Let me get one thing straight. I love The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. However, it's because of my love for this series that I critisice it more fiercly than a game like say, Mindjack, which has no redeeming qualities whatsoever. Skyrim can perhaps be forgiven because of it's scope and ambition. On the other hand, is it that very same ambition that causes it to fall flat? I'm not at all suggesting Skyrim was a terrible game, but every time it disappoints, I feel let down because it has more potential than most games. With that in mind, I suppose you could call this smorgasbord of a review "tough love".
As always, I like to get the good news out of the way first, so I can save the soul-crushing criticisms for last, leaving you miserable wretches of fanboys heartbroken. Before I tear into this game and all it's shortcomings, I did want to talk about a couple of it's strengths that I felt deserved a mention. Enjoy.
Off To A Good Start
Skyrim had an exceptional opening. Better than most games, in fact. It's strengths lie in its perfect balance and being of proper length, whilst still introducing the player to key aspects of the game naturally with subtle pacing. It also avoided the pitfall that many games fall into: overwhelming the player. You start out with your hands bound. This way, you're only options are to move and look around. From there of course, you'll progressively be introduced to other key components, but you're also not bogged down by them now, so you can enjoy the moment. At this moment, you get an introduction, not a full fleshed-out history lesson, to the world, its inhabitants, and its politics, all within a reasonably short amount of time.
Other games have also done this well. BioShock is the first to come to mind, which gave you a stellar introduction to the world of Rapture, allowing you to step foot inside it's wondery world without having to worry about weapons and other gameplay facets. It started off with a bang, which is exactly how Skyrim started.
Different Sides of the Same Septim
For the most part, the civil war questline was a fairly well done dillema. It was a very grey issue, and though I do see one side (Legion) as being smarter, they were both presented very well. Very few games ever manage to pull that off correctly, and though the game seems to favour the Stormcloaks in the begining, it evens itself out by showcasing the flaws evident on both sides.
Through his somewhat condescending dialogue, it's made clear that Tullius is ignorant to Nord customs, and without Rikke to keep him in check, he wouldn't know a damn thing about Nords and their sense of honour. On the flip side, we continually got the sense that the Stormcloak Rebellion is centred around one man's egomania and obsession with tradition and symbols. Walk into Windhelm and you'll see firsthand how xenophobic his followers are. There's no right answer here, and it's one of those few binary desicions that made me take pause. So... kudos to Bethesda for that.
Cell Phones in Skyrim?
This might seem like a nitpicky complaint, but it's consistent enough to merit a mention. Now, I like the Radiant AI. However, nothing takes me out of the game more than when courier's deliver messages to me immediately after I've done something. Here's an example. In the Raggard Flaggon, I bought an enchanted Dwarven blade. The second I stepped outside the secret entrance to the Thieves Guild, I was greeted by a courier with a message from Calcelmo, the court wizard of Markarth, asking to take the sword off my hands. In order for that to be even remotely possible, there would have to be an informant in the Thieves Guild capable of traversing the length of the province of Skyrim in a matter of seconds. The amount of time elapsed from me buying the artefact and actually getting the letter was no more than 2 hours in-game time.
How in Oblivion did Calcelmo's mole in the Thieves Guild manage to cross Skyrim and relay the information to Calcelmo, who then wrote a letter and sent it via Courier who would have had to travel the same distance, all in a time frame of less than two hours?
Long story short, the game needs to wait a couple of days before sending me letters about things I just did.
Speaking of letters, I rather like the idea of the Radiant AI system sending hired thugs to rough you up (though every gang of mercenaries decide killing is the best way to go, all the time), but it feels... half-done. It felt sort of shallow having NPC's hire thugs to murder me (for stealing some worthelss junk they didn't see me steal, I might add) but have nothing to say when I actually greet them. There's no follow up. They don't hate you, or dislike you, or even acknowledge the fact that they tried to have you brutally beaten and/or murdered that same day. It's as if the person who called out the hit is a completely different person. I'm not asking for much; one or two lines of dialogue isn't so difficult, is it? It's kind of strange when this can happen.
