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The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Xbox 360) artwork

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Xbox 360) review

"This is when Skyrim will reward you most richly. Not when you're trying to win, or beat it, or get to the end, or level up, or earn the achievements. Not when you're playing it like a stat-based RPG, or a single-player MMO, or a challenge. Skyrim is putatively a game. More accurately, it's a narrative loom."

There's a point during the main quest in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim when one of the characters wants to show you something a fair distance away. She says that you can either follow her and travel together, or she can meet you there later. This means that even though it's supposedly a time critical plot point -- "We must hurry," she'll say -- the plot point will wait until you're ready. Play it now, or play it later. Whenever you're ready, walk there, or teleport there instantly. No matter what anyone here tells you, time and space mean nothing in Skyrim.

Normally, I'd just fast travel and meet her there. But Iím at the end of a long night of Skyrim, ready to wind down, but not quite ready to stop playing. So I follow her because it's arguably easier than actually saving and powering down my 360. She changes into armor and tells another NPC to mind the inn that she tends. I'm tempted to get my horse, but I don't want to spoil the illusion by riding down the road while she shuffles along on foot. It's nighttime, which adds a touch of intrigue Bethesda can't have guaranteed, since this could just as easily have happened at midday. As she hurries along the road in her awkwardly animated shuffle, she pulls out a torch to light the way. If time mattered, this could be one of those hurried nighttime journeys to get someplace in the nick of time, maybe to warn a king of an invasion, intercede at an ill-fated princess' wedding ceremony, or call off a doomed dawn attack.

As we travel, the NPC has occasional bits of scripted dialogue along the way. She warns me about a notorious bandit hideout up ahead (not to worry, as I cleared it out long ago). She references a river and a city we'll pass. She gives me a few more pieces of information that I would have missed if I'd just fast traveled later. We come across the member of a holy order of warriors fighting a vampire. We join the fray. My sidekick, a cat person mage who's been tagging along for several quests, gets killed here. I consider reloading the game, but decide that to really appreciate Skyrim, I should just let it happen. He should remain dead and become one of the game's many emergent stories, like this hurried nighttime journey to get there just in the nick of time. As dawn breaks, we reach our destination and a scripted scene unfolds, insinuated neatly into the open world like so many of the game's other scripted scenes.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim asset

This is Skyrim at its best. When you accept it on its own flawed and often brittle terms. When you look past the FedEx delivery quests, almost all of which come down to going someplace to get a doo-dad. When you let the lore and dialogue and scripting carry you along. When you embrace what it's trying to do instead of scrutinizing what it actually does. When you just let it happen. This is when Skyrim will reward you most richly. Not when you're trying to win, or beat it, or get to the end, or level up, or earn the achievements. Not when you're playing it like a stat-based RPG, or a single-player MMO, or a challenge. Skyrim is putatively a game. More accurately, it's a narrative loom.

Bethesda has been trying this approach for a while, but never in a place as rich as this. The beauty of Skyrim -- the game and the place -- is that it's a combination of variety, thematic unity, and careful use of an aging but adequate graphics engine. Although these are mostly cold hardscrabble plains with patches of snowy waste, that's not all they are. Skyrim is a place of degrees of cold, of lowlands and mountains, of old and new, of cultural and civil strife, of international intrigue. Rivers and stories run through it. Skyrim is every bit as good as Red Dead Redemption when it comes to presenting a varied but thematically unified world, and peppering it with life, activities, and even evocative emptiness. Remember all those cookie cutter dungeons in Oblivion? You won't find Bethesda taking any world-building shortcuts like that here.

But Skyrim isn't just a world. It's also an RPG in which the leveling is almost beside the point. Like so many other things in Skyrim, it happens, but it hardly feels worth chasing. There's very little of the forward pull you get in an RPG with a good character development system. Leveling up is a strange combination of money, crafting, combat, stealth, lockpicking, and almost anything else you'll do. Basically, you just play and it happens. It's more like aging than leveling up. There is nary an experience point to be found of all of Skyrim, but that doesn't mean it doesn't have some of the trappings you expect when you're earning experience points. For instance, the references to monster levels. I learn a spell that only affects enemies up to level 10. How am I supposed to know what level this frost troll is? What are these bandits? Do wolves have levels? Why am I suddenly fretting about this?

