December 10, 2011
By Ryan Caso
Before I get into the actual review I should first inform you all of where I am coming from. Not because I am 100% right in my analysis but because I have looked at Skyrim in many different lights. I promised myself and my friend that I would look at Skyrim and give it as impartial a review as possible. This eventually translated to me giving it a very critical first review where I hated the game almost entirely. I hated the install, I hated the menus, I hated the skills, I hated the perks, I hated everything except the world. Then I realized that I had done exactly what I had said I did not want to. It became apparent that to fix this I had to stop lying to myself and review the game for what it was, Skyrim. That’s it nothing else, no “The Elder Scrolls”, just Skyrim. I have been playing the “Elder Scrolls” game series for 15 years now so separating that portion from Skyrim was difficult and unorthodox for me but it is also essential. I feel it is also essential for the gaming community at large because Skyrim really breaks from it.
First we shall go over the things that I mentioned in the opening paragraph and my thoughts on them now, starting with the install. The install is a nit-picking thing but still an important issue to me. It has less to do with the game and more to do with what I had paid for. I had paid for a physical copy of the game with my expectations being that I would get a standard install, one where I place my DVD into the drive and run the setup program which then goes through the standard paces. I expected to be asked to choose install options, especially the one where I tell the game where it can install on my computer. This never happened. Instead I placed my DVD in the drive and my computer attempted to open Steam. I had turned Steam off, and usually leave it off unless I want to play a Steam game, so I was a little lost when it popped up asking for my login credentials. I thought maybe I had hit the Steam Icon on my quick launch, which is very possible and happens often, so I closed it and waited patiently for Skyrim to start installing. After a couple of seconds I knew that something was wrong so I opened the DVD in windows explorer and manually ran the setup program. Again, steam opened and asked for my login. At this point I looked back at the setup icon in windows explorer and threw my mouse down in frustration. Noticing that the setup was a Steam setup I resigned to letting the game sit for another hour or two before I installed it.
Why was I so upset about the install? I could claim that I was concerned for the people who wanted to play Skyrim without signing up for some weird program they had never heard of before, or for those who do not like programs like Steam but rather prefer to just install a game without having to download more. Really, why should someone be forced to sign-up for a service they do not want to play a game that, in all reality, is not even associated with the game they bought? Last I checked Bethesda Game Studios is not a subsidiary of Valve nor is it a parent company of Valve. Then why is everyone who wants to play Skyrim forced to get a Steam account which is managed by Valve? My problem with this was less noble, however. I prefer a tyrannical type of control over my computer. When I install a program I tell it what it is allowed to do. I tell it where it can install and what it has access to. I always overwrite the standard install directories to fit my needs. I organize my games by developer. I do this because I like to tear apart and mod my games so I make the files easy to access. Especially with games that come with modding tools, like the “Elder Scrolls” series since Morrowind, this is a very beneficial setup. I guess my problem here is mostly the responsibility of Valve with Steam but the former, nobler, reasons still stand. With a physical copy the setup program should be a standard program, only those who order the game on Steam should have been given Steam installs.
What next? Well I installed the game an hour later and started playing. I was again excited for the game, having decided to ignore the fact that it was Steam installed. After starting my new game and reaching the point in the tutorial where you are forced to be oriented to the new menu system I ran into my next big problem with Skyrim. This problem is something that seems to be permeating the culture of gaming culture in its entirety. That is the development of preferential menus for consoles that have no respect for PCs at all. The menus system is obviously tailored to console users. It is just lists that you can traverse up and down, then expand by ‘moving’ right and collapse by ‘moving’ left. On PC the only sane way to navigate these menus is with the WASD keys, your movement keys. This completely nullifies the most important piece of hardware in terms of Human interaction with computers next to the monitor. The mouse is almost completely useless in the Skyrim menus. On top of the mouse being useless in them the menus themselves lack any kind of style. They are a bland black gray and white that is transparently displayed over the in-game view. After the menus of every other “Elder Scrolls” game this one seems very much uninspired and lack-luster.
So far we have hit two very uninspiring and unconvincing, but not entirely trivial, arguments for the dropping of the “Elder Scrolls” from the game’s name. However my next point carriers the weight of all the games that came before Skyrim. Skyrim claims to be a member of the long noble line of “Elder Scrolls” games. All of these games have very specific similarities that carry very clearly from one to the other, aside from the lore. One of these things is the class system of the Elder Scrolls. Every game in the series has had a class system that affected attributes that affected skills. Starting with the very first game in the series, The Elder Scrolls Arena, players have been able to choose or generate their class. This system was only ever dropped once and that was for The Elder Scrolls Adventures Redguard. Notice the addition of “Adventures”. Bethesda even acknowledged that this was not directly an Elder Scrolls game; it is recognized as a sub-game that is an adventure in the world of the Elder Scrolls lore. I have never played this game so I am not sure if the character, which is pre-defined not set by the player, still has all the attributes or not but I imagine it does not. Skyrim is supposed to be the next in the line of the Elder Scrolls games, a direct sequel.