The Old Ball and Chain
Marriage is a great idea. It was definitely a step forward. It was a step that tripped over a tiny rock and fell on its face, sure, but a step forward nonetheless. There are many hopeful marriage candidates out there, but what makes one pick better than another? Unlike romance options in other games, like say, Dragon Age: Origins, there's no sense of intimacy or well... actual romance. You can chop wood for someone, and within a day they'll became your trophy wife. Even Romeo and Juliet waited longer than that! What I'm getting at here is that I never got the sense that these two characters were falling in love. There's no romance, not even a hint of romance. Do married couples in Skyrim not have sex? I'm not saying we need full-on Bosmer and Argonian sex scenes (not saying I don't want that either), but at least some hint, some tease, would be great. In Fallout: New Vegas, we got a fade to black and some suggestive dialogue. That's all I'm asking for here. Why bother getting married to a non-follower when all they do is sit in your house, sell your stuff, and make you food? At this point, they feel more like a a gameplay asset than part of the plot.
My next gripe is somewhat minor, but irksome nonetheless. I felt that, whilst marriage in general was fairly shallow, the ceremony itself felt underdone. Despite completing three questlines, saving countless lives, making multiple friends, and doing quests for dozens of people, I ended up with three people at my wedding. Of all my friends, my Housecarl and two random NPC's whom I helped in a miscellaneous quest showed up. I didn't even know those people. Erandur didn't even show up, and he's my best friend. Sure, they game may not know that, but it can and should recognise that I've spent more time with him than any other follower, and that I favour him over everyone else. Also, why didn't anyone in the Thieves Guild show up? I'm their guild master! They're living right under the temple after all. What's their excuse for not showing up? I guess Brynjolf had important things to do.
I also felt that it was far too short. Every wedding ceremony is shorter than a drive-through Vegas wedding, and the second you say "I do", everyone immediately gets up and rushes out the door before you can even get a good look at whomever came to your wedding. No festivities, no gifts, no merriment, no anything. Even your wife won't stick around to talk to you. You actually have to catch her on the way out.
Even married life feels underdone. For example, I have a Bosmer character that married Camilla Valerius in Riverwood. I decided to move in with her... only to discoer there's not enough beds. We can't even sleep together. It's also kind of strange that there's absolutely no difference in the Love Triangle quest. There needs to be an option for saying "Neither of you are going to woo Camilla, now lay off my woman!"
Stranger still, when I'm walking naked around my new home (which every self-respecting man ought to have the right to do), her brother tells me "you can wear what you like in your own home. In your home.", despite the fact that I'm in my home. I know recording a single line of dialogue would have been a monumental task, but would it be so wrong for by brother-in-law to at least acknowledge that he is in fact my brother-in-law?
It also strikes me as a bit odd that some spouses will ask you to move in with them... when they don't own a home. No Marcurio, we can't sleep together; we're getting separate benches.
Speaking of gay mage love, why is it that everybody in Skyrim is bisexual? I'm all for gay marriage, and I don't discriminate in any way, which is exactly why I want it portrayed correctly in video games. I don't really buy that everybody in the world is that open-minded. Why not have characters that are strictly homo/heterosexual, along with a handful of bisexual characters? Having characters that actually acknowledge their homo/bisexuality would add some much needed diversity to the characters, and make those relationships much more intimate. Marry one person, you've married 'em all.
It feels a little lazy for every character to be married by anyone. What about those staunch Stormcloak-supporting Nords? Are they really okay with marrying an Altmer Legate? They should hate me, but instead, they love me. Why? Because I ran an errand for them?
Kids, don't take romance tips from Skyrim.
A Civil War, or a Cold War?
I've already stated that I like the presentation of the Civil War aspect, but does it hold up throughout the game? Sadly, no. The Civil War in Skyrim didn't really shape the world the way it should. In fact, until I actually fought the war, it seemed more like a Cold War. Emotions and tensions were high, and Skyrim was literally split down the middle by this "conflict".
