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Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Xbox 360) Review – Is the Sky the Limit?

Updated Thu, Nov 10, 2011 by jeffprime

elder scrolls v: skyrim review

In The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, the action takes place in the northern realms shortly after the murder of Skyrim's king. Civil war is breaking out and, to make things even bleaker, dragons have returned to threaten the world. The player takes on the mantle of a prophesized prophesied hero, a Dragonborn, who has the power of The Voice and can stand against the dragons.

Personally, I’ve been dying to play Skyrim since details began to emerge from E3 2011. The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion is one of my favorite RPGs - the Assassins’ Guild storyline was one of the best story arcs I’ve ever seen in a computer game - and I couldn’t wait to get back to the sandbox style of gaming found in The Elder Scrolls series. So does Skyrim live up to the intense hype?

the elder scrolls v: skyrim review
This is how the game begins. Guess which unlucky person you are?

Cautions

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is rated Mature (17+) for Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Sexual Themes, and Use of Alcohol. While these cautions make it sound as if you’re going to be riding waist-deep through gore-drenched scenes of hellish descriptions, the fact is that the bite is much worse than the bark. The game has standard video game style violence. You’ll see worse watching The Walking Dead.

Gameplay

95OutstandingI normally play RPGs on the PC, but this time around, I got the chance to play Skyrim on the Xbox 360. I was pleasantly surprised by how easy and natural it was for me to play the game on the Xbox controller, even with my middle-aged sloth-like reflexes. Controls and menus for moving, fighting, accessing inventory, and looking up quests and maps were intuitive.

Long time fans can rejoice as Bethesda continues their open gaming style with Skyrim. Players begin by creating their character by choosing from a number of humanoid races and then customizing their appearance. Each race has certain abilities that make them more suited to a certain play style, but it’s not as restrictive as it sounds. There are no classes in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. The player chooses their own path by deciding on which of the eighteen skills to improve. As the player levels in Skyrim, they can spend perk points to increase the effectiveness of the individual skills. For example, a player who wishes to fight with one-handed weapons on a regular basis can spend points to increase the damage dealt by one-handed attacks. If a player wants to concentrate on certain magical skills, they can lower the cost of the spells or increase their effectiveness in the same manner. A player can choose to play as a fighter, a mage, a thief, an assassin, or any combination thereof. I chose to play as a fighter-mage, wielding a sword in one hand while casting spells at my enemies with my other hand.

the elder scrolls v: skyrim review
Looks like this fight might not go so well.

The freedom of being classless also extends to the sandbox nature of questing that Elder Scrolls fans love. In Skyrim, you don’t have to stay within the lines and concentrate on the main quest. Tons of side quests abound in the game, and if you were feeling particularly silly, you could ignore the main quest entirely. Multiple factions exist throughout the realm that you can join, each with their own unique quests to take. For those intrepid explorers who love to explore, Skyrim boasts over 150 different dungeons for you to go dungeon-crawling in. If you ever get bored with questing (but why would you?), there are other activities for you to do such as alchemy, blacksmithing, cooking, and enchanting.

What really makes The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim come to life is the attention to detail within the game. The NPCs that inhabit the world have their own lives and as the hours pass each day, they go about their daily routines. You’ll find people working their fields, fighting with one another, and talking about events happening in Skyrim. You can even get some NPCs to join you as a companion. You can have one companion at a time, and you usually get them from doing them a service. Some companions you’ll be able to hire and there are those that you'll need to impress before they’re willing to join you. My favorite was a warrior woman, so hot-headed and headstrong that not even the Companions would take her, who became available to join me after I beat her in a tavern brawl.

the elder scrolls v: skyrim review
The world of Skyrim feels alive and vibrant.

Combat is simple enough, provided you settle into a single combat style and avoid the temptation to experiment overmuch with different weapons and spells (swapping can get tedious). The left and right triggers of your controller control the actions of your character’s respective hands. You can easily assign different spells, weapons, or shields to each hand and the game pauses as you swap items. Pushing down the left stick switches you from first to third person quickly if you need to bob and weave around in a fight, while pushing down the right stick makes you go in (or out) of stealth.

Overall, the gameplay of Skyrim is about giving the players the freedom to do what they wish to do. Want to play a pure fighter? How about a thief who steals everything he can get his hands on? What about a spell-slinging caster who is also adept at combat? Do you want to piss off this city by looting them like mad, then run and live in another city? Which factions will you join and how loyal will you be to them? What quests will you take or decline? The choice is up to you, the player, and it’s amazing. Skyrim is the closest that  video games have come to tabletop pen-and-paper roleplaying.

Graphics

90GreatThe visual style of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim unapologetically draws from Nordic architecture, dress, and environments and does so extraordinarily well: the game looks gorgeous. The cities, countryside, denizens, and dungeons are  painstakingly detailed and the setting looks and feels alive.

The people of Skyrim don’t have the cadaverous appearance that I found in Oblivion; here they look, talk, and move around like real people. The enemies that players face look damn cool, especially the undead and dragons. The undead appear menacing and deadly, unlike the reggae-looking zombies from World of Warcraft. Getting a face full of dragon breath  is an extremely memorable visual experience, but isn’t so good for your health.

the elder scrolls v: skyrim review
The visuals are just beautiful to look at.

Weather not only looks realistically miserable in Skyrim, but it can affect gameplay. Fighting bandits (or a dragon!) in a snowstorm when there’s only a few feet of visibility can be daunting. While I loathe snow in real life (born and raised in Florida), I do admit that it looks beautiful in Skyrim.

My one knock on the graphics in Skyrim is that some of the fight animations can look a bit stiff. As with the Skyrim's antecedent, Fallout 3, some of the killing blows just don’t look all that special. While there were plenty of times I ran my sword through the belly of an adversary in slow-mo, there were some instances where at the end of the fight, my big spectacular finishing move was simply my axe gently tapping their forehead or chest.

Sound

95OutstandingOblivion composer Jeremy Soule makes his return, and his Skyrim soundtrack helps set the tone as you travel through the realm. While the orchestrations vary from sublime to pulse-pounding excitement, it can get repetitive after a while. However, this is to be expected in a game you'll be playing for dozens of hours.

the elder scrolls v: skyrim review
What sound does a giant make? It's usually "squish" with its club beating on your noggin.

All of the NPCs in the world are voice-acted. While quite a few NPCs have only a few canned responses, many others have a surprising amount of dialogue. The vast majority of the voice acting is extremely well done. -  I can only recall one or two instances where the delivery fell flat.

The ambient sound effects are simply superb. The clash of swords, the swirl of water, and the chatter of conversation is magnificent. As you get closer to the source of a sound, it increases in volume. If you’re sneaking down a corridor, you can hear your enemies speaking from the next room. As you approach, the conversation becomes more distinct and louder. The sound is also directional. If somebody is walking towards you from the left, you’ll hear their footsteps (or speech if they’re talking) from your left. If you swivel towards them, the sound flows from the left to center stage. While other games do hav directional sound, the quality and production values found in Skyrim are top-notch.

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