The difference between clever and cunning.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Skyrim Review

Hey folks. It's been awhile since my last post, and I apologize for my prolonged absence. I've been busy with classes and other responsibilities. To make up for it here's an epic length review of a massive game.

Skyrim is the latest installment in the “Elder Scrolls” series, a long running collection of single player RPGs nearing the end of its second decade.  Series signatures include massive, content packed worlds, character progression that breaks from the usual XP/Level system, and (unfortunately) loads of bugs. On a more positive note Elder Scrolls games are also renowned for their high level of fun, immersion, and mod-ability. 

The Orc with no name

Like all Elder Scrolls games Skyrim starts with your anonymous character imprisoned and, this time around, moments from execution. As this would make for an extremely short game it’s no surprise that a massive dragon interrupts the headsman and allows you to make a break for freedom. Dragons may be ubiquitous in many RPG settings, but in Skyrim they’ve been mercifully gone for a great many lifetimes. One showing up from out of the blue is unexpected, to say the least.

Skyrim's wilds range from rolling tundra to icy wastes.

The introductory sequence also integrates character creation, which has been vastly simplified from earlier Elder Scrolls games. There are no stat points to assign and no fussing with class or skill packages.  You chose your name, appearance, and race and you’re ready to play. 

Race is the only choice at character creation with real impact on gameplay. You can choose from the usual spread of human and elf subtypes, along with a few more exotic options like lizard and cat people. Your choice gives you some largely inconsequential skill bonuses and a unique ability or two.

While a few racial abilities are more useful than others any race can ultimately thrive at any play style. If you really want to break type and play a Nord (Viking) thief or Khajiit (cat person) mage it’s entirely possible to do so and thrive at it. Since you’ll be staring at your character for a great many hours to come there’s nothing wrong with simply choosing a character that looks as cool as possible and plunging boldly ahead.

Brave New World

After dodging dragon fire and finishing a brief tutorial dungeon Skyrim finally kicks you out into a beautiful high-mountain meadow, hands you a lead for the main quest, and tells you to go do whatever you please. It’s an intoxicating moment, and usually the time you notice that great gods of graphics cards this game is pretty. The world has a vast, open, semi-realistic design that’s a huge step up from the series of corridors disguised as canyons that so many games pass off as outdoors. If you can see a place on the horizon you can likely get there, although you may need to get creative with the jump key to get up some of the geometry.

To give you a sense of the game I’ll briefly describe my opening experiences:

So there I was, a wanted criminal stranded alone in a harsh land. My skills and weapons were meager and my supplies sparse. A civil war was brewing between the native Stormcloaks and Skyrim’s longtime Imperial occupiers that threatened to tear the province apart.  Supposedly extinct draconic death-machines could strike from the sky at any moment. Danger lurked around every corner and my chances of survival seemed slim.

Northern Lights

I elected to do the only logical thing and chase butterflies in the sunlight. I was happy to find I could both loot and eat them, and spent some time checking the meadows flora and fauna to see if they were poisonous enough to kill me. A wolf pack that wandered by proved aggressive but flammable.

I eventually stumbled across a hunter with a small camp. I tried to sell him my fine selection of charred wolf pelts and random insects and plants, but he kept taking them from my inventory without actually paying me for them. (This turned out to be a game bug, not robbery.) Sadly he then mysteriously burst into flames while I heroically rescued his few valuables. Still in search of a working merchant I decided to swim a rushing mountain river down to the plains below, grabbing and eating live salmon from the waters and fending off alpine crab attacks the entire way.

At this point I realized several hours had passed, I’d already encountered a couple of bugs, and I’d made no notable progress on the main quest or any other. I was also having a tremendous amount of fun. Skyrim is a game of constant distraction. Ending the draconic menace can wait, and wait it will. You can take as much time as you like to explore, make giant piles of dead guards, experiment with alchemy, and sneak into people’s houses while they’re sleeping and replace all their earthly possessions with cheese wheels. 

The sheer size and scope of the world can be a little intimidating, but it has a node based fast travel system like Fallout 3’s. Any place you’ve been before you can easily return to, and handy carriages will take you to any major city for a modest fee. One of Skyrim’s many pleasures is simply picking a random direction and hiking off into the wilds to see what you can find. (Usually angry bears.) The ability to put down your own map notes and waypoints would have been nice, but the system works well enough.

