After the industry crash of the early eighties putting the kibosh on electronic gaming, Dungeons and Dragons became my middle school obsession. With graph paper and twenty-sided die in hand, my stalwart fighter was capable of all the things I was not- like emerging triumphant when pitted against a horde of antagonistic foes. Despite an exodus from oft-sadistic school yards and roughshod locker rooms, the cathartic virtues of role-playing have stuck with me through the years.
While contemporary franchises such as Dragon Age and Divinity have provided worthwhile forays into fantasy, neither has approached the level of escapism exhibited by the Elder Scroll series. Crafted around the notion of choice, Bethesda Softwork’s magnum opus has granted players the ability to modify every nuance of their character- from instrumental decisions like moral alignment and class (which in turn, affects how other NPCs treat them) to minute details such as the sharpness of a Bosmer’s ears. Recent release The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, advances the concept even more, delivering the most immersive world gamers have ever stepped into.
Expertly, Bethesda has created a high-fantasy sandbox which surrenders both scalable complexity and autonomy. With a class system that ditches the genre’s rigid archetypical roles, as well as a leveling system which augments the skills players actually use, strength and sorcery are longer diametrical. With Skyrim’s clever mechanics players can map a spell to one hand and cold steel in the other, creating the quintessential orc-slaying badass. With the retooled menu system accessing your inventory, skills, map, and quest log is always a few stick pulls away; players can even use the directional pad for a quick hot-swap of gear. Complementing the revamped interface is the title’s noninterventionist approach, which allows gamers to follow a pre-established storyline or create their own unique adventure.
Whether players assume the role of a sociopathic Imperial whom habitually kills shopkeepers (removing them from the world forever), a heroic Nord hell-bent on scaling Tamriel’s summits in search of vile dragons, or just a nomadic Khajiit attracted by the glint of activity on the horizon, Skyrim accommodates almost any style of play. Bolstered by a gargantuan spider’s web of pursuits, conspiracy, conflict and intrigue, the title’s procedurally-generated quest system creates impromptu errands which are indistinguishable from the game’s own preprogrammed missions. More than likely, pursuing one undertaking will bring a handful of additional tasks to light. Yet, to keep Skyrim from becoming too predictable, a sporadic activity will reach a brief and satisfying coda. At times, it seems as if director Todd Howard and company are actively watching our every move, pressing buttons to summon a dazzling skirmish between dueling wizards onto our pathways and betting on the outcome.
With countless ways to circumnavigate the realm, Skyrim could have easily developed into a malicious pit of difficulty spikes. There’s the occasional creatures capable of a one-hit kill (I won’t soon forget the giant squashed me like an ant), but generally a player’s demise comes by rushing into areas too quickly. For the most part, Bethesda does a masterful job of conveying your journey from commoner to conqueror, although I wished characters teeming with malice would move with gait which suggested their ire. As such, it’s likely for characters to morph into preemptively striking misanthropes.
As with previous entries in the Elder Scrolls universe, Skyrim’s lofty ambitions are bound to produce a certain amount of glitches. Without two minutes of putting the disk into the drive tray, I saw my first game-stopping bug, as the cart I rode on was left immobile when the town’s front gates refused to open. More common where environmental snags, which left my characters inexplicably glued to a dungeon interior or a game crashes which were rendered bearable by the game’s frequent auto-saving. Although load times can be sluggish, they are elevated by the display of rotating, in-game objects, from helmets to statues.
Pleasingly, every item in Skyrim is modeled in three dimensions, allowing players to open their inventory and examine the glossy icing on a sweet roll or the craftsmanship on a piece of chain mail. Likewise the game’s environments are fastidiously rendered- from hamlets illuminated by the soft glow of torch light to the nasty blizzards or layers of fog which can obscure the game’s less hospitable regions. Sonically, the Skyrim’s orchestral accompaniment is every bit as stirring as the telling environmental sounds which forewarn of imminent danger.
While cynics might assert that The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is little more than a reworked Oblivion, this claim is without merit. By revamping nearly every crucial mechanic in the game- from character management, autonomy of NPCs across game world, and an unrestricted combat framework, Bethesda has created a world unrivaled in interactive media. As such, Skyrim is destined for more than game of the year accolades, and is quite likely to be remembered as the definitive title of this console generation.