It’s been just over two weeks since my life was hi-jacked by a little (big) game called Skyrim. It’s not just been my life either as apparently millions of gamers across the country are watching their free time dwindle away into nothing. I figured I might as well post my impressions, since a full-fledged review is out of the question for such a massive title (by the time I finish this thing it will be considered out-dated), but first some background.
The full title for Skyrim is actually The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim. Developed by Bethesda, The Elder Scrolls franchise began on the PC in 1994. It was never on my radar and I’m not certain if I was ever aware of its existence before 2002 when the third numbered game in the franchise was released on the Xbox. The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind also never captured my imagination. While I longed to play a fantasy epic that could match the freedom of pen and paper RPG’s (without the geeky-ness) I found myself put off by Morrowind’s first-person perspective. I also was able to get my high fantasy fix from Bioware’s Neverwinter Nights series, and while I found that game a bit clunky, I really hadn’t played anything better. It wasn’t until when the fourth game in the series, Oblivion, arrived on PS3 in 2007 that I actually decided to give the franchise a shot.
Oblivion arrived at a perfect time for me. I had only owned a Playstation 3 for a few months and nothing compelling had been released for it. I probably was spending more time with the Wii at that point. I was also in the midst of an RPG drought and needed a fix. In the summer of 2006 I even resorted to going way back and getting a new copy of Baldur’s Gate II to try and slake my thirst but found the game so massive that I lost focus. When I initially purchased Oblivion I wasn’t certain I was going to like it. I’ve never enjoyed the first-person perspective in video games and tried to play the game in third-person but it was so clunky that I succumbed to the first-person. While I still do not particularly care for it, I was able to deal with it and even grow used to it. I played as an assassin and ended up spending over 100 hours with Oblivion, finishing every quest. While the game had warts, it was certainly a compelling and entertaining 100+ hours that I did not regret. When Skyrim was announced last December, it immediately vaulted to the top of my most wanted games list.
Like its predecessor, Skyrim also comes at a good time. Not because of a lack of quality software, far from it, this fall is turning into one of the best fall’s in video game history, but because it’s been 5 years since the original release of Oblivion. I’m ready for a new fantasy epic and nothing in between has really satisfied me. Dragon Age tried, but couldn’t live up to its lofty expectations. And even though my journey through the world of Skyrim was delayed almost immediately by a 10 day vacation I had planned starting on the 12th of November, I’ve still managed to log 40 hours with the game already. I was purposely holding off until I reached my favorite quests from Oblivion, the Dark Brotherhood, before posting impressions. Well, I found the Skyrim version of the Dark Brotherhood on Wednesday night and it’s only been my reluctance to put the game down (and the Thanksgiving holiday) that has kept me from making this entry.
Skyrim has, so far, managed to meet my expectations though not eclipse them. Fundamentally it’s the same game as Oblivion but with a few new twists and upgraded graphics. What’s new? Well for one, the skill system has been refined. You still improve your various skills (one-handed combat, archery, pick pocket, etc.) by performing actions related to that skill, but now increasing skills leads to building levels. Once your level increases, you’re able to select a perk related to one of the many skills or schools of magic in the game. In order to select a perk from, for example, the archery skill tree your skill level in archery must meet or exceed the perk’s requirements. If your skill isn’t at the necessary level for a perk you want you can wait and save that skill point for when you can get the perk you want. It’s not a giant change but it works for the better. There are still ways to exploit the system if you so choose, but the skill point system helps to keep you check to some degree so even though you might manage to get your sneak skill to 100, you still need to level up several times to get the best sneak perks.
Combat has also received a few changes, though nothing major. Supposedly the melee combat has been improved upon but it still feels floaty and unsatisfying to me. As a result, I stick to bows and magic and only pull out a dagger when in close for a backstab attempt. Magic seems much more interesting to me this time around in both a superficial and tactical way. I’ve stuck with the destruction school of magic (fireballs and the like) and that’s my go-to method of combat when not sneaking around and picking off bandits with the bow. In Oblivion I managed to rise to the rank of Arch Mage with the Mage’s Guild despite hardly ever using any magic but this time around I plan on investing some time with it. At some point I’ll branch out to a second and third school but so far destruction has served me well.
While there are no character classes to choose from, I’ve basically stuck with what would be considered the assassin from Oblivion. That is, I spend most of my skill points on sneaking skills while also investing quite a bit in archery. I’ve thrown a couple points into light armor and lock-picking but have thus far neglected the pick pocket tree. My main approach to combat is to not be seen. I get a triple damage modifier with the bow, and a 15 times damage modifier with a dagger, so I stick to the shadows. When drawn into actual combat, I often switch to magic or run. I also still end up doing a lot of the run backwards and shoot technique, even if it’s clumsy. Despite that 15x multiplier on daggers, I still usually stick with bows. Daggers usually only deal around 10 base damage, while a good bow and arrow for me totals over 40, so that 15x is quite deceiving. I have yet to figure out if added enchantments are also multiplied or are just tacked on at the end. As in, I have a bow that adds 10 frost damage to an attack, but I don’t know if that 10 frost damage is multiplied as well.