The moment you start to approach Skyrim as a game, and at times you can hardly help it, is the moment it starts to get brittle and threatens to crack. As a game, Skyrim is sometimes profoundly broken, and not just because of the occasional bugs and busted AI scripting. This is all too often a frail illusion that will collapse under its own weight, if not the weight of Bethesda's traditionally sloppy testing or their utter cluelessness when it comes to usability issues. Welcome to one of the worst interfaces this side of a Pip Boy. You'd think a game so full of trash loot and inconsequential frippery would put a priority on managing all that detail. Instead, you get to scroll through myriad lists, sometimes while the action is paused with a battle axe swinging towards your skull or a spell poised to leave your fingertips. This is not a fluid experience, much less a graceful one. The hand-to-hand combat is an exercise in flailing, the magic is a list of spells as long as your arm and just as unwieldy to reference, and the stealth is as contrived as ever. This is still an engine clearly built for a first-person shooter, which means archers have it easiest and everyone else just has to make do.

For all Bethesda's ambition, why haven't they gotten better at the basics of moment-to-moment gameplay? This is the same game they've been making since 2002's Morrowind. In fact, you can trace this design as far back as Bethesda's 1990 Terminator game, in which you played Kyle Reese battling the Terminator across an open map of Los Angeles. Has any other developer worked with the same basic idea for more than two decades and still asked you to accept such fundamental compromises as this sloppy melee system, overbearing inventory management, and brittle AI scripting? When so many other issues have been solved, when computers and console systems are finally ready to realize Bethesda's ambitious vision, why do these more pedestrian issues persist? For the most part, Skyrim is a triumph of world building that deserves recognition, praise, and the many hours you'll pour into it. But Skyrim is also a disappointing punt.

tomchick's avatar
Freelance review by Tom Chick (November 27, 2011)

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bbbmoney posted November 28, 2011:

Damn I loved this review, it's been really hard to articulate how I feel about this game and I pretty much completely understand the points you made here. The game's scale is impressive, and I expect mod makers to make it all much more interesting in the future, but as it stands it's quite the fragile illusion. And considering how much there is going on this game, I think you chose a really nice format to write a shorter review.

Nice job.
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Suskie posted November 28, 2011:


Remember all those cookie cutter dungeons in OblivionM?
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joseph_valencia posted November 28, 2011:

This is a good review, but I think you get pretty dismissive towards the end. You develop your point about the interface well enough, but you kind of skim past the rest of the game mechanics.

In particular, your point about "Skyrim" being the same game Bethesda has been making since "Morrowind" simply doesn't ring true. Under the hood, the two couldn't be more different. Morrowind is stat-oriented to an extreme, while Skyrim eschews most of the attributes Morrowind tracked. Not to mention the presence of perks and leveled dungeon loot, or balance-oriented stuff like the nerfing of trainers and the enchantment system.

I also feel the "Terminator" reference doesn't serve much of a point, aside from making it look like you're criticizing Bethesda for developing a notion they've had for decades. A more relevant comparison would probably be "Daggerfall", which actually had a quest generator not unlike the "radiant story" system. If we're tracing the DNA of the game's design (and glitches!), that is definitely the point to start at.
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jerec posted November 28, 2011:

I would say that the experiences like you mentioned earlier in the review are actually so numerous (if you don't fast travel all around the place) that it certainly outweighs the game's short-comings. I've been thinking of writing a review of this game but I haven't been able to come up with anything yet. A solid 10 from me, and I don't disagree with the negative points you make. I just sort of accept them, ignore them, and go back to enjoying the various stories and events the game lets me become a part of.

In that 100 hours of Skyrim, I really felt like my character. I felt like I was exploring a vast world, taking part in the day to day life there, to such an extent that I don't think I've felt with any other video game ever. It's taken the best of Oblivion and done away with many of its faults.
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zigfried posted November 28, 2011:

This topic desperately needs Espiga.