The leveling systems in Morrowind and Oblivion were great. They relied on the attributes with major and minor skills. Morrowind did not care about the major or minor identifier for advancement so much as Oblivion which required major skills to be advanced to gain a level. The decision to have monsters level with you in Oblivion is the only complaint available for that system. The Perk based system in Skyrim however is, in my opinion, horrible. The perk system removes specialization from the equation. Instead of investing the time and effort to finally make a system where being either a bard, acrobat, scout or any of the other classes actually made a difference Bethesda ran from the idea in favor of the simpler and easier to implement system that they adopted from Fallout 3. Without going into detail, I hate the Fallout series in general (all of them, Interplay’s and Bethesda’s). Morrowind had arguably the best leveling system of the Elder Scrolls games. Almost everything you did mattered, only miscellaneous skills did not count towards advancement. The system is seamless with-in the game in that there is not much connection with numbers to the levels aside from requirements for perks. This would be nice in a first person shooter like rage but in a role-playing game it makes no sense.
Two final problems I had with the game – too much to start and no way to equip a shield in my right hand. First the ‘too much’ issue. Yes, I feel they have given the player too much too start with, and by this I mean too many items and too much gold. In Morrowind I remember starting out exactly as it said, a prisoner let free. Like a prisoner let free I had no money, at all. The few items I had were things I took without permission from the census office in Seyda Neen. In Oblivion you started with one of each general item and a bit in the way of cash. In Skyrim I, without trying, had an entire set of good armor, multiple types of weapons and bags of gold thrown at me before I even made it to Riverwood. Subject change: the right hand shield deal, just something I felt should have been there. When you go about proclaiming how awesome your reworked animation system is you should probably cover both bases, right and left handed. I am right handed so the sword in the right hand is normal for me, but in game it was awkward. It was really weird and I still do not know why but the mapping of the sword and shield confused me for a while and I ended up swapping the two mouse button mappings to compensate for the inability to switch the main attacking hand.
Now that I am done complaining about it, yes, breathe a sigh of relief you fools for the complaints of an Elder Scrolls elitist are over, I shall talk about what I liked in the game.
The most important part of an Elder Scrolls game is the world. The world is the game’s main character. It is not possible to find an Elder Scrolls game that does not have an impressive and beautifully involved world. Many complain about the lack of character in Oblivion but that is because they did not recognize the character of Cyrodiil. I mostly blame this on the player base that Oblivion gained being the ignorant loud minority but for Skyrim this problem is not a concern. Skyrim like Morrowind has a distinct and recognizable character that cannot be dismissed as boring and repetitive. The countryside is full of creatures and people going about their daily business. There are bandit camps preying upon the exposed populace due to the majority of forces being sent to fight a war. In the mountains there are ruins dedicated to the old dragons who acted as god-figures. There are burial places to famous people from the game lore which, to anyone even minimally aware of it, makes the place rich with history.
On top of that the people who inhabit the world are believable and busy. Everyone in a city has a house in or around it. If they do not then they probably have one in another city and are traveling for whatever reason. Everyone in the game has a job, which is more than the real world can say. Each city has a style to it. Whiterun, one of the first cities you encounter, has a different style from Riverwood and Helgen, two other early cities. Solitude and Riften differ greatly from the previous and Markarth has a style totally unto itself.
The people in the cities not only have lives but they even have personalities. They choose sides in the war that is going on and stick by it. Some will appreciate you and what you do while others will be upset by it. The children act like children, some of them playing pranks and running around, others following but advising against it or acting less rambunctious. Even bandit leaders keep tabs on the climate of the world.
Furthermore the Creation Engine is beautiful. Sadly no matter where you go there will always be someone complaining about graphics not being up to par. Coming from a rational path of understanding video game graphics my ruling is that the graphics in Skyrim are amazing. Even more so when you factor in the low performance cost. My three year old laptop can run the game at High settings. Back on track, the Creation Engine provides really far draw distances, a staple in Elder Scrolls games, and nicer gradients between LODs (levels of detail; basically simplified models that cut down on processing requirements for far away objects) that compliment the clouds/fog and blurring of distance. I do not know about most people, but for me the blurring and fogging seems realistic. I generally don’t see far-away places in a lot of detail and this game comes really close to how I do see them. Lighting in the Creation Engine is also very nice, but I have little more to say there, that is why it is appended here.
