Impressions: Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim was released on 11/11/11, which, coincidentally, just happened to be my birthday. I’m fairly certain there’s no other way I could have took the lining up of those two events other than “It’s okay to waste huge swathes of your birthday weekend on Skyrim,” so I did. I’ve been playing the game on both my PC and my friend’s Xbox 360.

The Elder Scrolls series is a long-running RPG franchise, known for its first-person view and extremely open-ended gameplay. You’re literally thrust into a gigantic world with little more than a basic gameplay tutorial and a map marker for your first quest. However, the vital, world-saving quest is… well I hesitate to say optional, but in my opinion, if you do the main quest instead of exploring and doing tiny faction-quests for the next several-hundred hours, you’re playing the game wrong. Again, just my opinion; I’m pretty sure there’s not actually a “right” way to play an open-world game. If there was, it wouldn’t be that open of a world, would it?

As my birthday weekend/Guiltless Skyrim weekend comes to a close, I feel I should finally post my random thoughts. Over the next couple weeks, I’ll doubtless play more and coalesce these bullet-points into an actual critique, but for now, more Skyrim calls.

Disclaimer: I’ve gotten called out recently for “spoiling” miscellaneous dungeons. In my opinion, a spoiler is more of a plot thing. I’ll probably only outright label as a spoiler things about plotlines (Main Quest, faction quests, etc.), but if you’re in the camp for whom “exploring is the main storyline”, then I guess there will be unlabeled spoilers ahead. It’s just a conflict of Points of View on this style of game.

Graphics:

  • Interesting that human hair is rock solid, but the mane and tail of the horse in that opening cutscene is animated.
  • The scenery is beautiful. I had to turn the settings way down (I’ve heard there’s a bug with the PC version having the CPU render the shadows as an artifact from the console versions which don’t have as much GPU power), but even with objects fading out earlier than I’d like and some really obviously tiling terrain textures, the world looks great. The terrain is well designed so that I have yet to run into a spot where  can’t see something on the horizon that I really want to run to, with virtual miles of distractions between me and there.

Aesthetics:

  • Since when do the Imperials dress like members of the Roman Legion? I’m all for stabbing people with a gladius, but I don’t remember them dressing like anything less than badass medieval knights in Oblivion. Were they ancient Romans in the previous three Elder Scrolls that I didn’t play?
  • Interesting choice on the map. The whole zoomed out terrain, complete with gently wafting clouds is pretty cool, but I was kinda expecting something simple, Tolkeinesque like the one we got in Oblivion.
  • The style of the map also helps, somewhat, with trying to find mountain passes.

Gameplay:

