Tuesday, January 24, 2012

First Impressions of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Steam says that I have 10 hours logged in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyward, so now is as good a time as any to pause for a moment to articulate my first impressions.

The first thing I thought as I rode the wagon into town is that there must be post-it notes all over the walls at the Bethesda studio that say "Player must start every game as a prisoner." I mean seriously, is that the only way to introduce a character to your games' new worlds? Some guy always gets carted in from another realm (so that your ignorance of the lore and customs in the new land are reflected by your character) and put into a prison scenario (so that the game can force you into a confined, linear sequence as they show you the ropes of the gameplay).

The introductory sequence that follows is equally dumb when you consider that a dragon is flying around destroying the outpost, and yet everything waits for you to proceed to the next checkpoint before the next event happens. You just stand there and it's like time stands still with nothing happening, as if the whole game revolves around your every step (because it literally does). The guard stands there repeating the same lines of dialogue over and over and over again ("Check the treasure chest and let's get out of here." "This way! Come on!") as you twiddle your thumbs and kick crumbled bits of the palisades around.

But things do get better after that intro sequence is finally over with. Many more of my thoughts after the jump.

I also have to wonder why a guard who was ready to execute me is so quick to help me escape. All of the other guards are standing around waiting to die, and instead of going to help them or him grabbing one of them to help him escape, he grabs me, the manacled prisoner and gives me weapons and armor to fight our way out of the fort. And then two minutes later we bump into one of the other prisoners who was about to be executed and the guard vows to kill him. Why kill him and help me?

Later on someone mentions that I wasn't supposed to be on that cart for execution (some kind of mistake was made somewhere), and that it's a good thing I survived. But surely that guard didn't know that, did he? I mean, my head was on the chopping block when the dragon attacked, no one had time to figure out that I wasn't supposed to be there. And the guard wasn't some kind of spy or defector or anything---he vows to kill the Stormcloak rebels and then goes on to report back to the Imperial Legion. This thing makes no sense.

This guy from a load screen kind of looks like Kratos.

Oh, and there's one moment where we make it into the fortress keep, and the guard says "Looks like we're the only ones who made it." Yeah, because everyone else was standing around outside waiting to die. Makes our valiant survival seem kind of superficial when we're the only ones who thought to run for it, and no one else showed any signs of even trying to "make it."

Just before that, you have to make an arbitrarily-forced binary decision about whom to follow in your escape from the dragon attack: a guard or one of the prisoners. They both stand around at two different doors calling and imploring me to follow them, when in reality they'd say "To hell with you" and make a break for it by themselves after I'd stood there for 30 seconds not knowing what was going on. This was apparently supposed to foreshadow an overarching theme in the game of whether you side with the reigning Imperial Legion or the Stormcloak rebels, but it was completely stupid and pointless in the beginning when you know diddly squat about the game's backstory and setting and made the game's "epic world" feel like a shallow, farcical stage.

Anyway, I finally have my freedom and the first quest pops up to report to some dude I don't know in some town I know nothing about. So instead of following the main questline to the next town, I turn the exact opposite direction and start exploring. Because that's what you do in an Elder Scrolls game.

As always, that's where the real fun of the game begins. It's fun to wander around on a free leash, discovering things for yourself, collecting loot and leveling up along the way. And so far, it seems like Skyrim is handling this aspect a lot better than Oblivion, which is a pleasantly surprising compliment from me.

Two of the big problems Oblivion had were the level scaling and the overall design of its world. Every enemy that you encountered was scaled to your level, so if you were level 10 you always encountered enemies that you could reasonably handle, thus making the game feel shallow and repetitive. And the world was designed much like a cereal bowl with the capital city in the very center, other cities radiating out from the center, and with mountains bordering the explorable world. Most of the terrain in the center was just plain grasslands and woodlands, and everywhere you went looked much like the previous areas (in terms of its appearance and its relation to other areas in the map).

Accidentally finding a main quest item before it was assigned.

So far in Skyrim I've run into several enemy types that were realistically too strong for me to handle (giants, chaurus, trolls, couple of other odd enemies). I've actually encountered some challenging areas in Skyrim that test my wits and force me either to play more intelligently by using different skills and techniques, or to humbly accept my low level and vow to come back once I'm stronger. These are the kinds of things that add depth to an open-world game and it makes me want to keep exploring and doing stuff so that I can get stronger and come back later.

The environment also feels more unique and interesting, which I think I can attribute largely to the mountains that scatter the landscape. The mountains add a lot of vertical levels to the map, which let you explore in three dimensions as opposed to just two dimensions of flat land. I'm also pleased with how functionally you can climb the mountains; I was expecting invisible walls, but so far I haven't run into any. The other thing is that the mountains serve as landmarks that help to break-up the map into smaller, more-unique areas. So you can remember one little outpost on the map in relation to the mountains more easily.

Another interesting change is the continued tradition of streamlining the skill system. This time around the entire attribute and major/minor skill system is gone, which I have mixed opinions about.

