Tights and Capes: How Superheroes Changed The World

To admit to liking superhero comics is akin to confessing a hideous social disease. They are the core of the geek’s domain, loved by spotty, greasy man-boys who live in their parent’s basement and masturbate to pictures of Katee Sackhoff and Tricia Helfer (they’ve moved on from Sarah Michelle Gellar). These borderline autistic creatures spend all day on internet chatrooms or World of Warcrack, having no real-world social skills, and live for the day that they can dress up as their favourite superhero and cruise the halls of the local convention looking desperately for a woman who knows the difference between Guy Gardner and Kyle Rayner.

If this is true, why are superhero films so popular at the moment? And why have they been a regular feature of cinemas for over a decade? Since Brian Singer’s version of X-Men in 2000, superheroes have been coming out of the closet and dusting off their capes for the big screen. Of course, X-Men wasn’t the first superhero movie. It wasn’t the first good superhero movie. But it was the first, good successful superhero movie since Batman Returns eight years previously. Since Singer’s triumph, superheroes have made over $150 million per film almost every year. Surely geeks don’t have that much disposable income, do they?

Well, no. Of course not. The real reason runs quite deeply into the human psyche. People like superheroes. They always have. From the Norse epics of Beowulf to the spandex-clad super-teams of Joss Whedon’s up-coming Avengers, people can’t get enough of them.

"Who do you think they could get to play you, Nick?"
"Why, Mister Samuel L Jackson, of course. That's not even open to debate, Doctor Pym."

What is it about the superhero that we love? Is it simply the ‘hero’ part? Of course, that is part of it. We like protagonists in stories – that’s what they’re for. We follow their struggles and conflicts, hoping that they will pull through while secretly knowing that they almost certainly will. Superheroes tickle something else in our brains. They tackle problems that normal people just can’t deal with, so the stories can be much wider in scope – literally anything can happen. They are bigger, brighter, better than the rest of us. They climb so much higher, and have so much further to fall. They have powers or skills beyond that which is possible for us normal folk. That’s why they’re super.

Finding the earliest superhero isn’t an easy task. Where do we draw the line? Was Jesus a superhero? He certainly had superhuman powers, tried to help people and had a mysterious origin story.

Probably not...

If we take a superhero to be a work of modern fiction (somewhat arbitrarily), we could point to Spring-Heeled Jack, the folkloric figure that was immortalized in a series of ‘penny dreadfuls’ in the 1860’s. He was a diabolic bogeyman in his original form, jumping out on young ladies and traumatizing them in unspecified (but probably fairly obvious) ways, before escaping by leaping over impossibly tall obstacles. He later became more of a crime-fighter, relying on his disguise and his gadgets to catch or kill criminals. Interestingly, sightings of a figure matching the description of Spring-Heeled Jack are still occurring today, some 175 years after he was first reported. He almost certainly inspired later characters, such as Russell Thorndike’s Reverend Doctor Syn from 1915’s A Tale of the Romney Marsh. Syn was a 18th century Oxford scholar whose wife ran away with his best friend, so he took up piracy and smuggling in order to get revenge on the cuckolding cad. He donned the disguise of the Scarecrow in order to rally other smugglers to him and defeat the Revenue men. Syn was undoubtedly an anti-hero, standing up against the perceived criminality of taxation on imports to areas of Kent and Sussex. Essentially, he was the Han Solo of 1700’s England.

In 1919, another masked vigilante appeared on the scene. Don Diego de la Vega buckled his swash across the pages of America’s All-Story Weekly, penned by Johnston McCulley, and was seen as recently as 2005. He was more popularly known by the Spanish word for ‘fox’: Zorro! Zorro fought against the corruption of the Spanish-controlled state of California with his lightning-quick rapier and his trusty steed, Tornado. He maintained Zorro as a secret identity, posing as the foppish Don Diego to allay suspicion and donning the cape and mask to combat injustice and protect the poor. Zorro became a template for later masked vigilantes such as Batman and V.

