Saturday, April 26, 2014

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

There are multiple reasons why I could never get into Oblivion. And I will probably mention a few of them in this post as I feel the fifth Elder Scrolls game also suffers from many of the same issues what pushed me away from previous one. But it is definitely better. I did finish it after all. Well, if you can say so of an open world game like Skyrim.

Obviously the game needed to be modded first, and I spent a day doing so before I got to actually play it. The installation of the mods was easy and effortless; most of the time went into discovering and deciding which ones I wanted in the first place, and if they needed other mods to work and so on. Also the way people like to refer to mods with just their acronyms is bothersome for someone who's not familiar with them. Takes a bit of research to find out what everyone is talking about.

I found Oblivion's GUIs ugly and the text difficult to read. Skyrim improves on that with a plainer approach. But usability-wise it's still far from perfect. And so the first thing I got was SkyUI, a popular mod to make the GUIs more PC-friendly. A great mod indeed but it unfortunately doesn't yet touch the entirety of the game. Namely the crafting interface would need improving; smelting 50+ ores one by one (with two actions required for each -- first to select the item, then to confirm) was quite cumbersome to say the least.

While I'm not that much into skimpy armor and such, one thing kind of led to another and I ended up installing a mod that replaces the game's vanilla female armors with less covering ones. My actual goal was to find a mod that makes faces prettier. (What is it with Bethesda and ugly faces anyway?) But the body mod (with faces) also sort of wanted remodeled armor and animations, too, and so my character turned out to look and move almost like someone from a JRPG.

I'm not sure if the turning around while standing was a necessary addition, though. It made changing my character's face quite annoying at the start of the game with the character turning her back to the camera all the time. Luckily you can bring up the character creation screen up with the console afterwards, and change the face when your character is sitting. (Or you can just disable the mod temporarily.)

I'm sure there are many more great mods out there, like the unofficial patch to fix possible bugs. But after I saw that it required yet another mod to work, I decided I had had enough of modding and just wanted to play the game. Although I did later install a mod to make ore veins more visible when I first found one and realized I'd be missing so many of them.

A mod to make loot shinier would've been great, too, but I couldn't find one. I'm not really into the whole realism thing when it starts hindering my enjoyment, and eyeballing every corner to find things definitely does that. A loot/container highlight key won't break my immersion but I guess a mod for such is not in high enough demand.

Skyrim goes for the realism in looks as well. I did find it technically impressive, but I'd rather take a colorful world like Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning over the washed-out and dull palettes any day. I especially disliked the ugly, gray-green stone textures used in most of the dungeons. At least the dungeon layouts are not straight-out copy-pastes. Also the exit shortcuts were appreciated. I think Reckoning did that too. Solid game design there; no need for boring backtracking.

I wonder if Edoras (the capital city of Rohan in Middle-Earth) was a source of inspiration for Whiterun. I was half-expecting one of the Rohan themes to start playing whenever I was near the hold. Also, for the longest time, I mentally called the place Riverrun, like the castle in the Song of Ice and Fire. Maybe it was because the previous place I had visited was Riverwood and the names got mixed up in my head.

Skyrim's title theme is an amazing track but otherwise the game's music is not that memorable. Not bad, and does the job, but not great either. The tavern songs are nice, although I wish the awkward pauses between lines weren't there. Also, NPCs walking by are way too eager to spout out their lines. Especially when there's definitely no hair growing out of my ears (!) as I cured my lycanthropy but the game decided to forget to change some variable.

I had heard horror stories of Oblivion's enemies scaling up to match your level (never got far enough to experience it myself). Skyrim has a similar system but it's implemented better. From what I could tell anyway; bandits didn't become equipped in high-end gear when meeting them later and so on. My character got pretty beastly at the end, though, so it's possible that I just didn't notice.

Considering Skyrim is the first Elder Scrolls game to have dual-wielding (afaik), which I consider to be rather cool, it's maybe bit odd that I decided to go for the two-handed weapon build instead. But I do not regret that decision at all. There was just so much weight behind the power attacks. And the sync-kills/kill cams were pretty damn satisfying. Although when fighting a bunch of of weak enemies that died in one hit -- like when I was defending Whiterun -- the greatsword felt bit of an overkill.

