The Elder Scrolls computer game has a long and venerable history. The first versions of the game came out in the mid-1990s and, although they were largely forgettable, what distinguished them was the scope of their creators’ ambition, which was nothing less than to create a game world larger than Britain, rendered in a fully 3D engine, and build a skill-system that revolved around skill building rather than experience gains. Unfortunately the early instalments in the Elder Scrolls saga suffered from that very ambition – they were rushed to publication and as a result the games were tortuously buggy and prohibitively hardware-intensive. I’m a huge fan of fantasy and sci-fi themed computer role-playing/strategy battle games, in particular the Baldur’s Gate, Battle for Middle Earth and Dawn of War series, and like them for me the later instalments of the Elder Scrolls series really stand out. It was really Morrowind and Oblivion which changed the game in my opinion, focusing as they did on providing a tighter storyline, improved AI, physics and graphics. Having enjoyed those versions of Elder Scrolls it was with some trepidation that I approached Skyrim when it came out recently – how would this instalment measure up against its illustrious forebears?
First the background (always one of the big selling points of this series for me). The world of The Elder Scrolls is known for its attention to detail, attempted realism, and the vast number of names, dates, and places that constitute its history and the interconnected structure of its various societies, cultures, and religions. The Elder Scrolls games take place on the fantasy world of Nirn, on the continent of Tamriel, a large landmass divided into nine provinces. The physical ‘Elder Scrolls’, which are said to be ancient records which have been read and interpreted by a secretive sect of monks, played a very limited role in the storyline of the series initially. Up till now they have largely served only as framing plot device (i.e., “[the events in this game] were foretold in the Elder Scrolls…”) and have rarely been referred to either in the game or in the associated literature. It is only in Skyrim that the scrolls, which are therein described as “pieces of creation”, play a vital part of the storyline. One of the scrolls was said to have been used in ancient times to cast off Alduin, the evil dragon god, to the future, although not intentionally. Alduin is prophesied to destroy the world and hence the game focuses on the player’s efforts to defeat him.
But is the game any good? I hear you ask. The first thing that I would say is that if you buy this you really need to clear your schedules – watch those evenings and weekends disappear because this game is HUGE! Skyrim has just about everything you could want from a fantasy game, including thrills, spills, exploration and adventure. The number of NPCs and monsters is vast. The number of collectables and upgrades is enormous. The playing area doesn’t seem that big at first but once you start exploring you realise that you are going to be looking at the map for a very long time before you visit anywhere near all of the places there are to be found in this immense, colourful world. The gameplay is exciting and immersive – when you’re playing Skyrim you really feel that you are there in a fully-realised fantasy world. The closest comparison that I can imagine is the feeling of acting in Lord of the Rings or any other fantasy/sci-fi film, because for the duration of the game that’s what you are – the hero of your very own movie. I should add that this comparison doesn’t really do the visuals of the game justice because I’ve never seen anything on screen – not Lord of the Rings, not Avatar, nothing – which measures up to the graphics and special effects of Skyrim. If you don’t believe me, try it out for yourself.
But there must be some bad points right? Yes, inevitably for a game of this size the interface can seem a little intimidating at first, especially to those who are not seasoned gamers. Some familiarity with the previous Elder Scrolls games certainly helps too (although this is by no means essential). Unfortunately this game, like almost everything these days, has the drawback of you needing to have Steam installed on your computer, which there seems to be no way of getting around that I can think of (oh for the days of just loading and playing a game…). Once you get past that though, there’s very little to quibble about. Great graphics, superb gameplay, endless hours of enjoyment and a pretty awesome soundtrack to boot – what more could you want out of a fantasy computer game?
(Oh yes, and werewolves are back, just in case you needed any further incentive!)