The 1930’s witnessed an explosion of superheroes and became known as the Golden Age. Radio serials like The Green Hornet and The Shadow appeared, pulp fiction novels and newspaper serials introduced Mandrake the Magician, The Phantom, Doc Savage: Man of Bronze. But it was comic books that really decided the future of the genre, with a plethora of titles springing up, including Action Comics, Detective Comics, Wonder Comics, Timely Comics and Marvel Comics (among many other, less well-known and shorter lived titles). Many long-standing heroes were born in this period, notably Superman, Batman, Namor the Sub-Mariner, the Blue Beetle and the Sandman.

Superman was the archetype, first appearing in 1938’s Action Comics #1, created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Superman has become an icon of American values and culture, embodying “Truth, Justice and the American Way”, and his trademark outfit (Red and blue with underpants over his tights) created an enduring convention that influenced virtually every hero that came later. His origin story tells us that he is an immigrant, the supposed last survivor of the planet Krypton, sent to Earth by his father, Jor-El. His birth name is Kal-El, and his alter-ego, Clark Kent, is a bumbling and mild-mannered reporter for the Daily Planet newspaper, allowing him to keep an eye on breaking news of disasters and other situations that may need the hand of Superman. Superman is ridiculously over-powered, with flight, virtual invulnerability, heat vision, x-ray vision, super breath, super speed and super strength being the core of his powers, gifted him by the yellow sun of Earth. His main weakness is, of course, radioactive lumps of his home planet (Kryptonite), but he also suffers from the human side of his character and his desire to protect the people of his adopted world. He is highly moral, often attempting to persuade others to give up their villainous ways.

Superman’s main rival is the ‘mad scientist’ Lex Luthor. Luthor is bent on world domination but has no super powers. He is, however, incredibly intelligent and a technological genius. He, like his nemesis, has evolved over time, but he is still essentially the same evil and obsessed science geek. The conflict between him and Superman, based on their childhood friendship, is one of Science Vs Superpowers (or could be interpreted as Knowledge Vs Magic). He is easily the most well-known of Superman’s foes and definitely the most recognisable, with his bald head and evil grin.

The Boy Scout

Less than a year after Superman’s debut, Detective Comics #27 introduced a different kind of hero, almost the polar opposite of Superman. Superman drew his power from the sun, but Bob Kane’s hero was far more comfortable in the darkness. The Batman wore black and grey, covered his face and had no super powers, relying on his fearsome intellect and honed physical skills (as well as a range of technological wizardry). He modeled his costume on the bat theme to strike fear into criminals, using psychological warfare to gain the upper hand, and was motivated by revenge for the murder of his parents when he was a small boy. Bruce Wayne, his alter-ego, is a slightly foppish billionaire playboy, similar to Zorro’s de la Vega, but he uses his vast wealth to fund his night-time excursions into the criminal underworld of Gotham City. Batman is deeply flawed in a way that Superman is not, and many commentators (and many of the writers) have explored this aspect of the character. For the first couple of years of the comic, Batman would happily use guns and kill criminals, but this soon changed and Batman became more moralistic.

Batman was the first hero to have a ‘Rogues Gallery’ of iconic, repeating villains. These were, like the Batman himself, larger than life and representative of some intense trauma. The most famous is, of course, the Clown Prince of Crime, the Joker, representing the ‘Trickster’ archetype of Jungian psychology. He is an unrepentant psychopath, gleefully leaving death and chaos in his wake and constantly taunting Batman for being as psychologically damaged as any inmate of Arkham Asylum (Gotham City’s fictional madhouse). Over the years since his introduction, the Joker has killed the second Robin (Jason Todd), paralysed Barbara Gordon (Batgirl and the daughter of Jim Gordon – went on to become Oracle), and murdered several hundred (if not more) residents of Gotham. He has corrupted several of his doctors in Arkham, including his psychiatrist Harleen Quinzel, who became his girlfriend/sidekick Harley Quinn. His relationship with Batman is complicated. On the one hand, he is the Batman’s archenemy, while on the other hand, the pair have more in common with each other than they do with those with whom they side. This idea has been explored by several writers, notably Grant Morrison in Batman: Arkham Asylum.