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honestgamer posted November 28, 2011:

Thanks for the catch, Suskie. The typo was likely my fault when I went through and added italics. I've fixed it.
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Masters posted November 28, 2011:

This is a great review. Truthfully, I'm not sure who I'm saying this to, since it's clear that Tom does not frequent these forums looking for feedback or RotW wins.
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overdrive posted November 28, 2011:

YOU ARE SAYING IT TO ME! At least, I'm responding afterwards, so yeah...that works.

I started playing it yesterday and can see where both Tom is coming from and where Jerec is, too. I think with a game like this, the "immersion" factor is most important. The more immersed in the world you get, the less you care about any real or perceived flaws. After one day, I'm super-immersed to an insane level. There are a few changes from Oblivion I really like and a few I'm not so sure about, but I started playing at about 2:30 p.m. yesterday and the next 8+ hours went by like nothing, so it's hard to complain too much. As a whole, the game is working and working great.
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zippdementia posted November 28, 2011:

OD is right (I know, Zipp agreeing with OD is becoming cliche); in these games, the experience is over the minute immersion is broken. Good to hear Skyrim's been able to hold onto its immersion better than Oblivion and Morrowind.
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dagoss posted November 28, 2011:

Skyrim? My god, I'm still not finished with Morrowind.
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Suskie posted November 28, 2011:

I haven't finished a single game Bethesda has made (of this ilk, mind; I'm not counting crap like Brink). I haven't finished Skyrim yet, either, but the fact that I want to speaks volumes of how far Bethesda's come since Morrowind. They've always made games I've admired far more than I've enjoyed, yet I admire and enjoy Skyrim in equal measure. I'm really thrilled with how well the game turned out.

I do generally agree with all of Chick's complaints (except concerning the melee combat, which I rather like), but I guess it's easier for me to overlook such flaws in the face of everything Skyrim does well.
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espiga posted November 30, 2011:

This topic desperately needs Espiga.

I have arrived!

Today may be my birthday, but today, I give you guys the presents, in the form of silly Skyrim stories!

First, I'll copy-paste the three that I told to Zig in AIM. I was assuming that Zig has never played Skyrim, so there's some slight explanations of in-world terms that's pretty common sense to anyone experienced with the game. So no complaints later on with "I KNOW WHAT THE DARK BROTHERHOOD IS" etc.

So, I kill this one bandit, and his buddy runs around for a while... But doesn't see me. "Hmm, must be my imagination!" I proceed to shoot the buddy in the crotch, "What!? Is someone there!?" he yells out, then starts searching for me, walks up to the dead bandit and says "I'm going to FIND whoever did this!" then says "I must be hearing things" before giving up the search and going back to his spot, an arrow still firmly lodged in his dick.

One of the factions I joined was called the Dark Brotherhood, which a guild of assassins, and one of the missions I had to do involved killing this shopkeeper's brother. When I arrived to the city they live in, it was nighttime, and the target was sleeping while the brother was minding the shop. So, I enter the shop and the shopkeeper kinda follows me around since I'm entering parts of the shop that I'm not supposed to be in, like the bedrooms. Since I'm a stealthy-type of person, I have some abilities that give me damage bonuses for stabbing people in the back, so I go to the bedroom, close the door right on the shopkeeper's face, go into stealth mode and backstab his brother, killing him in one hit, the brother screams out in pain, but when I open the door, the shopkeeper is still there, smiling at me, so I bought some arrows from him and left.

One of the big things about Skyrim's story is that there's a civil war going on, and you can choose to join either the Empire (of which Skyrim is a province) or the Stormcloaks (a rebel group trying to take over Skyrim from the empire and secede from it) So I join the Empire in the civil war and kill the leader of the Stormcloaks, and the Empire puts a new leader in the city that the Stormcloak rebels once held. However, the corpse of the Stormcloak leader is still laying there, stripped naked because I took all his stuff and sold it.

Okay, time for some stories that will be new to Zig!

