Saturday, November 12, 2011

Bethesda: Skyrim, not a Review

When I got tired yesterday, I decided that it's probably about 11 pm and time to go to bed. It was 3 am.

First let me say that Skyrim is a great game and you should buy it now. It is the only AAA-RPG on the market with a focus on exploration. The nature is very beautiful and you will find yourself playing and forgetting time while you become the leader of the mages' guild, or the fighters' guild or the thiefes' guild or the Dark Brotherhood, or any other. The options are vast.

That having said, Skyrim is 100% an Elder Scrolls game. The incentives to optimize the fun out of it are huge. Immersion seems to be the strong part at first, but at second glance not so. It sometimes feels like Bethesda created a huge and beautiful fantasy land, added a quest to every NPC and then tacked some gameplay to it. Blizzard would probably consider this gameplay a failed alpha.

For me, personally, it is a huge disappointment that for some obscure reason Bethesda seems unable or unwilling to iterate on the gameplay of the TES series.

I usually like to play a mage in games. This was never the strong part of the TES series, but this time I can dual-cast spells. So I figured I should try that. That was a mistake. The mage gameplay works like this:

- You run towards an enemy and activate ice/shock/fire spray by keeping both mouse buttons pressed until he is dead. If you run out of mana before he runs out of hp, you run away for about 30 seconds (you are always faster) while your mana recharges. If you run out of hp you switch to healing spells and heal up. Of course, this way you run out of mana much faster and need to run away more often to recharge.

- Alternatively, you 'shoot' a magic missile. The advantage is that you don't need to run into melee range. The disadvantage is that the entire challenge consists of holding both mouse buttons pressed and releasing them in such a way that the missile (that has a traveling time) hits the enemy, who often strafes. If you run out of mana you run away to recharge.

- Alternatively, you shoot an area of effect spell, like a fireball. Works like a missile, but is easier to aim due to aoe. They also cost much more mana. If you run oom you run away to recharge.

- Alternatively, you place a fire/ice/shock rune on the ground. Enemies are stupid enough to run into these if they are between you and them. If you run oom you run away to recharge.

Now, fire spells do more damage than the others, ice spells also do stamina damage. Stamina is important for fighters. Shock spells also drain mana. Since you have no idea how much stamina/mana your enemy has, this can either be a smart move or not so. Draining mages off mana is usually not worth it, as they are pretty effective in melee against an unarmored mage.

The main challenge is to kill an enemy with as little running away to recharge as possible. Therefore you want to go for dmg/mana and that means fire spells.

You have a lot of spells. But don't think that pressing a button on your keyboard activates them. Consoles have no keyboards! Instead, you mark some spells as favorites (as many as you want). These favorites can be accessed by pressing 'Q'. This stops time and opens up a menu which you scroll through with the mousewheel to select which spell your right hand/left hand (left/right mouse button) fires.

For somebody who has played modern MMOs for quite some time, this seems to be the most cumbersome idea ever; especially considering that gameplay is otherwise quite fast. Pressing 'Q' is like having a pit stop every 10 seconds.

Thanks, console players. Also thanks for the low resolution textures *sigh*.

To increase your skills you use them. You gain a level every 10 skill points. This is the moment you select one of many, many perks that are talents in talent trees. Every skill has one talent tree. Many perks seem a bit uninspired, but overall this is quite fun. Since a character in Skyrim never stops leveling it provides interesting decisions. Talent trees in games become bad at 'choices' only after you stop leveling. And there is no way in Skyrim to max out all the talent trees unless you are insane in the membrane.

Most enemies gain levels as you do. Since you don't even see any numbers in combat, the fact that you do more damage with higher skills is completely lost on you and could just as well have been skipped. You usually do reasonable damage compared to the enemies' health bars - good.

Now, I like the basic idea of gaining skills while using them for immersion reasons. But it creates incredibly strong incentives to be gamed. For example, I pushed my illusion skill to 50/100 by simply recasting a pointless illusion spell while I was running around. That made me raise in level and made the auto-adjusting mobs harder. Unfortunately illusion spells don't really help me at fighting. Ok, theoretically I could use them to charm/fear mobs. But practically, pressing 'Q' and stuff is too cumbersome to be fun and you need the mana to actually kill your enemies. Casting illusion spells might be useful for super-challenging fights against many mobs. But super-challenging fight means super-much running away to recharge mana. No thanks.
At the end of the day, I became higher level but not more powerful at fighting. Relative to the mobs I became weaker as I leveled.

