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Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Skyrim: Mid-Game Review

Because I can't take images from my television, I've stolen these screenshots from The Unofficial Elder Scrolls pages. If they ask me to remove them I will, but I hope my theft is mitigated by my earnest plea that everyone visit TESP because they've done an awesome job cataloging every game, including some I never knew about.



When you're a CRPG addict, most games help you temper that addiction by having a certain limit to their duration. I could love Pool of Radiance, and want to play it from sunrise to sundown, but if I did the game would be over in about two days, and I could go back to doing other things. The Elder Scrolls games, on the other hand, go on forever. They're like single-player MMORPGs. I could see marriages ending and players losing their jobs because of Skyrim.

I'm reaching that point that I've noticed before in Morrowind and Oblivion where the game starts to exhaust me. They all have a way of dragging me in with their non-linearity, immersion, compelling plots, and constant character progression. But, ultimately, I tend to burn myself out on them. I've won both Morrowind and Oblivion, but I've started about 6 times as many games as I've won. I've only finished the Morrowind expansion packs once, and I've never finished the two major Oblivion expansions, as much as I liked the game.

All of this sounds negative, but I still maintain that Skyrim is a great game. Maybe not the best I've ever played, but certainly one of the most addictive. Today, as I was playing, I made a quick list of the things I like and don't like about the game:


Good Things in Skyrim
1. The world is dynamic and chaotic. More than any other game series I've played, The Elder Scrolls represents something of a simulation rather than a tightly-scripted game. The creators established the rules of the engine, seeded the world with objects and characters, and sat back to watch them interact. Thus, every player encounters situations that no other player does. For instance, while traversing the countryside, I came upon a dragon, who immediately engaged me in combat. I fought him for a while, but my hit points dipped dangerously low, so I decided to duck into a nearby house and see if I could recharge. As soon as I got through the front door, the owner--some mage--took exception and started throwing ice shards at me. I ran back outside, pursued by the mage, and ran headlong into the side of the dragon. The mage and dragon apparently decided that I was the least of the threats and started attacking each other. I watched from a distance, cast "heal" until my hit points were restored, and watched as the mage got stomped to death. I then finished off the dragon, whose hit points had been satisfyingly reduced, with a poison-soaked arrow.

It works against you too, unfortunately. I had just left a pleasant farmstead, having promised to deliver a letter from the owner to his son in another town. I suddenly got a message that I had "failed" in the quest. Returning to the farm, I found the owner and his wife dead in their field with a sabre-toothed tiger standing over them.

How many other games allow this kind of randomness in gameplay? NetHack comes to mind, but that's about it.

2. There is a satisfyingly complicated political situation that gives lots of opportunities for role-playing. None of the factions come across as "good" or "evil." You might want to support the empire, but why do they allow bands of Thalmer to roam the kingdom persecuting Talos worshippers? You decide that the Forsworn are barbarian throwbacks, but then hear about all the atrocities the local Nords have been committing on them. Thus, you can pick a side and be lawful neutral, you can adopt a chaotic stance and refuse to pick sides, or you can craftily use the situation to your financial advantage.

3. You have to read to really get a handle on what's happening. Characters tell you about the Stormcloaks, the Thalmer, the Forsworn, and other factions, but you only really understand them if you take time to read the associated books. Like many Elder Scrolls players, I usually start the game determined to read every book--a resolve that collapses the first time I encounter a substantial bookshelf. But I make sure to at least skim everything and make sure I'm not missing some key element of politics or intrigue.


My wife: "You just spent two hours reading books in a game?"


4. Combat is realistic and brutal. I'm not saying it's like real melee combat; otherwise, we'd spend most of the game crying. But it's about as real as you can get and still have fun. Swords connect in sprays of blood. If you get too close to enemies, you end up hammering at them with your pommel instead of swinging. Shields can bash as well as defend. Two-handed weapons do more damage but are much harder to wield and aim, as you would expect.

