Thursday, November 17, 2011

Let's Talk About - TES V: Skyrim

Morwen at Skyrim's start

I know that I promised to finish ME1 Meriel's Journal earlier this week (if you are following the dates on Meriel's Story), but that isn't going to happen for one very important reason TES V: SKYRIM IS WORKING ON MY COMPUTER.  I could have sworn that it was not supposed to function given how old my computer and vid card are, but on a whim I decided to try installing it anyway.  To my surprise, the game actually runs quite well.  Granted I am working with the lowest of the low level graphics, and therefore am not experiencing any of the awesome visuals I know the game has.  Also, every once in a while the game seems to get overloaded, and will simply stall for about fifteen seconds. These, however, are very small quibbles since I originally did not think I would be able to make the game run at all.  We shall return to Mass Effect after Thanksgiving, but I wanted to spend the days inbetween simply reveling in the unexpected.

The Packaging
As I mentioned on Friday, I pre-ordered Skyrim for the map.  I personally had expected some kind of low quality paper product (think Oblivion GotY's paper map), but had heard rumors about Skyrim's being canvas.  It seems that the rumors were only partially right.  It was a map made of canvas paper.  True canvas would have been really nice, but that really would be expecting quite a bit I suppose.  The canvas paper, however, is of a very nice thickness.  Overall, I'm pleased with the extra.  I'm not entirely certain it was worth purchasing the game now, instead of waiting for a price drop, but I really can't complain too much since it gave me the opportunity to play a game on day-one, something I've never done before.

I was far less impressed with the outside packaging though.  Bethesda, it seems, has started skimping on their CD cases.  I've bought DVD's from Walmart's $5.00 bin that had more substantial casing than this.  The cover depresses when I try to snap it shut, it does not actually slick closed on the first try, and the little clips that are supposed to hold the map/manual in popped out as soon as I opened the shrink wrap.  That's right.  Popped out.  Those clips are not even part of the case anymore.  I tried popping them back into the case, but only one of them would go, and even then the slightest shake will dislodge it.  As someone who purposefully buys hard copies of games for the physical product, this packaging was more than disappointing.  At least it came with an actual manual though.  A lot of companies seem to be going the pdf manual route now, which it a real shame.  It's nice to see that Bethesda isn't one of them.

