Skyrim is one of the biggest names of the past console generation. It's already earned the status of "classic" in some circles. It's about four years old now, and I've been playing it (and its DLC) on my PS3 off and on for much of that time. I've been wanting to write a review, but I just never felt that I had progressed far enough into the game to have a full idea of its overall quality. Considering how long the game's been out, and how successful it's been both critically and commercially, this is more of a retrospective than a true review, since I'm not going to influence anybody's purchase decision. All I can do at this point is talk about what I think he game did right, and what it did wrong, so that future games can hopefully improve on the formula.
After years of playing, I've finally made enough progress with various characters to feel comfortable writing a review. With the recent rumors that Fallout 4 may reuse Skyrim's engine, I feel that this review actually has some relevance still.
The game also includes DLC, which I am reviewing separately in another post.
The engine finally works! … Mostly …
It seems like Bethesda’s open-world game engine is finally maturing. It’s still a little rough around the edges and has its fair share of bugs and glitches (particularly pertaining to companion characters and home customization), but I was amazed when I realized that, for the first time with a Bethesda RPG, I had been playing the game for weeks without needing to consult the online wiki to find a work-around for a glitch that rendered any characters missing, quests inaccessible, or items missing! With Oblivion and the two Fallout games, it didn’t take more than a few hours of gameplay to start running into such glitches.
The large, open world is finally stable enough to be more fun than frustrating.
My roommate actually had a game-breaking glitch that prevented him from saving after the initial character creation (including auto-saves), so he lost a whole Saturday afternoon’s worth of progress and had to restart the game. That one was a doozy, and admittedly the worst bug that I’ve experienced so far in any Bethesda game! But these problems have been the exception rather than the norm.
So that’s one big check mark in Skyrim’s favor compared to previous Bethesda games!
Removing level-scaling makes leveling a reward rather than a punishment
Believe it or not, it wasn't the frequency of glitches that deterred me from finishing Oblivion; it was the level-scaling system. On paper it seemed like a good idea. Leveling up the enemies, quests, and loot so that the game is consistently challenging and rewards are consistently worthwhile sure sounded like a good idea!
Oblivion's level-scaling resulted in a world overrun by trolls, glass-armored bandits, and Daedra.
But in practice, it turned out to be completely ruinous. Leveling felt more like a punishment than a reward, as everything in the world also became progressively harder. This issue was compounded by the poor balance between different classes. If you weren't leveling your combat skills, and had created a class built around - say - Mercantile, Athletics, and Acrobatics then you could easily over-level early in the game simply by walking around and talking to NPCs, only to get slaughtered in the first Oblivion gate because the enemies were stronger than you and you couldn't talk your way out of the fight.
Skyrim fortunately, does not retain Oblivion's strict level-scaling feature.
Some quests, enemies, and loot are scaled, but most things are not (or they're only slightly scaled). Now, bandits are always just bandits, overpowering enemies start the game overpowered, and the world does not suddenly become exclusively populated by trolls and Daedra halfway through the game. "Dungeon bosses" do seem to scale with the character’s level. As you start going up in levels, you’ll start to notice that the grunts in the dungeons are trivial to fight and leave worthless loot. You’ll actually feel like all that leveling has paid off! Then you get to the "boss" at the end of the dungeon and might get your ass handed to you and have to reload several times.
Hard areas should be hard, and easy areas should be easy. It's just mildly annoying that this game gives you no indication which it’s going to be until you’re already a mile underground, and the difficulty varies wildly - even within a single dungeon crawl.
Most ambient encounters aren't scaled to the player's level, so bandits always remain just bandits.
Removing the class skills frees up the player to develop whatever skills he or she needs without the compulsion to micro-manage leveling class skills versus non-class skills. Character development feels much more natural and organic, and you can change your specialization at any time if circumstances change (although you may need to do some catch-up grinding). Stupid skills like Acrobatics and Athletics have been removed, so players don’t jump everywhere in order to gain free levels. It’s kind of a shame that your ability to swim or climb isn't tied to some kind of skill. The way that Bethesda characters just walk up the sides of mountains has always bothered me, but that was still present even when there was an Athletics skill. Oh well.
