Skyrim Review
9.6our score

Here are the top 7 things I hate about Skyrim. I’m not going to bore you with the details of the game itself, I’m going to work on the assumption you’ve heard of it and the other Elder Scrolls games, and that you are fairly on board with what it’s aiming to do. I’m just going to pitch straight in and tell you what I hate about it.

I think his mate saw me.

7. Some of the features I enjoyed in previous iterations of the game aren’t there any more. Specifically, the realism of the weapons and armour degrading over time. Having a sword that retains its edge however often I bash it through the face of a bandit just isn’t realistic. I used to do a bit of battle re-enactment, I know for a fact that a shiny shield boss stays shiny and new for precisely as long as you fail to use it for. Now I can just use my gear all the time for as long as I want to, and there’s nothing to stop me other than getting tired of it and wanting to change into whatever has caught my eye most recently. And where is the lock-picking game from Oblivion? Those devilishly frustrating tumblers were a great minigame, I thought. It really made me feel like a thief.

Now, both of these features were arguably annoying, tedious and fiddly. I always felt they added hugely to the experience of the game, though, and it’s a shame that they’re gone.

Everything you see makes you want to explore more.

6. The storytelling is uneven. Some examples – following my guide to a distant shrine, I was set upon by first a wolf pack and then a ragged bunch of bandits in rapid succession. The guide didn’t give a damn, he just kept on trucking, so intent on leading me to my destination that he couldn’t be bothered to see if I was still there. I got very lost and angry, and when I eventually caught up to him, wasn’t allowed to do anything about it. He was too essential to the story, I guess, so I could hit him as much as I wanted and he’d basically ignore me, neither dying nor getting riled up. Anybody who’s protected by the game mechanics, however important it is for the overall plot, makes the game feel broken, like seeing your GM fudge a dice roll.

A second example – in the midst of a stirring action sequence, I was following a group of guards to defend some vital city defences. On our way there, I saw at least three other things so interesting I desperately wanted to stop and explore them, but felt the pressure to help defend so keenly I didn’t have the heart to stop and stare. And when I came back later, they’d gone – the random encounter had finished, the people involved had moved on, and I felt I’d been robbed of a visceral experience. But fair enough, I suppose.

Amazing views are everywhere.

A third example – the stories are extremely varied from quest to quest. A typical sequence might go ‘Gritty Norse darkness, political machination, entrancing thriller, ghost story, Gritty Norse Darkness, Talking dog! Gritty Norse darkness.’  I can’t settle into one thing when fifteen others are constantly pulling at me, it’s bewildering. This amazing diversity is hardly something to complain about, especially in a market where most games have virtually none. But it can play against itself when you’re not careful, too much of a good thing is confusing.

5. Too Much Combat. Also a bit harsh. This is open and unsettled wilderness. And it’s hardly the hilarity of vast chunks of every MMO ever, where if the local mobs are bears then there will literally be one bear for every two square metres in a forest. Remember that sampling square from GSCE biology, where you throw it randomly on the ground and then count the creatures inside it to get an idea of the local diversity? Well, there are parts of World of Warcraft where the square would never hit the ground, it would just bounce off a whole bunch of bears. That doesn’t happen here, but there’s still a slight tendency for too many tertiary predators to turn up in the same part of the world. It’s also a bit bizarre in the way the fights sprawl and spill into each other. I got into a four-way with some bandits, some mudcrabs, a mammoth and a dragon (as the actress said to the bishop) only last night, and the stupidest thing about it was that the Mammoth won by miles. That feels deeply wrong, but at least one can’t complain about the landscape being monotonous.