I know it may seem a little redundant to say I didn't see much evidence of the war until I was fighting it, but let me explain why it isn't. You don't have to fight a war to feel its effects. Here in America, we can feel the effects of overseas conflicts in many different ways. Surely, in those parts of the world were war is actually raging, the conflicts are even more evident, regardless of whether you're a civilian or a soldier. However, this is a civil war, one of the worst and most devastating kinds of wars. Sadly, we never get to see that devastation in Skyrim. Why not have Radiant battles between the Stormcloaks and the Imperials? Instead of hearing about the war, or seeing the people who support it, why don't we get to see the war? Where are the war-torn towns and acts of depravity? Where are the bloody skirmishes and guerrilla ambushes?
Then there are the Civil War questlines, or rather, questline. Despite being two entirely different factions with different methods and goals, both sides of the war play out the same for the player. Fighting as a proud Stormcloak rebel should have been a radically different experience than playing as a Legionnaire. The Legion has strength in numbers, but the rebels have home field advantage. Instead of charging forts, the player should have been involved in ruthless guerrilla tactics. All we got were two mirror questlines involving the same mundane tasks repeated ad nauseam. At first, I thought the idea of a branching questline was a great idea that would vastly improve replayability. However, halfway through my first playthrough, I found it grating just to complete the repetitive and uninspired tedium that was fort battles. If it got boring the first time, doing it twice won't be much better.
So what happens once you win the war? Nothing. You get a congratulatory speech and a pat on the back. The biggest changes seen in the world as a result of your actions are the difference in guard uniforms and a slight alteration in dialogue from them. The world itself however, is just as unchanged by the Civil War as when it was still in full force. General Tullius may say Skyrim has been reunited, but I don't see it. Skyrim is supposed to be a living, breathing world, and there ought to be a dramatic difference between war and peace. Instead, all we get is an anticlimax with no real evidence we made a difference in the world. People still mention the war as if it never ended. Nords still worship Talos in secret, despite now being liberated from the Empire and free from the White-Gold Concordat.
If I may, I'd like to harken back to New Vegas. Some still complain that we didn't get to play beyond the game's climax, and I can understand that. However, there is a gleam of truth behind it. In my opinion, the game would be drastically less entertaining without the three-or-four-way war raging. Nearly everything going on the Mojave revolves around that conflict betwixt House, Caesar, the NCR, and Yes-Man. You can actually see that heated debate everywhere, and not just in the main quest. You also see it spring up in multiple sub-plots as you take on jobs for the various factions involved on all sides. The fact that the game ends with the war made it all the better.
Why don't we have a chance to shape the political infrastructure of Skyrim? What happened to The Jagged Crown? As important as it was talked up to be, we don't see or even hear about it after we retrieve the crown. It served no purpose. As it stands, the quest to retrieve what could have been a marvelous MacGuffin turned out to be a red herring whose only purpose is to extend the longevity of an uninspired plot. I can understand why Elsif might not use it, but why doesn't Ulfric, with his obsession for symbols and traditions, not wear it or even mention it?
Remember The Golden Claw? When you returned his prized possession, he put it on the counter and frequently thanked you for returning it. That was a side quest. The Jagged Crown is an ancient artefact and we're told retrieving it can tip the balance of a civil war. Do we see or hear about it again? No. The Golden Claw was more important. That's kind of sad.
I think the game would have ultimately benefited from a Moot, similar to the peace treaty scene seen in Season Unending. It would be nice to see all of our work come together as Jarl Ulfric or Jarl Elfif, wearing the Jagged Crown, is declared High King of Skyrim. At this point, the player could also change the political structure of Skyrim somewhat as well. At the very least, we should have been given some sort of compensation or recognition as the Hero of Skyrim. In Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, a statue was erected in honour of the player after winning an important battle. In Skyrim, most characters don't even acknowledge it's over. The civil war questline could have shaped the game world, but no. It's only purpose was to add a few more quests, with little depth or impact on the game world. The Jagged Crown and the talk of who should be High King ultimately served no purpose, and was nothing but a backdrop to a mundane series of battles. I guess you could say it's all a bit of a... moot point.
This one might also seem sort of nitpicky, but let me explain why it isn't. It's easy to discount a lot of the little things in a big game like this, but the biggest thing going for Skyrim is its ability to immerse me in a believable world, which it does in a plethora of little ways. Whenever I'm pulled out of the game by these oversights and annoyances, it takes away from the experience. The little things do matter in a game, more so in a game that prides itself on its living, breathing world.
