Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

It is said that for every series there is a definitive instalment. For Star Wars it's The Empire Strikes Back. For The Legend of Zelda it's Ocarina of Time. For Harry Potter, it's Prisoner of Azkaban. And, although I haven't played it, I'm led to believe that for The Elder Scrolls series, it was Morrowind. The Elder Scrolls is one of those series with a rabid, cretinous fanboy following that considers everything Bethesda Softworks produces to be flawless and divine despite how much they dumbed down Fallout and the fact that Oblivion was okay but hardly amazing. I bet most of them haven't even played Arena or Daggerfall, the first two Elder Scrolls titles. I know I haven't, apart from a dabble at Daggerfall, but then again I'm not an Elder Scrolls fan. My point is that people have been going on about Skyrim ever since its announcement like it was going to be the best thing ever and begin the apotheosis of the human race and so on and frankly it's this kind of irresponsible sycophancy which motivates me to write reviews like this.
Skyrim is a fun game. I'm even willing to say that Skyrim is a good game. More than willing, in fact. But it's hardly amazing. It's not a groundbreaking achievement. Sure it's big and the environments are pretty but it's hardly revolutionary. I'm not saying it has to be. I just think the hype games like this get is ridiculous considering how textbook they are, and it suggests that there's nothing more to be done. But there is more to be done! Anyway, let's talk Skyrim.
Skyrim begins with you being carted to your death for reasons unknown while people mutter about war. There's of course the clunky "Who are you, stranger?" bit where you get to customize your appearance. This wasn't as versatile as I would have liked, but we still get all of the Elder Scrolls' variety of human and Elf nationalities (including Orcs), Argonian lizard people and Khajiit tiger people. While I've always found the lizard and tiger people to be a bit silly I appreciated that the choice was there. I plumped, as I always did in Oblivion too, for a Dark Elf aka Dunmer, 'cause I think their blue skin and red eyes are cool. Once I had the obligatory long, pointy nose and slicked back hair I was ready to go. Thus began the adventures of Vanderalf, warrior, Dragonborn and general odd-job man for the citizens of Skyrim province.
As I say I feel like the face customisation was a bit limited although to be fair I was only trying on a Dunmer and for all I know it's better for other races. I have a couple of other problems with the main character. For a start, he doesn't talk. I know this is a role playing game and Bethesda want us to project ourselves into our custom protagonist, along with the fact that giving voices for both sexes of all the races for such a big game would be enormously time consuming and potentially limit the sense of immersion but frankly I think this is a mixed bag. I've always thought that having everyone talk except your guy who just selects words which people understand you to have said but don't actually hear creates a frustrating sense of unreality. Consider Bioware RPGs (another disgustingly overrated franchise): Shepard in Mass Effect has a fairly strong sense of character due to full voice acting. The Warden of Dragon Age: Origins doesn't speak, and so feels like something of a cypher. It didn't matter so much back in the days of video game RPG origins when no one had voices but these days having everyone but the main guy talk feels weird. Hell, Lucasarts understood as early as 1987, back when they were still called Lucasfilm Games, that even when you couldn't hear the voices having your guy actually speak contributed a great deal to a sense of realistic pacing and character interaction. I know having the player character's dialogue unarticulated is an Elder Scrolls tradition but I think it spoils the sense of internal reality a little bit. Even having the guy actually say the dialogue as it's written in the choices is fine; in fact I prefer that to the modern thing which occurs in Mass Effect and, to go back to Lucasarts properties, Tales of Monkey Island, in which the dialogue choice selected is only an approximation (sometimes not even that) of what the character actually says. This is a problem in Mass Effect because it can feel like you're not expressing what you intended. It's a problem in Tales because a lot of the funniest options were selectable but not spoken. Regardless, I think if Bethesda really wants to give us a sense of total immersion the hero really needs to talk, especially when 'Speech' is a skill. I want to hear my guy's silver tongue in action! Besides, one of the gimmicks of the game is your ability to shout magical gibberish in the 'Dragon tongue'. The only time you get to hear your guy speak is when he's shouting nonsense at enemies.
This brings me to the other gripe I had about the player character with the way you're integrated into the story. You're not just a guy swept up in events, you're a 'Dragonborn', some kind of super dude who can steal the magic of dragons or something to give you these 'shouts' where you quite literally shout in the 'ancient tongue of dragons' as it were for magical benefit. While I don't mind some funny dragon powers what annoys me is when you're the 'chosen one' or protagonist by divine right. It's just not as interesting as seeing what happens when an ordinary person gets swept up in events and can feel constraining at times. Granted, this is in a game with few constraints, but I'd still like to play as some kind of agent provocateur who was just an average guy who decided to basically go on an adventure for the hell of it.
