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The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Xbox 360) artwork

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Xbox 360) review

"It’s very cold – in the thematic sense, though the snow certainly helps. Skyrim is one of the increasingly few Western RPGs to understand that “dark” is not synonymous with “edgy,” and its sheer prettiness prevents it from being as oppressively bleak as post-apocalyptic DC was."

You may have heard that The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is amazing. It is. What you may not have heard, at least not as prominently, is that it’s also a buggy disaster. Going into a game this enormous and helmed by a development team that is, shall we say, not winning any awards for technical aptitude anytime soon, you expect that not everything will be sanded to silky smooth perfection, and I can accept that if it’s just surface-level stuff like dragons getting stuck in walls and so forth. But Skyrim hits you with big, game-breaking stuff: the crashes, the gaping holes where parts of the environment forgot to load, the late-game puzzle that can only be solved by entering the wrong solution. Call it “endearing” all you want, but when I have to replay a significant chunk of a dungeon because I need to retrieve a plot-important item from a corpse that fell through the floor, well, that’s the sort of thing that shatters the illusion that Skyrim otherwise tries so hard to build.

It’s so bad that in any other case, I’d urge you not to support it. By making Skyrim so successful, we’ve sent publishers the message that it’s okay to ship unfinished games. Trouble is, Skyrim is so good, and so unique in a present-day industry that is entirely too obsessed with offering shallow spectacle, that I’m forced to recommend it regardless. Bethesda is sloppy, but they can afford to get away with it when their products are this incredible.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim asset

It feels weird saying that, because Skyrim is the first Bethesda game of this ilk that I’ve actually played from beginning to end. (I specify “of this ilk” because we’re disregarding crud like Brink.) I played The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind when bigness was all a game needed to impress me, but for all of the time I invested, I never actually finished it. I was in awe that a game world could be that big, that convincing, but between the repeated NPC dialog, the boring dungeons and a battle system that still revolved less around skill and more around behind-the-scenes dice rolls, the illusion never held strong. Bethesda have since been tightening the screws but have failed to connect in the same way they almost did in 2002 – Oblivion for being too bland, Fallout 3 for being too grim.

But I finished Skyrim’s central questline, and I’d nearly doubled my playtime once I’d finally decided to shelve it and move on to the next game. That it’s big goes without saying. That it’s beautiful, doubly so. But that’s not the same as giving me a world that I actually want to explore, inch-for-inch, nor is it the same as laying the groundwork for gameplay that’s still entertaining after fifty, seven-five, a hundred hours. Bethesda’s triumph here is in finally delivering a game that I can enjoy and admire in equal measure. It’s as much fun to play as it is to experience.

It is largely about a war between the Imperials and the rebellious Stormcloaks. You can side with either and ultimately lead the effort to take back (or keep) Skyrim, though the game begins with the Imperials trying to behead you for something you didn’t do, so why anyone would elect to join their military, I don’t know. It’s not your primary concern anyway, because: DRAGONS! Thousands of them! Yes, The Elder Scrolls represents one of the few branches of swords-and-elves fantasy in which dragons aren’t commonplace, so when one shows up to crash your execution party, it’s evidently a big deal. What’s an even bigger deal is that your character is a “dragonborn,” meaning that he (or she) has the ability to absorb the souls of fallen dragons and harness their powers.

So, yes, you fight a number of dragons in Skyrim. Sometimes they’re scripted battles; sometimes you’ll be wandering through a field when suddenly a large dragon-shaped shadow passes beneath you, accompanied by a loud whoosh overhead. I’d say Bethesda trivializes these encounters by making them so plentiful – even the final boss is just another dragon, and by that point you can slice through them in 30 seconds, tops – but many of the game’s earlier dragon battles rank among the most intense and rewarding moments I’ve experienced in a game in the last several years, particularly when I stumbled into an area of the map I shouldn’t have been exploring yet, got attacked by a dragon that I was in no shape to defeat, and then spent the next ten minutes or so running through the rigid mountains that comprise most of Skyrim trying to lose it.

The bulk of Skyrim’s plot has you searching for ways to suppress the dragon threat, and that involves doing some spectacular things that I’d rather not ruin, but don’t get too caught up in it. At one point, I needed a jarl’s help to pull a particularly insane (but necessary) stunt that would involve putting his people at risk. But since his city held a potentially strong strategic position for both sides of the civil war, his residents were already at severe risk on a day-to-day basis. As such, he refused to lend a hand until the Imperial/Stormcloak conflict – which I’d been largely ignoring for the 40 or so hours I’d spent on the game until this point – had been settled. I could practically hear Bethesda berating me for trying to rush through this game too quickly.

