My Top 5 Games of 2011: #3 The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (360)

Developed: Bethesda Game Studios
Published: Bethesda Softworks
Genre: Action RPG
Platform: 360 (reviewed), PS3, PC

I've been a pretty big fan of the Elder Scrolls series for a few years now. I remember seeing a review of Morrowind on Cartoon Network's Toonami block back in 2002 and I knew I had to play it for myself. I picked it up soon after that and I was hooked. Everything was just so in depth. Everything you did improved your character slightly which made it feel a bit more like I was playing in a living world where "practice makes perfect" really meant something. Its sequel, Oblivion, changed things up quite a bit; Combat was more action focused, skills were easier to raise, and the world was more traditional fantasy than the world of giant mushrooms and slit striders in Morrowind.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim streamlines things even further by removing traditional character classes from the game entirely and allowing you to play the way you want to. Rather than choosing which skills you plan on using for the rest of the game, Skyrim lets you use whatever skills you want and still be able to advance your character just as in previous games.

Normally, I would put a plot summary here, but the Elder Scrolls series is one where you do whatever you want and includes a number of plot lines that you can explore at your leisure. The overall story that drives Skyrim however, is that the long extinct dragons are somehow coming back and it's up to you as a dovahkiin, or dragonborn, to stop their rampage. Along the way, you'll find yourself in the middle of an armed uprising of the native Nords against their Imperial occupiers.
The Elder Scrolls series is a series of freedom. There are dozens of quest lines in each game, each with their own story to tell. Even outside of questing, you could spend literally days on end just exploring, defeating monsters, and conquering the many dungeons you will find. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is no different. Once you complete the tutorial quest, you are free to travel anywhere you wish and do whatever you want. Scattered across the land of Skyrim are cities and villages where you can find people who have tasks for you to complete. It can be as simple as finding a specific item for someone, or a complex quest chain where you visit many dungeons to advance through one of the many guilds.

Before you do any of that though, you first create a character. You can chose from the same ten races as in Morrowind and Oblivion. Each has slightly different bonuses to skills though the differences are negligible. In previous Elder Scrolls games, you would also either pick a class or design your own, but in Skyrim, when you create a character, you choose their race, gender, appearance, and name, and that's all.

Attributes and signs are no longer existent (though there are "standing stones" that you can find which give permanent bonuses similar to signs) and the skill system has been changed dramatically. In previous Elder Scrolls games, you would choose several "major skills" which would dictate what your character is good at and what you have to do to advance your level. Skills range from various weapon skills and schools of magic, how well you can sneak around and pick locks, and even your ability to influence people verbally.
Choosing major skills is gone in Skyrim, however. The number of skills has been reduced to 21 and leveling any ten skills will now level up your character. Instead of raising attributes when you level, you can choose raise your health, mana, or stamina by ten points, and you get to choose one "perk."

Perks are passive bonuses that increase your proficiency in a given skill in some way. For example, the one-handed skill has perks that raise your damage with one-handed weapons, as well as bonuses to your damage and attack speed while dual wielding. You have to level a skill up to a certain level before you can use certain perks, and perks offer a much higher bonus to your proficiency in a skill than just leveling it does. In fact, leveling skills may not affect them in any way other than allowing you to get higher level perks. I'm honestly not certain about that one.

Combat has also changed quite a bit from previous games. Melee combat works similarly to Oblivion though there are finishing moves that seem to occur randomly during combat, finishing off enemies at low health. This means that you could be in a situation where you and the enemy are both at about 20% health, but a finishing move could occur before the enemy runs completely out of health. The reverse is also possible unfortunately. I've had powerful enemies do finishing moves on me at 50% health more than once, so it can be rather unforgiving at times. And that was on normal difficulty. I don't even wanna try hard.
Magic also works quite differently than Oblivion. You can now dual wield spells and combine their effects, such as using an attack and shield spell at the same time to keep your offense and defense high. Magicka regenerates much more quickly, allowing characters to use magic exclusively if they wish. It's a very welcome change in my opinion, especially after using the restrictive magic system in Morrowind for so long. In that game, you had to either drink potions or get out of combat so you can wait to regenerate magic.

One really cool aspect of Skyrim is that dungeons work kind of like an MMO in that there's an actual boss at the end and almost always a chest with some nice loot. Many dungeons also contain "word walls" at the end which is part of the new spell system introduced in Skyrim: shouts.

As I said at the beginning, the character you play as is a dovahkiin, or dragon born, which means you can use the powers of a dragon's voice. These range from the unrelenting force shout that you get first which staggers enemies for a moment, to one that allows you to jump several yards forward, one that changes you into a ghost for a few seconds making you invincible but locking your attacks and spells for the duration, and of course, multiple shouts that let you breath fire and ice. Shouts don't cost magicka but they do have a cooldown which can be pretty long in some cases.
So to get these shouts, you have to find the correct word wall for whatever shout you want, then you have to kill some dragons and absorb their souls. Yep. There are randomly occuring dragon fights throughout Skyrim, and they always seem to occur when I'm least expecting them. I'll just be picking herbs and shit for alchemy them BAM. I'm on fire. The dragon fights are pretty cool but dragons are by far the biggest offenders on the list of enemies who will do a finishing move on you when you are at relatively good health.

Visually, Skyrim is a mixed bag. It looks significantly better than Oblivion or Fallout 3, but it still falls behind many games nowadays. The 360 version has noticeably low quality textures with PS1-like pixels when you look closely at anything. I also notice that the loading times are pretty damn long. Many areas take about 20 seconds to load off the disk though if you install the loading times are a bit better. I can't speak for the PS3 or PC versions but I assume the PC version looks much better at high settings than either console version.

Skyrim's music is some of my favorite in the whole series. Oblivion had some great songs, along with an epic version of the Elder Scrolls main theme. Skyrim takes that main theme and turns the epicness up to eleven with a full chorus of deep voiced men singing the tune in the dragon language. There are also a few other returning songs including one from Morrowind that I was really glad they brought back and they even brought back that AWFUL store song from Daggerfall and made it much more tolerable by having bards play a much more subdued version of it. Here's a YouTube video of both, back to back:
Video courtesy of YouTube user Drakzeel.

I'm always talking about how important story is in games but the Elder Scrolls series is one of the exceptions to that rule for me. I haven't cared about the story in any of the previous games and Skyrim is no different. It's not that the story in any of the games is bad; I just didn't find any of them compelling for whatever reason. I remember the mage guild storyline in Oblivion being more interesting to me than the main quest. Ouch.

Here's the paragraph where I tell you what platforms its on and where to get it. Its on 360, PS3, and PC and if you can't find it then you're blind. That is all. Really though, you can get it for $40-$50 most places.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim had a lot to live up to for me. Oblivion was the only game that I bought a whole new computer for so yeah, Skyrim had some pretty high expectations to meet. It doesn't feel like as big a leap from Oblivion as Oblivion was from Morrowind and from the hardcore RPG fan inside me, it feels much more casual then the rest of the series. Skyrim is still an amazing game despite that and I've had hours of enjoyment from it so far and I'm sure I'll be playing it off and on until the next Elder Scrolls game.
A lone orc against the might of the Alliance? CHARGE! (Anyone who gets that is as geeky as me.)

Number 2 in my top 5 games of 2011!
Perhaps the best superhero game ever made.

I'll leave you with, what else, the Skyrim main theme. It'll be quite an amazing feat to make it sound any more epic than this in The Elder Scrolls VI. Video brought to us by YouTube user VerySeriousJoke, who included the lyrics in the video. Yes. The song's made up words actually have an official English translation. It's in the strategy guide.

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