Anyway you're saved from execution by a dragon attack and go on the run to discover why dragons are returning to Skyrim. Clearly something is afoot in the midst of Skyrim's civil war between those who support the Empire and those who desire Nord independence. You're free to go and hoon around the place as you please, however. I tried to do a mix of both. Well, that's not strictly true. I mostly let the main story go hang and ran around doing odd jobs for the residents of Skyrim, which with alarming regularity seemed to involve venturing into innumerable Barrows full of undead warriors and each ending with a special magic wall on which a new Dragon magic gimmick word was located. I actually found it quite disappointing how repetitive this was, and if the quests didn't send you to barrows then more often than not it was to some cave or semi-ruined fort in the middle of nowhere overrun by bandits or monsters or evil wizards or some combination upon that theme.
There are a fair share of nice unique quests though, like investigating a series of murders in a spooky lighthouse up at the very North of the world, obeying the commands of a disemboided voice which utters from a stone you can find or leading an angry torch-wielding mob to a vampire's lair. That being said, an awful lot of quests also involve people saying to you "item (x) which I want is in barrow/cave/ruin (y), please go find it for me and bring it back and I will give you money." By not especially far into things I had far more money than I knew what to do with and so much loot from visiting dungeons on fetch quests that I essentially bankrupted local economies by forcing the resident shopkeepers to buy absolutely everything I thrust at them, and even then I couldn't empty my inventory. Also, the NPCs which usually do have a decent amount of cash are the weapon sellers and they won't take half the junk I'm carrying around because it's not weapons or armour.
This problem can be alleviated somewhat by burdening your companion with gear. My housecarl, Lydia, begrudingly accepted whatever odds and ends I threw at her so that I wasn't so overwhelmed with luggage that I walked like I was going for a stroll on Jupiter. The problem with giving stuff to companions is that sometimes they start using it even if you don't want them to. They have invisible default weapons and armour which you can't remove or view in any way so it can be a guessing game to upgrade their gear and sometimes they'll use whatever you give them to carry simply because it's better than their mysterious default items. At one point Lydia insisted on shooting ice bolts at enemies with a rather weak magic staff instead of the hefty Dwarven battleaxe I'd given her and she ended up impaling me repeatedly while I was trying to fight. Then again when she wasn't attacking at range she'd frequently get in the way of my own hammer blows and get killed. Your companion can't die from enemy attacks, only be temporarily incapacitated until it's safe, but they can accidentally be killed by you while you were trying to kill a nasty. And this is in a game where you can't kill half the main NPCs because they're "essential" to the quest so you can't just go on a psychotic rampage and massacre the population. Yet you can accidentally kill your companion, permanently mind you, in combat with hostiles. Have fun reloading those save games.
Don't expect to develop a BioWare style rappor with your teammates either. I'd exhausted Lydia's dialogue options after the second time I spoke to her and following that she was just someone to make me jump when she knocked things over behind me in spooky barrow tunnels or to ask: "I wonder what's inside?" of caves we discovered. I'm fairly sure she also once asked this in regards to an open wardrobe. It wasn't helped by the fact that your companions always walk, so although I was galloping all over Skyrim on a mighty steed Lydia had to footslog it everywhere, often being left on the far side of the nation if I made good time. Unlike games like Red Dead Redemption which heavily incorporate horses as a core part of gameplay, your buddies don't ride horses. They just run behind you and get left in your dust. Your horse will have a tendency to go into combat with any foes you encounter on the road and either get itself killed or get scared and run away so that you have to spend time scrambling around in the eerie darkness looking for it since there's no horse call like in Red Dead or Zelda. You'd think a medieval Fantasy game would go to some trouble over the horses but no, they're basically just a very expensive speed boost which dies in agony if you run it off too many cliffs. You can't fight from your horse either so if you're pounding the long roads of Skyrim and you get attacked, you'd better believe that you're going through the horse dismounting animation before you can, in all likelihood, slay your waylayer in one hit, resume your steed and continue your journey.
This can become tiresome, especially due to the numerous wolves, bears, sabre-tooth tigers, killer walruses (not joking) and various other homicidal winter creatures which inhabit the land of the Nords. These will jump out at you mid-ride at a moment's notice and while you can usually outrun them it can be as frustrating to have them snapping at your heels as it can be to dismount and kill them. Of course you can fast-travel to places you have already discovered but I avoided this. These Elder Scrolls games are meant (and note the qualifier) to be all about immersion so I took Bethesda up on this and always chose the realistic route of travelling in real time rather than performing loading-screen teleportation. Unlike Oblivion you can't fast travel to the various major cities off the bat unless you pay to travel in a wagon so it does force you to be a bit more involved with your participation in Skyrim's direly underfunded public transit system. However as I've said it can be easy to lose your horse and at times I had to fast travel to the place I was already at to find him again because your companion and horse teleport wherever you loading-screen-teleport to no matter where in the game world they were before, a useful tool in the event that they are too stupid to follow your instructions and find themselves lost.
