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The Sky Dilemma: Skyrim vs. Skyward Sword

Skyrim Sword
Skyrim Sword?
Gamers like myself are in quite the quandary this month. Robert Brockway over at Cracked calls it "the geek rapture," because in the span of just a few weeks, the gaming industry has conspired to release an orgy of highly anticipated, quality titles. I'm the kind of gamer who likes to have an opinion on every major release, so when there are so many major releases at once, it forces me to make choices I don't want to make. Granted, I'm not a fan of Gears of War 3 or Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 47, because multiplayer first person shooters and games involving aliens and super marines got old a decade ago. However, that still forces me to prioritize, putting things like Assassin's Creed: Revelations on my list of games I hope to get to in a couple of months. Given that I can only play one game at a time, the biggest dilemma I face is which do I play first: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim or The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, easily my two most anticipated games of the year. Despite the vehement opinions of other gamers, this is not an easy decision.

Let's start with Skyrim. Though I'm fairly late to the Elder Scrolls saga, the last game, Oblivion, is one of the most impressive games I've ever played. It is intensely immersive and interactive in ways I didn't think were possible, taking the single-player RPG to a whole new dimension of utter awesomeness. When I originally encountered Oblivion, it was an almost religious experience, a life-changing awakening that ensured things would never be the same again.

Skyrim promises to be even better, which strains believability. The few flaws in Oblivion (which become fully apparent only after playing for fifty or so hours) are supposedly addressed and fixed: conversations with NPCs will be more fluid; the menus will be less cumbersome; the main story will be longer; the dungeons will be far more varied; you will be able to dual-weild magic; the levelling system will be more logical; and, most importantly, there will be dragons--lots of dragons--and they will be epic. On the day Skyrim released, a full fifty percent of my Xbox Live friends were playing it. Not playing it concurrently would be like an evalengelical neglecting to celebrate Easter Sunday, and all the other evalengelicals know.

My Skyrim
The pre-order map is super cool
I'm not going to lie; I not only got Skyrim on its release date, but I played it shortly thereafter. (I had to finish Batman: Arkham City first, because I was only three hours from the end.) This is because Skyrim came out a full nine days before the release of Skyward Sword. It's not like I was going to be able to let an unopened pre-ordered copy of the game just sit there and collect dust.

How can I describe my first impressions of Skyrim without resorting to a nonsensical string of blasphemous exclamations? Within minutes, it was obvious to me that Skyrim is, indeed, better than Oblivion. The graphics are the most beautiful and photorealistic graphics I've ever seen in a video game, lending a sense of tangibility, the feeling that you can reach out and physically touch even the rotating metal objects rotating in front of you on the loading screen. The draw distance is staggering, the attention to detail is simply unmatched, the water flows and trickles just like the real thing, and there are even insects and snowflakes floating around in a distinct, unmapped way. But it's not just the visuals. The music, sound, and voice acting are top notch (even though Max von Sydow, no matter how much I love him, can't possibly compete with Patrick Stewart), and the gameplay is indeed more logical, intuitive, and responsive. And the dragons... Oh my God, the dragons!

But let's set that aside for a moment and talk about Zelda. As a franchise, Zelda has been around much longer than Elder Scrolls. It goes way back to the NES and a video game industry still struggling to recover from the devastating crash of the mid-eighties. The original game, The Legend of Zelda, is one of the seminal Nintendo games, standing shoulder to shoulder with Super Mario Bros. and Metroid as games that helped define the modern age of console gaming. The series has a long and impressive history and made the 3D transition with The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, a game that tops many prestigious lists (including my own) of greatest video games of all time. Every Zelda release is an event that sends shockwaves through the industry, and each game is uniquely charming and exciting.

Ocarina of Time
Is this no longer the greatest video game ever forged by the hands of men?
Granted, each game has its detractors, and the most recent big release, Twilight Princess, garners mixed reactions from even the most stalwart Zelda fanatic. It is, without question, an amazing game that refines much about the Zelda formula, doing everything fans wanted it to do. However, the game doesn't deviate enough from the formula, resulting in a final product that, though great, feels like it's missing some heart. Nintendo, it seems, has been listening to the complaints of fans who weren't careful what they wished for, and they are releasing Skyward Sword with the maximum of fanfare, at the 25th anniversary of the franchise.

