Was there a gamer in the world in any doubt that The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim would prove to be a good game? The consensus that Bethesda had another brilliant game to unleash upon its impatiently waiting public formed more quickly than any other release this year. Batman: Arkham City, Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception, Battlefield 3, Gears of War 3; the chance of any of these games being major disappointments was remote... but there was still a chance.
With Skyrim, however, the notion that Bethesda would do anything other than stride beyond its past achievements disappeared months ago. This shouldn't be dismissed as hype, or marketing, or the sheer will of Bethesda's vehement followers; rather, it speaks to the glaring flaws amid the general magnificence of Bethesda's back-catalogue.
Certainly, The Elder Scrolls and Fallout offer the sort of empowering, emergent adventure that cuts to the very heart of what makes videogames so affecting. But, as anyone who invested hundreds of hours into these sprawling worlds will tell you, this kind of ambition requires compromise. Blank-faced character models, endlessly reused voice-actors, cookie-cutter location design, and more fetch quests than even the most gallant knight could bear.
The most egregious of these many transgressions is Bethesda's tendency to save its weakest material for the main quest-line. In Oblivion and Fallout 3, at least, actually resolving the plot was more a matter of obligation than enjoyment, but, according to Giant Bomb's Brad Shoemaker, this is one of a gratifyingly broad range of disciplines that Bethesda has raised its game for Skyrim.
You play as the "Dragonborn" - a warrior, directly descended from dragons, and the first to arrive in the province of Skyrim in quite some time. Exactly what you're good at is decided as you play the game, but to the local residents you seem to have an uncanny knack for timing; after a long period of absence dragons have returned to Skyrim, terrorising towns and razing crops, and you are the only person who can stop them.
"That quest forms the backbone of Skyrim's core storyline, and it's a story well worth seeing through to the end, with genuine twists, intrigue, and momentum that drive it forward in a way Bethesda's past games really have," Shoemaker explains in his five-star review.
"I suspect Skyrim's story will prove more engaging [than Fallout 3 or Oblivion] for most players; I know it was for me. And in contrast to the disappointing finality of the last two Fallout games, the way Skyrim's main story "ends" is also wholly appropriate for a game as open and non-linear as this one."
A poor main quest-line would be enough to destroy the experience of most RPGs, but Bethesda's games could always fall back on breadth. There was so much ground to cover and so many locations to explore that satisfying missions could be found at any moment. Of course, Skyrim is no different, but Shoemaker is full of praise for the game's narrative texture, and the positive effect it has on the world's many revelations and distractions.
Skyrim builds up a rich and interesting narrative backdrop like no other game in recent memory
Brad Shoemaker, Giant Bomb
"Even if there were no dragons, Skyrim would be a chaotic place with a lot of social and political turmoil going on. There's a civil war brewing: between the Imperials (from the previous game's province of Cyrodiil), who want to keep a tight rein on the indigenous populace; and a growing band of rebels led by Ulfric Stormcloak, the would-be king of the Nords."
"There's tension between different races squeezed into cramped living quarters. There's religious oppression, ethnic displacement, feuding families, betrayal, and plenty of murder. Even Tamriel's mischievous demigods of all bad things, the Daedra, continue to meddle with mortal affairs whenever the notion strikes them."
"Maybe it's unfair to compare this to games that have a small fraction of the time to work with, but Skyrim builds up a rich and interesting narrative backdrop like no other game in recent memory."
It took Joystiq's Justin McIlroy 65 hours to reach the end of his first playthrough, but not only did he fail to complete the quests associated with the game's various factions, he also isn't sure he even met them all. When it comes to Skyrim, the concept of 'finishing' the game seems almost absurd.
"Bethesda has created one of the only games I can recall where the world is so steeped in 'stuff to do' it creates the illusion of a world completely without limit," he writes in another five-star review - it's safe to say there will be many of these.
"Its scope defies the very notion of "completion" as we've come to think of it relating to games."
However, while McIlroy dabbles in gushing praise - example: "This is the deepest, loveliest world ever created for a single player to explore, and one that no one should deny themselves." - he readily admits that Bethesda hasn't entirely ironed out the creases.
"While the stories and rewards are always different, there is a certain ... sameness that sets in with many of the missions. You'll notice a lot of people want a lot of specific items in caves or castles they're too chicken to explore. Keep in mind: I played a lot of missions in a short amount of time, so the repetition may not get to you. But a few more that required smarts over brawn would have been appreciated."
The persistent use of violent force to solve disputes is a common complaint in RPGs, but it comes down to a simple truth: inventing non-violent solutions is simply more difficult than letting the player slice somebody's arm off. The frustration can be alleviated somewhat by tight, satisfying combat mechanics, but while the game's "dual-wielding" approach to combat is a boon, Bethesda falters when it comes to melee.
