Welcome to the Illegal Toothpaste review/play session on The Elder Scrolls V – Skyrim. I will be playing this on the PC on ultra settings in defiance of recommendations by the Skyrim launcher, who I assume knows nothing about what’s best for me.
Immediately upon opening the Skyrim launcher I notice something interesting: Data Files. Opening this option I see some tick boxes, though nothing to actually use as of yet. I would assume this is some kind of way for mods to be plugged easily into Skyrim and this pleases me immensely.
The previous game, Oblivion, was improved tremendously by its mod content that added in a lot of the life (quests, items, races, domestic animals) that was otherwise missing from the game as well as essentially unlimited quests and tweaks to the gameplay – anything that you didn’t like about the previous game even down to the UI (User Interface) you could probably find a modder with a similar opinion who had changed it.
Anyway, into the game itself. Past the Bethesda logo there’s a fairly nondescript menu page with the logo playing the theme song that unfortunately is quite hard to take seriously at this stage due to the Harry Partridge Skyrim video (With the warning that it could be found offensive by some who don’t enjoy juvenile humour). Clicking the New button with our curiously-shaped runic cursor gives the options to start a new game, curiously with shortcuts for Yes and No. I’m assuming this is something to do with the cross-platform development of this game that perhaps the game thinks I’d be using a controller rather than the god-fearing method of keyboard and mouse. Scoffing at this foolishness I choose Yes with gusto and am told along with a little dragon sculpture that I am level 1, soon after the intro begins, a classic ‘on the back of a cart’ Half-Life-style ‘look around and don’t do anything for a while’ section. I look at my fellow passengers who help me out with some exposition and reveal a little of the situation and the world itself as well as what we’re doing here, apparently going to be executed. This could perhaps be a very short game if I don’t play my cards right. The voice-acting and atmosphere are good, though the visuals are very reminiscent of the previous game Oblivion. Seems a decent enough way to inject tension into the tutorial section.
Quickly I am into the character selection and I’m pleased to see that I can choose from a wide selection of races even before anything else. The races available vary from Lizardfolk (Argonians) to Cat-people (Khajit), Orcs (!) and different varieties of Elves and Humans. A very tough decision to throw out straight away, I’m torn between the novelty of playing an Orc and how neat I imagine commanding animals would be as a Wood Elf. Each of the races has its own special power to differentiate it from the others, with some like the Wood Elves’ being quite intriguing and others like the Breton (Human) Dragonskin spell-absorbing ability sounding quite interesting but perhaps not quite as flavourful.
I decide to go for an Orc with patented Berserker Rage to really stress-test the combat system and also hopefully be on the receiving end of some prejudice. After the race I choose my appearance and sex. Toying briefly with the idea of a female Orc, which really doesn’t improve things in the appearance department, I make use of the appearance presets to get somewhat looking like Ming the Merciless and tweak to my heart’s content. I’m happy to see the option to put scars on my character and so include some scratch-marks on his cheek from his latest lover’s tiff, this betusked Romeo of the Orcen world. Adding some arrow-shaped war paint so he knows which way is up I’m impressed by, of all things, the ability to look at different aspect’s of your character’s appearance. Rather than just rotating in space he actually looks and turns around in such a way as to allow you to see the sides of the face while still making it entirely natural and immersive. There are an immense amount of small tweaking sliders here to really get them appearing the way you want, and it’s satisfying to know they really put the time in to make character selection better than anything I’ve seen before.
Once I’ve furnished my Orc with the overbite I always wanted but never could have, dinky eyebrow-horns to discourage head butting-contests and ginger hair and mutton-chops to make obvious the fire within his soul I was ready to continue, panicking a bit that I would be called Prisoner for the rest of the game. I thought briefly about leaving my name as such as a ‘screw you’ to authority, but I figured I may never get a chance to change my name in the game so decided instead upon Si’Mon Burrett in honour of the most ferocious person I know of with this hair colour. I certainly didn’t want my name associated with any of the things I was planning to get up to with this guy.
After witnessing the first execution I’m called up as next in line for violent death, thoughtfully referred to by the race I’ve chosen. Thankfully I manage to survive the next section as things go predictably mad, manage to screw up the game’s first (and very infrequent) platforming section in an amazing display of confusion and end up wandering aimlessly for a while before deciding to attempt the platforming over from scratch. It’s unfortunate to have fallen down so quickly, so perhaps not quite enough idiot-proofing for me. I comfort myself with the idea that I was probably the only person to actually have this problem and that it is in fact due to being super smart as opposed to thick as two short planks. It’s amazing the kinds of things I’ll believe.
Stumbling further into the game I manage to take a face-full of dragon breath and seem none the worse for it so perhaps this will work out. I’m already very impressed by the dragon who eats other people quite happily and generally seems to be enjoying trashing the place. I discover Oblivion’s “loot them down to their underwear” idea is still in force as I leave a corpse clad only in a belt and loincloth. Inventory management seems simple enough, with weapons and apparel being the only options and I equip my stolen loot easily. I stumble again trying to actually exit the inventory screen, thinking I may well have missed a prompt. Eventually I figure out it’s the “i” key for inventory and shamefacedly continue. Quickly I’m able to start upgrading my equipment and the allure of pushing my statistics higher begins to tell on me.
