How does one judge a world? Diverse cultures and complex traditions demand individual attention. Each detail must be inspected, weighed and measured according to their own contributions and flaws. They say that the best way to learn a language is to live where it’s spoken. And there are few series that capture a sense of place like The Elder Scrolls.
And after the dozens of hours you will no doubt spend in Skyrim, you’ll speak the language fluently.
A society is nothing if not the collection of its peoples, places and events. Rather than taking up the expansionist ideals of open world role-playing games before it, Skyrim instead fills in most the cracks left unsealed in other games. Every character has something to say. Every bookshelf holds some piece of forgotten (and often very well-written) lore. No crumbling ruin or babbling brook appears as though it wasn’t given just the right amount of care and attention.
At times, the sheer amount of content — both that which is useful and that which is merely fascinating — can be overwhelming. Players fresh off the boat will find themselves strangers in an immense civilization. While map markers which number fewer than those found in Oblivion or Fallout lead to much more engrossing ends. Those more accustomed to linear paths may succumb to culture shock at first. However, when the murky depths of uncertainty break, wanderlust and a severely shortened attention span will conspire to keep players rooted in the Skyrim’s frozen expanses for longer than most entire franchises.
This is the part in which the dragons make their presence felt.
Inescapable, unavoidable and undoubtedly amazing; the dragons of Skyrim aren’t just this year’s Oblivion gates and will argue that point till their last, fiery (or frosty) breath. The scaly beasts lend a sense of agency; a living, breathing (sort of) reminder of who you — Dovahkiin, the dragon-born — are and why you are here. The enemy is no longer sequestered behind quest lines and alternate dimensions. He is above you; laying waste to the society that you have come to call home, if only for a few dozen hours. Slaying the beasts and becoming quickened with their souls to power your Shouts — magical dragon abilities — reminds you that you and the narrative are inextricable from the land of Skyrim. The winged terrors keep the story salient, rather than incidental and provide a real narrative tether to your importance to the world around you.
Also keeping Dovakhiin feeling like a crucial component is the marked “Game of Thrones-ification” of the franchise. Political intrigue, rebellion and civil war are the rule of law in the birthplace of the Nords. As such a prominent and powerful figure in the fiction, the dragon-born would be a natural choice as a political powerhouse; able to sway both the opinions of the people and the tides of war. While the dragon infestation may moor players to the plot, it’s the civil war that makes one care for Skyrim’s dense and colorful population. The more human and down-to-earth has the debatably adverse side-effect of fantastical whimsy found in earlier titles. The oddball quests are still there to be found (I implore everyone to search out a quest concerning a certain stray dog) but they are an endangered species in this frigid region. Then again, the new tone also means that, unlike in previous entries in the series, you are no longer the least interesting part of the game.
It’s most unfortunate, then, that the actual act of slaying is Skyrim’s least interesting component. The mechanics of combat feel more entrenched and less disconnected than those of Morrowind and Oblivion. However, the combat system is still hardly even that. Shouts and dual-wielding provides more variety on-the-fly but do little to alleviate the “Press [blank] to swat enemy with [blank] until it’s dead.” It’s really a shame that your most primary method of interaction with the world is also the least engaging.
What’s even more distressing is the way in which Skyrim interacts with itself, and in turn, the player. Every culture has its eccentricities, of course, but it can be assumed that Bethesda didn’t intend for atrocious pathfinding to be part of the rich Nordic heritage. Enemies, NPC’s, companions; none are spared from consistently walking into walls and each other. Nothing interrupts your conversation with the local blacksmith quite like the town bard moonwalking into your partner face-first for fifteen seconds. Or how about when that horrifying monster you’ve been duking it out with is suddenly foiled by that most implacable of obstacles; a two-foot high wooden table? In either case, you will be left feeling more like a visitor and less like a true resident of the sandbox that is Skyrim.
These moments of navigational error manifest themselves most egregiously in your employable companions. It’s easy to thank the developer for finally gracing Elder Scrolls players with a bit of support in the big, bad world. Unfortunately, your stalwart friends will tend to misunderstand some of the more exotic concepts that we take for granted. Such imports as stepping out of the way of your fireballs or following your example through lethal, swinging blades.
And while you’re gawking at these spectacles of quickly diminishing amusement, why not take a second to notice that these dumbfounded citizens all seem to look, move and sound exactly alike. Bethesda’s full-to-bursting world has once again come at the cost of incestuous use of character models and voice actors.
But then there comes a time when you realize that none of this actually bothers you. The alien customs of the game’s AI doesn’t hold a candle to the bizarrely emergent embers of endearment you find burning within for your companions. Equally self-sustaining and perhaps more ubiquitous are personal stories that will crop up along the way. These don’t just include the tales of the occasionally frustrating but often amusing assortment of glitches inherent to all Bethesda games with which you will regale your friends. They’re made up of all the small choices you can and will make during your stay in Skyrim. They are the methods you engineer to best a boss or the discoveries you make after first venturing past the tutorial area. Even the minuscule deductions you make about the environment, its people and its locales. All of these moments are your own and they are legion. Yet at the same time, they are built from the same bricks and mortar that Skyrim has laid out for everyone. The world is there as it is, but it is up to you to decide at least part of what it was and nearly all of what it will be.
There is no doubting that Skyrim is a great game. What’s truly exciting (and maybe even a bit shocking) is that this, the fifth Elder Scrolls game, is the first ultimate deliverance on the series’ promise. It is a fertile world with purpose and the foundations of nearly infinitely variable stories to be discovered and even written. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim sets a new standard for how virtual worlds should be sculpted. It’s more than a place worth visiting, it’s a place with a language that’s worth learning.
This review is based on a copy of the game purchased by SideQuesting.