Sneaking works the same. To skill sneaking, you find some guys who don't see you and .. sneak. Find some weight for the 'w' key and come back a few hours later with maxed out sneaking and 8 levels gained. The 8 levels gained, make the game much harder, of course. To raise healing spells you find some enemy who shoots at you and then heal, heal, heal ...

Wrong incentives at Wall Street are harmless compared to this.

Now, one could point out that the immersion is worth it. After all it makes sense to become better at stuff as you do it. But immersion is not the reason for this. How do I know? Because I can run around at -20°C in one of the worst snow storms the world has ever seen without wearing winter clothes. And all the NPCs don't care about the weather, either. You can have relaxed chats with pretty women with few clothes and not so pretty men with even less clothes inside winter's hell and nobody seems to think that it's actually cold.

The winter in this game feels like plastic. Yeah, it's white and the wind is loud. But having just swum through the ice sea (at cruise speed) wearing nothing but my mage robe, I can tell you: It's not cold in Skyrim; not even after emerging from the salty ocean with those many floating sheets of ice. The wind is loud and dries my wet body. It should feel like -60°C and be fatally dangerous. But by character acts as if it's comfortably warm.

Please don't tell me giving the NPCs some pelts would have been too much work in a game that is all about Skyrim - a place of permanent winter! I can understand that tracks in the snow are missing for technical reasons. I can also understand that ice is not glitchy and snow never deep, because some players wouldn't like that. But simple winter apparel for me and NPCs? No, I can't understand that.

One thing that is probably contentious is the vast amount of quests. You can't talk to anyone without getting yet another quest in this game. After my journal was full of entries that didn't mean nothing to me, I decided to stop talking to any NPC until I had worked through these. Didn't really work as every merchant that I wanted to sell goods to somehow had yet one more quest.

A lot of content is good. Being overwhelmed by quests is not. This is not WoW where gigantic quest hubs arguably work (because quests are just roadsigns in MMOs). Is there really no way to ensure that I can do quests one after the other? I already find myself working off the to-do list without even knowing why I am here and what I am doing and why I am killing these people!

The fact that you move at lighting speed completely kills any tension when you enter a hall in a dungeon. If you press 'w' a second too long you're already half way through the huge hall. It feels more like Quake Deatchmatch than like crossing a hall.

But what is really annoying is that the quests always send you as far away as possible. This makes use of fast travel (teleport) indispensable. There is no feeling of locality, because the game assumes that the entire (huge) gameworld is not a mystical, large fantasy land for you, but rather your own personal sandbox were you jump from one place to the next. Why do you create a huge landscape if, the next second, you sabotage the feeling of locality by requiring players to teleport around in it?

Note I am not so much critisizing that you can teleport, but that the game is designed in a way that you practically have to.

The game has a few riddles. These can be annoying but are easy to figure out as soon as you understood how stupid they are. Stupid, because only madmen would create a door that is locked by a key and a combination of runes. ... And the correct combination is engraved on the key! /facepalm

Even better: require the poor soul who wants to open your gate to rotate stones which have runes engraved. The gate opens if he finds the correct combination. And then you attach big drawings of the correct rune right behind the rotating stones! /megafacepalm !!

I won't waste much time on the bugs of which there are always plenty in TES games. But let me say that NPCs' feet should get a little bit more work. Characters often don't seem to actually stand on their feet. If it's technically too demanding, the guys who did the motion capturing should have been told to keep their feet as still as possible. Then, I had to temporarily reduce graphics quality to ultra-low so that the game doesn't crash during one quest. And my favorite bug so far was the one which quadrupled my mana regeneration. I had to use a console command to fix this as restarting did nothing.

What I really don't understand is that the majority of these problems have existed since TES: Arena and Daggerfall! It's not like Bethesda has no experience. Apparently they like the game the way it is. Well, I like it enough to buy it. But I can assure Bethesda that they could sell many more copies if they addressed some of these problems. Take a glance at Blizzard to see what good gameplay does to your wallet!

Skyrim is worth buying, because it is the only exploration-focused AAA-RPG on the market (for whatever reason), has very beautiful landscapes and massive amount of 'content' in the form of quests. Unfortunately Bethesda forgot to actually create an engaging gameplay, wants to cater to console players and doesn't seem to care about their one true strength that could make up for all the problems: immersion (I'm in Skyrim and the snowstorms are comfortably warm).


  1. "If my post discouraged anybody from playing Skyrim, I would deeply regret it"

    Well you certainly discouraged me with this post and your previous one. But then I already knew that I don't like TES games. Or more accurately I didn't like Daggerfall or Morrowind. I skipped Oblivion.

