Skyrim – the first five weeks

I’ve been meaning to write something about Skyrim for a couple of weeks, but any time I had a few spare minutes I decided they were better spent actually playing the game than writing about it. Today, I finally feel sated. I don’t mean I’m done playing it, because I’m not, but I no longer feel the compulsion to spend every spare hour in Skyrim, and even loaded something else instead (X3: Albion Preview in case you’re wondering – I’ll probably blog about that soon). Steam tells me that in five weeks I’ve spent 221 hours playing Skyrim and that I’ve already gone past Fallout: New Vegas (206) so It’s definitely time to put down a few thoughts about the game.

The sheer scope of the game is incredible. I spent some time trying to come up with a one-word description and eventually settled on “mindblowing” – and don’t tell me it’s really two words and should be hyphenated; I know and I don’t care. One problem with modern English usage is that so many words are overused and end up as mere synonyms for “pretty good”, but I’m using “mindblowing” in the sense of “Bloody hell – there’s more? How the hell am I supposed to keep track of everything?” Skyrim is almost too big. At one point I found myself trying to work out how to advance the Thieves Guild quest line and it took a trawl through my huge list of outstanding quests to jog my memory that one quest without any obvious thieving connection was the one I had to do. Yes, it’s my own fault for leaving quests too long and also my fault for playing while under the influence of whatever type of alcohol has taken my fancy, but it’s undoubtedly a big game.

Let’s start by looking at my last post about the things I wanted to see in the new game.

The World

The land of Skyrim is certainly a massive improvement over Oblivion’s Cyrodiil, so much so that my first several hours were spent simply exploring the province rather than doing quests. There’s so much more to find than before, and there are areas of utterly stunning beauty.

Interiors look much better than in Oblivion, but while there’s a little more variety than before there’s still a certain sense of sameness. That’s especially true of taverns, which are almost all identical inside. Most of the dungeons are rather linear too: you just have to keep moving forward, knowing that when you reach the end you’ll face a boss. I know I’m being a bit unfair here, because there’s only so many ways in which you can design a mine or a ruin, but given the way the “hand designed” nature of the locations was hyped I’d expected a little more.

The Characters

There have definitely been improvements here. For a start, the voice acting is better. Having so many different voices is a huge improvement in itself, but the quality of delivery is much better too. Some of it’s better than other bits – Joan Allen is superb as Delphine but only the fact that Karliah is an essential character saves her from my wrath at Moira Quirk’s performance with her voice.

By and large, NPCs don’t do stupid stuff any more, although I don’t imagine there’s a single player who hasn’t seen at least one weirdness. Letting other NPCs move around while you’re talking to someone can occasionally lead to some oddities too – for instance I eventually had to watch my own marriage from several yards away from the altar and my beloved because somebody had pushed me out of their way and I couldn’t move back.

There are still a few annoyances, such as the way NPCs almost always say the same things to you when you pass them, but that’s almost impossible to fix unless someone comes up with a way of auto-generating realistic dialogue.

Meh. This is probably as good as it can get. I find myself wishing I didn’t have to give the skeleton key back though.

Getting rid of disposition entirely is one way around the problem, I suppose. The persuade/intimidate/bribe mechanism works well: at early levels I usually had to bribe people but as I gained levels and got more Speech skill points, the other options became an option too. Having the bribe option as a catch-all is a good solution, because it means you never get locked out of options entirely. It’s possibly a little over-simplified but on balance I think it’s a good solution.

Music Switching
Much, much improved. It’s not quite as good as it could be – I still get one or two places where I realise I’m under attack because of the music, but it’s certainly better than in earlier games.

Almost perfect! I’d still like the ability to learn about effects from books or teachers, but the new system is really good.

Random Encounters
Possibly a few too many wolves but about 95% perfect.

And on
In other words, my list of gripes has been almost entirely addressed and has certainly made the game more enjoyable.

I like the new Smithing mechanic. No more messing about waiting for a bandit to wear a glass helmet; just get the perk, find or buy the material and make it yourself. Combined with the improved enchanting system, replete with its own set of powerful perks, there’s no longer a need to keep waiting for some particular item to appear in random loot. This makes customising your character a lot easier.