Nordal Kombat

While a stealthy character is extremely viable and a high speech skill can save you a certain number of fights eventually you’re going to want and need to murder someone. When that time comes you’ll quickly discover that the beating heart of Skyrim’s combat engine is two fisted. You can hold a weapon, shield, or spell in either hand and make use of both with the left and right mouse buttons. It’s a great system, and quickly becomes second nature.

Bows and big weapons obviously take two hands to use, but there’s a lot of fun to be found trying unconventional combinations. I found a shield and an offensive spell surprisingly viable. The bold can always simply wade in with a sword or fireball in either hand.

Summoned creatures help even the odds nicely.

Health, mana, and stamina all regenerate naturally, slowly in combat and rapidly when nobody’s trying to kill you. As a mage many early fights boiled down to me emptying my mana at an enemy and then running away until it recharged. Natural regeneration won’t save you from repeated hammer blows to the face, but you rarely need to micromanage your basic resources between fights. If you can survive an encounter you’ll be back at 100% by the time the next one rolls around. 

If you are getting savagely beaten you can always pause the game and chug as much healing potions and food as you want. I like to imagine this translates to your character holding up one hand for a time out while stuffing whole cabbages into their mouth with the other.  This can have some weird effects on combat pacing and difficulty.  Tough fights take on a stutter-stop feel as you constantly pause the action to root through your inventory and replenish yourself. So long as you have a decent stock of consumables and the enemy can’t kill you with a single hit you rarely need worry about death. 

Dragon Slayer

Dragons are usually endgame enemies, but in Skyrim you’re dealing with them from Day One, 8:00 AM. These beautifully animated battles are epic in scope and easily one of the highlights of the game. Nearby guards and even bandits and monsters tend to drop whatever they’re doing and join in. It’s not unusual to come across an attack already in progress, burning corpses and all.  A tremendous amount of effort was clearly put into making sure you feel like you’re trying to bring down something appropriately big, mobile, and dangerous. 

Now this is what RPGs are all about.
Dragons fully exploit their ability to fly, and grounding one down requires judicious use of arrows or spells. Their bat-like body structure makes them slightly more awkward on the ground, but they can still grab humanoids in their jaws and toss them around like ragdolls. It’s hilarious when they’re gobbling down guards and terrifying when you’re the one between their jaws.

Designing fights against giant creatures that don’t just feel like you’re stabbing at their toes has always been tricky. Skyrim succeeds brilliantly.  When the epic theme music kicks in and you hear that distinctive roar you’ve got to fight.

Battle Cries

As the plot quickly reveals your character is the “Dhovakin”, the only one able to slay a dragon permanently and absorb its soul. Dragon souls are then spent to unlock the “Dragon Shouts” you find carved on ancient rune walls scattered across the world. Dragon Shouts are discrete from normal magic and useable by any character. They represent a goodie bag of fun and powerful abilities that nicely reward both dungeon crawling to learn new Shouts and slaughtering dragons to unlock them.

The now meme-worthy  “Fus-Ro-Dah” (Force-Balance-Push) Shout hurls people bodily through the air, and need only be combined with a high place for instant hilarity. Other Shouts encase enemies in ice, send them fleeing in fear, or do otherwise unique things like clearing the sky of rain and snow.

You equip and use Shouts independent of your normal weapons and spells (because you’re shouting them, not holding or casting them with your hands, see?) and  all Shouts share a collective cool down,  so knowing which Shout to ready and when to hurl it is an important tactical consideration.
You can recruit a host of different followers, but only one at a time. Backup in combat is always handy but they seem to have trouble spotting traps and make sneaking difficult. Once killed they can’t be resurrected (save as a zombie, if you’ve got the appropriate spells) so I elected to leave them at home most of the time and use expendable summoned demons for my dirty work.

There's no shortage of dirty work that needs doing. Skyrim is crammed with content. The main quest line is actually one of the weaker parts of the game, but if you run through it at a dead sprint you’re doing Elder Scrolls wrong. Indeed I challenge anyone to focus on any one thing for any length of time in this game. 

Aside from the main quest there’s an entirely optional Civil War to sort out, four major guilds with their own extensive quest lines, and hundreds upon hundreds of side quests. Many are procedurally generated and basically just exist to point you to some dungeon or another, but you really can’t expect to ever complain about running out of things to do. 

