Friday, September 28, 2012

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, part 3

Willam Mageborn, with Iona, his faithful housecarl

OK, I'll start talking about Skyrim now.  :)

In my first two posts (here and here), I reviewed the previous Elder Scrolls games. That's because I wanted to give some context to my comments about this one - and in some cases, compare them directly.

Make no mistake, I'm enjoying this game, though I have some reservations. And maybe I should point out that I've only been playing for three weeks. My character is at level 25, I've only explored around Whiterun, Winterhold, and Riften, and I've only played a mage. This is just a preliminary assessment.

The first thing you notice about the game is the superb graphics. Well, I just bought a new computer, and I'm playing it on the ultra-high graphics setting. It's really beautiful. And I'm using a headset, too, with Dolby 7.1 surround sound. Every character in the game speaks, and I can easily pinpoint the direction of sounds (very helpful in combat).

Clearly, Bethesda has spent a great deal of time and money on the graphics and spoken word support, and it shows. If that's what you want from a game, you'll be happy. Even for me - and I'll readily accept anything above ASCII graphics if the gameplay is good - it's a plus to explore a pretty world.

But there's a downside. Fancy graphics make it harder - more expensive, certainly - to create destructible terrain. In Skyrim, I can cast a fireball into a wooden stable filled with straw, and nothing will burn. I can't kick down the flimsiest door on the most rickety shack in Skyrim, let alone hack through the wall.

I can't even bash down a wooden door with a two-handed war hammer, or chop it open with an axe, and we could do that in the earliest Elder Scrolls games. Partly, this is a problem with expensive graphics, and partly it's a design philosophy with a lack of options, which I always find troubling in a game.

Now, none of the Elder Scrolls games have had destructible terrain, that's true. But I remember how much I loved walking directly into the huge cities of Daggerfall - and, even better, finding other ways to get inside when the gates were locked for the night. (I would levitate to the top of the wall, then cast Slowfall as I jumped down the other side.)

Whiterun at night

In Skyrim, the cities aren't even big enough to justify that label - you can barely call them towns - but you still can't do that. There's a cut-scene now, when entering Whiterun and Riften, at least. And if you can't enter through the gate, you can't get inside at all.

The cities are small because of spoken voice support, too. If you need to draw unique characters and hire voice actors for everyone, there's a real limit on the number of people you can put in a world. And even so, we end up hearing the same lines over and over and over again.

It's Iona, not Lydia, in the screenshots here, because I thought I'd lose my mind if I heard "I am sworn to carry your burdens" from Lydia one more time. Hey, it was great the first time I heard it, but after a million repetitions, it gets old.

And it's great to hear bandits talking among themselves - or, more often, talking to themselves when there's no one else around - when I'm sneaking through a cave. But when every bandit everywhere says the same things, that starts to ruin my immersion in the game.

The thing is, these are inevitable downsides to fancy graphics and sound support. As computer capabilities have gotten better, we've certainly gained in graphics and sound. But we've also lost some things. Not all of it was inevitable, either. Some of it is entirely about design decisions.

I'll get to that in a bit, but let me mention one thing that Skyrim does better than the last two games - they've changed that screwy leveling system. You still improve skills by using them - and I love that - but they've got a new skill perks system in Skyrim.

Now, I'm a mage and, so far, I've only taken perks from various magic skills (plus once or twice in Sneak and Alchemy). So I can't comment about the perks from other skills. And indeed, I have some real problems with the details of the perks available for a mage. But, whether it's perfect or not, this series needed that change.

My biggest problem with Oblivion was that it was too much like Morrowind. I felt like it was the same game pretty much, not a new one. Skyrim is different, because Bethesda was bold enough to try something new. I really like that.

In other ways, they kept what's worked well for the series. I already mentioned how skills improve with use. The other traditional feature of Elder Scrolls games is that enemies level up with your character. Some people don't like that, but I do, because it lets me explore anywhere I want, whenever I want.

I love that freedom. Skyrim is a big world (if nowhere near as big as Daggerfall), and I get to decide where to go. As a mage, I've spent a lot of time near Winterhold. But when I got tired of the ice and snow (and, especially, the constant wind noise), I just headed south to Riften.

