Wednesday, 21 December 2011


Post-Launch Review
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (PC)
Developer: Bethesda Game Studios
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Released: November 11 2011


Skyrim is an open-world fantasy RPG. It's the fifth game in the Elder Scrolls series and takes place 200 years after the last entry, Oblivion. Tamriel's northern province of Skyrim, a setting inspired by European nordic terrain and culture, is on the brink of civil war after the assassination of the region's High King. To make matters worse, the dragons are returning to Skyrim under control of the Nordic dragon god Alduin, who is prophesied to destroy the world. The player must explore the world, create bonds and allegiances, take sides, and save Skyrim from destruction.

At Launch

Skyrim quickly became one of the best-reviewed games of the year, earning a Metascore of 96. Reviewers loved the sheer unprecedented size and depth of the world, citing secondary quest lines that could hold up entire games on their own. The game's dynamic customization system was also praised for delivering a personalized experience to each player. Skyrim did, however, have some major problems, differing by console. The XBox 360 version had an issue with texture downscaling when played from the hard drive; the PS3 version stutters and crashes when the save file size begins to exceed 6MB; and the PC version suffers from crashes and was criticized for an interface clearly designed for console controllers. However, despite the bugs, the game still received universal acclaim, with reviewers mostly able to overlook the bugs in favour of the overall experience.

Post Launch

The first patch fixed a lot of bugs, including a crash to desktop bug caused by having your soundcard set to certain bit rates, and many other glitches. The large address aware property was added, so the game will actually use all available RAM now. Patch 1.4 finally addressed most of the major quest bugs, but some of the fixes apply only to new games, not existing save files (such as the Blood on the Ice quest bug that prevents you from buying the house in Windhelm). Skyrim has also been fully integrated into the Steam Workshop, meaning that you can download and install mods with a single click from a centralized location. An official HD texture pack is available in the Workshop.
There are also three DLC packs: Dawnguard, adding vampire content; Hearthfire, adding house building; and soon Dragonborn, a (sort of) return to Morrowind to meet the first dragonborn. My review of the 3 DLC packs can be found here.

The Good

Huge, Full World
This is the main draw of Skyrim. Forget the main plotline — you can spend a hundred hours in Skyrim without seeing everything. Different races have different architecture and clothing and customs and speech patterns. The major side quest lines, such as the Thieve's Guild or the Mage's College, could almost hold up entire games on their own and are almost as long as the core plot. Ride in any direction and you'll find an interesting landmark or city worth exploring. In fact, there's so much content it's almost a problem. Whenever I ride off to, say, find Roggi's ancestral shield, I run into three or four or five other locations along the way and end up finding six new quests and clearing three dungeons before I even get to the right cave. Random wildlife and regional plant life go a long way to making the world feel alive.
Gorgeous Environments
Nearly every single location in Skyrim is beautiful. When looking through my screenshots to attach to this review, I realized that I have hardly any of charcacter interactions or combat, because so many times throughout the game I've gone “Wow, this place looks really nice, I'll get a screenshot”. The funny part is that I'm playing the game going “Look at all the snow! This is so pretty!” and when Toronto is covered in snow in a week I'll be complaining about it every single time I have to go outside.
Build Your Own Class
I'm a huge D&D player. I've played many video game RPG's. Usually RPGs have a class system, where each class has a defined role and abilities. Some RPG's have a no-class system where you simply choose your skills and perks. Skyrim's system is more of a build-your-own class: you can use any skills, gear, or spells you want, which improve the more you use them; and each skill has its own progression tree which you can invest points into. There are three main skill group archetypes — warrior for weapons and armour; thief for stealth and deception; and mage for magic and enchanting. But you can mix and match however you like. For example, my character wears heavy armour and fights with a sword in one hand and destruction magic in the other, but he's also great at stealth, lockpicking, smithing, and enchanting, and can swap to a shield when necessary.
The only weird little quirk is that if you attack while hidden, your weapon damage is multiplied as a sneak attack bonus, but your magic attacks aren't. I'm more heavily invested in weapon attacks than magic so maybe it's a balance to ensure that powerful stealthy mages don't one-shot everything, but then, you can one-shot almost anything with most weapons if you build carefully.
I've seen a lot of criticisms of Skyrim's combat, the main one being that if you fight with a melee weapon, you just keep clicking until you win. Early on in the game this bothered me, but as I played more it stopped being a problem. Mostly that's because of the huge number of options in combat. Sure, if you fight with two swords, it's click until you win — you can't block when fighting with two weapons. But if you use a two-handed weapon or a shield, you can block attacks, which provides a more interesting reaction-based challenge, not to mention a new offensive option: a shield bash that staggers the enemy. And if you mix it up with different types of magic you gain even more versatility. In any given fight, I might open with a sneak attack from my bow for double damage, switch to dual-wielded fireballs as the enemy approaches, throw down a wall of lightning at my feet and cloak myself in flame, then swap to a sword and shield. The richness is there, but it's your choice to use it and how complex to make your tactics.
Plus some of the finisher animations are really nice. My favourite two are staggering the enemy with a shield bash and sliding a sword up his rib cage while he's stunned; and climbing onto a dragon's head and slashing at its eyes until it goes down.
Skyrim dynamically alters its quests and dialogue based on how you've been playing and which locations you've visited. Playing as an Argonian, town guards often call me “lizard”. After I became a werewolf, they started to ask me if that's fur growing out of my ears. When I got involved with the Mage's College they made positive or negative comments based on how they feel about magic.
Interestingly, some of the quests are fully scripted, but others have dynamic locations. When you accept a quest, the game will check which locations you've been to, and then choose an appropriately-levelled one you've never seen before. Very rarely will you receive a quest to rescue a hostage in a tower you've already cleared. The quest system itself encourages you to explore and visit as many locations as possible.
Shouts are cool from both a gameplay and lore perspective. In Skyrim, when dragons breathe fire, they're not “breathing fire”, they're shouting in the draconic language. The words themselves have power and create the fire. A fight between dragons is as much a shouting match as it is combat. Some mortals can learn this language and use specific words of power to great effect.
The game has 20 different shouts you can learn, and each has three words of power associated with it. Whenever you learn a word of power, it's either part of a new shout, or an upgrade to a shout you already know. The shouts have wildly different effects, ranging from calling animals to your aid, to an elemental breath, temporary invulnerability, aura detection, push, slow time, and more. You can equip one shout at a time independently of your weapons, so at all times you have access to your left and right hands plus the active shout.
Dynamic Snow
This might seem minor, and it probably is, but this point just blew me away. Skyrim's engine allows for dynamic snow. That means that different places will be snowy in different copies of the game, and snow will build and melt in the same location over time. That's pretty amazing.
Okay, so you can have all kinds of neat mods on the PC, and tweak graphics, and make the game look way nicer than it does on the consoles. That's cool. But as of right now, Skyrim's developer console is THE reason to get the game on PC. It's a great, quick way to resolve some of the major bugs. You don't have to sit around hoping Bethesda fixes your problem. You can just keep right on playing.
Now, I know it's a bit weird to put this in the “good” section, since without the bugs, you wouldn't need a fix like this. Don't worry, though — the bugs are in the “bad” section further down.

