The road to Skyrim: an Elder Scrolls retrospective [Xbox 360/PS3/PC]

Luke Stratford November 7, 2011 - 2:00 pm

THE ELDER SCROLLS V: SKYRIM releases this week, and we’re just a little bit excited. So join us on a trip down memory lane, as we review the journey that’s led us to this point in a distinguished roleplaying series.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim launches this week, and I love it. I really do. I love its rolling Nordic tundra, its terrifying beasts and the rather amusing fact that the ‘Shout’ system is essentially an immensely destructive and magical way of turning swearing into an offensive weapon.

But my love does not end there, nor does it begin there. It is simply the most recent tryst in a long and torrid affair that’s lasted more than a decade, one which inspires me and gives me faith in the progressive nature of gaming as a whole.

No, I haven’t just consumed a large amount of something illegal and been pointed at a keyboard – I’m serious. I’m sure that Skyrim is going to be a brilliant game, as we at BeefJack have made very clear over the past few weeks, but I’d like to take a moment to show you all that although this next liason may have many of us chomping at the bit, it’s been a long and inspiring path which has brought us to this point.

Establishing the Arena

The Elder Scrolls franchise kicked off 17 years ago with The Elder Scrolls: Arena - a huge, steel toe-capped boot to the backside of RPGs across the world. Until then, the majority of games that used a 3D engine, no matter how basic, tended towards pure action (such as Doom, Blood or even the oft-forgotten Redneck Rampage). You run, you gun, you have fun.

Arena changed all that by taking this technology and dropping into the framework of a complex RPG. In gaming terms, it was like ripping out the little electric motor of a G-Whiz and replacing it with a three-litre V12: shocking, terrifying and downright dangerous for the unprepared. Even something as basic as swinging your sword was given a twist – rather than just mash a button to attack, you had to drag your mouse across the screen to swing it. Yes, context-sensitive combat controls. In 1994. I’m starting to suspect there’s a Tardis somewhere in Bethesda’s basement.

Arena took absolutely no prisoners – hell, getting out of the first dungeon alive was no mean feat. Alhough earlier text-based adventures would think nothing of abruptly shredding your hapless hero with a horde of Grues, it came in the sterile, homely format of DOS text. Arena’s strength came in harnessing the real-time element. A wrong turn wouldn’t be instantly damning, but instead hurl you headlong into a desperate fight-or-flight reflex test. Survive, progress, and overcome.

A dagger to the genre

Daggerfall gave us more of the same, but with greater refinement, more complexity and, most importantly, more detail. The world gained more colour, more flavour, with characters possessing aspects that made them more than just pixels. The Dark Brotherhood agent who draws inspiration from his work to write poetry. The ability to not just be a werewolf or a vampire, but a goddamn wereboar.

Surreal? Absolutely. Fun? Obviously. Still: move on, make it bigger, make it better. That’s been the mantra of The Elder Scrolls. Next stop: Morrowind.

First time for everything

Morrowind was the point where I first jumped on the Elder Scrolls bandwagon, like many other gamers of my particular age bracket. Big, brown and jaggy, Morrowind was simultaneously one of the most beautiful games in the world, and as ugly as a sack of rusty hammers.

But it was also incredibly complex. I’d spent many years happy with the incredibly linear routes afforded to me by RPGs such as Final Fantasy VII. Yet now, hour upon hour spent playing Morrowind vanished into dungeon crawling, exploring, running into new areas and being savaged by the local wildlife.

You could spend some time grinding Alchemy, buff yourself into a near-god and complete the whole thing in just a few hours. Or you could spend days running errands, dodging guards, trawling dungeons, wheeling and dealing at the many towns and markets. Or simply sit, quietly tinkering on the enchantments for a new magic sword, agonising on whether it should shoot fire or simply deal fire damage, then accidentally setting it up to do fire damage to yourself and end up burning to death in the middle of the Mage’s Guild in a blaze of raw magic and acute embarrassment. Good times.

Then, around the time of the late Medal of Honour sequels, things changed. Not just locally, but across the games industry worldwide. As technology advanced, the emphasis was put on streamlining cluttered experiences into something honed. Short and sweet, with emphasis on the short. Games you could bang through in under eight hours if you put your mind to it.

Into Oblivion

In times of adversity, sometimes the diamonds in the games industry can shine all the brighter. The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion came under fire from some die-hard fans who didn’t want to see their beloved franchise gutted by soulless corporate types, but the end result was undeniably still a child of same distinguished family. Where else could you, in the middle of a big, pompous storyline, find a few side quests about fighing watercolour trolls inside an enchanted painting, or make flaming dogs fall from the sky in order to secure the most willfully anarchic weapon in the game (you can turn the end boss into a sheep with it)? Old and new, straight and silly, simple and complex, The Elder Scrolls has always been about trying to marry the two, rather than choose one over the other.

Oblivion picked a more typical fantasy world than The Elder Scrolls of old, and simplified some of its systems. Some will complain about this – and perhaps they’re right to do so. But (aside from some unfortunate bugs), I’d challenge anyone to come up with a better open-world RPG formula.

We may have left the days of tinkering and micro-managing behind us, and there are many, many things I’ll miss from the old games that many players would find tedious. But the fire’s still there. Skyrim is standing on the shoulders of giants – and you can feel that history, that heritage when you see it in action.

It may not be able to engulf you in quite the same way that Daggerfall or Morrowind could, leaving you happily engrossed in endless menus and little tidbits of backstory, but that pioneering take-what’s-good-and-make-it-better spirit remains undaunted. Those who are new to the series will, I’m sure, love the game on its own merits, but for those of us who have had the chance to see this series develop over several generations, we can enjoy both the destination and the journey leading us to it.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Publisher: Bethesda

Developer: Bethesda

UK Release Date: 11/11/2011

Formats: PC, PS3, Xbox 360

Review

The Elder Scrolls V review [PC, PS3, Xbox 360] – coming soon!

Features

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim preview [PS3/Xbox 360/PC]

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim hands-on preview [Xbox 360/PS3/PC]

Blog: Skyrim: Why I’m worried

News

All the latest Skyrim news

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, from Bethesda, will be released for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC on 11th November.

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