HIGH Climbing to the top of a mountain, seeing a location far off in the distance, and being able to travel to it.
LOW The endless series of repetitive filler quests that do nothing but pad the game's running time.
WTF Why is it okay that the main quest is so boring that people brag about not completing it?
There's no denying that Skyrim, Bethesda's newest entry in its venerable Elder Scrolls series, is a beautiful game. Rather than return to the Tolkien-esque high fantasy setting of their last title, Oblivion, the designers have opted instead to move north, crafting a snowy and mountainous region filled blustering winds and awe-inspiring vistas. Skyrim is an amazing setting—one wherein players will frequently stop to savor the scenery and might even shiver a bit as a full-scale blizzard engulfs them as they climb up to "The Throat of the World." It's something of a monument to the art of world creation in video games—Skyrim isn't just a setting, it's an immersive locale that feels and looks real—and if the rest of the game were even half as well done as Skyrim's setting, it would be in the running for the title of greatest game of all time.
Unfortunately, the beauty of Skyrim is ultimately only skin-deep. The game looks great [when it's not chugging along at five frames per second on the PlayStation 3 (PS3)], but players who move beyond the pretty exterior will find a gameplay experience littered with bugs, wonky and unsatisfying combat, and thousands of quests that are more repetitive busywork than fun.
Perhaps the biggest complaint I can level against Skyrim is that Bethesda seems far more interested in upgrading the graphics of each Elder Scrolls game than they do the actual play experience. Why is the combat as clunky and shallow in Skyrim as it was in Morrowind over a decade ago? Why are the third person animations still so ugly? Why is the main questline still an anticlimactic afterthought? I don't know the answers, but I can safely say that the problems of Morrowind still exist in Skyrim. The world may be larger and more elaborately crafted, but when the core gameplay is so frustratingly boring, who cares?
As someone who loved Oblivion and bought an Xbox solely so I could play Morrowind, I'm not a critic with an axe to grind against this franchise. It's just hard to shake the feeling that Bethesda is all too willing to ignore the serious issues by slapping a pretty new coat of paint on the game and calling it a day. The "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" maxim is never a good one, but it's a particularly poor design philosophy when things actually are, in fact, broken. It's hard to completely blame Bethesda, though—gamers and critics alike have long been willing to forgive the flaws in favor of the ambition. Skyrim is ambitious—it promises a never-ending series of quests that could keep players combing the mountains and countryside literally forever. The question is, if those quests aren't varied and compelling, why would anyone want to bother with them?
As Richard mentioned in his main review, narrative has never been Bethesda's strong suit. Instead, the company generally excels at creating huge open worlds that feel completely explorable, and there's something to be said for a game that allows players to stand on a mountain peak and see a spot miles away that they can actually walk to. It's even more impressive that while walking to that spot, the player will invariably find a dozen other things to explore—from encampments to caves to small farms. It feels like discovering a real world, but that sense of excitement gained from exploration is quickly dulled when one realizes that each uncovered locale is generally just another cave filled with bandits/vampires/zombies.
Most of Skyrim's extraneous quests task the player with going to one of these isolated locations, clearing it out, finding an item or killing a mini-boss, and returning for a reward. As quest structures go, this is pretty much standard in the RPG genre—they call them fetch quests for a reason—but Skyrim doesn't even pretend to give the majority of them any sort of narrative context. They're one-offs with no real effect on anything in the rest of the game. This is by design, of course, because Skyrim wants to be so open that players can do anything and completely avoid the main quest if they so choose, but this feels a lot like a double-edged sword. By making the game so "open" to a player's whims, they've dulled any sort of narrative thrust.
This is perfectly exemplified by the main quest which finds the player tasked with stopping the return of dragons threatening the Skyrim countryside. Fighting dragons sounds incredibly epic, and a main quest that will require the player to learn the "dragon language" and fight many of the fire-and-ice breathing beasts should be exciting. The problem is, it's not.
In order to make the game a sort of "choose your own adventure" experience, the main questline feels like an afterthought. While critics like Tom Chick might complain about the faux urgency at every turn in Uncharted 3, the narrative meandering that makes the main quest of Skyrim completely inconsequential isn't any better. It's entirely possible to forget what's happening in the main quest after the first few hours, so why should I do these things if even the developers think they're unimportant?
