Review: Skyrim (Xbox 360 version tested)
This is all Dan’s fault. My brother-in-law, who is my best gaming friend and most loyal clan mate got me into role playing games. He was canny – getting me hooked gradually – one day he bought a copy of Mass Effect for me and shoved it in my hand “You have to try it” he said. “But I hate RPGs – I can’t deal with wizards, magic, swordplay and all that” I replied.
“No, no - it’s a sci-fi adventure – you’ll love it...” he said. Grudgingly I gave it a go and duly racked up 188 hours of gameplay on it. For this reason Mass Effect is still my wife’s most hated game of all time, due to my sheer addiction – a singular honour.
Then Fallout 3 came along – which I adored, but found too depressing to stay at for long periods. Then its sequel, Fallout New Vegas arrived and I was hooked again. With its brighter, less crushingly sad environments – I was back in RPG heaven. I currently have 145 hours clocked on that and I’m still not finished with it...
But what they have in common is that, although they are role playing games, they are not fantasy. I dabbled in Dragon Age: Origins but couldn’t get into it. The story didn’t resonate with me – it reminded me why I always used to avoid playing RPGs previously. Using swords instead of guns wasn’t anywhere near as enjoyable in terms of gameplay… It kind of reinforced my prejudices.
All through this, Dan always maintained that Oblivion – the prequel to Skyrim – was one of the finest games ever written and that Skyrim would surely be the best game ever made. He knows how I feel about the whole fantasy, dragons and magic vibe but he kept the pressure on, for my own good. I promised him I would buy Skyrim at launch and try it – purely out of respect for how much the game meant to him.
And he queued up at the midnight launch for the game and bought the uber-limited edition – with a box bigger than the box for his Xbox 360, a huge metal statue of a dragon and a stunning leather-bound art book. It cost over £100. He borrowed a van from his work to transport it home and started playing around 00:30 on 11.11.11.
So with all this in mind, knowing there must be a damn good reason for this level of adoration, I started my own adventure in Skyrim and dipped a toe back in the fantasy RPG waters… I started a new game and a brief intro sequence started. “The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim” was displayed in an mediaeval/elvish looking typeface and I groaned slightly...
But I had no time to think. Quickly I had to escape from an execution ground where I was about to be “sentenced” and flee as a Dragon attacked from above. There was a brief pause where I had to chose the race of my character. After a fair bit of deliberating I chose a Nord warrior – a hardy Viking type that majored on sword and shield skills. There are plenty other races to try – archers, diplomats, thieves, magicians… I just wanted a practical bruiser of a character.
So I fled for my life while being pursued from a dragon above – it was huge, it blotted out the sun when it dove at me. I ended up teaming up with one of my former captors and picking my way through an underground dungeon. I grabbed a worn out old iron sword, a bow and a shield and started fighting through it. And the sword combat is actually enjoyable! There are one-handed swords that can be used with a shield in the other hand, allowing for blocking then striking. Then there are greatswords – huge two-handed weapons that can also be used to block. They are devastating but slow to use – I majored on using these. Obviously there are no guns in this game, so archery is also pretty important. It is genuinely satisfying to draw back a bow, take aim and snipe a target with an arrow.
So this happened for a while, I picked my way through – battling and killing foes, looting their bodies and discovering useful items, sneaking around a sleeping bear, killing a huge spider with arrows – etc etc. Then I broke through to the outside world...
Can you remember the moment in Fallout 3 – when you get to step out of Vault 101 and see the outside world for the first time? The sheer impact of seeing the game world for the first time ever is a gaming memory I will never forget. Your first proper glimpse of the world of Skyrim is even more stunning. Snow-capped mountains tower around the horizon, deciduous trees dot the landscape. Deers and wolves roam around mountain streams… It’s beautiful.
My fast friend who helped me escape execution told me to meet him at the nearest village – instead I ran with him and kept up, while he filled me in on details about the game world. He turned out to be an Imperial Guard – a soldier of the ruling government of Skyrim, ruled from the city of Solitude. Upon hearing this, I pulled up the map in-game – it was the opposite end of the land, a vast, vast distance away. He led me to a sleepy little village – where I was able to book a room in the local inn, craft some weapons with the village blacksmith, trade some goods... etc etc.
And that was that – from then on I was hooked, I forgot that it was a fantasy game at all. I was swept up in the grand drama of the plot, the engaging characters, enjoyable combat, myriad quests, plentiful skills to learn etc etc...
And truth be told, I’m still in the middle of playing it. I have had enough time to rack up 40 hours or so, more than enough to complete the main quest – but to play the game in a straight line like that would be to miss the point altogether. This is a game where you can enjoy taking your time wandering from place to place, meeting new friends and enemies along the way, hearing rumours whispered in taverns that lead you on new quests, finding books with passages that give clues to hidden places and treasures – the possibilities are near endless.
So, prejudices overcome. This game is incredible. And I was too hasty in declaring Deus Ex was game of the year, recently - this is. In its own way it represents the art of gaming at its finest.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is out now for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC