Back with another video game review. And picking up where I left off last time (The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion) I’ve decided to follow up with its sequel – Skyrim! I was a bit late to the game with this one, having purchased it a few short months ago. But I’ve certainly had it long enough to appreciate it. All told, I’ve played it through twice, and bought all three expansion packs.
And let me tell you, its pretty damn awesome! In fact, I would even go as far to say that it is a big improvement on Oblivion. And since I loved that game and got endless hours of gaming enjoyment out of it, that’s hardly faint praise. But its true. In terms of the games interface, graphics, gameplay, storyline, quests, abilities, items, and detailed environments, everything looked, felt, and played better than the last one.
And as usual, the latest installment in the Elder Scrolls series takes place in a new province of Tamriel. As the name would suggest, the setting for this game is Skyrim, the cold, mountainous climate that is home to the Nords and the birthplace of the Empire. As always, the game is a platform for some serious worldbuilding, and the game makers spared no expense or effort to give Skyrim a realistic look, feel, culture and backstory.
And another major difference between Skyrim and Oblivion is the fact that this time around, there is not one but two main quests that are closely intertwined. Of course, there are countless secondary and additional missions that you can do, but the main plot lines have to do with the civil war that has engulfed Skyrim, and the return of the Dragons, an event foretold in the Elder Scrolls which signals the end of the world.
However, the focus is undeniably on the return of the Dragons, as well as the “Dragonborn” who’s return was also foretold. Basically, a Dragonborn is a person of Tiber Septim’s line who has dragonblood, and hence can speak the dragon language. Words in this language are known as “Word of Power” since to speak them is to unleash destructive and other magical powers.
As the main character, you are Dragonborn, and have the option of learning and unlocking Words of Power as the game goes on. This is intrinsic to winning the game, since these words not only convey power, but are necessary in helping you to defeat the dragons.
The story opens some two hundred years after the events of Oblivion where the Imperial Septim line ended, and Mehrunes Dagon was defeated. However, the Empire now finds itself in dire straights after being defeated in the Great War by the Altmeri Dominion. As you come to learn, this powerful faction – which was founded by the Thalmor (a group of High Elves) – declared war on the Empire over the worship of Talos (aka. Tiber Septim).
After losing the war some thirty years prior, the Empire formally signed a peace treaty known as the White-Gold Concordat which, amongst other things, forbade the worship of Talos within the Empire. This decision led to many Nords feeling like they had been abandoned by the Empire, and eventually led a Nord named Ulfric Stormcloak to mount a rebellion. This began when Ulfric killed High King Torygg, thus plunging the realm into civil war.
The game begins much as the last one does, with you being prisoner by Imperial Forces. As you quickly realize, you are being take alongside a group of Stormcloak rebels and their leader – Ulfric – to the nearby town of Helgen for sentencing. Though you were taken by mistake, the Legion decide to send you to the chopping block anyway. However, your beheading is interrupted when out of nowhere, a massive dragon shows up and begins laying waste to the town.
The dragon, you learn, is none other than Alduin, the mythic beast that was defeated in the First Age and who’s return to “eat the world” was foretold by the Elder Scrolls. Helgen and its defenders are quickly killed, but you manage to escape with either the help of a Legionnaire named Hadvor or a Stormcloak named Ralof. This choice will likely influence the main characters choice of which side to win in the war.
After escaping Helgen, you and your companion travel to the nearby town of Riverwood where you are asked to go to Whiterun – capitol of the Hold – and request aid from the Jarl. Jarl Balgruuf’s agrees, but asks for you assistance in retrieving the Dragonstone – an ancient tablet that marks the burial sites of all the old dragons. Apparently, the dragons have been rising from their graves to take on living form again, and it is happening all over Skyrim.
The stone resides inside Bleak Falls Barrow, and is protected by Draugr – a race reanimated mummified Nords. After fighting your way to the stone, you come upon a Dragon Word Wall, where you learn your first Word of Power. After returning to Whiterun, word reaches the Jarl that a dragon is attacking nearby, and you are asked to go and help. After defeating the dragon, the player absorbs its soul, and everyone realizes you are Dovahkiin – aka. Dragonborn.
