You’d think that after all the success and acclaim that Skyrim has received, it doesn’t really seem like the kind of game in need of an autopsy. Indeed, six years after its initial launch, few other games would be receiving both a VR version on PlayStation VR and a handheld option through Nintendo Switch within the coming weeks. Add the wealth of mods available via the PC version (and a limited selection on consoles too), and it's clear to see that's it not just Bethesda that wants this game to keep going, but a loyal community too.
After hearing all the success Skyrim was having, I decided to sink 30 hours or so into the open-world RPG back in early 2012. While that is a playtime significantly less than the average ‘this is my second life’ Skyrim fanatic, it has given me a solid foundation to discuss both the positives and negatives of the game.
Let's start with what is undoubtedly Skyrim’s most significant selling point - the open world. While it seems as though most PS4 and Xbox One games are open world, the console generation prior appeared to have a higher proportion of linearly structured titles. When Skyrim released, it represented the pinnacle of both world scale and interactivity. The time taken to walk around the map seemed like the default metric for looking at this - nothing else came close.
To me, exploring the open world was the most engaging aspect of the gameplay. Scaling a mountain to find a dungeon, wandering around a forest in search of a cave or even just walking along a path to the next unknown destination was all so compelling thanks to the structure of the environment. Combined with the guiding hand of the compass, the landmarks and points of interest throughout the world reduce the reliance on the map screen and brings a more natural form of navigation to the forefront.
Unfortunately, this only kept me playing the game for a fraction of what most seemed to manage. And that's because I feel as though almost every other aspect of the game - from combat to storytelling - has been done better in countless other games both before and after the release of Skyrim.
When Skyrim released, it represented the pinnacle of both world scale and interactivity. The time taken to walk around the map seemed like the default metric for looking at this - nothing else came close.
Some of the poor voice acting and dialogue has become famous online as memes, and while these are entertaining on their own, I think it's indicative of the broader issues with the game's narrative. It's true that there's plenty of scope for players to enjoy making their own stories within the game, but the lack of any cinematic flair in the presentation of core narratives and side quests is evident. Poor animation, scripting and many other elements show a shell of a story in comparison to other open world games like inFamous 2 and Horizon: Zero Dawn. If you include linear games that have a built-in advantage for telling a focused narrative, then titles like Heavy Rain, Spec Ops: The Line and The Last of Us trounce what Skyrim has to offer.
The problems continue with actually playing the game. As I've said, I'm a fan of Skyrim’s exploration element, but the immersion is broken as soon as this transitions into the moment-to-moment gameplay of interaction (whether this is through combat, puzzle solving or something else entirely). Skyrim is known for the ability to play in both a third and first-person perspective, but both these modes are equally as terrible at giving any sense of contact or feedback in combat.
An extension of this is that both views feel like controlling a camera rather than a character seeing as neither are specialised for all tasks. Games like the Battlefield series are fantastic for making a first-person camera feel like the perspective of an actual person, while the Uncharted series gives the player a full third-person view of the protagonist and his surroundings without making his movements feel tied to the camera.
Although Skyrim was a great accomplishment in game open-world design when it was released back in 2011 and propelled a genre firmly into the mainstream for the current console generation, its many flaws seem overlooked by most. Fallout 4, Bethesda Softworks' next game, perhaps exposed these flaws more clearly due to the higher presentation standards expected from the current set of consoles. They have the world design nailed, but Bethesda Softworks needs to start taking cues from other developers, particularly ID software and Machine games, their in-house teams responsible for the excellent Doom and Wolfenstein reboots. There’s a lot to learn from these teams when it comes to first-person presentation and finding the essence of gameplay mechanics that could propel The Elder Scrolls VI to a level fans can only dream of.