If you know me, you’ll know there’s five words you can say that will make me the happiest person in the world. Just five little words, ideally spoken in a thick, Nordic drawl, greeting me as I open weary eyes after a fitful sleep.
Hey, you. You’re finally awake.
Oh, Skyrim. It may be a decade and countless, endless re-releases later, but how you still make my heart soar.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (PC, PS3, PS4, Switch, Xbox 360, Xbox One [reviewed])
Released Nov 2011 | Developed / Published: Bethesda
Genre: RPG | HLTB: 34 hours
Do I need to explain Skyrim to you, dear reader? Surely not. Even if you’re not into games you’re probably aware of it in some capacity. It is, after all, one of the most utterly ubiquitous titles in modern gaming. In my review of Oblivion I described it as the current end point of the modernisation of The Elder Scrolls franchise, a far cry from the series’ roots as a strictly PC-only RPG. Although Morrowind was the first entry to make its way onto home consoles on the Xbox, its success was tied to its PC release; having played both versions of it, I can safely say Morrowind’s extensive stat screens, cluttered interface, and sheer scope made it ill-suited for a console release, even for the more powerful Xbox. However, it must have been a taste of things to come for Bethesda, who it seems stepped up their interest in widening the franchise’s reach, and when Oblivion released for PS3 and Xbox 360 as well as PC back in 2006 it seems they finally found a way to make the series function on consoles. For its detractors, that came in the form of a reduced focus on managing one’s stats, a more action-oriented combat system, and more hand-holding guidance for players stepping out into the wide world of Cyrodiil. However, for many (including myself) Oblivion represented a step in the right direction; yes it stumbled along the way, but its great success was in bringing the series forward to be playable for a wider audience, not just those on PC, and if that came at the cost of some of its complexity, then so be it.
Five years later, enter Skyrim. Thus far it represents the culmination of that process of modernising The Elder Scrolls and making it into a game as accessible by all as it can possibly be. And certainly there can be no doubt it achieved that – 10 years of re-releases and an almost undiminished sense of love for it can attest to that! But what about it has made it so inescapable and enduring this past decade?
Welcome to Skyrim, then. Our adventure takes us this time to the titular northern province of Tamriel. It’s a land of snowy tundras and autumnal forests, moors and mountains. It’s a place rich in history, pockmarked by great barrows hewn into the cold forbidding stone. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the wide-eyed amazement of exploring Skyrim. Even now I can still recall the cities and their streets; the humble thatched homes of Whiterun nestled among the plains, the vast fortress of the College of Magic at Winterhold, jutting out from the mountainside, and hanging impossibly over the ranging arctic seas below, the fog-shrouded hovels of Morthal, and the imposing masonry of Markath as it looms out from the eastern mountain ranges. Each of these locations is laden with memories for me from the hundreds of hours across dozens of playthroughs I’ve played. There are few games I’ve spent quite as long with as Skyrim, and as much as any game world, it honestly feels like coming home any time I replay it.
Thinking back on it now, there are few places in either Morrowind or Oblivion that resonate so strongly in my mind. I adore the weird world of Vvardenfell from the former; it remains one of the most gloriously alien landscapes I’ve had the pleasure of exploring in games, but what sticks out to me from it after all these years are broad ideas and the strangest elements of the world. In contrast, Oblivion’s Cyrodiil has little in terms of truly memorable locations for me, but as I said back in my review, exploring it gives me a sense of comforting familiarity, like I’ve stepped into the pages of a high fantasy novel I read as a child. Skyrim, on the other hand, has places seared into my mind. Not just the major cities I talked about above, but more than that; the world of Skyrim has been built with such care and love that it feels far more hand-crafted than its predecessor. Each dungeon and ruin, from Bleak Falls Barrow which serves as your tutorial once you exit the introduction through to the most obscure Dwemer city deep underground, all feel unique.
For those who care about the lore of The Elder Scrolls, Skyrim brings us into a world 2 centuries after the events of Oblivion. The Empire that we worked so hard to protect from Mehrunes Dagon’s invasion before is shattering, dying slowly and inelegantly before us. A sect of high elves called the Thalmor have built their own competing regime and in order to supplicate the Imperials they have instituted a ban on the worship of Talos, the man-made-God and ninth Divine at the centre of the Empire’s religion. Unfortunately for the Thalmor, they didn’t seem to predict this might wildly piss off the Nords, the race from which Talos himself came, and as a result Skyrim finds itself locked in a bloody civil war as the self-claimed High King Ulfric Stormcloak attempts to reinstate the region’s autonomy. In the midst of this arrives you, a lowly nobody, captured at the border and brought along to an Imperial execution because, hey, might as well, we’ve got a spare chopping block after all. You spend the customary 2 hours obsessively tweaking your character to make sure they’ve got exactly the right style and shape eyebrows because you’ve got to look right before you get your head lopped off by an Imperial headsman but just then your quest to get your noggin surgically removed via the medium of dirty great big battleaxe is interrupted by something no-one saw coming: a dragon!
I mean, no-one in the game saw coming; we all did because a) the fact there are dragons in this fantasy world was pretty much the entire marketing campaign in a nutshell, and b) IT’S BEEN 10 YEARS TODD, WE KNOW THERE ARE DRAGONS! Amidst the fire and chaos you heroically leg it, escaping into the wilderness of Skyrim, ready to follow your destined quest and investigate the sudden reappearance of the dragons in Tamriel or, more accurately, knob around in the world, exploring everything and just generally having fun being a nuisance. That might sound a tad facetious, but as is Elder Scrolls tradition, making your own fun and letting yourself get absorbed into your own roleplaying is a huge part of the fun. Your character is Dragonborn, which means that they can absorb the souls of dragons they defeat and by speaking words in the draconic tongue, unleash powerful spells that only drake-kind can normally use. To that end you are summoned to the peak of High Hrothgar to learn your craft from the venerable Greybeards, who all seem terribly worried about the reappearance of one dragon in particular called Alduin. The general quality of the main quest is sometimes called into question, but personally I don’t see much wrong with it; the only fault it has in my eyes is the fact that it’s having to compete with the rest of Skyrim for your attention.
