Game Review: Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

There be dragons here...

This morning my older daughter pointed out how messy our house is at the moment.  One of the main reasons for this involve our Christmas decorations spread all over the living room and the fact that last night our tree toppled over.  I’m not sure if it was the fault of the cat, the overly weighty gumdrop garland or the fact that the trunk is horribly thin and when the tree lot dude nailed the base onto it the trunk split… either way; the tree, the ornaments and the water in the base spread asunder for me to clean.

That said, that is not quite what my daughter meant about the mess in the house.  When I asked her who was to blame for that mess, she responded first by blaming her little sister.  I told her that she was not to blame.  Next, she volunteered herself.  I told her that she was not to blame.  The quizzical look on her face as her brow furrowed and her eyes went searching for the answer in space was priceless… the look she had when I told her it was my fault was even better.

She didn’t understand what I meant.  How could it be my fault when I’m usually the one cleaning up?  I did my best to explain… Mrs. Blahg kicks us all into gear on the weekends to pick up our messes we have made over the week… but it is me who, more often than not, deals with the daily chores of dishes, cooking, laundry and basic picking up of bowls, plates, cups and random pieces of “art” the kids seem to create and then dismiss.

Over the last few weeks, I have slacked off on my duties in favor of the cursed time suck that is the PS3… and the latest bane of my social and parental existence is Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.  Sitting down for an hour of play is simply not an option.  You can try… but before you know it, it’s 2:30 in the morning and you are still coming up with reasons to sit there and adventure away to your hearts content.

So… what is Skyrim?  If you are a gamer, chances are you know exactly what this open world RPG adventure game is, and probably, a much greater understanding of its predecessors than I.  When I was asking some of my work mates who were getting ready to play about the history, and specifically whether or not I could, or would want to, play the previous installments, I was told that I could play the original if I had a machine that could run MS-DOS.  That gave me a great idea as to its lineage… it’s old.  The most recent game, Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, seems to be held in very high regard to a very specific type of player… namely RPG loving Dungeons and Dragons geeks who finally get a chance to live in the fantasy world so often dreamt of via painted figurines and 20 sided dice.

I must admit… I was one of those geeks.  But what is even more sad, because I was quite a bit younger than many of my friends growing up (at least the friends I admired most and seemed to have the most in common with), I couldn’t even find anyone who would actually engage in a D&D campaign with me.  That was the realm of nerds… and I was alone.  By the time I was old enough to probably find a group of fellow geeks, I shunned that world myself in favor of things like girls… and friends who didn’t need asthma inhalers and coke bottle glasses.

I recall my childhood best friend and me going to a rec center where his older brother was playing D&D.  I was enthralled by the aforementioned painted figures meant to represent your character… the multi sided dice… the Monster Manuel, Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide… and ultimately, the spirit of medieval adventure… of knights, orcs, elves and trolls.  A “Choose Your Own Adventure” game of Tolkien proportions… what was not to love!?  Now, at the tender age of almost 40… I get to relive those fantasy worlds… and so help me, they have never been more beautiful and fully realized that this.

The story of Skyrim opens 200 years after the events of Oblivion (whatever those were) and your character is a prisoner on his way to execution.  After a brief cart ride and some official, “OK, you over there… who are you?”, you must select your character.  First, you pick a race… three types of elf, an orc, a few different forms of human and a couple of odd cat and lizard people.  Each race has a specific advantage and disadvantage and allows you to customize your playing style based on the strengths and weaknesses of the specific race you have chosen.

My initial choice was a wood elf.  Good with sneaking around and archery… a style that appeals to the sniper in me.  From there you get to customize your facial features… hours could be spent perfecting your face, weight, war paint and scars.  Together with my girls, we crafted a decent looking wood elf.  Unfortunately, I didn’t know wtf I was doing when I first started playing and spent hours and a few days basically pushing forward on the main quest, ignoring all side quests and eventually putting myself in a position of being way to weak for the level I was attempting.  Running away from everything because they kill you in seconds is not fun.

