Wednesday, November 23, 2011

On Skyrim

...Or: packin' up the family, and move to... Skyrim. (kind of kills the melody, doesn't it? I've got to hire new writers...)

So... I will now confess that my interest in Tamriel and Vvardenfell being available (after a fashion) in TESV wasn't purely curiosity.

I do have the game, yes.

And before you ask: yes, I pretty much take Herculine at face value whenever she tells me I can run a game. On that note, Miss Neko: should I ever end up in Video Gamers Anonymous, you're going at the bottom of my list of potential sponsors. I can just hear it now...

"I'm so tempted; I saw this new game and it looks so cool..."

"I've played that one! You'll love it! Go for it!"

Oh, well -- it's not like I need any free time, anyhow.


According to my saves, I've logged thirty-three hours on Skyrim now, so I thought I'd be a pretentious prick and offer my thoughts for those who may still be on the fence.

First and foremost: the "official" system requirements are horrible, horrible lies. Seriously. Someone is going to Hell for writing those. As noted before, I'm actually below minimum-specs for FNV: single core Athlon 2.4ghz, 1gbDDR2, and a GF8800GTS. I'm here to tell you folks, Skyrim runs smoother for me than Oblivion does. Granted, my Oblivion install is loaded down with high-res armor, weapon, and body meshes; so I'm not sure I'd consider the requirements on Skyrim lower than those for Oblivion; but if you can run FNV, you can run Skyrim, no matter what the liars who wrote the ostensible requirements say.

As my Neko partner has so astutely opined, I also believe that this has to do with "dumbing down" (for lack of a better term) the specs so that the same game can run on the XXXBox 360, PS3, and PC without having to have its engine redone between them -- but I'll go one further, be a paranoid bastard, and suggest that the padded system reqs are also a conspiracy to trick us all into buying new PCs and/or hardware that we really don't need (but the manufacturers really need to sell).

From a technical standpoint, the engine seems to be a solid improvement over previous forays; but don't be fooled -- this is absolutely still Gamebryo, no matter what label they slap on it. Same file formats, same mesh and texture formats, same sound format; same horrific implementation of small-item-physics via the Havok engine.

It is, however, markedly more stable. I've yet to have a crash on loading a new cell, nor a hang on loading a game. Autosaves work without causing crashes, and quick saves don't appear to corrupt themselves at the drop of a hat. At least for me. Other people report having less luck with saving and loading; but I can only report what I physically see from the game as it runs on my archaic system -- I refuse to give hearsay from heavily-biased parties absolute credence.

Visually, the game is a mixed-bag. The character and item textures and meshes are simply horrible; the textures especially so. They're worse than many of the ones that shipped with Oblivion in 2006 -- far worse than what we're used to seeing from FNV; and they just don't compare to Oblivion mod textures from the likes of HGEC and Apachii. Most armor textures look like they were pulled from a PS2 game circa 2004. They might be better if run at large size; but since I run medium in Oblivion, both Fallouts, and now Skyrim, I do consider it an apples-to-apples comparison.

On the other hand, when you get away from characters and into environments, the game is simply gorgeous. The trees, the water, the mountains off in the distance; clouds drifting around obscuring the peak from view... it's one of the most magnificent worlds I've ever seen in a game -- and that's on medium textures, with shadows and effects cranked down considerably. If you have the system horsepower to ramp this bitch up to ultra-high, it may well be one of the most beautiful digital landscapes ever rendered into a game.

On the environment: the water, I was amazed to see, actually flows now. In Oblivion and the Fallouts, water had "wave textures" to make it look like it was moving; but in Skyrim? It actually does. It meanders in streams, and rushes over falls. Early in the game, I was trying to cross a fast moving river near some falls to pick alchemical components; ended up missing my jump from rock to rock, and fell in the water... and was promptly swept over the falls. Didn't even hurt me; but the fact that the physics have advanced that much is just glorious.

The wind and snow is also interesting. It snows, it rains; but you can also see little swirls in the snow on the ground where the wind is blowing. And I swear that wind is blowing; because something is screwing up my archery at range (but more on that later). Though like previous games, the rain and snow are not stopped by awnings and roofs -- if you're outdoors, it precipitates into your vision no matter what cover you're under.

