review The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is Bethesda’s fifth plunge into its expansive, fictional role playing world of Tamriel. This time we’re in Skyrim, a province covering an area similar to Cyrodiil, the setting of the previous game in the series, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. At 41km², you’d assume no real limit exists on what you can find, do and explore. And there isn’t, as long as you’re willing to exercise self-restraint.
The setting in Skyrim will feel familiar to those who’ve played prior Elder Scrolls games. Once again, you start off as a fairly unskilled character adrift in a vast world rich with personalities to meet, landscapes to marvel at and fascinating locations to visit. Once again, you have complete freedom in how to develop your character: Wizard or warrior, thief or herbalist. And once again, you’ll be thrown into a dramatic central plot arch containing thrilling moments.
However, two hundred years have passed since the events of Oblivion, and the world of Tamriel has certainly changed in that time. No more trans-dimensional rifts threaten to tear the world apart. Many of the figures and societal structures you met in the prior game have been transformed. And the mythical and monstrous creatures known as dragons have returned to the land. There’s also a new big bad — this time round the great evil is Alduin, the first child of the god Akatosh. Out to ravage the world, it’s up to you as the only Dragonborn of the current generation, to put him in his place.
Yes, Dragonborn. We’ll get to that in a moment.
If saving the world sounds passé, Skyrim has no shortage of locations to explore, quests to embark on and hapless shopkeepers to loot. The so-called Radiant Quest system, a new feature of the game which randomises small details of miscellaneous tasks – the destination or the person involved, say – goes largely unnoticed, unless you’re prepared to play the game several times.
Not to worry, there are plenty of hand-made major quests to keep you from burning out on the frivolous ones, though I wouldn’t count the main storyline in the former’s ranks. I’ll be honest — the main quest is little more than the prerequisite MacGuffin; a reason for the player to exist in the game’s massive world. Fortunately, this Dragonborn business has a tangible gameplay benefit.
As a result of a dragon (or dragons – depending on how your ancestors swung) making a physics-defying mess of your genealogy, your character has the ability to “shout”. 20 shouts can be discovered, allowing you to freeze enemies, slow time or reveal life signs. Once a shout is found, you must first activate it using a dragon’s soul. The only way to secure a soul is to – you guessed it – slay its sentimental owner. This is a monumental task at the start of the game, but an almost trivial one by level 30.
This leads us to the game’s – and perhaps, the The Elder Scrolls’ – major weakness: Balance. Via perks, enchantments and crafting, it’s possible to trivialise even the most challenging content on the game’s hardest difficulty setting. Magic-users can stun-lock giants and elder dragons into their graves, while melee players can forge weapons that deal in excess of a thousand points of damage … per hit.
It can be argued that, given time, the player should be able to ascend the throne of threats and laugh in the face of Bethesda’s inexhaustible content designers. Sure, but it’s the speed and ease at which this transition occurs that’s astonishing. To enjoy Skyrim beyond the 20-hour mark, one must exercise restraint. Denying your character access to the enchanting and crafting skills goes a long way, as does neglecting the more imbalanced perks.
On the other hand, getting a solid day of total play time out of any game these days is commendable, so it’s hard to heavily penalise Skyrim for committing itself to the sanatorium beyond this point. How long your enjoyment lasts past this stage depends entirely on how well you can temper your desire for mastery. It also means that less hardcore gamers will still find themselves able to enjoy exploring Skyrim — unlike some more gruelling role playing games released this year, such as Dark Souls.
One of the highlights of the game is its music, which earnt the game GameTrailers.com’s soundtrack of the year award. Some of Skyrim’s music is soft and ethereal, suiting itself to your wanderings through the wide landscapes of the Nordic countryside, while more stirring battle drums and heroic chords can be heard when you march into battle against a major foe such as a dragon. And the graphics, while not always quite as polished as some other top-end titles (perhaps due to Skyrim’s sheer scale), match the experience. It’s hard not to be awed at the majestic nature of the landscapes you’ll visit and the foes you’ll face.
The nitty gritty
Skyrim is available for PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, but our preference is the PC version, as it gives you the best access to modifications and visual/performance tweaking. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim was reviewed for Delimiter on a Core i5-750 running at 3.8GHz with 8GB RAM and a GeForce GTX 560 Ti, running Windows 7 Ultimate. The game’s minimum specifications call for a dual-core CPU running at 2GHz, 2GB of RAM and a DirectX 9.0c video card with 512MB of RAM, but the recommended specs are a bit beefier, and as with the previous game in the series, Oblivion, the higher powered your PC is, the better the performance you’ll get from Skyrim.
Performance-wise, if you’re playing on the PC, you’ll want to grab SkyBoost. This mod optimises often-used routines in the game’s executable and can increase performance in CPU-bound areas, such as cities.
If improved visuals are your thing, you can’t go past the SMAA (Subpixel Morphological Anti-Aliasing) injector. The injector provides Skyrim with an alternative Direct3D 9 library that injects new shader code into the engine. This code performs anti-aliasing on the final image using intelligent edge-detection algorithms. The end result is anti-aliasing of a quality that rivals Multi-sampling Anti-Aliasing (MSAA), minus the performance hit. At the time of writing, Bethesda’s Creation Kit for Skyrim had yet to be released. For now, your cravings can be satiated by SkyEdit, an unofficial editor styled like Bethesda’s own.
If you’re at all interested in role playing games, Skyrim should be pretty close to the top of your list of 2011 titles to check out. With a huge and detailed world to explore, majestic landscapes, infinite options to develop your character to match your own individual style and an atmosphere which lingers on in your imagination, there are many reasons why many gamers spent their Christmas holidays lost in Bethesda’s all-encompassing vision.
Logan Booker is the weekend editor for Kotaku Australia. From Monday to Friday, Logan operates a two-man indie game studio based in Melbourne. He’s previously worked as a game designer at Tantalus Media, writer for Firemint and editor of Atomic. Renai LeMay also contributed to this article. Image credits: Screenshots of Skyrim.