- Publisher: Bethesda
- Developer: Bethesda
- ESRB Rating: “M" for Mature
- Genre: RPG
- Pros: Great presentation; huge world to explore; nice menus; dragon battles; leveling system is very satisfying; freedom to play however you want
- Cons: Glitches; texture problems; unsatisfying melee combat
Story and Setting
The province of Skyrim is far to the north of Cyrodil, the province of the continent of Tamriel where Oblivion took place. It is a cold, snowy area that is home to the Nords, but you'll find other Elder Scrolls races here as well. The story takes place hundreds of years after the events that took place in Oblivion, and the world is a bit of a different place. Guilds and political groups you may remember from the previous game can be very different here, or even gone entirely.
Your story begins as a prisoner on your way to execution. Seconds before the death blow is struck, however, a dragon - the first dragon seen in decades - attacks and you escape in the chaos. Now dragons are being spotted all over Skyrim. It turns out that your character is known as a Dragonborn, a dragon hunter chosen by the gods, and it is up to you to find out why the dragons are returning and stop them.
Once the game really starts after a brief tutorial while you make your escape, you literally can go anywhere you want. You can focus on the main story and beat it in a few hours. You can forget the story and just explore for 100 hours without touching the story. You can talk to people you meet and pick up a dozen different new quests and each side mission can range from anywhere from a simple fetch quest to a multi-part, miles spanning jaunt that is unlike anything you could have expected. You can join guilds. You can explore tombs and dungeons and caves. You can go to a magical college and learn more powerful spells. The land of Skyrim is absolutely massive and filled with characters to talk to and quests to do, and you are free to do it all at your own pace and in any order you want. Every person that plays Skyrim will have a different experience, and that is all kinds of amazing.
And Skyrim is certainly full of wonders you'll want to experience. It is a huge open world complete with forests and lakes and snowy mountains and cities. Animals like elk and goats and foxes and more share the wilderness with demons and mythical creatures like trolls and giants. Huge woolly mammoths march across the tundra. And, of course, hulking scary dragons can pop up at any time and battling them provide some of the greatest thrills of any game this year.
So there are a million things to do, but how you actually do them and how you strengthen your character are big reasons why Skyrim is so fun and interesting. The progression system works by leveling up your specific skills when you use them. Use destruction magic a lot, and it will level up. Get hit by enemies a lot, and your armor skills improve. Use one handed weapons a lot, they improve. Fix your weapons and armor, and your smithing skill improves. Level up a few skills, and you get to level up your character and get to choose between more magicka, more health, or more stamina along with being able to choose a specific perk to apply to one of your skills. Basically, you level up and get stronger in the abilities you actually use. You can, of course, focus on something else and take your character in an entirely different direction if you want as well. However you want to play. Whether you want your character to be melee focused, or magic focused, or stealth, or archery focused, or whatever, you can do whatever you want.
The game is played either from a first-person or third-person perspective - your choice, but we recommend first-person. You assign weapons or a shield or magic to your left and right hands - which correspond to the left and right trigger buttons on the 360 controller. A big part of the game is about using shouts - special magic that are words of the dragon language which you have to power up by killing dragons and applying their souls to the shouts - and those are mapped to the right bumper. The left bumper is a sprint button. That is the basics of the controls. It is a relatively simple game to pick up and play.
With that said, we do have a specific complaint. The melee combat is really unsatisfying and lacks any sort of impact. You just swing away and can't tell if you're hitting anything other than the opponent's HP bar slowly drains. It isn't really all that different from how it worked in Oblivion - you pull the trigger to swing your weapon - but that was five and a half years ago. Was it so wrong to hope it would feel a little better after so long? I guess we should be grateful that it isn't like Morrowind where hits were determined by invisible dice rolls (so it would look like you were physically making contact, but still miss) - it definitely isn't like that - but it just isn't all that fun swinging, and connecting, and it barely registering. And I don't count the little "kill shot" cutscene that shows your character in the third-person delivering a killing blow as making the melee more satisfying. The melee just doesn't feel or look or sound visceral and meaty the way a sword hacking through armor and flesh should be. We might as well be flailing around with Kinect pretending to swing swords, because that is how lifeless the melee usually feels here.
Thankfully, if you find some element of the game unsatisfactory, as I did, you can usually do something else. I switched to magic very early on, and had a great time after that. When you see ice crystals form because of a frost spell, or sparks from electricity, or your opponent catches on fire from a flame spell, you know good things are happening. I found magic much more fun to use. Plus, conjuring elementals or undead or familiars and using restoration magic all in between chucking destruction spells all over is pretty darn exciting.
One final gameplay note is that the menus are awesome in Skyrim. Oblivion had slow, clunky, messy menus that were a pain to navigate. Skyrim's menus are simple white text on black backgrounds, laid out kind of like a vertical version of Sony's XMB, and are easy to read and use and are damn elegant. It is easy to find and do exactly what you want here, thanks to these super clean menus.
Even better is the Favorites system. You can tag spells or weapons and armor as a "Favorite" in the menu and then easily pull those favorites up during gameplay. You just tap up on the d-pad, and all of your favorites are right there, ready to be assigned to whichever hand you want to use it with. Swapping to a different weapon more suited to the current combat situation. Quickly changing out your destruction spell for healing in the middle of battle. Whatever. It is fast and easy and keeps you from jumping in and out of the full menus all the time. Absolutely brilliant.
The overall presentation in Skyrim is really exceptional. This is a completely gorgeous looking game with truly beautiful environments to explore. From lush and green river valleys on up to snowy mountain peaks, Skyrim is very pretty. The characters still have that sort of typical Bethesda trademark ugly faces and stiff animation, but they definitely look better here than any other Beth Soft RPG on Xbox 360.
The sound is just as good. The voice acting is a bit hit or miss, but is fairly good overall for all of the important characters. Great sound effects. Scary sounding dragons. And really excellent music that fits perfectly with the mood of wherever you are and whatever you're doing.
It has to be said, though, that like all games of this scope and scale (and games made by Bethesda in general), Skyrim has a somewhat abnormally high number of glitches. Items can appear and disappear seemingly at random. Several NPCs will all start talking to you at once, usually drowning out important quest details from the one person you actually wanted to talk to. Other random weird things happen pretty regularly as well. Graphical glitches are very frequent. The game gets stuck occasionally on low res textures. Sometimes textures don't load at all and you're left looking at entire hillsides or roadways that are just a blurry mess. Graphics can load incorrectly and glitch and flicker depending on what angle you look at things. We can understand why all of these glitches happen in a world this big and open, but they still stick out like a sore thumb in a game where everything else is so well done.
In the end, though, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is definitely a worthwhile experience that we highly recommend for any Xbox 360 owner. There are flaws, but the sheer amount of fun and awe inspiring and exciting content there is here along with how polished most aspects of the game really are make it something special. Skyrim is a game you can spend hundreds of hours with your first time through, and it is also a game that is so big and full of content you can play through it multiple times with new characters and always find new stuff, which means the replay value is pretty much through the roof. Most games don't have 10 hours of gameplay for $60. Skyrim has hundreds. Buy it.