You Can Go Home Again: Thoughts on Skyrim

In Video Games on November 14, 2011 at 10:45 pm

I wasn’t originally going to buy Skyrim. At least, not right away; with no pre-order bonuses to trap myself with, and with the dull pain of not just Oblivion, but a year’s worth of buggy letdowns to contend with, not to mention a myriad of other games to play, I had no immediate plans on investing in Skyrim. Wait for the patches and mods, I’d told myself. A few quick “Let’s Play!” videos on youtube later and my brother’s quizzical remark of, “By what insanity am I playing and loving a TES game you don’t even own?” and I’d dropped the sixty bucks on steam to load it up.

(My brother never liked The Elder Scrolls, burning out on their vast open worlds in a matter of hours; yet he was more than twenty hours into Skyrim when he made the recommendation).

And let me just say: Skyrim is the most organic, immersive RPG I’ve played to date, and worth the leap of faith.

By now, you should know that this games begins as all other Elder Scrolls games do, with you in chains and three steps from Destiny kicking in to get you out of jail. Unlike previous games, character creation is divorced from menus or seemingly arcane choices such as birthsign, primary attributes and major and minor skills. Instead, you customize your character’s appearance (with all of the options very easily settling into a fantastic looking character) and set about your quest.

You don’t choose skills or attributes. You use any skill you want, and any time a skill is raised, it contributes to levelling up, during which you can increase your health, magicka or stamina pools, and you can select a perk which further enhances and customizes your abilities. Very broadly do you choose a specialization in the form of a trio of stones representing the signs of the mage, thief and warrior, with each selection earning a remark by your companion at that point. This specialization boosts your rate of progression with skills under that banner, but may also be changed should you choose to revisit that shrine later on.

In other TES games, the myriad of choices locked you firmly into your role, with a good deal of theorycraft ruining your day later on. Mage characters needed to choose a race and birthsign that boosted magicka, as you lacked other means to do so later on; health was determined by your endurance score at character creation and at each level up, making it an artificially high priority over other more “obvious” choices like intelligence for spellcasters.

Now, you proceed through character creation the same way you choose your class and play the rest of the game: by swinging the weapons you want to swing, casting the spells you want to cast, and making the items you want to make.

Progressing through these skills is also much more organic. Rather than incrementing them regardless of context, combat skills can only be raised in combat. No longer do you walk down the boulevard casting a one damage destruction spell on yourself to meagerly become a better mage; instead, more generous advancements are given, but only in combat. Persistent spells such as summons or armor spells are incremented at consistent intervals throughout combat.

All of this creates an experience where I’m not worried about levelling up or my skill selection. I use what I want when I need to, and the game takes care of the rest.

For the interface and UI, I couldn’t be happier. This was actually one of my biggest fears for the PC version, as the radial menus and “quick” select lists looked like something tailored for gamepads, but it adapts to mouse and keyboard very well and its minimalist approach eases the transition from game to menu and back again. Of particular note is the quick menu, populated by items you “favorite” in the main menu and is your primary mode of switching spells and weapons. Even with an ever-growing list in that menu, I’m still in and out in seconds, diminishing how much the menu might draw me out of the action.

In terms of the actual game itself, it’s as though the designers took the top mods from Oblivion and adjusted their vision accordingly. Doors and containers go through an “open” animation when activated (though doors are still triggers for loading screens), and all of the crafting interfaces are accompanied by background animations of your character mulling about forges, alchemy tables and workbenches. You can even cook, though it’s tied to no skill and you don’t actually seem to get “hungry” in-game. Items have no durability, but the smithing skill is raised by “enhancing” existing weapons and armor or crafting new sets. Naturally, ingredients for these are out in the world, where you’ll see a bevy of wildlife interacting with itself (foxes hunting rabbits and so forth). Need leather? Go find relieve some critters of their hides.

Dungeons are likewise very organic and natural seeming. The first one you naturally come across in the story is thrilling, with each section seeming like a real place with roots everywhere underground and furnishings and decorations decayed from age and use. Emaciated zombies and skeletons crawl out of the crypts where they’d been laid to rest and bandits discuss how best to split the loot, rather than using the same dialog from townsfolk, and the number and variety of voice actors really sells this as a real place with real people. There are even traps and puzzles, the former of which you can use to your advantage if you care to.

With all of these elements, I find myself approaching combat carefully, with an eye towards trying new and better tactics and more creatively using all of the weapons and spells at my disposal. I can’t think of the last time an RPG made me do that, to react and carefully consider my actions rather than running forward in a desperate quest for more XP.

