Bethesda is among the most ambitious developers in gaming. Time and time again, they try to deliver on the impossible: An open world, brimming with life and opportunity, that a player can interact with however they want. It’s been a few years since they brought their brand of entertainment to the Elder Scrolls universe, having spent the last five years in the desolate wasteland of Fallout. Now fantasy is back with Skyrim, the closest Bethesda has ever been to their objective.
Like the last Elder Scrolls game, Oblivion, you begin Skyrim imprisoned. You’re riding in a cart with fellow prisoners on your way to your execution. Sadly, there’s no Patrick Stewart to introduce you to the world, instead you get hilarious Nordic accents and a little Michael Hogan for good measure. When its your turn at the chopping block, a dragon rears its fire-breathing head and wrecks the place. You escape and you’re free… Really free.
The whole world of Skyrim is yours for the taking, and you are hardly obligated to follow the main story if you don’t want to. Yes, there could be a dragon apocalypse coming, but if you’d rather spend your time picking the pockets of beggars in the nearest city, by all means. Sure, the civil war between freedom-fighting racists and imperial fascists is going on all around you, but that doesn’t mean you have to join the fight. You can do whatever you want, and for me, that meant spelunking.
The sheer number of caves, dungeons and ruins to be explored in this game is staggering. So, when my Redguard archer went wandering after doing the first few story quests, it didn’t take long for me to go underground. Down there, I found an ancient Dwemer ruin, a city built buy long-extinct dwarves. There were falmer living there now, basically goblins, and I took it upon myself to masacre them, along with the old robots still guarding the place. I left the place burdened with trinkets and metals, so I headed to the nearest town and started smelting them. This became so engrossing that I decided I wanted to level my smithing skill all the way, and my journey into the game had truly begun – without any concern for dragons and political wars.
That’s what makes Skyrim so extraordinary, everyone’s experience will be unique. There’s so much flexibility to the game, and yet it’s all handled so well. Take character creation, for instance. In Oblivion, I labored over my choice of race, birth sign, class and a daunting list of skills and attributes. Here, you simply chose a race. Each has certain advantages in certain skills, as well as a unique power, but it’s nothing earth-shattering. Birth signs are now stones scattered around the world that can easily be turned on at your will. Classes are gone, as are attributes. Instead, the game simply rewards you for playing the way you want to play.
I started out thinking I wanted to use one-handed weapons and destruction magic, to take advantage of the game’s new dual wielding system. Instead, I quickly fell in love with sneaking around and killing foes with my bow and arrow. No big deal! Just by using those tactics, they got stronger. It’s a brilliant system, especially when you consider the way leveling up works. Each skill has an individual level. When you level enough skills up, your character levels up. Then, you get to chose to increase your health, magic or stamina – whatever works for you, as well as put a perk into whatever skill tree you want. So you can, for example, make arrows do more damage from stealth or make spells cheaper to cast. It’s a brilliant system, in that it rewards both players who want to min/max and those who want to try everything.
Skyrim is really good, but it’s not perfect. The combat system still isn’t that great, I felt that melee combat was always fairly imprecise and less entertaining than ranged – more than once I accidentally killed my companion with a single off-target swing. The game’s item system, with its signature over-encumbrance mechanic, takes a while to get used to for loot-aholics like myself. And the technical bugs, my goodness! Quests you can’t turn in, guests showing up dead to your wedding, dragons flying backwards; there’s some weird shit going down in this town. But it will be patched to perfection someday, Bethesda promises, and no bug was ever enough to stop me from playing.
Skyrim is simply one of the best games I’ve ever played. It’s kind of crazy that I’m writing that, since I never really cared for a Bethesda product before. I’ve always wanted to, but they were always too much RPG for me. Now they’ve finally succeeded at making the game that transcends its genre and can truly be called a masterpiece. I think I’m gonna go play some more right now.