Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Skyrim came out exactly one month ago, so now seems like as good a time as any to write about it. I haven't been playing it constantly that entire time, but I have spent quite a few hours with it. I haven't finished it, of course. Not in the sense of seeing all the things there are to see, or even just completing the main story quest. I'm maybe about a third of the way through it. As far as the other quest lines, I've joined three of the five major factions, and I've only finished doing work for one of them. I've done some other side jobs, but I still have a dozen unrelated side quests sitting open in my journal, and a couple dozen other miscellaneous objectives on top of that. I've only visited seven of the nine cities, and I'm sure the other two will give me plenty of more stuff to do one I check them out. And of course I won't really ever run out of stuff to do, since the game can keep generating easy little tasks even after you get through the more detailed ones. Most games that had this much content would be maddening, but there's just something about The Elder Scrolls that makes me relish visiting its gigantic, endlessly explorable world rather than getting tired of doing the same thing over and over again.

I was about as big a fan of Oblivion as anyone, but I can't deny that that game had certain problems. Its main plot had problems; it got pretty repetitive after a point, it wasn't always the easiest thing to know why you were doing what you were doing, and there's a certain sense of letdown when you realize you aren't the chosen one, but just a guy helping the chosen one out. It also had serious gameplay balance problems - it used the same skill system as Morrowind, where you had certain skills designated as major ones, and using them caused them to improve, which is how you would level up. But it was easy to accidentally build a character that could level up frequently without actually improving your combat ability much, and since enemies always leveled up to match you, serious difficulty problems would pop up. You should feel stronger by leveling up in an RPG, but it was often the bad guys who were beefing up more than you. Skyrim fixes this mostly by removing the distinction between class skills and other skills, so working on anything will give you progress toward leveling up, and dungeons are scaled based on a range rather than an absolute value, making some places certainly tough enough to match you, but others easy enough that you can get through them with no problem. If you spend all day improving your non-combat skills without raising your combat to match, you could still run into issues, but the balance seems better.

That's not the only improvement either; almost everything about Skyrim seems like it can be described as "like Oblivion, but better". As I said I haven't finished the main quest yet, but so far it feels suitably epic enough to be the primary focus of a game this big, and I've already done some things that were more interesting than anything that really happened in Oblivion's quest. The other factions also seem to have really interesting central plots this time, and are better integrated with the setting of Skyrim itself. Rather than their being a generically named guild chapter in every city, they all have headquarters in one location, and histories and reputations within those places that make them feel like part of the world rather than a trigger to generate quests. The Daedric side quests are back and as subversive as ever, and have a lot more variety in how you come across them. In general, it's impressive how much effort the game put into making sure you always have plenty of choice in what to do next. It's hard to go pretty much anywhere without picking up a bounty on some bandit or a lead on where to find something interesting.

I also really like the place of Skyrim itself. Oblivion drew complaints for being a pretty generic fantasy setting, and I always defended it as being a nice looking and pretty interesting place. Besides, as the central political and economic hub of the whole continent, it was all-encompassing and non-specific by design. But I can't deny that Skyrim is a more intriguing place. It has a real sense of local identity that Cyrodiil mostly lacked, and thanks to the technological innovations of the last nine years, they are able to present that identity more effectively than Morrowind did. The Nordic culture is heavily influenced by, well, Nordic cultures from real life, and is a cool blend of Scandinavian and fantasy influences. And the game also represents a big shift in the culture of the continent itself, taking place some two hundred years after Oblivion, and shaking up the entire political landscape. The world just feels alive when you hear people talking about the great war between men and elves and how the citizens are no longer happy with the empire's control over them, and just adding the concept of real open conflict to the setting makes it feel more important and dangerous, even if only affects the world in a significant way when you decide it does. And oh yeah, dragons are a pretty cool enemy.

I haven't even touched on all of the things they've added for you to do if you're interested in making your own equipment. Alchemy is back, and lets you mix potions without actually knowing their properties before hand, which feels more natural. Enchanting makes more sense, as you learn effects by taking them from already existing items, and it's a more intuitive system than there was before. And crafting is really significant. There's a purpose to hunting, as you can use the hides you take from animals and tan them to make leather. You can mine ore and smelt it into workable material, and then combine the leather and the metal to make weapons, armor, and jewelry. Which you can then enchant, of course. You can also chop wood for money and cook food to give it different effects, both minor activities but ones that enhance the idea that this is a world people live in and not just a playground for you to kill monsters in. Jeez, I just realized I haven't actually talked about combat. Or the perk system, which is the main focus of leveling up. God, this game is huge.

Anyway, the game engine is definitely improved on what they had before, but it's still basically the same engine, which means it's not the most elegant experience at all times. The combat system has the same general clunkiness as before, though I won't say it isn't greatly improved. The main addition is the dual wielding system, which lets you use any combination of one-handed weapons, spells, and shields in your two different hands, allowing for a greater variety of play styles. There's still bows and two handed weapons as well, and they're also effective ways to take on monsters and bandits. My personal approach is to sneak as much as possible, and pick off enemies with my bow before they know I'm there. When I do get into a scrape, I usually pull out one of the swords or maces that I've enchanted myself, and try to keep enemies off balance while I keep myself alive with a healing spell in the other hand. But I could have a spell in both hands, or a sword in one and an axe in the other, or anything else really if I wanted to. Every time you level up you pick a stat to improve (health, stamina or magicka; they've totally gotten rid of the other stats that those three used to be derived from), and a perk, which is either a bonus to or an extra ability related to one of your skills. It could be a reduction on the magicka cost of casting spells from a certain school, or it could be the ability to zoom in when aiming with your bow. It's a system that encourages you to level up and experiment with different skills, and helps reduce the occasional monotony of taking on the hundredth dungeon full of undead or spiders or necromancers or whatever.

As I mentioned it's the same engine, which means the same occasional technical hiccup, which might cause an NPC to act strangely or an object to not appear properly or any number of small issues that can pop up. I don't fault Bethesda for having some glitches in a game this big, and I also have to note that in the time I've played I've experienced the fewest number of issues that actually break the game from any Elder Scrolls game I've tried. There's been one or two crashes, and a single objective that won't resolve itself properly, but that's about it. And there really have been improvements to the engine - more subtle animations can still be awkward, but people do interact better, and the game just looks really, really nice. It's both the graphics and just the visual design of the world. When you're on top of a mountain looking out over a grand vista, or walking through a valley and seeing the Northern Lights play off a sky full of stars and Tamriel's two moons, it can be as breathtaking as any image you've seen in a game. And then a wooly mammoth might accidentally spawn in midair and plummet to its death. And that's Skyrim.

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