Characters are blank sheets that always turn out the same
My only complaint with the new character advancement mechanic is that the base ability scores (strength, dexterity, intelligence, charisma, etc) have all been removed. This makes all the characters into blank slates at the start. You get a special power from your race selection, but that is the only thing that changes from one character to the next. When you level up, you decide whether to increase your Health, Magicka, or Stamina. All of these are combat-oriented attributes, so if you make a thief or merchant-like character, there isn't anything here that’s particularly useful except maybe Stamina if you want to increase your carrying capacity. The other two just feel more like insurance.
There’s a good variety of perks to chose from, but a few perk trees offer much more value than others. Alchemy, Enchanting, Merchant, and Smithing are all easy skills to level, and their skill trees are universally useful. And since you can't buy any of these services from NPCs, you'll almost certainly level all of these abilities and having to invest valuable perks into them with every single character you create. Lockpicking perks are almost completely unnecessary, since the lockpicking game is a game of skill. On top of that, lockpicks have no weight, so you can carry around an unlimited supply of them, and conserving them isn't very important. Everything else is dependant on what type of character you want to create, and going down one of these trees early kind of makes you feel obligated to continue specializing in that path, since new perks are few and far between later in the game.
You'll have to replay the tutorial assault on Helgen every time you create a new character.
So there isn't really any reason to replay the game as a different character. Sure you could specialize in being a melee fighter or a mage, but there's nothing stopping you from developing those skills later in the game and going down all the quests that require those skills with the same character. Creating a new character is also made unforgivingly tedious by the fact that you have to commit to a character before the tutorial quest. Unlike in Oblivion and the Fallout games, you can't skip the tutorial in a new game. Skyrim makes you sit through that damned wagon ride and escape from Helgen every time! Ugh.
Better melee combat comes at the cost of bland weapons and weaker magic
Combat has also been significantly enhanced. The most noticeable difference is that the player character can no longer backpedal at full speed. This means you can’t "advance backwards" like you could in Oblivion. This forces the player to be much more careful about which enemies you engage, and it makes armor and proper shield usage much more important. It also makes companions more valuable, as their support can often mean the difference between life and death.
Weapons are all the same
Sword and shield combat is much more comfortable than in Oblivion.
I was really disappointed to find that all of the weapons and armor in the game are functionally the same. Weapons and armor all have a single Attack and Armor rating (respectively). There’s a variety of "power attacks" that you can perform, but they don’t have much functional variation and can be very difficult to connect with. There is no division into "slashing", "blunt", "piercing" damage, etc. As far as I could tell, blunt weapons don’t have any advantages against skeletons, and slashing weapons don’t have any advantages against flesh and light armor. The only differences are that larger weapons (with higher Attack values) generally have slower swing speeds.
Picking certain weapon skill perks can add bonus attributes to your attacks (such as swords doing extra critical damage or maces ignoring armor) so that you can try to "specialize" in a particular type of weapon. These perks feel kind of strange, since these abilities are things that should be intrinsic qualities of the weapons rather than representations of the skill of the user. There’s no need to bring specialized weapons and armor into a particular quest unless you have an enchantment that is specifically useful.
The only weapons that have intrinsic advantages are silver weapons, which have automatic bonuses against undead. But these weapons cannot be improved by smithing, and so they quickly become outmatched by smithed and enchanted weapons.
I do like that most of the base equipment in the game has comparable stats, so that no one class of weapons or armor are overwhelmingly superior to others. This isn't like other RPGs where you get some iconic starting equipment that has to be sold and replaced within an hour of gameplay because it's completely (and arbitrarily) outmatched by newer equipment. As long as you keep investing in your favored weapons and armor, they can serve you well for the entire game.
Bows and magic are weak and difficult to use
Simply hitting with your ranged attacks can be a real problem. There's one archery perk that allows you to slow time slightly while aiming, but this is the only aim-assist that the game gives you (and it doesn't work for spells). This makes bows almost completely unviable as a primary weapon. Their damage output is low, and headshots don't seem to do any extra damage. It's easier to get stealth hits on an enemy, and there's a few perks that multiply stealth damage, but it isn't enough to make specializing in archery really worth it.
Ranged attacks are often necessary, but they are difficult to aim and often weaker than melee combat.