Batman represents the yin to Superman’s yang, embodying the darkness that is necessary to balance out the light.

Tights are for girls?
Really?

The titles which would eventually amalgamate into DC Comics (Detective Comics, Action Comics, All-Star comics and a host of others) kept churning out characters in the 1940’s, with only a few that would eventually become Marvel Comics characters appearing. DC characters born in this decade include Flash, Green Lantern, Green Arrow, Aquaman, Joker, Catwoman, The Atom, Black Canary, Robin the Boy Wonder and Wonder Woman.

Marvel managed Captain America and…um…

Perhaps the most interesting of DC’s output in the 40’s was Wonder Woman. Created by William Moulton Marston, inventor of the polygraph lie detector, Wonder Woman was intended to be a feminist icon, a reaction to the male-dominated superhero world. Although technically not the first female superhero (Sheena, Queen of the Jungle had debuted four years previously), she was the most iconic, able to hold her own in the male hero world. Her role was to “triumph not with fists or firepower, but with love”, according to Marston. Her powers of super strength, speed, agility, stamina and flight were augmented by her use of ‘magical’ devices including her Lasso of Truth (which forced those bound by it to tell the truth) and her indestructible bracelets which she used to deflect bullets. She is an unmatched military tactician, expert martial artist and god-like wisdom and compassion, although she is quite prepared to use lethal force if she deems it necessary, setting her apart from Superman and Batman.

Marston himself was a feminist, often writing about what he believed to be the inequalities of modern gender politics. He clearly loved women, as he lived in a polyamorous relationship with his wife, Elizabeth (also a psychologist and credited with being a co-creator of Wonder Woman), and Olive Byrne. These two women formed the basis of the character. Marston claimed that they represented the type of women that should rule the world, having temperaments far better suited to the role than men. He did not want to create a hero that was simply a masculinised woman, nor a stereotypical comic-book woman, suitable only for romantic or support roles (although Wonder Woman’s first job in the Justice Society of America was as their secretary).

Wonder Woman: Feminist Icon

The 1950’s introduced new versions of familiar heroes, with Hal Jordan taking over as Green Lantern and Barry Allen donning the Flash costume, as well as the introduction of Supergirl, Kal-El’s cousin Kara Zor-El, but it was the 1960’s that saw a true blossoming of the superhero, with DC’s rival, Marvel Comics, really coming into its own. Stan Lee helped created dozens of new heroes in the 60’s, including (but by no means limited to) Spider-Man, The Incredible Hulk, The Fantastic Four, Thor, Iron Man, Daredevil, The Silver Surfer and the X-Men. He worked with a range of collaborators, most famously Steve Ditko (who designed Spider-Man) and Jack Kirby (responsible for the looks of The Fantastic Four, Iron Man, Hulk and a raft of others), but it was Stan’s creative mind that formed the basis for the heroes. Marvel took the idea of teams of heroes from DC’s Justice Society and ran with it, having a huge number of their characters join teams or partner with other heroes for an issue or two. Marvel’s stories also explored sociological issues in a way that DC didn’t at the time, dealing with racism, bullying, religion, high school, Communism and more. Marvel’s heroes weren’t all muscular and good-looking. The Fantastic Four’s Thing looked like a monster, as did the X-Men’s Beast and Nightcrawler, highlighting prejudice based on appearances. They also focused on ‘real world’ problems faced by their characters, making them easier to relate to than DC’s god-like creations.

