When a new Elder Scrolls game is announced, the gaming world tends to sit up and take notice due to the fact that the brand has become synonymous with some of the very best action RPG experiences ever to hit the small screen. With the launch of Skyrim
, the Bethesda series is now in its fifth iteration and, unlike other long running series', the quality hasn't even so much as wavered in all that time.
Right from the title screen of Skyrim you know you're about to sit down to something that is nothing short of epic in its scope. The fantastic orchestral theme from previous games has been adapted to the more Nordic setting of Skyrim, and from its very first note on the main screen, the stage is well and truly set for one of the most expansive, involving and all round immersive video game experiences we have ever had the fortune to get our hands on.
Those of you who have played any of the previous games will settle in almost immediately. The game may have gotten the inevitable lick of paint that you'd expect from a title almost five years in the making, but there is still an air of familiarity about proceedings. While this may be the kind of thing that many people frown upon when it comes to other titles, it certainly isn't a bad thing when it comes to an Elder Scrolls game.
Things start off at a fairly pedestrian pace, giving you a brief idea of what is going on in the world of Skyrim. Sitting in the back of a carriage with a number of other prisoners, you learn the basics about the ongoing political turmoil that has affected the region. No sooner have you started to figure out that all is not right, than you arrive at your destination and learn that your fate is to be executed at the hands of the Imperial Guard. Which obviously isn't a great start to your day. It's at this point that you'll choose your character's race, and set the tone for how you will grow and evolve throughout the game - which doesn't look like lasting for much longer, given the speed at which the axe man liberated the first prisoner's head from his shoulders.
Fortunately, you're saved in the nick of time by the game's first sighting of a dragon. Within seconds buildings are crumbling and people are dashing around frantically trying to escape from the wrath of the huge beast, affording you and the other prisoners the perfect opportunity to make your escape, all the while being eased into the control system by the game. As tutorials go, you'll struggle to find anything more exhilarating than what's on offer here.
Just as with previous games, once you have gotten to grips with navigating around the world, using weapons and utilising some of the items found throughout the game world, things drop off to a more slow burning pace, focussed once again on building up the story and encouraging the player to approach things however they choose.
One thing that you need to remember about Elder Scrolls titles is that although they are quite action oriented, you're going to need to be willing to put in some serious time in order to get the most out of the experience. Talking to characters, taking on side quests and simply exploring the huge game world that extends around you all play a huge part in the game. Those of you looking for a quick fix will most likely feel that you have bitten off a little more than you can chew, but if you are willing to give it a chance and set aside a considerable amount of time to progress, you'll be suitably rewarded.
Set 200 years after the last title in the series, Oblivion, Skyrim builds upon much of the folklore we have learned about the game world to date. Those of you who are new to the series should have no problem in becoming immersed in the deep and rich mythology, and you'll be able to learn about legends, superstitions and regional history by reading the hundreds of books, or speaking to the countless non-playable characters as you make your progress through the game.
Before long, you learn that you are a member of a bloodline known as the Dragonborn, and as such, you are the last remaining chance that the world has to destroy the dragon god Alduin and bring peace to the people once again. In order to do this, you'll need to learn various Dragon Shouts, spells which enable you to take on the beasts without facing certain destruction.
The real beauty of the dragons' involvement in the game is that Bethesda have made them a random feature, meaning that rather than appearing all the time at scripted intervals, they can arrive at any time, in any place without a minute's notice. It's this kind of uncertainty and unpredictability that really makes the game feel so different to so many other titles on the market right now.
While it would be folly to take on Dragons too early, or without the right weapons, or while struggling for health, as your character gains strength, abilities and experience, you start to become a match for them, tipping the scales from being terrified of their approach, to being ready for the opportunity to claim another dragon soul and increase your powers even further.
While the combat in previous Elder Scrolls titles has been given a hard time by some, things have been improved considerably this time around. Rather than feeling clunky and unresponsive, you'll quickly learn exactly how to get the best out of each kind of weapon. Like other RPGs of its ilk, it will also be very important for you to keep an eye on the condition of your favoured weapons, and ensure that you keep them in good shape to ensure that you can call upon them whenever they are needed. For some, this might seem a little unnecessary, but when you've got a game as broad in scope as Skyrim, it really helps to add an extra air of challenge and realism to the fantasy world.
Speaking of the world in which Skyrim inhabits, it would be almost impossible to overstate just how big a role it plays in the overall feel of the title. There aren't many games where the setting feels quite as spectacular as the one here, and very early on you'll begin to see why the developers have been continually telling anyone who would listen that the environments are far and away their proudest accomplishments in Skyrim.
Whether it's the snow capped mountains above, the gorgeous forests dotted throughout the countryside, the long lost tombs and dungeons peppering the more out of the way sections of the huge map, or the beautifully modelled cities, there's always going to be something there to take your breath away.
The way everything comes together to feel like a real living and breathing ecosystem is nothing short of mesmerising. From the thousands of in game characters going about their own business to the scores of wild animals prowling the rural areas, you really do feel like the game world is an organic entity.
But of course none of this would be of any real interest if the game itself wasn't engaging, which it is. Almost criminally so.
Within the first few hours of play, you'll likely have more main quests and side quests ongoing at any one time than could possibly feel comfortable. Get used to it, because this is very much how Skyrim rolls. Almost everyone you speak to wants something from you, whether it's a minor quest like delivering a letter, or a major one on which the game's main plot hangs, you're going to be kept busy.
There's certainly quite a variety of different mission types available, however it's easy to see how someone could get a little overwhelmed at the amount of travelling they are going to need to do to get from A to B on a regular basis - something that is easily remedied by getting hold of a horse (something we recommend you do regularly unless you have more hours to spend playing games than you should).
Somewhat unbelievably, the number of side quests available within the game are technically infinite. Yup. You're not reading that wrong, the game actually generates new quests for you based on your progress throughout the game, meaning that the title can theoretically last forever, long after you have completed the main storyline; a daunting prospect given the fact that most people will easily plough 100+ hours into the main meat and drink of the game.
We've had Skyrim for a while now, and we're still only scraping the surface of many of the areas on the map. It's fair to say that you could play this game for the next few years and still miss out on things that your friends have experienced. Quite simply there's nothing else like Skyrim available out there today.
Those of you hoping for a massive graphical improvement will be a little disappointed. While the game certainly isn't a dog to look at, some of the textures are quite muddy and popup can be a minor issue that you'll have to get past. However the frame rate tends to be solid 99% of the time, and that's really what matters in this kind of game. Those of you who have gone back to the console versions of Oblivion will no doubt have noticed that it can be quite difficult to play thanks to the less than stellar frame rate, so it's nice to see that things have been addressed.
Unfortunately one thing that hasn't been addressed is the fact that Bethesda have yet again put out a game suffering from a number of launch day issues. The good news is that none of them are particularly game breaking, so you should be able to get past graphical and audio glitches - even if they do nothing for the level of immersion the game is trying to create.
So, where exactly does Skyrim stand in the bigger picture? We've made it quite clear that it's certainly in a class of its own in terms of delivering a truly unparalleled gameplay experience, with a huge number of quests to partake in, excellent presentation and top notch gameplay, but how does it measure up?
Quite well truth be told. In fact, we'd go so far to say that Skyrim has the potential to go down as one of the very greatest video games of all time. In terms of first play throughs, we can't think of anything that has offered so much, and the fact that there's so much more to do once you have finished the main storyline points to this being a real candidate for the upper echelons of Top 100 lists for years, and perhaps even decades, to come.
It's about as close to perfection as we have ever seen in this kind of game and, minor issues aside, it's certainly set the benchmark for everything to follow.