So, I realize now why I’ve been so disappointed with every Skyrim review I’ve read. The game is impossible – literally impossible – to review well. I’ve tried writing a review of it, and mine always seem to be just as lacking as all of the others I’ve read. So I’m not going to try to give it a formal review – not because I don’t think it deserves one, but because I sincerely don’t feel it is possible to do it proper justice, in either a good or a bad way, in a formal review format. So I, first of all, apologize to any reviewer who I may have given a hard time over their review of this game.
So, what we’re going to do is give a bit of just an informal blurb about each of the good and bad things I’ve found, and even with the informal formatting this may run into the thousands of words… since there’s a lot to discuss. To give it a bit of structure, I’m going to try to break it up into general categories.
Skyrim is a game that contradicts itself in every facet of the game’s presentation. First you have the landscapes and scenery which is absolutely gorgeous, varied, and well-crafted. Then you move in a little closer and go to the spell effects, which are all very bland and largely unmemorable. Then you have the models of the dragons and some of the more notable npcs – which are phenomenally well done and suitable. Then you have the models for the rest of the enemies and npcs which are again… bland and unmemorable. Then you step into a dungeon, and each dungeon is unique in appearance and design, and was obviously hand-crafted the way it was. But then you go back to that dungeon 3 more times on quests to hunt completely different things, or you step into a dungeon and realize that despite the fact that it looks different… you’re going to treat it exactly the same as every other cave, dungeon, castle, keep, pit, dwarven city, or other assorted ‘instanced’ location… and all of that uniqueness just starts to feel so superficial.
Then when you move over to the soundtrack… you alternate from absolutely amazing and epic backpieces to some of the most unmemorable tracks I’ve ever heard. Most of the overworld music is designed absolutely perfectly, and then you run into certain pieces that are so unmemorable that I can’t even find words to describe them. As to the sound effects, the sounds of melee combat are very satisfying. The impact of weapons and the sound of swords being drawn are all very fitting and mood-building. Unfortunately, that same ‘sword being drawn’ sound is used when I unsheath my magic hands or pull my bow out which then kills the mood all over again. The voicework follows much the same pattern – some of it is very well done, and other parts are just so bad it’s hard to imagine they had professional voice actors doing those parts.
The last part of presentation I wanted to touch on was the scale. The scale of the world itself is nothing short of phenomenal. It’s breathtaking and it really makes you feel small… until you enter one of the cities and it’s right back to final fantasy 1’s days where the town contains your shops, the inn, the castle, and a few random houses with people in them. And for a place that is supposed to be large enough to field and support armies, the towns sure feel empty. Then you step outside again and you’re greeted with a vast open landscape that is once again… awesome in a literal sense. The disconnect between the awe-inspiring scale of the landscape and the mountains and the rather poor scale of the towns is way too noticeable.
As far as the pure story goes, I’d have to say Skyrim has failed completely at providing anything I would call ‘story’. Everything in the story is bland, trite, and poorly written. From repetitive dialog to bland interactions between npcs, to poor conversation, to poor explanation(I had a quest that I had to pay 1000g to complete but I had no idea why I was even doing it because none of the npcs nor the quest text ever told me but since I had 80 thousand, I did it anyways), to dry characters, to predictable and stale storylines… everything about this game’s story was lacking. The only two story arcs that were even passably good were the Thieves Guild and the Dark Brotherhood. Prettymuch the rest of them were so lacking that I really felt like I didn’t care if I saved so and so or retrieved so and so’s favourite helmet or acquired a magic vial for so and so. They all just became methods to acquire gold. Which is fine for an mmo, but for a single player rpg I want more than that. I want to feel like what is happening means something and that the characters I’m doing this for matter. And Skyrim didn’t deliver on that.
Now, as some of my friends who love this game have told me, it’s not about the story it’s about the world. And, as I admitted above, the world itself is vast and incredible. In a lot of ways, the monster interactions with each other do a better job of conveying the cohesiveness of this world than anything else – even the npc interactions. But while the world certainly feels ‘real’, with all the interactions you’d expect in the wild… The game within the world feels lacking in depth. Sure there’s a large, vast history… but that’s all gone now. The now is just shallow. And while some aspects of that rich deep past play into what is happening now… they don’t do so enough to make the game feel like it has a greater depth. I ended up reading x book about the events of some past person and being like ‘oh well that is cool and that explains x and y…. but why did none of this have any bearing on the game while I was doing x and y…’ Reading the books made it feel even more shallow when compared to this rich, yet completely segregated-feeling, history.
