gaming November 30, 2011 Jack No comments

On Skyrim

I don’t really want to spend much time talking about Skyrim. I’ve already written this post as a review, but in all I’m still forming my opinion so anything I say has to be tempered at this point. Instead of a review, I’d like to collect various points of thought.

Skyrim’s Strengths

Level Scaling

I never thought I’d say this about a TES game after Oblivion so royally fucked up on level scaling, but this is one (of many, as we’ll see in the next few points) where Skyrim learns much from Bethesda’s work on Fallout 3.

Like Fallout 3, the level scaling is appropriately tailored to quests leaving random encounters at a standard level. This means that, unlike Oblivion, there are no road bandits wearing daedric armor, but the main questline will provide challenge for you at whatever point you decide to pursue it.

Level Mechanics

The core reason that level scaling didn’t work in Oblivion was that the traditional TES leveling scheme didn’t fit with it. As a refresher for those of you that didn’t play Oblivion for awhile to get ramped up for Skyrim, in Oblivion you chose 5 major skills (in Morrowind it was 5 major, 5 minor) and your advancement through those skills determined your character level. In theory, this means that as your knight character hacks and slashes (advancing Blade, Block, etc.) he levels as he becomes more effective.

The reality of the fact was that it was possible to exploit the game with what amounts to the converse of the above. By “poorly” choosing your major skills (i.e. choosing magic skills for a character that will never cast a spell), you could artificially keep your character level low and the enemies would be (in)appropriately weak. This was a functional strategy because in Oblivion, character levels didn’t mean anything. Sure, you got to dump some points in attributes and skills, but if the alternative means enemies don’t get any stronger, you’re no worse off for foregoing character levels all together.

Well, Skyrim puts an end to that. You no longer choose your major skills, it levels you up based on your advancement through skills overall.

Perks

As part of the level mechanic updates, the addition of Fallout 3 style explicit perks was great. TES has always had perks, but previously they were always very subtle to the point of being useless and they were associated with reaching a new skill plateau, so there were only 4 for each skill and you just got them automatically. For magical skills, the perks were always the ability to cast higher level spells… which is nice, but aside from having marginally more powerful spells in your arsenal, it doesn’t really affect your gameplay.

With Skyrim’s system, you get a perk point each level, and each of the 18 skill trees has around 10 different perks. Like Fallout, these perks have certain requirements (either skill levels, or previous perks), but – most importantly – they can obviously affect your gameplay. Suddenly you can craft better stuff, or you hit 25% harder, or have new moves, or your shield blocks elemental damage, or spells cost half as much. These are significant changes and, because you spend finite points to get them, there are significant choices to be made as you level up.

The result is that a level in Skyrim is something that you don’t want to skip, even if you could, which is a marked change from Oblivion, and even Morrowind, where leveling was almost completely irrelevant in the face of skill levels.

Character Level and Performance

These basic improvements (overall skill level focus and perks) mean that character level is now a rough approximation of effectiveness… if you’re playing right. This relationship is the cornerstone of a level scaling system that works, but it also has some flaws that we’ll talk about with craft grinding.

Skills

In addition to the perks mentioned above, the skills have been streamlined as well. Morrowind had 27, Oblivion 21, and now Skyrim has 18 individual skills. The changes are mostly positive, like having One-handed and Two-handed skills separated instead of Blade and Blunt (which in turn were great improvements from Morrowind having a skill for every weapon type). The previous game’s questionably useful mysticism magic school has had its effects merged into other trees (conjuration and alteration, I believe). Mercantile seemed useful before, but having to level it through bartering was boring and the differentiation from plain old Speechcraft was tenuous at best. They’ve been wisely merged into a unified Speech tree. Lastly, the separation of sneak/security into sneak/lockpick/pickpocket is interesting.

I haven’t explored all of the skills, but the perks for them appear to be useful.