This can make playing as a ranger or thief character very difficult since there are also no stealth takedowns. This is one area in which the RPG-nature of the game really starts to hurt it. The whole Thieves Guild quest line is supposed to be about sneaking into places in order to complete quests. The game encourages you to use stealth tactics, but it doesn't have any real stealth mechanics. Having 3x damage when doing a stealth attack with a dagger may seem like a lot, but not when you realize that the base damage is usually only half or less than a heavier weapon's base damage. So your stealth stab does no more damage than one or two hits with a mace or hammer, which still isn't enough to kill an enemy, and now all the enemies are alerted to your presence, you can't sneak around anymore, and they're all charging right at you..
Magic suffers from similar issues. You can't create your own spells any more, and the magic skills don't affect damage, so the damage of a particular magic attack has a hard limit. You can equip different spells into each of your hands in order to mix and match effects, but it's no substitute for real spell-creation. The only magical discipline that is really worthwhile is Conjuration, since it allows you to create NPC companions that can attack an enemy (doing damage over time without expending any more of your magicka) and provide a valuable distraction.
And all those buff spells are annoying as hell because they all wear off within a minute or two instead of being depleted through actual use. So you have to stop every so many paces while exploring the overworld or dungeons to cycle through the spell list and re-apply your stoneflesh, muffle, courage, magelight, or to re-conjure your bound weapons or familiars. Or you risk being caught off guard if a spriggon or troll or something jumps out of nowhere. It's so tedious, and it really slows down the pace of the game.
And then there's the A.I. ...
Pathfinding is terrible. Both NPCs and enemies can often get completely lost in the dungeons or stuck in doorways or staircases. And there is no interface for giving orders to A.I. companions during combat. You can't tell them to attack a specific target, return to you, or even ask them to maintain defensive or aggressive stances. They like to rush enemies as soon as they see them, giving away your position and possibly getting themselves killed. Some key NPCs can't be killed, but the NPC followers that can die rarely last very long because they have no sense of self-preservation.
They also often fall victim to friendly-fire, since there's no target-locking of any kind. So you have to be very careful with ranged attacks and spells. Sometimes, the battlefield gets so cluttered with allies that I couldn't even attack the enemies because I'd hit allies and turn them hostile.
Followers can be hurt by friendly fire. It doesn't help that they are hyper-aggressive and constantly getting
in the way with no way to change their aggression level or stance or issue orders at a distance.
NPCs also still get in the way and often block doorways or narrow passages.
But since some NPC characters are invincible (or near invincible), you can just let them do all the fighting for you, and the game can become trivially easy.
A User Interface from the depths of Oblivion
The biggest technical blunder of this game is its user interface. This has been much-criticized already, but it can't be understated, so I'm gonna spend some more time discussing it now.
Lists, lists, and more lists
Why do we have to hit a button to select one of the four "points" of the menu, and then hit the button again in order to actually open the selected sub-menu? Why can’t we just press the direction and go directly to the appropriate menu? Once in the necessary menu, everything is just lists of text. There are no icons to make specific items stand out, and there aren't any options to change how they're sorted. There's also no special place to show your currently-equipped items, so you have to scroll through all your weapons and then all your apparel in order to find equipped items.
Equipment is not sorted or labeled by type. I guess I should feel a little honored that the designers don't think I'm too stupid to realize that a helmet goes on my head and boots go on my feet. But then again, my character has ten fingers spread across two hands, I can still only equip one ring, so it's not entirely intuitive, and an equipment screen would still be helpful. Weapons are not labeled as "one-handed" or "two-handed". In most case, it's obvious, but a label would have been nice for cases like war axes and battle axes (which is which?). Food items are not separated by whether they are raw ingredients or cooked meals (even though alchemy ingredients are separated from concocted potions).
"Optimal" equipment in the inventory doesn't take your character's specialization(s) into account.
There's a handy indicator that tells you which items are "optimal", but since there is no "class", it only takes raw attack or armor ratings into account and ignores your character's specialization. If you're a magic-user, then the game will insist that heavy armor is "optimal" because it has a higher armor rating, even though your light armors provide much more practical magical enhancements that supplement your character and playstyle.