    Apart from the non-existent gameplay part, the issue I always had with TES games is that the framework sticks out of the setting. You have these lovely. detailed worlds that appear to be filled with individuals but as soon as you've spoken to more than a handful of them you realize that they all share the same repetitive dialog options and none of them have any actual individuality.

    That was the deal-breaker for me before. Is this one any better in that respect?

  2. If that was the dealbreaker for you, Bhagpuss, Skyrim is a bit better. You have some 70+ different voice actors, every dialogue has a voice actor and most NPCs have a good background.

  3. Hi, its me again.

    Well I did buy it -- damn Steam and their one-click buy, auto install, game ready to play. Its evil.

    And I'm having fun for now. Its interesting how I'm having a completely different experience than you, simply because I have no idea what to expect.

    For instance, I didn't know you could teleport (and still don't) so I'm walking everywhere.

    I'm also using magic primarily, but I've been bring a companion along (Sven), have been summoning a familiar, have been mostly pulling mobs using a bow and then running back to a doorway (or tree or rock) to finish them off with fire.

    I *am* missing the ability to simply map spells to 20 or so hotkeys and it hadn't occurred to me until you pointed it out that its because the game was ported to the PC from the console. Still, I don't understand why they wouldn't have added some better user interface options for the PC -- is that *that* much more expensive to do so?

    The storyline and immersion are fun as long as I keep my expectations low.

    Oh, and I met Nils the Cook at Candlehearth Hall -- that was mildy amusing, though I'm guessing its not *actually* a reference to you. ;)


  4. Thank you for the review!

    I have heard nothing but great things from people anticipating Skyrim. But I have never played a console game, on a console or PC, and the hold down mouse button combat seems like it would feel annoyingly inferior to the press a button for spell combat I am used to. My takeaway is to be leery of any game with a console heritage.

    With 4.3 soon, TOR/CE coming 12/15 and an upcoming free D3, I feel much better about dropping Skyrim down to the probably never list.


    Puzzles that are not puzzling do not seem to add much. But I will say that "speak, friend, and enter" is inscribed on a very famous fantasy door ...
    "The opening word was inscribed on the archway all the time!"


    cynic says that "for some obscure reason Bethesda seems unable or unwilling to iterate on the gameplay of the TES series."
    might by caused by
    "First let me say that Skyrim is a great game and you should buy it now."

    It seems to me that the economics of non-subscription games could be not so much about being great games for some but being a good enough (to buy) game for a broader audience.

  5. Just on a couple of those point...

    (5) It sounds like you can game it to gimp yourself. Perhaps thats in place of a hard mode?
    Admittedly the combat is very easy and I've found myself sneaking and being cautious around every corner just to maintain the excitement of the gameplay. I know that I can just bull rush in with my 2-hander and one-shot most enemies with the 'power' strike without much trouble if I wanted to. Even a pack of three is not a huge issue, with block, riposte, block, riposte...
    (9) The game at least requires you to travel to each destination at least once to discover it before you can use Fast Travel to teleport back there later. At least its optional if you feel that it breaks immersion.
    (11) My favourite oddity is my horse which will often end up miles away when i dismount, charges other NPCs and appears indestrucible when it does. The game also thinks I still have a companion although I lost Sven and his pathing issues somewhere near Riverwood.
    Despite this, its just an amazing game to explore and become immersed it.

  6. It seems to me that the economics of non-subscription games could be not so much about being great games for some but being a good enough (to buy) game for a broader audience.

    That's exactly the same with subscription games, Hagu :). I payed for WoW for a very long time and if you read my many, many, many reviews you know my verdicts weren't better than this one about Skyrim.

    Skyrim is absolutely worth the money. But the main reason, just like with WoW, is the lack of serious competition.

  7. Did you know that you can bind things from your Favorites menu to the 1-8 keys?

    For example, I have "healing" mapped to "1". I hit "1" once and my main hand gets the spell. Two times and both hands get the spell. Heal up quickly, then hit 3,4 (where I have my weapon and shield bound) and I'm right back into the action. No need to hit Q other than the initial configuration.

  8. @bmhunter:

    I didn't know that! That changes a lot. How do I do it?

  9. From the very bottom of page 7 in the manual (they certainly could have done a better job highlighting this - it's a HUGE feature, as you've noticed):

    "You can also assign primary and secondary Quick Keys by pressing F to pull up the Inventory/Magic Menu. Then,
    holding down one of the number keys (1 through 8) from the Favorites menu for about a second. Swap between
    items during gameplay by tapping the assigned number key."