Speechcraft is pretty important in Skyrim. Oftentimes, you're given speech options that allow you to choose between several types of speechcraft ad your success depends on your Speech skill level. Persuasion, indimidation, bribery, and even lying fall under these categories. I was just wearing a pretty amulet when I talked to a girl when she said "Wow, I'm surprised someone like you isn't taken!" To which I had my character reply "Oh, interested in me, are you?"

"Why yes, why wouldn't I be? Are you... Interested in me?" You could almost hear the voice actress' soul dying a little bit inside at such a cheesy line.

I had two options at this point. "Yes, I am" and "No, I'm not." There was no option to lie to her, therefore I'm thoroughly convinced that Bethesda has no idea how guys talk to girls. However, I figured since I'm playing a role playing game, that I'd have the character I'm playing match my own personality to some extent. I said "Yes, I am."

"Great! Then let's go to the Temple of Mara and get married!"

Wait, what? Doesn't she at least want to go on a date first? Nope, apparently collecting a handful of doodads for her in exchange for a couple hundred gold was enough to make her fall in love with me.

So now I'm married to some chick in a denim dress that apparently runs a shop out of my house, though I've yet to see a single customer.

I was in the city of Solitude when a dragon decided it'd be a good idea to attack. Killing it wasn't a problem, though once it died and left behind its skeleton, it was kind of annoying and in the way. I left Solitude and went on some adventures for a while, and when I returned, I had noticed that the dragon skeleton had moved to the town's entrance. Furthermore, it seemed to still be alive, considering it would fall to the ground each time I entered the area, and body parts of the dragon would still be moving, almost as if it were dancing. It was still kind of in the way, considering the corpse landed right between the two buildings that are most prominent right when you first enter town, so whenever I go to Solitude to bang my wife and then extort money from her apparent store out of her, I have to dodge a dragon corpse doing the macarena.

I was given a quest a while back to help an old dying man's dream come true by repairing a broken phial that, in its heyday, would magically refill whatever liquid it had in it. Unfortunately for squishy, stealthy types like me, one of the items needed to repair the phial was Mammoth Tusk Powder, which happens to be hoarded only by the giants, who apparently have Superman levels of vision, considering I have a hell of a time trying to stay undetected around them. So, I was sneaking around the giant, trying to find a good place to use the terrain to my advantage to prevent something like this from happening, when I fell into a hole. I was stuck in the hole, with no way to get out, but there was a part of the rocks missing where I had a perfect shot at the giant guarding the Mammoth Tusk Powder. So, I unloaded about 7 arrows straight into the giant's dick, and it finally fell (the giant, not his dick). Unfortunately, I had to use fast travel to get out of the spot, or I'd be stuck there forever.
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joseph_valencia posted November 30, 2011:

[This post was stupid. I was in a bad mood. SNIP.]
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zigfried posted November 30, 2011:

See though, Espiga makes Skyrim sound really good. It sounds like early NES adventure games, where you're thrown into a world and have to discover everything (as opposed to playing by script). Scripting keeps players on track so that the illusion isn't broken, even when some of the stuff doesn't make sense (like carrying 99 potions). On the other hand, Skyrim lets you do funny crazy stuff by choice, and that's awesome.

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jerec posted November 30, 2011:

Reading those anecdotes, a lot of the same things happened to me. I have a story.

I walked off the road because there was a path leading up to a cave I decided I'd investigate (loot) and there was an injured man sitting on a log outside. He told me that two of his friends were in the cave, probably dead, and he wanted to know if I had a potion or if I could heal him. I said yes. While we were talking, I could hear a dragon flying around and roaring. And as soon as the conversation ends and I get my healing spell ready, the dragon swoops by, breathes fire over the both of us. I survive it because I'm the freaking Dragonborn, but the injured man is not so lucky. He is turned into a pile of ash right before me. I kill the dragon and then look at my Misc objectives, and healing that guy is still on my list. But he's a pile of ash. I think he's beyond my help now.
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honestgamer posted November 30, 2011:

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overdrive posted November 30, 2011:

Actually, Espiga, if you talk to the priest of Mara in Riften (I think...I went to about three cities tonight), he at least gives a weak explanation for how marriage is this instant no-courtship deal. Due to short lifespans, if a person wants to get married, they wear that amulet and anyone of the opposite sex who's interested can inquire.