When we see a lot of the characters come together, and they start to respond to the world around them, it seems amazing, but quickly becomes grating. Of course, the AI is omniscient, so the trick is making it seem human. Once a character is aware of something they shouldn't be, the illusion is broken; it becomes all the more palpable that we are in fact speaking to a series of ones and zeroes, and not a character. This is part of a larger problem I have with Skyrim. It's ambitious albeit at the same time shallow. It's these moments that detract from what Skyrim sets out to accomplish: create a believable and enticing world for players to just not explore, but reside.
Here's a specific example. I take Erandur with me all the time. He's by far one of my favourite followers. However, his dialogue never changes. He has things to say about the world, which is great, but he never says anything about how the world changes. Despite the fact that we are sitting in my house, he never fails to mention how dangerous Riften is. Even more annoying is when, not long ago, we were exploring a Dwemer dungeon at the behest of Mjoll the Lioness. Inside the ruin, he blurted "I've never been inside a Dwarven ruin before, they're just fascinating!" "Well hey, that's great buddy." says I, shrugging it off as he repeats the same line three times in the same dungeon. No big deal. I hadn't been inside a Dwever ruin either. Then, the very next day, we head to a different Dwarven dungeon, where he says the same exact thing. Instead of being sucked in by Skyrim's believable atmosphere, I found myself yelling at my TV, asking that mesh of pixels on screen if he had Alzheimer's disease, because he had just explored a Dwarven ruin yesterday. Of course, he'll say this line of dialogue every time we explore a Dwarven ruin. This is a mistake, but it wouldn't take much to fix it.
If Erandur is going to tell me he's never been inside a Dwemer ruin before, there needs to be a flag telling the AI not to ever say that again, because it can only be true once. If that's too hard, then the dialogue should simply be different. Instead of saying "I've never been to a Dwemer ruin before!" and having that as one of their two repeated lines of dialogue inside every Dwemer ruin, how about saying something like "These Dwarven ruins are amazing." or "No matter how many times we come down here, these places never lose their awe." Those are just a couple examples of how you can easily make dialogue less grating and prevent the player from being sucked out the game.
The worst offenders however, are the guards, who happen to be the most well-informed people in the world. Brew half a dozen potions, and suddenly, guards will recognise you as an alchemist. Enchant some weapons in the privacy of your own home? The Guards know. Drop off some loot at the general goods store and stock up on potions? You are now notorious throughout Skyrim for having honeyed words. News of your shopping sprees spread like wildfire, and all the world shall bow at your level 30 speechcraft skill.
Here's a couple examples from my hometown of Whiterun. A guard came up to me and commented "You're like me, eh? don't fancy those clunky Two-Handed weapons." This was rather odd, seeing as how he had a warhammer on his back. So how exactly did he know I use One-Handed weapons? After all, I did have a battleaxe on my back, and my One-Handed level is the same as my Two-Handed. So now I can't tell if the AI is omniscient or ignorant.
Here's another morsel. Another guard commented on how I "favour the bow". Of course, I only used the bow a couple of times, and all the people who witnessed my skill with my bow were killed by that bow. Seeing as how I left no witnesses at that random bandit cave, how can a guard recognise my proficiency in archery at first glance?
What do I take away from all this? The guards in Skyrim are just a dumbed-down Big Brother prone to knee injuries.
The Dragonborn With Badass Horns
This one may be a bit subjective, but I think it's a problem. The Dragonborn is the hero of legend. They've written stories and songs about them. They have a pretty important role in the story. In fact, Dovahkiin is the most important character in the story. Why then, are they a complete enigma.
I get that some people want an avatar they can use to project themselves into the game world, but I want a character, not an avatar. Throughout the game, we are never given any sense as to who the Dragonborn is or what they stand for. Of course, this is up to the player, but where can we decide these things? Good or evil, there's no sense of consequence in Skyrim. As a player, we can't state our goals or roleplay meaningfully, because the Dragonborn is a nobody. The main character has no role in the world. Without an option to even choose a background or personality for my character, he's just a superhuman avatar that spawned into existence the moment I picked up the controller.
