Guys, I am officially to busy playing Skyrim to blog about right now. Also, I am terribly lazy. Fortunately, I have been more or less live tweeting my gaming sessions so those of you who follow me on twitter have already seen some of my early comments. So in lieu of traditional first-impression review I have decided to do something different. I’m going to take the most interesting tweets out of my stream, re-post them here and expand upon them. There is only so much you can say in 140 characters, and I do have a lot of opinions I would like to share. I just don’t feel like constructing a narrative and transitions right now. So this will be a first-impression micro-review in a tweet-list form. Or something like that.
I guess the first and most important thing about Skyrim is that you don’t have to buy a brand new computer to play it. I bought my current gaming rig back in 2009. Under normal gaming hardware depreciation rules, my computer should now be somewhere in the “middle of the road” category. I could probably still play new releases, but only after cranking down the textures, resolution and shadow effects quite a bit. This is no longer the case. The game runs beautifully on my computer – I have almost all the settings maxed out, and it is fast, crisp and responsive. Should the credit for this go to Bethesda for designing a game that will work very, very well on few year old machines? Or perhaps this is a byproduct of the decline of the PC as a gaming platform. I highly suspect it is the latter. New PC’s outperform current gen consoles quite a bit already, but the mainstream gaming industry is increasingly console centric. Case in point – I have been waiting to ply Arkham City for weeks now – ever since it was released for the consoles. Unfortunately the PC release date kept getting pushed, and not that it fell beyond Skyrim release I no longer care. Batman can now go stand in the corner and wait till I get bored slaying dragons. Just a few years ago, such a discrepancy would be unthinkable. Unless the game was a console exclusive, the PC release date would be very important to the publisher. Now it is an afterthought for many of them. That said, I’m glad Bethesda still supports PC as a first class platform (well, more or less) and released all versions on one day.
Bethesda loves to have gameplay driven character creation sequences. In Oblivion the entire tutorial dungeon was nothing but an extended character creation sequence. Same goes for the “growing up in the vault” sequence in Fallout 3. These things have been getting progressively longer with each game. Skyrim is no different. The starting sequence involves being driven in a cart, waiting to be executed, running away from a dragon and a tutorial dungeon. One significant departure is that the game no longer asks you if you want to change anything upon exiting said dungeon. Probably because the character creation has been dumbed down quite a bit. But let’s not dwell on this just yet.
But yes, you do start as a prisoner. Every single Elder Scrolls game I have played started like this. It is a running theme I think. It’s not a bad thing – I just figured out it bears mentioning.
This is actually a really, really big improvement for me. When I play Elder Scrolls game, I tend to spend a lot of time on the facial feature design screen. I want my characters to look decent when I play them – especially when I’m making a female avatar. It usually takes a lot of tweaking to make a borderline passable face out of the potato-head looking presets supplied by Bethesda. In fact, I often resort to mods to fix this shortcoming, but alas – there aren’t any out there yet. Both Oblivion and Fallout 3 have been horrible about this screen. In both games you would design your face in dim, flickering artificial light which would cast unnatural shadows on your face. Almost always you would over-compensate for this when picking skin tones, and only after stepping into the daylight you would realize your character is essentially wearing clown makeup. Skyrim fixes this by letting you design your face in natural daylight, so you have a very good idea how it will look during most of the game play. Good job!
It seems that Bethesda put quite a bit of work into the face design this time around. In pretty much every single game they have released so far, the most popular mods are face-swapping ones which exchange the potato shaped lumps they use for heads with lovingly designed fan-made meshes and textures. Skyrim faces definitely look better than ones in Oblivion or even Fallout. That said, they still give you that fish-eye stare in conversations. Bethesda could learn a lot from watching how Edios approached scripted conversations in Deus Ex – where characters have expressive body language that more than makes up for limited amount facial expressions.
I have mixed feelings about the inventory screen. On one hand it is slightly better designed than the Oblivion one, in the sense that you can now see more than five items on the screen without scrolling. It also separates it from spell list, map and character stats. So instead of a single pip-boy like contraction, you know have several separate areas, all bout to convenient keyboard shortcuts which is great. That said, the entire thing is still very console centric. In fact the most convenient way to navigate is by using keyboard keys to move through the items, and the mouse just gets in the way half of the time. The stats screen is absolutely horrible – it is all style, and no substance. Only about five of your skill stats are visible on the screen at once, and navigating trough the perk trees is slow and cumbersome. It’s virtually impossible to get a good glimpse of your build with this interface, and I am impatiently waiting for a mode that will make it more readable. I just want all the info on a single screen. Is it that much to ask?