And while there is a "take all" button for looting bodies and containers, there is no "drop all" or "place all" commands, nor is the standard "drop" command available while buying, selling, trading, or storing items. The "Take All" option also disappears when you go into any specific category of item. So you have to take everything, and can't just take only the potions or only the armor. When you go to drop off alchemy, cooking, or smithing materials, you have to place them in the container one at a time! There's like eight unused buttons on the controller, you couldn't assign a couple more of them to make inventory management easier?
Is poor feedback better than no feedback?
The game is also notoriously bad at providing feedback to the player. The HUD is minimized and there are no on-screen indicators for your stats or various active effects. There is a small text indicator on-screen when you first contract certain status ailments (such as poison), but it goes away after about two seconds, so you might miss it in the heat of battle because there's no event log. So if you are poisoned, the game doesn't show a persistent indicator. You have to hope that you notice your life slowly draining away before you actually die. Then you have to go into the menu, navigate to "Magic", then scroll down to "Active Effects" and scroll through that list to see that you have a status ailment. If you want to cure the poison, then you have to go all the way back out to the potions submenu to use an antidote. What a glorious waste of time and energy! This is why on-screen indicators and a "status" screen are common features of all RPGs.
There is no way to see what enchantments
you've learned except at an enchantment table!
There's also no single screen that lists all your skill levels and perks at a glance. You have to scroll through all the different perk trees one at a time to see all the various skill levels and effects that you have activated. Shrines don’t tell you what they do before you activate them, and they remove other blessings from other shrines, so if you forgot what each one does, you’ll have to pause the game and open up the wiki to make sure it’s a better (i.e. more useful) effect that what you already have. There's also no place to view which enchantments you've learned. You have to go to an enchanter's table to find out.
Some effects of enchantments, blessings, and other buffs refer to durations of hours or minutes. Sometimes, they mean in-game hours or minutes; other times they mean real-time hours or minutes. But the game doesn't bother to differentiate between the two. It's also frustrating that potions that fortify your enchanting, smithing, or alchemy skill only last for 30 seconds (of real-time), which includes the time you spend in the damn crafting interface. So you have to be quick in order to actually craft any items in the amount of time given.
During combat, you'll also run into poor user feedback. It's hard to tell if you are hitting an enemy, especially with magic. There's only a single enemy health bar at the top of the screen (instead of over each enemy's head), so it's easy to lose track of which enemy(ies) you've hit, or to keep tabs on the status of your allies. There's also no hit indicator that tells you what direction an attack is coming from. I usually do all my combat in third person so that it is easier to see what's going on around me and where projectile attacks are coming from, but even then, environmental awareness can be a huge problem.
There are also tremendous inconveniences in the shopping and crafting interfaces. Shop and craft menus don't indicate how many of a selected item are already in your inventory or how much they are weighing you down. When buying a spell tome, the game doesn't bother to tell you if you already know the spell (which makes the tome useless). There are also numerous annoyances with buying or selling multiple copies of items.
All this combines to make me feel like I need to keep a gods-damned pen and paper next to me when I play in order to write down my current active effects, learned enchantments, perks, and so on. At least the quest-tracking menu is well-implemented. It tracks all your quests, their various objectives, and even miscellaneous goals. You can track multiple quests or goals simultaneously, and you can quickly open up that objective's location on the map with the push of a button! My only major complaint with this menu is that I can't turn a quest completely off and remove it from my quest log. So if I come across a quest that I absolutely don't want to do, it just sits in my quest log forever, taking up space.
While I appreciate Bethesda's commitment to "realism" in the way that it forces you to go from shopkeeper to shopkeeper to sell items in your inventory, it would still be really nice if the game offered some abstractions to make buying, selling, and upgrading loot easier and less tedious. For one thing, you can only sell what is in your immediate inventory, and only to the particular shopkeep that you are talking to. So if you have items in storage or being held by a companion, you must first go to that container or companion and take the item, then go to the shopkeep. Collecting all these items will probably overburden you, which makes you painfully slow.
"Lydia, look! A stray wagon! Can I keep it, please?
I promise to name it, and take care of it, and feed it all my epic lootz, so that I can avoid using you as a
pack mule and having to fast travel back and forth to dungeons, towns, and homes selling loot!"