In the quest "No One Escapes Cidhna Mine", there is a dialogue option available where the player can state they have family alive elsewhere, their family is dead, or that they don't want to talk about it. That's a great idea, and something we should have seen more of. The fact that the option remains to be an anonymous nobody means everyone is happy.
Another gripe I had was that the Dragonborn didn't seem to fit in the world. Sure, as an Argonian I might get the occasional slur thrown my way, but a Dunmer player can walk into Windhelm hassle free, and a Kajhiit can roam the streets of any city without suspicion. As a minority in Skyrim, you should be treated as such. I didn't really feel like the native denizens of Skyrim were treating me appropriately. Back in the Shivering Isles, Ushnar gro-Shadborgob refuses to even talk to a Khajiit player. This of course locks Khajiit characters out of that quest, but's it's not a huge loss. What the player gains instead however, is some sense of identity. In New Vegas, female characters are not allowed to participate in the Legion's arena battles. Again, this is no biggie, as it's just a minor albeit fun distraction. This may seem like an annoyance, but it actually serves a greater purpose. This underlines the Legion's misogyny, and their chauvinistic attitude gives players the feeling that they have a place in that world.
Alright, this might seem like the nitpickiest, most grammar naziesque criticism ever, but it has to be said. If I'm a Wood Elf, why am I still called a werewolf? I mean, wouldn't it be a merwolf or something? And how does an Argonian do it, when they don't have hair? Is there even a proper name for it? As for the Kahjiit, well I guess the end result would be something like this.
Fame and Glory!
Alright, so my character is a vacuum. Is he at least a famous vacuum? For the most part, no.
Remember when you became Arch Mage of the Mage's Guild? When the students all treated you with respect, it was pretty damn cool. You did smite the King of Worms, after all. Do you also remember when the teachers refused to even give you the time of day, or even change their dialogue? Yeah... that was weird.
These kinds of oversights break immersion all too often. Despite any past deeds, your interactions with other characters don't change all that much. Your rise through the ranks? Your guild mates give zero fucks. Save the world from an ancient evil? That's overshadowed by the fact that you're the new initiate of the Companions, and all you do is fetch mead. Vekel the Man still calls you "Brynjolf's new protégée", and Tonilia continues to welcome you to the family, in spite of the fact that you are the guild master. It's as if these quests take place in an entirely different plane of existence (To be fair, some actually do), and the denizens of Skyrim live in another.
How 'bout a little recognition? I should be revered after completing the main quest. The Hero from Oblivion got a fan after completing the Arena battles, why can't I get just one Adoring Fan for saving the world and being the prophesied hero of legend?
Another underdone concept is Thane-hood. As far as I can tell, your Housecarls are one of the only people who ever realises you're Thane, but they're more arse-kissing robot slaves than people. Guards will recognise you as Thane, but can only be persuaded to let you off the hook one time. With that in mind, being Thane just seems like a glorified "Get out jail free" card. None of the hold's citizens show any respect for your lofty status, and in the end, being Thane is a pointless affair, as just about every hold's requirements for being Thane is generic and mundane at best.
Speaking of Thane-hood, here's another annoying example, courtesy of the ever-witty Hobbes. Ever heard of a lovely fellow named Nazeem? And by lovely, I mean migraine-inducing. Skyrim's answer to the Adoring Fan, Nazeem has about two lines of dialogue, both of which are just begging to be followed by a Glass battleaxe to the groin. What kills me however, is this line of dialogue, etched into the brains of many players: "Do you get to the Cloud District often? Oh, what am I saying, of course you don't!" For many players who live in Whiterun as Thane (myself included), it's a tad bit odd to hear him say that when I make daily trips to see my good friend the Jarl, and Nazeem has never once gone up there.
There are some shining moments in the dark, however. Whenever you ask for admission into the College of Winterhold, you're given additional dialogue based on past achievements. The same can be said when confronting Tsun in Sovngarde. That's a great idea, as those small variables make each playthrough feel unique, and encourages experimentation and replayability. This is definitely something we should have seen more of in the game.
When joining the companions however, there are no such dialogue options. This one moment in the game, like many of these other criticisms, may seem minor, but it had me yelling at the screen in confusion. In fact, it was this moment that served as the impetus to write this entire section. The scene in question came when I joined up with the Companions.
