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Just as with playing the game itself it’s hard to know where to begin with a review of Skyrim; so vast is Bethesda Softworks’ follow up to their immense hit Oblivion, which set the high watermark for Western RPGs for years to come, and the fifth game in the Elder Scrolls fantasy series. Skyrim is indeed a thing of awe inspiring, epic scale, and even whilst its geography is roughly the same size as that of Cyrodil in Oblivion, it feels much bigger. The game’s landscape, rendered with beautiful new graphics engine, is epic, ranging from windblown tundra to towering mountain peaks and ancient pine forests to 100 foot high waterfalls. For instance, a journey up the 7000 steps of High Hrothgar, known as ‘the throat of the world’, to visit the grey beards (a reclusive order of monks dedicated to mastering ‘the way of the voice’) takes about 45 minutes and affords some spectacular views of the landscapes and the northern lights – indeed some of the game’s environmental effects are staggering.

Bethesda take this level of detail to the urban settlements, of which there are nine main cities including the imperial stronghold of Solitude, perched atop a monumental stone arch, the shambolic Winterhold, monumental Markath built on a series of rocky outcrops, and the canals of Riften. The game is influenced by Scandinavian culture just as Morrowind was by the Middle East and feels incredibly believable, demonstrating once more Bethesda’s uncanny ability to build detailed, compelling worlds.  Gone are the somewhat bland caves of Oblivion, replaced with over 150 hand crafted dungeons; one moment you’ll be marvelling at a sacred tree dominating a vast subterranean glade, the next you’ll be battling smugglers on a series of ships sealed into a bay and adapted into a small fortress. Whilst the game maintains the sense of solitude that was so characteristic of Oblivion, it fills the world with more detail than you ever dreamed possible.

The game is set two hundred years after the events in Oblivion in the frigid Northern lands of the Nords. Having been captured by the Imperials crossing the border in the company of the rebel leader Ulfric Stormcloak you begin the game being escorted to your execution. But just as your head lays on the block, the camera framing the executioner as he raises his sword to strike you, a dragon can be seen launching into the sky from a distant peak, allowing you to slip away in the chaos that follows. It’s a stirring opening to the game and showboat’s Bethesda’s ace in the hole: dragons. The ancient dragon Anduin, first born of Akatosh, has been reborn and is awakening his brethren from tombs all over the continent. Meanwhile you soon discover that you are one of the rare ‘dragon born’ and have the ability to understand the dragon tongue and learn shouts (powerful effects that can be gained through absorbing dragon souls). To say that the dragon’s add a degree of excitement to the game would be a vast understatement; on top of their scripted appearances in the main plot line, a dragon can strike at anytime, swooping down when you least expect it whilst you’re traversing a mountain path or attacking a town and perching on the roof tops as its blasts you with flame or frost, forcing you to aid the town guard in vanquishing the foe as people run screaming into their homes. The dragons have been programmed to behave in unexpected ways, sometimes hovering in the air to blast you and sometimes landing to snap at you with their jaws, and therefore thoroughly embody the dynamic quality of the game.

And speaking of dynamic, the game’s skill system is poetry in motion. Simply use a skill effectively and it will level up, improving the skill as well as moving you closer to a level up. There’s no need to worry about base attributes any longer, instead at each level up you are given a point that can be spent on a perk in anyone of 16 skills you have been improving. These are beautifully displayed as a series of star constellations, with each perk boosting a skill or providing an interesting effect that range from slowing time as your draw back on a bow to gaining a massive damage bonus when dual wielding destruction magic. The perks add an incredibly subtle depth to an imminently simple system, which will no doubt aid the title considerably in appealing to non-RPG gamers, whilst providing enough substance to keep veterans happy; a fine balance which is rarely struck so well.
Everything has been polished, but the most obvious improvements are to the magic system, with every spell seeming to have a unique feel and function and making playing as a mage incredibly satisfying rather than the uphill struggle it was in Oblivion. Spells are satisfyingly tactile and can be laced with status effects making them truly powerful, but the clever trade off is that they must be equipped to be used, meaning it’s a choice between wielding that shield or having your healing spell handy, and if you put the same spell in both hands then god help your enemies – there are few things more satisfying than incinerating a pack of wolves with twin fireballs.

Bethesda have also outdone themselves with the game’s stripped back menu systems, which are incredibly elegant and intuitive considering the complexity of the game. Squeezing the left or right trigger will equip a weapon or spell in the corresponding hand, allowing for a variety of approaches to combat including sword and shield, dual wielding, and magic. In these and a million other tiny details far too numerous to list, Bethesda have produced one of the greatest games of all time.

Words > Dean Bowman

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