Not the greatest reasoning, necessarily, but at least they tried to put logic behind it all. So now I have to find my dream girl and impress her enough to hook up. Assuming she's interested in marriage, it'd be the one girl in Riften who's both the daughter of the local crime boss family and an alchemist who's main desire is to create potions and poisons that harm and kill. Who could resist that? Not I. I guess that means I need to go along with her sleazy, jailed brother's quest to hunt down his former girl so he can kill her. You know, for the big happy family vibe!
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overdrive posted December 02, 2011:


Let's say you don't have any memory of doing anything wrong. No stealing or anything like that. At worst, a couple accidental assaults. And I did kill a roadside Skooma peddler in what counted as an assault because I was swinging before he could even get ready to fight, but nothing came of it because no one was around to witness the killing.

But while walking the roads, you have to fight an assassin and there's a contract on you. How did this happen?
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joseph_valencia posted December 02, 2011:

I think the Dark Brotherhood assassins spawn regardless of your character's actions. You're Dovahkiin, and not everyone's okay with that. At least, that's what I assume.
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overdrive posted December 02, 2011:

That makes sense. Especially since I get attacked by random Redguards, Dark Elves and Orcs from time to time. Which makes me understand why the Stormcloaks believe in SKYRIM FOR THE NORDS. Screw those guys...this is OUR SKYRIM!
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espiga posted December 02, 2011:


I had a pretty similar situation happen to me as well, in terms of a dragon coming by and fucking up a quest just because he can.

Near the beginning of the game, I accepted a quest in Whiterun to gather some sap to revive the dying tree that serves as a centerpiece in town. I didn't actually get around to doing the quest until much later, but when I finally decided to do it, some NPC pilgrim asked to tag along with me. I allowed him the pleasure of getting to be in my company.

I was walking along, heading to the cave I needed to reach in order to complete the next objective of my quest. Mountains were in the way, so I hopped along them because Skyrim is mountainous and fuck going around. NPC followers don't like to hop up mountainsides with you, so eventually the game gives up trying to track where the NPC is at and just makes them POOF right beside you, unfortunately sans flashy smoke and sound effects. Anyway, I was climbing up a mountainside when a dragon, the persistent bastards they are, decided it would be a good idea to swoop in and attack. It landed early in the fight, which is surprising since they like to fly around for a while at first, and then went to chomp me, when POOF! My NPC ally appeared next to me, and the dragon picked him up in his maw, flung him around like a bulldog destroying a chew toy, then threw him off the side of the mountain, his body bouncing all the way down until it landed in the water at the bottom.

I have to admit though, that was a pretty manly way to die, and when I went to finish the quest, a bunch of Spriggans (female wood spirits) appeared and killed the people that were in the area. So, he may have gotten eaten by a dragon, but at least he didn't get beat up by a girl.
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jerec posted December 02, 2011:

I love Lydia
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overdrive posted December 03, 2011:

I just want to know one thing: is it just me, or do fugitives tend to come up to hand you their stolen weapon while you're in the middle of a fight? Happened twice and it turned a sure thing into a more tense battle. Neither that bear or that Khajiit with the shock spell stopped pounding on me while the bastard was telling me to hold his crap and warning me to not double-cross him. Stuff like that makes me feel less guilty about exploiting the AI's tendency to mistake arrows in the throat for some imaginary sound in order to take out tough mage-types in dungeons after more honorable means of fighting wound up getting me blasted to bits.
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joseph_valencia posted December 03, 2011:

I've had that event happen to me twice, but never during a battle. Probably the craziest NPC conversation moment I ever had was during the Sanguine quest. I'm returning a goat to this guy, when I hear that distinct dragon roar. I'm thinking: "If I don't return the goat first, the dragon will probably kill it." (This was after I just fought and killed a giant to win the goat, by the way, so I'm not in great shape.) So I bring the goat to its owner, and he just takes his sweet time explaining all this pertinent quest stuff to me while a dragon is soaring about and wreaking havoc in the background. ಠ_ಠ

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