Nov 162011
 

My original intention for this week had been to use my leisure time to watch some of the incipient college basketball season, then crank through a fair bit of Assassin’s Creed Revelations and maybe get a review started while I’m away next week. I’d downloaded Skyrim, of course, but I had planned to let it sit for a few weeks while I waited for Bethesda’s inevitable patch cascade.

This plan lasted until about 8 PM last Friday, when I rolled up a burly Nord named Arnhelm.

The inescapable reality is that Bethesda makes precisely the sorts of games I love, and Skyrim may be their best, even if buying the game on release day is akin to paying $60 for access to a public beta test. I have stormed a ruined fortress full of sorcerers. I have drawn a pack of angry polar bears into battle with a house full of criminals. I have slain a dragon with my magic bow while standing on a ledge in a waterfall (by the way, actual running water is my favorite technological improvement in this game). I’ve stumbled into the ancient lair of a powerful undead Nord wizard and defeated him and his clones. More memorable moments are to come, I’m sure.

Of course, the standard Bethesda problems are there. I’ve only crashed to the desktop once, but niggling little bugs are everywhere. The textures can also be pretty rough, and things occasionally get choppy for no particular reason. Despite the existence of a weight slider, basically everyone looks burly, a disappointment since I intended to make my character a slender, effeminate tank.

Also, many of the supposed improvements to the Elder Scrolls system are duds. The Radiant story incidents I’ve encountered are mostly just fetch quests to places you haven’t been. Go there, get this thing, kill that dude. Additionally, these quests tend to get introduced as “I saw some bandits while I was out yesterday” and then direct you to a cave on the other side of the map, which makes them feel even lighter on story than they already are.

Of course, the world still can’t conceive of any way to deal with the player other than insane, senseless violence. Bandits, sorcerers and practically everything else you meet will charge at you in waves, pounding away in madness, until you have chopped their heads off for good. The inability to talk your way out of anything makes Skyrim at times feel more post-apocalyptic than Fallout (a side-effect of its innate Tolkienism). Some animals, at least, are properly territorial, though the polar bears are psychopaths. NPCs have similar problems. The way other characters develop attitudes towards you based on your actions feels particularly borked; they get too friendly too fast and get too angry too easily.

For instance, on my way into Whiterun I stopped by a brewery and while Arnhelm was nursing his freshly bought bottle of mead I had him read a few books. Of course, they were owned books, and when I accidentally hit “E” instead of tab I stole one, instantly garnering a bounty of 2 gold. Rather than reload, I put the book back, walked outside to a patrolling guard, and paid my fine.

Big mistake.

Later, after helping the city guard defeat a dragon and being named Thane of the town, I stepped outside Whiterun and was immediately attacked by three well-armed thugs who were way above my level. I got slaughtered almost instantly in three attempts, and the guards were, for some reason, of absolutely no assistance. Eventually I managed to prevail by exploiting the AI’s terrible pathfinding. On one of the bodies I found a note from the brewery owner placing a contract on me. For a book that I had put back!

Naturally I went to talk to him about it, but even with the contract in hand there’s no dialogue option to ask him why he sent three large men to murder me over semi-stealing The Real Barenziah Vol. 2. This is a system that desperately needs tuning.

That is symptomatic of the game as a whole. The invaluable Eric Schwarz has done a series of posts on the shortcomings of the user interface, and while my problems haven’t been as severe as his, I agree that this system belongs alongside Mass Effect as one of the worst interfaces ever put in a major release.

This is especially true given that the gameplay in Skyrim is strongly oriented towards obtaining large quantities of things, through which you must tediously scroll every time you want to do anything at all. The “Favorites” menu is Bethesda’s tacit admission that their inventory interface is a failure, but this menu feels every bit the kludge it is. Also, amazingly, this huge, list-y interface has no sorting options.

That said, the world is amazing and mostly avoids the fantasy-generic look that plagued Oblivion. While I would still prefer a world that tilted more towards the tripping-balls weirdness of Morrowind and Shivering Isles, Skyrim does a pretty good job of creating relatively diverse locales that still feel like they belong in the same geographic region. The main plot comes straight from the fantasy trope warehouse, but the scenario and additional plots feel a great deal more interesting than anything that was going on in Oblivion. I absolutely love playing the game, but I’d love to be able to praise a Bethesda game without immediately saying “but”.

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