Archery has been seriously improved. My first character is a stealthy archer and was delighted to find that arrows now do rather more damage than they did in Oblivion, where you may as well have flicked chewed-up wads of paper at enemies for all the good they did. It wasn’t long before he was doing double damage, with a 3x bonus for sneak attacks, with a self-crafted Daedric Bow imbued with a Fire enchantment, and even powerful enemies began to drop in a single shot.

Magic, too, is actually worth using. I tried to like magic in Oblivion, I really did, but it was so ineffective it wasn’t worth bothering. In Skyrim, most of the spells work well, and some of the new additions, like the Clairvoyance spell, are fantastic. The lack of spell-crafting is interesting. On the one hand, we won’t get loads of people submitting dull combinations of spells for a Useful Spells page, but I do slightly miss the time spent messing around trying to come up with a genuinely useful spell.

It almost goes without saying, but the graphics are superb. The music is superb too, although the game does everything it can to downplay it. Under the default settings, the music is turned way down, and even putting the slider up to the max leaves it… in the background a bit. I know the music shouldn’t be the main point of the game, but Jeremy Soule fans – and I count myself as such – should be able to make it more prominent. I can’t wait to see if Santa brings me my signed copy of the soundtrack!

Dragons: as good as I had hoped, even if it can be bloody annoying when they circle around without attacking or crash-land in one place only to glitch into another.

It’s not perfect though.

The first thing that hits me is that Skyrim has developed the Fallout 3-style invisible walls. I’ll often find that I need to reach some objective on a hill. Upon reaching the general area it becomes clear that there’s no easy path so I can either hike around the entire hill to find the path you’re supposed to take or try to go rock-climbing. There’s often a fairly smooth-looking path up the side of the hill so I set off, jumping up the hill (or riding up it on my horse). Suddenly, I can’t go any further: some invisible wall is blocking my way and I now have to make a dangerous trip back down the slope. Why do this? Why make me take the One True Path? Really annoying.

The main quest is very good, and I thought the Dark Brotherhood and Thieves Guild quest lines were really excellent, but the Companions and College don’t stand up so well. Both lines are too short and the latter asks more questions than it answers. The daedric quests vary quite a bit too: I liked Boethiah’s and Sheogorath’s quests in particular, but Malacath’s and Mephala’s were a disappointment. Too many of the other quests are either “take this to X”, “Fetch something from Y”, or “Kill Z”, and these can get a little boring after a while. In general, I suppose I have to give the quests a thumbs up, but I think some could definitely have been better.

Pace my earlier praise for the voice acting, some of the actors are a bit distinctive to re-use as non-prominent NPCs. Christopher Plummer is great as Arngeir, but hearing him crop up as other NPCs can be a bit odd. Ditto Claudia Christian – my Babylon 5 spider sense tingles every time I hear her voice.

And of course, there are the bugs.

Now I know that an open world game like Skyrim is going to be pretty much impossible to get right from day one, but sometimes I found myself wondering if the Quality Assurance team really did any work or just sat around on bean bags texting each other all day. Some of the bugs are bloody obvious too. For instance, I found myself wondering whether picking up two items from The Litany of Larceny quest would break it, and rapidly found the answer to be “yes”. At one point during development, UESP offered to test Skyrim and we were rebuffed. If we’d been involved, I’m absolutely certain that many of these bugs would have been caught and fixed before release.

In Conclusion

This isn’t everything I could mention, but it’s the points that immediately come to mind. I imagine there’ll be a “And another thing…” post at one point, but for now let me say that on balance: I absolutely love this game. It’s worth every damn minute of the 5+ year wait. Those 221 hours are only the start of what I’m certain will be a couple of thousand. The only question is: where next? Obviously there’s a lot to decide about the Thalmor, and it’ll be very interesting to see how the next game handles the civil way: will Skyrim be independent or a part of the Empire? Will there even be an Empire?

When TES VI rolls around, of course, we’ll be on a new generation of consoles, which will open up whole new worlds. That’s all a long way away, which is just as well because it’ll take until then to fully explore Skyrim.

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