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The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Score: 96%
ESRB: Mature
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Developer: Bethesda Softworks
Media: DVD/1
Players: 1
Genre: RPG


Graphics & Sound:

Your first few steps into Skyrim, Tamriel's icy, northern region, are daunting. After escaping a prison camp through a series of caves, you step into the world with the few pieces of gear you were able to pick up during your escape and the location of one city. Where you go from here is completely up to you, and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is packed with adventures.

Skyrim offers a darker atmosphere than Oblivion. Skyrim is a mountainous, snowy region filled with brutal snowstorms and ice-filled lakes. Even the country's warmer, lower regions are brutally harsh and enough to make you wonder just how the numerous farms you run across manage to survive. That I am willing to stop and think about how a lowly farmer in a virtual world manages to survive his environment tells you everything you need to know about Skyrim's visuals. Yes, there are a few rough spots - jagged, polygonal edges, dull textures, animation hiccups - scattered throughout the game, but even the more noticeable of glitches seem small when you look at the game's world as a whole.

The big picture items like dungeons, castles and towns are all really great, but its the smaller stuff that gives the game life. Animals hunt, frolic and do other animal-y things in the forests, plants grow, fish swim in the lakes and on clear nights, you're treated to a beautiful aurora borealis in the night sky. You can even interact with them; in addition to the swords and sorcery you can slow down to hunt, catch fish, forage for alchemy ingredients or mine ore to create new gear.

Oddly enough, one of the more common questions surrounding Skyrim has been, "Are the people still ugly?" They won't win any beauty contests, but Bethesda has made a few improvements. Characters are more cartoon-like than Oblivion. They're more rounded out and much more emotive during conversations.

My only complaint - and it's a specialized, minor one - is the inability to change your character's physical appearance in-game. You can switch out armor and weapons, but I personally would have liked to change hairstyles and other attributes. I got a lot of use out of the option in Dragon Age II and would have liked the option. Again, it's a funny request, but would have been nice for players who like to roleplay their characters beyond stat management.

There's just as much to hear in Skyrim as there is to see. The soundtrack is monumentally epic, filling your speakers with fully orchestrated songs that always fit the mood perfectly. Big horns and drums accompany fights while dungeon exploring is filled with soft, tension-filled notes. Nearly everyone you run into has something to say. Skyrim's citizens are fully aware of what is happening around them. They'll comment on recent dragon attacks or other world-shifting plot developments (such as the status of the civil war) and even mention if they recognize you. A few will even comment on your stature or make individualized comments about your character's race or abilities. I even had a town guard fuss at me for dropping a sword and shield in the middle of the street.

There's a lot going on all around you if you stop to notice, and you'll want to.


Gameplay:

Anyone familiar with Bethesda's other open-world games (Fallout 3, Oblivion) already has an idea of what to expect with The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. You're dropped into a wide expanse of land and given free reign to travel through it as you see fit. You can choose to follow the core story missions, which involve your place as a Dragonborn, one who is born with the soul of a dragon and, as such, speak their language. As it turns out, your newfound abilities also connect to the return of dragons to Skyrim.

Of course, you can also spend hours following the myriad of other exploits tucked all over Skyrim. In the last week or so playing, I've faced down (and run away from) dragons, helped restore the thieves guild to its former glory, taken part in political espionage, studied at the wizard's college and risen to the head of the Companions, Skyrim's version of the Fighter's Guild. New quests are everywhere and before long, your quest log will be brimming with side quests. Every conversation has the potential to kick off a new quest. Some will take a few minutes, while others could lead you into a multi-dungeon chase for some mystical item.

Although Skyrim possesses its fair share of "dud" quests, such as a handful of simple fetch quests or the occasional, "Collect X number of this rare item" task, nearly everything you do in Skyrim is fun. Better yet, few quests feel out of place and, on occasion, a few even criss-cross, laying a few major, region-shifting decisions at your feet - such as who to back in the civil war currently raging in Skyrim between the Imperials and Stormcloaks. Every quest is memorable in its own way.

Then there are the dragon attacks. At any time, you could hear the roar of a dragon or see one perched above some out-of-luck burg nestled in Skyrim's snowy mountains. Dragons - or rather their souls -- are the only way to unlock your Dragonborn abilities, though rushing into battle with one isn't always the smartest of ideas. Even with help, they'll give you a good fight and just another memory to share when swapping Skyrim stories with friends.

Even better, the stories won't end anytime soon. Thanks to Skyrim's "Radiant Storytelling" system, you always have some new quest to complete. There are an infinite number of quests available from Skyrim's various guilds, each providing you with new items and mission types. Some involve clearing out packs of animals while others may give you an assassination target or challenge you to pull off a robbery. New quests tend to pop up in previously unexplored areas, giving you another opportunity to stumble across some other venture. It's all fun and incredibly rewarding.