Probably the biggest 2 parts that hurt my connection to this story were the poor writing on npcs and the forgettable nature of characters. I randomly killed an old lady. I paid my fine, went and looted her corpse to get more than my money back… and didn’t give it a second thought. In fact I passed her corpse a dozen times before it disappeared and never even stopped to look at it except once to make sure I didn’t miss any loot. She had a name, I’m sure she was important to something… but the characters never felt like they mattered… and thus I treat them that way. And the writing on npcs… why does every blacksmith tell me the exact same thing regardless of what race they are, what city they’re in, what gender they are? Why did EVERY single guard ‘take an arrow to the knee’? I understand that some things need to be reused in order to conserve time… but if you want to make a believable world… give me a few more options. Also… why does every single npc who walks by me have to stop and tell me their life story… over and over again until I move. I was eating dinner one day and the entire time I was eating this random woman in whiterun stopped next to me and just over and over again said ‘it’s a fine day with you around’. Things like that really killed my immersion into this world. If I were to be completely honest, the only character who I felt any attachment to or investment in was Karliah – and she’s currently suffering from a myriad of bugs… alas.
I played the game exclusively in third person. Which means that my issues with the gameplay might differ from a lot of other peoples’. The third person was not terribly well designed. I now understand why they refused to show any third person gameplay despite talking about how much it was improved. Because, to be frank, it doesn’t work well. Aiming with melee weapons is awkward and unreliable due to the perspective change. Aiming with ranged weapons suffers from a whole new set of problems. When in the middle range, it seems fairly accurate – with the exception that you’ll quite often hit obstacles that aren’t there. I cannot count the number of times I saw my arrows suspended in thin air because they hit an obstacle that didn’t exist. But when up close your arrows always fly about 5 times too high, and when far away they usually veer off either left or right. Aiming with spells is just as bad as ranged, except that you get the joys of hitting your allies even more frequently. Which is another of my sore spots about the game. Sure friendly fire is realistic – but since npcs and enemies don’t seem to have to worry about it – and it can cause all sorts of frustrating when using any sort of ranged or area effect – why is it even in the game? It serves no good purpose. The other really frustrating part about friendly fire is that a lot of npcs will turn on you immediately if you hit them, yet during large combat engagements they end up running in the way of your arrows or spells constantly. I had to load my saved game at least a half dozen times due to hitting the wrong people. That being said, combat is fun for the first little while – it’s only after you’ve been doing it for 80 hours of gameplay without anything changing about it except that your hits get harder or your arrows can crit that it becomes really really stale.
Onto the movement section of gameplay. While in general movement feels fairly intuitive, and generally works fairly well, there are a number of places where you can do things that make no sense. For example, I was able to walk back and forth down a sheer near-vertical ice-covered mountainside. Without slipping and dying. But the place the movement really falls short is when looking at the npcs – both friend and foe. The terrain seems like it was designed to hamper them. I had a few cases where my follower got stuck because they’d been pushed into a seemingly normal place during combat and then they couldn’t find any path out of there because there was an inch-tall ridge on the side that was the normal path out. Another example is that I am able to kill giants, bears, cats, spiders, every melee bandit in the game, etc… without ever getting hit. All by standing on a ledge that I can easily jump to. Overall this is some of the most lazy pathing I’ve ever encountered, and once again – watching a giant look at you blankly because you’re standing on a rock that comes up to his ankle while you fire arrows into his face does a number on my ability to become immersed and engrossed in this fine, vast world.
On the plus side, Skyrim’s new perk ‘constellation’ system is really cool. When I first opened that screen I was really impressed by the attention to detail, the care, and the cool factor of the entire system. Between the fact that the images in the background look really cool, the design of the trees is very well thought out, and the unique aspect of having a different shape to each tree – a vastly different shape – it all adds up to a system that worked very well within the game. The appearance-based customization leads to a truly vast number of possibilities for appearance and race as well, which certainly adds to the game. The only downside to the perk system is that, unfortunately, eventually you will need to engage in combat. At least, if you want to do any of the major quests in the game.