The unpopular 'Breath Ice Mammoth' was cut during development

4. I’m too heroic. Okay, the standard for RPG games is that you happen to be born in the right time with the right magic abilities in the right place to accidentally stumble into some massive world-threatening sequence of events. But one of the things I liked about Oblivion was that  I didn’t start off feeling like an uberlord of everything, I had to earn it. Here, as in Morrowind, you are luckily the chosen one. But on top of being the chosen one, in Skyrim that happens to mean you have Jedi-like super powers. Straight off the bat, I stop feeling like a tiny cog in the uncaring vastness of a medieval fantasy in which I must forge my own destiny, something the last two caught extremely well. Hell, I was reluctant to even bother with the main quest in Morrowind. I really wasn’t interested in the religious war of a bunch of moody dark elves. I only helped them out grudgingly at best, and then only because I’d run out of things to steal.

At school, nobody ever high-fived the lonely wight.

Not so in Skyrim. Here, my magical shouting marks me out as unique straight away, and I sort of feel like everyone looks up to me too much from the get go. I wanted to earn that feeling of being special, and it’s taken away from me. Even worse, I know that millions of other people out there are also the unique chosen one. How dare they! This game should be mine and mine alone.

3. Not original enough. It’s utterly annoying that this vast, beautifully-woven epic, truly worthy (in terms of its level of world detail and borrowed Nordic lore) could immediately be labelled Tolkien-esque.  Yes, it’s another plunderer of Saxon and Norse myth. Yes, it’s got everything you expect in a fantasy RPG. Thieves guilds, werewolves, mead halls, lost dwarven holds, wraith-haunted barrows, giant bloody spiders, ancient prophesies coming to life, dark forces threatening the world, etc etc etc. One of the first big cities you see is so directly stolen from Lord of the Rings that it makes me feel very tired. Is this really all you can come up with, Bethesda? I’ve seen so much more interesting takes on classics than this.

Tranquil and gorgeous. Because I've just killed everything nearby.

No, fair enough, I’m lying. I can’t pretend for a moment longer, not even to try and make this review stand out in the midst of all the general chorus of ecstatic praise, that I could genuinely say this is a problem. Fine, Whiterun looks a lot like the capitol city of the Rohirrim. Dragonsreach is a clone of Meduseld, there, I’ve said it. I do not really give a damn – this is a bit generic, but I love that genre so much that a chance to explore a fresh new Rohan City makes me so excited I could giggle helplessly and cry with glee all at once. For every hackneyed cliche in here, there are nine or twelve amazingly realised and unique locations.

2. Doesn’t make as much of a graphical leap as I expected. I forced my wife to start playing the game with me, much to her long-suffering horror. She’s been hearing me ranting on about how amazing the game will be for months, and she sort of just about enjoys the character generation part that I could justify dragging her along to do that for me (I’m no good at it, my characters always look like a bum painted onto a melon). Title sequence rolls, and the very first thing she says is ‘It doesn’t look that great. I thought you said it would be amazing?’

Breathtaking. Also, Cold.

I went into a defensive tirade at once, explaining I was only running it on medium settings (as pre-selected by my recently upgraded graphics card) and anyway look at the size of the world and the predicted freedom. My argument was undercut by a long and faintly irritating sequence on rails, in a landscape which looked so similar to Oblivion that I really couldn’t help but secretly feel gutted that my wife was right. The stone textures, the angular pines – they haven’t improved as much as I thought. I’d been playing Oblivion earlier in the week too, in a forlorn attempt to make the release come quicker, so I know what I’m on about. Although that’s also, in a way, testament to how well made Bethesda’s games are. A five year old title does age well.

Conan, on the other hand, hasn't.

I did turn the options up, though, and whilst it hasn’t leapt forward as much as something like Rage has in terms of eye-slaying sharpness, it’s still gorgeous. Detail and atmosphere are everywhere. I saw a headless horseman in a mountain pass at one point. A gorgeous forest pool filled with standing stones in another. The water and mist effects are mesmerising, the myriad creatures and characters wonderfully animated and very physical in their presence. The world lives and breathes around you.

