(this screenshot is the copyright of Bethesda Softworks, LLC)
Ever since I got the new Playstation 3 as an early Christmas gift this month (Thanks Dave!), I've been mostly intrigued by the one game that appealed to my inner geek for all things medieval, or fantasy related. It has a storied history in the games industry called the "Elder Scroll" series since its inception in 1994, as an attempt to portray a first person perspective in full 3-D, not too different than what players would experience in other games like HALO for the X-Box. Earlier incarnations of the series, it had graphical limitations like DOOM that evokes an old school feeling from the infamous Might & Magic RPG series which actually predates the Elder Scrolls.
But today, the Elder Scrolls series has seen major improvements in the last several years now, graphically and game mechanics wise. What I can appreciate is the reputation the title carried over time with the gaming community and it has continued to do so. I have never, to be honest, played the Elder Scroll series despite my being familiar with the franchise.
That is, until now.
For the first time, I have purchased Elder Scrolls V: SKYRIM, the most critically acclaimed role playing game of the year and going through to 2012, if it has yet to be dethroned, which I think will be a difficult act to pull off. But I didn't just buy it out of curiosity but also to study and understand how great games tick and this is part of the work I do as a game designer/storyboard artist.
As of this date, I have managed to play the beginning parts of the game and have'nt explored it in its entirety. But what I can say is this:
HOLY. MOTHER. OF. GOD.
The game developers at Bethesda Softworks truly did a wonderful job on this. Hats off to them. It is one of the most graphically engaging and well thought out games I've ever seen in a long time. I cannot truly cover every thing in detail about the game and there are some things I shouldn't reveal so that the new players can experience it themselves.
This game is immense and I mean truly huge in scope. There are some slight differences between the X-Box and Playstation versions, but it doesn't matter much. I'm very happy with the latter due to the 160 GB storage capacity and seamless loading. The game package comes with a Blu Ray disc, a manual and a map of the land of Skyrim.
It will, once loaded, ask for installation. After the process is completed, you're off to a good start. The game opens up cinematically in a beautiful and quiet tone as the player wakes up bound in a wagon, carried by a horse and guard, along with three other men. Their voices and the sound of the horse's trotting while I'm looking around to the trees, sky, ground and so on, is very impressive, almost as close to what others have experienced in Call of Duty, for example. The characters will begin to speak to you in dialogue that almost comes straight out of a fantasy novel. I won't reveal in detail of the beginning sequence because it has to be experienced to be believed.
I can safely say that players can customize the character to their liking during the beginning sequence, so rest assured, from racial qualities and physical attributes. It's simple and elegant. One nice thing about this game is the ability to use subtitles to read the dialogue and this can be very helpful for people who are deaf or hard of hearing. They can also be turned off for those who prefer not to use them.
After the beginning sequence has run its course, I ended up in another village and had my first dungeon crawl nearby inside the mountains uphill. The character interactions in the village are very well done and follow a familiar structure that is commonly seen in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic by Bioware, or any RPGs that have that format.
But what stunned me was the game's vast nature. That means, I can go. anywhere. I. want. I can chill out in the village for a while before I head out to a destination. Or I can go somewhere else in a side quest in any order. The game definitely has a storyline built-in, which is obvious, but the sheer scale of immensity is incredible.
In the village, I could, if I wanted to, use the blacksmith's equipment to build weapons, armor, etc, provided I have the right ingredients. The same goes for an Alchemy lab. The skills can be upgraded as the character levels up. In fact, the more you use a particular skill, say sneaking around, the more the skill's level increases. If you don't use a skill for a long time, it decreases, to my understanding. Players can even equip a weapon and shield on both hands, or cast a spell that does have a certain limit depending on how much magic energy you carry. Players also have to keep in mind of the weight limit carrying items in their inventory, which the heavier the weight limit, the slower the reaction time he/she will have to the surroundings and combat.
Also, I do recommend saving the game progress time to time because you will want to.
When I experienced my first dungeon delve, I was stunned at the detail and quality of lighting, mood and shadows. And this was a long crawl to the quest objective. If you make a sound, enemies can hear you unless you sneak and they can't detect you. I could use a bow and arrow if I needed to in there or outside. That particular quest I undertook was reminiscent of a classic Dungeons and Dragons module called The Keep on the Borderlands.