When talking to Vilkas, he tells Kodlak "I've never even heard of this guy!" I thought the Harbinger was going to back me up, but no such luck. He simply said, in a wise albeit ignorant statement: "Sometimes the famous come to us, sometimes men and women come to us to seek their fame." So either these people have lived under a rock for the past year or so, or I'm not as famous as I thought I was.
This is what I would like to say to them: I've saved the lives of all mankind, not just in this life, but in the afterlife as well. I reunited Skyrim and crushed the Stormcloak rebellion. I struck down the infamous Ulfric Stormcloak! I made a pilgrimage to the oldest living organism in the world and retrieved a sapling from the goddess Kynareth herself. I've slain dozens of dragons, and even captured one in Dragonsreach. I'm thane of at least three holds, including the one you're living in. I have uncovered countless artefacts and killed enemies by the hundreds. I've climbed the seven thousands steps and trained with the Greybeards. I rescued a Thalmor prisoner after slaughtering all the Altmer in Northwatch Keep. I killed an ancient vampire named Movarth Piquine. When I contracted his disease, I cured myself of vampirism. I've been chosen as the champion of several Deadric lords, and have on my possession half a dozen timeless Deadric artefacts. I survived fucking Helgen. I'm the prophecised hero of legend, capable of speaking the dragon tongue. I escaped Cidhna Mine! Nobody does that! This town, the one we're standing in? I've saved it twice! Once from an ancient undead dragon, and then again from a Stormcloak attack. I've even assisted a few Companions before in killing a giant! For Gods' sake, I live down the fucking street! How is it even remotely possible you haven't heard of me!? Am I not famous enough for you? Are you not entertained!?
Followers or Slaves?
Alright, so the Dragonborn is devoid of personality. What about Dovahkiin's kickass sidekicks?
Followers are certainly a step up from Oblivion, but it still feels like a step back after playing Fallout: New Vegas. On the one hand, there is some great potential for really cool comrades, like Erandur and Derkeethus, but they ultimately feel flat, static, and boring. The followers in Skyrim do just what their name implies: follow.
I think the game would have largely benefited from a small group of very diverse and extremely detailed companions, about the size of New Vegas's cast. Instead of having a few predetermined lines of dialogue for each kind of dungeon, they could react to more specific events.
One thing I really like about Bioware's Mass Effect and Dragon Age series is that my fellow (space) adventurers actaully respond to the events in the story. Why can't my companions, who are actaully involved in these events, be as well informed as say, the town guards?
It also pains me, that despite having very strict moral codes (why can't my followers mine ore exactly?) they have no qualms with just about anything we do. They have no input or opinions about or actions. Mjoll has nothing to say about my affiliation with the Thieves Guild, and Erandur doesn't mind me doing a few quests for Daedric Princes. Ahtar, the headsman and head jailer at Castle Dour, has nothing to say about fighting for the Stormcloak Rebellion or sacking the city he used to serve. I would have loved to see him show some standards by refusing to fight for the Stormcloaks, unless persuaded by an adequate Speechcraft skill.
Obsidian did a great job with the followers in Fallout: New Vegas. They had a small albeit focused group of diverse followers in your employ. My favourite however, has to be Boone. A former sniper of the New California Republic, Boone would rather see the Mojave annexed. As you travel with him, he'll respond to certain places, and will point out Legion-controlled places. With Boone at your side, any encounter with a Legionnaire turns into a bloodbath. He's willing to aid you, yes, but he still has his own agenda; he has a role in this world beside mindlessly following you.
During my first playthrough, I decided to fight for an independent Vegas. Boone, no longer affiliated with the NCR, wasn't directly opposed to my goals per se, but refused to kill any of his former brothers-in-arms. I had no reason to do so, so we went along killing Legion troops together, and as we travelled across the Mojave he slowly revealed bits and pieces of his story. Boone is one of my favourite buddies in video games, because he was a person with ideals and goals other than serving me.
At the final battle for Hoover Dam, I had to kill NCR Troopers to continue. After the battle was over, he firmly said to me that he refused to kill NCR. He left my side, saying he had lost all repsect for me. Heartbroken as I was, it was his loss of respect that made me respect him all the more. For these reasons, Boone is one of the few game character I respect, because I actually got the impression that he was a real person with a life outside my exploits.
