"The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim" should come with a huge warning label displayed prominently on the packaging:
"CAUTION: Contents may be habit forming. Major side effects include sleep deprivation, severe withdrawals when away from a game controller and a mild to moderate compulsion to talk about dragons. Other side effects may include a tendency to skip classes or call in sick to work, as well as a general erosion of one's social relationships."
While I haven't experienced the latter problems, I've definitely been experiencing the sleep deprivation. I'm writing this review on roughly four hours sleep, and I'm frankly surprised I got that much. On Tuesday night, after I finished with my regular eight-hour day here at The News-Gazette, I played "Skyrim" past 7:30 in the morning, and it was only with a supreme act of will that I managed to save my game, shut off my Xbox 360 and TV and go to bed.
I woke up just after 11:30 a.m., stumbled out of bed and immediately got back to playing, up until the last possible moment when I absolutely had to get ready for work.
So, yes, tearing my attention away from this game so that I can review other titles isn't exactly going to be an easy task.
"Skyrim" returns fans of the "Elder Scrolls" series to the continent Tamriel, on the world of Nirn. Specifically, to the northern region named Skyrim, homeland of the Nords (Tamriel's version of Vikings; they're tall, fair-skinned and muscular). It's a wild, cold place, a land of rocky hills and torn-up tundra, where glacial rivers rush down from the snow-capped mountains, and creatures large and small roam free.
It's also a place where there's plenty to see and do. Wow, is that ever an understatement. I don't doubt that there's more than 100 hours of quality content built into this vast fantasy role-playing game, and it actually stretches into the infinite when you consider that some of the software driving the game, the so-called Radiant quest system, will supposedly churn out fresh content based on what you've previously accomplished.
You see, the "Elder Scrolls" games have always been living, breathing experiences, and "Skyrim" is no exception. It's an adventure where you play almost however you want.
This time around, I'm playing the traditional honorable hero, siding with the forces of good and righteousness -- or at least the forces that I perceive to be good and righteous. My hero is a Nord, mostly because I wanted to play from the point of view of a man returning to his homeland.
I could just as easily have chosen another race or species -- or gender -- and at some point, I probably will. "Skyrim" -- like "Daggerfall," "Morrowind," and "Oblivion" before it, -- allows players to step into many different sets of shoes. If I wasn't feeling so Nordic, I could have been a dark-haired Breton, dark-skinned Redguard or haughty Imperial. I could have indulged my inner cat as one of the desert-loving Khajiit or tried out the lizard-like lifestyle of an water-breathing Argonian. I could have seen how accepting of an Orc the peoples of the North are, or played with my point ears as one of the three races of elves.
Every possibility offers different advantages and disadvantages. For instance, as a Nord, I'm more resistant to cold than the other races. If I was Khajiit, I'd have improved night vision.
And though I'm playing the hero now, nothing is forcing me to play that way. In "Skyrim," you can break into people's houses and steal all their stuff, sneak around and pick pockets, kill indiscriminately (except for children; you can't harm children in the game) and do pretty much whatever you want.
"Skyrim" is all about freedom. Yes, there's a over-arching story players can follow if they choose, but nothing's forcing their hand. If a player doesn't care why the dragons have come back after vanishing hundreds of years before, that's just fine. If they don't want to explore their power to absorb the souls of slain dragons and to use draconic magic, that's dandy. There's lots of other stuff to do.
For instance, one can enroll in the magical College of Winterhold, join the Thieves' Guild or the Dark Brotherhood, become a vampire or werewolf, choose a side in a civil war or get married. And that's just scratching the barest surface of things.
Of course, all this freedom wouldn't matter one whit if "Skyrim" didn't have some serious technological underpinnings, but it does.
In "Skyrim," we get responsive controls, one of the most intelligent character progression systems around, several huge crafting systems, an incredibly detailed world to roam around in -- and very few bugs to annoy and frustrate the player.
If you're a previous "Elder Scrolls" -- or "Fallout" -- player, I know bugs are something you're probably pretty concerned about. But you can take comfort in the fact that I've had hardly any problems whatsoever with "Skyrim," though you might be less excited to know I'm playing on Xbox 360, and not on PC.
Nonetheless, my character's companion -- a sarcastic huscarl named Lydia -- doesn't get stuck on random geometry and she doesn't charge off to her death wily-nily. Items don't float off tables when you pick nearby objects up. I've never fallen through the map, and only once have I encountered a wall that flickered out graphically when I got too close to it. I haven't even had any quests malfunction. Somehow "Skyrim" is an incredibly clean game. It's probably thanks to the new Creation Engine that Bethesda has driving this thing.
That engine also makes it possible for players to dual-wield both magic and weapons in combat. Want a sword in one hand and a spell in the other? Or to dance around with two small axes? Or maybe you want to focus completely on spell craft? You can do any of that, and if you acquire the right skills, you can make your combos even better. For instance, if I cast the Flames spell with both hands, my magic becomes magnified in effect, thanks to the dual-casting skill "perk" I learned.
Essentially, skills come in several flavors in "Skyrim," as the leveling system has been simplified -- and yet somehow deepened -- from previous games. How shall I put this? The more your character uses a skill, the better at it he becomes, regardless of his overall "level." So if you've got the coin or supplies and lots of time to spare, it's possible to turn your character into a dynamite crafter, regardless of if he's level 5 or level 40.
The more traditional leveling, gained through building up skills, doing quests, slaying monsters, etc., unlocks two types of upgrades. The first, for every level earned, the player can improve his character's health, magicka (magical energy) or stamina. The second is a "perk" point, used to further tune up individual skills -- though many perks are only available after the character has attained a certain level of skill in that practice.
Let's use smithing as an example. Initially, a character can work in leather, hides, iron and the like. The simpler materials, in other words. As his smithing skill increases, more products of those types can be made. But with the expenditure of perk points, the crafter can learn to work in steel, jewelry, glass, ebony and other exotic materials.
And players can spend those points when they want to spend them, which I consider brilliant. You don't need to unlock a skill you don't want, just because you leveled up. You can hoard your points until there's a direction you want to go.
Ehh. I feel like I'm getting way too technical in describing an intensely fun game. So I'll move on to my favorite part of any review: nitpicking.
Unfortunately, I just don't have much to pick on in "Skyrim." I wish roads were more clearly marked on the world map. I wish I could get my huscarl Lydia to marry my character. I wish expendable objects would automatically repopulate into my quick-select "favorites" menu whenever I acquire more of them.
OK, I guess that one is a real complaint. With all the gear, spells and potions players eventually have at their fingertips, it's nice to have a programmable favorites menu that can be pulled up with the press of a button. So if you need to switch from a fire spell to an ice spell quickly, you can do it -- if you put some thought into it previously. Better yet, if you are getting smacked around and need to gulp a few health potions down -- and don't want to delve through multiple menus first -- it can be done. Except, when you run out of those potions, they disappear from your favorites menu and stay gone after you restock -- unless you reprogram your favorites again.
Still, not that big of a deal.
OK, so why am I still writing? I should be playing more "Skyrim." It's without a doubt one of my top picks for Game of the Year.
"The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim"
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks.
Platforms: Xbox 360, PS3, PC. Reviewed on Xbox 360 using a copy sent by the publisher.
Rating: M for mature.
Recommendation: It's one of the best role-playing games of all time. Unless you aren't into the genre, buy it.
Images courtesy of Bethesda Softworks