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Friday, November 11, 2011

Skyrim Break

Yesterday, I drove home from D.C.--about eight hours--and as I got off the exit for my town, I realized it was almost midnight. Out of idle curiosity, I decided to swing by the local GameStop and see if they were going to be open at midnight for people wanting to purchase Skyrim.

Ho boy. There was a line stretching so far that the people at the end could have probably had the game shipped to them faster than they were going to get it at GameStop. I stopped and chatted with a few of them. Oddly, they weren't all in line for Skyrim, though I was pretty sure that was the only major game released today. Most of them were, though. A lot of them had pre-ordered it, and the consensus seemed to be that expecting to waltz into GameStop and purchase it today was the height of folly. Reasoning that I had plenty of other things to do this weekend, I just drove home and forgot about it.

This morning, I drove down to Wal-Mart to get a universal power adapter for a laptop, and what did I see? An entire case full of copies of Skyrim. Ha! I guess the people who pre-ordered and waited in line got to play it a few extra hours last night, but otherwise I can't imagine why you'd spend a couple hours standing in the cold for it. Anyway, I paid $60 for it and spent most of the day playing it. (I should mention that I bought it for the X-Box 360, not the PC, which is why I couldn't just download it.)

This is the first game that I've bought on opening day, and the first new game I've played in which I didn't read anything about it first. Thus, the plot and gameplay elements were complete surprises to me--and not necessarily happy ones.

I know you don't come to my blog to get breaking news and reviews of current CRPGs, so I keep this brief. As in all Elder Scrolls games, you start as a prisoner--this time in a wagon, trundling to your execution in the Nord city of Helgen. The conversations of the other doomed souls in the wagon reveal them to be "Stormcloaks," followers of a lord named Ulfric Stormcloak who has styled himself the rightful king of Skyrim and is in rebellion against the Empire. As the wagon pulls into town and you disembark, the game asks for your race, sex, name, and appearance, and I was happy to see that at last I had the ability to create a bald character.

The executions begin, but just as you put your head down on the chopping block, a dragon appears and starts attacking the town. To hear the locals describe it later, there hasn't been a dragon 'round these parts in a thousand years. As everyone flees in panic, you have the option to follow the Stormcloaks or the Imperial Guard. I chose the Guard--I've never been much of a fan of separatists--and was rewarded with my freedom for helping to save the guard captain. After that, as is par for the course with The Elder Scrolls, the game opens completely up and allows you to go anywhere on the map, though it's strongly suggested that you start in a nearby town. Like Oblivion and Morrowind, the world is vast, with numerous towns, forts, ruins, caves, and other areas to explore, and there promises to be dozens of quests.

The game so far hasn't given me any indication of how long after Oblivion it takes place. I've been avoiding spoilers on that. But clearly some weird stuff has happened, because the folk speak of the "eight divines"--apparently worship of Talos (the ascended Tiber Septim) has been outlawed throughout the empire. Whether this has anything to do with the main quest, involving dragons and civil war, I don't know. [Later edit: I realized that the starting date, in-game, is listed as year 201 of the 4th era. Since the 3rd era ended at the close of Oblivion, I guess this game takes place 201 years later.]

Having played it for a few hours, I'm honestly not sure if I like it. The graphics are beautiful, the sound is first-rate, and the world is very evocative. But the dumbing-down of the character development system that began in Oblivion has continued in Skyrim. In particular:

  • You don't choose a class. Instead, you just focus on the skills you want to improve on and sort-of self-define your class. (Increases in any 10 skills lead to a level increase.) This isn't horrible, since you could essentially do the same thing in the previous games (no matter what your initial selection, you could choose to specialize in other skills); however...
  • Some of the skills are gone. Particularly irksome are the loss of athletics and acrobatics--I really liked improving those in the previous games. Combat skills have been reduced to "one-handed" and "two-handed" (a far crime from Morrowind's spear, axe, short blade, long blade, and blunt) and there's no more hand-to-hand skill. Overall, Morrowind had 27 skills, Oblivion had 21, and Skyrim has 18.
  • Perhaps most shockingly, there are no attributes! Strength, speed, endurance, and so forth are fixed and immutable. Instead, when you increase levels, you make direct boosts to your health, magic, or stamina--these are no longer derived.

Balancing this somewhat are "perks," which are tied to specific skills and are chosen by the player during level-ups. For instance, players who want to specialize in the block skill can choose a "shield bash" perk and marksmen can choose a perk that allows them to zoom. There are hundreds of these, so you have to make more choices than in previous games when it comes to focusing your skills.

Still, many of the things I used to like about Morrowind and Oblivion--incrementally increasing my maximum encumbrance; getting to the point where I can race, leaping across the countryside because of high athletics and speed levels; mixing attribute-boosting potions--are no longer available.

