Thursday, 30 January 2014

Game review: Skyrim

I wanted to try for one of these a month, and I've only actually played four games total this month (this, Minecraft, Mass Effect, and Mass Effect 2), so even though this has been out for ages and nearly every serious gamer will already have played it, I'm going to review this one. Because most gamers will know it, I'm going to look at it from a non-gamer point of view - I did actually get a non-serious-gamer playing this at one point, so I figure I have form there.


Skyrim is the fifth instalment in The Elder Scrolls series, but don't be put off by the fact that there's a series, they're all stand-alone. It is set in a land called (wait for it) Skyrim, home to the Nords, which is in the middle of a bloody civil war as the Stormcloaks seek to secede from the Tamrielic Empire. Added to this, the dragons are returning; once thought long extinct, they are rising from their ancient burial mounds and reclaiming their seats of power, led by Alduin the World-Eater.

The game is designed to be played first-person, although you can play it third-person if you prefer. You have access to a wide range of weapons, grouped into three sets (One Handed, Two Handed, and Archery), an even wider range of spells covering pretty much everything you could want, and various sneaky/talky/crafty abilities. Each time one of the skills levels up (from 1-100) your character progresses towards the next level, which allows you to pick Perks and increase one of your three stat bars: Health, Magicka and Stamina.

Because you don't have a character class, and every skill progresses your character, you're not limited to one play style through the course of the game. It's harder to kill things at higher levels if you're using things you're less good at, but a little care and attention will see you through the worst of it. Everyone has a play style they find most comfortable and natural, and Skyrim really gives you the space to work out what yours is and develop it if you don't already know, whilst allowing more experienced gamers to challenge themselves by moving out of their comfort zone.

You can have a follower as well, who will fight for you and carry your things if you want. You can equip them with better gear, and they level up at similar rates to you. I usually don't bother with them because I get guilty when they die though, and most of them can die unless they're crucial to the plot. They are really helpful while you're finding your feet or if you're concentrating on a particular play style and are missing something, but be aware they all have their own moral code, and some of them will be really arsey if you steal things or murder people, which whilst a really nice touch definitely makes the Dark Brotherhood and Thieves' Guild quests a lot harder.

Story and gameplay

As an open-world game, you're not led down any one plot more than any other: once you finish the introduction, you're free to do what you want. I would highly recommend following the main plot closely until you speak to the Greybeards, because certain things will be unlocked and explained to you, but after that do what you feel like. There are four major guilds you can join, each of which have long and interesting plot chains; each major settlement has one major quest or quest chain associated with it, and a bunch of minor ones; each of the Daedra (sort of demons but not all of the are evil) has a quest chain, and a couple of the Gods (also known as Aedra) do too, and of course there's the Civil War stuff, where you get to pick a side.

Your character can be male or female, and any one of a number of different races, which all start with slightly different advantages in different skills and one unique racial power. As far as character building goes though, that's basically your lot; there's not much room for character development beyond "am I going to follow this quest or not", and whilst there are consequences for your actions, there aren't really any for your words. The player character isn't voiced although everyone else is, which adds to the impression of being a bit of a cipher.

Gameplay wise, the controls on the PC are fairly easy to grasp and the most challenging part for a new player is using the mouse - the sensitivity defaults to pretty high so if you're particularly jumpy your point of view can swing around wildly, making it hard to hit the enemies. Fortunately, this is easy to customise in the options, and all of the key bindings can be changed as well to whatever you feel most comfortable with.

Musically and graphically, the game is beautiful. There's a lot of in-game footage out there demonstrating just how incredibly gorgeous it is, and I regularly find myself enjoying the scenery even after nearly 300 hours of play time and on the lowest graphics settings (my PC has a problem with particle rates which makes me very sad).


As far as representation goes, the game isn't without flaw, but it's still ahead of the curve. (Of course, this is an industry with a massive problem with representation, so the bar's really low.) Men and women are represented pretty equally across professions, so they're pretty good with gender issues. Race and mental health issues clearly both still have a long way to go though; of the four human races, only one of them is non-white, although in the game's defence that's more a legacy thing I think, and there is a lot of discussion about xenophobia in the way that the other races are presented and interact with each other. (I do not think that this excuses the game designers though. They could comfortably get rid of Imperials and Bretons as different races and add another coloured race if they wanted to stick to the same numbers. The fact that they haven't seems to suggest that they're perfectly happy to not represent anyone who isn't white particularly well.)

Mad characters are either raving murderous lunatics or beggars, and whilst there's a lot of "I used to be an adventurer, til I took an arrow in the knee" from the guards, you never seem to see one of them limping and there's no visible sign of infirmity except a magical plague and some ill people in the temple of Kynareth in Whiterun. One can make the argument that lycanthropy and vampirism are diseases (vampirism certainly is in game mechanic terms) and as such are the way that the game investigates illness, but that's stretching it quite a lot, seeing as they're both powerful advantages as well.

There is zero trans awareness in the game at all; when you pick up clothes, the skin changes depending on your gender, and despite a school of magic which literally turns iron into silver then into gold, there's no spell which will let you change your gender. Whilst the game has rightfully been praised for allowing both male and female player characters to marry any of the marriageable characters regardless of gender, all of the relationships I've seen in the game outside of my own are straight, which is really poor.


So, using an arbitrary 0-5 scale, I give the game as follows:

  • Plot: 5. A brilliantly crafted and immersive story.
  • Sound and vision: 5. Groundbreaking when it came out, this is still incredible two years later. The only criticism it's possible to level at it is its starkness, but I'm fine with stark.
  • Gameplay: 4. There are definitely quirks, but on the whole it's pretty seamless.
  • Representation: 1. One point for being okay for women, half a point for gay marriage, half a point for investigating xenophobia, and -1 point for completely ignoring queer issues except in that one way.
That gives it a total of 15 out of a possible 20. A great game in many ways, but let down by its lack of sensitivity towards under-represented groups.

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