This does however autosave your game, which happens both regularly and not regularly enough. Any loading screen progression will save your game but otherwise saving won't happen unless a major quest event occurs. On one occasion I rode across much of the country and then up a high mountain in search of the ancient wise men who knew all about the power of gimmicky dragon language. Halfway up the mountain I was attacked by, appropriately enough, a troll, and the ensuing murder caused me to be kicked mercilessly back to my last saved game halfway through my laborious horse journey, which was enough to motivate me to take a break from Skyrim for a day or two. At that point I figured that despite how mighty Vanderalf clearly was he might need some exercise so I indulged in some of the aforementioned sidequests and levelled my character.
Levelling has either been refreshingly streamlined or bluntly dumbed down depending on your perspective in this latest Elder Scrolls instalment. I usually never have a clue what kind of stats are important in RPGs so I personally was rather thankful. Bethesda have more or less scrapped Oblivion's patented "rubbish" style class system with one heavily inspired by the Fallout franchise they have adopted, but minus the stat alteration. You do maintain the levelling of skills, however, like destruction magic or heavy armour or lockpicking, which through real-time practice become easier or more powerful. In addition, whenever your character increases a level, you pick a perk from one of these skills, like making two-handed weapons 20% more powerful or giving you the ability to bribe guards who may have noticed you intensely violating the law. The only other option you're given upon levelling up is to increase your overall supply of mana (for casting spells), stamina (for performing special attacks) or health (for not dying). No more indecisively chucking one point into every possible characteristic like 'charisma' or 'intelligence' or 'toughness' anymore, no sir. For someone like me who wanted to do things in a simple fashion on his first playthrough it was now a straightforward matter to allocate most of my upgrade currency on health, two-handed weapons and heavy armour, with sidelines in ever-essential Bethesda RPG skills like speechcraft and lockpicking. Lockpicking too apes the modern-day Fallout method rather than the Oblivion minigame, which makes things altogther easier for me to run around smashing heads in and stealing jewels.
At this point I ought to talk about the combat. If it hasn't already become obvious I chose a close-quarters focus, but there are no overt classes in the game. Rather, early on you find standing stones devoted to the warrior, the mage and the thief, which give you overall benefits to the relevant abilities for that style of gameplay. But! You can pick a new standing stone whenenver you want, and even find other ones secluded around the countryside for unique and unusual benefits. So it's more of an opt-in flexible class encouragement than a rigid class system, and it works. Despite spending most of his time clanking around in multiple layers of metal and bashing people's heads in with a hammer, Vanderalf could still cast a spell or two or stealth behind some cover if need be.
You can play the game in first or third person. I like to look at my guy while he's running around, so I picked third unless I needed to peer at something up close. I also much prefer third person on consoles, and first person on PC with a mouse and keyboard, and I was playing on Xbox 360 so third person was the way to go. You're not as up close and personal with the NPCs but it does mean that you aren't sticking your sword blade (but apparently not your hand) up in front of your face. It also meant I could see enemies behind me, although that often didn't help much as I flailed wildly hoping that hammer would meet flesh.
The NPCs both improve on and perpetuate some of Oblivion and Fallout 3/New Vegas's foibles. They still sleep above the sheets in their clothes, for instance, and sometimes get stuck on things, but they keep daily schedules, which is nice, and their faces certainly look a lot more realistic than that unsettling, slightly jowly and indistinct look everyone in Oblivion had. The way they're incorporated into quests can be quite good, leading you around or joining you in fights, and they tend to feel as real as can probably be expected. You can grab procedurally-generated bounty hunts from innkeepers, and local bards play music and sing songs, even if their lutes tend to magically appear out of thin air into their hands and sometimes they seem to be at the exact same point in a song when you wake up in the inn as they were eight hours ago when you went to bed. This can be especially awkward when you beat the innkeeper to the room before he can show you there and he ends up telling you to let him know if there's anything you need the morning after you've taken advantage of his facilities. It's still nice that they show you there, although I think that doing that once per inn could have been enough. That said, there are still far too few voice actors. At one point in the court at Solitude as I accompanied the gruff, American-accented head of the Bards' Guild, I overheard a nearby Thane with the exact same voice talk about the good of Skyrim's economy. This guy turns up all over the place as various races and stations with absolutely no consistency. The same is true of the generic Scandinavian guy, who voices the blacksmith in both of the major faction capitals, among numerous other NPCs. There are also an assortment of cockney Dark Elves, posh English-sounding Imperial women and Nord guards who all pronounce your armour's chief alloy as "shteel" in outrageously broad German accents.
