Review: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (PC)

The Elder Scrolls is a familiar name to almost any RPG gamer. For those who are unfamiliar, the titular Elder Scrolls serve as the catalyst for each game, foretelling certain pivotal events in the future. The player always comes in at the beginning of these events, and how you complete the story is always open-ended; there is neither a wrong way nor a right way to approach a given situation, just as long as you achieve your goal.

Bethesda has had overwhelming success with these games. With the third installment, Morrowind, players were given so many choices, it was almost inconceivable at the time to think you would ever finish it. They followed up with Oblivion, which saw even more success with reviewers and the PC community because of how flexible the engine was for user-created content or mods. Skyrim is now upon us, so let’s take a long, hard look at this critically acclaimed game.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Systems: PC (Reviewed), PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
System Specs: Intel i7 950, Corsair Dominator 6 GB 1600 XMP, Asus P6X58D Premium, Evga GTX580 FTW Hydro Copper 2 x2 for SLI with Nvidia Surround Enabled, Logitech G13 Advanced Gameboard and Logitech G19 Keyboard
Developer: Bethesda Game Studios
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Release Date: November 11, 2011
MSRP: Standard Edition $60 (PC, 360, and PS3)

The game starts off with you as a prisoner who, at this time, is on your way to be executed for crimes you have no foreknowledge of. This is where you meet the first of many important political figures in Skyrim, who is also a prisoner bound and gagged. You also hear for the first time about a shout that was used to kill the High King of Skyrim, also known as a thu’um, the spoken phrases of Dragons.

After you learn all of this and complete your carriage ride to the gallows, the time comes for you to create your character. There are specific bonuses to your race that you can use throughout your adventure. This is also where you determine how your character will look, though it’s the only chance you have to get it right. What you can’t determine at this time is your profession, which means you have no bonus to a given profession such as a mage, a thief, or what have you. I’ve always appreciated how The Elder Scrolls gives the player the ability to level up their skills by use, so having nothing to start you off is very frustrating.

This forces you to feel like the only way to play the game right off the bat is as a warrior even if you didn’t want to be one, and it makes learning these alternate skills an even greater uphill battle. The reason for this is because skills only gain experience by your performing these actions or being trained at a high cost. Say you wanted to be a thief and pickpocket: you’ll get caught a lot at the beginning because you have to start at level 0 in everything. Improving these skills individually also slowly increases your main character’s level, at which time you can put skill points in the skill tree to improve your abilities.

Once you finish the creation process, you head over to the chopping block where you’re about to lose your head. Suddenly, a Dragon swoops down and begins to attack everyone in the town. This is where you gain direct control of your character and where you also make the choice to either follow the rebels or an imperial guard. This doesn’t mean you’re choosing an allegiance; you’re just choosing whose side you want to hear about regarding what’s happening in the land of Skyrim while you escape the Dragon.

While you and your cohorts are making your escape, you’re given a taste of many of the skills that you’ll be using throughout the game. Again, this doesn’t mean you’re committing to anything as of yet; you’re just learning what these skills can do. Once you have made your escape, you’ll come upon the open world of Skyrim for the very first time. It’s hard not to get caught up in the viewable distance and detail so long as you don’t look too closely.

During your adventure, you’ll discover the land of Skyrim is set in the far North, and Nords are the primary force in the land. They’re currently locked in a civil war with the Empire and the rebel Stormcloacks. Previously, the Empire was brought to its knees because of the Thalmor, the governing body of the elves in The Elder Scrolls world, and part of the Empire’s treaty with the Thalmor states they agreed they would no longer worship a human raised to the status of a god. If this wasn’t enough, the Dragons have been gone for thousands of years, and their return heralds the end of days not just for the land of Skyrim, but the entire world. There’s only one who can stop this from happening and that is the Dragonborn, making you the only one who can save the world from destruction and bring peace to Skyrim.

Where you go from here is your choice. As mentioned before, there’s no right or wrong approach to this game; Skyrim is open to whatever direction you decide to take your character. Always keep in mind that the game is an open role-playing game, and many of the decisions you’ll make during the quests will have repercussions that will affect what choices, alliances, and friends you can have or make in the future.

Skyrim was released for many platforms. Unfortunately, if you are on the PC, the inventory management is a horrifying experience. The mouse doesn’t always click on what’s selected, and the game will choose something else if you moved the selected item with the keyboard keys. This is because the game was built for consoles along with the PC, and it shows here in the worst kind of way.

The graphics are also a part of that experience, unfortunately. What happened is that many PC gamers expressed that they were worried about the graphics being optimized for consoles, a concern that stemmed from the install size of only 6 GB. Bethesda said in a statement that the graphics would be phenomenal because they optimized their compression, but this isn’t the case in practice. Many of the many textures are 512 x 512, which isn’t considered high quality; usually, they start at 1024 x 1024 and go from there. As such, many PC gamers jumped the gun before the toolkit was released, and they came out with HD mods that saw an increase to 2048 x 2048 and 4096 x 4096 for almost all of the assets in the game. This dramatically increased the visual fidelity of the game.

Since the tool kit’s release, Bethesda released their own HD pack that weighs in just over 2 GB, which is similar to many of the user-created content. I personally felt like this was an empty gesture from Bethesda because it was more about covering their asses for the PC community with their previous statement. I’ll concede that this is more than what some other developers have done, and I give them a little credit for that.

