Friday, 30 December 2011

Number 2: Skyrim

The reaction to Skyrim's release this year has been unlike anything I've ever seen. Everywhere I go people seem to be talking about it, and its been drawing as much boundless praise as it has scathing criticism. It's also being talked about by the most unlikely people: girlfriends, parents, children... At a family dinner this week the discussion turned to Skyrim. Everyone had been watching the young son play through it, and talked excitedly of how amazing it looked, how fun. They spoke about slaying draugr, about the best way to sneak past a frost troll, about the sardonic personality of a follower. It was completely surreal, and I couldn't say a word. It's easy to see why they're so taken with it though.

The latest in Bethesda's Elder Scrolls series, Skyrim is just as ambitious as its predecessors. Set in the homeland of the Nords, in the north of Tamriel, Skyrim casts the player as the Dragonborn, one with the soul of a dragon and the power to learn their shouts. The land is gripped by a civil war, between the ruling Imperials and the rebel Stormcloaks, and you'll have to pick a side to end the conflict. Besides that, dragons themselves have returned to Skyrim, and it's up to the player to learn why. Well, that is if you fancy doing it. You're as free to settle down to a quiet married life as you are to play any part in the story.

The Elder Scrolls games are well-known for their large open worlds, and freedom of choice given to the player. Skyrim is thankfully no different, and after the introductory escape from a dragon attack, you're plonked in the wilderness and left to your own devices. A vast world is laid out before you, no part of it locked to you, and it begs to be explored. Even stumbling around on the first mountainside you'll discover bandit hideouts, secret caves, ancient ruins and friendly faces. In a way it's intimidating, but you'll quickly realise there's no pressure on you to do anything but go at your own pace. Quests can be dipped in and out of at will, and the main storyline can be jettisoned in favour of following your own story.

There's a jaw-dropping amount of stuff to do in Skyrim. As soon as you start talking to people quest offers come thick and fast, so you'll have to keep track of what you're meant to be doing. Even without quest offers, by simply wandering around you'll come across all sorts of foreboding caves and crumbling castles. The promise of fights to be had and treasure to be looted drives you to explore them, a sense of curiosity growing as you sneak around ancient lairs and encounter terrifying enemies. Environments are dripping with atmosphere and character, and the variance between them is stunning. Leafy forests in the south make way for long plains and jagged icy peaks further north. Dwemer ruins still whir with ancient industrial technology, while long-forgotten tombs are dusty, silent, and menacing.

A lot has been made of Skyrim's graphics and the detail in the world, but it's entirely justified. Rarely has a game looked quite this good. I often found myself wandering the land just for the pleasure of its sights, happy to languidly explore mountains and forests while watching the wildlife. Midday sunlight breaks on the leaves above, a river gurgles along at your side, and deer warily keep their distance from you, bounding away if you get too close. You feel... relaxed. That is until a bear shows up out of nowhere and tries to claw your face off, or a dragon roars overhead. To get an idea of what a technical achievement Skyrim is, remember that it's running on the same hardware as Oblivion did five years ago.

It's sad, then, that you're often wrenched out of your immersion in the world by the various bugs and glitches you're guaranteed to encounter. Bethesda's games are notorious enough in this respect; it comes as a proviso of the ambitious game worlds they develop. But it feels especially jarring in a game like this, one where detail and the beauty of the world are paramount. Dragons fly backwards at impossible speeds, characters get stuck on walls and scenery, giants will throw you into orbit with a single hit... Perhaps most criminal of all, the PS3 version is inherently broken, suffering from game-ruining slowdown once the save file gets too big. As of yet, many of these issues are still unresolved, throwing a significant shadow over what could otherwise have been a near-perfect game.

In the end though, it is near-perfect, and that's how it should be thought of. Skyrim is a game that's been filled with firsts for me. Never before have I been so taken in by the beauty of a game world, driven to explore it so thoroughly. Never before have I started a game three times, and each time had a completely different experience, playing through different quests and exploring different areas. Never before has my girlfriend been more addicted to a game than I have, taking any chance she can to have another go. Until Skyrim, I can't remember a game taking over my mind so much that I actually dream about playing it. To focus on the flaws is to ignore the fact that Skyrim is one of the most intensely brilliant gaming experiences of this generation. Not quite perfect, but close enough.

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