There are some gameplay elements that make up for the changes in character development. Combat is much more realistic and, consequently, much more brutal. You have the option to dual-wield both weapons and spells. Spells are cast continuously, so when you choose to cast "flame" on someone, you can just hold down the trigger and become a human flamethrower (expending magic points constantly, of course). The physics are very realistic, and you can set things on fire (although it doesn't seem to permanently damage them). I like the conversations marginally better, and there's more depth and complexity to the quests. I haven't quite decided if I like the new "smith" skill which allows you to create and upgrade weapons and armor given the right raw materials (unlike previous games, you don't need to repair things), and I'm still struggling a bit with the lockpicking minigame.

Health regenerates continually, like mana and stamina, which I think is somewhat lame.

Oh, and apropos of our recent discussion on the issue, there are children in the game, although I have confirmed that you can't harm a hair on their heads. (Trying counts as a crime and rouses the entire town to slaughter you, however.)

So, a mixed bag, but I still have plenty of things left to discover and may end up liking it in the end. This will be my last word on the game until about 2023, though: Tomorrow, it's back to Wasteland. I promise.


Note: Sorry for the lack of images here, but I don't really know how to capture them on my TV.



22 comments:

  1. Skyrim is another obvious console port. My only real problem with that is what you said: They dumbed it down so much that it lost the complexity that made Morrowind and Oblivion so special. I'm not surprised they simplified the stats/levelling thing. Having to tightly restrict your skill increases in order to x5 your stat increase for each level was annoying.

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  2. @Dave:
    Oblivion was already a game targeted towards the console crowd which becomes evident the moment you get your first look at the interface. Plus, the words complexity and Oblivion (and presumably Skyrim, too, from what can be read anywhere) don't fit into the same sentence.

    How anybody who likes RPGs, especially complex ones like D&D games or similar systems (Arcanum, the old Fallout games etc.), can find a liking to games like Oblivion is totally beyond me. There is so much freedom to do anything that there is barely any "game" left (by this I mean story, RPG-gameplay, the sense of progression...). Then again I don't get what people see in Minecraft so apparently sandbox games are not made for me.

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  3. Personally I don't understand why people can't like different games. Same as I don't understand why some people _always_ play the same character regardless of which game they play.
    I like tatical party based games like the Gold Box games, but I also like Oblivion (as long as it is properly modded), but for entirely different reasons.

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  4. I'll be getting Skyrim (for the PC) once it's on sale in about 6 months time. I'm playing New Vegas now, and with a few tweaks and mods it's very good.

    From what I've read about Skyrim, the PC interface is rather poor (even by bethesda standards), so your choice is to use a 360 controller or use mods. I'll be choosing the mods, much like I have for their other recent games.

    It seems that it's easier/more profitable to make action-oriented console games and sell them cross-platform than it is to make a PC specific tactical-RPG. Thankfully independent game developers are aspiring to fill that void on the PC.

    For a short word on the older Elder Scrolls games, there's a rather good bit on PC Gamer today: http://www.pcgamer.com/category/features/crap-shoot/

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  5. "I know you don't come to my blog to get breaking news and reviews of current CRPGs,..."

    Are you kidding? I love RPGs, and I welcome anything you have to say about them.

    Obviously, you've carved out your own niche here, and you'll want to continue focusing on that. But don't apologize for posts like this. (And in this case, I was wondering just how dumbed-down Skyrim would be.)

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  6. Bought the xbox 360 version this morning as I'd promised it for my son as a late birthday present. He seems to be enjoying it so far. I did quite like the perks system in fallout 3. My son is trying to play sky rim on the hardest difficulty level from day one but not sure how practical that will be.

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  7. Personally, I've been -loving- Skyrim so far. It's not really dumbed down at all compared to Oblivion. Sure, you have a couple less skills and you don't have direct attributes. However, magicka, health, and stamina stand in for direct attributes, and the perk system is basically an entirely new, interesting way of controlling the way your character develops. There are also shouts and other powers, which are different than magic and offer new choices. Overall, it has the same approach to progression as Oblivion, only they actually did it -right- this time. You don't set as your "main skills" the skills you'll use the least often, so you can abuse the level system to stay competitive with the ludicrous scaling enemies. It feels a lot, lot better in that respect.

    The game also feels alive and gigantic and real much more than Obliv did.

    Listen, I know I'm just one person, but even hardcore PC gaming sites are giving it rave reviews. Rock, Paper, Shotgun -loved- it and said it was better than Morrowind. PCGamer loved it. RPGFan is probably the most critical, yet even they call it the best Elder Scrolls released yet.

    I do agree, however, that the interface is horrible for PCs. I -can't wait- until some decent mods come out. Other than that, the game does share some basic weaknesses with Oblivion. There is this vague feeling of shallow breadth. Still, I'm already 10 hours in, and I have a feeling this game is going to suck a lot more out of me.

