It's a little early for a proper review, but the amount of hours I've clocked on Skyrim since it plopped through my letterbox midday Friday kind of rules out me calling it a "first impressions" so here it is - my pseudoreview of Skyrim.
Dragons. Of course. You can't go two steps this financial year without bumping into a knapsack full of dragons. Hey, can you pass me the salt? - oh, I'm sorry, there's a dragon in the way. Must be because of the Chinese new year.
As usual, you are "the one". In fact, you turn out to be "the one" in a lot of senses. I'm working through a particular guild's storyline and it turns out that not only am I "the one" in terms of being the Dragonborne but I'm also "the one" in terms of being the only person to whom a particularly crispy dead lady will talk. The main story, so far at least, is fairly standard fantasy fare. Dragons bad, kill dragons, use your new found powers to find and kill big badass dragon. Game over.
Well, I say that, I'm not actually far enough through the story to see if Bethesda have thrown in some insane plot twists. I've been far too distracted by the typically bewildering number of side-quests, dungeons, bandit holes, castles, forts, dwemer ruins and guild plots in which to get embroiled.
In Skyrim, as soon as you walk through the city gates there is a scene being played out in front of you. When I entered one city I was witness to a brutal murder, another and I watched as two burly nords bullied a local dark elf, another and a traitor was being brutally beheaded. There is always something happening and something to do. Oblivion had much the same thing, although it felt a bit more structured - you always knew that every town would have a mages guild, fighters guild and a thieves guild, and there would be various little quests to pick up about town but usually you had to go looking for them.
It was a little odd not to be directed straight towards a guild hall. I'd started a sneaky light armoured bowman so I knew I'd be straight off to join the thieves guild, but it was ages before I even knew how to find them and even when I did find out (on a tooltip during one of the loading screens) their base was in a far flung city and it took me a good half an hour to walk there (this was before I discovered the handy horse-and-cart fast travel system). When I eventually could start the thieves guild storyline I wasn't disappointed, I even got to a particularly spectacular part where, having battled with an invisible foe atop a gigantic statue of an elf, I had to find my way out of an Aladdin-esque cave of wonder as it quickly filled with water. And that wasn't even the final quest! When this amount of effort is put into what is essentially a side quest, you know you're on to a winner.
Graphics and Audio
It's a beautiful game, there's no ignoring it. The landscapes are fantastic - at first I worried that the almost constant snow I was experiencing once I got out into the world would obscure the beautiful sweeping landscapes which were so abundant in Oblivion, but once I started to explore and the snowstorm lessened, the vast world spread out ahead of me. One interesting thing to note is their use of light - it really is fantastic, and creates some pretty epic dungeon moments. They've obviously taken a lot of time to get it just right, even to the point of having your eyes take time to adjust to different lighting conditions. I can't really appropriately describe what Skryim is like, so here's a couple of screenshots:
The audio, similarly, is fantastic. They've put together a really beautiful score and it adds to the whole ambiance of every dungeon, sweeping valley or murky castle hall. The ambient sound audio is also excellent, I hurry away from swinging blade traps because the swoosh and slice of those flying axes is almost deafening. I hear most enemies before I see them, particularly howling wolves and the cries of an angry dragon.
I do have one small question though: where on earth did they get the accents for the nords from? You can be speaking to one guy and he will sound like Count Dracula whereas the next will be Arnold Schwarzenegger, one second you're talking to a guy with a Glaswegian bark and the next guy sounds like the Swedish chef from the muppets. It's not a bit issue, just amusing that they've managed to squeeze a linguistic span which traverses almost a whole continent into just one country.
The combat in Skryim has been greatly improved over Oblivion. Magic and physical attacks can now be used simultaneously as you can add different weapons and items to each hand (ie, you could dual wield swords, or have a fire spell in your left and a dagger in your right, you can even dual wield different magic spells and combine their effects). It really adds a new element into designing your character - am I a noble sword and board paladin? Am I a crazy dual axe wielding orc beserker? Am I a wizened old mage with a staff and a lightning bolt spell? Personally I went for the "shoot you in the eye with an arrow from about a mile away and hide" route, and it works pretty well. They've also added in slo-mo killing moves, which add a whole new cinematic feel to close-combat.
What is also quite nice to see is that they've made a concerted effort to introduce the puzzle element back into the game. Whilst, admittedly, most of your adventuring is going to hinge on your combat ability, there is plenty for the sneaky thieves and those who like a good puzzle to get their teeth into. The enhanced menu system really helps here, as you are able to open up your inventory and manipulate every single item in the game. This means that Bethesda can put little puzzles and clues onto an item if they wish - such as the image below (SPOILER btw!) where you have to examine the item in your inventory to learn the combination for the locked door.
Leveling has changed a lot - every action you undertake increases a skill and each time you do this it gives a little exp towards your next level. With the new Fallout 3 style perk system I really look forward to every level I'm able to attain. It adds a nice little bonus for the work you've put in. Plus, with a couple of the perks I've picked up, it means I can slow down time like in the Matrix! Swwweeeeeeettt!
Alright, let's wrap it up:
It's a beautiful game and if you were thinking about getting it then my opinions won't sway you in the matter at all. In fact, from what I can gather almost every person on the planet has a copy of this game by now: my Steam friends list was jam packed with people playing it over the weekend (I myself have almost hit 24 hours which is both depressing and inspiring in almost equal measure).
When I got to Friday evening (having clocked in a good few hours by then) I was starting to question whether Bethesda had made any real advancements from Oblivion, but having played it like a crazed crack addict since then, I can confirm that Skyrim outstrips its predecessor by quite a way and the differences become more apparent the longer you play. Graphics are sharper, audio is richer, gameplay and combat is more varied and interesting, and whilst the plot seems fairly fantasy-standard there are so many side-plots that you will be engaged for months. In many ways its is familiar fare for Elder Scrolls veterans, but it adds so many little tweaks and unusual little changes that you can't help but consume it like Brian Blessed at a wedding reception buffet.