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The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Graphics: 9.5
Gameplay: 9.8
Sound: 9.7
Control: 9.5
Replay Value: 10
Rating: 9.7

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is a big game. …look, the understatement of the decade! The latest entry in the long-running role-playing franchise is a gigantic masterpiece; those who wish to indulge will embrace sweeping vistas, intimidating dungeons, soaring mountain ranges, picturesque plains, farms and homesteads, cozy villages and lively towns, and a literally limitless adventure that is dangerously absorbing. Drop everything else you’re doing because Skyrim is here.

Graphically, the game is a mammoth achievement, despite the lackluster up-close textures. Given the sheer size and scope of the production, the excellence of the visual presentation is absolutely mind-boggling. Water is beautiful, the far-reaching landscape will take your breath away, and when snow begins to fall in the mountains at night, you’ll feel the chill sitting in your recliner at home. Combat effects and animations are top-notch, even if character refinement isn’t as stellar the more cinematic titles like Uncharted. The attention paid to detail is endlessly impressive.

Side note- I know everyone is wondering how the PS3 version stacks up against the Xbox 360 version. As some of you know, I had the 360 version to review, but recently, I’ve also been able to see the game on Sony’s machine. Really, it’s basically the same; both look amazing. I also didn’t notice any frame rate issues in the PS3 version, a common problem in past Bethesda productions. Check other PS3 reviews for further info.

The sound continually adds to the gripping immersion. Tons of competent voice actors were used, the ambient effects when exploring the wilderness remind us of our vulnerability and inherent human fear, and the soundtrack’s classically orchestral vibe solidifies the experience. The music kicks up a notch in particularly harrowing situations and while I actually wanted more ambient audio when exploring, this remains one of the most complete and accomplished sound efforts of the generation. Use headphones for ultimate absorption.

As for the gameplay, I really don’t know where to start. This is one of those times when a review could go on for pages and pages, but one has to refrain from rambling. That gets boring, doesn’t it? Let’s start with the basics- in terms of control, you can select either a first-person or third-person view for your character. Both viewpoints are perfectly functional, although I prefer the first-person camera as it amps up the immersion, which is the primary goal of Skyrim. You’ll start your endless quest by choosing one of eight classes.

As you might expect, these classes range widely and you should pick the one that caters to your play style. Mostly for the sake of this review, I selected the Imperial, as he is capable in both melee combat and magic, so I could easily test both aspects of combat. But in truth, the game isn’t as restrictive as you might think: as an Imperial, I can still wear most anything I want, and equip most anything I want. I can use a bow, too; I may not be as good at it as the elf, but I can use it. This freedom for all classes is absolutely fantastic.

Get More:, Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim - Exploration and Combat Gameplay, PC Games, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360

You’re never really forced into a mold. While it’s certainly true that it makes more sense to go with the Khajit class if you wish to play stealthily, there’s nothing saying you can’t sneak about with the Nord. You just won’t have the inherent skill in your blood. But I really love the fact that the game never dictates to you; it never really tells you what you can and can’t do. True, you’ll be better at certain things, but the gameplay is entirely up to you. Dual-wield with magic in your left and a weapon in your right? Fine.

In fact, that’s what I started doing a lot, although I’d switch to the shield in my left hand when up-close-and-personal, and I even used the bow and snuck around at times, too. When your character levels up, he or she can add 10 points to Magicka, Health, or Stamina, and then one point can be used in a skill tree. The trees range widely, from one-handed, blocking, and destruction, to restoration, conjuration, illumination, speech, smithing, alchemy, and more. And within each tree are plenty of abilities, some of which can be upgraded several times.

The individual skills require that you hit a certain level for that particular discipline. For instance, the more you block with a shield, the more your Block number goes up. The more you take damage, the more your light or heavy armor discipline rises. Therefore, the more you do something, the better you’re going to get at it, which makes perfect sense and believe it or not, it encourages experimentation to some extent. As you progress, though, you’ll want to focus on the skills and disciplines you use most often, so you can master a certain style.

The depth is obviously there. You can only carry a certain amount, but if you purchase a house, you can drop off items you wish to keep and walk around with a lighter load. You can also sell your loot to merchants and purchase items and equipment. To enhance the effectiveness of those items and equipment, visit the blacksmith to sharpen a weapon (grinding stone) or create all new weapons in various metals (the forge), find an alchemy lab to make new potions, or magically enchant weapons and armor.