Oh, and the character silhouette is gone from the inventory screen. So if you want to play dress-up (like I do) you need to go in and out of the inventory screen. Either that or switch to third person view, swivel the camera. Since the inventory interface is a transparent overlay, you can actually see how the gear looks on you in the background.
Skyrim has scripted take down moves – kinda like the stealth kills in Deus Ex. Apparently they are trigger every time you kill your opponent with a critical. I highly suspect they will get really annoying as I was planning for a stealth build which usually involves some crit stacking. They can also get confusing in the heat of the battle. Few times when I was in a dungeon I triggered a take down without even knowing it, and was convinced that I just died – because the camera does exactly the same type of third person switch to show you your own demise. So yeah, this is not my favorite feature.
The Fallout style lockpicking is sort of the golden standard for door-based mini-games now. I’m glad they kept this mechanic instead of inventing something else. If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it.
Key bindings in this game are really strange. Alt is for sprinting and shift is for walking slowly. LMB is an active block, unless you dual wield weapons / spells in which case it becomes an extra attack key. Assigng weapons to number keys is needlessly complex. In previous Bethesda games to assign your favorite sword to 1, you would hold down 1 and click on the sword in the inventory. Now you have to do this:
- Favorite the sword in the inventory with the F key
- Exit inventory
- Pull up the favorites menu with the Q key
- Click on the sword in the favorites menu
- Hit 1 to assign it to #1 key and approve your selection when a dialog pops up
Skyrim managed to take a two second task, and drag it into a minute long ordeal. Oh, and they also broke the Oblivion convention of using Z to move objects using the physics engine. Now you accomplish that by holding the E key.
I guess I need to show off my first character here. Feel free to post screenshots of yours in the comments:
I’m actually pretty happy with the way her face came out. The presets for wood elves were beyond ugly. I’m not terribly impressed with her hair, but then again Bethesda was always really bad with their hair design. I’ll wait for some mods to rectify this.
This is essentially my biggest complain with Skyrim so far. Bethesda threw away the entire class / birth sign system. You can no longer pick the skills that you want to specialize in or the attributes you want to tag. The only choice that seems to have any gameplay impact is race. After you do that, you are essentially done. The only way you can tweak your character further is through leveling up.
This is a sort of brain dead approach to character design. Some people just want to jump into the game right away and I get that. But many of us really enjoy agonizing over these choices and making highly specialized builds. In the past Bethesda was able to appease both groups by providing pre-made classes (warrior, mage, thief, etc..) while at the same time letting you create custom ones, by tagging skills and picking perks manually. Now they dumped that all out and the game got instantly dumber because of it. Yes, it is more difficult to screw up your build now, but what if I wanted to play with an unbalanced character with specific strengths and crippling vulnerabilities. Bethesda took that choice away from me and I’m not happy.
Another per peeve – the map is horrible. I liked the map or Cyrodil and how it outlined the actual shape of the Imperial province. It really gave you an illusion that you are in the middle of a huge continent. It also very clearly shown the topology, landmarks and points of interest. Skyrim map is difficult to read. It is surrounded by snowy peaks and “fog of war” that obscure it’s borders to the point it is difficult to see the exact shape of the province. You also can’t zoom out all the way to have a birds eye view on the playable area. The fog and snow blend together and create an illusion that the map keeps on going. If you do pan around it though, you will quickly notice that it is in fact very small. Bethesda took great pains to obscure this fact, but the playable area in Skyrim is much, much smaller than that in Oblivion.
So far I have voiced a lot of complaints, but am I enjoying the game? @Ludonaut asked me the same thing and this was my response:
Yes, I am. Very much in fact. Skyrim is flawed, but I wouldn’t be live tweeting it, and writing 2k word summaries if I wasn’t into it. I am a big fan of the Elder Scroll series, and I’m looking forward to spending many, many hours exploring the Skyrim province and slaying dragons. If I complain about it, it is because I care.
What are your thoughts on the game so far? What type of character are you playing? What build are you going for. Post screenshots if you will – I recommend imgur.com for hosting. Use links, because I don’t believe that WordPress will let you embed images.