Mod Support
Bethesda and Valve have worked together to provide full Steam Workshop integration for Skyrim. User-created and official mods can be uploaded to the workshop, and then downloaded and installed with a couple of clicks. It's never been easier to share or find mods, which is fantastic for such a flexible game. Two official mods have already been released: an HD texture pack for those with crazy computers, and a silly Portal 2 mod that allows the Space Core to crash-land in Skyrim. And there are plenty of fan mods that do anything from tweak horse speed or adding small quality of life improvements to adding a full expansion's worth of content.

The Neutral

The Main Plot
The core plot of Skyrim — you are a hero destined to save the world from the prophesied return of the dragons, blah blah blah — isn't very strong, and it's pretty short for this type of game. You could play through the primary plot in about ten hours.
Why is this in the neutral section, you ask? Well, Skyrim isn't really about the main plot. It's more of an excuse to get you into the world. I didn't even bother with the main plot until I was more than 70 hours into the game, so it's not like there isn't anything else to do.

Quite disappointingly for an RPG, loot sucks after you've played long enough. If you level your crafting and invest points into some of the absurdly awesome abilities like the power to enchant an item twice, you have just invalidated pretty much all loot you will ever find. It's really not even worth picking stuff up after a certain point. Even the legendary daedric artifacts will end up kind of sucky compared to what you can make yourself (save for the few that have unique abilities, like making zombies explode).
The dragons don't really hold up to the way they were advertised. When you're starting out, ambling across the countryside only to have a dragon blast out from behind a hill, that's a moment of pure terror. But as you level up, dragons become less and less intimidating. In fact, once your level gets into the 20's, giants and undead dragon priests are far more dangerous and scary than actual dragons — they have a lot less health, but also deal way more damage with individual attacks. Oddly enough, ground-based enemies have an easier time following you than dragons — it's harder to fight a giant tactically than it is a dragon, because the giant will just walk right up to you and smash you with his club, rather than circle and use ranged attacks that are easily dodged.
Fortunately there are infinity dragons, so you never have to worry about not having enough dragon souls to unlock all the shouts you find.
PC Interface
Yes, it is very obviously designed for controllers, and it's actually a bit of a challenge to navigate the menus using the mouse. You know what, though? Stop being lazy and use WASD to navigate. Everything works out fine. I perfectly understand the frustration with poor console ports, but to me the interface was not really a big deal. It's unusual but I caught on pretty quick and have no problems navigating the menu with my keyboard instead of the mouse.
My only real issue with the interface is that when I'm trying to navigate using my keyboard, I have to be careful of the mouse position — the pointer can highlight the wrong option at the last second and lead to activating the wrong dialog option, dropping the wrong item, or worse, accidentally selling your legendary sword.
Texture loss on trees.

