Ten days to go now, and the anticipation makes me remember what it was like to be ten years old on the evening before Christmas, although the knowledge that the first eight hours or so after I get the game will be spent doing stuff for the wiki tempers things a bit. Anyway, it’s nine years since Morrowind came out and five since Oblivion’s release, and I thought I’d take a few minutes to look back at those games to see what worked, what didn’t, and how the things we know about Skyrim might fit with that.
I remarked in an earlier post that one of the big disappointments in Oblivion was that, after you got over how beautiful things were outside your prison cell, you began to realise how similar one place looked to another. You had the marshy bits, the snowy bits, the forest bits and the plain bits, but there was so little variation that should you be plonked down at random you’d have a great deal of difficulty saying exactly where you were without looking at the map. Inside the dungeons it’s even worse: there are perhaps a dozen locations where you can say “Oh yes, I’m in X” instead of “Well… it’s an Ayleid ruin of some kind”. In Morrowind, Fallout 3 and Fallout:New Vegas, this isn’t the case. It usually takes only a quick glance around before you can work out your location pretty accurately. One of the big bits of news is that Skyrim’s terrain is all produced by designers rather than random number generators, so it looks like this won’t be a problem. That’s going to make a huge difference when it comes to replaying the game for the fifth time.
I covered NPCs here and there’s not much to add. It looks as if voice acting is much better, although the “A dragon! I saw a dragon!”/”What? What is it now mother?” from the first of the three walkthrough videos shows that weird NPC conversations still exist. Certainly the number of voice actors has increased, and I hope this will lead to far fewer situations when you overhear NPCs with identical voices talking to each other, which really put a metal bar through the spokes of immersion. Allowing NPCs to continue with whatever they’re doing while you talk to them is a huge step forward and makes things a lot more natural. The level of detail in the NPCs has gone up massively, and with Howard saying there are “thousands” of items, it’s possible that there will be a far greater variety of clothing on offer too. One thing I haven’t been able to judge from the videos so far is whether basic common sense has been added. We’ve all seen NPCs walking into walls, saying “Goodbye” to someone only to start another conversation with them immediately, and generally being idiots. I’m really hoping Skyrim does these basic things right so the clever things stand out even more.
Morrowind was awful at this. If you stood no chance at all of opening a door with your current security skill and quality of lockpick you got a message about the lock being too complex, and otherwise you just had to keep clicking on the door until it either opened or your pick broke. Oblivion was a bit better, but the experience of trying to pick Very Hard locks at low levels used to have my blood pressure heading towards extremely dangerous levels. Skyrim seems to use essentially the same system as Fallout 3 and F:NV, which means the minigame isn’t difficult but you need to have a certain level of skill before you can attempt different levels of lock. That works well in most cases and I dare say it’ll make Fortify Skill a more useful spell. UPDATE In a Tweet, Pete Hines said “Yes, you can attempt adept locks when you’re a novice.” Good and bad, I guess. Certainly one less use for Fortify Skill!
Oh dear. So far, no TES game has done this well, and Fallout 3 and NV don’t really improve things either. In Morrowind, you had three conversation options to increase an NPC’s disposition: Admire, Intimidate and Bribe. The first only becomes an option when your Speechcraft skill gets to about 50, the second when you reach at least level 25, and the third when you have loads of cash. This means that to all intents and purposes, a low level character can’t increase an NPC’s disposition. Even with high levels of Speechcraft you have to keep clicking the Admire option because there’s a hefty element of randomness in there that means getting the disposition to 100 can sometimes be a really frustrating task.
In Oblivion, the randomness was mainly gone, but you had the ludicrous minigame where you had to threaten someone, tell them a joke, boast and try coercion one after another, several times. Imagine that in real life: I’m going to reach down your throat and pull out your heart. Did you hear the one about the Argonian fishmonger? Well I’m the best swordsman in Cyrodiil! Now give me all your money or there’ll be trouble. Right.
In Fallout 3, you had a Speech skill, and there was a percentage chance of getting NPCs to tell you things that was affected by it. So, say, if your Speech skill was 25, there might be a 30% chance that an NPC would tell you what you needed to know, but if your Speech increased to 50, that chance might reach 60%. The problem here is that these topics were all one-shot chances. Fail and your chance was gone for good. This could be really annoying, because (obviously) even a 90% chance of success means you fail one time in ten. I must confess that the quick save/load feature was used quite a lot in my case…
Fallout: New Vegas did something similar, except here you had to get a Speech skill of X to unlock certain topics. No randomness, no messing, you had to have the required skill.
I *hate* the one-shot bits of F3 and NV. I often found myself delaying a quest until I’d increased my Speech skill so I’d be able to pass a check I knew was coming up, and that’s just silly. I also hate the silly mechanisms from earlier games, so how would I work it? Well think about real life for a minute. You’re only likely to tell someone a secret if you’ve known them for a while and get on well with them, so how about doing something like that? I wouldn’t want to try to create The Sims in Tamriel, but some simple mechanism for keeping track of how long you’ve known an NPC shouldn’t be hard to implement.
You know the scene. You’re running along the Gold Road on your way to Anvil when suddenly the music changes to a “battle” theme. You therefore know someone or something is about to attack you even if you hadn’t seen your attacker. While it would be great to have a small orchestra following you around in real life, playing music to suit your activities and location, in an RPG it’s a real immersion-breaker. More than once I’ve found myself thinking “I know I’m being attacked, but I can’t *see* anything!” Morrowind and Oblivion are equally bad at this, but in Fallout there’s usually a bit of a delay before the music switches, which means by the time you realise you’re being attacked, three deathclaws are already feasting on your intestines. Much more realistic, even if it can be really annoying when you find your last save was an hour ago. The videos we’ve seen *seem* to indicate that Skyrim does something similar – the music changes when the player realises they’re under attack, which is the most sensible way to do it. I really hope this is done right, even if it means I have to remember to look behind me every so often.
It looks like this is essentially the same as Morrowind and Oblivion, which is a bit of a disappointment. I suggested before that it wasn’t very sensible having new knowledge about plants suddenly appear in a player’s head as soon as you hit another level of alchemical skill. It would be much better if you had to learn from a fellow alchemist, read the information in a book or research it yourself somehow. On p41 of The Infernal City, there’s a bit where Annaïg does some tests to reveal “virtues” about a substance – learning that “the primary virtue was restorative and the secondary was… one of alteration. The tertiary and quaternary virtues didn’t reveal themselves even so vaguely.” Too bad Annaïg wasn’t an Oblivion Player Character, or she’d have known what the ingredient was and what it did.
Oblivion didn’t too much wrong here. Skyrim appears to be very similar and I’m only mentioning it to bitch about the idiotic number of Cliff Racers you find in Morrowind.
One really encouraging thing is that not one of the preview articles has had anything negative to say. Unfortunately, most game previews and reviews seem to be this way these days so it’s not an absolute guarantee, but at least it sets a kind of baseline. Even the fansites seem pretty favourable. Sure, there are a few comments about the game being dumbed down but you always get those and any game that requires an official strategy guide of 656 pages can’t be that dumb anyway. The one real criticism I’ve seen was that the bone structure of all the NPC photos was identical, and from the leaked footage that I absolutely haven’t watched, it’s clear that this can change too – the photos must have been the presets.
Some people are sure to say that I’m a fanboy and will like the game no matter what. In fact, I think the opposite is true, and I think my comments on Fallout 3: New Vegas and Dead Money prove that. Still. Ten days and I’ll find out.