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  8. Though I did come here to read about Wasteland and other oldschool RPGs, I'd be very interested to hear your opinion about Skyrim. It's very hard to find a review from someone who knows how the good old RPGs were done...

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  9. I concur with PetrusOctavianus; there's no reason why a gamer can't enjoy both old-school stat heavy rpgs and modern open world action-rpgs.

    Because Bethesda's rpgs receive additional DLC, plus are eventually modded and improved by intrepid players, my usually plan is the play the title once in an unadulterated state and then, a year or two later, play again with a different character build/play style and all the DLC and select mods.

    Currently: Skyrim on the 360, Oblivion (with DLC and mods) on my laptop, and Arcanum also on my laptop (with the widescreen mod.) All bases covered!

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  10. A minor note: increasing Stamina by 10 increases your maximum capacity by 5. Better than nothing.

    I agree heartily about the lack of athletics and acrobatics... I think it's fine they no longer exist as skills, but I'm dying for some kind of enchantment or spell that increases speed.

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  11. Well, running is also regulated by stamina. So increased stamina at least increases your ability to run for longer periods.. even if it doesn't impact your actual speed.

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  12. So far (about 10 hours in), I like it well apart from one or two controls weirdness I had to get used to (the interface really feels too console-to-pc port, can't wait for a decent interface mod, altough I feel it's already generally better than Oblivion).

    Compared to TESIV, the "dragon" theme feels more generic to me than the "demon invasion" one, so up to now that's a minus. The quests look well scripted, at least on par and the dialogue is good too - not as amazing than Dragon Age Orgins, but the dynamic way in which all conversations take place is quite immersive.

    No opinion on Smithing yet, generally it's a lot of hassle for nothing - unless you can craft some unique things you cannot buy or find elswhere, it's generally not worth the investment of skill points/time.

    Honsetly, I didn't even realize there where no stats (shame on me), but I think the perks system makes up for it alright and the more "fair" leveling system is great - I hate knowing something is clearly abusable but forcing myself to watch constatly to steer clear of cheating...

    And +1 to those who say we can like both oldschool heavily stats/text driven RPGs and modern ones.

    (PS: long time no post as this Sci-Fi RPG streak is not my prime interest, but I'm still reading you, don't worry!)

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  13. hopefully this isn't off topic but i know there is a core of knowledgeable RPGers here so here goes:

    I've never played oblivion but own it. I'd like to mod it for appearance, fix the leveling approach, and other odds and ends but don't care about increasing difficulty. any tips on what i should go with? Plus, i need to mod it through steam so hopefully they will all work there.

    thank you!

    John

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  14. The primary reason they simplified the skills and levelling system from Oblivion was that they got so much feedback that it was too complex. You can either like or dislike that complexity (I liked it), but to deny the complexity exists is to ignore objective data.

    It sounds like you prefer games with a long, tightly scripted main plot line. Morrowind had plenty of plot if you did all the House and Guild story lines, but if you just blast through it to "win" then you don't see 90% of the game world.

    "Winning" games these days is usually so idiotically easy that the quality of the game is far more about my enjoyment of the experience.

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  15. Yeah, I miss being able to jump five million feet in the air as well.

    I also am kinda surprised about the lack of unarmed skill, especially because, due to the "brawls" in the game, this is the first elder scrolls game where you actually have a reason to use your fists. But that won't stop me. If/when I LP Skyrim, it will be fists all the way, skill or no skill!

    I actually don't think the skill system was "simplified" at all. The massive variety of perks adds a lot of complexity, much more than "just put some points into whatever attribute you want to have a bigger number I guess". But complexity is hardly a binary thing, and is thus pretty hard to define.

    Either way, it seems pretty good so far!

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  16. Yeah, I agree with Zink here. The perk system makes the overall leveling/skill system deeper than Oblivion, even accounting for the few simplifications. It's like they subtracted 4 then added 10.

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  17. Oops.. meant to post with killias2.. not postcardsofplaces (an inside joke blog between me and some friends).

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  18. I'm also a two-timing bastard when it comes to loving both the hardcore cRPG and the cinematic action-oriented RPG-like sandboxes and space operas.
    I have just unpacked my limited edition of Skyrim that I bought unseen on pre-order. I'm a money-spending fool and I'm in love with the fact that I can still geek out over this dragon statue that comes with it! Don't want to ever lose this giddy feeling. I don't know what it is with the Elder Scrolls games (played them all from Daggerfall up), but I probably really like the immersive and epic feeling of being in a giant sandbox that reacts to me. It's not even that I think they represent the best in the vast cRPG landscape, that place belongs to Planescape Torment and the Baldur's Gate games, right along with some other classics like M&M and Wizardry. I haven't completed any main quest from the TES games (though not for lack of trying and having the intention to), and the time that I spent with Oblivion was invested for a great part in designing my own house through the editor. So now I'm going to wait till Skyrim gets patched up a bit and some mods are out that improve the interface. Yes, I can wait that long and I can stop eating a bag of potato chips halfway too.... :) But back to business at hand, I'll probably remember Skyrim fondly when we arrive in 2023 with this blog.

