Despite the appeal of the stories and the landscapes, you won’t make it very far unless you strengthen your character through exploration and battle. After all, your character is your link to Skyrim and its stories. The character creation is more or less the same as Oblivion. You have several races to choose from, each with their own unique racial traits and/or powers. The one difference you will notice is that there is no longer a class selection. Bethesda did away with classes in Skyrim in favor of the player truly being able to shape the character in their own way, and I must say, it certainly feels great. Without the restrictions of choosing what major and minor skills you would like to use in the beginning, Skyrim lets you use the skills you want from the start, never fencing you in.
Another addition to the leveling system is Perks. Whenever you level up, which you do by increasing your skills several times, you get the opportunity to set a perk in one of your skills. This make your skills better in certain ways, like making your Sneak or One-Handed weapon more effective, lowing the cost of certain spells, or even adding special abilities like power hits. With the addition of these perks, your character truly feels like they are being shaped and leveled the way you want them too.
In addition to the leveling, Bethesda has also tweaked and fleshed out the combat and its mechanics. The combat feels so much more fluid now, much more so than Oblivion. Every swing of the weapon feels more natural than before. Even the new ability to dual wield weapons and spells (or one of each) feels comfortable for the most part. It takes a bit of getting used to, having two different buttons to use in the main parts of combat, but eventually if feels right. The spellcasting has been improved upon much in the same way. Casting is now easier and more natural to aim, and feels much more rewarding when it hits the mark.
Bethesda also made the menus much more accessible; giving you the ability to easily access quests and plot them on the map with just a couple of button presses. The same is true for equipment and items, giving you quick access to them with a clean looking menu interface. Having the ability to set certain weapons, skills, and items to a special favorites menu makes your most important inventory even more accessible.
Though your skills and abilities are some of the best parts of Skyrim, they aren’t the only powers you will be using. As the Dragonborn, you have the ability to perform Shouts, words called out in the dragon language that, in a certain order, create special abilities like intense blast forces, ice, fire, and several other unique abilities. These powers are important parts of the story and you unlock their secrets as you complete more and more of the story. In addition to some cool abilities, they add more uniqueness to your character and aid in making you feel very powerful, almost as much as the creatures you have to slay to unlock such abilities.
The dragon fights are, without a doubt, some of the most monumental fights I’ve had in a video game and are, as I believe, how dragon battles should be: difficult, epic, and rewarding. In one instance where I was running up some snowy stares, a dragon swooped down on me unexpectedly. I knew I couldn’t take him out in the open, so I found a tall stone to duck behind when he blew his ice breath. While he flew around, I stayed covered so as not to get hit with his breath. When he would land, I would pick away at him with my bow or a combo of fire and lightning magic (dual wielding!), all while ducking behind the rock to avoid his attacks. Finally, after several close calls, one of my arrows felled him as he tried to take off. As I sat there, I really felt like I had accomplished something. That is one of the major aspects that separates the good games from the great ones: a sense of accomplishment and Skyrim gives you that in spades.
I know what you must be thinking by now: “Where are those ‘cracks’ you mentioned before all of this high praise?” Not to fear, I haven’t forgotten what I said. Skyrim has its issues and they are the same ones we give Bethesda a pass for but have plagued the previous two Elder Scrolls titles, as well as a couple from the Fallout series. The first one is the character models. Though the character models are definitely improved upon from Oblivion, the conversations with people still feel stale and unnatural. They mostly just talk and swing their arms or make a couple of programmed motions. However, the utilization of more than just a few voice actors makes for more interesting interactions with people. You won’t have to walk through a town and listen to the same three voices over and over …and over.
Along with the characters, the animations have definitely been improved upon. However, Skyrim still falls short of what most would call “great looking” animations. First-person view is definitely the way to go, so as not to see the jerking and odd looking movements as you attempt to do anything other than run in a straight line. Climbing up or down mountains in third-person is just silly looking and most of the time a good deal of your character gets sunk down into the mountain. This, as you can imagine, looks ridiculous. Pop-in textures also plague the lands of Skyrim, although they aren’t as annoying as Oblivion. Still, it can get quite annoying to see a table, door, or even a person *POP* into view out of thin air.
Finally, the load times are still annoyingly long and happen at inopportune times, such as in the middle of a conversation. They also plague you when you enter new areas, so just be ready. Lag also plays an irritating role in Skyrim. It’s nothing that will get in your way too much, but it can hinder gameplay at times.
These small (yet almost signature for Bethesda) problems may get on your nerves while you play, but they will certainly not ruin what may arguably be your greatest Elder Scrolls experience. Bethesda have always prided themselves on their immense games, combined with a grand storytelling and gameplay experience. Skyrim is nothing if not all of this and more, now with fluid combat and a leveling experience that is truly your own. It may not be perfect, but it is something to be admired and enjoyed.
FINAL GRADE: A+