"It's the sort of fantasy epic that perfectly matches the game's barbarian choir musical intro and the constant array of thick nordic voices exhorting you to fight for your country. Still, it was dozens upon dozens of hours before any of this main quest work was done for any reason other than me randomly wandering somewhere I was supposed to be."
Skyrim is one of those games that's tough to review. It's loaded with all sorts of little flaws. During the 200 or so hours I've spent playing it, I've had a few minor quest glitches. The game's crashed on occasion. Some dude I did a quest for in one city suddenly popped up by another's stables…and then randomly cloned as time passed. While walking the land's roads, I'd regularly find arrows or swords suspended in the air. Other flaws weren't technical issues. One of the game's main plot arcs concerning a civil war between two factions was pretty boring, as most of what I did involved seemingly endless battles to claim opposing forts with an occasional speech tossed in.
On the other hand, from the minute I sat down with Skyrim, this game was a part of my life unlike any I've played in…damn…forever? At work, I thought about where I'd explore that evening. Asleep, I dreamt about it. Bethesda didn't create a perfect game, but they did design the most alive virtual world that I've ever experienced. A world so vivid that it took well over 100 hours for the luster to slowly fade and for me to realize that, yes, I was still just playing a game.
Like we've grown to expect from Elder Scrolls games, the actual plot is second to exploration. You're known as a Dovahkiin -- a "somewhat-more-than-mere-mortal" with the ability to learn the ancient speech of the dragons. Coincidentally, an invasion of the beasts that's considered a harbinger for the end of the world is starting in the land of Skyrim, so you'll be asked to learn how to control your mystical powers to stop the dragons. Of course, there are complications, such as the aforementioned civil war and how certain people who should be 100 percent on your side might not be willing to go that far because they mistrust other allies you've gained. It's the sort of fantasy epic that perfectly matches the game's barbarian choir musical intro and the constant array of thick nordic voices exhorting you to fight for your country. Still, it was dozens upon dozens of hours before any of this main quest work was done for any reason other than me randomly wandering somewhere I was supposed to be.
Just wandering the world of Skyrim was such a treat that it was hard for me to even conceive of forcing myself to "be productive". Throughout the multitude of cities, towns and settlements, it seemed like nearly everyone had some sort of quest for my character. I'd collect dozens of them and have map markers pointing me to every corner of the game's huge world. Many of those markers would lead me to one dungeon or another -- of which there was a far better variety than in this game's current-gen predecessor, Oblivion.
That was huge -- Skyrim actually gave me reasons to go off the beaten path, which is where games like this truly shine. In Oblivion, there were so many dungeons that weren't used for any quest. You could go there and you could find some good loot, but you never had a reason to. And, often, you didn't want to. Once you'd been in one cave, mine or Ayleid ruin, you'd probably seen most of what they had to offer. Each sort of dungeon had its look and that was that. Skyrim corrects this in big ways. With the number of quests in this game (essentially an infinite amount, as some people are triggered to continuously give random quests as long as you play), you can conceivably be sent to just about every place in the world.
And these places look good. Occasionally, you'll get a "been there, done that" vibe, particularly in the massive Dwemer ruins, but those moments were few and far between. Snowy caves suddenly transform into crypts, a cave leads to an underground forest, the shrine to one Daedric prince houses a massive dungeon. Nordic ruins, where you'll spend a large amount of your dungeon-diving time, even integrate a number of simple puzzles into the mix. Nothing particularly challenging or groundbreaking, but when I've gotten used to the long, linear dungeons of Oblivion, having to actually think a bit to raise a gate or two was a nice touch.
That first hundred hours I put into Skyrim was among the best gaming experiences I've ever had. I ignored the concept of fast traveling to instantly get to places I'd already visited and simply walked the world, doing errands for people. I'd hit a number of dungeons, collect my rewards and simply enjoy the world's ambiance. Just walking down a road provided all sorts of interesting encounters. Wandering guard patrols escorted prisoners, groups of drunks handed me mead and drug dealers attempted to pawn their wares. As I progressed through the game, I inevitably angered certain people, so bands of hired thugs and assassins occasionally assaulted me in my travels. Every trip from one town to another offered the promise of something new.
The only real problem is that the longer you play a game, the less absorbed you'll be in its world -- no matter how well-drawn and interesting it may be. Despite its flaws, Skyrim was perfection to me for an ungodly amount of time. But when I'd made three or four circuits of the world, hitting up every quest I could find, I decided it was time to get down to business and start working on the game's guilds and the main quests. I started fast traveling from place to place to not waste time. I ignored those people bustling through cities or traveling the roads, as they no longer had anything worthwhile to offer me. The magic didn't immediately disappear -- those larger questlines had their share of cool things to do, particularly when they took me to places like the massive subterranean Blackreach region or the long-and-fun Labyrinthian dungeon. However, when I was no longer completely immersed in the game's world, it wasn't quite the same.
I probably never would have noticed how dull those civil war missions were if I wasn't doing them one after the next. And some of those other annoyances, like the multitude of simple quests necessary to spread the thieves' guild influence, became much worse when I was focusing on them, instead of just knocking one or two off when I was in the right city. The more absorbed you are with Skyrim's world, the more fun you'll have exploring it. Perhaps more importantly, while enemy scaling is improved from Oblivion, the game did lose all difficulty after I'd gotten pretty far into the game. Every time you gain a level, you can pick a perk for any of the game's 18 skills. By the end, my Nord barbarian was an unstoppable force with HUGE heavy armor bonuses and the ability to destroy even the toughest foes with a few swings of a war hammer. For a long time, the tougher versions of bandits, draugr, bears, dragons and other enemies easily could get the better of me, but after a while, I simply became overpowered and ran through everything with no problems. This also contributed to the late-game fatigue.
But it's hard to really criticize a game for not holding up after 100-150 hours. Most games don't last that long -- and with the ones that do, I'm usually ready for them to be over a good bit before that time. When I hit that 100-hour mark, I had been upon an extended (and disorganized) hike around the world and had loved almost every minute of it. Some missions might not have been particularly fun, there might have been some glitches and the game eventually crumbled under itself, but the ride to that point was intensely fun -- the most I've had with a game in probably a couple generations of systems.
Staff review by Rob Hamilton (February 10, 2012)
Rob Hamilton is the official drunken master of review writing for Honestgamers.
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