Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Initial Thoughts (PS3)

Alright, this game appears to be, as expected, way too big to actually give a review on right now.  So far, though, my very lofty expectations have been completely met.

The game’s graphics and physics seem to be mainly based on Oblivion, and Bethesda’s other works.  In particular, the lushness of environmental textures and the glowing look of night-time lighting effects make me think Oblivion or Fallout right away.  If those games did not set a very high bar in quality of environmental design and detail I’d be disappointed, but I’m not.  It looks great though.  Much like seeing a panoramic of an actual natural wonder, you’re always second guessing when looking into the distance in this game where the line between reality and fantasy blur.

It would be unfair to say this is just more of the same though; already some big differences stand out compared to Oblivion that I think show some careful deliberation was used in coming up with the next concept.  In particular, some effort was put into making epic in-game events more epic here.  I think maybe these folks finally hired a director…  First game scene treats you to an action sequence that feels like something from a Hollywood blockbuster.  Oblivion was always a solo quest, and the only really in-game events that occurred that were larger than going into a dungeon and having a group of skeletons run over to you were big fixed battles where NPCs would randomly spawn and engage in a field with each other.  When things happened, they tended to be on a small scale.  I’m seeing progress here from that.  Seriously though, Oblivion and Fallout both suffered from a player-centric focus that made events occurring in real time seem disconnected.  A big problem with this was that the talk and interaction functions with important characters forced portrait zoom-ins and then effectively locked everything else in the environment out while it was happening.  Yes, in those games you can basically only talk to one person at once.  Here, you retain some camera control when engaging in dialogue, and some care was put into letting you know when to listen to other actors finish speaking before diving in.

Skyrim is a “Nordish” world, which a race of people similar to that of Northern Europe.  Consequently, most of the characters I’ve encountered have accents consistent with this region, or at least from what I’ve seen in the movies.  The architecture is distinctly Viking, and the world itself is a vast tundra.  Notably, the introduction of lush streams and running water are a nice addition.  Alchemy and enchanting have returned, but the developers also added cooking, weapon sharpening, and weapon forging.  I also helped a guy split some logs, which was pretty neat.  The diversity of the voice actors used is appreciated as well, there finally appears to be more than five of them.  Emphasis was clearly put on making certain areas like a blacksmiths shop or a mill more than just set pieces by adding some real interaction and functionality.

Finally, menus seem to be well thought out, at least on this PS3 version I’m playing, which allows for a customizable favorites menu using the D-pad.  Combat is smooth, and, in addition to slash and power-attack, mini-cut scenes for certain death blows have been added which makes the battles feel less like a dice-roll of statistics fight.  One thing that I especially like is the emphasis on mapping both hands for your character.  You can equip an arm with a weapon, a shield, or a spell.  Looking up the skill tree though, there are, of course, skills that allow you to get synergy from doubling up with either dual-weapons, or even dual spells.  This range makes different play styles other than spell-sword more viable.  In addition to leveling up skills through use, the “perk” system that’s been added to the constellations menu (a kid of tech-tree) makes some real player customization possible (that seems to be how dual-spell casting is unlocked).

My closing thoughts are to show some great appreciation to a game company that seems to be able to consistently pump out hits these past five years.  Every time I get into one of these Bethesda games, I initially get that overwhelming feeling I get when I go to a great restaurant.  That is, of course, the fear of having to choose where to spend my time when all possibilities on the menu are new and amazing.  It is the phobia of a world that is too big.  You should probably get this game…