Smithing

I was really happy that they added in a smithing craft. The previous games included the “Armorer” skill, which allowed you to repair armor, but that’s clearly not the same. Being a melee character, it’s nice to run around in armor you create, swinging weapons you create. That’s more vanity than anything as you can pretty much find basic armor and weapons anywhere. The nice part is being able to further improve these items as your smithing skill improves to give you a bit of extra edge.

Procedural Generation

Skyrim incorporates a fair amount of randomness into the game, particularly with loot from bodies and chests. That dates back to Oblivion in TES (I believe), but it seems more prevalent now and it’s typically an antidote to quests being identical between play throughs.

Procedural generation is new, as far as I know, and it goes much farther to decrease repetition between play throughs. It doesn’t effect the main quests or some of the richer scripted events, but for things like bandit raids and thief missions, or assassin missions it’s trivial to set up and it adds a whole new level to the game. You could effectively play for hours after completing every quest line without doing the exact same quest twice.

Of course, in execution, these are a little dry. Especially when compared to the richness of the game proper. Some of them are… questionably difficult as well. For example, a procedural thief mission I got, I literally walked into the target house retrieved a conspicuous item and walked out… all while the owner was pleasantly chatting. He didn’t seem to mind that this item, which probably hadn’t existed in his home until I got the quest, was being “stolen”. I’m not sure if he was bugged or what, but the other missions were essentially adding rewards for shit I’d already be doing. Procedural bandit quests just mean you get an extra sum of gold for killing everyone in a randomly chosen local dungeon. I imagine it’s similar with procedural assassin quests, but I haven’t done any yet.

More interesting are the subtly procedural quests. Particularly quests that have a little more story to them but can take place in a number of different locations. Getting the Helm of Winterhold was subtly procedural. The quest text was spoken and rich, but the place I had to go to reclaim it changed and, most interestingly, the type of enemies I was retrieving it from changed too. Bandits the first time, necromancers the second.

Both examples are definite wins for replayability.

…It’s TES

The rest of Skyrim’s strengths flow directly from its parentage. TES games always have a huge scope and a plethora of things to do and items to obtain. Alchemy, enchanting, buying property, moral choices, many character types and playable builds. Skyrim is a solid entry in the TES lore and I haven’t even come close to finishing the game.

Skyrim’s Weaknesses

The Interface

Bethesda went the minimalist route with Skyrim’s interface and aesthetically they hit the mark. Functionally… not so much. There are already mods to correct the PC interface, particularly the inventory interface, but like Oblivion Skyrim seems to suffer from consolitis.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the character creation screen. The row of options at the top of the very first interface screen should function like tabs, but instead function like a slider. I theorize that this is due to the fact that it was designed with using shoulder buttons on a controller to navigate, instead of a mouse.

Similarly, there are a number of places, particularly in dialogue and crafting screens, where the interface appears to lose track of the mouse. Clicking seems to activate whatever is selected, but moving the mouse doesn’t necessarily change selections. The result is that you don’t really know what you’re clicking on which is doubly frustrating because the mouse makes it extremely clear what you want. I’m hoping this is what they’re fixing in 1.2 with “Mouse sensitivity issues”, although that could also be the atrociously low mouse sensitivity by default.

There are other oddities, like clicking outside of the black left sidebar inexplicably closes the interface, so you have to be very careful when selecting things there.

Overall, Bethesda also missed opportunities to use screen real estate wisely because they were designing for you to be 10 feet away on a couch instead of sitting right in front of a monitor. For example, the dearth of information in the inventory screen. 50% of the screen is taken up by a picture of the item you’re currently selected, but all you see about the other 1000 items you’re carrying is their name and some symbols regarding whether they’re equipped or more powerful than what you have equipped. In Oblivion, and the UI mods for Skyrim, you at least got a brief summary of the item from the list view. This makes it much easier to make choices about, for example, what you’re going to drop when you’re overencumbered, because you don’t have to select each individual item to see how much it weighs.