Continuing onwards I start stealing everything that’s not nailed down. I figure the previous occupants don’t have a use for it because I just axed them in the head. Hey, I’m an Orc and they’re the Imperial oppressors, don’t look at me that way.
After escaping into the countryside the one gent who escaped with me promises assistance from his sister in a nearby village before advising we split up to avoid pursuit. As he jogs off I keep up with him out of spite but eventually tire of this and leap off into the undergrowth to seek my own destiny. I’m immediately struck by how beautiful and natural the world looks, and it’s a joy to look around and see the incredibly-realistic flowing water and plant life. It’s amazing to be able to see an echo of real natural beauty around you in a video game even if it doesn’t stand up to close critical inspection. For every twenty realistically-swinging signs that you can encourage with a quick arrow there’s one scrap of cloth twitching oddly in the breeze. It seems petty to pick at such things, but my keen Orcen eyes are drawn to them because when they do occasionally appear they seem disconcerting.
Quickly I come across my first encounter, a friendly yet barely-dressed fellow who attempts to matchmake his club and my face, scorning attempts at communication through my guttural roars in his face and repeated bludgeonings around his head and neck. I begin to think that perhaps I slept through an important class at the Orcen etiquette academy and try to make it up with the other two members of this intrepid band of barely-clothed wilderness explorers with similar results. Still, though an attempt at understanding was lost here I was able to gain some rather battered equipment and I remember these fine if somewhat incoherent fellows by visiting the vendor in the next village along and trading in their short and pointless lives for a clubbier club.
Making my way into the village marked on my map by my fellow escapee I strike up an immediate friendship with the local blacksmith over our shared passion for metal and hitting and he kindly introduced me to the basics of crafting, even being generous enough to lend me the materials to get started. Crafting seems relatively straightforward as long as you have the materials, and soon I knew what was needed for all manner of different items. I wasn’t yet sure about the materials needed for steel underpants, but if I was going to face many more dragons it seemed prudent to discover this, perhaps through a pilgrimage to a master on a hilltop. Honestly I was really just too embarrassed to ask my new blacksmith friend and leave him with a rather confusing impression of the Orcen race.
Sauntering further into civilisation I was pleased to discover the townspeople were somewhat talkative and that someone else had been burglarising these fine people. I was outraged and disappointed that someone would get there before I did and determined that I would take to the road to find fresh pastures. Briefly delayed by a bout of chicken-chasing that didn’t seem to be appreciated by the townsfolk or the birds themselves I headed out into the beautiful countryside, shirking the all-to-standard roadway for overgrown countryside nearby. I was punished for this by being immediately beset by a wolf who, before I clobbered into compliance, gifted me with a rare and valuable disease. I didn’t notice any immediate ill effects but as I was sure that I had only hours to live I made all haste back into the town to try and find an apothecary who might draw the disease from me using witchery. Incoherent with worry I stumble into the first shop I see which, joy of joys, is a general store that in fact sells potions that cure disease for only the entirety of the gold in my possession. Still, I was already tired of the townsfolk on the way in commenting on my sickly state and I was unlikely to be able to exercise my romantic techniques successfully while streaming snot from my nose.
While I was talking to the shopkeeper and casually knocking over his merchandise as I leapt about on his counter, newly disease-free and happy to be alive, his sister harangued him about the burglary they’d suffered recently. I was intrigued and, thinking this was my chance to eliminate the competition and foster an undeserved reputation for kindliness on my part, volunteered my services in the recovering of this stolen artifact, thinking perhaps this may increase my chances with the shopkeep’s sultry sister as well. Fiendish thieves had made off with the shopkeep’s golden claw, curiously enough leaving everything else of value. I wasn’t about to ask what the shopkeep was doing with such a heathen artifact if he believed that it brought him luck and was willing to pay to get it back. I was sure thieves by definition were okay to steal from due to double jeopardy or something similar.
So, my journey took me onwards and I retrieved claws of many varieties, grew in power and continuously failed to impress the various females of Skyrim. I was impressed at the breadth of talents I learnt in my travels, being able to specialise in everything from blacksmithing, enchantment and wielding two-handed weapons more effectively as well as the more esoteric arts of thievery and foul magicks. I also came into my heritage as a Dragonborn, allowing me unprecedented power and an assured place in Skyrim’s history provided I could avoid becoming Dragonfood long enough.
Something that particularly struck me during my travels was the sheer amount there was to see in Skyrim, a curious wanderer could find anything from ancient treasure troves to long-forgotten labyrinths along the way, with the many and varied quests providing ample excuse to wander all over the huge world map and stumble upon any number of things. Quests in Skyrim range from the somewhat vanilla offerings early in the game to huge arcing quest-lines that twist as they go and often end up in completely unexpected places. Skyrim manages the difficult task of making you want to complete quests due to them being compelling or because you have a stake in them rather than necessarily because of a specific financial reward. This is immensely more satisfying and keeps you wanting to continue with quests even when you don’t strictly need to.