When I talk about TES games, I will often tell people that Morrowind felt like home to me. Beneath its starry skies and strange moons was an alien landscape filled with unique and wonderful things to explore, a real world with interesting people and things to do. Oblivion never really matched this, its world seeming to be a theme park crafted in medieval style and lacked a soul for its generic qualities. Skyrim grows on me the more I play and the hours I’m forced to spend away from it doing trivial tasks like eating, working or sleeping seem unfair and cruel to me.

Just as my current playtime barely dents what’s on offer in this game, so too does this review only scratch the surface of what’s new, better and great about Skyrim. Go, play it, and be merry, and if I really can muster the willpower, I’ll probably write more here soon.

  1. Well, I blame you for getting me into Morrowind. :-p And I do agree that the surreal, alien landscapes were part of the game’s biggest draw. Climbing the next peak was exciting, in part, because you really didn’t know what you were going to see next.

    I didn’t play Oblivion at all. I have the Collector’s Edition and the Game of the Year Edition on my shelf, but never got around to popping either of them in. I would agree that what I saw looks far more straight-fantasy by comparison, and I do feel that Skyrim plays it straight (so far) as well, but it looks really damned pretty while it does so.

    I don’t think I’ve ever played a game where I could stop just about anywhere, turn the camera, and have a panoramic view that I’d love to make into my wallpaper. The outdoor environments are exciting to go through, and the indoor ones equally so, perhaps the best I’ve seen in Bethesda’s stable.

    I’ll admit that I wasn’t exactly excited about the game before. I don’t know if I am now, as I’m not yearning to play the game 24/7, but I’m enjoying it whenever I do. I haven’t bothered following the story yet, though I’m starting to check out one of the early missions just to see what lay ahead. I mostly just wandered around for a while. I came through a break in the trees and saw this massive stone fortress on a mountain top. I made my way up and went inside, exploring the elaborate dungeon maze. I spent about an hour in there, searching for a Golden Claw, finding it, and getting a Word of Power. I don’t even know what it does yet, but I got it.

    In many ways, this feels like consummate Bethesda work. The gameplay isn’t compelling, but it’s more than competent. I’m not expecting a rich battle system, but what they’re giving me works fine. It doesn’t reinvent the genre, but it expertly refines it. It gives me a big environment to explore and eke out the secrets from, the same sort of thing that got me into video games with the Legend of Zelda back in the NES days.

    The biggest irony in my playthrough so far is that Bethesda put all this work into allowing the player to create a better looking human being, and I opt to be a cat person. Something was said about me having better low-light vision, but I haven’t really seen it so far.

    This does segue into my few complaints about the game: the foremost being that I played as a cat-person to enjoy the thrills of unarmed combat. It’s a touted feature for their race, yet there’s no unarmed combat skill. The closest I can get is by augmenting my unarmed strikes with heavy gauntlets (which I was luckily using anyways), but I have to improve my armor skill before I can buy that ability. I also recall some athletics abilities in Morrowind which helped me survive falls and jump higher, but I see none of that here; the skills I want most are ones that help me move through the world, and they seem to be either absent or buried in favor of a complex yet consumate skill tree.

    The next complaint I have is more incidental. I loved Fallout: New Vegas’ Hardcore mode, having to keep myself hydrated and fed and rested. It was a small touch of realism that I liked and it drew me into the game much more thoroughly. Finding food in this game seems redundant, since I don’t need to worry about feeding myself, and the effect of anything I’ve seen thus far is so trivial that I don’t see the point of having it. I’ll occasionally snatch things up and chow down, but I’d love it if the option to NEED sustenance was included in future titles (and yes, I know New Vegas was Obsidian, but that doesn’t mean Bethesda can’t learn something back from the people they’re contracting).

    Aside from that, I like the horses but I’m concerned the exploration isn’t really suited for them. When you end up getting attacked, getting down is slow and you can’t do anything atop the horse. Moreover, the horse becomes an easy target for your assailants. It’s a nice feature, but it doesn’t feel fully realized for the kind of game Skyrim is, and I’m wondering if any improvements had been placed over the horses in Oblivion.

    The last issue I have is a failure of immersion. While running around somewhere on the south-west map, I followed a road and was literally stopped in my tracks by an invisible wall. The message telling me I can’t go that way just popped up above me.

    This is just bad. Shamefully bad. Make a landslide, park a large, sleeping thing in the way, do something. I get that the area is almost certainly being reserved for DLC, but it seems like absolutely no effort was placed in maintaining the fidelity of the setting.

    I don’t think I’d call Skyrim absolutely remarkable, but it is remarkably well made nonetheless.