1. This game has ruined my life. I’ve become an obsessed bore. I have lost the ability to talk about other things, or sleep, or concentrate on reality. Fine, reality has better resolution on the graphics and the ultimate in free choice, open-ended sandbox gameplay. But no dragons, or magical moon-powered axes, or exquisite beech forests full of ancient ruins. Okay, it might have some of those. But I can’t enjoy them from the comfort of my own armchair. Previously, game addict as I am, there was still hope for me. I could at least hold my head up high and tell people I am a doctor-turned-actor who also writes for a living. Now, I am essentially a flabby organic adjunct to my PC mouse.

This is genuinely a terrible thing, that this incredible computer game is so immersing. I’ve played a mere 14 hours since it came out last week, according to Steam, and it feels like 2. This game can and will eat your spare time like a poisonous Viking termite (they’re featured in the game, by the way), and will constantly drag on your willpower to achieve things of actual worth and importance in your life. I felt marginally better when I heard a work colleague admit to having stayed up until 0500 this morning playing it on her brother’s X-box. But not really – Skyrim will almost certainly cost a lot of companies and families both money and time better spent elsewhere. Bethesda has a lot to answer for. At least you can be sure they’ve sacrificed as least as much themselves.

Even shots of the night sky are pretty sweet.

So there you go, all the bad things I could come up with. I struggled to get as far as seven, really, I was aiming for ten. This is a monumental game, landmark stuff, and it’s hard to think of how to actually improve it. All of my above points are thoroughly true and I stand by all of them. But as the score below reflects, my heart is not in the criticism here, I’m just being perverse. It’s really that I’m just desperate to find reasons to spend less time playing it. I wish it was worse, I really do, because it’s going to be a painful draw on my evenings for some months to come. 14 hours of play has merely scratched the surface of something utterly huge and engrossing. It won’t be to everyone’s taste, obviously – the geeky teenage fantasy note will put some off, and the sprawling world is overwhelming to the point that it really does saturate you, there is too much to take in at once. Savour this like the finest of wines, if you can, and it will repay you with moment after moment of awe and wonder. I, however, will be drowning in this vintage until bubbles come out of my ears. Goodbye, everyone, I have to save Tamriel from darkness by stealing all its plates.

Feeble ice mage shown for scale.

the author

Used to be a Doctor (Dr). Now is an actor (Ar), writer (Wr) and gamer (Gr), and would like to get all these abbreviations into general usage, because GrArWr is a much more interesting title to have on your bank card.

  • Jeremy

    Excellent review – I had a moment there where I thought you were actually genuinely angry at the game. Brilliant, sir, brilliant.

    Weirdly, my defining moment isn’t a set piece. It came just wandering about. It wasn’t a fight or even a dragon. I was nw of Solitude (A city in the game, beautiful too) and swum out to a small island north of a cave. I turned around and just stopped.

    In game it was early evening, all grey sky. There was mist. By the cave mouth, a fire blazed, a yellow flicker against the night. And it looked so real, like something out of 13th Warrior. like a set piece. It really was a testament to how well the game has been made that even an incidental GLANCE makes the game look epic.

    That one shot made me realise how cold (as in temperature) and isolating the game world can make you feel – that cave contains horrors, the woodland beyond those crags is dark and foreboding, the water is icy and dark. There is no sanctuary here, even with the flame.

    Brilliant.

    Oh and dragons too. Loves me some flappy lizard.

  • Nick

    although I agree with most of your points I really miss critism on the controls. They are quirky to say the least, unless you’ve played and reviewed a non-pc version.

  • Kraken Wakes

    The controls I didn’t have much of an issue with, personally. Maybe I’m too used to the previous versions, I don’t know. There is a bit of frustration with constantly having to open either your inventory or your favourites bar, it breaks up the action and interrupts the flow of the game. But otherwise I found the use of one or both hands pretty pleasing and intuitive.

    What’s your beef, chief?