The reason this is a problem is that if you go through and do the thieves’ guild stuff and level off lockpicking, speechcraft, alchemy, blacksmithing, etc. and get yourself up to level 20 or so – which isn’t that hard – you’re going to find yourself facing off against enemies way beyond what you’re capable of fending off since you have no combat skills. Which seems like it shouildn’t be a problem since enemies don’t scale to your level anymore, right? Not quite, it feels as though the game picks which ‘types’ of enemies to pit you up against based off of your level. I could be wrong about this, but I’ve definitely noticed – no matter which quests I do – the higher level I am, the more of the harder subclasses within each category of monster that I see. Which means if you don’t have a good combat skill leveled as you go, you could be in serious, possibly game-ending trouble.
Then we move on to the dragons – which were one of the huge points within the game. I’d like to start here by saying that the dragons look and fight very suitably. Their combat style fits with what I’d expect of an angry dragon, they look close to perfect, and the interaction level they have with the monsters in the environment is fantastic. But there is a problem. This game is meant to be played in the 60-120 or possibly more hours range. After about 30-40 hours… dragon fights lose all meaning. To me, seeing a dragon is no different than seeing a sabre cat or a bandit camp – only the tactics change. It’s not epic anymore. The other half is that once you’ve leveled, the dragons lose their challenge. All but the most powerful dragons don’t even scare me anymore. I sincerely wish that Bethesda had taken the dragons, reduced the randomness, made them have a drastically reduced chance to spawn if you weren’t near a town or city, and made the fights more… epic. Buff the dragon, have more npcs get involved in the fight, and just turn it into a spectacle every time – in stead of just another enemy to fight.
Onto the subject of other hostile npcs. Most of them are bland predictable repetitions of one of the same template type. So fights do truly become incredibly monotonous with a few exceptions. When you run into special named npcs that aren’t just the drab Dragon Priests who all act like ordinary casters despite being apparently important to something – then you can sometimes get something really cool. I still remember the fight against the archer who had the 3 platforms and created images of himself on each. Sure it was patterned, but it was cool and fun. Sometimes they got it right – but most of the time, npcs all basically act like dumber versions of me. Which, to be frank, isn’t fun after a while.
The next section I wanted to touch on was stealth and thief-related mechanics. Picking pockets feels really strange – why do they let me rifle through their pocket and not care as long as I don’t take anything? Pickpocketing in Skyrim is apparently more about tricking your target into thinking you didn’t take anything while you were admiring the contents of their wallet than actually getting in to get at their wallet in the first place. Another oddity was that if I’m not sneaking, then it doesn’t matter if I’m the only person alive in a building, if I take something everyone knows. But if I sneak down, I can steal the contents of their entire house and nobody cares. Also on a building note, if I’m in a building and someone sees me, why do they keep screaming that they’ll call the guards even if they can’t see me anymore? If they can’t find me, shouldn’t they assume I followed their request? Especially if I go invisible…
The fact that there was no indicator to tell me who it was who had detected me when I was sneaking really really sucked. I had several cases where I thought I had been detected but it was just one of the npc companions you get for certain quests who had detected me, meaning I could never really know if I was detected or not if I had one of those. Furthermore, the way enemies behaved when you shot them from stealth was one of the least well designed mechanics I’ve ever seen. So I shoot someone in the head from stealth and it doesn’t kill them. What do they do? They jump up, look around a bit, head to where I was standing but no further, and then shake their head and go ‘It must have been my imagination’. Despite them still having the arrow in their head – sticking right out of the side of their head. ‘It must have been my imagination’. Really? That’s the best the writers could come up with? My last sneaking related gripe was with the npc followers you could choose to have with you. They seemed to have no understanding of stealth. I shoot, back up, and wait… and my npc companion comes running from 3 rooms back where I left her to engage the enemy who still has no idea where I am and blows my cover.
The last gameplay related aspect I wanted to cover was the hidden nature of progression. The game used a system where you leveled up as you performed actions… so the more you shot your bow, the better your archery got. The system worked for the game, and felt pretty natural within the setup they used, but one thing was lacking. A visible indicator of your progression. What I mean is that you can’t tell how strong you’ve gotten. There’s no way to see when you gain an archery level that you’re doing better damage until you hit that next character level and can put a new big perk. Without floating damage text or a combat log of some sort, you can’t see that you’re now doing 17 in stead of 15 damage. Sure there are health bars, so over the long term you can tell based off of the fact that at 10 hours it takes 3 hits to kill a bandit thug and at 70 hours it takes 1 hit… but in the short term, it feels like all of those levels are meaningless since there’s no visual way to tell you’re improving. The health bars aren’t exact enough to be able to tell the difference between one hit and the next unless it’s a huge difference, so you’re really left feeling like you’re not making any progress until you gain several levels or get a drastically better weapon.