Likewise, the trees, bushes, grasses, and all are well done; and give a sense of actually being in a forest, or on a frozen plain. I was standing on an ice floe near the shore of the north sea, gazing out on the icebergs at sunset. I have to say, while it may not be as "real" as being there... it's certainly head and shoulders above any other game I've ever played.

The terrain is still mostly vertical once you're off the established roads; but it seems easier to climb than in Oblivion, so you aren't railroaded into particular areas nearly so bad.

The game world does still have borders. "You cannot go this way; turn back" and such. I've only run into the one at the north sea; but I assume the other three directions will have one too.

Sadly, once you get past the pretties, the game becomes more of a mixed experience.

The new UI is simply terrible. My issue isn't even cosmetic, either -- though I find the new menu system clumsy at best, it is certainly usable. No, my issue is again technical. The UI ignores clicks, may or may not work with custom keybinds; and if you click the wrong part of a menu choice when bartering with an NPC you'll be kicked out of the barter window. As well, the menu "freezes" regularly -- refusing to have the selection highlight move to where the mouse is pointing; thereby making it impossible to do anything by clicking on it. Closing the conversation and/or menu and reopening it fixes the issue... at least until it occurs again.

Another thing that suggests the game was made for consolers is that the menus are all set up to be run by a pair of buttons -- accept and cancel. On the PC, these default to E or Enter for accept (depending on the context) and Tab to cancel. You can also click the accept or cancel icons with the mouse, but this was pretty clearly tacked on after the fact as a concession to PC users who aren't likely to play with a game pad.

Once out of menus and into the game world, you find that mouselook is now a joke. The default sensitivity makes it almost impossible to play. Ramping it up to ~55% made it playable for me, but the game randomly changes the up/down sensitivity sometimes, making it half the right/left; or other times double. It's playable... but it takes a lot of getting used to. Plan to invest much practice in learning to aim spells and arrows. WSAD controls seem to work fine, and the game's not nearly as prone to ignoring movement button presses as previous entries have been. Skyrim uses the Fallout-style overencumbrance; where you walk slowly instead of being rendered totally immobile. You can also still jump now whilst overencumbered; though still no fast travel.

Onto characters: I am not impressed by the new chargen. They took away most of the grown-up hair styles for human men. You essentially get to be a filthy ponytailed hippy, or going bald. The one compromise hairstyle is a sort of Roman Legionary cut -- sort of a shaggier, messy bowl-cut. They completely did away with my beloved slicked-back style, as far as I can tell... the heathen bastards. On the up side, they greatly increased eye colors; rather than simply blue, green, or brown there are now a range of colors, several heterochromia combinations, and some blind-in-one-eye choices. I believe that someone on the dev team was a considerable fan of Nequam's work in Oblivion. Sadly, there is no close-up of the face during chargen, so getting the eye color(s) you want is less than amazingly reliable. If you have glasses and/or a magnifying glass handy, use them during eye selection. They also added facial tattoos, and scars.

As you can see... not my best chargen work ever.

The face editor itself is pretty clumsy and coarse, all told. There's not a huge range of settings -- much like in the Fallouts, all men of a particular race look pretty similar. I picked a Nord because I always play a Nord when going for a "me" analog in an Elder Scrolls game; being as I myself am of north-euro descent, so I can relate to the pale, hairy, cold loving Nords.

It took three tries to get blue in both eyes. I'm used to looking at one eye to determine color while I cycle through the list; and the second time I missed that I had inadvertently selected green rather than blue. For the successful third try, I got considerably closer to the screen than you're normally supposed to; and could still just barely make out the color.

Facial scars are a nice touch; though I have little use for the tattoos myself.

I didn't try creating a female character, but their options didn't look much more expansive.

The biggest change regarding faces from Oblivion is that much of the stylizing has been removed. Faces are less round; eyes smaller and less round; hair looks less like it's made of plastic. Characters appear... dirtier, now, as well. It's a more medieval experience all around. Whether this will appeal to you or not I can't say. I personally liked the stylized look in Oblivion well enough, but there is something to be said for it being less "cartoony".

As well, the "beast races" -- the Argonians and Khajiit -- are far more realistic looking now. Both are downright disconcerting to look at, at times. I didn't much like the Oblivion versions of these races; and I like the Skyrim ones even less. I eagerly await the glut of Japanese cosmetic overhauls to unfuck them.