Skyrim just didn't give me that. The followers in this game are many, but ultimately they're all shallow. You may notice me using this word a lot, but it's an apt description. They were no different than Skyrim's other denizens, save for their willingness to go anywhere and do anything for me without question. To be fair, followers do have their own basic moral code, such as refusing to kill people or pull levers. However, like spouses, they have no place in the story, instead serving more as a gameplay asset than a believable character with his or her own life.
Instead of being mindless slaves, why can't our companions evolve? Why can't they be characters first, and followers second?
Can't Get No Satisfaction
I've already talked about how great the opening to Skyrim was. For the most part, the main quest was fairly well done, and had an epic journey feel to it. Climbing the 7000 steps to the tallest mountain in the world proved to be an awe-inspiring experience. These epic fantasy adventures, combined with political intrigue, timeless conflicts, and even a trip to the realm of the dead, the main quest seemed to be amongst the best in the series thus far.
The ending seemed to have everything going for it. You fly to Skuldafn, Alduin's lair high in the mountains, fight past his army of dragons and draugr before slaying a Dragon Preist and entering a portal to Sovngarde. Really, everything up until the boss fight was great.
And... then Alduin drops down. What could have been the most epic boss fight of the century turned out to be just another dragon fight with a different skin. Worse even, he was weaker than most. This was Alduin, an immortal dragon who threatened the annihilation of men, mer, and beast alike. He was inscrutable, implacable, and effective-his badassery beyond question. So when he finally swooped down to give us the time of day, we went in expecting an epic battle for the ages, regardless of our level. What we got however, didn't quite match up to the hype. On Adept difficulty, I managed to tear through him with ease. In fact, most dragons roaming the world were easier. Hell, I've fought tougher Mudcrabs. With four tanks (including myself) and only one dragon to fight, he went down like a bitch.
Well this is the part where someone says "raise the difficulty". Well, I for one think I shouldn't have to tweak all the difficulty setting just to have a climactic and satisfying boss fight. In Dragon Age: Origins, the entire game was building up to the fight against the Archdemon, an ancient god in the form of a dragon. Even on easy difficulty, you're still in for a lengthy boss fight, and on nightmare difficulty, it becomes a truly epic battle. With your armies and allies at your side, you had to fight a gigantic foe, along with her hordes of Darkspawn. Now, she was strong, but with careful tactics and positioning, you could endure. It was a sophisticated boss fight, and dependent upon previous choices, you had a few options as to who could help you. Overall, it was a satisfying, climactic finish to a conflict that had been brewing the entire game.
The fight with Alduin? No different than any other dragon fight. Easier, in fact. All I had to do was use Dragonrend a couple of times, then I just hacked and slashed away. No strategy. No challenge. No satisfaction.
The Journey Beats the Destination
So the climax of the main quest was underwhelming. Well, there's more to Skyrim than just the main plot right? Well, this is true, and even though the main plot is very important, Bethesda's tendency to create anticlimactic endings is present throughout the game.
Beat the Thieves Guild questline? You get a couple lines of dialogue from Brynjolf and your other friend, and no one else. Nothing has changed, and no one cares. In fact, there really isn't even a mention of what happened anywhere, even the guild. I'm still treated the way I was when I first arrived in the guild. That's completely opposed to how an RPG should feel.
In fact, everything you do seems to be for its own benefit. No one in the world cares about, or even reacts to, the things you do. No matter how far-reaching your actions seem to be, everything in the world is self-contained. Save the world and the very souls of its inhabitants? The guards may congratulate you of course, because they are omniscient. All you really get for saving the world, fulfilling an ancient prophecy, defeating a god-dragon, and saving the souls of Tamriel's denizens is a pat on the back by the Greybeards. That's it. No reward, no recognition, nothing.
In fact, dragon attacks become more frequent. Now, there's nothing wrong with dragon attacks still occurring, but the fact that no one seems to notice the true threat has passed makes the whole quest line seem pointless. The fact that the dragons now attack more frequently makes everything makes defeating Alduin seem counter-productive. I didn't even get a reward. No piles of riches, no wenches, no glory, no honour, no giant castle with a moat and a throne, just nothing.
