I did not want to buy it. I swear to God that I really didn’t! It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. Not when I haven’t even given a test run of the online portion of Battlefield 3. Not when I am just now halfway through Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Not when I also have a number of older games like Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood rounding up my backlog. Not when Batman: Arkham City for the PC isn’t even out yet. Still, I couldn’t resist a look at the reviews on Thursday, could I? Kevin Van Ord from Gamespot, somebody I trust when it comes to PC games, gave it a 9.0, and the synopsis was that most of its predecessor’s issues were fixed. Brad Shoemaker from Giantbomb gave it a full 5 out of 5 and said he couldn’t wait to get back into the game. And that was it! All it took were a couple more reviews and I was sold hook, line, and sinker. (P.S.: If you get the impression that I am an easy target in these scenarios, you would be absolutely spot-on.) Eventually, I ended up preloading The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim on Steam and going to bed on Thursday night knowing it will be ready the next morning.
Why should somebody buying arguably the most anticipated game of the year surprise you? For starters, I’ve sunk just about 60 hours into Oblivion, which is drastically small for such an expansive game, and most of it is in creating multiple new characters to begin the game anew. I only ever closed two oblivion gates in my multiple play-throughs and that was with an Orc who was the only character I actually spent any time with. As for Fallout 3, I’ve scarcely played enough to even venture into its main story. That is not to say that I got turned off from both of them. In fact, I enjoyed what little I played of Fallout 3 and though I wasn’t as enamored with Oblivion as I normally am with fantasy RPGs, it was still a fun game. Be that as it may, the primary reason why I never did immerse myself fully into those games was because they gave me severe bouts of motion sickness. I couldn’t complete even a half hour sitting with them without feeling like my head was doing flip-flops. In buying into the Skyrim hype and purchasing it, I was more hoping and praying that Bethesda had worked out a way to make the Creation Engine better than Gamebryo was for players like me.
I still haven’t figured out what exactly it was that Bethesda did with Skyrim. Maybe they reduced the amount of weapon bob and screen shaking which were exaggerated – at least, to me – in Oblivion and Fallout 3; maybe it is because I’m playing this using my Wireless X360 Controller on my PC which is attached to an HDTV sitting a few feet away from the screen; maybe it is because my stupid brain has finally realized that playing Bethesda games does not mean that I am getting poisoned thus sending signals which require me to throw-up; I have no idea what it is, but, after playing Skyrim for 5 hours non-stop on Saturday, I felt relieved more than anything else. I could sit and get lost in this world for hours on end without fearing any repercussions to my sanity. That, more than anything else, is why I have been having a blast with Skyrim.
Now that the formalities and useless subjects have been disposed of, we can get to why I really like Skyrim. Primarily, that has a lot to do with the new interface. I know many PC gamers are getting enraged because it looks and feels like it was designed for consoles, and while that is true, that is exactly what is making me love the game. Nearly everything feels more streamlined when compared to Oblivion. And since I never play as an Archer in RPGs – I have more of an in-your-face melee style – I don’t miss using the KB/Mouse as much as I might’ve with other games. The keys have been perfectly mapped out and using the shoulder buttons for either hand just feels intuitive. The only complaint I have is the favorites system. Though it does give you everything you want within the touch of a button, the Up key on the D-Pad, it still feels a round-about way when you have to open a menu, switch to whatever you want and return back to the game, and during combat, when your brain is trying to process the adrenaline rush, this feels especially wonky. In contrast, the system in Oblivion, wherein you could map 8 different favorites to the 8 D-Pad keys, felt intuitive and easy to use. If I have to say something negative, that would be it right now.
The other key difference is that Bethesda finally seem to have realized that the vastness of the world they envision is only good if the plot is engaging and there are some interesting characters in it. When it comes to RPGs, I have always been the kind of person who likes to be shepherded through the initial portions before being left to my own wares and this can only ever happen if the primary quest is interesting enough to hold your attention. In Oblivion, right from the moment Sir Patrick Stewart’s Uriel Septim started speaking, I felt absolutely bored with the game. The main story was yawn-worthy and closing Oblivion gates felt like a chore most of the time. The lack of an interesting primary story may be the single greatest reason why I got completely turned off Oblivion.
Compare that with Skyrim where I felt involved right from the first moment. Whether it was the dragon attack which happens in the opening sequences or the interesting subtexts like the battle between the Imperials and the Stormcloaks and the suppression of religion, it just feels like I am part of a living, breathing world. As you may know by now, you play as someone called Dragonborn and the manner in which the game announces your roots was simply exhilarating. It is one of those highlight moments I was talking about which was absent in Oblivion. It is one that immediately makes you feel like a hero and be wanted within the Skyrim world.
In many ways, I would go as far as to say that Bethesda finally seem to have realized why Bioware’s games are so immersive from a story-perspective. Imagine for a moment if you will, the depth and breadth of Bethesda’s gameplay and world combined with the plot/characters/writing of Bioware. That, in essence, is how Skyrim has felt to me in these first half dozen to 8 hours I have sunk into the game. It is too soon to say whether Skyrim is going to be challenging Dragon Age/Mass Effect for sheer depth of plot, but it is much, much better than Oblivion. Having a story you feel compelled to play through to its natural conclusion together with subtexts, sidequests, and characters that are equally intriguing makes for a much more immersive experience. As a result of that, I feel like I am enjoying even the most mundane tasks like Smithing or Enchanting or Potion-Making, while the bigger tasks are simply a pleasure to undertake.
Another thing in which Skyrim was a first for me as far as RPGs were concerned was that I was finally able to nail a gorgeous looking female character in-game. I cannot tell you how much I’ve been annoyed with the tools of both Mass Effect and Dragon Age in this regard. I’ve literally spent more than a dozen hours creating girls and playing through the first hour of both games before being disappointed with the look of the character and starting over from scratch. With the exception of Dragon Age 1 (and I really didn’t like the girl I created in this one), I’ve played all other Bioware games pretty much as male characters. Bethesda’s character creation toolset is really something else altogether, and I was able to create myself a beautiful, brunette Nord. And, yes, I don’t feel ashamed in saying that I was really satisfied with my creation; it gave me that sense of achievement.
Not surprisingly, graphics and music are exemplary as was to be expected from Bethesda. On my high-end PC with an i5 and the second-best single GPU card on the market (Nvidia GTX 570), with all the settings set at maximum, Skyrim is easily the best-looking RPG I’ve played. Sure, I’ve faced a few glitches here and there, but nothing that took me out of the otherwise breathtaking experience.
Overall, I am absolutely having a blast playing this game. Within the first few hours itself, I’d cleared a few dungeons here and there, joined a guild, slain a dragon and realized my true identity as Dragonborn, got into a fist-fight with a stranger over another woman (non-romantically, of course), and had my butt handed to me by an ice troll in the mountains. The last of those is something that has apparently happened to everybody else as well and feels like a deterrent by the developers to tell me to level up before returning to this portion – especially since all it took was one swipe from the badass to bring down my level 5 Warrior. That is where I am at right now and I have barely explored 0% of the multitude of options that are available to me.
After being disappointed at my own inability to play Oblivion and Fallout 3 to completion, I feel great that I am able to enjoy Skyrim to its fullest extent without having to take a break every half hour. It is still too soon to say whether Skyrim will be GOTY for me, but it is certainly making a solid case for itself right now.
P.S.: Once I delve into the game more, I will do a write-up on the leveling system which feels much more refined. Not only that, I also plan to do more write-ups as I play through the game. This might serve as an online diary of my Skyrim experiences with my primary character.