Our summer vacation :)

So far, I haven't been anywhere near Solitude or Markarth or many of the other parts of Skyrim. And if I get tired of playing a mage and decide to start over with a different kind of character, I'll probably head that way, instead - getting to see brand-new places. As I say, I love that freedom.

I also like the fact that I start to see new monsters as I level up. That helps keep the game fresh. Now, humanoid enemies only get stronger (and carry better equipment) as you level up. And there's not much difference between one wolf and another, or one bear and another, except that some are tougher. But you do start to see brand new enemies, too.

I like that,... but I must admit that earlier games did it better. I could be wrong, but there seemed to be a much bigger variety of enemies in earlier Elder Scrolls games. (There was a much bigger variety of everything, I think, including skills and spells.)

Plus, I remember in Arena and Daggerfall how I'd hear a new enemy, off in the darkness of a dungeon somewhere, and not know what it was. It would sound scary, especially since I'd know it was something new, so the anticipation was wonderful!

I don't get that in Skyrim. I almost always see creatures before I hear them, and the creature sound effects aren't much, anyway. Sure, I can hear wolves howling and bears snarling, and that's great. But all wolves and all bears sound the same. Even when they're a stronger variety than you've encountered before, they don't seem any different.

Maybe this is about realism, I don't know, but in many ways, Skyrim is actually less realistic than earlier games. The towns are so small, the few farmers seem to grow only a half dozen potatoes or cabbages to feed the whole province, bandits outnumber ordinary citizens by far - you really can't justify much in this game by appealing to realism, can you?

But let me mention one other thing I like about Skyrim - the modding system. One advantage in waiting almost a year to play this game is that there are a lot of mods out there. And they make it very easy to use mods, too (especially, I must admit, on Steam).

If there's something you don't like about the game, chances are that you can find a mod to change it - or make one yourself, if you're that ambitious (I'm not). That's really a benefit! Of course, player-developed mods are, um,... diverse. :)  (For a really hilarious example of that, check out this Week of Madness series at PC Gamer!)

Exploding chickens and naked, anatomically-correct NPCs might be entertaining, but you can break the game pretty easily. On the other hand, you can also change what you don't like about it - or even just freshen up Skyrim when you get a bit tired of the vanilla game.

I haven't installed many mods, and I don't intend to - not for awhile, certainly. But it's good to know that option is available.

So far, I've installed (all using Steam's easy subscription service) "Leveled Merchants' Wallets," which increases the amount of money available in shops - because it's just annoying to have to run everywhere to sell my loot - and "Camping Lite," which lets me carry a tent and bedroll, so I can set up camp in the wilderness at night. Note that the nights in Skyrim are beautiful, and plenty well illuminated, but I usually prefer to sleep at night and explore during the day.

I've also installed "Mounted Follower," which will give my follower a horse whenever I mount up, although I haven't tried it yet. (My character hasn't yet acquired a horse.) So I'm taking it easy with mods - and making sure each one works before I try a new one.

But whether you want to modify minor details in the game or just go all-out (hopefully, backing up your saved game files first!), it's entirely up to you. And mods can add a lot of gameplay. Check out this ongoing project to mod all of Morrowind into Skyrim! Now that's impressive! (I want to see Daggerfall next. Heh, heh. Admittedly, they're also doing Oblivion, it seems.)

So, graphics and sound support, a big world with leveled opponents, a new skill perks system, and great modding support - those are the things I like about Skyrim,... with some qualifications, as noted. What don't I like? That will have to wait for Part 4. :)

Note: Here's Part 4, the conclusion of this series.


Jeff said...


Sorry to change the subject, but I must "torture" you with the news that it would appear I've finally gotten Jody P's attention:

Come into my parlor, said the spider to the fly...

WCG said...

I see that, Jeff. Nice job. But I think this fly is going to stay out of your parlor from now on, because it's behind a paywall. :)

Um, that's very much off-topic in this post, anyway, so you might want to comment about such things in one of my political posts. If you can find one. I know I don't talk politics much, do I? :D