Alright, now I'm not saying we need all those things, but we should have gotten something. I would have settled for some recognition. The fact that no one responds to anything you do makes the world feel hollow, and your actions pointless. Nothing you do seems to matter to anyone, and your actions have zero consequences.
Without a doubt, I'd say the worst offender is the Civil War questline. As I've said, the mirror questlines were a bit disappointing, but it's what comes after you've won the war that really ruins it for me. Despite consuming the entirety of Skyrim, no one seems privy to what goes on in the war. In fact, no one seems to realise it ended. Stormcloaks still wander about talking about how great Ulfric is (not was, because he's a zombie now I guess) and how they're going to beat the empire.
During the Missing in Action quest, the resulting dialogue is always the same, regardless of whose side you're on and whether or not the war is still going on. Thorald says he's going to join the now practically non-existent ranks of the Stormcloaks, and his mother says she's going to make another axe, for when the war is over and he returns. Of course, he never does, and she doesn't seem to understand that the Civil War has been over for several months now.
Really, there isn't much of a palpable difference between war and peace. The self-containment and lack of consequences make all the quest lines feel like a tacked-on distraction.
A Smorgasbord of Shallowness
In many ways, Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is like your mum: pretty, but shallow. Zing!
In all seriousness however, I feel like Skyrim is a great big sandbox (and a great looking one at that) with lots of things to do, but none of it comes together the way it should. The people, places, events, the player, and the player's actions are all disconnected. It's big sure, but size isn't everything; depth is much more important.
And whilst there's a a lot to do in Skyrim, there's too much taking me out of this game world. Of course, I'm not saying Bethesda didn't work hard, but it seems half-assed. It feels like all these characters, stories, quests, locations, and dialogue were all just thrown into the game, with little care as to how they interacted with one another. Sure, it has dragons, and you can dual-wield, and there's a bagillion dungeons to clear, but it's hard to get immersed in the world when the game contradicts itself at every turn.
There is a lot to do, but none of it feels worth doing twice. Like Oblivion, you can do almost everything any anything, but you can only do it in one way. In this sense, Skyrim plays out more like a non-linear sandbox comprised of linear quests, all disconnected from one another. The reason I've been able to complete so many playthroughs of BioWare's games (well, old BioWare games) is because, even though I'm doing the same things, I'm doing them in different ways, with different variables and outcomes. As I've said, I understand that plot might not be Bethesda's strong suit, but creating a realistic world, one capable of responding to the player's actions, should be. That's what Skyrim is all about. Immersing yourself in a believable fantasy world.
The biggest issue I have with the game world as a whole is that it never evolves. People with short sentences stay in jail for all eternity, people repeat the same two lines ad nauseam, and no one ever reacts to your actions, even your close friends, loved ones, and allies. Whiterun is never rebuilt, corpses remain in one place, and the people of Skyrim seem oblivious to the world around them. Yes, you can play it forever, but why would you want to, when the world seems frozen in time?
Take Sibbi Black-Briar for example. He tells the player that he will be released in eight months time. However, after this time passes, he will remain in jail, still complaining that he has eight months left. He is frozen in time. The dialogue is telling me that he has eight months left, but the game is telling me he has a life sentence. This disconnect between story and gameplay makes Skyrim a somewhat disjointed affair; gameplay and story should be working together to deliver one cohesive experience. The story should enhance the gameplay, and the gameplay should serve as another means of telling the story.
What people seem to praise most about Skyrim is its myriad of features and improvements over the last game, Oblivion. Unfortunately, I get the sense that these things weren't all fleshed out as much as they should have, and everything you can do seems to be for its own benefit. Sure, you can get married, but no one but your wife will ever recognise your marriage. Marriage itself doesn't go anywhere, with the ultimate end result being a shop in your house (yes, your wife makes you pay full price for everything) and a maid who cooks you food. Marriage, like many aspects of this game, makes a great addition to the Elder Scrolls formula, but it never went anywhere. Skyrim had the potential to be something special, if only the individual components of the game, big and small, were fleshed out to some degree.
Taken as a whole, Skyrim is certainly a good game, but I think it falls short of being the masterpiece it could have been.