That's a fine penalty for out in the open world, and an excellent deterrent to carrying too much useless stuff. But once you're in a town, you should be able to move and sell your owned items without so much trouble. And then you have to deal with the ridiculously small amounts of gold that most shopkeepers carry, so you often have to walk your slow, overburdened ass from shop to shop in order to sell all the stuff you want to get rid of.
It would be very convenient if the game aggregated the inventories of your storage containers and companions when talking to shopkeepers in towns so that you can sell things without having to physically move back and forth between containers - especially if the container is in the same town, or if the companion holding your stuff is standing right next to you. it would also be convenient if the game included the ability to automatically transfer items from a container in one owned property to containers in another owned property.
So if you buy a new house that has convenient access to a smelter, forge, and smithing stations, then you should be able to transfer all your smithing ingredients from your old house to the new one. Instead, you'll likely have to make multiple fast travel trips back and forth in order to carry all that heavy ore and ingots between houses. Even having to pay a small fee of gold to make such transfers and sales would be preferable to having to sit through the annoying time-sinks of shuffling inventory items around. After all, in real life, you wouldn't have to do all that stuff yourself, you'd hire someone to do it for you!
You can circumvent a lot of these problems with a horse, since they can carry your ass anywhere no matter how overburdened you are. But the moment you have to get off that horse to fight or go into a dungeon, you'll still need to go through the process of unloading all that loot into a container somewhere, and there's still no "place all" command!
Maps are also horrible. The world map is zoomed out very far and is covered in a layer of clouds and fog that make it very hard to see any detail. Certain details like roads don't even show up on the overworld map at all! So you have no way of knowing if the road you're on will take you to your expected destination, or if it's suddenly going to veer off in some random direction and go the opposite way. Maybe the developers wanted to encourage the player to stop at crossroads and read the post signs? There also isn't any detail about a given map location. This is especially problematic with mines. Mines are sometimes parts of towns or camps and so aren't labeled on the world map at all. So if you want to go back to them later in order to mine some valuable ore (particularly gold and silver), then you have to remember where they are.
Maps can be very difficult to read, especially in areas that have multiple levels of elevation.
And when you fast travel, you always travel to just outside the selected building or dungeon. So after you sit through the fast-travel load screen, you appear just in front of a door, then open the door to go inside and sit through another load screen. Why not just take you into the building you're fast-traveling to? Or better yet, let you chose to travel inside the selected location? It's also annoying that you can't fast travel directly to your house inside of cities, and the map provides no filters or any way to show the location of property owned by the player.
Local maps are even worse. They aren't separated into height levels, so it's sometimes impossible to tell where something is when it's in an area of overlapping paths at different elevations. They're also just monochrome lines that don't give any useful information about the geography. It's bad.
Your own story - oh, and maybe something about dragons...?
But despite the monumentally-poor design of the interface, my personal biggest gripe with this game is with the design of the world and its narrative. I'm one of those "games as art" kind of people, so I'm a stickler for games with quality story-telling. I'm all for games that give the player the freedom to create their own stories (like The Sims), as long as the game provides the tools and technologies to organically enable that. And if the game is going to have a set story, then I expect that story to be well-integrated into the game so that gameplay informs the narrative and the narrative informs the gameplay.
Skyrim tries to walk a fine line between both, and it stumbles severely. The map of Skyrim is huge and has plenty of scenic vistas to gawk at, but the gameplay can become tedious and boring. There is absolutely no immersion in the story or setting!
Skyrim's overworld provides plenty of opportunities for the best scenic vistas that the PS3 and XBox 360 can provide.
Skyrim's open-endedness does give the player a sense of creating your own story. In many ways, the game is less about telling its scripted narrative, and more about "the rise of the Dragonborn". Your character goes from being a prisoner plucked out of obscurity to becoming the savior of the world, and maybe you also become a criminal overlord, infamous assassin, werewolf, messenger of the gods, liberator of the Nords, or any number of a dozen other qualifiers.
But there is a story here! The player, characters, and world all just seem oblivious to it!
