Written by Joe the Revelator
I've already heard rave reviews for Skyrim; how it's taking over people's lives, forcing them to skip school or call in sick to squeeze in a few more hours of game time. It was the same when Morrowind came out, and later with Oblivion. Gamers' rooms start resembling the 'Sloth' scene from Seven when a big-budget RPG hits the shelves; flies buzzing over putrid chili cans, empty Mountain Dew bottles rolling around underfoot, car fresheners strung up to chase away the scent of unwashed geek.
Well, here it is, our late 2011 giant. And it's no Morrowind.
The Elder Scrolls series has gotten progressively more cheery as it's come along. Morrowind was a fantasy land where one could hear Kajeet (cat people) openly talk about their addiction to skooma, and slavers kidnapped weaker races. It was a place where assassins stalked you at night, where you could wake up to face a dagger-wielding psycho, and nothing, not even stealing human souls to power your weapons, was off limits.
Oblivion was a beautiful, shining, sterilized version of Morrowind. There were seeds of references and books that hinted at grittier, bleaker times. Differences in races were mentioned, but never given the dark realism Morrowind put into it. Murder, theft, and vampirism were still present in the graphically tuned-up powerhouse game, but on the whole it felt like going to a boxing match to find the contenders had been replaced by male underwear models. And no matter how long you tweaked the "Customize Features" bar in the creation screen, you always came away with the weird, plastic same-face character.
Go away, outlander.
I'm not saying Oblivion was a bad game. It wasn't. I played through it twice. But the leveling system was written by an evil genius, who believed using favored skills (like swinging swords and wearing armor) should equate to encountering rats at level 1 and Beelzebub at level 20. And the world of Oblivion, while rather large, looked like a fishbowl with mountains on every side, so you'd know at a glance where everything stopped.
Skyrim is vast, with clouded mountain peaks and deep forests. It's leveling system is simple and effective. And the menus have been streamlined so you don't have to dig through a dozen spreadsheets to find the spells you want to equip. Health now regenerates out of combat, though it's slow enough to avoid feeling like a cover based FPS. It would probably be sufficient to say that Skyrim just plain works. Even the weapons and spells are balanced nicely, with a few added features like duel wielding and advanced perks.
In a strange yet interesting twist, the NPC's no longer seem to address issues of race with the same novel abandon as old Elder Scrolls. Instead, the races (Kajeet cat people, Argonian lizard men, Nords, Imperials, Redguards, Elves and Dark Elves) have been given cultural symbols from the real world. Redguards now wear turbans and carry curved scimitars, and talk with heavy accents. Kajeet are treated like sneaky caravan merchants and gypsies. Nords are, of course, Nordic vikings. And imperials are white supremacists.
That's right. The imperials, the highborn race that's best at politicking, is waging civil war against the freedom-loving viking north in an attempt to annex them into the impereum. The trend for recent RPG's to make white men with flat American accents the overall, behind-the-scenes villain, is still going strong.
Quit asking questions.
I'll add that Skyrim is the first RPG I've played in which the NPC's frequently comment on how inanely curious you are. For a game that forces you to go through a dozen dialogue trees for every quest, I find this ironic. I guess asking a warlord what he does for a living is insultingly personal, whereas offering to solve his family's deep-rooted lifetime feud with another clan is not.
One final note: Marriage is now available, and has practically unlimited selections. The only requisite is to have good standing with the NPC you desire, show her your "magic amulet" and wallah, he/she will move into your house, provided you have one. I married a beggar who looked like she was ninety and had a face like a thumbprint. What can I say? She had me at "Spare a coin?"