  10. I bought the game on Steam. Maybe there's a pdf now somewhere on my computer.

    Well, I could have guessed that it works this way... This belongs into the tutorial! But I guess they didn't care to make a PC tutorial. *sigh*.

  11. The funny thing is that I found Fallout 3 and New Vegas far, far more immersive than I did Oblivion. Especially when I deduced the combination spell that instantly killed any enemy with less than 100 HP, in the latter.

    I'll pick it up eventually simply because I like Bethesda's work, but there is no way I'm spending $60 on a videogame in 2011. That's twelve indie game bundles, six Steam sales, sixty iPhone apps, etc. Day 1 sales are reserved for perhaps MMOs or Diablo 3.

  12. I whole-heartedly agree with the thoughts expressed here. I think this is a fair review. I just don't know why you recommend buying it.

    I can't recommend this game in good faith. Go buy a used copy of any previous Elder Scrolls game (especially Oblivion) and you'll have an extremely similar experience. Decide after you try the old version if you're interested in the new version. So far, it's mostly a new coat of paint, but the same old car underneath.

  13. Does it allow you to use a gamepad on the pc?

  14. @Doone: Oblivion is much worse. It is the same basic idea, but the difference is in the details. I didn't much like Oblivion - didn't even play it through.
    But I like Skyrim a lot. The many shortcomings are very annoying, but at the end of the day the pull of an beautiful open world to explore is very strong.

    @Lexicorro: I don't know whether you can use a gamepad on the PC. But it wouldn't be a wise decision, imho. The TES series is a PC game series. It was ported to consoles in the past to push profits, but it struggles because it's just too complicated for a console game.

    Now it was re-ported back to PC, and while the UI is a mess when treated like a PC game, it is probably still wise to play it with keyboard and mouse.

  15. Nils you made a number of mistakes in your post. #3 was already pointed out to you.

    #4 You do NOT gain a level for 10 skill levels. It is fluid where gaining a skill point at 70 to 71 counts for MUCH more in "XP" (level gain) then going from 20 to 21 in a skill.

    #5 Skyrim has taken away many of the gimmicks of Oblivion and Fallout where you pump up a skill to 'game' the system. Doing that now means you are facing harder mobs. And for mobs some are fixed levels like giants (level 32) or skever (rats level 2 I think), and others level up with you. So play normally and skill up while doing things in the real world.

    #7 I really think you were that poor child in the candy store that ate every single piece of candy just because it was there. Some self restraint is necessary once in a while. You don't have to take the quest. Just selct the option that you can't do that right now. It will be there in the future if you want to do it. really this is not a game flaw but more of a personal one. Sorry guy I like reading your stuff but you are way off here.

    #8 You are 100% exaggerating here. Enter the hall in Whiterun and tell me how long it takes to reach the Jarl. Or maybe you keep using the sprint mode (alt key) and not the standard run toggle (caps key) There is a BUG difference here. And if you are sprinting this means you need to RTFM.

    #9 The map is seperated into provinces called holds. Almost all quests from a specific hold are within that hold. There are quests that send you to a new hold but these are the minority. And the map has some great fdeatures that show you where the quests are and where you are. You can toggle things to show on the map at will or remove them, along with setting your own markers. This map is many times better then anything in any other game that I ever played.

    #10) Go over to the official forums and see how many people haven't figured that out yet. Is there any difference to this vs the Paragon player level in WOW saying that heroic Rag is too easy? This is easy for some and not easy for others.

    Now what is wrong is that there are some graphic issues and there seems to be 'freezing' for Nvidia card users.

  16. re "That's exactly the same with subscription games, Hagu "

    I disagree. If someone loves Rift and plays it for two hears that is 1200% more profitable than someone who plays for two months.

    Skyrim makes the same money from purchasers who love it or hate it.

    So I was saying the economic incentives allow subscription designers to invest more in great versus good enough.

  17. @Hagu
    Agree, subs model also provides motivation for continuous quality improvement unlike single pay games.

    I think Nil's original recommendation to get the game is his true overall emotional reaction to the game. He loved it.

    But analytical writing is much more interesting when you focus on the nitpicky "could be better" details.

    Who wants to write "It was a great game" over and over unless you're getting paid for it?

    I've been on the fence, but if Nil's recommends buying it, that's pretty high praise.

  18. Goodmongo, your responses to points 5,7,8 simply come from a different paradigm. OPs point is that game design should make these things more smooth; the fact that you can achieve some semblance of smoothness by your own effort doesn't make up for the fact that the game wasn't designed to 100% but rather to 85%.