The last little nit is that when you pickup/drop/purchase/sell items from a big stack, it prompts you with a slider to ask how many. Why I can’t type a number here is annoying. Sliders are also used in the character creation screen to choose between presets. Sliders are probably the worst possible idea for mouse users, but the only controls that makes sense for console users.

The Craft Grind

Crafting, especially the new smithing craft, is hard to level without grinding. Part of the problem here is that, in previous games, the crafts were much less skill dependent. Alchemy, for example, was more effected by your intelligence attribute and the apparatus you used to create the potions than it was by the skill level. Without an intelligence attribute (or attributes at all), and no apparatus, alchemy effects are entirely based around perks (and thus skill and character level).

The problem is, with the focus on perks instead of getting gear or souls, you are forced to get your crafting skill level up to improve. Makes sense, but it’s not a smooth slope like it is with other skills. You have to go out of your way to craft. To some extent alchemy doesn’t suffer from this flaw as you’re creating potions that are disposable and there are reagent everywhere. If you experiment to find the reagents’ properties, and otherwise just craft potions for yourself or to expend reagents, you can build alchemy fairly easily — especially if you’re not afraid to use potions.

Enchanting has a similar flow if you just gain levels by disenchanting or charging enchanted weaponry with soul gems.

Smithing has absolutely no flow whatsoever. There’s no way to level it with any reasonable speed making only items for personal use. It’s also hard enough to find the reagents (ore) in large enough quantities just by adventuring, so you’re likely to be going out of your way to mine, which isn’t too much fun. The point is that if you plan on creating yourself a set of armor and a new set of weapons at every tier of smithing, and upgrading them every time you can, you’re not going to have enough smithing tasks to make it from one tier to another. The solution? Make iron daggers over and over. Almost the definition of boring.

For smithing, and even for the other crafts that have some semblance of skill, you’re probably going to end up creating items for no other purpose than to up your level. It’s possible to pace yourself by forcing yourself not to buy the reagents to do so, but nonetheless you’re going to be cranking out daggers, potions, and enchantments you don’t need if you want to get those levels. That sucks.

This is a persistent problem with TES, but it was previously been mitigated by equipment and by the fact that when you level you got to dump points into skills. In Oblivion you could theoretically get to 100 Enchant without ever enchanting an item or filling a soul gem. It makes no sense, and people would most definitely grind in that game, but you could do it. Here you’re forced to grind, to some extent.

Because I’m a fan of the new level system, I would’ve liked to have seen these problems addressed with crafting quest lines. To introduce you to smithing, the Whiterun smith has a basic quest to show you the ropes. Why couldn’t that continue? There should be quests to mine ingredients (tangentially I think you should get some smithing experience from mining and smelting in addition to the proper crafting), or forge so many X for the war effort. That would not only allow you to do quests to smoothly gain levels, it would also give you a reason to make things more interesting than iron daggers. If you were given special ingredients to fetch from hostile areas it would even mix leveling your smithing with your other skills.

Bugginess

Bugs have plagued every release Bethesda has put out since Arena and Skyrim is no different. I’ve seen items floating in the sky, people in sitting positions slide into their chairs from across the room. A friend of mine saw a mammoth fall out of the sky and die right in front of him. I’ve had fetch quests that had to be done twice, inexplicably. There are texture issues and crashes too. Going to the internet, there are apparently some other bad bugs that I’ve had the good fortune to avoid.

Overall

Overall Skyrim is a great game. Out of the gate, it’s a bit rough around the edges, but much less so than Oblivion was. Bethesda’s greatest strength is its mod friendliness. It extends the life of every game by being open to new content and allows players to correct (real or perceived) problems. The upshot of Skyrim is that it’s a solid release, but every single one of the complaints and bugs will eventually be addressed. Whether it’s by Bethesda or the players is irrelevant.

Right now, the game has its flaws. A year from now (or, rather, a year from when the “Creation Kit” is released), the game will be verging on perfect.

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