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FTG Review: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Bethesda Softworks’ latest game has arrived. That’s right - Rage is here. What’s that? Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim? Yeah, I played that game too. Truth be told, I was always a bigger fan of the Fallout series. Did this entry change me? Read on to find out (or just skip the score if that’s your thing)!

Crossing Over

Before we dive into what’s new in Skyrim, let’s take a look at the similarities between it and Oblivion. Long story short, if you’ve played Oblivion, you’ll pick this up right away. Gameplay still consists of completing quests across a huge map while wielding weapons and magic, seen through a first (or third) person view. The races of Tamriel are all back; you’ll encounter Nords, Argonians, Bretons, and many more during your travels.

So Skyrim takes a lot from its predecessor . Now let’s get to the good stuff…

A Whole New World

The biggest thing players will notice is the sheer size of the world. The province of Skyrim is enourmous, easily larger than LA Noire‘s Los Angeles, Oblivion‘s Cyrodiil, or Grand Theft Auto IV‘s Liberty City. You could literally spend a full hour just walking the region end to end, and that’s assuming you don’t stop to explore dungeons, caves, keeps, or camps.

Speaking of those things, players will also notice the huge number of locations across the map. No two locations are alike, a blessing for those who noticed Fallout‘s copy-and-paste buildings. Places such as keeps, forts, and tombs register as dungeons, and these dungeons can be explored and completed (and marked as complete on the map – a handy addition), with rare weapons and items hidden inside. In addition, all location types have unique icons on the on-screen compass. When you approach a cave or camp, you’ll know what you’re coming up to.

A huge map littered with locales is great, but it would fall flat without things to do within those locales. Bethesda has created a living, breathing world with Skyrim, and this can be seen the minute a player first enters a town. When I first entered Whiterun (the game’s first major city), I stumbled into an argument between two rival factions of the city; that netted me a quest. Then I entered a tavern and heard some gossip from the bar maid – another quest. I turned around and spoke to the tavern’s bard who told me about the Bard’s College – yet another quest. Then I left the tavern and spoke with a merchant who was having troubles with the bard I had just met – quest number four. Everywhere you turn, Skyrim is stuffed with people to meet and things to do.

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Adventure Time

I just brought up quests, so let’s jump into those. Skyrim features three kinds of quests: story, side, and miscellaneous. Story and side quests are displayed similarly on the pause menu, but miscellaneous objectives are filed into their own sub-menu. These smaller objectives come from events like squabbles between characters, conversations with NPCs, and gossip from innkeepers. They can usually be completed in a few short minutes, and they rarely reward you significantly. While not a major addition, their inclusion just adds to the living world of the Skyrim province.

Many major quests also overlap. One of the first locations I found was a keep on a mountainside. I battled my way through the bandits inside, and by the time I explored the whole place I had acquired a bunch of weapons and potions, plus two key items. Later in my travels, I came across a store owner and an alchemist who needed said items. Just like that, I had stumbled into even more quests. In this way, Bethesda has encouraged simply roaming the world: you may just find something important for later.

Takin’ It to the Next Level

As with any RPG, Skyrim has levels to ascend and skills to learn. Different from most RPGs, however, is Skyrim‘s total lack of classes. This sounds bad, but it’s actually one of Bethesda’s best improvements. Selecting your race at the beginning of the game boosts a particular skill, but after that, how you level up is up to you: no mages, knights, or rogues. If you want to use stealth, do it; if you want to swing a mace while throwing fire from your free hand, do it.

Since classes are absent, every skill has its own level. The more two-handed weapons you use, the more proficient you will become. The more locks you pick, the easier lockpicking will become. Players will also encounter NPCs who can “teach” them skills; a few pieces of gold, and your skill level increases. With a skill level for literally anything you can do in the game (smithing, blocking, speech, destruction spells, and conjuration spells to name a small few), every player will have a unique character by the end of the game.

Every skill has a level, and your character has an overall level. Killing enemies, completing quests, and raising skill levels all net you experience toward leveling up. With each new level, you can increase either your health, stamina, or magicka, and you also gain a skill point. These can be put into perks, and there are several perks available for every skill. Some speech perks allow for better prices, and most spell perks increase damage dealt while decreasing magicka spent. The best perks require a high skill level in that area, so players who want to deal massive damage with two-handed weapons will have to use them constantly. Again, this all encourages unique play styles.

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A HUD Not Seen

You can level up health, stamina, and magicka, but where are these seen on the screen? Oblivion players will remember that the compass was displayed at the top middle, and the health, stamina, and magicka bars where stacked in the bottom left. The compass is in the same spot, but now health is in the bottom middle, magicka is in the bottom left, and stamina is in the bottom right.

At first, this may seem more invasive, but here’s the thing: these meters only appear when needed. Unless you’re running, the stamina meter is unseen; unless you’re casting spells, the magicka meter is simply not there. The meters are seen while they regenerate, but once they fill, they just disappear. This allows for a lot less clutter and a better view of the world.

Bethesda made good strides with the HUD, but they’ve also created their biggest problem. You see, without a widescreen TV, half the compass is cut off. This is not an HD vs. SD issue: if you do not have a widescreen TV, you cannot see the full compass. This wouldn’t be an issue if it could be fixed in the options menu, but no way to change the aspect ratio exists. This is especially troublesome when players obtain any item. A brief message appears to the left of the compass whenever the player picks a flower, gains in item, becomes overencumbered, or does almost any action in the game: only the bottoms of the words in the message can be seen.

En Garde!

As you explore the province of Skyrim, you will encounter all sorts of creatures. You can fight these in hand-to-hand combat (but why, why!?), but it would be better to use a weapon. Skyrim has a huge range of weapons to choose from: greatswords, maces, axes, and bows can be pulled off of corpses or out of chests in so many places. You’ll always have options.

