Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (PC)




Rating: 4 out of 5
Pros: Beautiful, huge, epic game world. Lots to do, play however you want.
Cons: User interface is terrible. Lacking variety in equipment and enemies. Single player only

Introduction

I loved Morrowind, and I loved Oblivion even more. When I heard there was going to be another title in The Elder Scrolls series, I was quite obviously excited and anxiously awaited it's release. I picked up The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim the day it was released, and it has since eaten up a lot of my free time. It's a great game, but it's got a couple minor things that I really don't care for so I'm going to go against the grain here and not give it 5 stars. In fact, I'd like to give it about a 70% rating, it's only getting 4 stars because Epinions does not allow half star ratings.

I'm now about 70 hours into the game but only a quarter of the way through the main story. There's just so many optional things to do and such a vast world to explore that you can easily get side tracked and spend countless hours just wandering the countryside.

Two hundred years after the events that took place in Cyrodiil, the capital of Tamriel, in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, the story moves over to Skyrim. Skyrim is not only the name of the game, but also the location in which it takes place. Skyrim is another province in Tamriel, located to the north of Cyrodiil, and it's home to the Nord people.

There's a civil war going on between the empire and the Stormcloak rebels over the worship of Talos, and dragons have returned to the world. Early on you find out that you are what is called "Dragonborn", and are able to speak and understand the language of dragons.

Gameplay

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is an action/adventure role playing game. Most often you'll be running around in a first person view hacking enemies apart with weapons, shooting them with arrows or destroying them with magical spells and abilities. You can toggle on a third person view, which I prefer in most games, but it just doesn't feel right in Skyrim. Probably because the camera is over your right shoulder instead of directly behind you when you're not in combat, it really feels disconcerting.

There are 10 playable races in Skyrim, including various human races as well as Elves, Orcs, Argonian (reptiles) and Khajiit (felines). Each race gets a couple of minor racial bonuses, like Nords having 50% resistance to frost spells or High Elves getting 50 extra points of magicka, or Khajiit's Night-Eye ability that lets them see in the dark for 60 seconds. None of these bonuses are game breaking, but certain ones can be pretty awesome depending on how you want to play your character.

Skyrim is a pretty non-linear game, you can go about as you please and do whatever you want. Some main quest givers are important NPCs that can't be killed, but pretty much anything else is fair game. You can complete the main story quest, countless side-quests, wander the countryside or countless other things. As for crafting or trade skills, you can learn blacksmithing, alchemy and enchanting. Blacksmithing allows you to create weapons and armor at a forge, as well as improving them on the workbench or grindstone. Alchemy allows for making various potions, and enchanting can add magical effects to your weapons and armor.

Other skills include sneaking, pickpocketing, speech and lock picking. Combat skills include blocking, heavy armor, light armor, archery, one handed and two handed weapons; there are also multiple types of magic including conjuration, alteration, restoration, illusion and destruction. There are no defined character classes in Skyrim, instead your character progresses and levels up as you increase various skills. Every level you get a perk, which you can use to improve skills as you see fit. There are perks that let you block more damage with your shield, do more damage with your weapon, cast spells for less magicka, etc. One of my favorites is the perk that slows down time by 50% when you zoom in while aiming a bow.

There are around 250 perks in total, but you can't get them all because you only get 1 perk per level. Once your character hits level 50 they level up a lot slower, but supposedly you can get all the way up to level 81 by increasing every skill to it's maximum of 100. Still, this means at the very most you can get just under one third of the total available perks. There's also no way to reset your perks once you've chosen them, so plan accordingly. My first character I grabbed a couple of heavy armor perks, then a couple of one handed weapon and blocking perks... and then decided I wanted to be a mage. I eventually just made a new character instead so I wouldn't have those wasted armor perks from the start.