Some times, when the lighting is right, you could see shadows of the enemies on the walls, even your own. It's a very cool effect. I've had to fend myself against some of the undead warriors, some who would scream in their own unintelligible language that almost sounded Norse-like. The combat mechanics do take a bit of getting used to but they work quite well, even effectively if one knows what they're doing, using the weapons to a particular effect.
Once I finished that quest, I ended up back outside, on the other side as if I was relieved to see the light of day.
The vista view while standing out from the other side of the dungeon blew me away, from on top of the mountainside. I could see mountains from all over stretching out to the horizon. Clouds moved slowly just like in real life. Cold fog brushed about. Even the water in the lake had a shimmer to it and got more detailed the closer you walked to it. You can walk or run over or around the mountains or hills, even forests in such crisp detail. When it comes to environmental detail, no other RPG holds a candle to it.
NOT even Zelda: Ocarina of Time or later versions, while there is a place for it. The game's day and night cycle works beautifully when the sun sets, revealing the stars showing up in the sky and the moon rising with the night clouds swirling about, slowly. I think I heard crickets as well. You could just stand there and look at the stars in the night-time as time goes by. There are animals or monsters in the wilderness, so one should beware when traveling. Even one can have a horse, or buy a house in a city to store your own items. It's almost like living in a virtual world.
It's that deep in layers with a lot of things involved. If you liked Tolkein's Lord of the Rings, SKYRIM is the game for you.
If you're into George R.R. Martin's Game of Thrones novel, then by the gods is this game perfect for you for it does have that exact feel especially when winter is the perfect time to play it. It has a wonderful cinematic evocation.
It definitely has a feeling of living inside a fantasy novel with characters who have their own racial languages and culture which is a nice touch. The non player characters you interact with, for the most part, are proud people and if you do things right, they'll honor your presence. Some can be hired to assist you during quests. Some will slap on your back exuding the attitude of "We shall die together in pride! Down with the Empire!" as if you're given the special right to enter a pseudo-"Valhalla" after battle. Of course, the equivalent of Vahalla in this game would be the belief of Oblivion, to a degree.
As they say "By Oblivion!".
Playing this game can be a very empowering experience for those who wish to die well with pride by their blade or be part of the glory of a proto-nordic culture [addendum: Icelandic is the word I'm looking for], being bestowed by the gods to fight the good fight. It's an experience that one has to soak in without rushing through. The soundtrack is beautiful and haunting, unless you're a metal head, then by all means, turn off the game music and play Amon Amarth in the background which I think is the perfect metal band for this.
I'm a bit surprised Bethesda has'nt approached this band to provide some kind of metal ballad which would have been glorious, only as a promotional.
It is not for the faint hearted or wusses. This. is. HARDCORE.
Oh, and you do get to fight dragons in there.
I highly recommend it for those who own an X-Box 360/PS-3 and are into fantasy RPGs. For more detailed reviews of the game, I recommend looking up ign.com.
And ending on that note, as the Song of Skyrim goes:
(Original Non-translated version)
Naal ok zin los vahriin
wah dein vokul mahfaeraak ahst vaal
ahrk fin norok paal graan
fod nust hon zindro zaan
Dovahkiin fah hin kogaan mu draal
ahrk fin kel lost prodah
do ved viing ko fin krah
tol fod zeymah win kein meyz fundein
Alduin feyn do jun
kruziik vokun staadnau
voth aan bahlok wah diivon fin lein
by his honour is sworn
to keep evil forever at bay
and the fiercest foes rout
when they hear triumph's shout
Dragonborn for your blessing we pray
and the scrolls have foretold
of black wings in the cold
that when brothers wage war come unfurled
Alduin bane of kings
ancient shadow unbound
with a hunger to swallow the world
UPDATE: I also want to add that the game does NOT have online multiplayer, to the dismay of many players since it is Bethesda's intent to have it be a single player experience. I can understand where they're coming from and hopefully someday they will have a patch to include it, or for their next iteration of Elder Scrolls. It does have some online features to stream trophies and awards for making milestones, comparing your progress with other online users. It is just a remarkable game to be experienced, nonetheless.
If I have overlooked anything, please do correct me.