OK, so it may sound like a sex act you’d perform to get into the mile-high club, but it’s an absolutely brilliant game. Nowhere in RPGs will you get anything that comes close for scale, grandeur, variety, content, immersiveness. It’s magnificent.
To a degree that’s always been true of the elder scrolls games – their aspiration to produce huge, open-ended worlds that you could explore in your own way and at your own pace was always impressive – but I’ve had some big problems with them in the past. Huge and sometimes lovingly detailed though they were, the game worlds of Morrowind and Oblivion never felt that convincing to me. They lacked theme. They too often felt like a bunch of fantasy cliches randomly stuffed together into one disunified whole. Here’s a guy with a lion for a head. And here’s some roman legionaries. And here’s an evil necromancer. And oh, look, some demons. And an ancient statue. And just next to it a guy with a snake for a head peddling potions. And it didn’t help that after trawling through thirty caves, twenty evil temples and a dozen abandoned fortresses you’d start to see a really dispiriting level of repetition in the levels. The same u-bend of corridor, the same big chamber with the split level and the pond in the middle. The very open-endedness which is such an advantage could become a real problem as well, with strange interactions of different questlines creating moments of hilarity. I vividly remember one moment in Oblivion when, while standing next to an arcane gate to hell which had appeared, debouching demons across the landscape and threatening the very fabric of existence, a farmer ran up and asked me if I’d found those three fish he asked me to get way back near the beginning of the game. Since you might come to different quests and areas at very different levels of power, it’s also necessary to have a mechanic that balances out play and continues to make things challenging. But this was sometimes handled very lumpily – when you reached high levels every wolf would become more testing than a dragon, every group of thugs would be outfitted in diamond armour and wielding weapons suitable to a mighty hero of yore, begging the question, if you can afford an ebony greatsword of withering, why do you need to lurk in alleys robbing passers by? There was a sense that there was masses of stuff but none of it was really special.
The good news? There’s loads of it. While keeping what was best about it’s open-ended forebears, Skyrim triumphantly overcomes the drawbacks. Well, most of them, anyway. And it’s in the setting that it really scores BIG. Skyrim is a nordic, viking-y sort of a place and it’s concentrating on that theme that has really drawn everything together. Armour and weapons have nordic swirls, houses have dragons carved on the roofs, mammoth-herding giants roam the tundra and dragons haunt the skies. The fighters guild in Oblivion were some fighters. In a house. Who fought stuff. The Companions in Skyrim are a load of Valhalla obsessed nords who sit round a firepit in an upended longship. They’ve got an ideology, man. The politics of the place even make a rough sort of sense, and there’s much more of a feeling that your actions impact on the world, that you’re a part of what’s going on. And it looks amazing. I mean, fantasy has never looked so good. Frozen forests, snow-capped mountains, forbidding fortresses, subterranean rivers, ancient cities carved from the mountainside, waterfalls gleaming under a sky blazing with strange constellations. The dragons, for that matter, are pretty amazing to look at, soaring in the distance and perhaps strafing the odd sabre toothed tiger as they pass. People and faces, well, I guess you could say you’ve seen better but they’re perfectly serviceable. I suppose the graphics in detail aren’t always amazing, but the cumulative effect, of some of the great vistas from a viewpoint, for instance, can be incredible. It feels like there’s vastly more variety here than in previous outings, vastly more detail. You do occasionally get a bit of a sense of deja vu in your fifth ancient barrow or subterranean cave system, but pretty much every one I visited had something unique going on, and a lot of them had a theme – a bandit outpost built around a vast natural chimney, a poacher’s cave where they’d been killing mammoths by herding them down a spike-lined pit, an ice-bound fortress built by a madman. The range and attention to detail is pretty amazing.
And the sheer quantity of it. I’d consider 30 or 40 hours a good amount to get out of a roleplayer. Sixty hours picking the bones of a real beast. I put over 100 into Skyrim and I completed the central questline and a couple of others, knocked off fifteen or twenty smaller quests and a host of little challenges. There were three or four questlines I didn’t even start, vast swathes of the map I scarcely visited. I could put in another 100 hours, easily, and that without starting on the scores of ruins and dungeons one can stumble upon by accident. It’s truly, staggeringly immense, and quite apart from the sheer value for money that gives you, it lends a sense of scope and grandeur, a sense of being free within an immense and beautiful environment, a sense that your character and your playthrough will be unlike anyone else’s, that I just don’t feel you can get anywhere else.
Downsides? Nothing that isn’t eminently forgivable given the tremendous upsides. Play balancing is occasionally still a little bit lumpy but vastly improved over previous outings. The system for quick-changing items is surprisingly and unnecessarily rubbish and limited given how well thought-out most aspects are. Character development is much neater thanks to a Fallout-esque perks system that means you can’t excel at everything but have to pick a little more carefully what your approach will be. I ran across a couple of broken quests, a few nonsensical lines of dialogue given events, the odd bit of ropey voice work, a few graphical glitches, but given the scale and immense variety of permutations that’s hardly surprising. And a very stable game, as well. In that 100 hours it only properly crashed twice, which is welcome compared to, say, Fallout:Vegas which was crashy as all hell.
So, overall, it sets a new benchmark. When looking at recent competition in the arena of Fantasy RPGs, there just isn’t any. Final Fantasy seems to have run out of steam. Dark Souls, for all its undoubted good qualities, looks petty, dingy, clunky and meagre by comparison. I liked the first Dragon Age but the second one looks truly feeble next to this. Dungeon Siege III? Puh-lease. I’ve got to go way back to Baldur’s Gate I and II to find anything so huge and immersive and that, clearly, was an entirely different era. Mass Effect 2 (and, one hopes, the forthcoming 3) is probably the only RPG that’s coming close, and that scratches a much more limited, arcade-y itch.
Right. I’m off to wait for the DLC. And play Arkham City. Could be worse…