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  19. Yeah, I have to agree that I much prefer this incarnation of the Elder Scrolls system so far. Personally I'm much more of a class-and-level type, defining my build at level up rather than through play (because my experience is that some types of character just aren't very effective in the early going but blossom later. In a system where I have to use the ineffective tactics to actually get to the blossoming? That sucks.), so I've never been a huge fan of Bethesda's version of things. But Skyrim's elimination of stats makes gaming the system for multipliers unnecessary, and the perk system is a much more interesting advancement carrot than simple skill/stat increases. They're still a little bland, but that's okay.

    I do miss acrobatics and athletics, but only in the sense that I miss being able to build to the point where I could run really fast or jump ridiculous jumps. Having them as actual skills meant grinding them through constant use, and that wasn't really any fun. Skyrim -should- be able to recreate the effects that were good about them (run speed and jump distance/height improvement) through other means like spells, potions, perks, etc. I'm not sure if they do, but if not, maybe modders will step up.

    What I still really miss, and these were taken out in Oblivion, apparently never to return, is flight and teleportation. Creating permanent effect levitate items and combining them with the Boots of Blinding Speed was such a magical moment in Morrowind, and it gave a level of 3D space to the world that would have been fantastic in Oblivion and even better in the more mountainous terrain of Skyrim. And while fast travel -kind- of supplants teleportation, it's not as customizable nor is it as thematically fun.

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  20. Petrus, I'm with you. I can't see any reason why the same gamer can't like iconographic, multi-party games and first-person single-character games. I certainly like them both. Probably my two favorite CRPGs of all time are Baldur's Gate and Morrowind, and they really couldn't be any more different in their approaches.

    Georges, you gave a better review than me. I read it after making my second Skyrim posting, and I realized that I duplicated a lot of what you say.

    Dave, were you responding to me when you say "it sounds like you prefer games with a long, tightly scripted main plot line"? If so, I'm a bit baffled. I never meant to give that impression, and in fact I feel entirely the opposite.

    Slam23, I miss when "ultimate editions" or "collectors editions" game not only with extra trinkets but also every other game in the series. That's what Might & Magic and Ultima used to do.

    Anyway, as you'll see from my follow up, I take back most of what I said about Skyrim here. It just took me a while to get used to it. I think it's a better game than Oblivion--perhaps the best game I've ever played.

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  21. I'm glad to read that Skyrim seems better than Oblivion - I have been able to afford the GOTY for Oblivion for awhile, but after playing Morrowind up to level 15 or so, I just didn't trust Oblivion to be that good. I'm definitely in Team Morrowind.

    Meantime I have both Arena and Daggerfall, already set up for DOSBox courtesy of the guy who wrote the DBGL front-end I love using for DOSBox (Ronald Blankendaal)

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  22. The perk system was obviously a contribution from the Fallout series.
    I admit I felt immense gratification at the increasing popularity of the Elder Scrolls Series. They, together with the Bethesda company, have turned into A-list names. This ascendance of the Elder Scrolls Series is the fruit of Morrowind. Oblivion then tried to maximize the appeal by simplifying too much (I still like it very, very much. But there are some big mistakes, as you already mentioned.). Skyrim is both more complex and smoother. And yet...I haven't finished it so far. My life just didn't allow me the luxury of playing that much anymore. And I've gotten distracted by the Internet (I enjoy reading tons of blogs, mostly politics and economics). Then I got the first expansion as a birthday present. And I hated being a vampire, but I needed (still do!) the ...ACHIEVEMENTS! I hate achievements. I could live very well without them, and now it feels like I miss stuff because I didn't get a certain achievement. I like to keep the main quest until the end and do all side quests in between. I forced myself not to start any more radiant quests to fight my obsessive compulsive completist disorder...
    But the game was (is!) an immense joy. Dungeon crawling has enver been more fun. The province of Skyrim is much more itneresting than the boring Imperial Province - but not as much as Morrowind. On my very own GIMLET scale I would rate Skyrim higher than Morrowind, mostly because of the technical aspects - yet, I still think I had more pleasure playing Morrowind (and not having finished Skyrim is a bad sign!). I think I'm going to buy the Dragonborn expansion in a couple of weeks, and then finish it. It's about time... I plan to buy Elder Scrolls Online next year.

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