Difficulty:

Balance has always been, and will likely always be, an issue with open world games. Even the best difficulty scaling systems are prone to issues. As far as I can tell, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim doesn't scale difficulty to match your character's level. Instead, you have the option to switch between five difficulty settings at any time without major consequence. The system works, and I'd be lying if I said I didn't drop down a notch in a few dungeons, though doing so feels dirty and a bit cheap.

For the most part, the difficulty curve is smooth, at least as it pertains to the main quest lines. Even an early game encounter with a dragon is a bit of a cakewalk. Once you venture off the main quest line, you're sort of on your own. Any time you step into the wilds, you take you life in your own hands, which is part of the fun. Yet, Skyrim pushes some encounters into areas it shouldn't. Some are easy, while you can spend a good couple of hours trying to tackle others. Any dungeon containing Draugr - tough to kill undead - is sure to give you fits, especially when you run into the spell-slinging variety.

NPC characters occasionally join you during quests. Some are story-related while others are mercenaries you can hire. Partners can help you through some areas, though with the exception of a small handful, A.I. partners are usually more of a hindrance. Some can't handle intense fights, usually dropping to one knee the minute they're approached by more than one enemy, while others will charge into battle without consideration for tactics.

Although some encounters are in need of some tweaking, accepting you can't complete certain levels is part of the game. It's tough to turn back once you're deep in a dungeon, but that's part of the experience. Retreat is just as good a tactic as any other, something you'll discover the first time you encounter a wild dragon.


Game Mechanics:

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim's leveling system is really neat and probably my favorite part of the entire game. The system builds on many of the same mechanics found in Oblivion, but with a few usability tweaks that really open the system up.

Unlike other RPGs, you don't gain experience points by turning in quests or defeating enemies. Instead, you earn experience towards individual skills just using them. Swinging a one-handed weapon earns one-handed experience, while casting a spell earns experience in a particular school of magic. You can also earn experience in non-combat skills like alchemy or blacksmithing. Each skill can level up to 100, offering small, unseen statistical bonuses to whatever you're doing. As your skills level, an overall character level meter fills. Once filled, you can increase either your Health, Stamina or Magicka levels.

The leveling system is easy to understand and opens up a world of possibilities when crafting a character. Though you'll have to make a decision about what sort of character you want eventually, the system lets you experiment with different skills, weapon and armor types. Unlike Oblivion, there are no major or minor skills, nor do you have to choose a rigidly-defined class. It's a smart system and one of the few in recent memory that really lets you play how you want.

Character levels also reward you with a skill point to spend on perks. Each skill has a related skill tree with specialized abilities. These include stackable damage and critical hit modifiers as well as improved abilities. You can earn statistical bonuses when wearing certain types of armor or ignore their weight while wearing them (which is a bigger deal than you would originally think). Ancillary skills, like stealth or blacksmithing, offer improved uses. In the stealth tree, you can gain a perk to not trigger traps while the smithing tree gives you new options to upgrade your equipment or create powerful armor.

Combat incredibly flexible. You can assign one item to each hand (the exception, of course, being two-handed weapons), offering lots of different ways to approach combat. You can gear up with a sword and shield, decide to dual wield weapons, or go full-on Gandalf and rock a staff and sword. There's even an option to wield two spells, firing them independently of each other or, in some cases, combining them into one mega spell. As a side note, you'll want to sheath your weapons whenever you're in town since brandishing a weapon will garner the attention of guards and cause people to react negatively towards you.

Your choice of weapon greatly influences you fighting style and you may want to equip different options. You can assign weapons and spells to "favorites" in the menu, giving you quick access to them by pressing (Up) on the D-pad. The system does sometimes assign weapons to the wrong configurations (usually when you have more than one load-out based around the same weapon), but is otherwise slick and reliable.

Accessing the game's other menus is also very easy. Tapping (B) brings up a four-way dial granting access to Inventory, Magic, Skills or the Map. You can also bring up a quest log showing all of your active quests. From here, you can mark off waypoints to certain quests. The system is, again, very slick and user friendly. The only aspect that may throw users for a loop is the "Miscellaneous" section, which houses side-quests. You can flag side-quests, but need to flag the "Miscellaneous" tab as well to have it show up on the map.

There's little else to say about Skyrim other than it is a must-buy. I tagged the last two Elder Scrolls games as "Epic" and "Beyond Epic;" Skyrim exceeds both, putting it somewhere between infinity and beyond epic.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is one of the year's best games, a clear Game of the Year frontrunner and a must-buy.


-Starscream, GameVortex Communications
AKA Ricky Tucker

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