and allegations of "omg you stole my idea!" and the like are daily dramatic fare, usually coming from untalented developers who otherwise wouldn't get attention.  Cause enough drama and people pay attention, right?  Do take some care before getting involved in that community, dear readers.  I'd recommend sticking to the Workshop, which is, at least, well-moderated for the most part.

Speaking of subjective preferences, this very much is one, so take it for what it is, but with any mod community comes the "sexy" mods, and while I would be lying if I said I didn't use one of the more realistic ones, there's a LOT of bad sexy .. or downright sex .. mods out there.  Do take some care if you're a parent with a younger kid floating through those mods.  It puts me in mind of how Daggerfall had that enable-able "child-safe" mode.  Unfortunately most Skyrim modding hubs don't have this, so again, if you're a parent, probably best to keep your kid to the workshop, which is, again, well-moderated.  I find a lot of those mods in pretty bad taste, personally, but the wonderful thing about such mods is that I can just choose not to use them (and that's not to say there aren't some kind of strikingly anatomically correct stuff out there which isn't all that pandering, too)  I do find it kind of sad that the amount of mods out there pandering to the male pocket-mining demographic is pretty high, but it goes with the territory of a game that appeals strongly to men, really, and it's not a problem with the game per se.  Woops, I can just hear the sex-negative feminists angrily reaching for their mail program now.  Anyways, I digress.

The Final Word: Recommended - Skyrim tells a story. And it tells it surprisingly well. You never feel lead along linear corridors like some RPGs. It's not about telling someone else's story. It's about telling -your- story. And what will that story be? You'll have to play to find out!