There’s long existed a covenant between Bethesda and those who play its games, handed down from one hardware generation to the next. The developer fashions worlds of unrivalled scope, rich in lore and history, filled with stories to unravel and secrets to find. Then, it offers players the freedom to explore these worlds at their own pace – dawdling for hours in a particularly lush patch of forest in order to hunt game, or rushing to defeat the dark forces threatening the land. In return, our side of the bargain is simple – we do all we can to ignore the rough edges that come, apparently, as the cost of such ambition.
Skyrim still takes place in a world where a woolly mammoth can suddenly levitate a hundred feet into the sky and stay there. It still takes place in a world where trying to aid the city watch in a battle against a rampaging dragon can see you arrested and taken to prison – before the battle’s over, mind – for striking one of the soldiers with a glancing blow. It’s still a world where a nobleman will try, repeatedly, to enter a tavern, having forgotten to climb off his horse first. It’s a world of clunking animation, of reused voice actors, of bandits talking over their own death throes. It’s a world that’s entirely engaging one moment and an utter farce the next. But it’s a world that, providing you offer up your suspension of disbelief, delivers more than most games even attempt.
Much remains unchanged since the release of Oblivion, but the most significant differences are felt in the landscape itself. Whereas Oblivion‘s Cyrodiil was a patchwork of varying terrains – its place at the heart of Bethesda’s fictional Empire giving its artists a chance to experiment with the visual styles of each province – Skyrim as a country is much more strongly defined. Cold is the reigning motif here – and Skyrim offers up every interpretation of chilliness you can imagine. Alpine-style villages appear, as do rugged, blizzard- swept peaks. Leafy, autumnal forests give way to salt marshes, sparkling glaciers and bleak, empty tundra, which in turn merge back into snowy woods filled with evergreen pine. This is unapologetically a song of ice, not fire, but that doesn’t make it samey. Skyrim‘s a country as varied as Cyrodiil, but one that also holds together convincingly as a place.
Mist rises off rivers in the early morning, and salmon struggle to leap upstream – but the incidental details, though welcome, aren’t the real improvement. It’s the sense, on both small and large scales, that a human eye has carefully crafted, tweaked and adjusted every sight you see. Settlements fit more naturally into their surrounding landscapes than the walled fortresses of Oblivion ever did, and rivers cut through mountain ranges before ending in wide-open basins. The mountain paths gently funnel you along planned routes, ensuring you’ll always stumble across the next vista from the best vantage point. And this sense, that Skyrim has been authored rather than generated, extends to its interiors, too.