The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is one of the best video games I’ve ever played. It will not come as a shock that it will land on many Game of the Year lists, as it does mine. It is to my great annoyance that for the second year in a row an MMO blogger is compelled to name a non-MMO the standout game of the year, and for the same reason: Skyrim has a better, more immersive and more interactive world than any MMO that has come out in the last couple of years. The new releases of 2011, namely Star Wars: The Old Republic and Rift, are both good games in absolute terms, but neither compares to Skyrim.
For those late to the party, Skyrim is the fifth in the Elder Scrolls series. The first two were released back in the DOS era where even Dragonborn fear to tread, so the modern Elder Scrolls experience began with Morrowind. Later games are not sequels to earlier ones despite being set in the same world. The series as a whole has been noteworthy for sprawling sandbox worlds and deep flaws, but for many the virtues – a kind of sandbox rare elsewhere – outweigh the lingering issues. In virtually every respect Skyrim represents a huge improvement over Oblivion. Morrowind deservedly retains its vocal defenders, but for my money it looks and plays too dated unless you mod it to high heaven, and its setting is a bit esoteric, hampering its accessibility.
Where Oblivion sometimes felt empty, Skyrim, which has a map of about the same size, is much more densely packed with things to see and do. The world is the deepest I have ever seen in a video game, and there are stories everywhere, some that you can take part in and many that have already ended. A shrine in the wilderness with flowers placed at its base, a kindly old woman with an dark secret or a mine taken over by bandits hint at chronicles untold. And there are hundreds of in-game books available with text to read if you so desire; some of these are easter eggs for players of the previous games, but even for a neophyte the net effect is of a world lovingly crafted and incredibly rich in lore and history.
The best parts of Skyrim, though, aren’t the tales placed there by Bethesda – although those are excellent – but in the stories you inevitably make for yourself as you interact with the world around you and the world interacts with itself. I ambushed a party on the road and while I was killing one fellow the other ran off, and after dispatching his comrade I set out on a breakneck pursuit through miles of wilderness, on the way stumbling into another party that I also felt obliged to massacre. When I finally caught up with my quarry he was in the final moments of a struggle with the huge bear who’d jumped on him. It’s this kind of completely unscripted stuff, emerging from the player’s interactions with the world and the world’s interactions with itself, that makes Skyrim special.
A watered-down iteration of Oblivion‘s level scaling mechanic makes Skyrim‘s quest lines largely nonlinear, and the main plot supports this as well, because as you adventure in Skyrim you learn more words of the dragon language, fortifying you against the day when you have to face the final villain… and even after that, you can keep on adventuring as much as you like. Meanwhile, the game sets you up to go where you like and do what you desire. There is some direction through the main quest, but along the way you will acquire and stumble across a huge number of additional things to do and places to explore. Skyrim is densely packed with activities including harvesting, crafting, housing… you can even get married to one of a large number of NPCs.
The modified level scaling, where some encounters scale to your level while others do not also makes it possible to feel like a total badass and still be challenged. Sometimes enemies scale to your level when it’s important to one of the many available storylines, and the semi-random encounters with dragons always do, but creatures in many parts of the world have flat levels, so there are a few places where you need to tread carefully.
As many have pointed out, Skyrim is not flawless. Bugs and glitches are common, although it’s far more polished and stable at launch than its predecessors in the Elder Scrolls series. Even the graphics, which look absolutely amazing on the surface, have some serious issues upon closer inspection, with chunky shadows and depressingly low-res textures, and the character models aren’t all they could be. The UI out of the box is a work of art in its terribleness; it’s a bad console UI even though console players are accustomed to clumsily pawing their way through menus with a controller, and ported to the PC it is simply atrocious. It’s usable – if it weren’t Skyrim would be taking a lot more heat than it is – pretty but opaque and unwieldy and the worst thing in a game as otherwise close to perfect as you’ll find.
Despite these and other flaws, Skyrim deserves the raves and the ratings it’s gotten. For all the problems, none of which are new to this fifth Elder Scrolls installment, it’s just that good. If you’re a fan of open-ended, open world adventure there is simply nobody doing it better than Bethesda, and no series so strong as the Elder Scrolls games. Certainly, no MMO has or had a world this open and interactable, and most MMO developers aren’t even trying. Even out of the box, its flaws are forgivable.
But there is also, for those not confined to Console Hell, a modding community which, despite lacking a formal toolset, has already accomplished some pretty remarkable things. Texture replacements, FPS enhancements and a Large Address Aware patch (as well as the inevitable nude mods, for those who have neither left puberty nor discovered that there is actual porn on the internet,) came very quickly, and now there are full UI replacements, magic mods to add new spells, new crafting options and a great deal more… and a very ambitious multiplayer package is being worked on which will either prove that this kind of game can work with nultiple players or highlight why it can’t. Once the toolset, set to launch in January, does release there will be an avalanche of additional content, world features and so on, to say nothing of the confirmed DLC and two expansions. If Skyrim stands up to modding remotely as well as Oblivion did, there will be years of this stuff built on a foundation that is already far more solid.
Skyrim is a game you don’t want to miss, even if you’re annoyed by the meme-spamming. It’s the first legendary classic of the decade, and players will still be recalling their experiences in it by decade’s end. It sold eleven million copies in the first month, is the hands-down best selling and most played PC title of the year, has spawned a dozen memes already and is shattering concurrency records on Steam. Within its subgenre of video games it is peerless and even by MMO standards it is spectacularly good, a better MMO than almost any MMO. MMO developers should be very uncomfortable that a game that is neither muitliplayer nor online has managed this.
This year’s runner-up is Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Despite Eidos’ inability to make sense of Latin, it’s the strongest cyberpunk game I have ever seen, and extends that genere with new and more up to date ideas about how the cyberpunk future might actually look. It is immersive not in the same way as Skyrim but in the same way as the Mass Effect games are, with a compelling if linear story and a well-drawn world.
I again decline to name an MMO of the Year. Star Wars: The Old Republic provides nothing new, and its only competition is Rift. Good games, as I said, but not much of a contest. Even among extant MMOs it was an unexciting year, with all of the biggest news in the transitions to hybrid f2p models that are now old hat. Next year might show us something new in Guild Wars 2 or one of the indie offerings. For heavens’ sake, I hope so.