I didn’t realize until a friend pointed it out that Skyrim was a play on words. Take “Middle Earth” and flip it. Now, I’m only 40ish, maybe 50ish hours into Skyrim and I’ve come to the conclusion that that is pretty much the only thing they’ve flipped. Skyrim is a magnificent example of taking a genre, taking tropes, taking a well-established set of assumptions and playing them straight. This is the quintessential American RPG.
Now, what do I mean by that? Well, it seems to me that American RPGs have at least two of the following four basic traits:
1) High customizability of one’s own character. Instead of being a “level 1 fighter” who will go up a level and become a “level 2 fighter”, you start out with a certain set of inclinations given you by your race (which you can pick) and away we go. If you want to become an expert at using a bow and arrow, you can use a bow and arrow and if you instead feel like becoming an expert in two handed maces, you can do that instead. Your class doesn’t define what skills are available… every skill is available. Your skills go on to define what you are. Your class is the one that *YOU* create.
2) Variability when it comes to dealing with quests. A character comes up to you and says “hey, I’d like you to smuggle this ale out of here for me… there will be gold in it for you! But don’t talk to the foreman! He’s a jerk!”. You have two options on how to resolve this quest: You can smuggle that ale out of there and collect the gold *OR* you can talk to the foreman and ask him if he knows that he has smugglers on the floor. Of course, not *EVERY* quest need have two mutually exclusive ways to solve it (sometimes “go there, get item, come back with item” is good enough). It’s very good for the *BIG* quests have that, though.
3) Trade-offs when it comes to equipment. Light armor lets you move quickly but doesn’t defend you as well. Heavy armor can take a hit but you can’t sneak worth a dang. Maces do more damage but swing slower. Daggers swing quickly but require many more hits. Bows do very little damage, really… but can hit from yards and yards and yards away. And so on… there’s more going on than saying “an attack rating of 25 is better than an attack rating of 23”.
4) A “Great Man” theory of history. This is more than merely the feeling that the world (or the universe) is going to come up to a crossroads very, very quickly and without intervention there will be a certain outcome. It’s the very idea that there are multiple ways that things could go and which way will be decided by the character. This goes above and beyond the brewery quest mentioned in #2… that still gives the player the feeling that no matter what happens the brewery will still sell ale tomorrow, the week following, the year after that, and the decade after that and after that and business as usual whether or not you happened to show up. No, I’m talking about the sensation that there are factions that have a great deal of balance between them and it is up to you, the player, to drag the faction you choose across the finish line *FIRST*. It’s the sensation that you will have a footprint upon the world.
How does Skyrim do on these accounts? Well, without spoilers, I’ll just say that they are all there.
Are there downsides? Well, the early parts of melee combat are, as I’ve said, a little dull. There is also the issue of how much of a time investment this game will ask of you: this ain’t no “get it done in a weekend” kinda game the way that Portal 2 was. This is a game that has 80 hours in the first playthrough at least… and that’s only finding a handful of the sidequests. I could easily see hitting 120 with this. (Hey, there are folks for whom that last part is a downside.)
Those are easily waved away (and melee combat, once you actually get good at it, gets a *LOT* more interesting). This game is the culmination of a *LOT* of video game evolution. It is, in a word, a masterpiece.
So that’s my recommendation for you this week.