The fidelity isn’t the only visual issue I’ve had with this game, and the other is with Surround/Eyefinity resolutions. The game uses Flash to scale, position, and animate all of the on-screen elements. Since the game was obviously designed for consoles, they didn’t take these larger resolutions into consideration. This is an easy fix for them to make because there are two third-party utilities that force the game to resize to properly display these elements. However, because we don’t have access to the Flash extensions used by Bethesda to make this game support these features, there’s no way for users to make a permanent solution. Now when a new patch shows up, we have to wait for these third-parties to take time out of their day to recode these utilities, and that cuts into their time (and mine) with this title.

Skyrim does run well at these resolutions. At 5760x1080p, I received 38 frames per second (FPS) with the third-party HD texture packs installed. The game also recently saw a dramatic increase in its FPS with the 1.4 patch, increasing performance up to 60% in some cases. In my case, I saw it jump to 55 or 60 FPS on average, which is impressive. The visual magic effects are very well done; you’ll be impressed when you see their animations in a large area for the first time, if not frequently.

The game’s mechanics are well done in all areas. The areas you’ll consistently appreciate are the magic combat, weapon, sneaking, and thu’um action. There’s a reasonably fair balance between all of these elements. In fact, the only consistent imbalance is that magic users can do high amounts of damage on you unless you have magical items to provide protection against that type of magic. The imbalance stems from how you need to carry rings or light items with usually minimal effect unlike armor, which can offer higher protection. However, all of these items protect you from only one type of magic, and you’ll become overburdened very quickly by just keeping a varied selection available.

A few new gameplay mechanics were introduced. First, the game will only report on your illegal activities if someone sees you. Second, dynamically generated quests are all minor and have no impact on your primary story, but in theory it could generate quests forever. Third, when you talk to any NPC, the world will keep moving around you. The problem I had with this last one is that the people moving around would sometimes get stupid and walk right in between myself and the NPC I was talking to—and sometimes they would get stuck until we finished the conversation because we were too close together. This brings me to the AI, which is intelligent enough to do a good job during combat, and other dynamic actions that make the world feel alive for the most part.

The biggest problem I had gameplay-wise was with the level system. The max level is 50. With each level you gain only one skill point, and the amount of skill points you can spend is 250. There’s no way to go back and redistribute your points, so you have to carefully plan what skills you want to have, forever. The armor, weapon, alchemy, and enchanting crafting features aren’t an afterthought, either, but it’ll be difficult for you to decide if you want to level them up with your skillpoints. This is because they require many points for you to be able to craft certain items in the game, such as dragon armor.

The voice acting, sound effects, and music are all well done. One problem with the voice acting, though, is that they reused their primary actors for many high-profile characters. Bethesda said they would use more voice actors because this was a major complaint with Oblivion, but I don’t think they went far enough. There are also times when I heard the same voice go from one species to another that wasn’t done very well. The game contains many lines of dialogue that repeat over and over, which either becomes annoying or creates another meme for the Internet, whatever the case may be.

Unfortunately, no Elder Scrolls game has been released without some major bugs, and there are many that you’ll run into in Skyrim. Bethesda compounded these bugs when they released a patch that caused Dragons to fly backwards and removed all magical protections for everything and everyone in the game. These have since been resolved, but it took a long time before they were. Hopefully, nothing like this will happen again.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim requires that you invest a lot of time into it. For instance, it took me almost 180 hours to complete one of the main story arcs because there was just that much to do and explore, and I have another major arc to do that I haven’t even started yet. This doesn’t include the time you’ll put into finding various mods for improvements or adding user-generated stories, of course. This aspect has been simplified with the Steam Workshop, but it’s not as useful as the Nexus Mod Manager, and the Skyrim Nexus site has many more mods than the Steam Workshop at this time. Accessing mods is one of the primary reasons why I prefer playing games on the PC. There are times in games where I don’t like something, and mods fix them or add new elements to a game. Trust me when I say we wouldn’t have Battlefield 3 if it hadn’t been for the Battlefield 1942 mod, Desert Combat, which transformed the game into a modern-day shooter. This got Dice to think modern combat is the next game they should release, and the rest is history.

In the end, the world of Skyrim is vast—so vast, actually, that you’ll feel like you’re playing a true diamond in the rough of role-playing games, and that’s no exaggeration. I have no doubt many people will play for only one more quest or one more hour, then notice the sun come up. I know I did. This game isn’t perfect, but if you have the PC version, you have the option to resolve many of them because of mods. Unfortunately, the console players have to wait like with the PS3 saves. I can easily recommend this game for the PC if you have the choice, but if your PC isn’t up to snuff and you have no choice, grab it for your preferred console. You just won’t have access to the mods available for the PC version.

PROS
* Intriguing story
* Size of the world is vast
* Animations and magic effects are detailed
* Hefty support for modders by Bethesda
* 100% open world

CONS
* Too few skill points given
* Inventory management is poorly implemented for the PC
* Free time will be consumed on an epic scale
* Bug fixes can take a long time to get resolved due to patch cycles

FINAL SCORE: B+

Disclosure: The writer purchased the game through Steam. At the time of press, the writer had completed a high amount of the game’s material on Normal difficulty. Game versions were 1.0 to 1.4 during the review process. The writer used many visual enhancement mods during the review process, all of which can be found at http://skyrim.nexusmods.com/.

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About Brandon Mietzner