There’s a moment in Skyrim where it all just clicks into place and the disparate segments of the game become one glorious whole (behave children) but that point can be any amount of time away depending on how you play the game. For me it was just over twenty hours into the game that I finally understood how it all worked. This moment was followed with a sigh at a certain amount of wasted money. In other Elder Scrolls games you slowly get better armour options open to you as you discover new types of armour. I followed this philosophy in Skyrim but with a difference as I was able to smith my own armour. I did find myself short of a few bits and pieces needed to do so and bought those from the blacksmith but in the end I had a fine set of Elven armour quite early in the game. It was around then that I discovered that most light armours protect the same amount depending on your skill and that your Smithing skill can be used to upgrade armour to make it better (a new and welcome addition to the series). Lesson learned I “downgraded” my armour to a leather that suits my character concept of travelling spellsword better, upgraded that armour to Exquisite level, and threw my shiny elven crap at the nearest blacksmith. From then on I knew that this game was the Elder Scrolls series refined to its core and redesigned to keep you playing forever, no matter how you play.
I’ve spent twice the time on the game as Kim has and have only two levels on her due to the fact that I’m usually carrying a small town on my back and moving at a snail’s pace due to that. The fucking broom dungeon wont know what hit it.
A big part of that is the Radiant Quest System, which does its best to keep the world seeming alive and reactive. How this works is simple. If you’re in a town and there is a quest in the town or near it, then you’ll be directed to that in some way. If a den of bandits or necromancers needs clearing out then you’ll be told about that. Different people may direct you to these quests in different ways. You may find out about a nearby shipwreck from a passing guard making conversation while I may be sent there to pick up an heirloom lost by a villager. A tavern owner may have a bounty for the bandit leader in a nearby cave while a shop owner may want you to find a shipment stolen from him in there. The game determines the missions and events that are available and wraps them up in new ways for you, making the world seem a little more alive. If that were the extent of the system then it’d be enough, but they’ve done more work to make it even more tailored to you. Rewards and quest targets are also tailored to you by the system. If you have been raising your two-handed weapons skill and favour blades then the legendary weapon you’ve been offered in reward will likely be something you’ll find useful like a greatsword, while a mage may have a legendary staff given to them or a tome with a rare spell. Those that diversify a lot in their skills will find that the system can’t quite keep up with them, but those who play focussed characters are going to feel like the entire world was built to please them. In fact, the world doesn’t like it if you’ve not got a hell of a lot to do. The game keeps a record of the things you’ve been doing and uses that to find something you haven’t done recently, then finds a way to offer you a quest to do that thing. Been avoiding bears? Then you should expect to find someone soon who has a phobia of them and wants you to collect ten bear pelts to help cure it (or some other contrived reason that gets you out killing bears).
These little kill and collect quests could seem pretty shallow (and I’m sure that hundreds of hours of gameplay will make them seem so, but that still means hundreds of hours of play) but there are so many ways to be given these objectives and they mix in so well with all of the other quest types in the Radiant Quest System that they simply come across as another thing to do. In the example above about collecting bear pelts, you may simply travel from shop to shop buying them or go from home to home stealing them if you don’t fancy killing some nice, defenceless wall of muscle, fur and teeth that has no such problem with eating your face. The final part of the Radiant Quest System is the relationships system which allows for multiple people to give the same quest and reward you for them. Say you have to escort someone somewhere and the quest is completed but they somehow die before rewarding you. In most games the mission would count as failed, but in Skyrim you have more complexity added. People related to the recently deceased character may have the quest reward for you. Depending on how they feel about you they may also lower or raise the value of the reward, or even decline to pay and seek revenge for their deceased relative. The same applies if someone dies before they can give you a quest as the system moves that quest to their nearest relative, or even switches towns and gives it to someone with the same job. The clever part of the Radiant Quest System is that it all works behind the scenes and the player is never aware of any of the vast network of calculations going on in the background. All the player knows is that there is so much to do in the world and that people just keep mentioning things that either lead to quests or add places to the map. Guards mention nearby ruins and caves, traders and people in the street may mention trouble going on nearby, couriers come up with messages from people you’ve met that invariably lead to new missions and rewards, Jarls post bounties in the pubs, random travellers and prisoner convoys provide the opportunity for plenty of adventure, guilds have their own sets of repeatable quest types with the target randomly generated in the world and everyone has something for you to do. The Radiant Quest System works so well at making the story quests that little bit different for you and surrounding them with so many different things to keep you going that it ceases to be a recognisable game system at all for most players and will simply be another aspect of this living, breathing world.
