The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is one of the most involving, engrossing and impressive games of the year, but unfortunate technical inconsistencies mean we can't guarantee whether your experience will be flawless or just plain flawed
Skyrim's PS3 technical troubles are well documented, making this an extremely difficult game to review. While the bugs and glitches we experienced during our time with the game were less pronounced than those demonstrated on other websites and message boards, the frequency of the complaints are telling. And they raise a challenging question for us as reviewers: do we base the game solely on our own experiences, or do we carefully consider the footage and horror stories published all over the internet?
We've decided to sit somewhere in the middle. The reality is that Skyrim is a stunning, engrossing and massive game, but Bethesda's ambition has once again compromised the technical performance of the product. If you're willing to overlook the issues in favour of the experience then Skyrim has a sprawling campaign just waiting for you, but Bethesda doesn't deserve a free pass by virtue of the size of the games it produces.
But if Bethesda's capable of winning over fantasy sceptics like ourselves, it can appeal to anyone. As the hours wistfully passed during our time with Skyrim, we noticed just how much we cared about the characters, factions, worlds and races. Skyrim is as free-form as games come, and that means you're able to invest in the narrative as you see relevant. There's no hard rules, no linear paths and no real objectives or goals; it's the truest kind of sandbox in that there's never anything immediate to do, but always something incredible to find. Skyrim gives you the freedom to explore whatever takes your fancy, be it your enrolment at a shunned magic college, joining a faction known as the Dark Brotherhood or your role in the world as a Dragonborn. These unconnected narratives are individual, but part of a whole; Skyrim is one connected world, with rumours, politics and opinions, and you're just a small — though influential — part of it, a speck on a map that encompasses hundreds of narratives and thousands of NPCs. It's easy to see why the game is technically challenged, though it doesn't make its flaws any more forgiveable.
The main plot depicts the return of Alduin, a famed reptilian "world-eater" destined to spell the end of time. As a dragonborn, you are the only person within Skyrim capable of saving the land, and so your quest spans a lengthy adventure in which you seek out the steps required to defeat the legendary dragon.
As a dragonborn you possess the ability to speak in the reptile's native tongue, and consequentially learn new "Thu'ums" (or Shouts) throughout the game. These reward you with new abilities, such as the power to quell inclement weather or move as fast as the wind. In reality the Shouts aren't quite as pivotal to the gameplay as the narrative would have you believe, though unsurprisingly they are required to finish the main questline.
Wandering is perhaps the best experience you can have in Skyrim. Everything about the world is connected and considered, and stories will present themselves to you as you explore; you never need to go hunting out the next quest, because it'll find you first. A note left next to a corpse, a string of murders in Windhelm or a depressed, elderly explorer unable to seek out his life-work due to his aged body; everybody has a story to tell, and while the game sometimes creaks under the sheer wealth of its content — it can be hard to keep track of quests at times — none of it feels like filler. Admittedly, yes, you'll happen upon some NPCs that repeat the same phrases and some buildings that have the exact same layout as another, but on the whole, no other game comes close to matching Skyrim's scale. We accept that some players like to be guided, and you can stick to very specific storylines if you're that type of player, but the real joy is found in dabbling in a bit of this and a bit of that. And Bethesda's cheekily intertwined everything together, forcing you to explore points of interest in order to complete one quest, only to pick up three more in the process.
But all the content in the world would be meaningless if The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim didn't have the RPG chops to match, but it does. Cleverly Bethesda's dumbed down the genre's staples without removing any of the intricacy. You'll still open the game with a character creation screen, from which you need to create your protagonist. You can choose from a variety of races, sexes and more, but short of adjusting a few statistics your actual choices here are marginalised as you actually involve yourself in the game. What's so smart about Skyrim is the way it rewards you for playing how you want to. If you're a fan of archery, then play as an archer and the game will reward you appropriately. Or perhaps you'd prefer to be a magician? Then play as a magician. Rather than manually requiring you to level up each area of your character with points, the game dynamically improves your statistics as you play, meaning you can focus on doing what you enjoy, rather than worry about boring statistics. And it also affords you the freedom to experiment; if you're 20 hours into the game and suddenly want to start playing with melee weapons, then you still have time to adjust. All your original skills will be retained, you'll simply learn an additional skill on top of your favourites.
