Taming dragons in the sky

The land of Skyrim is vast, alive and full of adventure. It also has a serious dragon problem that we’re glad to help with.

WHAT can we write about Skyrim? It’s the fifth game in the Elder Scrolls saga (not counting spinoffs like Redguard), and the series has already proven itself with games like Oblivion and Morrowind.

What more can we say about a game that has a well-known pedigree for its sprawling maps and flexible playstyle? What more can we write about a series that set the benchmark for immersive, open-world adventure RPGs?

Well, not much, really. So that’s why we’re going to try something different today. We’ll share with you our experience adventuring in Skyrim, and we’ll let you decide if the fun we had in this latest installment of the Elder Scrolls series sounds like something that you’ll enjoy. Ready?

Set, go!

We bought Skyrim through Steam, opting to go with the PC instead of the PS3 or XBox 360. As we clicked “Play,” we enthusiastically chanted the chorus of the game’s main theme: “DOVAHKIIN! DOVAH wait, what the….”

Suddenly, the game crashed.

Ah, Bethesda, when will you ever release a game without glitches? This was one of the drawbacks of running the game on a PC – there’s a chance you’d have to twiddle around with the configuration to make Skyrim work on your machine.

Nonetheless, our enthusiasm wasn’t ­diminished, and after a quick fix we continued: “-KIIN! DOVAHKIIN!”

As we played the game, it became clear from the simplified, streamlined features and the control layout that Bethesda designed Skyrim with console players in mind. However, we never regretted our decision to go PC; for one thing, the loading times are purportedly better on the PC (our gaming machine only saw brief five-15 second load screens).

For another, we could use mods and console commands should we feel like messing around. Whee!

The executable runs

Like most Elder Scrolls games, we started as a nameless prisoner caught in a series of unfortunate events. We were stuck on a prison wagon along with several NPCs who identified themselves as “Stormcloak rebels.”

Our character was a tabula rasa waiting to take shape, and that’s why when an Imperial guard took us off the wagon and asked “Who are you?” our response took 30 minutes.

RANDOM DRAGONS: Dragons can swoop in from anywhere and at any time, proving a challenge for the unwary and distracted. Like right now, just as we were about to pick that flower.

We spent half an hour customising our ­character, not realising that unlike previous Elder Scrollsgames, our early decisions would not limit how we could play the game. Gone are old concepts such as major/minor skills, as well as stats such as Strength and Agility.

We could, for example, start off as fire-­hurling mage, and then halfway through the game learn to swing two-handed swords like a barbarian. Nothing could limit us.

Of course, it didn’t seem like we’d have a chance to do that, as the next thing the guard told us was that we were about to be executed for unspecified crimes because, as the NPC explained, why not?

Suddenly, a dragon drops in from the sky, wreaking havoc on the prison grounds and derailing our execution. “A dragon! That can’t be!” scream several guards, despite the fact that a dragon is clearly setting them aflame.

In the chaos that ensued, we made our escape and learnt of two important elements in Skyrim’s story: that there’s a civil war brewing between Imperial forces and the Stormcloak rebels, and that dragons – long thought extinct – have returned to the world with a vengeance.

Living world

As we exited the tutorial area, we were greeted for the first time with the grandeur of Skyrim, the eponymous land that was – ­judging from the Viking influences – ­modelled after the most pristine Scandinavian regions.

We trudged through verdant, evergreen forests full of detailed flora and fauna, and travelled past rushing rivers filled with fish. In the distance, we saw snow-capped ­mountains, teasing us with adventures to be had. Our first thought was, “wow, this ­beautiful world feels alive.”

OH DEER: We hunt dear with magic and enchanted weapons. No, we don’t understand the meaning of overkill.

Our second thought was, “now let’s see how much fun we can have with it.”

We proceeded to gleefully gallivant across the landscape, testing how interactive the world could be and learning that the answer was “very much so.”

We picked flowers and ate random ­mushrooms, learning that they can be alchemically combined to create potions and poisons, and we swam through the rivers, catching salmon with our bare hands.

Much of the wildlife in the game could be used for crafting or eaten, so that’s why when we saw a deer gracefully dart through the ­forest, we took chase with a warhammer and a lightning bolt spell.

Full of character

Eventually, we stumbled across the town of Riverwood. Like most of the landscape, Skyrim’s towns have a handcrafted feel to them, and each location has a memorable story.

As we walked into the local shop to sell off approximately 200 pounds of swag, we discovered that the town had some problems and it needed a hero.

SO BEAUTIFUL: We actually had a lot of fun travelling around Skyrim and admiring its scenery. We guess we’re as much tourists as we are warriors.

“Thieves stole my treasure!” wailed a shopkeeper, prompting the start of a quest to retrieve a golden claw from a nearby ­dungeon.

“Thieves? That’s terrible!” we replied as we quietly looted the contents of his store.

We relished Skyrim‘s ability to let us play our character any way we liked. We could be a heroic, law-abiding warrior-mage, or a ­ruthless mercenary and assassin, or anything in between.

Unfortunately for the denizens of Skyrim, we liked to play as a mildly deranged, kleptomaniacal hero. Sure, we’d still save the world, but we’ll probably rob you in the process.

