Xbox 360 Review

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Colossal, flawed and utterly compelling...

It's impossible to give Skyrim a complete review. Boasting somewhere in the region of 300 hours of gameplay, Skyrim is arguably Bethesda's most ambitious title yet. With so much to do its nigh-on impossible to deconstruct the game's many subtle intricacies in 1000 words. We'll try and give it a bash all the same though...

Two hundred years on from the events of Oblivion the action moves to the cold Northern tundra of Skyrim, home of the Nords as rumours are abound of dragons waking up and terrorising remote settlements. Cast as the usual prisoner outcast, a dragon attack on the town of Helgen saves you from a beheading and frees you to set upon the road to save the Empire of Tamriel yet again from another unimaginably powerful evil.

A lot has happened since the Septim blood line was severed defending Cyrodil from the daedric overlord Mehrunes Dagon. The main chance is that the Empire has lost a major war against the Altmer and is now essentially a sovereign protectorate of the Altmeri Dominion, a situation that leaves many across Skyrim (which was home to the Tiber Septim, the first emperor) feeling angered. This means that your character enters one of the most complex and fractured environments that Bethesda has ever created.

Skyrim has a vast amount of opportunities to offer. Taking its lead from the successes in Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas, Skyrim has managed the impressive contradiction of simultaneously simplifying the gameplay whilst at the same time creating richer and more complex experience.

The differences in the actual gameplay between Skyrim and Oblivion are actually very subtle. The combat has been streamlined to make it more responsive in both first and third person views. The quick items menu accessed by the d-pad is now a list rather than a rotary menu and, most important of all, dual wielding is now possible for spells and one-handed weapons on top of the old-school sword and shield configuration providing a much more varied choice of fighting styles.

In character creation, Bethesda has taken another leaf out of the Fallout 3 playbook by abandoning traditional classes all together in favour of offering class-style customisation through the use of your skills and choice of perks. Some of the original skill types have been abandoned such as acrobatics but this is for the better as it makes it that much easier to build your character's skill set the way you want him or her to be.

All the usual races are there but now the Orcs, Khajit and Argonians have adopted more orcish, feline and reptilian physical characteristics and look much less like humans with different heads as a result.

It's hard to know where to move on from here. The game is huge and as a result, there are bugs. None of Bethesda's colossal efforts would feel right without a few launch bugs and the Xbox 360 version is no different. Installing to the hard disc causes a few problems with textures not loading up correctly. There game also has a tendency to freeze in the wilderness after extended periods of play which is not unsurprising given the way that Bethesda manages to deliver such a large free-roaming area. All of these are really the kind of problems that are to be expected in the kind of game that Skyrim is and Bethesda are working on patches for them as we write.

The game also has a few irritating idiosyncrasies that require forgiving. One is the limited pool of dialogue for the game's many NPCs. Characters that are not essential to any quest or side quest generally have around three different things to say. The do change responses depending on how fatigued you are, what faction you are currently aligned with and even how you are dressed, however it can get a bit repetitive, especially when all the city guards sound like dodgy Arnold Schwarzenegger impersonators. Still this eventually grows on you it merges into the background of the game. Given the size of the game Bethesda can be forgiven for dispensing with non-essential NPC dialogue in favour of better textures and more gameplay.

Another new introduction from the Fallout experiences is the faction system. There are several different factions you can join within the game. Allying yourself with one side may close off opportunities to you and open up others. The two major factions are the Imperial Legion and the Stormcloaks who are engaged in a bloody civil war over the pride of Skyrim following the Imperial surrender to the Dominion.

Every town has its own story to tell and listening to the conversations between locals can give you a clue as to the kind of trouble you can get up to in each settlement. The residents of Dawnstar are plagued by horrific nightmares for instance while the folks of Morthal live in the shadow of a vampire lord. How you deal with the trials that you meet is purely up to you and that is the real beauty of Skyrim.

The Elder Scrolls series has always been about providing a true free-roaming role-playing experience and Skyrim manages this with bewitching results. It is possible to wander around the landscape for several days, just searching for new ruins, hunting wild animals and checking out the landscape. There are some breathtaking views, especially from some of the Dwemer ruins on the Northern coast of Skyrim between Dawnstar and Winterhold. Skyrim's capital Solitude is also a mighty sight to behold with the city and the High King's Blue Palace stretching out onto a massive stone column rising out of the sea.

With Skyrim, Bethesda has created another true masterpiece of modern video game storytelling. It affords players the latitude to forge their own stories and experience the game on their own terms with the most freedom that gamers have ever been given. Skyrim may never match the kind of sales that the Call of Duty series experience but Skyrim gives the kind of personal experiences that will be shared amongst gamers long after Modern Warfare 3's lustre wears off.

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