As has been noted elsewhere, they did away with the "class" system this time around. I'm apparently one of like six people on Earth that didn't hate that in Oblivion. The new system simply levels you up when you gain enough skill points in any skill or combination of skills. On leveling up, you get a skill point, and can add ten points to either magicka, health, or stamina. You do not get increases automatically anymore. The skill points are used in a system somewhere between WoW's skill tree, and Fallout's perks. Each skill has an associated tree; and putting points into special skill abilities unlocks the next entry up the tree. The abilities also have skill level requirements. This is a mixed bag to me. On the one hand, it allows specialization that simple skill levels ala Oblivion don't; but on the other, it also falls into the pit trap of "character planning" -- of having to decide early in a character which parts of which trees you want to pursue. This is the sort of thing that spawns character planning spreadsheets and other min/maxing nonsense. It also means that if you don't decide what you want early, you're likely to waste points on skills that end up being useless to your play style.

Worse yet, because you level from any skill increases, you can easily screw yourself, as I did.

I got a lot of skill increases from crafting -- creating armor, weapons, and potions. Consequently, by level twenty I could make great items... but my combat skills were shit. I had to be extremely careful when in combat (which is just about every quest and area outside a town) or I'd get my ass handed to me. I put in some time leveling my archery and destruction; then put a couple skill points into my light armor skill, and can now hold my own for the most part... but if you don't focus on combat skills early game, it's a lot harder.

Combat is different this time around, too. You can now dual wield weapons. Why this is a big deal to everyone I will never know. I tried it, and all it seems to do is blow through stamina twice as fast while precluding your ability to block. I do like though that I can have a weapon in one hand, and a spell readied in the other. I find having a flamethrower spell in the offhand and a sword in the main makes for a good combination -- I can use the flamer to chip away at my enemy while dodging his attacks until he presents an opening for stabby-stabby time. Interestingly, even if your opponent is full health, there are certain events that will trigger an insta-kill event with a melee weapon. These are presented in a format similar to the kill-cam from FONV.

Archery has gone downhill, as well. It's now much harder across the board, as the arrows' path is no longer straight -- they shoot high in close (surprisingly so) and arc like a rainbow at distance. There also seems to be a hard limit -- a range past which an arrow simply will no register a hit on your target no matter how it's aimed. I haven't figure out yet if it's the virtual wind blowing it off target, or some kind of limit in the game itself. Skill increases seem to help a bit, but not much; my old Oblivion tactic of picking off targets from a hundred plus yards out is pretty well impossible in Skyrim -- at least thus far. Different bows and arrows don't seem to affect it any.

Magic can now be wielded with a different spell in each hand; providing some interesting combinations of double-damage dealing, or simultaneous offensive/defensive casting. Spells are learned from books now, rather than bought through a secondary psuedo-barter interface. With a skill perk, you can overpower your destruction spells by casting them with both hands at once. This is kind of cool, but really chews through mana.

The crafting system is my favorite part of the game. You can craft (and improve existing) armor and weapons; as well as enchant them with magic effects. You can also still brew potions -- of which there are several new types made to increase specific skills or damage outputs. Sadly, it suffers from the usual nonsense that prevents you purchasing more advanced metals until you're higher level -- rather than availability being driven by whether you have the skills to actually make use of the stuff. I had access to the ability to craft Elven armor five or seven levels before the components became available in the game world (this is another reason to concentrate on combat skills early; that way your crafting skills won't be useless waiting on components to appear).

Needless to say, assuming we ever get a CS, one of my first mods is going to be another "capitalism" overhaul that removes those stupid level requirements for merchant items.

Player houses are better this time around. Unlike Oblivion where you needed only the money (or sometimes a certain amount of fame) to buy them, in Skyrim you have to have completed a quest for the fiefdom before you're allowed to own property there. I only have the first house you gain access to (in Whiterun) but it's not bad, as far as official Bethsoft housing goes. Two bedroom, working kitchen (for cooking-crafting), alchemy lab.

Interestingly, in another act that shows they were paying attention to the modding community, the bookshelves and weapon rack actually work. When you store items in them like a container, the items actually appear in their places. It's pretty cool. I'd like to have seen space for a blacksmithing workshop and enchanter's table, though; just to save on running to other places in the world to craft. One of the other houses may have them; I'm not sure yet, and haven't gone looking around the web for walkthroughs or other guides.