To say this new title has received critical acclaim would be a gross understatement. It is earning perfect scores across the board, even from the notoriously anti-Nintendo Game Informer and the typically reserved IGN, which has given so few perfect tens that you can count them on one hand. Many are already making the bold claim that Skyward Sword is even better than Ocarina of Time which, if true, would make it arguably the greatest video game that has ever been made.

Of course I pre-ordered it and played it as soon as I got home, even though I had been geekasming over Skyrim for days and was nowhere near finished with it. In hindsight, I can see why this might have been a bad move. My expectations at that point could not have been higher. Had I turned on my Wii, popped in my fresh new copy of Skyward Sword, and watched as millions of dollars and a few naked supermodels sprung forth from my television set, willing to do anything I asked, I would have shrugged my shoulders and thought, "Eh, I was hoping for something better." On a high from the technical mastery and beautiful graphics of Skyrim, the all-too-apparent limitations of Nintendo's console immediately knocked me back down to Earth.

My Skyward Sword
The pre-order symphonic Zelda music CD is geek gold
My first impressions of the graphics in Skyward Sword were not forgiving. Trees are haphazard combinations of two-dimensional patterns, the textures are slightly muddy and pixelated at the same time, and the Wii, of course, doesn't do HD. Then I encountered my first bit of in-game dialogue and I was again sorely disappointed. Every Zelda game is the same, so I had no reason to assume that this one would be any different, but the dialogue is delivered through boxes of slow-moving text punctuated only by the occasional grunt, laugh, groan, or sigh. The contrast from Skyrim--with its thousands upon thousands of recorded, context-sensitive, voice-acted lines of dialogue--is a harsh splash of cold water. When put side-by-side, it makes Skyward Sword seem quaint at best and terribly outdated at worst.

Still, I slogged through the tutorial sections of the game (which I must point out are much shorter than they are in Twilight Princess), urged onward by my inner Nintendo fanboy and the assurances of all those perfect ten reviews. It didn't take long for my disappointment to turn around. I started to see the art beneath the low-def graphics, the kiddie presentation, and the old-school gameplay conventions. Take the graphics, for example. There is no way any game on the Wii could compete with Skyrim when it comes to presenting an HD, photorealistic universe with extremely high visibility, but Skyward Sword doesn't even try. Skyward Sword does something unique by having the backgrounds blur out in a very specific way as they get farther and farther out, turning the game into a living impressionistic painting, not unlike the film version of What Dreams May Come. It's quite beautiful, but in a completely different way from Skyrim's realistically detailed panoramas.

Indeed, almost every aspect of Skyward Sword fits into a similar pattern. When compared to Skyrim, it is technically inferior, but Skyward Sword still stands toe-to-toe with--if not outright beats--Skyrim on an artistic level. But really, trying to compare Skyward Sword to Skyrim is looking at both games all wrong, an unfortunate side effect of the fact that the games were released within nine days of each other. It's much better to compare Skyrim to Oblivion and Skyward Sword to Twilight Princess. When you do that, you see why both Skyrim and Skyward Sword are such astounding achievements. I'm not ready yet to compare Skyward Sword to Ocarina of Time, nor am I prepared to say it's a better or worse experience than Skyrim, but from my first few days of playing it, I am prepared to say that Skyward Sword is a great Zelda title and easily one of the greatest games of this generation.

I am choosing to continue with Zelda then, not because it's better than The Elder Scrolls, but because I owe more loyalty to the franchise. Also, I have no hang-ups about playing it around my toddler son, as it is far more family-friendly. But worry not, Skyrim fans, I have every intention of returning to the Nord lands and discovering what it means to be Dragonborn. It's just that, first, I have to unlock the secrets of what lies beneath the cloud barrier, save Zelda, and figure out why the Goddess has given me the burden of being Skyloft's true hero.


-e. magill 11/22/2011










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Copyright 2011 e. magill. All rights reserved.