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What is best in life?
Ask a thousand barbarians and you’ll get a thousand different
answers. “Crush your enemies and
see them driven before you”. Yes,
that is best in life. “The open
steppe, a fleet horse, and the wind in your hair”. Yes, that is best in life too. “A comfortable chair, a
roaring fire, and a book filled with tales other men’s adventures”. That is also best in life. What is best in life is to pursue
whatever you desire at any moment, and Skyrim lets players do just that.
The Elder Scrolls series has always offered RPG players the chance to roam freely and do anything they like, but Skyrim has taken this to the extreme by completely forgoing the class-based system. Players start off being able to use any kind of weapon, and cast any kind of spell. They can also sneak, craft and use speech skills. Anything the player does will build up the skills they use to do it – kill something with a mace and you get skill points for using a one-handed weapon, block with a shield and you get points for blocking. If you fight while wearing heavy armor, you get better at using heavy armor. The same is true for using traditional thieving skills, or the different kinds of magic.
This is a devious form of fun, in which the developers at Bethesda reward players for doing something they wanted to do anyway. It’s addictive, much like giving someone bonus heroin every time they smoke some crack.
But of course, life in the frozen wastes is hard, and as players progress it takes more and more effort to gain points in their favorite skills. Like a junkie, Skyrim players will never experience that first high again. Determined players can stick to a particular skill set, pumping arrow after arrow into giants in order to get the Archery skill up to 100, but other players will find that it’s more fun to experiment with the different skills (And easier to level up by trying rarely-used ones).
Every role-playing game has a race of sturdy Northmen who hail from the Frozen Northlands, and the previous Elder Scrolls had the Nords of Skyrim. The game Skyrim is set in those frigid Northlands, but players can choose to play a character of any of the races seen in the previous games. From cat-people to lizard people, elves of various sorts and yes, players can even be a hardy Nord who is perfectly at home in the icy tundra of Skyrim.
Each of the races starts with a bonus to certain skills, and they have special racial powers too, but this is as close as Skyrim comes to choosing a class at start, and once players venture out in the vast world, they have the option of joining Guilds to focus in a particular skill set. While there is a main quest line, players can simply wander the world learning as much as they like.
Skyrim definitely has enough content that players will be able to re-invent themselves multiple times if they choose. The main quest line holds true to RPG gaming tropes. It’s the standard “Your character is the one special person who can save the world from EVIL” sort of tale. In this case, the player is a Dovakiin, or “Dragon Born” who alone can absorb the souls of dragons. Dragons, apparently, are only Sort Of Dead until someone drains their soul, and there hasn’t been a Dovakiin around in a looong time. This provides the player with reasons to travel the world, but it also gives a series of sidequests in which the Dovakiin can seek out new “Dragon Shouts” which are a lot like magic spells, but can be used by any character regardless of his/her aptitude for magic.
Aside from joining guilds, following the main story, and collecting Shouts, there is a very extensive crafting system. The depths of this crafting system, and the character customization system are on par with what would be found in most MMO’s. Again that brings us back to the heroin-like addictiveness of the game; it’s designed to emulate the endless supply of oppotunities and rewards of World of Warcraft and the like. Some of the stories have moral choices, and players will find that replaying offers chances to side with different factions on subsequent playthroughs.
While Skyrim is definitely a Game Of The Year contender, it isn’t perfect. The heroic act of killing dragons becomes rather mundane after a while. These are the god-like beasts whose presence throws the world into chaos, but the player can bring them down easier than some of the other enemy types, like giants or wooly mammoths. It seems a little silly to kill a dragon with relative ease, then find your mighty Dovakiin getting clobbered by Mister Snuffleupagus.
As a multi-platform release, the user interface suffers from consolitis; a tendency to be better suited to a console gamepads than to a PC mouse and keyboard set up. The main screen to access inventory and abilities is obviously set up for the D-Pad, and many of the default key bindings are awkward (Especially the use of the “Z” button to activate the Dragon Shout power).
Another PC-specific annoyance is that the character’s right hand is keyed to the left mouse button and left hand to the right mouse button. Of course, on an Xbox, this would be reversed and much more intuitive.
The PC version does work very well from a technical perspective. It looks great and is very well optimized, running smoothly on relatively low system specs. Given Bethesda’s history with the modding community, the PC version is definitely going to be the best platform; it’s already been modded, and we can expect to see many more in the years ahead.
Despite my handful of gripes Skyrim is a going to be a classic. It’s an easy introduction to the Elder Scrolls series for players new to that franchise, and something sure to please RPG fans.