When you become eligible to own land in Whiterun, the Grand High Poobah also grants you a servant; what they call a "Housecarl" I believe it was. This basically amounts to henchman/bodyguard. The one you get from Whiterun is named Lydia; a somewhat rough looking Nord woman. Lydia will follow you and act as a companion and mule.

On the whole, the companions here are a serious step up from Oblivion's Adoring Fan and Dark Brotherhood Murderers; but they're severely lacking compared to the companions I'm used to running.

Lyds' pathfinding is terrible; and her combat abilities are unimpressive at best. She functions as an attention-taker most of the time; keeping the enemy's attention away from me so I can riddle them with arrows uninterrupted. Beyond that, she's pretty useless. Lydia gets her ass kicked on an astoundingly regular basis, and is not essential. She has no magic whatsoever; and does not appear to be able to heal herself in any way during combat. I haven't tried giving her health potions. She gets lost regularly, and can't follow me across many sections of perfectly passable terrain -- let alone climbing out on the rocks like I'm used to my girls doing.

On the up side, they did finally perfect the whole range switching behavior to let an NPC switch from bows to melee weapons depending on the enemy's range. Lydia is not particularly handy with a bow, but I think the system will have potential when applied to less shitty companions. As well, Lydia does not report you to the guards for committing crimes; so you can bring her along on Thieves' Guild and Dark Brotherhood missions, if you like (though I wouldn't recommend it -- her stealth is pretty bad).

As for enemies: Skyrim doesn't railroad nearly as bad as FNV did. No super enemies waiting around every corner to make sure you don't stray from your by-God-assigned path through the story. On the other hand, the game has a massive case of GMPC going on. Virtually every higher-than-normal-ranked enemy is a boss unto themselves. Most have several times your health, high armor ratings, and at least partial magic immunity. If you're an archer or mage, you will get your ass kicked if you get into a fight in the close quarters of a cave or building. Having your housecarl along helps greatly here, since she helpfully meat-shields and holds the boss' attention long enough for you to get some distance and make with the ranged killing. You also have to worry about numbers, since most caves and other bandit hideouts have ten to twenty enemies in them who will magically notice your exact location when you kill anyone. Terrain can help here if you can find someplace to get out of melee range... but it's still pretty dicey. Carry health potions. Lots of them.

However you plan to do combat, do yourself a favor and put your skill points into that tree. The damage boosts are all but essential, and each of the combat trees seems to have several special abilities that will come in very handy.

Lastly, I want to talk about the "shouts". These are a gimmick, plain and simple. Like all gimmicks, they are useful primarily when specially written into the quest. I do not like them; and half the time don't even remember they're there.

On the whole, I like the game. It's fairly stable, smooth, pretty, and affords plenty of room to explore in a mostly free-form manner. Character paths are fairly diverse; though the large number of possible skills leads to a bit of a learning curve -- don't expect your first character to turn out great unless you do a bunch of reading up online on what all the skills do beforehand. Skyrim doesn't suffer from the four-voice-syndrome of previous games, either.

If you liked Oblivion, or thought FNV would be fun in a medieval setting; you'll probably like Skyrim.

Though I must regrettably withhold my official "get it" recommendation until we see how the whole construction set issue turns out. If they shaft us on that, I don't think it'll nearly as good -- since losing the ability to fix some of the game's flaws and add new characters and items will cut heavily from it's replayability. The game is also in desperate need of replacement textures, and new hairstyles.


  1. Thanks for sharing your experiences and opinions. I totally agree that the landscape looks great while the characters (though the meshes are more realistic than Oblivion's) suffer from inferior texturing. I have no doubt that the community will provide us with better skin and hair if and when it's possible, but I really hate having to wait for such things to make the game more enjoyable. I've only played a fraction of the hours you have, then had ideas for another modding project and haven't launched the game since. I'm so fickle...

  2. Yes, thank you for that Nos. Between you and Herculine, I should be able to remain aware of what is what with Skyrim. I still am of the belief that it would be best for me to leave the game alone until there has been time for proper patching and the modding community to get underway. The latter depends upon, of course, there actually being a game editor released to do the modding. As intrigued by Skyrim as I am, I will happily let others do the bug testing for me for now.