This should come as no surprise of course, but there’s an awful lot of stuff for you to find and do. The customary lengthy quest lines return; not just the main quest, but obviously we can also join Guilds and there is also a civil war happening that needs to be solved as Skyrim threatens to tear itself apart over the legitimacy of Ulfric Stormcloak’s leadership. Obviously exploring the world lets you find tons of standalone quests as well, some simple and others much, much more elaborate in scope. By completing quests for the rules of each city you can raise your standing with them and eventually get the right to buy property or become trusted advisors to them, and in a fantastic touch as the war wends its way across the land you can find allegiances change and places that were once hostile or friendly shifting their attitude towards you. Skyrim also features the addition of “radiant” quests, which were much-touted during the game’s marketing as a way of building endless adventuring opportunities to keep you playing beyond the end of the game, but while it’s a nice idea in practice it mostly works out at giving you a bunch of generic goals to accomplish and little reward for doing so.
Suffice it to say, exploring Skyrim is a monumental undertaking. It’s a game that begs to be approached with a plan, or at least that’s how I had to play it. The game is very helpful in directing you; not only is the in-game map very fancy and detailed as it pans out to show you a fully-3D birds-eye view of the province, but the game by default also features big pointy arrows on your HUD that show you where you’re meant to be going. The game’s questlog is also much more accessible than in previous games, although that has come at the cost of some flavour; gone are the days of journals that detail our actions, and instead Skyrim’s journal screen is a flat descriptor of the next steps we need to do to complete our mission. Even with all that help, Skyrim can be paralysing. The vastness is hard to do justice to in text, and the huge array of options available to you can make it impossible to even start a play session. I think I had a similar issue with The Witcher 3; in the end, the way I found to make Skyrim work for me was to go into it with a single specific goal in mind, such as completing a certain questline, or becoming Thane of a hold.
We talked in my Oblivion review about streamlining the more obtuse PC RPG elements of The Elder Scrolls, and Skyrim has continued that process with gusto. It’s the source of many of the criticisms of it from a corner of old-school RPG enthusiasts, but personally I think Skyrim represents a massive success because of it. Yes, without a doubt it has cast away so much of the old RPG elements that diehard fans adored like the lengthy stat screens, choosing one’s star sign and weighing up the benefits and detriments that brings, and picking competencies like what kind of weapon or non-fighting skills you want. In fact, you don’t even pick a class, something that going into an Elder Scrolls game I’d have labelled as unthinkable! However, what we get in return is a game that was so accessible and so easy to get into that it exploded with popularity and even though it’s been 10 years of memes and almost as long of clamouring for a sequel, I bet 2021’s anniversary edition is still going to sell like crazy.
I mentioned you pick neither class nor skills; how then does anything work? Well, when it comes to melee combat, for example, everything has been condensed down to one-handed and two-handed options; there’s no need to pick what weapon category you are going to specialise in anymore. Each is now presented in a skill tree; the more you use a weapon, let’s say a one-handed sword for example, the more you raise your skill in the One-Handed tree. Eventually you level up and can spend skill points unlocking the various perks in each skill tree to gain access to powerful passive bonuses or more dangerous abilities. First-person melee combat I think always feels a little bit janky, and Skyrim is no exception to that but at least it doesn’t have any pretense of being more than that; sure it sometimes feels a bit disconnected from reality when your character is gormlessly waving a sword around, but it does (mostly) work.
Archery has been hugely improved for Skyrim as well. It’s now not only a viable option but unquestionably the most powerful build in the game. If you’ve been on the internet for any length of time over the last decade you’ve probably seen a mention or two of the stealth archer meme whenever people talk about breaking the game or the crushing inevitability that all Skyrim playthroughs end up there, and there is some truth to that. Stealth is fantastically busted, with its perks turning you into some sort of semi-mythical shadow creature as you can merely crouch before someone and disappear, and combined with the archery perks that let you steady your aim by holding your breath, zoom in as if you’re a medieval sniper, and even slow down time momentarily then you end up being an unstoppable agent of instant death from miles away.
There’s so much more I could still waffle on about given half a chance. Magic, while nowhere near as in-depth as in Oblivion, is still of course an option, though I admit not one I care much for. Spells are still split across several different schools, and I enjoy the way dual-wielding can be used to combine spells or even make a single more powerful spell at once, which encourages players to try out different options as much as possible. Other side skills like alchemy, enchanting, and smithing are typically options I never even consider in RPGs, but once again Skyrim makes them simple to use and worth the time to spend mastering.
It’s hard to overstate just how engrossing Skyrim is, and continues to be. That might be the greatest strength of the game, to be honest. That it can, after 10 long years, still offer an enthralling experience that delights and enchants a player stands as a testament to the effort and love put into it. It’s no wonder we haven’t yet seen a sixth Elder Scrolls entry; how on earth does one make a game to follow up something that has been, without a doubt, one of the most enduring and iconic games of an entire generation?
7/7 – TOP TIER.
As close to perfect as it gets, a game that surpasses any faults it might have and comes with the highest of recommendations. A must-play.