That was one of two such instances, in fact. The second was when I’d cleared the final dungeon, beaten the final boss, watched the final cutscene… and then the game continued like normal with no credit roll. “What?” Bethesda seemed to be saying. “You think just because you’ve finished the central storyline, you’re done? Do you know how much work we put into this thing?”

Skyrim really is enormous – this is the sort of game where you could be given a quest to raid a dungeon and retrieve an item when you’ve already raided said dungeon on your own time and have said item in your inventory – and it takes a certain level of skill to ensure that every square foot of a world this big is equally as gorgeous as the next. What’s important, though, is that for as much as Skyrim borrows from standard Tolkien-esque fantasy – Whiterun is basically a carbon copy of Peter Jackson’s vision of Edoras, for example – it still feels distinct. There’s this underlying sense that the titular region is long past its prime. You’ll explore numerous ruins of long-dead civilizations (the dwarves are long gone, but their twisted machinery is still alive and kicking), and the races that inhabit present-day Skyrim all either seem to be engaged in bloody warfare or don’t belong to begin with, such as when I passed a group of camping Khajiit who informed me that they are creatures of the desert, and that the north wind chills their bones.

It’s very cold – in the thematic sense, though the snow certainly helps. Skyrim is one of the increasingly few Western RPGs to understand that “dark” is not synonymous with “edgy,” and its sheer prettiness prevents it from being as oppressively bleak as post-apocalyptic DC was.

I was struck by one detail in particular. In Skyrim’s deepest, darkest, dankest corners, you’ll encounter the Falmer, a species of blind goblins that dwell underground and attack explorers. Ordinary enough, right? But then you learn that the Falmer were once a proud, intelligent race known as the Snow Elves, and that their present state is the result of centuries of Dwemer slavery deep below the mountains. What’s more, a major battle in Skyrim is set next to the statue of Irkngthand, which we’re told is the only known visual representation of that lost culture. Imagine that. The Falmer could have been your run-of-the-mill, throwaway subterranean enemy, but Bethesda instead gave them centuries of history, turning them into downright tragic figures. Our lone glimpse of what these feral beings used to look like makes it all the more poignant.

It’s that extreme Bethesda attention to detail, combined with their drive to deliver huge, hearty single-player experiences, that makes it so easy to overlook Skyrim’s unfortunate technical mishaps. If the game has another shortcoming, it’s that Bethesda cut plenty of necessary corners in bringing such a rich game world to life. NPCs are all voiced by the same handful of actors. Conversations between characters are stiff and static. The game’s few “set pieces” fall flat; a late-game battle to conquer a city feels small-scale and unconvincing. These are all acceptable issues, and in fact, it’s refreshing to see a game focus more on depth than spectacle, and to work so hard to really give players their money’s worth out of the box. But it raises an interesting question: Now that Skyrim has both perfected the framework (with satisfyingly physical combat to boot) and proved the series’ blockbuster potential, how will Bethesda fine-tune the franchise from here? Skyrim enthralls me now, and makes me even more excited for what’s to come. It’s not a perfect game, but The Elder Scrolls VI may very well be.


Suskie's avatar
Community review by Suskie (March 18, 2012)

Mike Suskie is a freelance writer who has contributed to GamesRadar and has a blog. He can usually be found on Twitter at @MikeSuskie.

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zippdementia posted March 18, 2012:

A friend was complaining about the glitches in his PS3 version of Skyrim. They sounded really bad. He ended his rant by saying "Bethesda! Consumers are not beta-testers!"

For my money, I'll probably wait until Elder Scrolls VI comes out before I spring for Skyrim. First of all, it's highly possible that Scrolls VI may be the first Bethesda game to use more than three voice actors. So far the Elder Scroll games have gotten better with each new release, so there doesn't seem to be much harm in waiting for the next one if this one is still buggy as hell.

And if Elder Scrolls VI comes out and everyone says it's terrible, than I can go buy Skyrim and download what will then be the definitive patch.
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JoeTheDestroyer posted March 19, 2012:

I have the PS3 version, and they're pretty bad. The game crashes a lot. However, as awesome as the game is, they're worth suffering through.

That.....was weird... It posted my comment twice.
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overdrive posted March 19, 2012:

Good review that I agree with. Fortunately, the glitches were nowhere near as bad for me on the 360, but there were a number of little annoyances. But like you said, the game brings the goods in so many other ways.
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Suskie posted March 19, 2012:

Yeah, from what I understand, the 360 version got off pretty easy. It's by no means unplayable, but it is bad enough to make me question whether or not we should be supporting this.

The answer, of course, is that we should, because Skyrim is otherwise incredible.

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