After returning to Whiterun, the Jarl names you Thane of the Hold and gives you a Housecarl (bodyguard) and the right to buy property. Afterwards, you hear a Dragon Shout calling from on top of The Throat of the World – Skyrim’s tallest mountain. This is a summons from the Greybeards, an order of monks who live in seclusion in their temple High Hrothgar near the summit. Once you travel there, the Greybeards begin teaching you the “”Way of the Voice”.
This includes teaching you words of power and enhancing your Thu’um (your voice), as well as sharing the prophecy of Alduin’s return and how a Dragborn would emerge to do battle with him. As a further test, the Greybeards ask yo to retrieve the legendary Horn of Jurgen Windcaller. However, the player discovers the Horn has been stolen by another, who wishes to meet with the Dragonborn at Riverwood.
The thief reveals herself as Delphine, Riverwood’s innkeeper and one of the last surviving members of the Blades. She indicates that the Blades were once the guardians of the land against the Dragons, and she wishes to help in your quest. Together, you and Delphine travel to a Dragon burial mound where you witness Alduin reviving a Dragon, and must defeat him.
Afterwards, Delphine informs you that she thinks the Thalmor are behind the return of the Dragons. Not only have the Thalmor been hunting her and all other remaining Blades for some time, it stands to reason that they would stand to gain the most by helping the Dragons wreak havoc all over Skyrim and the Empire, as a prelude to renewed war.
Together, you hatch a plan to infiltrate the Thalmor embassy near Solitude and find proof of this. This consists of posing as a guest as a diplomatic party, and then sneaking off to search the embassy. After finding a series of diplomatic recrods, you learn that they are not behind the Dragon threat, but are searching for a man named Esbern, an archivist of the Blades Order.
Delphine then instructs the player to locate Esbern, who is known to be hiding in the sewers and ratways of Riften. This town is located on the opposite side of Skyrim, and is home to the notorious Black Briar family and the last known stronghold of the Thieves Guild. Together, the three of you then seek out Alduin’s Wall at Sky Haven Temple, where the prophecy of Alduin was originally written.
While the Blades set up in the temple, Esbern reveals that the ancient Nords used a special Thu’um against Alduin called “Dragonrend”, representing mankind’s comprehensive hatred for the Dragons, to cripple his ability to fly so they could engage him. To gain more information, you meets with the Greybeards again and they decide it’s time for you to speak with their leader, Paarthurnax.
Paarthurnax, as it turns out, is an ancient dragon who was once one of Alduin’s most feared generals. He reveals that Alduin was not truly defeated in the past, but was sent forward to an unspecified point in time by the use of an Elder Scroll in the hopes that he would get lost. Paarthurnax tells you you will need that Elder Scroll so you can peer into the past and learn the Dragonrend shout to defeat Alduin.
This latest mission takes you to the College of Winterhold, where you are forced to join to get information. You are then shown to Urag gro-Shub, an orc who runs the Arcanaeum – the College library. He directs you to Septimus Signus, a hermit who was driven mad by reading the Scrolls and who now lives in a outpost in an iceberg located on the nearby coast.
In his outpost, Septimus is working on a Dwemer Box, a massive combination box that contains a Dwemer artifact. He tells you that you must travel to the ruins of Blackreach, one of many ruins left behind by the highly advanced Dwemer civilization in Skyrim. He gives you the Attunement Sphere and the Blank Lexicon, which you will need to reach the Scroll once you reach the heart of the ruin.
This journey takes you deep underground, into a world of bioluminescent plants and terrifying Falmer creatures. Once you find your way to the heart of the ruin, you come upon a Dwemer Sphere, a massive combination structure that you must adjust a series of focal lenses in order to unlock. Once this is done, the Scroll is removed from the Sphere and given to you.
Taking the Scroll to the Throat of the World, you glimpse into the past and witness the heroes of the First Age engage and defeat Alduin using the Elder Scroll and the Dragonrend shout. With this knowledge, you then summon Alduin to do battle, and with the help of Paarthurnax, you defeat him and send him fleeing to Sovengarde – the Nordic afterlife. You are told that you must go to face him there so that he can be defeated for all time.