Combat is interesting, though not a million miles away from what was present in the previous iteration Oblivion, with the basis being a normal attack or a slower more powerful attack along with blocking making up the basics. Where Skyrim treads new ground is in the attempts they’ve made to allow for more dynamic combat. A player can combine their active equipment/spell usage to their two separate hands, from the standard shield and sword to one hand wielding a fireball and the other ice, the different hands always being operated by left and right mouse buttons separately. Aside from the use of two-handed items there’s no restriction on what combinations you can use, so if you want to have the protection of a shield while casting fireballs you can, or if you want to shatter your foes with ice magics while laying into them with an axe you can as well. The immediate problem Skyrim has is that in its breadth it gives you so many options of how to fight they can be hard to manage, and in most games would necessitate frequent trips to the inventory screen to alter your character setup for the situation. Fortunately Skyrim deals with this to an extent by a system of being able to ‘favourite’ items so they show up in a quick-access list while you’re playing. Further, up to ten of these favourite items can be bound to number keys for quick access that is very handy while playing, and though it has some quirks with regard to how it assigns your new choices to particular hands these can mostly be worked around.
Archery works much like you’d expect with arrows dropping over distance and satisfyingly sticking in your target, making an assault by an angry giant more understandable when you note with some satisfaction the arrow in his eye as well as the one in his behind (the traditional way I start an engagement). Archery goes hand-in-hand with the stealth system as sneak attacks (attacking someone who isn’t aware of you) yield significant bonus damage. Stealth unfortunately not being the forte of my Orcen Lothario (despite its use in escaping bedrooms) I can only report that the system is relatively simple. To enter stealth the player must crouch, activating a mid-screen indicator on an eye. If a person can see you the eye will be open, conversely if your skills suffice making you one with the darkness the eye will be closed. This will also be the case if you’re standing in the forest by yourself practising on the trees and squirrels so don’t get cocky, you’re not there yet. Even the act sneaking has its own skill level that increases as it’s actively used and has its own talent tree.
Speaking of skill trees it’s worth mentioning the sheer amount of different perks that can be levelled up. These are separate from the numerical skill you develop from actively using the skill in that you can only gain a new talent once per level you’ve gained and the higher-level talents are restricted to those with the requisite skill level. The perks allow a degree of customisation with how your character uses their skills, unlocking extra effects to your attacks such as being able to combine spells or decapitate foes with a single swing or to simply make your character more efficient at what they do already. This can be a simple reduction in cost for spells from a certain discipline or allowing you access to greater opportunities for eventually crafting some of the best items in the game. It does seem strange to level up non-combat talents when you’re in the middle of a desperate battle, but it’s worthwhile to have a point or two in most of the trees for the passive benefits that you’ll get the most use out of in normal play.
From talking with my colleagues Skyrim clocks in at at least over 40 hour’s worth of entertainment, assuming that at least some of the roses are smelled along the way. Considering a lot of games are offering around 10 to 15-hour campaigns this is quite impressive, but the lack of a multiplayer mode does sting a little bit. Given that you can be playing Skyrim for at least 3 times as long as a regular game using the single-player component it would seem to be roughly equivalent in time to money with a regular title assuming it boasted a multiplayer that you’d play for around twice as long as the singleplayer. As mentioned at the beginning the existence of modifications throws out the calculations somewhat as there exists the potential for unlimited extra content provided you’re willing to wait for someone else to make it for you. Downloadable Content or DLC, like with most games nowadays, is a certainty, with presumably new areas and/or abilities being opened up for a price. As to whether they’ll be worthwhile given the previous game Oblivion’s notoriously useless Horse Armour DLC remains to be seen, but I’m fairly certain that between community-created content and paid DLC the experience can be stretched out and enhanced significantly over time.
Overall, I’d say Skyrim is a very worthwhile purchase for fans of RPGs or just well-made games in general. The barrier to entry isn’t particularly high as prior knowledge of the setting isn’t at all required though it does add some richness to the setting. Because of the inter-platform nature of the game, appearing on PC, Xbox 360 and PS3, the interface is simplified but doesn’t suffer significantly. There are some niceties that RPGs usually have that are missing but nothing essential and it’s completely understandable why in order to make the interface very easy to use for newcomers. The game does a good job of organising quest information for you but at the same time doesn’t pressure the player to do anything they don’t feel like doing aside from trying to make the stories of the quests compelling enough to pursue. I personally enjoyed being able to pepper the dramatic overarching storyline with the more mundane quests simply because I liked the NPCs enough to want to help them out, as bizarre as that seems to write.
I would definitely choose the PC as the platform of choice despite not having been able to play on other platforms simply for the community-made mod support but from what I have seen of other people playing on different platforms the console versions are great particularly for people who don’t have gaming PCs able to run the game as they’d like.
Final judgement/TL:DR: I rate Skyrim as a must buy for RPG fans and anyone even remotely interested in fantasy-based settings and games.