You can also choose one of your stats to increase at every level. Health, magicka and stamina are the only real stats you have to worry about. Health and magicka are pretty obvious in that they represent the amount of damage your character can take and the amount of magical spells he can cast. Stamina determines how much weight you can carry, as well as how long you can sprint and how many special attacks you can use. My zoomed in bow aiming for example, it uses stamina at a steady rate for as long as I'm zoomed in. When my stamina runs out, I can no longer zoom in until I regain some stamina. Health, magicka and stamina all slowly regenerate on their own, though there are also potions and enchantments to increase their regeneration rate.

Some areas of Skyrim are more difficult than others, especially areas higher in elevation. Despite that base difficulty, many enemies progress in difficulty as your character levels up. This makes them harder to fight, but also means they drop more gold and better items.

Speaking of items, there's a good variety, but I wish there were more. With such a massive world and so much to do, it makes the amount of different pieces of equipment look small in comparison. There are 8 different types of light armor, plus another 8 special kinds that are obtained via quest lines, along with maybe a dozen kinds of heavy armor. Of these, you can acquire a helmet, chest piece, gauntlets/bracers and boots. Granted, these can all be varied further by improving them on a workbench or enchanting them, but there's still a slight lack of variety.

The same can be said for enemies in Skyrim. There are maybe 30 different types of enemies, which is really disappointing. Especially when you consider that the 30 is counting rabbits, horses, dogs, elk, etc. Most of the dungeons I've been through so far are populated by either Draugr, which are a type of undead/zombie like creature, or various melee/archer/magical humanoids. I really wish there was some more variety here. It's sufficient, but could have been so much better. Aside from the dragons, which are always fun and epic battles, giants are pretty great to fight as well. They have a lot of health, and they hit hard enough to walk up kill you with one swing of their mighty clubs. It's epic fun to kite them around and whittle their health away a little at a time. Mammoths are pretty fun as well, they're not quite as strong as giants but they do hit hard and have a lot of health. Since giants are mammoth herders, I'll often end up fighting both at once anyway.

You can also get various NPC companions to join you during your journey, but only one at a time. You can give them equipment and other items to hold, and they can even equip it - if they feel like it. You can't directly equip items on them, which is annoying. I gave my companion a +4 health ring, and she equipped it. Later I gave her a +20 health ring, and she left the +4 ring on instead. I had to take the +4 ring away from her so she would equip the +20. Annoying. Still, they're handy to have along to help out in some of the dungeons. I bring Lydia along outfitted in heavy armor with a 2 handed weapon, which is great because she can draw the enemies attention for a bit while I pick them off with my bow. If your companion dies though, they're dead forever, so it's kind of important to save before major battles if you care about your companion at all.

Mods

If the previous Elder Scrolls games are any indication, you can expect there to be a lot of mods (both from Bethesda and third party), as well as multiple pieces of downloadable content. Though the game has only been released for a couple of weeks at the time of this writing, there are already loads of mods - especially armor, clothing and texture mods.

I'm sure future mods will introduce whole new areas, dungeons, enemies, tons of equipment and all sorts of other things. Personally I only use the "No More Blocky Faces" mod that smooths out the faces in the game right now. I'll probably install some others after I finish the game all the way through once. "QD Inventory" looks great, as do the "Realistic Water Textures" "Enhanced Blood Textures" and "Enhanced Night Skyrim" mods.

Some mods such as "Nude Females", "Glowing Ore Veins 300" and "Main Font Replacement" don't look all that terrific to me, but I'm sure will find widespread use.

Graphics & Sound

The visuals in Skyrim are outstanding. The map is gigantic and expansive, and the attention given to detail is amazing. The landscape varies from tall rugged mountains to rolling flat plains. Lush green carpets of plant life to blizzards you can hardly see through. Clouds roll by in the sky overhead, snow blows around in the air, it's really a beautiful game.