Dungeon crawling

Skyrim is so wide and open that we actually got lost trying to get to the first dungeon, Bleak Falls Barrow. While some players would chafe at the difficulty in navigating through the game world without the aid of a ­magical GPS (tip: get the Clairvoyance spell), we ­thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to see more of Skyrim‘s vast wilderness.

Conversely, however, once we actually got to the barrow, the dungeon crawl was a fairly linear affair. Unlike, say, Deus Ex: Human Revolution or Crysis 2, there were rarely ­multiple paths to complete a level.

Like most of Skyrim‘s dungeons, the ­barrow featured only one path that led from the start to the end of the dungeon, and we had to invariably kill most everything we ­encountered.

KILL IT WITH FIRE: The undead warrior argues against our tomb robbing proclivities, but we make a counterpoint via magical flamethrower.

At first we tried fighting the thieves with a flame spell in one hand and a sword in the other, but we quickly realised that while melee combat was a straightforward solution, it wasn’t exactly the most exciting.

Magic offered more variety, but we opted for the more rascally route, using stealth to get past tough enemies and sneak attacks to insta-kill the rest.

While the first quest was relatively easy, we would later notice that Skyrim didn’t ­suffer from Oblivion‘s ridiculous level scaling issues. The difficulty curve was more ­reminiscent of recent Fallout games, a fact for which we’re very thankful.

Mad skills

During our daring adventure, a number of our skills had levelled up. Like in other Elder Scrollsgames, your character improves his or her skills by using them. So, if you want to improve your Archery skill, you’d need to shoot at a lot of things.

The biggest twist Skyrim introduces to the series are the Fallout 3-styled perks. Each of the game’s 18 skills has its own ­branching skill tree, and as you improve each skill you get the chance to unlock perks that ­dramatically improve your character.

For example, there’s a perk in One-handed Weapons that causes power attacks to ­decapitate enemies; a perk for Conjuration that lets you summon twice as many ­creatures; and the top-level perk for the Sneak skill was the ability to disappear even in the middle of combat.

We knew we just needed to max out on the Sneak skill so we found a blind old man ­residing in a cave, and we stood quietly behind him for two consecutive in-game weeks. He never detected us, and our Sneak skill shot up to the maximum level of 100.

Excellent.

Dragon fight!

When we arrived at the city of Whiterun, we learnt that the dragon that attacked us earlier was now making its way there, and we were conscripted into the defence of the city. That made sense – if Whiterun was burnt down, we wouldn’t have anything left to steal.

With a band of soldiers in tow, we set off to meet the dragon head-on, and in doing so the stage was set for one of Skyrim‘s best features – the awesome dragon fights.

WHITERUN: Whiterun is a city built on a hill surrounded by plains, and at its central courtyard is a tree. That description (lord of the) rings a bell.

Dragons can be considered Skyrim‘s version of boss battles, and like all good boss battles these fights are as challenging as they are exciting. As we ran across the open plains near Whiterun, a distant roar signalled the coming of the great beast and the battle soon began.

Arrows and spells were thrown at the dragon, and in return fire rained from the sky. After a lengthy fight, the beast was felled, and in the process its body burnt up as we absorbed its soul.

One of the surviving soldiers came up to us and, with shock in his voice, exclaimed, “You must be Dovahkiin, a Dragonborn!”

“What?” we asked.

CSI SKYRIM: Judging from the scorch marks, the perpetrator of this attack was a dragon. Let’s ask that flying gentleman if he saw anything.

“You’re a mortal born with a dragon’s soul,” the soldier’s voice turned into awe, “and by killing the dragons you absorb their power! Only by using their power against them can you save the land of Skyrim!”

Obviously we already knew this, having seen the trailers, but we didn’t have the heart to stop the soldier’s eager exposition.

To test the soldier’s claims, we equipped our newly acquired Unrelenting Force ability, and with a press of a button we spoke a word in the magical tongue of dragons, projecting a wave of force that blasted everything in front of us. Amazing!

In hindsight, however, we probably shouldn’t have tested our deadly Dragon Shout while facing the soldier.

Conclusion

As we sprinted away from the soldier’s angry friends, we realised that there was no way we could cover even a quarter of this game in time for this review. There was simply so much to do and so much to explore, and the game’s immersive enough to keep us engrossed for weeks on end.

THREE’S COMPANY: We once had an exciting three-way with a dragon and group of mammoths. And like all our three-ways, at the climax there was a bunch of bodies on the ground and we were sneaking off with everyone’s valuables.

There are many more stories we can share with you, such as the time we became an apprentice at the College of Mages at Winterhold, only to nearly blow up the world; or that terrifying time when we accidentally aggravated a mammoth, which made its giant herder hostile.

However, if you’ve read this far, you ­probably don’t want to hear more from us. You probably want to dive straight into Skyrim, so you can make your own stories.

If you love adventures, then you really need to get Skyrim. It’s easily one of the most amazing adventure RPGs released this year, and it’s a game you can happily sink hundreds of hours into.

Pros: The world of Skyrim is gorgeous and feels alive; freedom to explore and play the way you like; it’s just super-awesome.

Cons: You will forget what it means to sleep or have meaningful social interactions outside of the game.

THE ELDER SCROLLS V: SKYRIM
Adventure/RPG for the PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360
(Bethesda Game Studios/ Bethesda Softworks)
WEBSITEwww.elderscrolls.com
RATING: 5 stars

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