So much to do, all the time in the world
Despite there supposedly being dragons threatening to destroy Skyrim and bring about the end-times, no one really seems to care beyond some mostly-meaningless lip service. The player character can spend a hundred hours just wandering around picking flowers, doing meaningless fetch-quests, and even getting married, without progressing the main questline. The game puts no pressure on the player to advance the plot, despite the supposed dire consequences. Oblivion had the same problem, but to a much greater extend, since the Oblivion gates froze whole cities in a state of perpetual cataclysm that just waited for the player to show up.
At least Fallout 3
was about you trying to find your father, and Fallout: New Vegas
’s plot was about getting revenge for your attempted murder (at least, that was the set-up). These are both inherently personal basis for a plot, and therefore something that you can justify taking care of at your own pace. The missing dad plot of Fallout 3
probably could have included a bit more pressure to proceed, but since nobody knew what your dad was doing, failure to progress didn't necessarily affect the rest of the game world. The game world was perfectly justified in being ambivalent about your progress. The revenge plot of New Vegas
was completely open-ended. But Skyrim
's main questline about saving the world from a prophesized apocalypse seems like something that needs to be handled sooner
rather than later.
And there's just so much bugger all to distract you!
Dragons are kind enough to never attack a town, except while under the watchful eye of the player [LEFT],
so NPCs' fear of the dragons [RIGHT] feels moot and fails to incentivize narrative progress.
The game world is very dense. Too dense. You can't take ten steps in the overworld without running into a pack of bandits, a bear, wandering vampires, or the like. And towns and caves seem to be around every corner. What's more, so many of the towns and caves feel like they've been copy-pasted ad infinitum. Despite there being well over a hundred caves and dungeons, they all use only about five or six palettes of art, enemies, traps, and "puzzles". So they all look the same. You fight the same bandits, draugr, foresworn, and Dwemer robots. You solve the same block-turning puzzle, perform the same lever-pulling tasks, and disarm the same tripwire and pressure-plate traps. And at the end, there is almost always a level-scaled boss and some random magic weapon or armor that you'll probably never use.
It gets so repetitive and tedious. And some of these dungeons can be really long! They can take as long as two hours to complete. Then you report your successs to the quest-giver, start a new quest, rinse and repeat. And that's a shame, because the developers did make efforts to make the towns feel more alive and organic. Quests can be obtained by talking to tavern and shop owners, individual townies, or even from overheard conversations or reading a note or book. And every now and then, you'll discover some weird event or situation in your explorations of the world that may require further investigation or intervention.
So the systems in which the game offers quests and encourages the player to explore the world are intuitive, organic, and immersive. Bravo! It's just that there is so much getting thrown at you all at once, you have to go so far out of your way to complete it, and you keep getting interrupted with even more meaningless side quests at every turn. Sometimes it feels that every quest you complete just opens up two more, and if you try to complete them all, you end up just wasting your time fast-travelling in circles. The game would feel so much better if the map weren't so cluttered. Instead of copy-pasting the same dungeons over and over again, the developers could have focused on creating a couple dozen really good and unique dungeons with their own appropriately unique rewards.
This game's setting is just screaming for some kind of survival mechanics! There was real potential here for the game world itself to be a contributor to the gameplay instead of just eye candy, but the designers completely neglected the opportunity. Having to find shelter from the frigid weather would have provided ample justification for going into a town or exploring a cave - assuming that such landmarks were appropriately spaced. Keeping yourself warm, fed, and hydrated, and maybe even having to set up camp to sleep, while trekking through icy mountain passes and frozen tundras would have provided a much more unique and "adventurous" challenge than the tedious dungeons that the developers did offer.
The harsh environment of Skyrim would have been ripe for survival mechanics.
The civil war quest line also feels like a missed opportunity. The player can chose to join either the Stormcloak rebels or the Imperial army and participate in the civil war. Or you can ignore it completely, and the civil war subplot just completely stagnates. There aren't even any ambient side quests that involve the civil war except for the occasional squad of imperial troops escorting rebel prisoners to ... somewhere? There's lots of NPCs who pay lip-service to the rebellion, but as long as you don't deliberately progress the sub plot, it's practically just a casual cold war.