Marvel’s rise has continued in the movie world. DC’s Superman had some success with Christopher Reeve in the late 70’s and early 80’s, but the attempted reboot, Superman Returns (2006) was a flop, largely due to the weak plot and gaping plot holes (he almost died from being stabbed with a splinter of kryptonite, but is then able to lift a mountain of the stuff and hurl it into space? Really?), but Man of Steel, written by David S Goyer and Christopher Nolan (the team responsible for DC’s successful Batman franchise, which has its final installment being released later this year), is due out in 2013 so that may change. Marvel, on the other hand, has just produced the third biggest opening day box office in UK cinema history (making £2.5 million, about £1 million behind Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix) with its new Joss Whedon-helmed ensemble movie Avengers Assemble. This follows a four year build up in the shape of two Iron Man movies, an Incredible Hulk movie, a Thor movie and a Captain America movie. In that four year period, but unrelated to the Avengers, Marvel have also released Punisher: War Zone, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, X-Men First Class, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance and two animated Hulk features. They also have the Spider-Man reboot due out later this year and, of course, fifteen or so earlier movies based on their characters. DC have a handful of films based on their Vertigo label, including Constantine, A History of Violence and V for Vendetta, none of which made big box office, and their successful Christopher Nolan/Christian Bale Batman franchise, which did. They also produced the Ryan Reynolds Green Lantern which barely broke even, Watchmen which didn’t do much better, and Jonah Hex, which bombed.

In the ratings war, Marvel are winning. But this has always been Marvel’s tactic: flood the market with hundreds of different titles, designed to appeal to as wide an audience as possible, while DC have usually focused on a smaller groups of titles and explored them in more depth. Except Superman, who is still pretty shallow. DC are certainly more ‘adult’ (whatever that means) than Marvel and have been more comfortable publishing ‘darker’ stories than Marvel. This is a result of the Comics Code Authority and their system of authorising works that submitted to their code of conduct. Both DC and Marvel released titles that were not submitted, DC under its Vertigo banner and Marvel’s Epic Comics, but DC has arguably produced the most famous titles. Vertigo printed titles from Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, Alan Moore, Garth Ennis, Jamie Delano, Mark Millar, Mike Carey and Warren Ellis, to name but a few. Many of these writers have been recognised for their excellent stories, especially Gaiman, Moore and Morrison.

Alan Moore: the most famous beard in comics

So who will win out in the end? Does there have to be a winner? I certainly hope not. With any luck, both of these companies, as well as the many small publishers who put out comic titles, will last for many years to come, thrilling and entertaining us with their spandex-clad muscle-men and partially clad pneumatic women. They are the epic poetry of our generation, our version of gods and monsters. They belong to each and every one of us and we have a responsibility to add to the canon and support these Cassandras for as long as we possibly can. The minds that gave us superheroes have shaped the world, with lie detectors, web-casting restraint guns, bullet-resistant materials and more.

Maybe one day, I’ll own my very own Batmobile…

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A Rag-Tag Fugitive Fleet: Addendum

Further to my reflections on American TV shows over the last few days, someone pointed out that there is not much of a commentary included. I added a few thoughts to the end of the second post, but clearly that was not enough. So I thought I’d try to expand on that.

What effect did these shows have on me as an individual, and my generation?

This is going to be problematic. I can certainly try to explore the effect that they had on me, but beyond that it will have to be conjecture at best.

Firstly then, what is the nature of a hero? Traditionally, a hero was semi-divine, featuring in the mythology of ancient Greece. They were superhuman in some way, admired for their courage or other noble qualities, and often engaged in a feat of self-sacrifice. This definition has been modernised somewhat, taking into account literary heroes, which are simply (and slightly erroneously) seen as the main protagonist of a work of fiction, someone who is generally associated with positive qualities. Often a modern hero will be an everyman, an ordinary person in an extraordinary situation who rises to the challenge facing them. In the real world, of course, a hero is just someone who is respected for some kind of achievement, often showing bravery by risking their own life, but we aren’t interested in real life here!

John McClane: Not a real-life hero

Heroes are central to our emotional landscapes, meaning that we need heroes (either real or imaginary) in order to give us something to aspire to. They have the touch of perfection, but almost inevitably with enough of a flaw to be attainable by mere mortals. At least, that’s how it seems. Most of us are actually far too real, too normal, too boring, to ever achieve heroic status, however hard we may try. Besides, most of us look ridiculous in spandex. But we have invented heros ever since we started thinking, almost. The ancient Greeks had heroes, the Egyptians, the Scandinavians, the Celts. We have always needed someone with the physical and mental strength to stand up for the little people, to face down the tyrant, to win the day.