The Bad

NOTE: the major bugs have mostly been resolved through patches, and unofficial fan patches fix a huge amount of the remainder. Huzzah! So this section isn't really too relevant anymore.
I've occasionally lost certain textures (mostly water), and once fell through the terrain on my horse. But those things aren't really a big deal, and don't happen too frequently. They should also be fixed after the LAA patch.
Most of the major quest bugs have been fixed, but a couple of the fixes don't apply to existing saves -- meaning if I want that house in Whiterun, I'd better start a new character. There are still a bunch of minor bugs, but minor bugs aren't such a big deal.
View full size and check out his arms.
Clipping, Lazy Modelling & Animation
The clipping issues bother me FAR more than the actual game-breaking bugs. Why? Because it seems so very unprofessional. If it were only one or two issues here and there it might be a quirk, but when nearly every character's sheathed weapon clips into their clothes, my sword clips through my shield during kill animations, my sword also clips through benches and chairs whenever I sit down, and my legs disappear up to the knees on steep terrain, I have to wonder how these issues could possibly have been missed during QA testing. I'm no programmer, so correct me if I'm wrong, but it doesn't seem like it would be that difficult to add a few boundaries or make the terrain geometry match the texture placement (or add a couple of animations for having feet at different levels).
A second related issue is lazy modelling and animation. I played as an Argonian, aka the lizard people with dinosaur heads. Some helmets have a second model to fit the Argonian head shape, while others don't — the game's iconic horned helmet has an alternate model, as does the epic dragonplate helmet, but the steel plate and ebony helmets don't have Argonian models, which means they use the human fit and my lizard head somehow gets mashed into a helmet that's much too small. Argonians also have a tail, which clips right through my armour plates and animates like a stick stuck to my character's bottom. I understand that it would have doubled the required number of armour models, but really, how hard would it be to tweak each model to have a “tail hole”?
Furthermore, facial animation and character animation is pretty flat and boring. I've occasionally been impressed with some of the mouth movement, but there's very little movement around the eyes and characters just stand there motionless while they talk to you.
Also, the tails of the Khajiit (cat people) continue their animation after their owner's death, which is more funny than bad.
Companion Characters
To summarize this section: companions are complete morons who need constant babysitting. Read on for a more in-depth explanation.
First off, companions don't jump, either up or down. If I hop down a short ledge, even if it's a five-foot drop that won't deal fall damage, my companion character will walk down the ramp. That might sound like it's not a big deal, but when the “safe” way down involves a labyrinthian route through the dungeon, it gets annoying.
Second, companion characters will supposedly equip items you give them that are better than their defaults. For me, that mostly worked — she put on the full armour set, the sword, the shield, the amulet, the headgear — but when I gave her a new bow which was literally five times stronger, she kept the old crappy one. I even took away the crappy one, meaning that the only bow in her inventory was the kickass epic legendary bow, but somehow she still equips the terrible hunting bow that she doesn't even have anymore. 
EDIT: this complaint seems to have been fixed somewhat - at the very least, the major companion in Dawnguard sneaks with you.
Third, they'll always attack hostile enemies. What's wrong with that, you might ask? Well, it completely ruins most attempts at stealth. See, a lot of the time when sneaking, an enemy will hear something and start to look around. They become hostile, but they haven't found you, so you're safe. That is, unless you have a companion with you. Your companion will go OH NO A HOSTILE ENEMY and start attacking, even though the enemy didn't actually know you were there yet.
Voice Actors
There aren't enough of them. Too often, I run into characters with the exact same voice as someone else. Sometimes it seems like there are only 20 or so voice actors in a game where you meet hundreds of people. When you're playing dozens or hundreds of hours in the world, hearing only a handful of voices gets really irritating.

The Verdict

Recommendation: Play it.
Skyrim is my game of the year pick for 2011*. One of my favourite things to do in games is to explore every nook and cranny of the world, find every bit of loot and lore, see everything. In terms of satisfying that desire, Skyrim is like crack cocaine. I can't get enough of it. Not to say that I'm into cocaine — you know what I mean. Even when the gameplay starts to get old, the visuals don't.
August 2013 edit: if you're reading this and still haven't played Skyrim, go for the legendary edition that includes all DLC (which I've reviewed here). Dawnguard works better integrated into the game than as an expansion. Hearthfire is at its best on a new save and provides some great options. Dragonborn is just all-around great.

*since I didn't play Arkham City or Skyward Sword until January.

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