Character models are well done, though a touch blocky looking - especially in the faces. Most of the animations are great, though I had to chuckle when I switched to the third person camera view and watched my character jump, that was a little goofy. Path finding for your NPC companions is also a little annoying, and if you're running around the map they may disappear for a while as they try to work their way to you. This is especially true if you jump off a small cliff and they have to run around the long way. Usually issuing the "wait" command and waiting for an hour or two will bring them back to your side, but it's still annoying. Also, if you get a horse and ride around, your companion is unable to ride so they always lag behind.

The user interface is one of the things I dislike the most about Skyrim. In making it consistent across the PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 ports, it seems rather unintuitive and cobbled together on the PC. There's no drag and drop for items, no bars of spells you can hit with the push of a button... You can assign the numbers 1-8 as hot keys to equip certain pieces of gear, but it doesn't work correctly with dual wielding items, requiring you to press multiple buttons to switch from a two handed weapon to a sword + shield (or from a bow to a healing spell + fire spell in my case).

Everything is done by accessing a menu, then using a couple of hot keys in that menu to interact with the items. "Press E to equip" or "Press R to store item" and it's all text based. It's annoying trying to figure out whether I should press E, R, or just click on the item to get it to do what I want. No graphical representations of items in the menus or in your inventory is also a bit disappointing. Now I can understand that some usability must be sacrificed on consoles where they don't use a keyboard and mouse, but on the PC this just seems broken and prohibitive. It's annoying and inefficient, and I'm surprised even Bethesda stuck with it through the game's release. Hopefully some mods will come out in the near future to overhaul it and make it more user friendly.

Interfacing with the game using an Xbox 360 controller wasn't any better for me, I really disliked the speed at which the camera zoomed around. I found it pretty difficult to control and switched back to the keyboard and mouse in short order. Maybe if you're used to playing the 360 it would be beneficial to you, but then you probably would have the 360 version of this game instead of the PC version anyway.

Jeremy Soule composed the music, as he did for Oblivion, Morrowind and Icewind Dale as well. He also composed the award-winning soundtrack for Total Annihilation, and even did Secret of Evermore way back in the day when he worked for Square. The music is gorgeous, especially the main theme "Sons of Skyrim", which is an epic score sung in the game's dragon language. The sound effects were a crisp and clear array of the same clangs and thumps you'd expect to hear. The help to immerse you in the game world, but are largely forgettable and overshadowed by the visuals.

Voice acting was pretty top-notch throughout. Featuring some well-known voice actors like Michael Hogan (Saul Tigh in Battlestar Galactica), Christopher Plummer (Doctor Parnassus in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus), Lynda Carter (Wonder Woman in The New Adventures of Wonder Woman), Max von Sydow (Sir Walter Loxley in Robin Hood) and Claudia Chrstian (Susan Ivanova in Babylon 5).

Minimum System Requirements

Windows 7/Vista/XP (32 or 64 bit)
Dual Core 2.0 GHz processor
2 GB RAM
6 GB HDD Space
Direct X 9 compliant video card with 512 MB of RAM
DirectX compatible sound card
Internet access and free Steam account for activation

My System

Windows 7 Professional (64 bit)
Triple Core 3.2 GHz processor
8 GB RAM
DirectX 11 Video card with 1024 MB of RAM
DirectX compatible onboard sound card

It runs great for me, even on Ultra settings.

Conclusion

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is a great game in so many ways, and it's on a level of it's own when it comes to grandness and epic scale. I really enjoy the game, and every time I start it up I lose myself for a few hours in Skyrim and get nothing else accomplished. Still, I would love to see some more enemies and different types of equipment to flesh out the game world and I'm knocking my rating down a notch because of it.

On top of that, the terrible interface is definitely taking my rating down another notch. It's still a brilliant game and I love playing it, but it's not perfect by any means. Hopefully some future mods will smooth out the rough patches, overhaul the interface and add some much needed variety to the equipment and enemies. Still, I'd recommend the game to anyone who loves a good single player RPG. It's as good as most others, better than some, and the grand scale of the game is almost awe inspiring.

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