5. I never get sick of fighting dragons. Some seem to have fixed posts, but others roam randomly, much like the Oblivion gates in the previous game.. Realistically, they sometimes ignore you and go flying off as you stand beneath them howling in frustration.

6. When I first read about smithing, I thought it sounded stupid. And now I'm addicted. The game offers a set of complicated, interrelated processes by which you can tan leather, smelt ore, improve weapons and armor, and create weapons and armor from scratch. Part of why I like it is related to the economy (below); it's very satisfying to turn two pieces of ore and an amethyst worth 40 gold pieces into a silver ring worth 200. There are also very tangible benefits to improving weapons and armor.

7. As far as I can tell, they finally got the economy right. I blogged about game economies early in my career, and it remains a major category in my GIMLET. In Morrowind and Oblivion (as well as countless non-Elder Scrolls games), I find it too easy to get rich too quickly. Skyrim offers so many ways to spend money that 20-30 hours into the game, I'm basically dead broke. (Although I did buy a house in Whiterun.)

8. The alchemy system is cool, but it doesn't break the game. I've liked mixing potions in all the Elder Scrolls games, but Skyrim is the first one to get the balance right. You can't do it anywhere: you have to find an alchemist's lab. The potions aren't quite as strong as the ones in previous games, reagents aren't quite as plentiful, and you don't level up quite as fast. This means that you rarely have a stock of 100 healing potions waiting to bail you out of any battle. I also like that you have to "catch" some of your reagents, like butterflies, fireflies, and fish.


"And now you're spending a half hour making potions? What kind of game is this?"


9. The monsters are monstrous. I've mentioned dragons, but there are also giants, sabre-toothed tigers, giant spiders, mammoths, bears, and trolls that are suitably intimidating in their size and prowess. I've played plenty of CRPGs in which I buffed myself before dangerous combats; I don't think I've ever played one in which a foe actually made me turn around and run. My character is level 23, and these creatures still crush me--crush me to goo.


Skyrim's giant spiders are suitably giant and terrifying.


10. If you commit murder, you can avoid a bounty by killing all the witnesses. You might wonder who would do this, but if you're roleplaying an imperial loyalist or a Stormcloak separatist, you have plenty of opportunities to ambush and slay roving bands of guardsmen or rebels on the road, which would otherwise count as assault and murder.

11. Although they're nowhere near the level of the Interplay/Bioware titles, NPCs are a lot more interesting than in previous Elder Scrolls games. You have some real dialogue options, not just "topics," with them, and they have very realistic conversations with each other as you walk by--not just a bunch of nonsense about seeing mudcrabs the other day.

12. The world is full of animals, including snowshoe hares, elk, moose, foxes, chickens, cows, fish, dogs, and bats. (Though, strangely, no cats that I've seen.) None of them are threatening, although you can kill them for food. I find that they give the world a lot of ambiance. I've also heard you can create chaos by casting "frenzy" on them in the middle of town, but I haven't tried it yet.


Jury's Still Out

1. Occasionally, as you strike the final blow, the game cuts to a brief killing animation, showing you slashing the enemy's throat, or driving your sword through his chest or something. It happens about 1 out of every 10 kills, which is enough to still be fun and not routine. However, my character is often teetering on the edge of death himself by the end of combat, and it's easy, when the game suddenly takes control, to assume for a second that I've been killed. My wife keeps hearing me yell, "OH GODDAMN--oh, wait. Cool."


YouTube user SlickyDave has made a compilation of these animations.


2. You find a lot of food in the game, and if you have a mind you can find a cookpot and whip up stews, roasts, and apple pie. Cooked meals grant more hit points than their raw materials, but it still seems silly.

3. I realize the lockpicking system is much more realistic in this game, but I don't like it.

4. In Oblivion, you could set one active quest at a time and you'd see a marker pointing your way to it. In Skyrim, you can set any quest as "active," and you see multiple markers. It's not that I don't like the ability to have multiple active quests, but I think quest markers are lame. What's the fun of sneaking into a house to search for some juicy bit of evidence if there's a big arrow pointing you to its exact location? I turn them off and set a custom marker when I want to go to a specific place.

