The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion came out in March 2006 and was a towering achievement of game design. It dropped you into a living, breathing world where you could literally be anything you wanted to be. This was real role playing. Want to be a battle mage with a hero complex? Go for it. How about an expert archer with light fingers and a penchant for mead? You could be that, too. Sure, it had its share of glitches, but that’s to be expected when your world is something like 3 million square miles. Also, the user interface (menus, design, stuff like that) was – in a word – butt-ugly. Do hyphenated words count as one word? Man, that’s gonna bother me all night.
Enter Skyrim. The latest – dare I say – work of art from Bethesda Studios is nothing short of breathtaking, in its scope, its narrative, and its gameplay. It takes the feel of Oblivion and combines it with lessons learned from Fallout 3 to create a masterpiece of game design. My only problem: we’ve seen it all before.
Let’s start this review with the bottom line: if you liked Oblivion, you’ll almost definitely like Skyrim. If you hated Oblivion, there is absolutely nothing here that will change your mind. It takes the sandbox world and quest structure and expounds upon it, adding a hefty dose of political strife and destiny to the story. The inventory and menus are greatly upgraded (at least for console gamers…), discarding that horrendous brown scroll look from the Oblivion menus. (Don’t worry – you can still get your fill of eye-meltingly bad fonts when trying to read the dozens and dozens of books strewn about the world written in… is that Comic Sans?) The quests are… pretty much the same as Oblivion, too.
There’s a variety of objectives, and a new procedurally generated random quest system, meaning that you’ll be able to play this game at least until the DLC comes out next year. And instead of a never ending stream of Oblivion Gates to close, you get to battle dragons whenever they decide to darken your skies, usually when you’re on your way to a major quest location.
Those dragons… Every once in a while one will just show up randomly and melt your face off. Dragons don’t care; they’re crazy. As they fly around and rain fiery death upon you, you realize, “wait, I actually have to use archery? This is way different than Oblivion!” I beat that whole game and fired like… ten arrows total. So there’s that. If you and your traveling companions fire enough arrows/shoot enough fireballs into its soft underbelly, it will eventually be forced to land. Surround it and whack away for a bit and you’ll be treated to a dramatic third person death stroke, very Fallout 3 VATS-like.
After it dies, you collect its soul (you are the Dragonborn, after all) to power up and learn new shouts—a sort of second group of upgradeable magic spells that recharge over time. More powerful shouts can be discovered at the bottom of caves and dungeons, and each has three levels of power which will be earned by further exploring the world. These shouts – as well as your Dragonborn heritage – are central to the story and also the only way to take down the later bosses.
Are the dragon battles fun? Yeah. There aren’t enough of them over the course of the game to get bored (like was so easy to do with the Oblivion Gates), and you always have to dodge, strategize, and – if possible – get the dragon to attack your teammates while you stab its flank. But look out for that tail; it’s no joke.
Besides the shouts and dragons, what else is new? You still level up the same way – using a certain skill improves that skill – but this time around you get added perk bonuses at each level. These are things like “novice level destruction spells cost half magicka” or “blocking is 40% more effective.” The” ring of constellations” (it’s totally a real thing) used to select new perks is kind of wonky, but pretty. The inventory system in general is greatly improved and much slicker, and every item is now totally viewable in 3D instead of just a menu item. This lets you examine key claws for solutions to environmental puzzles (which are all basically “find the shape on the wall then match it on a rotating pillar), but besides that it’s a largely superfluous feature.
There’s a new quick select with the d-pad too, and this is one particular bit that I feel is a big step down from Oblivion. In Oblivion, you could set eight weapons to each direction on the d-pad. Push the direction and it’s equipped. One button. Easy. But in Skyrim, you have to set weapons/spells/shouts as “favorites” first. You can set one item/spell to each the left and right d-pad directions, but up or down brings up your list of Favorites, giving you a smaller list to choose from instead of poring over your entire stock. However, you’ll still be back in the menu plenty of times during the course of nearly every epic battle, mostly to drink potions that seemed silly to favorite. Oh yeah, you can also dual wield everything (except two shields). One hand for a heal spell, and one hand for a sword? A fireball in each hand that you can combine into a mega-fireball? Yeahhhh buddy!
Another addition to the Elder Scrolls universe is the excessively complicated item crafting. If I remember correctly, in Oblivion you could fix your armor and do pretty much everything except enchant items directly from your inventory, right? Not here. Want to improve your weapons? Find a grindstone. Want to craft armor? Find a forge. Want to do alchemy? Find a lab. It’s all way too spread out and kind of a hassle to actually make it happen. Luckily you’ll find everything you need on the bodies of your enemies anyway, rendering all these other locations useless. They’re similar to the side quest jobs in Fable II: tedious moments that you only tolerate because of the reward. In Fable II’s case it was money. Here in Skyrim, it’s experience, and also money if you sell the stuff you make for a sizeable profit.
Speaking of side quests, this is where you will totally, completely, utterly lose yourself in the world of Skyrim. This game has side quests longer than the entirety of Bastion. Even deciding to simply travel to a new town to explore will net you at least three new quests from random strangers without even trying. Most of them are “Go to this point on the map, pick something up, then bring it back to me,” but there’s a good variety of missions to keep nearly any style of player happy. A lot of the side quests are, well… Do you remember traveling into the watercolor painting in Oblivion and how amazing and totally different that was? Or any number of other ridiculous things you did for the NPC’s in Tamriel? Skyrim doesn’t have a moment like that. The craziest of the quests I’ve completed (and I’ve still got plenty to go) borrowed so heavily from Oblivion that they didn’t even have an identity of their own. There was a haunted basement where you talk to a demon: seen it; there are fighter’s, mage’s, and thieves’ guilds: been there, done that.
See, the biggest problem with Skyrim is that it’s a bigger, prettier, more fully realized Oblivion (with dragons). Yes, more Oblivion may be exactly what the doctor ordered, but the overwhelming sense of déjà vu really kind of ruined the first twenty hours of the game for me (the last ten hours though, when you weren’t dying? Golden.). Plus the finale more than makes up for Oblivion’s and even Fallout 3’s awful endings. I just can’t get over the feeling that they could have done even more with this gloriously realized world.
Still, when the biggest complaint you can have about a game is that it’s too much like another game you loved, only prettier, then it must be a pretty serious grievance to knock off a whole star (and yes, it is). Skyrim is Oblivion 1.5, but boy, is it ever a beautiful Oblivion 1.5—just without a soul of its own. It stretches its dragon wings, but it doesn’t fly quite as far from the roost as it should. But that’s still pretty far.
4 out of 5 Stars
***A 4 Star game is a well-made, outstanding experience that the vast majority of buyers will enjoy. It is a great investment, and can appeal to a wide audience.***