Monday, November 28, 2011

Review of Skyrim - The Elder Scrolls 5

I've probably spent almost 100 hours in Skyrim now, and for the most part I've enjoyed my time there.  For whatever reason, I always felt like I was running somewhere in Oblivion. The next quest, next thing to do, etc.  I've actually found myself randomly wandering Skyrim often - just seeing what I can find.  More often then not, I come across people that for whatever reason feel the need to immediately kill me without reason.  I'm always more then happy to return the favor.

The Good

The only thing I thought when I experienced the character advancement system in Skyrim for the first time was "Thank God."  Despite the somewhat hokey control throughout the interface, they got leveling spot on.  I no longer have to wait about accidental skill-ups, finding a place to sleep, or accidentally ruining my character by not paying attention to my skills on a constant basis.  The perks you receive are descriptive and you can immediately see your investment's reflect in your gameplay.  Numbers adjust immediately on the interface (you aren't left wondering if the +20% damage is actually adding up correctly.)  There's obvious choices for each build - but I'll save that for another article all together.  Just know that unlike the frustrating, overcomplicated pain in the ass that Oblivion's trite of a leveling system was, Skyrim's interface is straight forward and rewarding.

The visuals are stunning, pending you have the system specs to support it.  Playing with your settings becomes part of any PC gaming experience.  From what I've seen and read - the Xbox and PS3 versions offer very little difference.  The game itself has a good amount of painstaking detail throughout the areas.  It's obvious the team in charge of the environment were passionate about their job.

The loading times inside most buildings and areas are still present, and annoying.  But given the size of the outside world, it's to be expected and honestly - the load times are brief on a modest system.  I can't speak for the PS3 and Xbox versions of the game, and it seems that the people playing them are also divided.  I hear and read everything from tremendously aggravating load times with unplayable frame rate lag, to seamless transitions - the one thing I have noticed is that the majority of the console-related complaints have ties to the size of the save file on their local machines.  Hopefully that gets sorted out soon - I feel for the people dealing with that.  While QA is never easy, something so widespread should've been caught by Bethesda.

Dual-Hand system.  Assign whats in each hand.  A spell and a sword?  Done.  Two spells?  Done.  The same spell twice?  You can overcharge it (with a perk... why do I need to spend a perk on this?) to increase the effect.  Perfectly executed.  I'm still dumbfounded why a guy with two swords can't voluntarily block incoming attacks.  Or why I can't parry attacks holding a sword and readying a spell in my off hand, but that's clearly asking too much (see below).

The Bad

Everyone complains about the general user interface (UI), without every really stating much.  I spent the last two and a half years designing UI's for a variety of challenging web and kiosk based solutions.  The UI isn't that bad.  People really need to stop crying and get out of their babysitter comfort zone of being spoon fed everything in a video game.  But why, if you're chastising people, are you listing the UI under the bad section?  Good question.  It's here for two reasons:

1 -The Performance.  The UI lags, the mouse clicks on places and people it's not even close to.  It's not hardware lag, or a video setting, its a lack of a broad base QA on multiple platforms.  As with most problems I'll mention here - I'm not alone in experiencing this.  Lots of 'fixes' are abound.  Most haven't offered much relief.  I've resorted to using the keyboard to scroll through my inventory and conversation options.  This was after far too many slipups in conversations, merchant exchanges, etc.

2 - Blatant, inexcusable lack of UI Quality Assurance.   One of many, many examples - on the main menu screen (when you push tab), you have four options on a compass-display.  Up brings you to your character progression and skills interface.  Down brings you to the map.  Left brings up magic, and right brings up items.  Except when you click magic, on the left-hand side, the interface opens up on the right hand side of the screen.  When you click items, on the right side of the screen, the left side interface opens up.  How did nobody notice this when they were testing it?  It's not game breaking, or even disrupting - but its a perfect example of what happens when you lose sight of basic functionality in the pursuit of the big picture.  Carelessness is unforgiving in the software design world - they're lucky this wasn't a bigger problem that went by unnoticed.

To set the dead horse on fire; the UI mostly works.  There are some questionable additions, however I believe a lot of the complaints stem from inexperience, and lack of willingness to experiment.  The skills section is perfectly done in my opinion.  You can click on a skill to see the perks tree, select your perks, and mouse click on any of them for a closer look.  The game confirms everything, so you can't misclick and accidentally spend a point, and if you don't want to click, you can use the scroll wheel on your mouse to scroll through the skill trees in a linear fashion.  Too many people cry first and experiment second.  There's nothing wrong with the interface.  Go complain about the Giants sending your followers into orbit with melee attacks.