I did not like the skill system in Morrowind because it was more of a chore than a reward. It forced you to make a bunch of important decisions about your character before you understood how specific things worked, and before you realized how your playstyle would affect your skill leveling. You had to level your skills in a precise way in order to maximize your attribute bonuses; with different skills leveling up at vastly different rates (and some of them happening completely beyond your control) you'd easily (and often) miss out on those important bonuses. Or, more likely the case, you'd find that you made a build that levels inefficiently, or was flawed or completely broken, or just not what you expected.

Skyrim gets rid of all of that tedious crap, making it faster and easier to get into the meat of the game and start exploring and completing quests. Now I can just roam around without worrying about meticulously planning my level-ups or getting hung-up on little details like "I should have made that skill a minor instead of a major," or "I have to stand here taking damage for 10 minutes if I want to increase my health and endurance the next time I level-up." (That was the other thing---some were a complete chore to level-up.)

Why do I go flying 200ft straight up when a Giant hits me?

Even though I like all of that annoying stuff being gone, I'm beginning to wonder if it's going to have a detrimental effect on the overall experience. The Morrowind system was tedious if you weren't intimately familiar with what you were doing, but at least it added some depth and role-playing to the experience. I'm worried about being a "jack of all trades" and mastering every skill with one character in Skyrim because of the lack of restrictions on things, and in some ways I do miss having more statistical ways to customize my character and make him more unique to my personal game.

Apparently you can pick basic class archetypes (and other star signs) by interacting with "Guardian Stones," which make your Thief, Warrior, or Mage skills level 20% faster. I say "apparently" because, 10 hours in, I didn't know this. The NPC you escape the initial dragon attack with is supposed to lead you to the stones on the way to the next town, but the guy says to split up (scroll to 35:15 if the video doesn't default there), so I said "Ok" and set off on my own, never encountering those stupid stones. Probably my own fault, but it's really contradictory to have an NPC tell you to split up when he's actually intended to escort you places and explain the game mechanics to you.

Besides that, I'm also annoyed that stolen items STILL have magical barcodes on them that let merchants and guards know that it was stolen. I mean, if I take an iron sword out of someone's house, how is a merchant going to know I stole it and didn't just find it in a cave somewhere? This was absurd in Oblivion and it's still absurd in Skyrim.

I don't have much else to comment on besides that. Or at least, nothing else comes to mind as being all that interesting. You can assume if I didn't mention something here, then I probably don't know about it yet, don't have an opinion on it yet, or that it's probably as good as you'd expect. I'll be writing a full review eventually, and might make future articles on other things I notice along the way, so this is just the [long] starting point in my epic quest.


  1. The game's environment is so unique. I have been to a lot of locations and they are all unique. While dungeons do share some of the same rooms it is surprising how completely different every single one is. You go to a new city and sometimes are just in wonder at the amazing architectural, a new dungeon and are surprised at the fantastical layout both ascetically and how it will affect gameplay, you climb to high hothgar and are amazed at the incredible view.

    What I really found, and I do not know if it is because I am older or an actual change in the game, is that the world is a lot more understandable. I recognize the names of places from hearing about them and have an idea of what I will find when go to a new city. In Oblivion I was wondering around an unknown land following quest markers but in Skyrim I am interacting with a world that is increasingly making more sense, a world I know even if I have not been everywhere.

    And I like the skill/perk system, even if it does have the wrong name. skills should be called proficiencies and perks are quite obviously skills but I can forgive the multiplayer FPS language. What I like is how each perk upgrade is very noticeable, you never upgrade something and wonder how much that actually helped. You can dual wield weapons but it is completely ineffective until you put a few points into dual wielding but then it is very impressive and different.

    And unlike the previous titles the main quests are fun and worth doing early on as they really get you some nice stuff quickly.

  2. It just occurred to me that the "perks" that you can select in Skyrim all happened automatically in Oblivion, as your skill level increased. At Archery level 25 you could zoom your bow in, at Sneak level 50 your attacks did 6x damage, at Light Armor 75 you had a 10% chance to dodge attacks. Even though the whole attribute and major/minor skill system is gone in Skyrim, they added a lot more of these perks and put them in branching skill trees, so there is still some depth and strategy to leveling up. Realizing that you can manually pick your skill bonuses (and that you could't in previous games) has made me appreciate the new system a little more.

    Part of the reason Oblivion's map was so forgettable (bland, generic, etc) was that nearly everywhere in-between towns and major map markers was procedurally generated. You just had random trees, grass, and rocks spread around in an indifferent sort of arrangement, with random encounters with random enemies who came out of nowhere. Most of the places outside of towns and major map markers felt fleeting and transient, as if they weren't really anchored to the world you were in.

    The map in Skyrim, on the other hand, seems to be entirely hand-crafted. It's like every rock, tree, and plant was placed in a precise spot for a deliberate reason. Or if that's not the case, then whatever they did made it feel that way. The world feels more permanent and fleshed out, like it's an actual realm somewhere and not just a phony sandbox for a video game. I can recognize and distinguish areas more easily, and I can navigate from place to place more easily by looking at my surroundings, instead of relying entirely on the compass.