The only way for you to travel after him is to trap a dragon and force them to bring you to Alduin’s lair, from which you may travel to Sovegarde to face him. This involves asking the Jarl of Whiterun to use his great hall – the Dragonsreach – which was originally constructed to trap a dragon. The Jarl is reluctant to do this while the war rages on, which either requires that end the war first, or ask the Greybeards to mediate a temporary cease fire in the war.
In between all of this, there is the second major quest, which involves taking sides in the civil war. As Hadvor tells you at the beginning, the best way to contend with the returning Dragons is to join the Legion and use their resources. But Ralof will urge you to join the Stormcloaks as a “true son of Skyrim”. Depending on which side you choose, you are either required to travel to the capitol of Solitude, or to the Stormcloaks seat of power in Windhelm to sign on.
Once you’ve taken a side, battle is joined, and your first mission is either to lead the defense of, or assault, Whiterun. As Thane of the city, this will either mean upholding your oath of office, or betraying it in service of your new liege lord, Ulfric. In either case, this is the first of many battles, which are followed by missions to various forts to seize strategic passes, culminating on a siege of the enemy’s stronghold.
As you progress, you are given higher and higher ranks in the army and entrusted with tasks of increasing importance. At the end of the Imperial campaign, you and General Tullius and Legate Rikke lead the assault into Windhelm and fight your way into Ulfric’s palace. After defeating him and his bodyguard, he asks that you – the Dragonborn – be the one to take off his head, as he thinks this will be more appropriate.
In the Stormcloak campaign, the war culminates in the siege of Solitude, where you, Ulfric, and Galmar Stone-Fist fight your way through the streets and to the Legion barracks and force the surrender of General Tullius and Rikke before executing them both. Ulfric then declares victory in the civil war and declares himself High King of an independent Skyrim.
With the civil war complete, the plot to trap a dragon in Dragons Reach takes succeeds and you manage to secure a dragon named Odahviing. He agrees to help you since many dragons are disenchanted with Alduin’s rule, and agrees to fly you to the portal to Sovengarde, which is located high in the mountains at an ancient fort called Skuldafn. Once there, you battle your way through Draugr and lesser dragons and enter.
Upon your arrival, you find your way to Ysgramor, the legendary Nord who, along with his Five Hundred Companions, drove the Elves out of Skyrim. Ysgramor informs the player that Alduin has placed a “soul snare” in Sovngarde, allowing him to gain strength by devouring the souls of deceased Nords. The player meets up with the three heroes of Nordic legend who defeated Alduin and, with their help, destroys the soul snare and defeats Alduin in combat.
The player then returns to the summit of the Throat of the World in which Paarthurnax and the other Dragons wait. Paarthurnax explains that even though Alduin is defeated, they are in no condition to celebrate for he was once their ally and is still one of their kin. Having asserted his authority over many Dragons, Paarthurnax convinces those loyal to him to leave Tamriel.
However, there is an alternate ending which takes place if the player obliged the Blades earlier in the game and killed Paarthurnax as punishment for his crimes while serving under Alduin. In this version, the player returns to the Throat of the World and speaks to Odahviing, who tells you that you have inherited Alduin’s position and that he will serve at your pleasure from now on.
In this regard, Skyrim kicks the crap out of its predecessor. Whereas Oblivion had expansion packs which seemed good, but not great, Skyrim’s three packs really impressed the hell out of me! These included Dragonborn, Dawngaurd, and Hearthfire, each of which offers additional quests, items, and abilities; and not in the tack-on, lower-quality types offered by the last game.
In the Dragonborn expansion, you are tasked with traveling to Solstheim, an island off the eastern coast of Tamriel inhabited by Nords and Dark Elves. Once here, you learn that the last Dragon Priest and one-time ruler of the island, a man named Miraak, is attempting to take it over. Naturally, he sees your emergence as the latest Dragonborn as a threat, and you must do battle with him.
In order to do this, you must learn from the Skaal people of the island who possess specialized magic. It also requires you cut a deal with the Hermaeus Mora, the Daedric Prince of forbidden knowledge and Miraak’s apprentice. In exchange for getting the Skaal to surrendering their secrets to him, he gives you the ability to travel to the realm of Apocrypha and fight MIraak. In the end, Mora betrays him and offers you the chance to become his new apprentice.