An action show, or movie, needs a hero (or possibly an antihero, but more of them in a bit), as well as a foil for them, a villain of some sort. This could be, in the case of some of the TV shows discussed before, a villain of the week, a one-off bad guy who is defeated before the hero moves on. Or it could be a recurring bad guy, or succession of essentially identical bad guys working for one uber-villain. Battlestar Galactica is a perfect example of the latter, with the Cylons repeatedly throwing themselves at the fleet, following the orders of the Imperious Leader, while an example of the former would be Knight Rider, where Michael Knight would drive around looking for desperate people that he could help. The A-Team, of course, would fall somewhere between the two, as they would often be fighting a villain of the week while simultaneously trying to avoid capture by the military police led by Colonel Decker. Heroes need someone to fight who represents the bad in the world. This could be repressive authority, the ‘tyranny of evil men’, corporate greed. It needs to be something that affects ordinary people, people who, for whatever reason, are powerless against it.

This man is Satan's representative on Earth.
Possibly.

80s heroes embraced the anti-authority angle with gusto. The A-Team, The Dukes of Hazzard and Airwolf all feature heroes who work against the accepted face of government in some way, although all are sympathetic characters. Hannibal and co. are wrongly convicted of a crime, the Duke boys are charming rogues guilty of nothing more than a little illicit booze smuggling and Stringfellow Hawke was being blackmailed to work for a distinctly dubious and secretive arm of government. The audience is firmly on the side of the rebel, especially in America, where the rebel is part of their national history. The American nation was born out of rebellion (specifically rebellion against the British – just watch any Mel Gibson film of the last fifteen years), so it is fitting that their heroes should now take on that role. Quite often, various branches of Federal government are used as the villain, be it the CIA, the FBI, local law enforcement or whatever. This shows us that although Americans are fiercely proud of their rebellious beginnings, they do not necessarily trust the systems put in place for the protection of their nation. This was especially odd in the 80s, when America was deep in the Cold War, following a strong anti-communist policy. The idea of heroes going around helping people who were unable to help themselves was a deeply communistic one, totally at odds with the capitalist American dream. And yet these heroes flourished.

Yee-Haw, as I believe the phrase is.

The rebel is iconic, it runs through folklore and history. American history in particular is full of these men – and they are almost exclusively men: Patrick Henry; George Washington; Sam Houston. This carries through into television and film: Han Solo; Jim Stark; Tyler Durden. The 80s were more open to the idea of the rebel in television than earlier decades, partly because of the oppressive political climate, partly because of the decreasing cost of producing television shows combined with larger budgets, which made it easier to churn out action and science-fiction shows with reasonable (if not excellent) production values. Glen Larson and Stephen Cannell, among others, were used to capitalize on this situation with their huge outpouring of shows. But these shows were made by men, starred men and dealt with male relationships. The female roles were generally little more than eye candy, without any depth or importance to the plot, mostly there just to be kissed by the heroes and occasionally get kidnapped. The A-Team in particular was criticised for being sexist, and indeed some of the stars were openly hostile to the idea of including regular female cast members. It’s true that very few action shows from that period had female leads: in the late 70s, Wonder Woman, as portrayed by Lynda Carter, had pranced across the small screen in her satin tights, Lindsay Wagner was playing The Bionic Woman at around the same time, and the classic Charlie’s Angels kept karate kicking for a year or two longer. But as the 80s dawned, these shows disappeared, leaving women to fill the fluff roles, supporting the more traditionally ‘heroic’ men.

Good morning, Angels!

