I’ve never heard so many grown men gush in unison. The office is awash with swooning artists and designers gazing longingly into the middle distance. Love is in the air. The object of their fawning is Skyrim, an RPG set in the frosty mountains where dragons soar and giants prowl. What has become of our hitherto hard-nosed industry vets? They’ve regressed into over-enthusiastic fanboys. Bethesda has finally made an Elder Scrolls game everyone can enjoy.
If someone pitched you Skyrim (or any Elder Scrolls game), you would be within your rights to think the designers had got a little carried away. Mechanics abound. If your heart desires, you can buy a pickaxe, mine some ore, smelt an ingot, forge a sword, sharpen it into a ‘fine’ sword, brew a potion, poison the sword, learn an enchantment, steal a soul gem, capture a soul, enchant the sword and then just sell the bleedin’ thing back to the pickaxe vendor for a tidy profit and you get to keep the pickaxe. Can’t say fairer than that. Mercifully, you will find other ways to make your fortune but the boundless freedom and facility to do whatever you like is what makes Skyrim so compelling.
I rarely get that into games’ stories, they are so often predetermined however well this is disguised by branching conversations and moral choices – give me gameplay every time. But I love when a game mixes the two with a meaningful decision. In Mass Effect 2, you weigh a dangerous species’ past crimes and potential future ones against its right to survive. There’s no right answer and the choice you make will impact your game – kill them all and they won’t turn up in future missions and various people will think more or less of you for what you’ve done. However, beyond a smattering of these throughout the game, your character’s arc is chosen for you. Skyrim is truly an open world and it’s so enormous and the options within it so numerous, you feel you can do anything. It has a main quest line but it isn’t given priority, you don’t need to complete parts to unlock other areas or quests lines. This freedom makes you think hard about what you want to do and once you’ve done that, you are much more invested in the choices you make. In Mass Effect 2, you can shape Shepherd’s story but in Skyrim it’s your story to tell. Linearity is a dot to them.
The combat is varied and well-balanced throughout with AI smart enough to make the harder difficulties pleasingly unforgiving. There’s a range of weapon types each with corresponding skill trees, 6 schools of magic and lots of opportunities to sneak around and catch your quarry unawares. Self-medication with potions and food allow you to boost your health, magic and stamina to withstand the abuse meted out by enemies far tougher than you until you can finish them off. And some of the baddies are no shrinking violets. Dragons will swoop down and rain fire on you while irascible giants will cover drive you for 6 to the rapturous appreciation of their Mammoth flock. And those are just the random encounters you will stumble upon out in the wilds. More monstrous beasts await you underground.
The range of crafting options gives significance to every plant and berry you discover on your travels. Pop home and that modest mushroom may be the missing ingredient for your magic potion or indeed your venison stew. Modifying weapons with poisons and enchantments is very satisfying and seeing their effects writ large on hapless victims is equally rewarding. Conversations have just enough significant choices to keep you on your toes and characters (and the occasional book) may offer tips to improve your skills. And the music…wow…it always takes a while to notice a game’s music and this was no different but now I am tapping along to the stirring, Nordic war songs and getting teary during the soulful, pastoral refrains. Some soundperson somewhere deserves a medal. Person, I salute you.
There are of course some janky bits but you are so into the game, you barely notice. Certainly for the first 10-20 hours you are too busy gawping at the sheer scale of the landscapes, the gorgeous art and the myriad options at your fingertips to gripe about bugs. Skyrim feels like a step up for the RPG genre. It’s a timely reminder that however constraining our 6 year old console hardware is becoming, the tech is not the limiting factor on the fun; the design is. The ambition of Bethesda’s designers has been rewarded at last.