After returning to work where cadres of fellow geeks are currently playing Skyrim as well, I picked their brains and began to understand the error of my ways.  For starters, wood elves suck.  There are three main types of player in Elder Scrolls… Mages (magic users), Warriors and Thieves.  Turns out, using magic in this game is a lot of fun and I was treating my wood elf like a mage.

I also learned my lesson about side quests and more importantly, began to understand how you level up in this game.  Unlike many games where you gain experience points based on kills or completing quests and missions, this game levels you up based on increases in skill level for a number of individual categories.  For instance, if I use my bow a lot, my archery skill level increases which will also increase my overall level progress.  If I sneak around people successfully, my sneak skill level bumps up and my overall level bumps up accordingly.  I didn’t get this.

With a new fire lit under my ass, I went home after leaning of this and created a new character… a Breton (which I think corresponds with a French guy… sort of).  After realizing how much fun being a magic user is, I chose this character for his particular abilities and the fact that he is naturally immune to 25% of magic.

Here’s another problem of playing this game… and talking about it.  When I talk about my magic levels, or which spells I prefer, or which melee weapon I’ve enchanted with a frost damage enchantment or soul trap… I want to punch myself.  Society has managed to make me hate the very things I enjoy because they fall into the “super geek” category reserved for people who even know what a 20 sided die is.

What I didn’t expect however, is just how engrossing the game would be.  The story is alright, I don’t care too much about the history of the land and the civil war going on between Imperials and the Stormcloak Rebellion… but if I wanted to go into gross detail about it, the game gives you that option.  There are books to read within the game itself that will fill you in on just about everything in this land.  The story regarding my character as being “dragon born” is a bit more interesting.  Apparently, dragons have always been a myth in these lands… until one shows up and it’s later discovered that when I kill a dragon, I can absorb its soul and create what’s known as a dragon shout.  Most quests and the main storyline revolve around this fact.

Which now brings me to another point about this game… it has dragons!  And you get to fight them!

What becomes engrossing is how you have to balance so many different aspects of gameplay.  Increasing the correct skills to accomplish what you are trying, smithing your own weapons, crafting your own potions and poisons, selecting which weapons and armor to keep and to sell and how you wish to interact with people throughout the game.  You are given choices, and those choices have random consequences.  Which faction will you side with?  What group will you join up with?  Will you pay the roaming bandits money to let you pass or will you tell them to bugger off and kill them?

In addition to the gameplay and all of the choices available, the open world that is Skyrim is absolutely freaking ginormus.  The map of Skyrim is huge… and going from one location to another takes quite a long time… more so when you stop at every cave, barrow and crypt along the way… and even more so after you get attacked by wolves, trolls, dragons, bandits, assassins (I had one of those carrying a note with my name on it and an order to kill me), bears and a mystical forest dweller known as a Spriggan.

The scenery throughout is magnificent.  Gorgeous landscapes incorporating high snowy peaks, large meadows, boulders, an amazing night sky complete with aurora borealis and a moon that passes through phases.  Castles and keeps… towns and walled cities… vampires and werewolves… giants and mammoths… I have yet to see where the edge of this world is, and I am thinking I may never.

A couple of my friends at work have already completed the main quest, yet have not finished everything.  Another friend had mentioned how Oblivion could conceivably be played for 10 years if so interested… chances are, Skyrim could be in that same vein.  Huge, beautiful, riveting at moments when the music swells during an action moment or a particular discovery of a word wall and a hell of a great deal of fun.

If RPG is your thing… you will love the countless possibilities that Skyrim has to offer.  Is it perfect?  Far from it… there are glitches and flaws throughout.  But given the scope and scale of this game, and the utter pleasure of playing it, I can give it a pass… and then some.  I was considering reviewing this game in the manner I reviewed Infinite Jest… in multi-parts as I was playing… but I decided on one monster of a post describing the time suck and deleterious effects of beginning to play this game.  If you can sit down and play this for an hour and walk away… good on you… because I can’t seem to pull that off to save my life.

Better than the ren faire,
Cornelius J. Blahg

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