And what a world it is. The cold mountains frequently experience snowstorms, the rivers and waterfalls have a thin mist surrounding them as the water is usually hotter than the air surrounding it. The ingredients system from previous games returns, but has been expanded beyond plants and animal parts. Bugs can be plucked out of the air and fish out of the rivers and seas. If you happen to see salmon jumping up a waterfall (something I wasn’t expecting in a videogame) then see if you can grab one while it’s out of the water. This attention to detail permeates the entire world and contributes to making it feel like a living place. Alongside the Radiant Quest System this leaves Skyrim as one of the most reactive landscapes in videogame history, but this makes the little bugs and annoyances all the more prevalent.
The tactical additions to companions allows you to tell them to go somewhere.
You will only ever use this to get them out of the way when they stubbornly refuse to move out of a doorway.
The addition of dragons to the Elder Scrolls series had me groaning at first as it’s such a done thing in fantasy games. I don’t know whether it’s the Norselands inspired setting that makes it any different but Skyrim pulls off dragons magnificently. These beasts can appear anywhere, and frequently do, sometimes landing in the middle of villages perching on the buildings and breathing frost and fire down on the populace. These battles, while far from being the most difficult things you’ll face in the game, are always intense and tactical as you swap to bows and spells to ground the dragon then on to melee to take it on when it lands. There’s nothing better than being in a pitched battle with a group of enemies when a dragon lands. Old grudges are put aside and allegiances change as everyone joins forces to take down the perceived greater threat. Use this distraction to slaughter them from behind…
The dragons are built into the game in every conceivable way. The land is covered in ancient dragon burial sites and some ruins contain walls with the ancient dragon language carved into it. These walls dim the lights as you get near and a single word shines brightly on it, burning itself into your mind and allowing you to use the magic of the dragons which is generally so much more powerful than the magic of humans. It is said in books and by scholars that this language is how dragons communicate with each other and that a dragon battle where they spew fire and frost at each other is merely a heated discussion, a debate in that mystical and powerful language. In short, the dragons feel as mystical and powerful as they did when you first heard about them as a child. By keeping their abilities the same but changing the lore surrounding those abilities, Skyrim manages to make even a concept as done to death as dragons have been feel fresh and new as well as part of the existing world that has been set up over the past few games.
I was a fan of the Elder Scrolls from the time the series began and counted Morrowind (which I famously spent 440 hours on before I was done with it) as one of the greatest RPGs ever created. When Oblivion came at the start of this generation I eagerly bought it (we actually bought the game a month or so before the console to make sure we’d get a copy) and was bitterly disappointed. All of the improvements they’d made came at such a cost to the game that they were actually detrimental to the overall game. Yes, there were many more dungeons in the game than ever before but they all used one of five tilesets and had nothing to set them apart from others that used the same set. Yes, there was full voice acting, but there were only six people providing the voices and they went from talking about vast political machinations to single lines repeated ad infinitum. Every improvement came with a price that simply wasn’t worth paying and the game suffered vastly for it. For many it was still a great game but too much had been lost for me to enjoy it as all I was surrounded by were cases of the could-have-beens. Skyrim on the other hand is a glorious return to form and an evolution of everything that came before. The voice cast hit seventy people and they have so many things to say (in part aided by the wonderful Radiant Quest System) this time around that they rarely repeat, except for the guards who all used to be adventurers until they got shot in the knee making me think that someone out there is ending careers by shooting peoples knees (I’m keeping my eyes open just in case). Almost every dungeon has its own twist. There are still repeated tilesets but these have some secret or mini puzzle that sets them apart from other similar dungeons. The world has a depth to it that was missing in Oblivion and so many layers that keep you coming back and doing different things. The new perks system allows you to customise your character as never before and actively encourages different play styles from those who inevitably end up playing the same type of character each time. In all, this is the redemption of the Elder Scrolls series and a solid contender for the RPG of the generation.