Some folks won't care—it's become something of a weird badge of honor to talk about playing an Elder Scrolls game for hundreds of hours without ever touching the main storyline. I understand—I did it in Morrowind. I suspect the issue for me is that I already did it in Morrowind, so why hasn't Bethesda stepped up and said, "Wow, if people brag about not actually doing the main questline in the game—the thing we clearly assume is the most narratively important thing in the title, what can we do to make that content more compelling?" We talk about game stories and compare games to films and art and books, but no one seems to mind that the story in Skyrim is a barely-formed thing so unimportant that we laugh about ignoring it.
If players can get past that, there are myriad other issues to contend with, as Richard noted at the start of his writeup. The game's UI is a horribly designed mishmash of menus and sub-menus that isn't even remotely intuitive to navigate. When a game allows the player to have dozens of quests active at once, it would be really nice to have an MMO-esque quest log with some details as to where the player is at in said quest. The best we get is a little list with completed objectives marked off. It works, for the most part, but it could be so much better.
Then there are the bugs. So far, every platform has reported some kind of issue running Skyrim, but PS3 users have suffered the most. I opted for the PS3 version as it was supposedly the prettiest of the console releases, and I wasn't concerned about PC mods down the line (I tend to play these games to the end, then never play them again). The PS3 version has a horrible issue with slowdown. When save file sizes grow, the system bogs down and runs like a slideshow. Bethesda released a patch which sort of fixed the problem, but not really. After a save file passes the 5000KB size (which is really easy to reach), issues will start to appear. The only solution is to shut the system off every hour or so and reload—which isn't really a solution at all. Even after the patch, my copy of the game still became a stuttering mess after fast-traveling to locations if I'd played for an hour.
Meanwhile, the game crashes regularly. I had a stretch where it would lock up once every ten minutes over the course of a few hours, and countless other random crashes for no discernible reason at all. The 360 and PC versions seem to crash too (the 360 also has a texture issue that hasn't been resolved at the time of this writing) but the PS3 release seems to be the least stable by far. Buyer beware.
While the game's issues are certainly troubling (some more than others), there are some things that Skyrim deserves praise for. As mentioned earlier, the environments are honestly beautiful. The world of Skyrim is an amazing place and those who like to explore should find that itch scratched quite handily. The dungeons, while still lacking in variety when it comes to objectives, are at least diverse in structure. These aren't the cookie cutter domains of Oblivion. There are more voice actors, as well. Finally, not every NPC sounds exactly like the one who just spoke up the street. Jermey Soule's soundtrack is as amazing as ever. The new leveling system that Richard admires can still be manipulated, but it's more engaging than the one in Oblivion.
Skyrim is breathtaking at times, which makes it all the more frustrating that the core game components—the real meat and potatoes of the experience—are so bland. It's like sitting down to a gourmet meal that the chef never seasoned; the presentation is spectacular, but the food has no flavor. We don't buy meals because they look pretty—that's a bonus. The same thing holds true for games. Lovely graphics are great, but a beautiful game with broken and boring game mechanics isn't enjoyable.
Each player's appreciation of Skyrim is ultimately subjective, of course, and I want to be clear that this is not a bad game by any stretch of the imagination—after all, the world design alone is head and shoulders above most of the other open world games on the market. That said, players who want a wide open world and a compelling story to go along with it may feel slighted. Gamers who value length over variety will find much to love in Skyrim's never-ending series of lightweight, nonessential quests to complete, but is that really enough from a game of this magnitude? I'd much rather play a four hour game that keeps me highly engaged for its entire length than a 100 hour one that has long, dull, stretches of repetition.
Unfortunately, for me, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is the latter. While the idea of being able to play it "forever" sounds exciting, the execution isn't good enough to actually keep me another minute past the 56 hours I've already spent with it.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via rental and reviewed on the PS3. Approximately 56 hours of play was devoted to single-player modes (completed 1 time).
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains blood and gore, intense violence, sexual themes, use of alcohol. Skyrim isn't really a game for kids, and it's doubtful that most of the youngsters will want to play it—but if they do, be advised that the game does feature lots of booze to drink (including a drinking contest), violence (including decapitations), and some bloody mayhem. It can also be a bit scary, so parents with kids younger than teenaged will most likely want to steer their children in a different direction.