Boolean morality with no consequences
The Civil War also ties into another annoying problem with the game's story: its lack of real moral decisions and consequences. The game tries to pretend that the player has to make moral decisions, but they are always superficial and don't really impact the game much. Sure, you could join the Stormcloaks or the Empire, but it doesn't do much. You can overthrow the jarls of various provinces, but they'll just be replaced by new ones that offer almost all the same quests and rewards. You're also limited to only those two choices: Stormcloaks or Empire. You can't decide to side with the Foresworn, Dunmer, or Falmer, all of which have stakes in the outcome of the war and quests associated with their struggles.
The siege of Whiterun is a spectacle, but doesn't have any long-term consequences.
There's even one point in the Civil War questline in which the player must participate in the siege of Whiterun. I seriously second-guessed whether to start this quest because I had a home in Whiterun and frequently used its shops. So when I showed up outside the city walls to the sight of the city on fire from the bombardment of catapults, I panicked. "Oh crap! All my stuff is in there!"
But because Bethesda is so afraid of putting off players by forcing them to deal with the consequences of their actions and choices, no significant changes actually happen. The siege doesn't damage the player's house, or kill any shop keepers. The next day, after the quest ends, the city will be mostly as it was before the assault except for a few superficial damaged buildings that weren't owned by anybody to begin with, and the jarl has been replaced with a puppet of Ulfric.
So this civil war doesn't seem to have any real effect on the player, the population of Skyrim, or game world. And this was where Skyrim really started to lose me from a narrative perspective. From this point on, I rarely (if ever) second-guessed myself, since I was resigned to the fact that this game would completely shy away from game-changing consequences.
Townies complain about the war left and right, but it never affects the people except for one or two side quests.
There is one quest in the game that comes very close to offering a true moral dilemma: The Dark Brotherhood quest line begins with an assassination of someone who clearly deserves it. After this assassination, you are abducted and locked away in a cabin with three prisoners. An assassin tells you that one of them is guilty and should be killed and leaves you to interrogate them to determine which one to kill. It's an open-ended puzzle in which the player could kill any of the three captives. But I was also very pleased that the game let me solve the puzzle in the way that I wanted to (by killing the assassin and freeing all three hostages).
Unfortunately, this puzzle has no real solution, and the moral choice is purely superficial. None of the characters is actually guilty, and it doesn't matter which you kill. The only two real choices are that you kill any one of the prisoners (and become eligible for joining the Brotherhood), or you kill the assassin (thus becoming an enemy of the Brotherhood). So it's just another binary choice. Also, these characters exist solely for the purpose of this quest. They have no in-game lives outside of the shack, and even if you free them, they just stand around in the shack and never leave. You can't meet them or develop a relationship with them prior to this quest, and you'll never see them (or their bereaved friends or family) ever again after the quest. So there are no real moral consequences for your decision; thus, there's no real moral dilemma.
This Dark Brotherhood initiation quest was promising as a moral conundrum, but falls apart under scrutiny.
Worth owning, but not ground-breaking
Skyrim is a great game to have in your library for whenever you're in between other games, or staying home ill, and just need something to kill time. Perfect for children and frat boys who have lots of free time.
Its greatest failings are in the narrative and its complete disinterest in telling its own story. The main story is so disconnected from the bulk of the game that's available to the player, that it's so easy to forget what the game is actually about. If I wanted to play an RPG that's all about simply developing my character, I'd play something like Fable, or The Sims. Skyrim doesn't do the role play well enough to be that kind of game, and so it really struggles with being what it is supposed to be.
Skyrim is definitely better from a technical level than its Oblivion and Fallout predecessors, and much more worthwhile and engaging to play. When everything is working smoothly, it's everything that you want a game to be: detailed, immersive, expansive, and full of choices both explicit and implicit. Savor the moments in which the game is working, because in an hour or so, you'll be yelling at the developers through your monitor over something stupid that the game did.
This is a step in the right direction though. I am optimistic that everything might fall into place in the next Elder Scrolls game (not including the MMO, because it's an MMO). With a little more work on the game engine, more courage to try some of the creative things done in the DLC, and the greater power of the next generation of consoles and PCs, Elder Scrolls VI could be an exceptional game whenever it inevitably gets released.
Fallout 4 might be a different story though...
Since the apocalypse waits for you to try to stop it, you can save the world
equally well by just settling down with your wife indefinitely.