Wednesday, November 16, 2011

A confession: Skryim review

Yes, I have a confession to make. From last Friday until tonight, my modding efforts were completed put on hold due to one main reason: Skyrim.  The latest installment in The Elder Scrolls series is nothing short of spectacular, and this incredible game and gameworld make for a supremely engaging experience. After 40 hours of playtime and I still feel like I've only scratched the surface of the game.

The game starts off in typical Elder Scrolls style with you as a prisoner, but of course that doesn't last very long. You're soon thrust into the role of the unwitting hero, and find yourself at the centre of more than one conflict. As I started playing, I encountered two interface niggles that suggested that someone had been playing the PC version so long that these "seem normal":
1. How do I close the inventory of the chest I just looted using the letter "E"? Oh, "tab". Right, how obvious. It would have been handy to have something on the interface tell me that.
2. Why am I assigning something to my right hand with a left mouse click (which pops up a little "R" symbol) and to my left hand with a right mouse click (which pops up a little "L") symbol.
Small complaints, yes, but they were annoying to contend with in my first couple of hours of the game. Despite this initial confusion, you do quickly get used to these and the world of Tamriel is more engrossing and believable than ever.

I was complaining about something... oooo, that's pretty.

One thing that Bethesda do very well is learn from past mistakes. Oblivion did away with Morrowind's horrible abomination of a journal, added fast travel ("purists" can complain all they want, but it does make the game more enjoyable) and overall reduced the inaccessibility of Morrowind by making it slightly easier to not get yourself killed with remarkable ease at lower levels. Of course, Oblivion wasn't without its own issues, but again Skyrim pushes the series forward.  The levelling system is much improved, removing the asinine necessity to level up secondary skills in order to make sure you can increase your attributes. In fact, the only attributes you have to worry about are magicka, health and stamina. While this might seem like a simplification, the introduction of skill perk trees more than makes up for this change, and actually enables far greater depth of character development as you pick which skills you want to pick perks for. While the combat still feels a little clunky at times, it's definitely improved over Oblivion, and the ability dual wield weapons and/or spells is a nice touch.  Also gone is Oblivion's creature levelling system - meaning you can encounter creatures that you can decimate... or those that can decimate you. There still appears to be some levelling in place, but the system is much more refined, and you won't suddenly find yourself beset by bandits decked out in full glass armor all the time.

There's nothing quite like the wandering and exploration aspect of an Elder Scrolls game, and in this aspect Skyrim delivers delivers in spades. It's hard to convey the sheer size and depth of content in this world, and you can quite literally spend hours wandering around getting sidetracked on one quest or another. As I was trekking towards a distant location, I happened across a pilgrim on his way to a shrine. He marked the location of this shrine on my map... despite that it was a significant distance away, I took the next turn on the path and decided to beat him to the shrine. The creatures also mean that the exploration is never dull, for you never know when you suddenly might be attacked by an angry bear, a troll, a group of mammoths and giants, or even a dragon. Better yet is that even if you're outmatched, you can still decide to run away and live to tell the tale. This only adds to the sense that the world is "real" and that while you might be a hero (or anti-hero), you don't have to try to stick it out against ridiculous odds... or load up that save in order to go somewhere else.

Why do I get the feeling that going into that cave is a very bad idea?

The individual stories and quests that you encounter are quite interesting, and there are plenty of them. You'll get dozens of miscellaneous tasks very quickly from just talking to strangers, and other sidequests are plentiful as well. There's 70 voice actors instead of the dozen in Oblivion, which is so overwhelmingly welcome. Though facial expressions are still lacking, characters come across as quite believable and you generally don't care too much when you're caught up in the act of exploring the world and the lives and troubles of everyone in it.  The world feels so much more compelling than Oblivion, although it does feels as though it lacks the visual vibrancy and variety of Oblivion... though that might be in part because it snows so damn much, or at least is has for me. You won't, however, be trekking through dungeons and get that tedious feeling of "I've been here before" as you did with Oblivion. Other developers and games should take heed here - yes, Dragon Age 2, I'm looking at you.

Drawing another area where Skyrim excels (and Dragon Age 2 failed) is the continuity of the setting. This is something that the Elder Scrolls series and Bethesda are very good at delivering. Every previous game gets rolled into the collective history of the setting, with events sometimes set in motion due to previous games, or ideas and threats that are mentioned in previous games come to light in subsequent titles. The extensive library of books within the game carries over some titles that were present in past games, but there are still a joy for lore-loving players, old and new. You can read about the Nerevarine (Morrowind) or the Hero of Kvatch (Oblivion), and delve into the history of figures in those games or who have played roles in the history of Tamriel outside of the games. Despite the fact that hundreds of years have passed between Oblivion and Skyrim, the two games feel far more connected than the dozens of character cameos in Dragon Age 2 ever managed. Even a major character like Anders didn't provide continuity, and not just because Adam Howden wasn't as good as Greg Ellis. In Skyrim, you might be a hero, but you still get the sense that you're a hero in a vast and vibrant world. When a sandbox delivers that, you know it's done well.

The heroine Linaeryl contemplating her place in Skyrim and Tamriel

If you've never played an Elder Scrolls game before, Skyrim is an incredible place to start, and if you've tried previous outings, it delivers more than you've faced before. If you're looking for the freedom to explore a fully realised fantasy setting, there's nothing else that comes close to delivering what it can. While there can be some bland visuals (or the occasional glitch) and there are some quest bugs, it's hard to imagine that a game this size could come without them. It doesn't seem to deliver an epic story-telling masterpiece (though I confess I haven't finished the main storyline yet), but that has never really been the highlight of Elder Scrolls games. There have been some really nice moments, but where the series excels is letting the player tell their own story. It's about the player's collective experiences and tales as they travel through the world, and this is where Skyrim is nothing short of sublime.

If you at all have an interest in this sort of game, do yourself a favour and go out and get a copy. You won't regret it. Skyrim is not only the best RPG of 2011, it's the best game of 2011.

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