If weapons aren’t your thing, there are plenty of spells at your disposal. Spells come in several flavors: destruction, conjuration, restoration, illusion, and alteration. These allow for a wide range of effects, from basic fireballs to frenzy-inducing powers. Any combination of spells and one-handed weapons can be used, from dual wielding maces to fire in one hand and sparks in the other. I’ve never felt so powerful as I continuously healed myself while setting a troll ablaze.

Of course, the biggest addition to Skyrim‘s combat is the ability to shout. These shouts are seperate from spells, in that they use no magicka. Instead, they have their own cool down time between uses. Shouts range from simple area of effect attacks to status buffs. Before a shout can be used, however, the player must learn a word in the language of dragons and gain a dragon’s soul. As they explore the world, players will find ancient text carved into walls; approaching these allows them learn a new word in the dragon tonuge. Once they slay a dragon (more on those in a minute), they’ll gain its soul, allowing them to use the shout.

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Monsters at Large

With so many ways to deal damage, players will need something to fight. Enter trolls, spiders, rats, wolves, and all manner of creatures. New additions include giants and mammoths. These giants herd around massive mammoths on the plains of Skyrim, and they pack a serious punch. Fortunately, they only attack if provoked. Stay off their turf and lay off of their mammoths, and they’ll pay you no mind.

The biggest addition in the creature department is, of course, dragons. When you see these guys circling the skies, prepare yourself. While it’s no over-the-top Dark Souls boss encounter, players will still be in a for a serious fight. Dragons spray fire (duh), claw, and bite, all the while taking to the skies and divebombing the ground. Make sure you’re prepared to take these guys on, because they’re definitely ready for you.

You Talkin’ To Me?

When not battling creatures on the mountains and plains, players will be interacting with NPCs in cities and camps. While dialogue choices are common in today’s gaming world, Fallout players will be familiar with the ability to persuade, intimidate, bribe, and lie to citizens. These options aren’t always successful, but when they work, players may gain information they may not have learned otherwise.

If these options don’t work, Skyrim has the new addition of brawling an NPC. When this happens, you’ll engage in a battle of fisticuffs with said NPC. Win the fight, and you’ll get what you came for. Lose, and enjoy your tough luck and bruises.

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Follow the Leader

Sometimes, NPCs can do more than just talk to you. Skyrim took a cue from Fallout, in that players can now gain followers during their journey. Some can be picked up in taverns, and others are rewards for quests, but they all aid you in combat just the same. Different from Fallout, however, is the fact that these companions do not have loyalty quests; they seem much more expendable. Once they fall in combat, they’re gone for good.

Do It Yourself

Players can also occupy their time with a wide range of crafting activites. Alchemy allows players to create potions from ingredients they find throughout the land. Make a new potion or find a recipe, and you’ll know exactly what you need to make certain potions. Otherwise, mix and match and see what you can create.

Enchanting allows players to add effects to their armor and weapons. Find an enchanted item, and you can disenchant it to learn how to enchant an item with same effect. Then just choose the item you wish to enchant, pick an effect, and add a soul gem, and enjoy your new item. I’m certainly enjoying my multiple frosty axes and fiery maces.

Smithing comes in two parts: working a grindstone and using a workbench. Grindstones allow players to upgrade weapons using metals and leather; workbenches allow for upgrading of armor. Before players can upgrade, however, they need to collect the materials needed to improve said weapons and armor.

That’s where tanning and smelting come into play. Tanning allows players to turn raw animals hides into leather, which can then be broken down further into leather strips. Smelting allows players to melt down raw materials into fine metals. Slay some animals and mine some minerals, and you’ll be well on your way to upgrading your equipment.

Finally, cooking allows players to create meals out of foods they found in the world. Players can harvest wheat, cabbage, and other produce from various farms, and they can slay animals for raw meats. Cheeses and spices can also be found (read: stolen) from most kitchens. Find yourself a cooking pot, and you can put these ingredients together into meals, which offer a range of healing and buffering effects.

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With This Much Going On…

…some things are bound to go wrong. For one, pop-in is omnipresent. With a world this size, it’s understandable, but it’s nonetheless jarring to see miles of shrubbery appear alongside you as you travel. Also, loading is constant. Enter any house, settlement, or separate location, and you’ll be plopped into a loading screen. Again, it’s understandable with a world this size, but constant loading screens are still annoying.

Bethesda games are infamously buggy, but Skyrim has considerably fewer glitches. I did have a conversation with a woman who had a broom clipped into her arm: it proceeded to move in and out of her body as she moved her hands. As strange as this was, it was not a game-breaking issue. Besides, most of these little problems will be fixed through Skyrim‘s day one patch (which was released earlier to us reviewers).

Lastly, although Bethesda made sure no locations where copy-and-pasted, several dungeons look very similar. This could be chalked up to the fact that tombs simply look like tombs and caves simply look like caves, but several locales are a bit too alike.

The Complete Package

In short, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is Bethesda’s best outing to date. They have succesfully created a living, breathing world that is interesting above all else. With innumerable activities to do, players will spend hours exploring the land, crafting items, and completing quests. With all these in one game, Bethesda has put together a complete package of a game.

While loading and pop-in are abundant, they are excusable in a game of this sheer size. I also would have liked a bit more individuality in some of the locations. Still, the apsect ratio issue is really the only problem I have with the game, and that’s frankly a TV issue, not Bethesda’s. All told, this game supplies hundreds of hours of entertainment for anyone willing to dive into Skyrim‘s massive world.

9.5 review score

Version Played: Xbox 360

Reviewer was supplied a full copy of the game through Bethesda Softworks.

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