When we look back at history, there will be moments that warrant pause. Man’s achievements will punctuate the timeline, and we will sit back to remember “yes, this was greatness.” With this game, a new era dawns, a new standard in immersion. This is Bethesda’s magnum opus. It is with great zeal that I suspend my own reality, give myself up completely to a realm steeped in life and lore. Here, I am dovahkiin, dragonborn. I reject your world, for Skyrim is my home now.
-Stephanie Gutowski, Thane of Whiterun
I was never an Elder Scrolls fan. I could barely be bothered to invest the time needed to properly experience Bethesda’s Oblivion. It wasn’t until the release of Fallout 3 that I took a second look at this developer and began to understand that they possessed unimaginable potential. When the opportunity to review Skyrim virtually fell into my lap (even after all of Dave’s massive previews), I couldn’t very well leave it there. I’d even been critical after first viewing the game behind closed doors at E3. It wasn’t until I was offered time to play it at PAX that my mind began to change. The game arrived at my home, sealed within an unassuming box, simply emblazoned with the emblem we’ve come to treat as a symbol of hope. The installation took mere moments- one disc. When that same logo appeared upon a screen of black and the chanting swelled, it struck a chord within me that resonated unlike anything I’d ever experienced. It was as though beyond the blackness lay infinity, unending possibilities and challenges to face. I held my breath and breached the darkness.
Time leaps forward two hundred years beyond the events of Oblivion, an age where Tamriel is ceding territory to the eleven nations and Skyrim is embroiled in civil war. When I opened my eyes in this world, I was staring at the most impossibly blue sky, but my eyes struggled to adjust to the light. The clouds were drifting slowly across the expanse and I was stunned, believing for a fraction of a second that my television had become a window. Then, I looked down, to find I was, once again, a prisoner, convicted of a crime I was… almost positive I didn’t commit. Why would I aid the Stormcloak rebellion? I was a simple Nord woman, just trying to keep her head on her shoulders. It doesn’t take long for the dragons to emerge and, at least, you soon are free to begin your adventure, as long as you can survive your time in the town of Helgen.
Character creation is vastly improved over the near-comical options of Oblivion. We were given a taste a few months ago of what we could look forward to, but the end result was far greater. From scars, to blind eyes, the sliders control dozens upon dozens of options that give each race and gender a unique, yet believable look. You could spend hours creating denizens of this world and none of them would look alike. This may be the most defining moment of your Skyrim experience, as that’s really the last bit of pre-game customization you’ll do. Gone are the classes. Instead, your skills exist in a nebulous collection of constellations that level up with use. When you improve enough skills, your whole character will level up and you’ll be offered a perk point to allocate. The higher your level in that particular skill, the more nodes will open up for potential perks. You also choose to improve your magicka, health, or stamina upon leveling up, which will support the direction you choose to go in. I decided to become a war axe-wielding, flame-throwing battle maven. So my light armor, single-handed weapon, and destruction skills increased quite quickly. It’s actually a very simple system that levels the playing field for each character. Everyone starts with a clean slate and builds up their proficiencies by doing things, rather than telling the game to make that skill better because you want it to be awesome. No, you’re going to have to work for it– and it’ll be worth every second.
You’ll notice that the fantastic little speech mini game for persuasion is long gone. In its stead, Bethesda has introduced a far more Fallout 3-esque approach. Your speech skill will determine whether or not a lie or persuade option appears in the conversation box. Pass or fail. It’s that simple. But there are so many people to meet, quests to accept and groups to join, it can be downright overwhelming when you realize just how large this world is before you. These people will call you out in the street if you’ve been a good patron, or they’ll come running with a quest out of the blue. Radiant AI ensures that no matter how many quests you’ve completed, there will always be a new kidnapping to solve or murder to avenge, even after the end game. As far as marriage goes though, your guess is as good as mine. Try as I might, I couldn’t lure a single NPC into marriage. Though I did manage to snag a random companion in Riverwood, there were absolutely no dialogue clues that would have hinted at a possible romance. I’d heard this was a problem for several other people with advance copies, but we didn’t dwell on it for long and here’s why.
This. Game. Is. Absolutely. Massive.
The world that is about to unfold before you is perhaps the most daunting and invigorating challenge you may ever encounter in a game. It hearkens back to days long gone, when I sat in a stuffy classroom, pouring over a copy of Beowulf and picturing the frigid north and its terrible demons. Fans of this epic will be instantly smitten by Skyrim and it’s distinctively viking style. You’ll notice that the character creation screen sets your race to Nord by default, which I highly recommend you play through to experience the proper story. While other races do get their explanation for being the last of the dragonborn, the Nord lineage just fits so perfectly with the lore. You’ll take your first steps into this landscape and discover a few things. First, this map was rendered like a work of art. There are moments of photo-realism that took my breath away, I was so stunned by sudden moments of clarity. When you look around, you’ll find the picture darkens and lightens, mimicking the workings of the human eye as it adjusts to light changes. Second, the dynamic weather keeps these cities and farmsteads interesting and unpredictable. When I first ascended the Throat of the World, it was snowing impossibly hard. I reloaded the save before my ascent and found it clear, allowing me see across the valley below. Third, the things you will encounter may cause your jaw to unhinge and fall onto the floor. You may never find it again.
I know what you’re thinking. “Shut up with the important things! Just tell me about the DRAGONS! DRAGONS! DOVAHKIIN!” All righty then. Dragons. Infinite dragons. Infinite, ice and fire breathing double dragons. Oh my Akatosh, get ready for your life to end. It doesn’t help that every time I encountered a dragon, the orchestra struck up another round of “Sons of Skyrim,” which immediately sends me into a nordic fury. You will fight for your life, you will hold you breath, you will gasp when its jaws find you and threaten to end all you’ve struggled for. You will find that the controller is an extension of your body, and you are part of this. Your hand. Your axe. Your victory. More than experience, more than a level up. This was an impossible victory that you achieved. There’s some genuine fear when a dragon appears as you wonder frantically what else will fall victim to it. There were times I wasn’t fast enough and I watched named NPC’s perish in flames, villagers crowding around his body to mourn him and ask “why?” That, I can answer, but not without revealing some fantastic elements of the plot, which you’ll see for yourselves as you progress the main quest line (which I suggest you do.) You can spend fifty solid hours exploring the map, discovering fantastic weapons and quests before you even set foot in the first city. It’s both a wonderful and tragic thing since the story really is something you need to experience to understand this world and its plight.
I have to make one suggestion though and I’m no longer afraid of the backlash it might bring, but this is perhaps one of the first hardcore, AAA games that could benefit from Kinect voice support. Or perhaps I’m just a huge nerd, as I found myself wishing that I could scream “FUS RO DAH!” at my Xbox 360 to activate a shout, rather than tap the right bumper. It just seemed… perfect, but I fear what a Kinect compatibility stamp would have done for the hardcore fans.