The depiction of violence is another area where these shows stand out. Famously, The A-Team never killed anyone, despite spraying bullets and explosives around like champagne on the winner’s podium. Michael Knight rarely (if ever) fired a gun, but did manage to run half a dozen cars off the road in every 45 minute episode (this may be an exaggeration). Airwolf launched missiles and rockets with wild abandon, Blue Thunder‘s cannon almost never stopped firing and even the Duke boys forced Hazzard County to spend the GDP of a medium-sized South American country on replacement police cars. And yet no-one ever died. No blood was ever spilt. The reason for this was obvious, of course: prime time television couldn’t allow it. The exceptions to this rule were Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, as they were only shooting aliens and robots, which was somehow more acceptable to the censor’s sensibilities. This violence, harmless as it may appear to a generation dulled by Quentin Tarantino and the Coen brothers, was problematic at the time. Networks worried that even this level of ‘cartoon’ violence would be disliked by parents, although relatively few complaints were received. It has been suggested that the over-the-top violence was the cause of the demise of these shows, as viewers eventually preferred less ‘masculine’ shows, turning instead to more family themed programming.

The 80s action style lived on for a few more years in the cinema, evolving eventually into the antihero movies of Leon and The Boondock Saints, characters who will do whatever it takes to do the right thing, even if that means shooting a whole bunch of people in the face. No A-Team style cartoon violence there, although the motives (help people who cannot help themselves) remain the same. The targets changed too, becoming more focused on organised crime rather than corrupt government or local criminals. Today, of course, we have a range of villains to shoot at. Our post-modern take on the action movie means that we can’t throw a brick into a crowd without hitting someone that we can call a villain: lawyers, capitalists, terrorists, gangers, activists, bent coppers, the list is virtually endless. But the reasons, and the rebellious nature of our heroes, remains. How many cop shows or movies haven’t featured a cop arguing with his or her superiors about the best way to deal with a criminal? How many shootouts don’t involve hundreds of bullets missing their targets? How many car chases don’t involve one of the chasing cars crashing into civilian traffic at an intersection? These shows have helped to shape the collective unconsciousness. We now expect to see these conventions acted out, even if we dismiss them as clichéd, and feel somehow cheated when they are ignored.

Chicks with guns: Sexy. And a little worrying.

The sexism angle is still with us. Strong female characters are more accepted, but still not common, and the argument remains that most of them are simply masculinised, rather than being strong in their own right. Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2: Judgement Day has lost the femininity and innocence of the first film and bulked up, becoming muscular, dressing in baggy, form-hiding combat trousers, and failing to be the mother-figure that young John Connor needs. Milla Jovovich in the Resident Evil series is a combat expert with some superhuman abilities, turning her into nothing more than a robotic killing machine. Some films are more effective, namely Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and House of Flying Daggers, which attempt to show women operating in a masculine society without losing their femininity. Crouching Tiger… presents the character of Yu Shu Lien as submissive to the masculine society but still able to operate as a warrior, maintaining both her masculine role and her feminine one.

But did the 80s shows change us? Did they make us see the world in a certain way? Judging by the recent run of 80s series being rebooted or made into Hollywood movies, I’d venture to suggest that they have made a lasting impression on my generation: The A-Team, The Dukes of Hazzard, Miami Vice, Charlie’s Angels, G.I. Joe, Battlestar Galactica. The rebel-as-hero archetype is still with us, as is the antihero, although both predate the 80s by hundreds of years, it was that decade that saw them truly come into their own. Heroes are not infallible, and we don’t want them to be. Superman is the least interesting of the mainstream superheroes, largely because he is too close to perfection. There is no way for us to relate to him. In the recent reboot of that franchise, the film-makers had to give him both a son (to give his enemies a new way to hurt him) and a literal mountain of Kryptonite! Batman, on the other hand, is really quite damaged and flawed. He is much darker and the audience likes him for it, recognising some of their own flaws behind that mask.

The 80s heroes were more innocent in many ways, hovering on the fringes of criminality without ever venturing in too deep. That would have been too disturbing for the young audience. Somewhere along the line, we lost that innocence. As a result, TV heroes have lost a lot of their power to thrill and excite us.

I think that’s a bad thing. What do you think?

An Arrow in the Knee

'Mind if I smoke?'