5. The game world is huge, but it's dominated by mountains, which you can't easily scale. Going from one town to another often takes a long time as you try to find passes and climbable slopes. I realize it's more realistic this way, but I still find it annoying.

6. I still haven't quite reconciled myself to the loss of attributes, particularly speed.


Could Do Without Them

1. Almost every dungeon wears out its welcome before I've finished. I find them way too big. I don't mind tough combats, but don't make me wander through two hours' of corridors to find an amulet.

2. The speed and pathfinding of followers in Morrowind was atrocious. You'd get a quest to lead some Argonian to Ebonheart, and it would take hours of slowly--oh, so slowly--walking there, all the while protecting him from Nix hounds, which he was likely to charge, unarmored, with a dagger. Oblivion greatly improved upon followers, making it so that you literally couldn't lose them; if you got ahead of them, they'd appear by your side when you entered a new location. One of them, the infamous Adoring Fan, not even death would shake. Skyrim has reverted to Morrowind's level of pathfinding. While it's nice to be able to swap inventories with a follower, it doesn't do me any good if I have to carefully lead him around every rock and bush. And just like Morrowind and Oblivion, followers have a way of lunging in front of your sword thrusts.

3. In Oblivion, you could hotkey various items and quickly switch among them in combat. In Skyrim, this has been replaced with a "favorites" menu that, while functional, breaks the immersion a bit.

4. Skyrim makes a distinction between alchemical "ingredients" and food, the latter of which can't be used in potions but can be eaten for minor gains in hit points (between 1-5, usually). If you have a lot of food, you can stop in the middle of combat to wolf it down and heal. I'm not sure what's more absurd: the idea that my stomach could hold 26 heads of cabbage, or that an enemy would stop and wait for me to finish gorging myself on them.

5. While I appreciate the dialogue in the game, the voice acting isn't very good and, like Oblivion, depends on too many of the same voices. Claudia Christian, who played Susan Ivanova on Babylon 5, seems to have voiced all the females in the game. It's nice that they got celebrity voice talent, but if you're going to rely on one actress for so many voices, it ought to be someone capable of sounding like different characters.


20-30 hours into the game, and I've barely done anything on the main quest. I've yet to visit the capital, Solitude, nor to find the Imperial Legion, the Blades, the mage's college, the bard's college, or the Thieves' Guild. Haven't encountered a Daedra yet, but I know they're out there. I know there's vampirism and lycanthropy, but they remain in my future. This is a huge game.

I apologize for those of you who think I should stick to my chronology and only look at historical games, but I promise I won't play new releases that often. I may give you one more posting--perhaps with a GIMLET--once I've won, but until then, let's finish up Wizard Wars and get on to Wizardry. I was just about to note the coincidence in names, and then I realized it's because I was playing in alphabetical order. Duh.

31 comments:

  1. In regards to one of your gripes - you can set hotkeys on the PC verison of Skyrim. Just press a number while hovering over an item in the favorites list.

    I don't share you dislike of the dungeons though. I generally find them to be of a pretty good length, and I'm not sure I've come across one that took me 2 hours to complete.

    The rest of your views are pretty similar to mine though - an excellent game that I expect I will spend many more hours on in the coming weeks.

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  2. On the PC, you can still hotkey your weapons and abilities. I'm not sure about the console, though.

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  3. Well...it seems like hellboy beat me to it by a few seconds...

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  4. I came to mention the hotkeys as well. It's so incredibly not-mentioned-anywhere...

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  5. Glad that you, too, are enjoying Skyrim. From what I read they finally got the leveling done right - one of the main reasons I avoided Oblivion was the broken leveling system.
    I just got to Solitude tonight...was having trouble against an enemy halfway up the 7000 steps, so I said "that can wait", and headed west to explore. I love the open-ended nature of games like this.
    Oh and also...I don't want to hear ANYONE complain about poor graphics in Skyrim. My computer is 2 years old with a mediocre ATI card, so I get to use the LOW setting in order to play smoothly. Guess what? Skyrim still manages to look very nice indeed.

