Skyrim

Pretty much any gamer who considers himself (or herself) a fan of RPGs is either playing or has played Skyrim by now. I pre-purchased this puppy a few days before launch (Nov. 11) and here are my condensed thoughts on its presentation:

Environment

Environment has been a selling point of Skyrim since it was announced. Right along, Bethesda has been improving on their graphics engine and art style as the Elder Scrolls series has gone along. Yes, things were a bit bumpy at times — the Elder Scrolls series (TES) has never been known for having particularly great character models or animations (since moving to polygons in Morrowind). No, this did not detract much from the TES games, as the RPG qualities and storylines were often second-to-none in all of western roleplay-gaming. And also, the environments have always been fairly captivating, even if the actors within them seemed a bit poorly designed or stiffly animated.

In Skyrim, the “wow” factor has been upped again. This is a beautiful game — if you have the hardware to run it on High, that is. There are some truly astounding vistas to see, and the snowy province of Skyrim is a wondrous place to adventure in. It’s not all pretty pictures, either — often you will find little touches scattered across the landscape, with NPC camps or wandering wizards and whatnot adding some life to the game and providing content for side-quests in abundance.

I’ll lump character models and animation into this category as well. They’re muchly improved. The faces finally look like something you’d expect out of a AAA title like this. The animations are also more fluid, either thanks to motion-capture or simply the improved talents of animators and riggers (or both), and combat, when it feels right, also looks pretty great. Are there imperfections? Yes. There can be issues with floating NPCs at times (often due to collision with other NPCs or the environment), and at one point I found a spastic corpse flailing about inside a cage, but I’m willing to overlook these occurrences. For me, they have been very, very few and far between — and I’ve been playing for 60+ hours already.

Gameplay

Here’s a major point of contention. TES fans of old remember games where Statistics were important. Strength, Stamina, Luck, and so on. Your character sheet, in true RPG fashion, read like a D&D character sheet. You also had a number of proficiencies, and the ability to craft new spells by mixing magics, plus the time-honored gameplay of “sneaking” as opposed to straight-up fighting, and the options to persuade or intimidate (or bribe) during dialogue choices as well.

Much of this is still in Skyrim. Some elements have been streamlined, yes. There are only three major statistics now: Health, Stamina, and Magicka. Health is self explanatory. Stamina allows you to sprint and also controls how many power-attacks you can do with your weaponry. Magicka fuels your spells, like mana should. There also seems to be a chance to do Critical damage, based on some of the talents (or Perks) you get, and there may be a few other ‘hidden’ stats also baked into the game. But for the most part, no, you won’t be increasing your Intellect or Luck as you level.

The aforementioned Perks allow you to customize your character. Also, how you approach combat will tailor your character to your playstyle. Do you want to dual-wield knives and sneak about picking pockets? Do it. Would you prefer a sword-and-shield style gameplay? Go ahead. Mage? Sure. Archer? Yes, to a point — bows are more powerful than ever, but are a poor choice when your combatant closes distance with you. Your weapon, armor and magic-type (think Schools of Magic) skills will level up as you use them. The Perks you choose as you gain character levels will also allow you more customization. Right now, I’m playing heavy on the sword-and-shield aspect, so I have taken Perks in One-handed Weapons, Heavy Armor, and Block. These Perks have given me such bonuses as a chance to decapitate my enemies with Power Attacks, a Strong Shield bash to stagger my foes, and a chance to deal critical damage with my one-handed swords. I’ve also picked up a few Lockpicking and Speech Perks to make my life easier in those areas, as well.

So, is gameplay more streamlined than previous TES games? Yes. Is it a bad thing? Not really. All I can say is, if you’re on the fence, try it out. There is depth here, it just isn’t presented in the same pen-and-paper style as you may be used to. And heck, even D&D has moved to more of a talent/perk (feat) system these days!

Audio

The sound effects are just fine. Nothing sounds particularly ‘off’ and I haven’t noticed a lack of audio quality (sampling, static, compression warble, etc.). There’s not much I can say about SFX. It’s just plain good.

Music? This is where Skyrim shines. If you haven’t heard the theme, go to Youtube and search on it. There are a few variants of the main theme, and they’re all awesome. This music will put hair on your chest just as easily as it will soothe you into relaxation. TES music has always had a certain quality to it, beginning with that Morrowind theme that to this day I still find myself humming when I least expect it. There’s more to love in Skyrim. Jeremy Soule has outdone himself, and that’s a tall order — the man has scored many, many games, and many RPGs at that.

Summary

2011 has been a great year for gaming. It’s hard to say if this is Game of the Year. It is very, very close. The world of Skyrim feels vibrant, is packed with content, and the few disappointments are easily outclassed by the quality in the game’s other areas. There are so many side quests (and not simply the randomly generated “go kill the bandits in Cave X” tasks) that after 60 hours of gaming, I’m still only halfway through the main quest.

And although this has always been a TES staple, I have to salute the folks at Bethesda for presenting a gritty fantasy world with a realistic take on such things as faith and personal allegiance. I won’t elaborate too much on the plot, but I’ll say this: to play a game where a healthy part of the storyline involves a concordant against worship of a certain god, with this mandate being pressed by a foreign entity that happens to have the ruling Empire under its thumb… well, the religious persecution happening here is a Real Problem, something mature-feeling, and something you just won’t see in the more watered-down works of, say, the Warcraft universe. The TES world of Tamriel is rife with this sort of storytelling, as well — the storyline in Skyrim is very grounded despite the fantastical aspects of dragons, the magic college, and your ability to use your voice as a weapon.

So. Buy it. If you love fantasy RPGs, buy it, play it, and I think you’ll enjoy it. Expect less of World of Warcraft and more Game of Thrones, and expect it to be epic.

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