No matter which character race you choose, you can continue along any of the three primary classes as you go: mage, warrior, or thief. But these ultimately serve as guides rather than rules. Instead of an obvious tally of “experience points,” advancing character levels in Skyrim is accomplished through the consistent leveling-up of individual skills, in turn accomplished by simply using said skills. Make the conscious decision to traverse the mage’s path but end up with a particular fondness for one-handed weapons? Hit a bunch of enemies with the mace and watch your skills improve. At first decide to be a warrior but develop a propensity for fire? Set foes ablaze and gain advances in Destruction Magic. Starting from one skill path might hurry things along in that appropriate stream, but you’re absolutely free to decide what kind of character you want to be whenever you want to be it, provided you are willing to put in the time to learn.
With enough skill advancements, you’ll begin gaining full character levels, choosing from a vast array of “perks” with each level, separated into the individual skill categories. From here, you can choose combat perks like improving weapon damage or magic usage, or you can advance your character in other ways such as lock-picking, weapon/armor-smithing, or speech (improving bartering skills and persuade/intimidation successes). There are tons of different options here that compliment numerous different play styles, and you’ll have to spend many, many hours in the world of Skyrim to even attempt to try them all.
But that’s just the thing with Skyrim: you’ll want to spend that much time in its world. The dragon menace is the all-encompassing issue facing the land, and following this main plot line tells a wonderful tale of the Dovahkiin (the “dragonborn”), the Greybeards, and your Thu’um – your voice – and the important role it plays. The story does an admirable job of feeling truly important and world-changing from start to finish. Walking through a town making small talk with the citizens and being attacked by a dragon never ceases to be awe-inducing.
As satisfying as the primary quest-line is, where Skyrim truly shines is everywhere in between. Your quest to discover and defeat the source of the dragon scourge will take you to the corners of the huge game world and beyond, but you’ll never get from point A to point B without discovering something. And this discovery won’t be just a valuable gem, rare weapon, or the occasional cave. You’ll discover entire communities, complete with their own personalities and social issues that are completely unrelated to the primary scope of the plot. The major civil war between the Imperials and the Stormcloaks, House Grey-Mane feuding with House Battle-Born, the Mage’s College of Winterhold making new and potentially dangerous discoveries, and even an aging man’s fascination with the Elder Scrolls themselves… Skyrim is ripe with self-contained struggles large and small all across the land. This establishment of a complete, living and breathing world is perhaps most evident after completing all of the primary quests. It is at this time that it becomes clear that even after the devastating world threat has been quelled, every single remaining issue in Skyrim still exists. Simply, life goes on, and there is still much to do.
While the sprawling land of Skyrim is Bethesda’s crowning achievement to date, the combat mechanics and presentation are also at a high point in the franchise of The Elder Scrolls. When wielding a shield and a sword, the block-and-counter combat results in a satisfying combination of technique and the spoils of skill advancement. Successfully sneaking up behind an enemy and quietly taking them down is as satisfying as ever. Magic-using is vastly expanded with the introduction of powerful “Shouts” and the ability to assign the same spell to both hands, resulting in powerful dual-wield attacks. And the Creation Engine helps the world come alive all throughout. If you can see a mountain in the distance, you can get to it. Begin scaling it and you’ll be witness to weather changes as the swirling wind and dynamic snowfall bring about shivers of your own. And when you do reach its peak, you’ll look down, astounded that not long ago you were in that town that now seems so tiny in the valley below. The more you explore, the more that the epic scope of Skyrim will sink into your skin. Even the standard interaction with townsfolk feels more natural, as Skyrim has dispensed with the awkward “chat mode” that zoomed in on characters’ faces in games past, instead opting for conversation that takes place right there in the game world with no obvious changes to the UI. It’s a small adjustment, but it makes a tangible difference in immersion, which is further aided by the surprisingly short load times throughout.
The few issues with Skyrim are not with the core game design, and are thankfully not likely to be permanent on the PC. While effective, the aforementioned user interface is undoubtedly geared towards the use of a console controller and can feel a bit clunky when employing a mouse and keyboard. It does not take advantage of the myriad of keys that a PC player is presented with and comes off rather menu-heavy, resulting in periods of pausing and searching that seem unnecessary and otherwise avoidable. Fortunately, the game plays quite well with a controller, as its pure gameplay doesn’t require the meticulous, instant, pinpoint aiming that an action-oriented FPS would. And for those hoping for an optimized PC interface, the mod community is hard at work, having already released multiple UI overhauls that make much more effective use of the tools available to PC users. The remaining gripes come in the form of occasional glitches and crashes to desktop, but they’re neither crippling nor numerous, and Bethesda has already begun to roll out patches to fix issues as they arise. For a game so large in scope, it is – dare I say – surprising that there are so few launch issues, which is either a boon to Bethesda or a result of the sad release state of games in the current generation; take your pick. Either way, it’s difficult to consider these easily surmounted and ignorable issues as true “problems” when they simply do not get in the way of the overall experience, and are temporary, at that.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is a game that undoubtedly meets its lofty ambitions. By encouraging exploration that is consistently rewarded with satisfying discovery, Bethesda has created a game world that invites you to become lost in it for hours with no true end in sight. Enthralling open-area dragon battles complement the well-designed and claustrophobic dungeons, all while setting a new standard in the scope and presentation of the role-playing genre. Completing the engaging primary line of quests can actually leave you feeling like you’ve only scratched the surface of what Skyrim has to offer. From scaling mountains to descending into caves, from slaying giants and mammoths to defeating vampire and werewolf cults, from reading countless texts and books to aiding the everyday struggles of townsfolk, the situations offered by Skyrim seem infinite. Your personal experience is likely to differ from everyone else’s, and you cannot soon enough begin your foray into one of the finest RPGs ever crafted.
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