  • http://www.shadow1980.co.uk Evil Tactician

    I could think of a hundred questions about this game, I’m not playing it for a while as I’d like a version with some of the DLC they’ll undoubtedly spawn quicker than I can play through the game.

    What is the spell-casting interface like in Skyrim? I found it a bit lacking in Oblivion.

    On a similar topic, I’m curious about the inventory system.

    In terms of NPC interaction, does the world feel more ‘alive’? In Morrowind, the world felt a bit static at times, Oblivion vastly improved this but still had a fair few issues with the daily cycles of NPC’s. Has the number of voice actors increased vs. Oblivion?

    Combat wise, the AI was pretty dumb/straight forward in previous installments, has this got any better?

    In terms of creating a spec/build for your character, Oblivion and Morrowind made me re-roll over and over just because I felt I was ‘missing out’. There was some re-playability by playing a totally different class, though I never felt the story / options at your disposal sufficiently differed as a result.

    In terms of clothing, are the layers from Morrowind back or do we have a similar more shallow system as Oblivion did?

    Horses. Do they suck less.

    P.s. I love Morrowind and Oblivion. But the more you love something, the more you see it’s flaws. I am hoping Skyrim at least matches its predecessors.

  • Kraken Wakes

    Excellent questions all! And in order, here are my answers: -

    1. Spell casting has the same slightly clunky interface as all equipment, in that you’ve got so many options that you quickly run out of hotkeys for all your favourites. But it’s not bad at all, and spells in particular are much more visually impressive and hard-hitting than I found in Oblivion. You can also dual wield them, having a ranged blast in one hand and a magical shield in the other, for example, which is great.

    2. The inventory is fine by me – a neat scrolling through categorised gear, with the option of carefully examining individual items. Everything appears in your pack with the same graphics they have in the world, so it all looks good. Sometimes it’s a little easy to click outside the menu and accidentally close it, but that’s a minor niggle.

    3. In terms of a living world, I wouldn’t say it’s a massive step forward from Oblivion. But it’s much more fluid and seamless. Heaps more voice acting, lots of local individual touchs (like the innkeeper in Markath with the nagging wife, or the farmer’s daughter I passed who was arguing about running off to the big city. Not even quest related, as far as I can see, just lovely flavour). So you buy into it that much more, it’s very immersive.

    4. The AI still isn’t the smartest, really, but again, it’s better implemented and more believable. Badly wounded guys submit to you, or limp away crying (they always try and sneak back later, though). They heal if they can, about as effectively as you’re able to yourself. They’re not generally smart enough to avoid traps, although some lurk on the far side with bows and try and lure you in. You’ve basically got chargers or you’ve got circle-and-shoot types, on the whole, but all very well animated and a good variety of combat barks. Dragons are the most cunning and variable in their approach, strafing with fire and circling out of reach before landing on your head for a kill!

    5. There is now no special class, and the stats are reduced to a bare minimum. The skills you use are the ones you get better at, but this is even across the board, so no need to pick what you’re going to use in advance. Very flexible, but because of the new perk system, you’ll still want to play again with different builds to experiment with other abilities. The old star signs are now located on standing stones throughout the world, and once you’ve found them you can swap about at will. I think this works very well, myself, it’s clear and intuitive whilst giving a lot of depth. To add to this, I think the level cap will probably mean you’ll get more out of picking one or two guilds to finish with one playthrough, then start a fresh character to get the most out of another later.

    6. Clothing still a bit basic, no layers. Armour or pants, which means my viking lady flashes an alarming amount of leg for a frozen climate. Lucky she’s a frost-proof Nord. But I don’t find this a big deal, you’ve got so many options anyway that there’s enough to be going on with!

    7. Horses suck less. Still feel a bit slow, though, plus I find I get more out of wandering on foot. But that’s fair enough, really, they’re only really there as a faster travel option at the moment. Add in Mount and Blade style combat, and I’d see the point in them. At the moment they feel like expensive vanity items to me. Therefore I have one.