  3. according to Steam, I have 74 hours into Skyrim, and for the most part I am enjoying the hell out of it. Environments are wonderful, character appearance less so. My biggest beef with it at the moment is the setting - barbarian wasteland, basically. the biggest of the "cities" (I use that term loosely) is mebbe the size or 2 of the wards of the capital city in Oblivion. And with it being in the north-central area - it's location bites. I don't foresee a lot of space in it for additional shops, etc like we saw in Oblivion. And the next-biggest city, Riften isn't any better.

    Frankly, they need to cram Solitude, Riften and Markath into one decent-sized city - this would give a dockside area, a built-into the mountain area, and an normal self-standing building area.

    At this point I'm anxiously awaiting the SDK to see what kind of havoc I can cause, but I'm far more entertained with Skyrim than I was with Oblivion. But I really need to replay Obliv now that so much yummy is available for it

  4. I agree about the cities, but I've said the same about Oblivion and Morrowind before it as well. Perhaps I was spoiled by the vivid descriptions of the sprawling, bustling city of Waterdeep in p&p D&D adventures. I was very disappointed in Oblivion when I got to the Imperial City -- the seat of the Septim Empire, location of the Imperial Palace and home to Uriel Septim himself -- and found a wagon wheel with a few people wandering about in it and my first-level character could run the complete circle in just a few minutes. I don't think any game will ever live up to the image in my mind of what these great cities are supposed to be, at least not any time soon.

  5. I dunno.

    On the one hand, medieval societies don't tend to lend themselves well to high population densities for various reasons. On the other, magical insta-healing would negate most of those reasons; so it's probably fully possible.

    I'll agree though that Bethsoft really half-asses the "cities" in the games. I mean, I'm not one for mega-cities to begin with; but Whiterun has like five residential buildings in it. It's like Anvil in Oblivion -- Anvil was supposed to be a port trade hub, but only had a half dozen homes, and two shops.

    I realize it's a lot of extra work modeling those city worldspaces, but if you're going to bill something as a major-ish city, at least make it look like one superficially.

    I won't even touch the Imperial City with all of fifty residents bit.

    This was another area I think the guys who made the Witcher kicked ass in. The big city there was; it was just that most of the buildings couldn't be entered, and certain parts of the city were off limits to you. Cuts down on the extra, superfluous work of setting up the interior of every home and shop; but leaves the feeling that you're actually in a big city.

    Dragon Age as well. Denerim was set up so that the number of interiors they had to do was pretty small; but you still ended up with the sense that you were seeing small parts of a big city.

  6. Nice review, thanks.

    A couple of points I'm wondering about;
    Is the game balance really badly off, especially craftin (op) and destruction(up)?
    I've heard that the vertical mouse speed is frame rate dependant. Did they really mess this up?

  7. @Kirtai:

    "Is the game balance really badly off, especially craftin (op) and destruction(up)?"

    I wouldn't call balance horribly b0rked, no. It depends a lot on what kind of areas you wander into. You can easily end up someplace you shouldn't be and will likely be murdered in a manner most unpleasant; unlike the default form of Oblivion.

    With blacksmithing, it's much like many other games that include item creation: it isn't so much free-ish stuff as the only way to get the good stuff. You can craft things yourself ten or more levels before it shows up in merchant inventories -- if it does at all.

    Destruction sucks early game. At low skill levels, it chews through mana like the stuff is going out of style. If you power through though, you get access to a skill perk at skill level 30 or 40 that lets you cast all novice level spells for half-normal mana cost. Makes it much easier. Other skill perks increase damage, or add secondary effects to some spells. It's much like D&D wizardry: low level you're constantly near death; high level you're an avatar of an angry God. Skyrim is a bit worse than it might otherwise be, because according to the Almighty Lore the Nords distrust and dislike mages; so you can only buy spells from court wizards (one in each "hold" as they call the fiefdoms) and the mages' college (which has an entry exam and minimum skill level required to get in).

    "I've heard that the vertical mouse speed is frame rate dependant."

    I've never noticed a correlation in my game; but I've been around Gamebryo long enough to know it probably varies from one install to the other. It's possible.