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Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Developer: Bethesda Softworks
ESRB rating: Mature
Release date: November 11, 2011
In the early days of the Xbox 360, new adopters found one game to rule them all. The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion was released in the Spring of 2006 (a scant six-months after that console heralded this new generation of game systems), and it proved to be one of those bridge titles that united the hardcore RPG elite with the mainstream. Western RPGs have always held court in the console space but unlike the welcoming PC world, they remained a modest, niche success. Since Oblivion’s successful release, big, brawny role playing games have slashed their way to the tops of sales charts. Since then, Fable, Mass Effect and the Fallout series inspiring more and more players to drag dungeons, slay dragons and journey there and back again. With news that the next iteration of consoles is being prepped by the Big Three for debut over the next few years, Bethesda’s latest Elder Scrolls release, Skyrim, makes for a nice bit of symmetry – potentially a fitting swan song.
The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim opens 200 years after the events in Oblivion. At the outset, players choose there gender and select from the ten available races utilizing the expected robust character creation toolset. In the early moments, the game is on rails as Bethesda hammers down the dramatic stakes. Amidst a crippling civil war that has rocked the Skyrim region, a new, dire threat has emerged. After centuries of slumber, fearsome dragons have returned to the world. With factions warring for control of Skyrim in the wake of the King’s assassination, this new development upsets the geographical and political landscape. War is hard enough to wage without the omnipresent fear of fiery death from above. Into the rising tempest, your character plunges. Soon he (or she) may emerge as an important cog in the machinations, as in the grand Elder Scrolls tradition, the choice is up to the player to decide whether to follow their destiny or simply ignore the main plot and live the hard life of Skyrim.
Skyrim builds off of the narrative drive established in Oblivion. While the Elder Scrolls series has always been known for its open-endedness, allowing players to explore the world and play the game in whatever way they choose, it was Oblivion that took large steps in implementing a compelling core plot without disrupting the persistent world around it. Story quests could be picked up and chased down at any point while players were free to wander off the beaten path should they find some shiny new obsession to hunt down along the fringes. Or, if a player was content to simply pick flowers and make potions for a living, that livelihood (among so many other options) was available to pursue as well. Both Oblivion’s quest and story scripting proved that Bethesda could organically plant an overall plot, one that the player helps shape, without taking anything away the feeling of freedom that set this franchise apart from its more linear counterparts.
While Skyrim does not represent the revolutionary leap that Oblivion was over the meandering Morrowind, it certainly stands as a huge evolutionary step for the series. Everything that worked well in Oblivion is back in Skyrim, and Bethesda takes pains to craft a game that doesn’t simply echo past accomplishments. Jaws dropped when Oblivion capped its extended prologue with that eye-opening gaze at the whole, wide world that stretched beyond the player once you scurried through those claustrophobic sewers. It’s a move that the studio’s follow-up, Fallout 3, mimicked to similar success. Skyrim may open with another carefully choreographed introduction, but the studio refrains from going to that well once again, intent on ladling out just enough information about the political strife, the dire threat building and your hazy role in it all to push you forward before releasing the reins. In that, they continue to perfect their handle on world-building – realizing that as many players love to have a reason to fight there are others who just want to get lost in the world. Once the player has a handle on their character, they are free to go wherever they please while the main plot remains identifiable and within reach for those who want it.
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