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  6. I should clarify that by "broken leveling system" I mean that all the enemies leveled up with you (in the non-modded version), so there was no point that you could return to some area and totally kick butts and be badass.

    With Skyrim, I understand that each area "sets" when you first enter it, so for the rest of the game, respawns are based on your level at that time, not your level currently when you return to it.

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  7. Thanks for the hotkey correction, everyone. I've been playing it on the X360, which doesn't have that feature. I look forward to this feature when I play it on a PC in 15 years.

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    1. I look forward to playing in on the 360 in about 30. Let's hope we're still all around by then. :D

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  8. Completely understandable that you take a break from the classics (and some "not so classic") once in a while. And Skyrim is a great game to take that break for. I've been playing it (on PC) since it came out and it is truly great. Like you, I haven't even touched the main storyline so far... and I'm having a blast. Is it perfect... no... but no game is. And... I'm a guy somewhat like yourself... been CRPG gaming since the early 1980's. I've "played 'em all", and Skyrim is simply fun. Keep up the great posts... and heep having fun!

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  9. Doesnt Skyrim support the chat-keyboard on the xbox controller?

    Well, does anything support that addon-keyboard by the way?

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  10. Why don't you do a review for a modern game and then a classic game (in your chronology)?

    - rodrigo

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  11. "Combat is realistic and brutal"
    No it's not. It's same, primitive as in Oblivion "step forward, hit, step backward" system.

    "I never get sick of fighting dragons"
    TBH I'm sick of it. Dragons are ridiculously underpowered yet killing them takes a lot of time and changing game difficulty to master doesn't change it at all - it just makes their health bar longer meaning even more time on killing creature that can easily be killed by a bear.
    Don't get me wrong - I love the way they behave but I just wish there were 5 times less dragon but 5 times more powerful.

    "As far as I can tell, they finally got the economy right."
    No they haven't' I'm not even in the middle of the game and despite buying almost every house in game (with full equipment) I already have over 100k gold + another hundred thousand in items that I keep in my chests. I should have benn able to buy at least Riften with such money.


    "NPCs are a lot more interesting than in previous Elder Scrolls games."
    Dialogues and NPC can't be considered "good". They are just terrible. Making them better than in Oblivion doesn't make them good.
    And Fallout New Vegas proved that its possible to build sandbox RPGgame with tones of great dialog lines, meaningful NPC and interesting companions.

    "While I appreciate the dialogue in the game,"
    Like above. Dialogue are terrible. 95% of them are "click until you get quest"

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  12. I quoted the part about the food wolfing for FB by the way

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  13. I'm having a blast with the PC version of Skyrim as a vampiric mage, but the one thing that really stands out as a negative is the College of Winterhold, aka the Mage Guild. I didn't play a lot of Oblivion, but I remember Morrowind's guild advancement being rather slow, but satisfying. In Skyrim, you complete a single quest given to you right off the bat in the College and at the end of it, you're suddenly the Arch-Mage, despite no one knowing who you were 48 game hours ago.

    Being the last bastion of magical knowledge in Skyrim, I'd have thought the Arch-Mage position wasn't open to anyone who walks through the gate, but apparently it was.

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  14. Most of the time you don't need to worry about making sure your follower is keeping up. When you get to your destination, use the map to trigger a fast travel to the same location. Your follower should appear.

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  15. @Raifield

    What are the benefits to being an Arch-Mage? Is there anything to do once you have that title and does anyone recognise it? One of the problems with Bethesdas world building is the ability to do almost everything with a single character build, with minimal consequences. It can be very fun, but makes the world seem rather silly.

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  16. Maribot, thanks for all the corrections. I'm surprised I was incorrect about so many things.

    Paul, it just doesn't seem to work that way for me. Maybe a platform difference? If I run too far ahead of my follower, I never see him or her again.