  • http://www.shadow1980.co.uk Evil Tactician

    Very in-depth answers – my thanks :)

    While I’m at it – some more ;)

    How do you feel about the selection of weapons? I quite liked archery in Oblivion as a concept, but always felt it a bit lacking compared to swords. In fact, I found all weapons lacking compared to swords.

    Same for Armour – there were really only a few viable armour sets in Oblivion long-term. Heavy armour was always a bit too heavy until you were extremely skilled at it, which was a shame. Especially with light armour getting a massive bonus once you were very skilled.

    How does armour work for a mage/caster? I assume you can walk around in a full armour set and still cast to your hearts content? On a related note, it’s a pity they removed the option to fly, that’s the one thing that made me feel incredibly powerful as a caster in Morrowind. Same for the layers of clothing, heavily enchanted of course.

    In terms of housing system, is there more depth this time around? Mods made the housing system fairly detailed in Oblivion but in Vanilla it was severely lacking. The DLC improved this somewhat but your options were in rather remote locations and largely felt static/dead rather than alive.

    I have no doubt I will play this. When is the question though. :( I guess it depends on how much content/dlc they release, when the game of the year edition becomes available and when SW:TOR gives me back a small part of my life. (As I am about to lose a large chunk of it, of that I have no doubt…)

    Still, I believe Skyrim will become utterly awesome when the larger and more detailed mods arrive on the scene.

  • Kraken Wakes

    Weapon selection seems great to me. Axes, swords and maces all have single- and double-handed versions, and all feel slightly different to use. Shields have a great set of bashing perks that makes them deadly in their own right. And there are loads of different styles – the good old iron-up-to-daedric basic material, plus a few interesting side-branches like ancient Nord versions from barrows or Felmer versions made from bits of giant insect. Bows are a little tougher to use, you can’t just run backwards spewing quills like a reversing porcupine any more, but they do a lot more damage than they did in Oblivion to make up for it. Enemy archers are often a real threat.

    Same deal with armour – mages can go steelclad, the main difference between light and heavy is now your speed with perks giving all sorts of bonus to reward you wearing matching sets, and you can enchant it all to your heart’s content.

    I’ve only bought one house so far, but it feels very much like home! Warm and comfortable, and much more enticingly laid out than Oblivion’s houses, but nothing wildly elaborate.

    Dunno about flying. I hope so, but I think might be a late game spoiler thing, and the biggest joy in Skyrim is the discovery! Don’t read up too much before you buy it, is my recommendation. My recommendation is also to stop beating about the bush and buy the game, though, the longer you leave it the more spoilers you’re going to stumble over. Mods and DLC will doubtless abound. I believe Bethesda’s plan is to follow the Oblivion model, and do fewer, larger packs. But who knows – will all be well worth the admission fee, I’m sure. The game is awesome now, and the mods will doubtless be the usual mix of vast amount of boring cheats and occasional spectacular gems!

  • http://www.shadow1980.co.uk Evil Tactician

    Again, great answers Kraken. This is one of your best write-ups yet, and you’re clearly extremely passionate about the game :) I will play it, don’t worry. And I’m fairly good about avoiding spoilers, besides for your review I have read very little about the game other than the stuff Bethesda have been sending over.

  • Bhazo the Mad

    I hate the fact that modern rpgs all seem to be little more than first person shooters. And Bethesda is the worst offender. I played the hell out of Morrowind, and it bothered me, but the world was large and the NPCs fairly entertaining. So I was distracted. Then I played Oblivion. The world seemed small, the NPCs generic. So I was no longer distracted and the FPSness of their approach to rpgs shone through. Then I played Fallout 3. I wanted to love that game. So badly that I go back to it every few months. But it just feels like a bad FPS. I miss the glory days of rpgs, where getting excited meant that I’d jump up and shoot out my joy, instead of missing my attack…