  • Character creation and other menus don’t feel like they were built with a Mouse and Keyboard in mind. Real finicky with mouse, but responds well enough to arrow keys or WASD.
  • I don’t understand how, if they simply ported the UI from the console version (which certain elements really seem like) we could still end up with a lot of situations where you have to manually click Yes or No. I was smelting ore earlier this evening, and for about 15 chunks of ore, I had to click “Yes” with a very finicky mouse-driven interface when there’s plenty of precedent for [Enter] for “Yes” and [Tab] for “No”.
  • Recovering arrows is weird. Apparently I can only get them from corpses of enemies I’ve shot, and then only maybe (Perks increase you chance of getting back more of your arrows), and not all of them. I’ve lost track of the number of corpses that still have my arrows sticking out of them because I wasn’t allowed to retrieve my arrows.
  • I don’t even care that they don’t look that good (and again, I have been turning down graphical settings like crazy), the way the rocks are put together so you can carefully climb up and down cliffs (perhaps to ambush a bandit camp or something) is a really nice touch. You could somewhat climb in Oblivion, but not like this. You can really get in there and plot a course up the “wrong” side of a mountain for a sneak attack. It’s a lot of trial and error to figure out which surfaces you can actually climb, and it does sometimes stretch your suspension of disbelief, like walking along a rock jutting out into space so your feet are literally on thin air, but then not being able to climb a 70-ish degree slope.
  • Sprinting is a nice addition. Getting from place-to-place, even when you’re soaking in the beauty and discovering random side dungeons and bandit fortresses, is always a process that can benefit from being sped up. I’m disappointed that I can’t jump while sprinting. How cool would it be to go all Canabalt and hop from stepping stone to stepping stone while crossing a river, all the while laughing at all the suckers using the bridge?
  • Combat seems rather unresponsive. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been in a clicking frenzy in melee combat and had my character not deign to swing either weapon. In fact, I’ll say combat is downright buggy. My clicks don’t register when I’m trying to attack. The “Eagle Eye” perk that lets you zoom in with your bow regularly decides that “zoom in” means “jump wildly back and forth between zoomed view and normal view so that it’s impossible to actually aim.” Edit: This seems to have been mostly fixed when I turned down my settings. Once the game was no longer chugging, I found that these problems virtually disappeared.
  • There’s some real oddities that stem from the removal of Attributes. In the previous Elder Scrolls, your character had traditional RPG Attributes like Strength and Agility, which then fed into other stats like HP, MP, carrying capacity, etc. In Skyrim, they’ve been boiled down to just Stamina, Health, and Magicka. Stamina dictates your ability to use physical actions like power attacks and sprinting. Health, is pretty self-explanatory, and Magicka dictates your ability to cast spells. When you level up, you simply increase one of these stats and pic a new perk. I like the addition of perks, and they’re much more interestingly arranged (each being tied to a skill which you level up by using) than in Fallout 3, the first Bethesda game to use Perks. I’m a big fan of each skill having a “skill tree” of sorts. However, there’s some real weirdness that doesn’t seem to jive with the previously established Elder Scrolls rules as a result of this. The worst offender is that leveling up your Stamina increases your carrying capacity, a trait that used to be the domain of hulking warriors who throw all their points into Strength so they can wear their heavy armor and wield their two-handed battleaxes. Now, it seems mostly leveling Stamina is the domain of the rogue because they’re, if they’re doing it right, not going to be getting into much close combat and instead relying on stamina to finish off their enemies quickly with power attacks or zoomed in bow shots, or sprinting away. That means that the scrawny rogue who’s been throwing points into Stamina most of the game ends up able to carry a whole lot more junk than the big, strong warrior, and that’s just downright confusing. I don’t know if there’s a logical fix for this short of bringing back Attributes (I suppose, the Warrior will be grabbing a lot of Stamina upgrades, but I can’t imagine it’ll be more than 50/50 Stamina Health, since he needs to take a beating which the Rogue doesn’t); it’s possible some serious carrying capacity upgrades could be worked into the Warrior-centric perks, but it’s nonetheless really weird.

World/Story:

  • Saul Tigh? Frak me sideways, I’d know that voice anywhere!
  • Oooh. Choice early on. Well played, designers. It’ll be interesting to see if anything comes of that choice, but, again, when I play an Elder Scrolls game, the Main Quest line is at the very bottom of my to-do list, so it’ll probably be a while before I see anything come from this choice.
  • Some really nice seemingly random stuff, like a ruined fort occupied by a few bandits with training dummies on the walls, I assume to make the fort look better defended than it actually is, though none of the bandits has been talkative enough for me to find out if that’s really the case.
  • Dark Brotherhood Spoilers: I’m a bit disappointed that the early-on choice shown in the tutorial mission didn’t carry over to the faction quests (or at least the Brotherhood. I haven’t started any of the others yet). There’s a point fairly early on in the quest line where your superior directly contradicts the orders you were given by the Night Mother, a sort of prophet that the entire Brotherhood are supposed to obey. Your superior doesn’t even try to hide the fact that she runs the show around here, not the Night Mother. This would have been a great opportunity to see a little more player choice. Do you keep the well-oiled Dark Brotherhood status quo, or do you listen to the Night Mother (whom only you can hear), whose word should be gospel to the Brotherhood. The Night Mother goes so far as to give you a location and person of interest to talk to, but they don’t show up in your quest log until after you complete the contracts that are obviously meant to sidetrack you from doing the Night Mother’s bidding. I won’t deny that this delay was necessary because it probably set off events that forwarded the Dark Brotherhood storyline over the next few quests, but it’s jarring to have such a blatant illusion of choice in a game that otherwise gives you so much freedom.
  • There’s a really nice touch that you probably need subtitles on to really notice. I habitually turn on subtitles in story-based ganes, just because you never know when there’s going to be other noises, often caused by you, the player, horsing around while an NPC is talking to you, that might cause you to miss something important, or miss some clever writing. It was because of my subtitle use that I noticed there are subtitles when a Dragon breathes, and they’re the same (or similar) words to the shouts that you learn as the Dragonborn. I think that’s a really nice touch and draws a neat connection between you and the dragons. Almost certainly intentional, but something I doubt a lot of players notice. Good on Bethesda for paying attention to subtle details like that. I guess we should be referring to the dragons’ breath attacks as “shouts” then, shouldn’t we?

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