    Raifield, I don't think the promotions weren't THAT fast in Oblivion, but they were pretty fast, and it was just as silly. Why should the post of "archmage" even be open to you? I'm encountering something similar with the Companions. Three quests, and they want to make me part of their "inner circle"--with an interesting side-effect.

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  17. If you are concerned about mountain climbing I've found that while riding a horse you can scale even the most sheer of inclines, gallop over the must unruly of rock formations.

    What Skyrim really lacks for me is Character - I never have time or need to learn about anyone. My companions thus far have function without any kind of presence.

    The economy seems to have all the trappings without the economy - what use all the NPCs using crafting tools if it has no effect? Maybe that comes out later in the game...

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  18. @Andy_Panthro

    The only benefit is that you have access to the former Arch-Mage's quarters, which has a great deal of storage space available, but that's about it. It is acknowledged a bit within the college via some idle greets, but mostly the students and other mages are just as snippy or dismissive towards you as they were when you first arrived. Nothing really changes.

    There is an Alchemy and Enchanting station in the quarters, but seeing as though these are regularly in dungeons and can be purchased for houses, the whole thing seems rather pointless.

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  19. Man, I can't believe you don't like lockpicking. Although maybe I'm easy to please in this regard because ANYTHING would have been better than the garbage they had in Oblivion. I'm still scratching my head over that one (thankfully there was an auto-attempt button).

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  20. I don't mind it as much now that I've gotten better at it.

    What I liked about Oblivion was that lockpicking depended partly on your own skill, so that with patience and enough picks, you could defeat the most advanced locks even at level 1. I turns out Skyrim is that way, too, but it's a bit harder so you expend even more picks. Now that I've adopted the habit of just buying them wherever I see them, it's not as much of a problem.

    I didn't like the idea of wasting perks on lockpicking, but I guess I won't have to do that.

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  21. 50 hours in; haven’t touched the main quest or the quests to do with the war, have done almost all of the guild quests apart from the Bards college, have visited but not properly explored all the main towns, and I’ve been moving around fairly quickly. I’ve also collected 7 out of the 8 masks from the Dragon Priests and done a bunch of Daedric Quests.

    Also, pfft who reads the books in the game, I note the down and read them latter online.

    My criticisms.
    -Most of the quests are go to that place kill those things and bring that thing back to me. It could have used a touch more variety.
    -My immortal horse, that I loved, died.
    Shadowmere.
    I thought that you could never die,
    But I guess that drop was pretty high.
    RIP.
    -There no really big Cities.

    -I love the game, I love it so much and I want DLC and Mods so it can go on forever, but fear I might tier myself out on it. Plus I have other games to play.

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  22. I liked the lockpicking in Fallout 3 a lot more then Oblivion, though I did find the lockpick supply crazily limited. I would be wandering around with enough ammunition to fight midsized war, more stimpacks then I'd need for 2 levels and 16 lockpicks, half of which I might use on a top-teir lock.

    Annoyingly I maxed my lockpick skill, picked 2/3 top locks and found that neither had anything good in them, and that I now had almost no lockpicks left.

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  23. Other things I like about the bounty system: it's per town. No longer is there some sort of weird psychic network that carries news of even the most minor crime instantly to the far corners of the land. I haven't been committing crimes for the most part because that's not my current character, but it looked like they had more realistic response patterns too, with citizens having to actually go run and fetch guards and not every guard immediately knowing about bounties.

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  24. I did't realize that until you pointed it out, malkav11. Thanks! It would be fun to role-play this as an unrepentant thief who gets a huge bounty and has to find "friendly" towns or sneak into other towns to avoid guards.

    I also like how citizens get pissed at you when you break into their houses at night, instead of just talking to you as if nothing weird is going on.

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  25. My wife: "You just spent two hours reading books in a game?"

    Best Comment ever!!! My girlfriend looked at me very strangely when I said the same thing. I think she might think I need professional help.

