I've always had a love-hate relationship with the Elder Scrolls games. They promise so much, but I am always left disappointed by their execution. The graphics always look amazing but the engines run like lame dogs, the open world is often boring to traverse, the lore is uninspiring, character models are often ugly, the main plots too cliched and the quests repetitive and lacking in direction, the user interface is often horrible, the "action" combat is uncomfortable, and the games are usually full of bugs. Consequently I didn't bother picking up The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim when it first launched at the end of 2011, despite the excellent reviews.
Having been gifted the game over Steam at Christmas I thought it was time to delve in. Waiting a year means that the vast majority of bugs have been fixed, and the modding community has addressed many of the other launch issues. The result is an Elder Scrolls game that finally gets almost everything right.
The first thing to say is that the graphics are absolutely stunning. The difference between Skyrim and other Elder Scrolls games is that the engine runs really well. The scenery is beautiful, characters looks great and the water and weather effects are incredible. Plugging in a few mods makes the game even more gorgeous with little loss of frame rate (check out these amazing screenshots for proof).
A big improvement over previous games is the main plot, which gives the game more focus and is actually interesting (though the "return of the dragons" through-line was old and cliched when Everquest did it back in 1999). Side quests have been expanded, and the various factions that can be joined offer questlines that could almost make up entire games on their own. I'm having a blast working my way up the ranks of the thieves' guild and discovering what's going on with their power struggles.
Combat is a vast improvement over the horrible old Elder Scrolls system which involved swiping the mouse in order to swing your weapon. It's been swapped for a simple control system that involves power-strikes and allows quick switching between weapon load outs and magic. The spells actually feel powerful this time round, with some great effects. The dragon fights especially are always fun.
The Elder Scrolls have always encouraged exploration, and this time exploration is rewarded with constantly surprising vistas and interesting locations and quests. The world seems alive, with plenty of wildlife and NPCs who actually seem to have lives of their own (it's sometime difficult to track an NPC down as they may have wandered off to the pub, or home for a kip).
The game does have problems. The inventory user interface is absolutely mind-bogglingly awful for a PC game. Bethesda should really have spent some time refining it for the PC, but instead we have a straight port from the console interface, and it just does not work. Thankfully there is an excellent mod available which puts this issue to bed.
Talking about mods, these are the ones I have installed. There are hundreds available, and you can even turn Skyrim into Mario World or replace the dragons with My Little Pony world if you like! I have mainly just added graphical updates to make a good-looking game even more beautiful, along with the aforementioned UI mod.
1. HD6-ENB Lighting Enhancement Cinematic Lighting - simply makes the game look stunning.
2. SkyUI - an absolute "must have" that fixes all the issues with the awful inventory interface
3. City Forests and Landscape - adds and improves foliage in the cities
4. Enhanced Distant Terrain - a texture mod that makes distant terrain look better
5. High Res Texture Pack - an official DLC mod that adds higher resolution textures to the game
6. HQ Snow Texture - improves the appearance of snow, a big plus in a game set in a snowy landscape
7. Lush Grass - makes the grass more dense, having the effect of making the game's wilderness look more wild
8. More Rain - improves the already incredible rainstorm effects
9. Real Mountains - a high-res retexture of the game's mountains
10. Static Mesh Improvement - improves the 3D models of many of the game's static items
11. That's Ice - there is a lot of ice in Skyrim, and this mod greatly improves its appearance
Overall I'm really impressed with Skyrim and I'm still enjoying exploring it's massive world. I'm actually surprised at how much I like it, considering how all the previous Elder Scrolls games have left me cold. Skyrim may be a cold and inhospitable land, but it leaves me feeling warm inside.