For RPG fans there's still all the depth you'd expect: perks can be applied to different elements as you level up your characters, allowing you to further increase their abilities and loot, trading and inventory management is still a key area of the experience. It's just made slicker by the concessions Bethesda's intelligently made, and the game's a better product as a result.
With the typical staples of the genre retracted to the background, Skyrim instead emphasises three core, regenerating "life" bars: magika, health and stamina. Each is intuitive (to the degree we're assuming they don't even need explanation) but add limitations and balance to the game. If you're a warrior, you'll be able to swing your sword around more than a magician or sorcerer, but stamina will still have an impact on the number of strikes you can make in a short amount of time. Similarly magicians will be able to cast more magika than an archer (for example), but again, there are restrictions. The boundaries make the gameplay interesting, and mean you actually have to think about what you're doing rather than simply hold down the "win" button for a set length of time.
What's most impressive about Skyrim is its fearless ability to take a slower paced approach to its campaign. Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception generated some ire earlier in the year for its slow start (something we particularly enjoyed), but even that game's laboured opening feels like a Formula 1 car compared to Skyrim's lengthy exposition. One sequence sees you sit as a participant at a council meeting between Skyrim's Jarls (leaders) and a religious cult for what feels like more than 45 minutes. The game's definitely up there with Yakuza 3's orphanage management chapter.
All of this would be dangerous if the game weren't so delightfully presented. Excellent voice acting and wonderful writing make it worth investing in, even if the fiction isn't necessarily your cup of tea. Visually the game still looks dated; while character models have been improved, they're still not quite up to snuff. There are some nice environmental effects in the world and a great draw distance, but it looks old by comparison to its more linear peers.
What the game does well visually is give you a sense of liveliness. Birds sing, foliage sways, NPCs go about their business and the game generally gives the illusion of a breathing world. Despite its visual inconsistencies — and it definitely has high and low points — we've never experienced a game that offers the same sense of place as Skyrim achieves. There are moments where blizzards will give you goosebumps and roaring hearths fill you with warmth. It's a game that, despite its flaws, achieves something involving from a visual perspective. Perhaps it's the sense of character attachment that accentuates such a feeling of connection to the game world.
The audio is similarly noteworthy, with fantastic themes backing the mystical landscapes. Traversing to the sound of violins and chorus melodies is an otherworldly experience, transporting you to another place and helping you to lose yourself in the moment. The combination of appropriate sound effects — rippling streams and the howl of distant wolves — only add to the game's cinematic endeavour. It's telling that the slightest repeated sample is able to completely and totally pull you out of the experience.
But of course, such a comment brings us full-circle. When Skyrim's working as intended it's a magical experience, but the game's simply not as technically consistent as it should be. Bugs that stop quests from being properly completed are commonplace in Bethesda games, and thankfully marginalised here, but the game suffers from an altogether bigger problem. As you progress — and your individual take on the world deviates from the developer's original vision — the game starts to stutter. And those problems get worse and worse for some players, to the point where the frame rate is less than five frames per second. That's unacceptable for any game, and despite how glowing we've been about Skyrim in general, it makes all the positive comments we've written pointless. What's the point in a gorgeous world if you can't properly experience it?
The bigger problem is that Skyrim — in its current state — appears to be a game of Russian roulette. Some have played for hundreds of hours with little less than the odd crash or two. Others are 60 hours in with the inability to progress further. We saw frame drops and we had crashes, but we're sat somewhere in the middle: inconsistent but perfectly playable. We wished we could definitively say whether you'll be affected, but we can't. Until Bethesda's patched the game once and for all, you should adopt an air of caution before purchasing for yourself.
And yet we still recommend you play it. The game doesn't deviate too heavily from the staples Bethesda's carved out for itself, but it is a game that's above and beyond the sum of its parts. Visually and mechanically it's not the most compelling experience in the world, but its setting, outstanding sense of place and wealth of content make it an intriguing experience from beginning through to your 150th hour. The technical problems are what they are — and refrain us from awarding Skyrim the score it deserves — but deep down this is one of our favourite games of the year. We're frustrated with Bethesda for not cleaning up the issues sooner, but purely because Skyrim is so good. Just draw a straw, and hope you don't get the short one.