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  26. I actually really, really love Skyrim. Bethesda was almost dead to me after Oblivion and Fallout 3, both of which I considered to be very poor RPGs, but Skyrim fixes most of those problems.

    I enjoy the environment much more than Oblivion, but not as much as Morrowind. Fortunately, I just started the Dragonborn DLC so I get to visit some Morrowind scenary and it is amazing. I think combat is improved over previous games in the franchise, but honestly still a bit lacking. I almost always play a mage in games, but simply found the spellcasting relatively dull in Skyrim, at least after the initial 'wow' factor. There just doesn't seem to be enough viable options.

    Unfortunately I also am not a huge fan of the melee combat. It doesn't feel tactile enough, and I hate that most of the time I'm simply swinging at my enemies without any reaction as their hp drains away. I found the best way to deal with this was to make a heavy, hammer-wielding beserker beast. Almost every hit gets a reaction out of my foe if it doesn't straight out obliterate them. Perhaps more importantly, I feel like my character is really heaving around a huge, heavy weapon. This tactile feedback is critical to me in first person games, and has ruined many a shooter for me if the guns feel too light.

    I love that NPCs seem to have a lot more original dialogue. Sure, most of it is pointless and of questionable pedigree in acting, but I like nothing more than to be able to piece together a dispersed family's story as I speak to their members across the map. The lore is, as always, great, though the writing in the books continues to be hit or miss.

    I also think the guilds have improved considerably, though I do have some complaints that it is fairly predictable at this stage how I'll end up the leader of that respective faction. I practically expected to be crowned King of Skyrim after the Stormcloak quest. Fortunately they avoided at least that conceit.

    What appeals to me most about the game, especially over what seemed to be the barren wasteland of Oblivion, is how much there is to find. Almost every mapped location seems to have something unique or interesting in it. Just as importantly, as you mentioned in one of your posts, there are a lot of random, scripted but unmarked encounters that just add flavor. I'll never get over the initial confusion and then amusement of being attacked by a naked Argonian with plate fists, only to find his inventory full of skooma bottles. Classic.

    All in all, a great game. I've rarely found myself so lost in a world's environment as in Skyrim. While the writing and dialogue could improve (especially with regards to roleplaying options, which at least is the best Bethesda has done so far), it's the best game they've made yet. It may not have the allure or deep mechanics of Morrowind, but I can't entirely fault the game. I hope they don't continue to simplify the stats, however. While the perk system does make up for the absence of some skills and attributes, I'm afraid ESVI will be even more of an action game and less of an RPG, at least in terms of character progression.

    As it is, I can't wait til I'm off work and get to explore Solstheim some more.

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  27. How many other games allow this kind of randomness in gameplay? NetHack comes to mind, but that's about it.

    Apparently initial versions of Melbourne House's blockbuster Hobbit text adventure were so bedeviled by these emergent NPC interactions the game often became unwinnable very early on due to random things happening way outside the player's scope. Jimmy Maher gave some curious examples in his Digital Antiquarian blog post on the topic. In the comments, it's compared to an early Elder Scrolls game for that reason 8)

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  28. Well I have to confess now. I played through skyrim (incl. dawnguard). It only took me over a whole YEAR... That says everything about how I liked the game. Of course, not in gaming time, and the occasional other game in between, but pretty much in consecutive sessions.

    My problem is as you, dear addict, also stated in some postings, I can't help but having to finish every damn quest it throws at me. I know now that was silly, if I had roleplayed more I should have avoided some of the more unproper ones at least like the deadra quests

    ...on the other hand my quest log would've been full of loose ends and I just can't let them stay there that way now could I when ther eis SO much to explore and...gah, as you see, I really share this problem. Just be glad you did make the jump off skyrim before it tugged you in hopelessly like it did me. :/

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    1. I didn't make the jump. I just purchased it again so I could try the "Dragonborn" expansion. Naturally, this means starting over with a new character and doing all the original quests again.

      When I got to Solstheim and was once again among netches and scathecraw plants, I damn near wept.

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