But beyond the insane depth and solid control, the rest of the world grabs you and refuses to let go. For the first few hours, you’ll be on foot and the vast environment will prove daunting. That’s why you should buy a horse at the earliest opportunity; it allows you to travel much faster, and you won’t sacrifice that “oh, wow” factor that is routinely part of your exploration. You’ll still get attacked on the horse, although it can outrun most things; if you wish, just get down and fight the thing. The control here is fine, too.

There’s just so much to see and do. It’s completely ridiculous. Because the world is so tremendously huge, the game allows you to discover a location and fast travel to it later. So in other words, all you have to do is see “Discovered ‘Enter Landmark Name Here’,” and from then on, you can highlight it on your map and just hit Fast Travel. It’s a huge help and a damn good idea. I can’t imagine what the game would be like if you couldn’t do this. But when you go to complete a mission, don’t be surprised if you come back with a half-dozen more.

The game just doesn’t seem to end, and that’s due to the radiant quest system. The game will continually deliver new quests depending on your progression; someone may send you some place you haven’t discovered yet, for example. In general, the quests force you to fully discover the very large world of Skyrim, so you rarely end up going the same place twice. While you’re outside, you could up fighting a giant spider, a witch, or any number of fearsome, fantastical creatures that inhabit the dangerous wilds. It’s just plain intoxicating.

Get More:, Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim - Dragonborn Trailer, PC Games, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360

Now, many readers know that heading into this review, I was not a fan of The Elder Scrolls. I desperately tried to get into Morrowind and Oblivion but I couldn’t do it. So what’s different about Skyrim? I think I’ve pinpointed the reasons: firstly, I didn’t feel like a pathetically weak individual at the start. I was taking down wolves and bandits immediately and while my progression had only just begun (and there was a loooong way to go), I was still swinging swords and maces and casting cool spells, and emerging victorious. And yet, the challenge was still there.

Secondly, the world just seems to have much more character than past Elder Scrolls entries. Maybe it’s the mountains or how the landscape is constructed, but I adore this environment because it matches the image in my head of a dream fantasy universe. Thirdly, I mentioned before the fact that you’re not restricted at all and while that may have been the case in past titles, I feel like any class could be great fun to use. Being a mage in Morrowind, for instance, felt needlessly tedious. Fourthly and lastly, the missions seem much more entertaining and diverse.

Problems? Oh, there are a few minor ones, I suppose. The “follow” mechanics don’t work right, for instance. You can hire mercenaries and other characters to accompany you on your travels – which can be a big help – and that tends to work out okay. But when I tried leading a civilian to a sanctuary (he asked me to), it was frustrating. Once, he went off to attack a deer that I didn’t engage, and he ended up dying ‘cuz he only had his fists. Another time, he just walked off into the river and disappeared. And when I finally got him there, I got nothing for my trouble.

And there are a few small glitches and hitches seemingly common to open-world Bethesda games. Pop-in is a definite issue throughout, and NPC animations can be jerky and totally bizarre. Collision detection is a tad off, too. But these are very minor, primarily because after about 12 hours of play, I had only seen each a few times. And the bottom line is that none of it significantly hampered my enjoyment. I had to laugh when a giant I wasn’t supposed to fight clubbed me to death and sent my body spiraling off into the stratosphere. But really, no biggie.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is a beast of an RPG. It’s the ultimate in freedom, exploration and immersion. It features a fantastic and diverse visual spectrum, excellent audio, solid control, limitless choice and almost no restriction, and above all else, a world that opens our imaginations and begs us to return. There are a few small drawbacks that can’t be ignored and in truth, all those missions detract from the central narrative and almost make it disappear. But for the first time, I’ll say I don’t need it. This is about personal envelopment and progresson.

Damnit…said I wouldn’t ramble but I think I did. Well, the game deserves the attention. ;)

The Good: Unbelievable graphics for such a huge environment. Fantastic audio. Great control. Diverse, engaging missions. Radiant quest structure elongates the adventure indefinitely. Ultimate freedom in gameplay and exploration. Meticulously designed and constructed fantasy world.

The Bad: A few of those familiar glitches. Follow mechanics aren’t exactly perfect.

The Ugly: “Goddamn you, Skyrim, I have all these other games I want to play and you won’t let me escape!”

11/10/2011   Ben Dutka