I've used the term 'mana' somewhere in this review but actually your magic supply is "magicka". I like how series like The Elder Scrolls think that if you add a 'k' on the end of the word 'magic' it will be taken more seriously. It looks absurd. What else is absurd about Skyrim? Well for a start, you can join the Bard's Guild by revitalising a local festival in the city of Solitude, but once you are a bard all you do is mercenary work for the other bards, mostly by hunting down lost legendary musical instruments. You can't perform at inns for money or anything. I found that to be really disappointing. Why even have it as the Bard's Guild if it's just going to be another generic quest hub? I assumed it would at least give me somewhere to sleep so I didn't have to pay for an inn room but so far I haven't managed to find a bed for me in the guild either. To progress in the Companions, a guild of warriors, you have to become a werewolf and the procedurally-generated quests get locked off if you don't. You have to join the College of Mages to get access to part of a quest which has nothing to do with mages. The map is total cobblers, designed to just look pretty with real time weather, so you can't see the roads and it's easy to get lost. The story's pretty generic, but what do you expect from a genre that's been lamely riffing on what Tolkien did better for sixty years? The combat can be irritating when enemies run past you or you can't figure out where you're being attacked from, and it's a little simplistic, but I think it has an appreciable element of realism in the attack/block mechanic which I actually prefer to stylised World of Warcraft/Dragon Age style fights where it's about hotkeys and stats rather than striking and blocking in real time. So in that regard, what else is good about Skyrim?
Well you can save and load pretty much whenever you want, so you can avoid repeating difficult combats if you're careful, and change your choices in quest lines if things don't turn out how you like. There's a courier who's blatantly ripped off from the Postman in Zelda games, most noticeably Twilight Princess, who delivers letters to set you off on quests. You can get involved in funny incidents, like brawls in the city streets which, if you run from them, can cause you to end up with a trail of NPC onlookers following you everywhere. Although the gameplay for side quests is repetitive their storylines have a decent amount of variety and I certainly feel as if a laudable effort has been put into the game. The graphics of course are very nice; the scenery is infinitely more varied than that of Cyrodiil in Oblivion and it all looks very realistic. I do kind of wish for the return of realistically sized worlds like Daggerfall had, as ridiculous as that idea is. Some people complain about bugs in Bethesda games but apart from a bookshelf which seemed to eat my books rather than display them (and which I believe was fixed in a recent patch) I haven't had any problems. I didn't with New Vegas either, and people loved to whinge about that.
Skyrim is a good game but it's nowhere near as groundbreaking or ecstatic as people were acting like it was going to be, and are as of writing acting like it is. Sure, I've sunk hours into it but mostly because it's easy, not because my mind is being constantly blown by its numerous revelations about how to distill Tolkien pastiche even further and the merits of hacking native fauna to death in the undergrowth. None of this is Skyrim's fault, of course. It's just the fault of all the bloody idiotic people who go on about these big release games as if they're something totally amazing without any real justification beyond their own slavish conformity and desire to feel like the sixty bucks they spent were justified. Now if you gave me an open world game like one of these Bethesda titles, gave it the player character customisation, presence and voice acting, as well as NPC development, of a BioWare game, streamlined the gameplay with Rockstar's open world combat and travel mechanics, and gave it a story written by, I don't know, probably not some hack employed by the games industry, then there would be a game worth raving about. To be fair, it'd probably just become real life without any sense of genuine responsibility but that's one of the joys of video games.
I could go on further about Skyrim but it's just too damn big. If you want a huge, nice-looking time-sink with a reasonably gentle learning curve and a sense of becoming a mighty fantasy hero then this is the game to play. If you want something with a memorable and engaging story and characters you may wish to venture elsewhere. It gets the job done but outside fanboy bias it isn't going to change your world. It'd probably be more fun if it didn't take itself so seriously, which is a problem Bethesda had with Fallout 3 as well. On the other hand I've invested more than fifty hours into it so far and I'm not entirely sure why. But that's what it is - a game for people with too much free time. If you've got that, it'll be perfect, but in that regard it certainly doesn't elevate gaming out of a position of mere entertainment. I hope people realise that there's more which could be done.

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