Snow. There is something that permeates the entirety of the game. No matter where you go there is snow visible somewhere. It can be distant snow on the mountains or it could be the snow flying in your face as you walk in knee deep drifts. The team at Bethesda did a really good job at capturing snow for this game. The way it builds up on rocks and surfaces and the way it drifts into piles and dunes almost. They even did a good job at making it feel miserable when you are caught in the middle of a snow storm. It gets dark and difficult to see, the only thing they are missing is the tool to make the player physically cold and miserable (though I doubt they really want that).
The combat in Skyrim has been drastically improved. Archery was never much of a problem. Magic on the other hand is much better now than in previous games. The dual-wielding makes magic much more seamless; magic being something that should be seamless in an Elder Scrolls game, especially for a battlemage. Oh wait, you cannot be a battlemage anymore – sorry, I will stop. Not only can you now use a sword and spell at the same time but mages can also continuously cast some spells. This works much better for spells such as healing spells that you would rather just hold down until your health is back rather than repeatedly press casting over and over.
The melee is also much better. The game now has multiple different animations and attack styles. The styles seem to be linked to distances from opponents and angles to them but it might just be a coincidence that mine line up like that. If I am in close to an enemy though my character will smash their helmet with the butt of the sword rather than attempting to slash them while they are too close do realistically do such a move. The special kill animations are also a nice touch. My favorites so far are the ones with battle axes. One of which involves my character first tripping the target with the pole and then bringing the axe down on their torso. Another of my favorites is against saber tooth cats and wolves where I catch them jumping at me, slamming the blade of the battleaxe into their mouth.
Skyrim, similarly to the Elder Scrolls games, came with a plethora of new creatures as well as the standards. Personally I was very happy to see the mudcrab still alive and kicking, so to speak. Along with it came a host of new and fun creatures to fight. For this part we will stick to the standard creatures, i.e. not dragons.
Going back to the whole world being encompassing and believable, Skyrim brought with it the mammoths and giants. Two very important creatures to the game although they may not seem it. These two on their own add much to the game world. The look and feel of the world is complimented by their existence as it makes it feel like you are in an ice age. The giants being tame but protective herders of these monstrous beasts. Along with these two goes the saber-tooth cat and to some lengths the snowy version of the wolf. These creatures bring about the immersion of the world from the creatures perspective. Climbing mountains fighting snow-white wolves and cats and then going down into valleys only to run into more wolves and cats, again with area matching fur, makes the world very believable.
Skyrim is not just about making the world believable though, it’s about making a fantastically believable world. This fantastical part comes in with my personal favorite new creature. After I saw the first released piece of concept art for the Ice Wraiths I knew immediately that I was going to love them, and I was right. Ice Wraiths are supposed to be sentient manifestations of the cold and harsh climate of the province of Skyrim. I love fighting these monsters because of their attack styles being very much rooted in the fact that they are concentrated cold. One of the first things the enemy does is not hit you but pass right through you, chilling your character to the bone. On top of that the animations for this creature are just too cool (ha-ha, no that pun was not on purpose but I am leaving it in on purpose).
Another awesome creature, one that is making a grand return with a new skin, is the troll. Trolls for Skyrim have gotten an extreme make over from Oblivion where they were less imposing. The trolls in Skyrim, unlike Oblivion, have very mean looking faces, usually coated with blood from recent prey and live in areas that form a kind of nest out of the bodies from the aforementioned prey. On top of being imposing these creatures are also very difficult to fight. They hit hard and fast and are very relentless in their assault. Exactly what I would expect from a troll, especially when it lives in such conditions as these trolls do. In Skyrim defeating a troll early on actually is kind of an accomplishment.
So, what would a Skyrim review be without dragons? Complete, possibly. There is almost no reason to mention dragons in this review. It’s almost unanimous that the dragons in this game were done perfectly. I have little in the way to refute those non-arguments. I loved the dragons. When you hear someone say, “The dragons are back and terrorizing the countryside” and then run into a dragon in the countryside, there is little to say about it. They exist. Dragons exist in this world and the game makes it so. It does not cover it up or put them into some kind of special cutscene activated part or quest. Dragons will just waltz up and kill you if they see you.
Fine, fine, the technical parts. Animations were amazing. Good job on the dragon animations, not so great on the people (shield argument from way above).
So, you want to know my overall opinion of the game? I loved it. I thought it was great. It is loads of fun and has my expected beautiful world design. The dungeons are fun, the cities are fun, and just walking the countryside is fun. Everything about the game is beautifully put together. I want them to release a gigantic patch that drops all perks and replaces it with a Morrowind style attributes, major skills, minor skills, miscellaneous skills system. Sadly that will not happen. My recommendation? Yeah, it gets it.