Stemming from their shortsightedness on the QA also brings up a point about their lack of a tutorial.  The game literally tells you almost nothing - this is especially in regard to the favorites system, where you can favorite spells, items, weapons, armor, etc.  Which you won't know exists unless you try to modify the controls, and or accidentally push the wrong button while hovering over an item - at which point the game tells you about the favorite system you just had to figure out on your own.  Brilliant.

Artificial Intelligence is a mighty complicated thing to develop.  So it's with a heavy heart that I chastise Bethisda on their mediocre effort to produce just that.  I could swear I read something about the AI being updated for Skyrim - but aside from the enemies now occasionally (40% of the time, at best) sidestepping ranged attacks (and who can blame them for not wanting to eat a fireball, or catch an arrow with their throat) I can see no difference in the AI between Oblivion and Skyrim.  Melee enemies will hopelessly chase you, only to eventually catch up (maybe), come to a dead stop and then try to swing at you, only to miss because you've already taken a few steps back and lit the floor around them on fire, which they'll proceed to run through, and die in, after they finish trying to swing at the opponent (you) that was there a minute or so ago.  It's comical at best.

Kiting, or running around in circles while your nearly retarded enemies chase you around, remains a constant AI problem.  And despite the often close-quarters combat you're confronted with in Skyrim, the addition of sprinting really enables the player to take advantage of the nonsensical decision making of the NPC's throughout the game.  Sprint to one end of the room, ranged attack and/or spell, sprint to the other, repeat.  There's no penalty for running out of stamina, and your base walk speed is usually equal to, or a little faster then most enemies, so you can stagger sprinting into your escapes and easily stay out of melee range for most encounters.  What really needs to happen here is a severe penalty for miss-managing your stamina gauge.  If you sprint until it's empty, currently your character huffs and puffs awhile and then stamina starts regenerating again after a few seconds.  How about a 75% movement speed penalty, and decreased melee speed and spell casting charge-up times, or an additional cost to cast spells while fatigued.  Something, anything.  Also, to fix kiting, make enemies pick a point on a wall and then choose two separate paths there, to box in a player, or, you know, make them not run and then come to a dead stop before attacking.  Also, try making them faster, or giving them sprint.  Not that I want a ridiculously hard game or anything, but the insanity of this AI being proposed as an improvement over anything is really just making me reconsider the value of the continued existence of the human race.

They put wards into this game too.  Spells that take up a hand and let you block other spells.  Every character comes with two wards, the A and D buttons, which safely let you dodge every spell in the game except lightning-based ones, which don't hamper physical damage dealers in any way, and are really just invitations to smear the caster's face on the ground with a hammer.

Why can't I block while dual wielding?  Why can't I parry while holding a sword (or anything) and readying a spell in the other hand?  I'd clearly much rather eat a a mace to the face then put one of the two swords I'm currently holding in between the incoming attack and my teeth.  But that's just me.

And finally, the pathing.  Enemies will stand dumbfounded for minutes at a time as to how the tree that now stands between you got there, and how they can possibly navigate it.  Ten Foot tall Giants will be incapable of stepping over two foot high rocks while you face-feed them arrows or set them on fire from the safe harbor of the other side of a rock.

The Balanced

Throughout the game you'll have the ability to get followers.  Unlike most game's implementation of assisting NPC, Skyrim's follower system is pretty good.  They'll be generally helpful in combat (unless they're a pure melee, then the just get in the way) by casting a good amount of spells, summoning their own minions, staying out of your way, and doing a moderate amount of damage.  They won't win combat for you, and they still make you somewhat watch their back just as much as you watch there.  There's a diverse amount of companions available to you.  They'll also carry things for you, and generally keep quiet.  All excellent features in my book.  Also, they'll get blasted off the planet if they're lucky enough to come into contact with a Giant's melee attack.  A must-try if you haven't seen the thousands of video's about it already.

In my opinion, Magic is overpowered (OP).  Slashing weapons are OP.  Maces, OP.  Heavy Armor?  Light Armor?  No Armor?  OP, OP, OP.  Conjuration?  Ridiculously OP.  The game is a slaughter fest, where the majority of your enemies have absolutely zero chance of hurting you - let alone killing you.  And it's a hell of a lot of fun that way.  The challenge usually comes after you get wrecked for stepping into a room without looking around first.

You'll load a save (and you'll save OFTEN) and approach the situation differently and usually come out victorious on the second or third try.  So why is this in the balanced section?  Because as the game progresses, and you learn your character more, you'll also begin to play it better, and react to the increasing difficulty of your enemies faster.  That being said, the game occasionally laughs in your face and mercilessly punishes you for your errors in combat.  Load that quicksave, take your time, and you'll be just fine.

The perks in the game all have some use.  Obviously certain abilities see more use then others, but they've all got their niche.  You can make a multitude of different characters and have them all be viable throughout the game - some just require more finesse.  Keep an eye out for my upcoming articles on character builds.


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