VIDEO GAME REVIEW Adventurers, look out

Oblivion’s successor is beautiful, but game glitches hurt the experience

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The mountain terrain in Skyrim makes for stunning visuals.
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The conflict begins in Skyrim’s live action television commercial.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Published by Bethesda Softworks for Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360

As a conservative, I’m always a little bit wary when it comes to video game storytelling. Game development studios, if you ask me, have a decidedly liberal bias. Whether the game is BioShock, with its aggressive assault on the ideology of Ayn Rand, or Grand Theft Auto IV, with its skeptical look at the American dream, I worry that somewhere out there, sneaky left-wingers are using my recreational time to brainwash me in their ways.

Bethesda Softworks is no exception. In my play through of Fallout 3: New Vegas, I did not, as I had hoped, play as a noble individualist spreading democracy and free markets in my wake. Instead, I played as a thuggish sociopath, whose first instinct upon contact with fellow human beings was to bludgeon them to death with the nearest club and loot them of the clothes off their backs. By the end of the game it was clear — if granted any freedoms or human rights, I would use them to bash and plunder my fellow man without mercy. I could only have two ends: either squeezed beneath the thumb of a ruthless tyrant, or the dictator of all before me. My very existence was a damning indictment of democracy as a form of government.

It was with some surprise therefore, that I found Bethesda’s latest release, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, to be, if anything, a right-leaning game. The game’s pseudo-racist, religious hillbillies were not depicted as opponents of my right to gay marriage or somesuch — instead, they were fighting for my freedom against the impositions of an elitist group of carpetbaggers. Animal rights groups were nonexistent — on the contrary, I was encouraged to spend much of the game exterminating the land of its natural fauna and was rewarded for doing so. The government of this beautiful land was libertarian, providing only what was necessary to maintain law and order and keep its citizens safe from external threat. It was a paradise.

Besides the game’s satisfying policy positions, Skyrim has many other considerable strengths. In no particular order:

The game is downright beautiful. It is visually stunning on a level that surpasses anything the Xbox 360 has seen to date. Just the opportunity to wander the epic mountain terrain of Skyrim was worth a solid $10 of the game’s $60 asking price.

Skyrim has made solid improvements to two areas that were woefully lacking in its previous Elder Scrolls titles, namely the voice acting and user interface. I spent much of Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion fumbling through my inventory for items and cursing the repetitive ramblings of the game’s NPCs. In Skyrim, the inventory system worked smoothly and I found every bit of the game’s dialogue enjoyable.

The storytelling is of very high quality. Any one of the game’s side plots could have been the main plot of a lesser game. And for those who want it, Skyrim has sprinkled backstory and lore throughout the world, waiting for adventurers to seek it out.

The gameplay is first rate. Melee combat, ranged combat, and spell casting are all viscerally satisfying, and there is enough tactical challenge to make combat exciting.

Together, the success of all of these elements results in a game that draws the player in and makes the world feel real. My favorite moment was a point, maybe six hours in, where I found myself cautiously hiking through the untamed wilderness of Skyrim toward a distant town, eyes glued to the screen and ears perked for a hint of threats. It is rare for a video game to draw me in so completely that I forget I am playing a game, but Skyrim did it — for 30 minutes or so, as I sat on a couch in the middle of a large urban metropolis, and lived with the very real fear of being eaten by a grizzly bear.

With that said, Skyrim has significant flaws that should deny it the distinction of being the game of the year or some similar title. The first and foremost are the game’s frequent, and often game-breaking bugs.

What Skyrim works so hard to achieve in terms of game immersion, it squanders with software glitches. Frequently during my playthrough, the game would freeze and force me to reset my console. In addition, some sort of scripting error caused the in-game final battle cinematic to break. I finally quit playing for good when, at the end of a long dungeon crawl, my final objective glitched into the floor, and could not be recovered — the quest became impossible to complete without sacrificing hours of unsaved gameplay.

The second problem that makes it difficult to stay immersed in the game is its difficulty curve. Rather than get harder as the game progresses, it tends to become easier — at level nine, every fight felt like an epic battle won only by the skin of my teeth. At level 39, I could zip around dungeons with near impunity, stopping only to loot trinkets from those slain by my summoned minions. By the end, fighting a world-devouring dragon felt several times easier than killing my first troll, and not nearly as immersive.

Also frustrating is the rather linear nature of the game. Linear is a hard label to apply to a game like Skyrim, which allows you to pursue any mission you like at any time, but I still believe the charge has merit. Decisions within games are often criticized for being nothing but a choice between moral extremes — you can rescue the kittens stuck in a tree or burn the tree to the ground, but there is no middle road to pursue. Skyrim avoids this convention by denying the player much choice at all — most of the major quest lines are strictly linear progressions, with perhaps one choice of outcomes at the very end. Skyrim’s storytelling is a step forward for the game’s industry, but the degree of agency that it gives the player is a step backward.

Lastly (and leastly), the gameplay feels imbalanced. Players who play as fighters are likely to have a much easier time of things than mages or thieves. In and of itself, it’s not a terribly significant problem for the game, considering that all three paths are fun to play. But, it does make the serious problems with the game’s difficulty curve even more critical.

All in all, Skyrim gets an 8.5 out of 10. It is a game with some significant flaws and a good deal of wasted potential, but otherwise is very well executed. Even gamers not particularly enamored with the fantasy RPG genre should feel comfortable buying this game when it reaches the $30–$40 price range.