  2. Let me just start off by saying that my first Morrowind game was Oblivion, and thus I probably can’t be considered a true Morrowind vet/fan by any means, but I found your description of Oblivion quite apt in that I got bored of it very quickly and the leveling system was far too confusing (not to mention that Oblivion’s enemies level as you go, thereby taking away any sense of progress or empowerment).

    That said, I found Skyrim a lot more enjoyable than the previous game, and being given the leveling system I feel like gamers have finally gotten one step closer to the “you can do ANYTHING!” mantra, and the critical hit animations are super satisfying when they pop (although a bit jarring at first).

    I was a bit puzzled to find that you found the mouse and keyboard controls satisfactory (I myself opted for the Xbox 360 pad for the rumble feedback). Aiming issues aside, didn’t you feel that the game clearly wasn’t geared towards a PC gamer setup, despite it being “good enough”?

    Like Lucas said, I do lament the lack of a “hunger” feature, because downing tons of raw potatoes for a pitiful amount of health when fighting a gang of bandits seems to be unintentionally comical and essentially pulls me out of an otherwise vast and immersive world.

    I also don’t understand what the point of horses are. Yes, it’s a cool feature, and it’s pretty funny and cute that the horse is just as, if not more, bloodthirsty than I am, but as budding alchemist who is scrounging all the plants he can find on the road, not being able to pick up the various fruits of the land while on horseback makes the horse more of a pointless accessory more than anything. I’m curious as to whether this is just something I’m misunderstanding about the gameplay mechanics, or whether there’s a “make your horse follow you” command that I overlooked.

    This may have all sounded like nitpicking, and really, the game is worthy of its praise. It’s just too bad that it’s missing that certain little something to make it truly noteworthy.

  3. @Poe, it was one of those lovely experiences seeing you get so into the game and those unending, “No shit, so there I was” conversations conveying our different experiences. Good times.

    Oblivion, you’re not missing much. There is some good writing here and there (I particularly liked the Mage’s guild and Dark Brotherhood), but it’s a chore to play through. The game and its systems just feel so jarringly artificial, especially at this point, that I can’t even recommend “giving it a shot.” If you’re so into the lore or those quest lines, look it up on UESP or something.

    I’m told that, heavily modded, Oblivion approaches something close to Morrowind’s quality (unmodded). Things like de-levelling encounters, “opening” the cities, adding vast amounts of wildlife, but they don’t change the fact that each inch of a given area looks like the rest, seen one cave, seen them all.

    I think what helps Skyrim steer just clear enough of the typical european fantasy boredom is in its icey, snow-swept vistas and vaguely nordic landscapes. Buildings look lived in and their insides offer seemingly real respite from the cold. The whipping winds of Winterhold don’t have any gameplay effects but I don’t like being out in them any longer than I have to.

    Each NPC seems to have something interesting and unique to say — to me, and to other NPCs. While there are some bad AI reactions (“Maybe I’m the Dragonborne” a guard says after he sees me kill a dragon and suck its soul down) most of it inspires me to speak with everyone I can. The result is that I pick up a dozen or more quests whenever I enter a new area, with some of them being compelling (find my old axe, coupled with a unique backstory as to why it’s there) and less so (find X number of Y reagents), to the mundane (pick up my sword from the blacksmith, tell that idiot to stop smashing his blade against the wall).

    I’ve been told the Khajit (and Argonians) have been completely redesigned to be more beastlike, so it’s not to their chagrin that you’ve chosen one of them. Actually, all the races seem more unique than they were in Oblivion, with Dark Elves actually looking more like their Morrowind counterparts instead of their chipper Oblivion selves.

    They did gut the skills even more than Oblivion (and Morrowind before it; humble yourself by seeing Daggerfall’s list of skills). No unarmed skill is odd for a game that features “harmless” brawls. Among others. No cooking skill, no hunger, which I feel is a huge oversight.

    @Reiji, my goals for a “well optimized” PC UI are different from most people. I like using the keyboard, but this is dependent upon the menus being navigatable using WASD so I can leave my hands at their “home” positions on the WASD and mouse. I also want a very responsive mousesheel scroll to quickly go up and down through lists. Skyrim does both of these and even lets me scroll through the active menu if my mouse is pointed elsewhere.

    Other people seem to have an expectation of more reliance on the mouse for menus, but …I like the keyboard. When doing certain things, like buying and selling items, I hated having to click all over the place instead of just hitting “enter” or “Y” for yes. I can now rapidly clear my inventory (via vendor or container) by mashing a few keys. It’s nice.

    More still do people feel the Skyrim UI wastes tons of screen “real estate.” I don’t mind the minimal UI and the fact that I can still see most of what I was looking at before pulling up the menu. It’s a bit odd having to position the 3rd person camera to see what I’m equipping looks like, but that’s minor.

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