The Game
The World
I've put about thirty hours into Skyrim so far, and for the most part it is very impressive.  While it's world doesn't have the strangeness or sense of danger that Morrowind's Vvardenfell had, Skyrim's scenery is  still less familiar (and therefore more engaging) than Oblivion's Cyrodiil.  It's desolate landscape ranges from barren seashores and swampland, to sparsely forested areas and frigid wastelands.  The roads, while well defined, give a sense of prolonged use.  They are missing cobblestones in some places, and in others they disappear altogether.  The farms, villages, and cities spotting the country side make you feel as if they grew up there overtime (instead of the cut-paste feel that Cyrodill's cities had).  
Its Storytelling  
As someone who would rather climb over the mountains then stick to the road, it was particularly rewarding to discover funerary alters and burial sites in the side of some mountain tops.  I could just imagine the soldier's family trekking up there on an annual pilgrimage to place gifts at his grave.  Another time I ran across an area of blood drenched snow.  After fending off multiple wolves, I discovered a soldier's camp.  The soldier was dead and his body looted.  He must have been killed by bandits, because they took anything of potential value, but left behind two of the soldier's freshly killed deer (lucky for me).  It must have been the deer who attracted the wolves.  It's really nice to have the feeling that there are other stories happening in the world besides yours ... stories that don't necessarily result in FedEx quests.
A Brief Good/Bad
The Good
There is so much good that can be said about Skyrim.  For instance, the main quest, what little I've touched so far, is engaging.  I actually want to play it (a first in the TES games). But the MQ is only part of the picture.  More than anything I've been enjoying the NPCs and the ways I interact with them.  See more of that below.
The Bad
On the other hand, the user interface is deplorable.  It was clearly designed for play with a controller, and no concessions were made by Bethesda for those of us who like playing with a keyboard and mouse.  I've gotten used to the UI's weirdness over time, but still do not like it much.  Another thing that really frustrates me is the keyboard mapping.  For the past ten years, the "E" key has been the jump button.  Why then does Skyrim use the space bar for jump?  My firs forty-five minutes of play were (no joke) spent remapping my keyboard controls so that they retained even a semblance of former Elder Scrolls mapping.   The problem with remapping, however, is that keyboard prompts in the UI all too often reflect the factory keys instead of the remapped ones.  For instance, because of some switching around I did, "F" n for some reason no longer favorites an item.  Instead I have to use "R."  On the screen, however, I'm told to use "F" to favorite and "R" to drop.  I have to remember in my head that I actually need to do the opposite ... usually.  Sometimes the keys aren't swapped at all.  I'm not certain what's up with that. Thankfully the interaction prompts that pop up onscreen "press ___ to use chopping block, press ___ to use cooking pot, etc." changed in response to my remapping.  As far as complaints go, however, this is pretty much it.  As a dual wielder (one hand destruction magic and the other a one-handed weapon) I've also experienced quite a bit of character lock-up where the weapon hand gets stuck in the air (thus becoming impossible to use) but my magic hand, though stuck, still functions fine.  After some experiementing I discovered that reassigning magic to the weapon hand (and thus throwing magic with both hands) will fix the issue in combat.  Things like this are annoying, but are relatively easy to over look since they do not drastically hurt my game play.  There is so much else that is right about Skyrim, that its flaws quickly pale in comparison.  I'm just thankful that in some thirty hours of gameplay, my game has only crashed to desktop once.  That has got to be a new record since my unpatched Morrowind used to crash every 30-45 minutes, and unpatched Oblivion  was not much better with a crash every 1-1.5 hours.
Particular Impressions
Property Ownership
Early on in the game I was invited to eat at someone's house.  After a certain amount of time, the food (and a few other items) in the house changed status so that I could take them legally instead of stealing them.  I thought that was a nice touch to actually be allowed to take food at a house where I was asked to eat.  It is frustrating, however, that in-room food at Skyrim inns remains stolen property.  If I rent the room and a bed, shouldn't the food laid out in that room also be mine?  It was in Oblivion (I think ...), but it isn't in Skyrim.  In fact, I "stole" the in-room food at one inn only to find myself tracked down by three very powerful thugs (read: death squad) who were hired by the inn keeper in retribution as I left town.  That's a bit excessive don't you think?  On the other hand, it is nice to see NPCs more aware of the world around them.  For example, while Oblivion's common area containers return in this game, NPCs actually find is strange if they see your rooting through them.  While in a small village outside of the city Solitude, I opened a commonly owned barrel (thus, not stealing).  In the background, I heard one lady ask what I was doing, rooting through a barrel like that.  In response, the NPC she was talking to surmised that I was hungry and must be looking for food.
          NPCs in General
Bethesda will never win any awards for realistic NPC animations or NPC interactions, but the NPCs of Skyrim are a far cry above anything we have seen from them before.  Sure many of the NPCs had recycled dialogue (I really got sick of hearing guards grousing about the probability of my reporting a stolen sweet roll), but for the most part that was to be expected.  What I did not expect, however, was the responsiveness that the characters had to my player character.  For instance, the first time I absorbed a dragon's soul and learned a shout, I proudly trekked back to the city shouting at the top of my lungs. As soon as I was within sight of the city's main door, however, a guard ran up to me and asked that I quit shouting.  He said that it was making the townspeople nervous.  That just made me smile.  Today, a co-worker said that he dropped a couple of daggers he did not want on the floor of a house.  In response, a guard ran up and told him to stop leaving dangerous weapons lying about.  That is just one kind of NPC action.  A clumsy individual, both in RL and in game, NPCs are forever telling me to watch out and to be careful when Morwen runs into a table and knocks something off it.  NPCs will also ask Morwen what her problem is, when she has been particularly careless.  If you run about town with your sword drawn, guards will comment that seeing a woman with her sword out might put them on edge.  At inns, other NPCs will often come and sit down beside my character on a bench when she takes a load off around the inn's fireplace.  I've been playing Skyrim for a week now, and the effort that Bethesda put into these details still amazes me.  It makes my heart happy to see that they were able to improve the world's responsiveness to my character, without sacrificing any of the atmosphere that makes Elder Scrolls games feel like Elder Scrolls games.
Zoomed-in Finishing Moves
I know these probably bug a great number of people, but I just wanted to say how much I love watching the finishing move cut-scenes every once in a while.  Remember how I complained about the combat in Dragon Age II, but adored the extreme magical effects because they made me feel like my magic was actually doing something?  That is what these finishing move cut scenes do for me.  They make Morwen feel like she is really doing something when she's fighting.  This is one addition to the TES series that I heartily support.
The Verdict
Skyrim is a very well thought out sandbox game.  By retaining most of Oblivion's redeeming features (few that they were) and combining them with the things I liked most about Morrowind, this newest entry in the Elder Scrolls series in a true winner.  The PC version is by no means perfect, but I willingly, and easily, overlook and adapt to its faults.  It goes without saying that Skyrim is worlds better than Oblivion.  Only time will tell how well it holds up to Morrowind (it being the gold standard of open-world RPGs), but at this point in time that hardly matters.  If you can embrace the glitches and the charm they bring to all TES releases, then I heartily recommend Skyrim, warts and all.  

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