"What should be thrilling fights in Skyrim are often weighed down by the same clunky melee system Oblivion suffered from. In fact, even the word "system" is pretty generous considering we're just talking about hammering on the right trigger. While Skyrim has expanded the series in almost every conceivable direction, its mindless melee still feels rooted in the past. Having a lightning bolt in your left hand helps, make no mistake, but it's no substitute for real variety in the swordplay."
"It's a recurring theme, actually. Depth in Skyrim is often sacrificed for scope. Most every individual system in the game has been explored more fully in other games, but there are just so many of them and so much flexibility, it's tough to get too perturbed."
We can pine for a game where every facet is honed to shining perfection, but Skyrim's incredible scope makes that near impossible to achieve - and very unfair to expect. Eurogamer's John Bedford focuses on the positive, highlighting the attention Bethesda has paid to things like the interface and shortcuts; details that won't fix deeper problems, but make them that much easier to look beyond.
"A process that would have been agonising in Oblivion becomes an open joy in the elegant design of Skyrim's interface," Bedford writes in his 10 out of 10 review, a rare honour from Eurogamer. "Bookmarked spells allow players to switch from bow to axe to healing powers with a flick of the d-pad as you adapt your combat to a dragon's path through skies and forests."
"Skyrim's perks system is presented with equal beauty in the constellation star-signs of the various paths, from Alchemy to Destruction magic or even the deeper virtues of Lock-picking. Go deep into shock perks to unlock the disintegration of the nearly-dead, or invest in Enchanting to add more than one effect to your equipment."
Skyrim's progression system makes fewer assumptions about your character, effectively allowing you to craft your hero through how you choose to play the game. Traditional levelling is streamlined: you now assign points to health, magic or stamina, and then select from a range of perks associated with each of those values.
"For those who want to experience more of any RPG than their tolerance for stat-planning will usually allow, there's great satisfaction to be had in making use of every game mechanic in order to increase your overall level. But those who wish to specialise and truly master a particular play-style through carefully planned perks will still feel compelled to do so with multiple characters. And then there's crafting.
"Though the crafting system in Skyrim amounts to little more than providing the raw ingredients and setting the process in motion, it gives a greater sense of ownership to that new blade. It's a system that will bring no end of satisfaction to the hunter-gatherer who wants something more in return for their efforts in the feral tundra or the sky-high mountain mines."
And then there are the dragons. Capturing the full sweep of what Skyrim has to offer is difficult, but these flying reptilian beasts have been at the forefront of Bethesda's marketing since the very beginning, reducing grown men to jelly with every bellowing roar. They also hold the key to one of Skyrim's more mysterious new abilities: Shouts, and you'll receive a new one for every slain dragon.
The illusion frequently falters - and sometimes completely breaks - but when it does you'll want to conspire with the game to pretend you didn't see
For Edge, though, the dragons are problematic: "Large, aggressive and persistent, the epic rolling battles against these beasts show Skyrim at its most theatrical."
"Dragons handle the changing landscape confidently, staying airborne when they need to but coming in close when they have the chance. They expose the best and worst of Skyrim's combat. Waiting for them to land so you can batter them to death while staring at a screen full of scales is hard work, but archers and magic users will find a flying dragon presents an irresistibly tricky target."
"And when a defeated dragon finally crashes upon a barren hillside, its flesh melting off to reveal a skeleton that will remain there, a monument to your victory, for as long as you continue playing, it's a moment of emergent grandeur in what, at times, can feel like a clockwork environment."
Indeed, despite awarding the game a stellar 9 out of 10, the pitch of the reviews from other outlets suggest it will be in a small minority. Not only does Edge identify problems in areas that other reviewers praise without reservation, it more readily acknowledges the technical flaws that, for better or worse, are as much a part of the Bethesda experience as limitless choice.
"Skyrim still takes place in a world where a woolly mammoth can suddenly levitate a hundred feet into the sky and stay there. It still takes place in a world where trying to aid the city watch in a battle against a rampaging dragon can see you arrested and taken to prison - before the battle's over, mind - for striking one of the soldiers with a glancing blow. It's still a world where a nobleman will try, repeatedly, to enter a tavern, having forgotten to climb off his horse first."
"It's a world of clunking animation, of reused voice actors, of bandits talking over their own death throes. It's a world that's entirely engaging one moment and an utter farce the next. But it's a world that, providing you offer up your suspension of disbelief, delivers more than most games even attempt."
"The illusion frequently falters - and sometimes completely breaks - but when it does you'll want to conspire with the game to pretend you didn't see. You play on, for the moments of clever design, fortunate coincidence or downright inspiration that turn you from suspending disbelief into utterly convinced."