Underground barrows teem with treasure, the undead, and spooky ambiance.
The land is sprinkled with scores of caves, forts, ruins, magic outhouses, and so on. You’re constantly tripping over them as you wander through the countryside, tempting you to explore as you pass. Each of these scenic lairs is invariably infested with bandits, vampires, C.H.U.D’s, trolls, evil mages, giant spiders, undead Vikings, and other undesirables. Each offers a nicely self contained 20-40 minutes of adventure, combat, and worry free pillaging, with the occasional light puzzle solving. 

There’s obviously a lot of art and asset re-use, but almost every dungeon manages to have a unique layout and most have interesting story or game play elements. While generally linear each dungeon also dumps you back out near the entrance after you plunder the cache of loot at the end. This is not realistic, but it is good game design.  

Learning by doing (bad things to people)

Like previous Elder Scrolls games Skyrim dispenses with experience points and has you improve by doing. Shoot a bunch of guys with bows and you’ll get better with bows. Cast a bunch of healing spells and get better at healing magic. Pick a bunch of pockets and get better at putting your hands down the pants of strange Orcs. With no class or statistical restrictions every character has access to every skill, so if you want to be a master magician who also picks locks or wears heavy armor go for it. 

If you play normally the system makes character growth feel organic, but it does lend itself to a certain amount of abuse and blatant grinding. The most efficient rout to ultimate power is not necessarily plundering ancient crypts or battling fearsome foes, but standing in a muddy streambed letting a large crab pinch your toes, healing yourself with one hand and blocking its attacks with the other. Why? Because you’re leveling your armor, block, and healing skills, that’s why. 

A few fan favorite characters return, like the ever lovable Lord of Madness.
Any character can max out any skill, although some skills (especially primary combat skills, which require live enemies) are more difficult to improve than others. True character customization and growth comes from sinking your Perk points (earned at a rate of one per level) into the skill’s unique Perk tree. Perks are game changers that open up new abilities and define your play style, like zoom and slow-mo with a bow, a rushing shield bash, or improved damage with fire spells. 

The absence of experience points also means that most quests simply award gold and/or loot. If you’re an obsessive looter (like me) then gold is a non-issue for most of the game, and this all makes quests a bit less rewarding. There aren’t a lot of cash sinks in Skyrim, partially because the game’s streamlined out some of the RPG busywork. 

Weapons and armor require no care or maintenance, and health and mana all recover quickly on their own.  Aside from more skill training and spells I didn’t find much worth buying that wasn’t already lying around free to take. Players less likely to end up on A&E’s Hoarder’s might find quest rewards more useful. 

Running to stand still

One quirk of the leveling system is that as you level up, many parts of the world scale up in difficulty along with you. It’s not nearly as jarring as in earlier games but it is noticeable. Plain old vanilla Bandits start to be accompanied by, say, Bandit Facebreakers, and eventually Bandit Murderkings. Weaker enemies never disappear entirely so you do get a sense of progression, but most of the major enemy types come in several distinct tiers. Higher end foes start to sport truly ridiculous health pools.

The appearance of tougher enemies is based on your overall level, not your combat abilities. It’s important to keep this in mind, because it means that while you’re honing your lock-picking and practicing your alchemy your enemies are getting better at beating you to a pulp. If you haven’t been keeping up your combat skills tight dungeon corridors and linear design can still turn these areas into grueling slugfests.  Characters will likely want to focus on at least one primary combat skill to ensure survival. Remember, the Draugr are training.

Any character can pick up and use any item, so quest rewards and loot scale based on your level as well. You can’t simply memorize the location of the Kill-everybody sword and run there thirty minutes after starting a new game, which was entirely possible in earlier games. More powerful equipment won’t even start to appear until you’ve reached a sufficient level. 

Giants are tough. Even this dragon should think twice before pressing his attack.

All this can make for an unwieldy difficulty curve. I was able to steamroll most early encounters, but by the midgame I was spending a lot of time playing keep-away from foes who took several minutes to kill and could drop me in one or two hits. In a classic Elder Scrolls moment I dug into the pile of raw materials I had stashed, churned out a few hundred iron daggers, and then burned up several dozen of the cheapest soul gems to enchant each of them.