The first ‘other’ category discuss relates to items and item design. First and foremost, encumbrance. I understand it’s realistic, but the numbers on a lot of these things made no sense. I pick up a tiny vial of red liquid and it weighs half a pound? A single butterfly wing weighs 0.1 pounds? A flower weighs 0.3 pounds? It was completely nonsensical and it made alchemy almost unbearable. The overall item design was actually pretty good. I liked a lot of the item effects, and the specific pattern of the item progression was very logical for the most part. The crafting was quite well done as well, and opened up a lot of avenues for leveling and progression that wouldn’t have been otherwise available. The fact that blacksmiths can’t forge arrows was a little weird, admittedly, but not enough to be frustrating since arrows were so frequent that by the time I gave up on playing(120 hours) I had over 2000 arrows saved up – which by the way, were another encumbrance anomaly. Two thousand arrows. And they all weighed nothing. 120 thousand gold pieces and 250 lockpicks… weighed nothing. If you’re going to go realistic with encumbrance, please do a good job of it. But back on track. Poisons only lasting for one strike felt a bit weird, especially since I couldn’t set like my left or right arrow to automatically apply ‘x’ poison. The last part of this item thing I wanted to cover relates to vendors. The fact that the vendors had a gold limit felt really frustrating. Sure it was realistic, but realism isn’t always a benefit. It felt like an artificial way to make speech talent points more useful. It made it so that when I had a really cool item, I felt I had to hang on to it because I couldn’t sell it for what it was worth – which really took a lot of the fun out of looting.
The game is burdened by a number of bugs ranging from the minor to the crippling. Now some of these have been fixed by the recent patch, but it has also introduced some new ones as well, such as the infamous backwards flying dragon bug. Most of the bugs are just graphical, such as tears in the environment, seeing through the terrain, having parts of my body or my horse disappear for no reason, etc. But some are a little more significant, such as being unable to complete quests for no reasons, npcs not going where they’re supposed to, or falling through the world. I’ve also noticed the game freeze a few times. The game suffers from some pretty high loading times, as well as some pretty abhorrent lag once you’ve played for more than 30 or so hours. Furthermore, quite often ramps and ledges had invisible walls that were most likely designed to make it harder to just randomly walk off, but also served to block my arrows preventing me from using my bow to effectively kill a significant number of enemies. But probably the most annoying unintended gameplay mechanic would be the fact that quite frequently when it said it was ‘autosaving’ it wouldn’t. I died several times mere minutes after the game told me it had autosaved only to end up plunged back in time a half hour of gameplay.
Probably the single greatest thing Bethesda did was to create the world outside of the cities. Watching a sabre cat hunt a fox as you walk down the road, or watching a dragon swoop down and take a giant you were about to fight into the air and drop him… these are experiences you won’t see anywhere else. Exploring the ecosystem of Skyrim is an experience worth the money. Getting the chance to lose yourself in this world, to explore the myriad of quests available – and there are tons of actual legitimate quests, not the endless repetitive radiant quests, but tons of actual legitimate quests – is a fantastic gaming opportunity. Every since about the 80 hour mark my goal has been to complete one of the quest chains. It has taken me 40 hours because everywhere I turn there’s something that I’ve been putting off, or that I’ve just discovered, or that wants to kill me. And it all adds up to a huge drain on your time, but one that is not unwelcome.
I don’t want anyone to think that I dislike this game. I don’t. I wouldn’t have played 120 hours if I did. What I wanted to do was lay out everything I’d experienced with the game bare and clean. The good, and the bad. And hope that in some way having someone do this would truly help you to understand the game. I absolutely will recommend this game on the virtue of the game’s world alone. I do not recommend anyone miss the experience of being a part of Skyrim. What I do caution is not to go into this game expecting world class storytelling or edge-of-your-seat gameplay – because it’s not there. What you get is a fantastic world to have fun in. A lot of opportunities to do some pretty cool stuff. And a ton of missed opportunities.
Written by: Sean