I wrote a sentence a while back on this blog, I believe it was for my review of Bioshock that stated ‘games come and go…’ and so on, meaning that really there are very few games that hit the excellent mark and really impress a vivid indentation upon the gaming world. Skyrim I would like to suggest hits this mark, quite spectacularly to say the very least. Skyrim is an Elder Scrolls game, a fantasy RPG that was initially developed for the PC during the 1990’s, and this is its fifth incarnation and I personally started playing this series with Morrowind, released around 2001. The main feature, or at least the most defining feature these RPG games had, were its open world design. Instead of having ‘levels’, these games were a first person perspective in a designed world whereby you could travel anywhere on the game map without having to complete levels as most games require you to do. Bethesda, the game company that created the Elder Scrolls games, created a open world game that was impressively dynamic rather than using scripted events to push the game along. Obviously some aspects, especially in Morrowind and Oblivion (the third and fourth games in this series) were scripted, but the whole concept, the major design ethos from this series of RPG games were its freeform map, its dynamic interactions with various NPCs (Non-Player-Characters), the trading system et al that made the games stand out compared to most RPG games during the late ’90s and early to mid 2000’s. Again, the games were quite a niche market – a fantasy first person perspective Role Playing Game set in an alternate universe created from a group of D&D gamers that went into game design – or at least this is what I have read about the company and how I understand its initial creation. It became less of a nerdy niche market I believe with Morrowind and most certainly Oblivion – especially Oblivion in fact as that game was coded and ported over to the Xbox and PS3, hence creating a larger market than they ever would have probably had if it had been just exclusively a PC game.
Now Bethesdas latest release in the Elder Scrolls games is Skyrim. I doubt if anyone has not heard of this title, it was impressively marketed and advertised, showing off some spectacular graphics. What you saw on those adverts, or what you have read about the game are not unfounded – it probably is one of the nicest, graphically spectacular game I have ever played on a PC. Again, it is an open world dynamic design, scripted only in the sense of the quest line (that you can start at any stage in the game, so in effect you could just play this title as pure sandbox and advance the main plot when and where you want to) and various task you have to do, but dynamic in the sense that it utilises Bethesda’s ‘Radiant AI’, creating missions off the cuff depending on things you have done and so on. The NPCs carry out their tasks as the day progresses; some are traders, some work – and they all have set times that they start and finish work, go to the inn after work and then go home to rest for the night. Scripted in the sense that they do things at certain times, but totally dynamic in the aspect of their daily interactions and so on.
All the misgivings and dislikes I had about Oblivion, such as the levelling up method (whereby every creature levelled the same time as you making the game very challenging at high levels) and using about five different voice actors (I think it was five…please don’t quote me on this) for all the NPCs have been eliminated with Skyrim. Again, as in Fallout 3 the voice acting is becoming something so impressive with modern games – we had Liam Neeson and Ron Perlman in Fallout 3; in Skyrim we have Max von Sydow. Christopher Plummer and Joan Allen to name but a few of the many talents included in the game. Musically Skyrim has the most impressive soundtrack I have ever, ever heard for a video game, with a four CD box set you can buy separately composed by Jeremy Soule who also composed Morrowinds and Oblivions soundtracks, but this time he has excelled. It is the same as movie standard. Graphically the game is beautiful – just travel to the top of any mountain and witness blizzards, with snow being cast from wind over the tops of rocks etc, or witness the Aurora Borealis, as Skyrim is set in the north of Tamriel, the world created for the Elder Scrolls games. What I found the most impressive however, and yes the game looks stunning visually, the AI is smart and interesting, but this game was designed with our current hardware, utilising the power and capabilities of current console systems and PC systems. You do not always need to have the best to make and code and design a game with the most modern specs in mind. This I think Bethesda did well, despite some glitches on some systems. A two or three year old PC, as long as its relatively half-decent, can run this on quite high settings.
When I first played Skyrim, I was initially dumbstruck at just how good it looked – I was completely taken in and hooked. After just under 100 hours into the game (and probably have only uncovered maybe twenty percent of the whole country of Skyrim) I still have to stop at certain locations and take in the awesomeness of the scenery and listen to the placid, spiritually sounding soundtrack – it is really that impressive. I remember also posting an article on my blog a while back about video games, and I stated then that I believed that we had reached a pinnacle in game design over the last several years, gaming has really began to become something interactive, social, important (with certain games at least) and this really has come from the advent of modern console systems and online gaming. It has altered the way we game too, although I do not want to go into FPS games – there are deep pros and cons over some titles and their levels of violence. However, with RPG games that require you to make decisions based around your own personal moral beliefs that I find the most interesting, it does make gaming slightly more than solving puzzles and shooting the bad boss at the end of the game. Fallout 3 I think held the ‘Karma’ system together really well, whereby doing evil deeds took a hit with your character you created. Unfortunately with Skyrim there is no such moral system in place, or at least it is not the same (you can join with the Imperials or Rebels, but the Rebels hold racist assumptions, hard to weigh up in many respects). Bioware (another game design studio) I think started this with its Baldurs Gate games, whereby decisions you made during your game had an impact on the end game and various events as the game progressed – really trying to encourage you to role-play your virtual character into something saintly or dark. Your choice.
In summary then, Skyrim really hits a top mark, probably really upping the bar of gaming for sometime to come. I am also amazed at how popular this title has become – whatever the cost of designing the game, I am sure that Bethesda have surpassed their initial budget in sales. When I first started playing Morrowind back nearly ten years ago, I doubt even then I could ever imagine a fantasy RPG ever becoming so popular as it has now become, especially an Elder Scrolls game. Kudos to Bethesda.