How do you review a game that lasts for months? Ideally, on a generous day rate. In reality, a man on a motorbike brings it to your house, you put in it the Xbox, and a full 12 hours later you stumble into bed riddled with self loathing, having literally spent half a day in a fantasy world. And then you get up the next day and do it all again.
Guess the rest. A devastating gaming presence, such is the all-encompassing pervasiveness of Skyrim that a mere three days after its release, Modern Warfare 3 was already a footnote, while the new Assassin’s Creed and Saints Row The Third were tossed aside as mere distractions. Even Batman now feels like a dalliance. And it’s not just other games that Skyrim supplants; it’s everyday life, personal hygiene, and ultimately basic human decency.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what makes Skyrim so addictive, as it is of course absolute gobbledegook. But it’s gobbledegook on such an epic scale that you can’t help but get sucked in. It’s not as if it’s even remotely original, all clanking armour and dismal villages riddled with putty-faced quest-givers. It’s what used to be known in the trade as a “real ale RPG,” with a hey-nonny-nonny and a flagon of mead. You can even pay a lute-wielding bard to sing you a risible sub-Wicker Man song. It’s embarrassing, and should only be played alone under cover of darkness, ideally with a full moon glinting through the window.
So, where to start? You enter this world on the back of the cart with three other ne-er-do-wells, the camera panning down to reveal that they all have their hands bound, a direct steal from the opening scene of Scum. Turns out you’re on your way to be executed, and when you’re asked for your name and number, it’s a neat intro into the character creation scene. Some players have been known to spend hours here alone, tweaking every aspect of a character that you will mainly see from behind, or, in the first person view, not at all. There’s a reasonably varied selection of races, including some beast with a cat’s head, and a green-skinned lizard man. Ultimately, whatever race you choose, your character’s traits are largely defined by your actions. And of course by how many great big swords you manage to collect.
The Butterfly Collector
Life is brutal in Skyrim, and you won’t be sent to collect ten butterflies in order to earn a new pair of stripy kecks. Or maybe you will. Such is the freedom of choice that that no two player’s experiences will be the same. With sidequest upon sidequest upon miscellaneous task being thrown at you, it’s often difficult to ascertain which is the main quest, or indeed if there is one. As a loose rule of thumb, anything involving a dragon seems to be key, and indeed one of these fiery beasts rears its scaly head in the opening sequence, in which, - spoiler - you manage not to get executed. It’s a genuinely thrilling sight, and indeed every time a dragon appears throughout the game, it’s a Jurassic Park hairs-on-the-back-of-neck moment, something that elevates Skyrim from the morass of go-over-there-and-get-that and kill-ten-elks drudgery that blights the RPG genre.
Quests are assigned in largely arbitrary fashion, often in dank inns, turning the whole thing into a massive pub crawl on horseback. And while there are a lot of dungeons to clear out, quests come in many forms and can be deceptive. For instance, helping out a kindly woman by collecting a nettle for her turns into an all-out battle against some necromancers. All manner of other dark arts crop up throughout the game, with even vampires and werewolves getting involved like some medieval True Blood. The sheer weight of options is onerous, and it rapidly becomes an ever-expanding to-do list, and that’s before you factor in the obligatory RPG tropes of crafting, with all manner of alchemy, weapon modification, cooking and mining available.
Ultimately, Skyrim is accountancy allied to a slightly clunky combat system and a bewilderingly huge world, not to mention occasional bugs that range from the comical (a vibrating apple pie) to the mildly irksome to console-freezing crashes. Naturally, patches are afoot, with early adopters paying for the privilege of being glorified beta testers. Such is the compelling nature of the game, however, you’re prepared to overlook any foibles, and there is some kind of magic fairy dust sprinkled over it that keeps you in the world almost indefinitely, particularly with the breaking news that quests will regenerate so you could theoretically play it for ever.
It is genuine roleplaying in so much as you feel wholly accountable for your actions - we still feel a pang of regret at the woman we lied to so she could be brought to justice. As for the story, it takes place against a labyrinthine political background that makes almost no sense, but seems to involve some kind of rebel alliance fighting against the empire. That’ll never catch on. Not afraid to throw in the odd curveball, at one point we found ourselves embarking on a quest inside the mind of a madman. Which didn’t happen in Modern Warfare 3.
Suffice to say Skyrim looks the business, with vast panoramas and entire weather systems in place, the swirling snow actually making you think that you’re cold, to the extent that you instinctively head for warmer climes. There is so much to do that you can simply head in any direction on your trusty steed and discover something new and often extraordinary.
Naturally it’s all accompanied by a sweeping score that makes you feel like you’re starring in your own Lord Of The Rings film, if marginally longer. A hugely involving genuine roleplaying game, Skyrim may involve hundreds of hours of your life that you’ll never get back, but there are far worse places to be. The real world, for instance.