The combat lacks in depth, though, and won't keep you entertained endlessly. You can do blocking with a shield (or a 2h weapon) but I thought I'd rather just kill the enemies instead of prolonging the fights, like I usually do in games like this. You can also spice up things with magic but the way the game is designed within the limitations of a controller, makes it troublesome; I would like to be able to cast spells with a single key press instead of having to "equip" them first.

Mounted combat -- which was apparently patched in -- felt awesome, if rather ineffective. And if the fights lasted longer than a few swings, my horse would always end up dead. I think lances and/or spears would be a great addition to the game, especially if they'd instakill enemies you hit while on horseback. I wouldn't have minded combat rolls either.

Skyrim's horses are amazing climbers, as I found out. They go up mountains like Mass Effect's Mako. One has to be careful when stopping on a cliff edge to admire vistas lest you end up falling to your death, though -- the horses don't have reverse and can't turn on the spot. And they don't ignore falling damage as well as the Mako did. I also reckon the mounting and dismounting animations could be faster.

The classless skill system is neat. And I like how there are no perks that give boring +1% bonuses. Although some of them are questionable. For instance, you'd think the ultimate, 100 skill requiring perk would always be something powerful. In the case of Enchanting it definitely is (two enchants per item), but the two-handed weapons' final perk, Warmaster, is a total lackluster. Hitting something with the backwards power attack I found to be extremely difficult (even with a two-handed weapon) and the perk only gives you a 25% chance to knockdown your target with the attack. You're better off just whacking the enemy dead with the other power attacks that actually hit stuff.

Smithing was the first skill I maxed, probably because I really put effort into it, gathering all the dwemer scrap from the dwarven dungeons and stuff. I was also curious to see how the different armors would look. (The (skimpy) daedric set looks pretty damn fine, as it turned out.) After I passed the armor cap (which is actually quite easy to reach), the threat of most enemies was greatly reduced.

Dragon fire breaths and casters with lightning spells still gave me trouble, though, as I didn't enchant my gear until I maxed the skill. Probably should've -- I died couple times in random encounters when I was chain zapped before I thought to bring up the inventory to gulp potions. Once I maxed Enchanting, however, all the challenge was suddenly gone. I couldn't cap all the resistances as I didn't use a shield, but I think 50% frost resistance from the Nord racial was good enough.

And so I went to finish the main quest line to be done with the game since my character was nigh invincible and I felt there was no point in continuing playing it anymore. I liked the story; the dragonborn stuff was much to my liking. I feel the dragon shouts got underplayed, however. Finding new word walls was cool for a while but then the excitement wore off as the shouts mattered very little gameplay wise. And adding new word to a shout in many cases didn't even have a noticeable effect to the shout in question.

I think that instead of one global cooldown, the shouts should be grouped under different ones so that you could use more than one in a typical fight. The damage shouts could share a cooldown, and the utility shouts, like Clear Skies, could have their own. And Elemental Fury should totally work with enchanted weapons; even a mere utility enchant like Soul Trap prevents the shout being applied. I also would've probably played further into the main story earlier if I had known I would get Dragonrend. Many of the random dragon fights would've been less annoying if I could've just told the dragon to land.

Some of the side-quests were pretty cool as well. The dynamic shit task generator, however, was absolutely worthless. I did quite a few of the radiant quests when I was going for the thief guild's leadership -- not sure why; my character was quite unthief-like -- and disliked every moment of it. Without quick saving and loading, getting four small jobs done in all of the required holds would've taken ages thanks to the random system trying to give quests for holds I'd already completed jobs in.

Skyrim also seemed to get a lot more crash-prone while I was doing the thief guild quests. It froze quite a few times inside the guild base and in Riften as well. Once I even had a dragon corpse appear in the streets. Could've been the mods, too, though. Thus I can't say if it was Skyrim itself being way too unstable for a triple A title. Luckily the game is fairly good at autosaving.

To sum it up, I'd say Skyrim is a great RPG with an immersive world and lot to do, although after a point one might find it repeating itself. On PC it's also obvious that some aspects of the game suffer from being designed for consoles. Luckily, the modding community is massive, and one can find mods to improve everything, and even to add tons of new content to play.

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