There’s another major addition to the game that most people are probably already aware of as it’s one of the selling points: Dragons. Dragons roam the skies of Skyrim and can attack at a moment’s notice once certain quest obligations have been fulfilled. When they do, they take precedence. It’s interesting to watch any and all NPC’s immediately shift their attention to dealing with a dragon threat when the winged beast makes its presence known. I’ve so far only encountered the standard dragons and the blood dragons, but there are more powerful ones lurking. I’ve found that taking them down is easiest when there’s something to distract it. Anything that keeps the dragon’s focus away from me is welcome, and if that means my trusty mount has to take one for the team, so be it. I think I’ve killed five or six at this point, so it’s not like they attack all the time. I’ve even had one circle a few times and then move along apparently not even interested in starting a fight with me. The battles are fun though, and the inclusion of dragons is both welcomed and awesome.
As I mentioned, in order to see a dragon certain quest obligations must be met, but fear not as they don’t take a whole lot of time. To say I’ve scratched the surface of the game’s main story-line would be an overstatement. When the game first starts your character finds him or herself a prisoner headed for the block. This is a spoiler free blog entry, but I don’t think it’s spoiling much to say your character avoids that fate and is able to escape. That escape represents your first quest, and the next (for me, I’m not sure if it’s the same for everyone as there is a branching point to the first quest) was to speak to a local person and then head to Whiterun as a sort of ambassador. It’s at Whiterun that you inform the Jarl there of the returned dragon threat and the Jarl organizes a little dragon hunt. Completing that quest is what triggers the random dragon encounters, and also earns your character its first shout power. Shouts are like magic, but have different restraints put on them in terms of how often they can be used. Some recharge faster than others. These shout techniques are found all through-out Skyrim, I so far have found 5, though the first one is given to you. Killing a dragon causes your character to absorb the dragon’s soul which unlocks shout abilities. So you can locate one of these shouts at any given time, but if you don’t have a stored dragon soul you won’t be able to unlock it. To be honest, I haven’t found the shouts all that useful up to this point and often forget to use them. Perhaps that’s because few suit my chosen battle technique but I still find their inclusion to be a positive thing.
Aside from the main quest, there are dozens of other quests and tasks to soak up your time. I probably have over 20 active quests right now, but thankfully none have a time constraint placed upon them. I’ve done several for the Dark Brotherhood and so far have not been let down. The Dark Brotherhood seems to always have very entertaining missions and their approach complements my play style perfectly. As a result, I’ve neglected the other two factions that I’ve so far uncovered, that being Skyrim’s version of the Mages Guild and Thieves Guild. In Skyrim, the wizard college appears to have taken the place of a proper guild. I’ve done a couple tasks for them and have only just opened up the thieves ones. Once I have finished with the Dark Brotherhood, I’ll probably focus on the mage ones and continue to build up my magic prowess while also investing some skill points in the more thief oriented skill trees before I dive into those quests. I’ve also encountered several dungeons and old keeps to raid and clear along the way. Some contain treasure, some almost nothing, but it’s the journey that is most rewarding. I’ve also encountered all kinds of wildlife from lowly wolves to deadly sabre cats and giants. Death is all around you at all times in Skyrim and it helps to be alert to anything.
And while there’s been an awful lot of enjoyment on my end so far, there’s also been some frustrations as well. With any game of this size, there’s always the concern for glitches. I’ve heard of many reports of glitches cropping up but so far my experience has been glitch free. It has not been without technical problems though. The framerate has become an increasing issue the longer I play. I’m not sure if it’s because of the marathon sessions I’ve been having with the game or because my save file has become massive (which is rumored to cause problems for the PS3), but there have been many instances of clipping and severe slowdown at times. I’ve also had the game freeze up on me a few times, one of which was quite an inconvenience as I had just felled a particularly nasty adversary, so I make it a point to save often. Bethesda is set to release a patch in the near future that will hopefully help to combat these issues. My last play session ended when the slowdown became too much to bare. I had been playing for over 4 hours and I’m hopeful that’s the main reason why the performance had begun to lag. If that isn’t the case and it’s because my save file has become too large I fear it could be a game breaker. We’ll see.
Outside of technical problems, the other areas where Skyrim comes up a bit short are common with that of Oblivion and reside in the AI department. Sometimes the non player characters are just stupid and it’s especially noticeable for a sneaky character. Example, I’m in the bowels of a ship and there are two corsairs in a room adjacent to the one I occupy. I fire an arrow into the room killing one of the two outlaws. This alerts the second one that danger is near by and she immediately starts looking around the room, but since she doesn’t find anyone, she says to herself, “Oh, must have been my imagination.” Yes, darling, it was your imagination that killed your buddy who was sitting across from you at the table, and it’s your imagination that is about to end your virtual life as well. Visually, Skyrim is mostly a pleasure to look at but character animations still leave something to be desired. It’s very noticeable if you play in third-person as your character moves quite stiffly. He also doesn’t really conform to the terrain and always has a floating quality to his walking and running. Other characters seems to animate a bit better, but facial animations are almost non existent. Everyone looks like a hand puppet with really only their mouth and chin properly animated. Overall, the people of Skyrim are better to look at than those of Oblivion, but still retain those robotic traits. Animals animate much better, though are some-what of a mixed bag. Rabbits and fox tend to suffer from that same floaty thing people do, and some bears just don’t look much like bears, but the horses, dragons, and walrus-like creatures are quite convincing.
Flaws aside, this game has been quite a blast to experience. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel but it has improved upon Oblivion enough for me to say that Skyrim is the better game, and I have yet to even finish it. There’s still so much more for me to do and I can’t wait to experience everything this game has to offer. The one issue lurking in the shadows does revolve around the frame-rate. Certainly if that does develop into a game breaker I’ll be sure to update this entry, but for now Skyrim comes fully recommended. Don’t sleep on this one!