On the 11th November 2011, Bethesda Softworks released the fifth in their fantasy role-playing series The Elder Scrolls. The game is set in the icy northern province of Skyrim and, like its predecessors, is an open world game, allowing the player to wander the extensive map at will, ignoring or engaging with the various quest lines as they see fit.

Skyrim builds on the world created for the earlier games with technological advances in NPC interactions, character animation and graphical improvements. It offers the choice of first or third person gameplay, although the third person view is not as easy to control as most third person games, and the character animation is a little simplistic compared to NPCs and enemies. The game also introduces dragons into the series as random enemies, led by the Dragon Lord Alduin, the focus of the main quest line.

Bethesda has been criticised for releasing the game before it had been tested properly, as many bugs have come to light since release, including the game becoming painfully slow as one’s save file becomes larger and larger, dragons flying backwards and so on. The company has promised that these issues will be addressed through patches.

The focus on character development has been simplified from the earlier games, with levelling up awarding an increase in either Magicka, Health or Stamina, as well as one perk to purchase from any of the skills. These perks allow different bonuses to the skill, such as additional damage and so on. Using the skills in-game increases their level and once you have increased enough skills, you are granted the next level. The perks are dependent on the level of the controlling skill, so you cannot, for example, craft dragon scale armour until you have reached level 100 in the Smithing skill and have purchased the preceding perks.

So what is it like to play?

Well, the extensive world map allows hours of aimless wandering with random creature encounters and bandit attacks to keep things interesting. The game engine allows you to collect ingredients for alchemical potion making, as well as catching fish and mining for various ores with which you can smelt materials and forge armour and weapons. Which is nice. It would be vastly improved if you could design the look of the weapons and armour yourself, of course, rather than be stuck with the generic ones. Even a simple collection of modular parts that you could choose from to assemble weapons, and a selection of armour styles that changed in finish depending on material perhaps. Even being able to choose the colour of your armour and weapons would add a little more of a personalised feel.

The main storylines are interesting and challenging enough to keep you playing through, although many of the side missions become boring after a while as they tend to follow very similar paths: find this person and kill them, steal this item, clear this dungeon… If you are a completist, you may find yourself growing frustrated with the lack of diversity in the side quests, but there is still a sense of satisfaction in becoming the head of the Companions, or a master assassin.

The main quests involve the Stormcloak rebellion and the return of the dragons to Skyrim. You can choose to side with the native Stormcloaks or take up with the controlling Empire. Your choices directly affect the outcome of the game and the way that people act and react to you. You can become a wanted criminal across the land, or a welcome hero in this time of need. It’s up to you.

Is it worth purchasing?

Well, yes. Clearly. It’s huge and engrossing, with a suitably epic feel, helped in part by the soaring Jeremy Soule soundtrack and sweeping vistas.

Let it snow...

As you can see, it is graphically impressive, with a good sense of distance and some realism. The NPCs you meet are a reasonably physically diverse bunch (although all the guards look eerily similar) but the limited vocal utterances of the non-essential NPCs can get really old really quick! The voice acting of the main cast is generally very good, with a few well-known actors, including Christopher Plummer, Max Von Sydow, Joan Allen and (one of my first childhood crushes) Lynda Carter (only mentioned here for an excuse to include this picture…)

Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman. I would…

 Anyway, the game is excellent. Well worth the massive investment of time it requires to play to completion. Of course, if you don’t like RPGs, you will want to avoid it like the cliché, as it is pretty much the finest RPG on the market. It features a solid, branching storyline, excellent graphics, competent writing and immersive gameplay.

What more do you want?
Oh, Ok then. At the recent DICE 2012 convention in Los Angeles, Bethesda’s creative lead, Todd Howard, revealed a few of the ideas that his team have been exploring for possible future DLC. He was careful to point out that these were all just ideas, and he was in no way saying that they would become DLC, just that they were looking at various options. Some of the ideas he did mention were dragon and other epic mounts, the use of the XBox’s Kinect system for Dragon Shouts, additional weapons such as spears, the ability to adopt children and the ability to hire/use minions.
Dragon mounts? Hell yeah! Bring it on!