The point of all this was to max out my blacksmithing and enchanting skills, and then swap my flimsy mage robes for a set of custom crafted magic armor so powerful I never replaced it for the rest of the 40+ hours I spent in Skyrim. If I had wanted to be truly abusive I could have made entire schools of magic free to cast, made weapons that paralyzed enemies while healing me, and other brokenly powerful stuff. For all I’ve harped on the difficulty curve it’s possible to use the crafting skills to break the game over your knee. It could be argued that this is what the Elder Scrolls series has always been about. 

Trouble in Valhalla

Skyrim is an amazing and absorbing game, but it does have some considerable design flaws. Chief amongst these is that inventory management is pure hell. The default UI is clearly designed to accommodate console users and is agonizing for anyone using a mouse and keyboard. Everything you own is dumped into a long alphabetized list of names with limited filtering. You’re forced to scroll through the whole thing, starting at letter A, every time you want to change gear, use a potion, ready a spell, or otherwise get any goddamn thing done

There are limited hotkeys, but they were so poorly explained I had to check YouTube to figure out how to use them and they don’t really work with dual wielding or casting. After the hundredth time pausing the game to scroll through dozens of names I would have cheerfully killed for a grid and mouse based inventory.

Characters are also fairly restricted in the amount of weight they can haul around, especially in the early game. As a compulsive looter and scavenger I had to spend a disproportionate amount of time grappling with the horrible inventory interface to sort, stow, and toss junk. Even I was forced to admit I probably didn’t need to be carrying that many brooms and potatoes and start paying attention to the value/weight ratio of stuff. To exacerbate the problem most merchants only keep a limited amount of gold on hand. Liquidating your loot can require a tour of the entire province. 

Skyrim, very much in character for the Elder Scrolls series, is also a buggy game. Playing months and a good number of major patches after release I was still encountering broken quests, weird NPC behavior, and in one case a mob of un-killable guys with the same name all standing waist deep in the ground. There’s nothing game-breaking and performance was generally stable, but be prepared for a constant stream of oddities, minor annoyances, and general weirdness.  

World without End

Once you acclimatize to this Skyrim is a world that’s packed with flavor and life. NPC’s follow regular schedules and chat with one another. The wilds are full of wandering ambient life and events already in progress when you ride by. Dozens of surprisingly well written in-game books flesh out the world and provide optional back-story. Most importantly people heckle you if you’re running around naked, which is always nice touch.

It’s not quite total freedom. A lot of the plot critical NPCs can’t actually be killed before their time. Your ability to enforce permanent change on the world is limited. You can’t, for example, clear a fort of bandits and then hire soldiers and workers to repair it into your personal fortress. Even completing the civil war just changes the uniforms of the guards in half the towns.  

When you’re tired of being a roving heavily armed murder-hobo you can settle down, buy a house, and even get married. None of this is crucial, but it’s a great touch and provides some worthwhile benefits. As a compulsive hoarder my home quickly became crammed with junk which my spouse dutifully tolerated, kicking her way through the piles of discarded shields, books, and dragon bones to get around. Amusingly any marriageable NPC can be convinced to fall for you regardless of gender. Make sure you’re ready to spend the rest of your life with that particular elf though, because Skyrim doesn’t allow divorce or re-marriage.

Sometimes you just need to stop and admire the view.

Finally, do yourself a favor and play this game on a PC. If you don’t own a machine that can run it, wait till you do. Why? Mods.

Like Morrowind and Oblivion before it Skyrim hosts a huge and thriving mod community. A few of my favorite include Sky UI, which totally revamps the inventory into something actually useable, a giant compilation of fan made bug fixes, and  a mod that lets you spend Dragon Souls as an alternative to perk points. While there are certainly a lot of junk and borderline creepy mods out there the community is generally good about up-voting the coolest and most useful ones, and Steam makes installing them a snap. Collectively they afford Skyrim a degree of flexibility, utility, and constant free new content rarely seen.

Ultimately I’ve sunk far, far too many hours into Skyrim not to honestly recommend it. It’s the kind of game you can play for months, if not years, and never truly finish. Anyone who enjoys RPGs and games in general should strongly consider getting it, if they haven’t already.

Reasons to play: Massive, beautiful, expansive world. Tons of content. Dragon battles. Shout people over cliffs. 

Reasons to pass: Awful inventory UI. Loads of minor bugs and general weirdness. Character progression system can create awkward difficulty curve.

Note: I played on the fourth most challenging out of five difficulty levels. The difficulty curve issues I’ve noted are likely much less notable at lower levels. 

Articles copyright James Cousar, games and images copyright their respective owners.