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The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim [Mar. 18th, 2012|06:10 pm]

Apparently I have another post in me today. I'm as surprised as you are. 

Realizing I haven’t posted about Skyrim probably should not surprise me. It’s hard for me to say that I’ve “finished” Skyrim, when I know there are substantial portions of the game that I haven’t touched and may never actually play through.

That said, my hour commitment on my primary character (yes, I have more than one) is easily over 100, so it’s probably fair to say that I’ve done enough to be able to talk about the game. Also, with something new coming along all the time, I might as well do it now.

I really liked Oblivion, and I’m going to draw on my experience with that game extensively in talking about Skyrim. Generally, Skyrim is better: it is obviously the more recent game, and feedback from Oblivion has obviously been used to improve Skyrim. Fortunately, the same things are still good: wandering around, seeing pretty landscapes, getting savaged by bears, dungeon delving, etc. In fact, there are some ways in which they’re slightly better. That most dungeons will tell you when you’ve cleared them is a great feature: one of the most annoying things in Oblivion was deciding to go clear out a dungeon, only to get there and realize that I’d already done that one (there would still be monsters, but I’d always rather clear a new dungeon that go through the same place again).

Although I didn’t go all-in on crafting, the alterations to the crafting system are appreciated: having to lug around the heavy gear was one of the reasons I never did alchemy in Oblivion. It was also nice to see some of the crafting benches in places like dungeons, where they were in theme with the inhabitants: necromancers tend to have alchemy and enchanting benches, while bandits might have a forge. Sometimes people will even be using them when you get there (which I especially like since I tend to play a sneaky archer, and someone distracted using a bench will quickly add a long, feathered ear). My favorite of these is the cooking hearth: unfortunately, I wish there were more recipes, or that there were recipes for higher-level characters. Once you’ve leveled your health a bit, it gets to the point where eating absolutely everything you can reasonably carry might restore a substantial portion of your health, but only once and no guarantees. My primary character carries a few items of food, but that’s for narrative purposes and not because I am expecting that to help me out when I get hurt.

That’s an interesting thing to comment on in the Elder Scrolls, and Skyrim in particular: carrying weight. Generally, I find that I try to maximize the amount of value I can carry away from a given dungeon, which means there are things and categories of things that I don’t pick up. Expect at the very beginning of the game, I tend not to loot most enemy weapons or armor: unlike Oblivion, the armor and weapons of most enemies don’t become more valuable as you level up in Skyrim: most of the Draugr will be swinging the same kinds of weapons, worth the same amount of gold, whether you’re level 14 or 40.  Bandits will still be wearing leather and iron at high levels, etc. So generally I only tend to pick up things that either meet a certain value to weight ratio, or that I find interesting for some other reason (books are a good example of this). This becomes more difficult later on: the game does not let you drop or get rid of “quest items” from your inventory. I understand why this is the case: the designers don’t want the player to lose something that they’ll want later. However, it’s also annoying, since some of those quest objects can’t be removed from your inventory even after the quest is completed. My primary character has to lug around a 20 lb. Elder Scroll forever, now, even though I’ve already used it for its intended purpose. It seems like I could leave that on a shelf in my nice safe house without too much of a fuss.  

While I liked the aged look of the old map in Oblivion, I also appreciate the more detailed map in Skyrim: it is nice to look at a map and be able to identify ruins because the distinctive arches are represented on the map. Cloud cover and the map being darker at night are less exciting features.

But the biggest surprise for me in Skyrim was the social nuance. I had expected things to be fairly straightforward (as Oblivion is), but I was pleased when I discovered that big issues like the civil war are actually complicated. NPCs frequently have complex motivations for why they support one side or the other. And then there’s Markarth and the Reach: in a game that prominently features a faction devoted to Nordic exceptionalism, I was very surprised to see the Nords depicted as corrupt conquerors, ruling and exploiting lands that have their own cultural identity. To say that the storyline about the Forsworn pissed off is the best possible thing I can say: it was an impressively detailed moral grey in a world I had expected to be black and white. The only faction that seems to be completely straightforward are the Thalmor: they are exclusively mustache-twirling villains that pop up to harass the PC.  

I appreciate the revamped leveling system (thought the old cards depiciting the abilities were more interesting than the constellations). The bar is more satisfying to fill, and getting an automatic free health/stamina/magic refill when you trigger the level up has helped me out of a tight spot more than once. The perks are nice, and especially as a high level character I find I want more and more of them.

But Skyrim does have a problem, which leveling up reveals: while you can use any combination of gear and abilities in Skyrim, if you want to push yourself to high levels you must be everything.  Dan made this clear to me when he reached the maximum skill level in one handed weapons, therefore doing far more damage with them, and switched to two-handed, instead. Once the skill was maxed out, it would no longer help him level up, and he was willing to accept a less preferential weapon (both by play style preference and mechanical benefit), in order to continue to have the swings of his weapon add to his character growth. For someone like me, who resists doing that for my primary character (as an archer, I haven’t been building the stamina necessary for sustained melee combat) that means that my level growth has slowed now that I have maxed out my primary combat skill. It’s still possible, it’s just slower than I would like.

This also comes across in how the character is treated: since you can go through any number of paths, the game has to assume that you can and will go through all of them with the same character. This feels very bizarre to me: the savior of the world feeling equally obliged to become head of the cloistered wizards and the assassins for hire. I tend to build a particular concept of who the character is and try to stick to that as best I can…which is never perfect given the limited flexibility of dialogue options. To a large extent, I blame Bioware for this: from games like Mass Effect and Dragon Age, I’ve come to expect more freedom in how I create a narrative sense of my character than Skyrim allows. Effectively, because the PC could really be anything, the game has to treat them as nothing: they’re the least interesting character because they can’t have a personality.

I was pleased to see that home ownership is now better than ever. The addition of bookshelves, for easy and convenient storage of the unique and/or interesting books acquired during play, and various sorts of weapon and trophy racks, helps you customize dwellings more than ever. I do so obsessively, caring about the order of books on the shelf, the placement of food on the table, and many other minutiae that I assume most players don’t care about. My biggest gripe is how unfortunate it is that the most convenient city, Whiterun, only has the “starter house”, which while cheap is cramped and ugly.  

So, to wrap this up, Skyrim was as good, and maybe better, than I could have hoped for. Give it a try, then you can make sense of all those “arrow to the knee” memes.