Additional items offered in this package include Nordic weapons and armor, which are of superior quality to most offered in the game thus far. In addition, you also gain the abilities to create armor and weapons out of Stalhrim (an ice-blue mineral), Chiton, or bones- which includes dragon bones and dragon scales. These are pretty deadly and pretty frightening to behold! I should know, I know have a full suit and arsenal of them!
And then there is the Dawngaurd plug-in, where an ancient vampire clan is returning to Skyrim. As usual, this has to do with a prophecy foretold in the Elder Scrolls that tells of the coming of eternal darkness. The vampires that belong to Clan Volkihar, led by Lord Harkon, seek to actuate the prophecy by performing a ritual involving a mythic bow and a blood sacrifice.
After recruiting Harkon’s own daughter (Serana) to your side, you manage to obtain several more Elder Scrolls, the bow itself, and are then forced to travel to another mythic realm, and eventually confront Lord Harkon and his clan at Castle Volkihar off the north-western coast of Skyrim. Once complete, the Dawnguard returns to its old glory and you and Serana are made permanent members.
And last, but not least, is Hearthfire, where things get a little different. Instead of offering additional quests that have to do with other prophecies, Hearthfire gives you the ability to purchase land in Skyrim and build your own tailor-made houses on them. This requires you to amass building materials – such as quarried stone, wood, clay, and various iron components.
With these secured, you are then able to build a home from the ground up, adding different wings and special sections – which include a Great Hall, a Kitchen, an Alchemist Tower, Trophy Room, Storage, Cellar, Bedrooms, and Entrance Foyer. You can augment these further with furniture, furnishings, a stable, a carriage, a bard, a smelter, a forge, a shrine, and about a hundred other options.
Between Windstad Manor, in the salt marshes in Hjaalmarch, Lakeview Manor in the forests of Falkreath, and Heljarchen Hall in the Pale, you have the option to build three manors. And of course, you need a Housecarl to look after them and have your pick of three. And what’s also cool is that the expansion gives you the option to adopt two children, and you have your choice of four possible ones.
Having played them all, I can tell you that I enjoyed them all, particularly the first and third. If you happen to buy Skyrim, splurge and get the expansion packs!
As I said already, this game was absolute awesomeness! Much like Oblivion, the production value was extremely high, and it features the voices of several well-known actors. This includes actress Joan Allen who does the voice of Delphine, Max von Sydow as Esbern, and Christopher Plummer as Master Arngeir of the Greybeards. All of this goes real well with all the world-building and detailed environments.
What’s more, I liked how the two main quests were intertwined, the one very much dependent upon the other. This gives you a chance to engage in some immersive medieval-style warfare, and also provides an opportunity to fight it out with beasts several times your size. I was especially impressed with this last aspect, which is something you don’t see in the gaming world often.
In addition to dragons, there are also giants, mammoths, and giant anthropomorphic robots that defend the Dwemer ruins. In most games, going up against larger-scaled enemies can look and feel awkward. But here, it both looked and felt natural, and was mighty fun to play at. And of course, there were countless other enemies that were just as cool to fight.
But what I especially loved about Skyrim was the way they managed to once again create a realistic setting, with a world that contained a highly interactive environment, wind-blown snow, rustling trees and bushes, and people who looked and moved in realistic ways. And as always, the cultural aspects of the game, which included food, drink, literature, ingredients, and items that are peculiar to Skyrim’s culture, but also includes items from other provinces.
And like the last game, you have quests which are connected to the guilds. In this case, this includes the College of Winterhold, which is the holdover from the Mages Guild in Skyrim, and the Companions, which is the local version of the Fighter’s Guild. Joining them means taking on quests which will allow you to climb the ranks and take on their enemies, ultimately earning the position of leader. There are innumerable other quests, plus the ability to amass abilities and bonuses based on amassed experience.
And of course, you can amass property, money, and personal possessions galore. But unlike Oblivion, you also have the option of getting married. This can be to any central character from the story, and can even be same-sex, if you’re so inclined. Combined with the Hearthfire ability to adopt and build your own home, you have the ability to create an entire family in this game. Kind of like Second Life, only set in Tamriel. Way better!
Of course, I could go on and find more to praise about the game, but some things you just need to check out for yourself. Consider this my long-winded wringing endorsement! And just for fun, I thought I’d post the trailer since it was pretty impressive too: