Sunday, December 18, 2011

Byte: Five days in Skyrim

I think I'm going to have to re-write my Top 5 favourite videogames. I've stuck in over 120 hours in the last month on the PC and Xbox 360 versions of Skyrim and it's only now I really feel that I could really go about reviewing it.

Obviously, a game this big is not going to be as flawlessly polished as a single-player game with an eight hour, linear campaign. Some people are quoting Skyrim as having at least 300 hours of unique gameplay for a single campaign, and I can well believe it. I've got over 120 hours logged on Steam playing it, and I've just finished the main storyline quest threads (the defeat of Alduin and the Liberation of Skyrim), and while I've completed about 50 side-quest chains, I've not finished any of the main faction quests (Companions, Dark Brotherhood, Thieves Guild, etc), and despite having finished the main storyline quests (and just in time, given that Star Wars: The Old Republic goes live in a couple of days), I'm still motivated to keep playing. In the 120-odd hours of game time so far I've experienced some spectacular bugs - from random crashes to desktop, dragons that don't know which direction they should be flying in, purple placeholders instead of real textures, giants launching mobs into orbit with a swing of their warhammer, and many, many more.

The key to the success of any game isn't whether it's buggy or not, but whether the bugs deter you from playing or not. As with an old favourite of mine, Vampire - The Masquerade: Bloodlines, Skyrim's bugs and glitches don't kill my desire to play the game. They're annoying, for sure, but I'm always straight back, clicking at the shortcut on the desktop to launch the game again, always wanting more frosty, Nordic fun, punching dragons in the face.

The thing I really love about the Elder Scrolls RPG system is that the character classing doesn't really limit your options to a single character class. So my PC character (with whom I've stuck in the vast majority of playing hours - though I've dabbled with the 360 version as well, which is likewise awesome) is almost a Baldur's Gate style multi-class Fighter-Mage-Thief, given that he's specialising in Heavy Armour, Archery, One-handed weapons and Destruction Magic. He's also a world-class Enchanter and Blacksmith, and a decent lockpicker and sneak. Now that my character is knocking about in the mid-to-late level 40s, I'm mildly surprised (after the utterly broken level-scaling in Oblivion) that I'm still able to compete fairly with scaled enemies in the game world. One thing I like to do is imagine the conversation my character has with dragons as they battle; my character fully clad in Dragonbone armour.

"Hoy, Dov! I'm wearing your Mum! And now I'm going to punch you to death!"

I was pretty fond(ish) of Oblivion (despite its many, many flaws), but the changes to the levelling and the addition of a Fallout-style perks system has really improved the character-customisation aspects of the game. Skyrim doesn't restrict your choices of what skills you can level up - whatever you use the most, you end up specialising in - so you can become a genuine Jack-of-all-trades if you so choose. It's one way of giving the player genuine freedom in terms of play style, and not only that, it works: a heavy armour-wearing ninja-assassin-sneak-thief is a viable possibility, if you're willing to put in the time earning the necessary skills.

One thing that's surprised me, looking at the Steam Achievement stats, is that less than 20% of the player base have had their characters get married. Now, I don't necessarily believe that responsible adults should get married as a matter of course, but in game terms, it's a no-brainer of a decision, given that your spouse opens a shop earning you a tidy profit of 100 septims a day. And also, why would you NOT want to marry Lydia? (Note to trolls: DON'T answer that in the comments... I have a Daedric Sword with 32 bonus points of fire damage...)

It's difficult to know where to start when trying to talk about Skyrim and just how good it is. It's graphically one of the most gorgeous games I've ever played, with stunning scenery, handsome NPCs (Hello, Hroki! Hello, Fastred!) and it's just as pretty at night as it is during the day, if not more so. The aurorae you get to see at night while wandering in the high north are spectacularly good. There are also some lovely set pieces, such as the taking of cities or forts during the Skyrim civil war, as well as some challenging random encounters (it's always fun when a cave bear turns up in the of a dragon battle!), but what I like the most is that there's genuine variety in the quests. Your interaction with the game world isn't limited to killing other people. On the contrary, you can help people find true love or help solve murder cases, deliver messages or carry out errands... the game world is just so rich and diverse and all the better for it. The open worldliness of Oblivion always felt a little directionless, to me. In Skyrim there's always something interesting lurking around a corner. There's just so much out there to be found and played with; and yet, even though I've completed the main "save the world" and "save the Nords" quest threads, I still don't feel like I've seen everything the game has to offer. The flexibility in the character customisation is enticing in the sheer amount of play styles the game can offer you. I've discovered 17 different Shouts, (including - SPOILER WARNING! - the one that calls in your own personal close air support dragon to sort out anyone who's giving you too much trouble) though I haven't really played about with most of them in combat yet. When you can Shout people off the top of towers and watch them ragdoll pathetically down the side of a mountain to their deaths, it's not really motivating you to try out all the others...

I think the game I've put most hours into (barring World of Warcraft) over the last couple of years is Dragon Age: Origins (171 hours, according to my Steam stats). I can easily imagine that being doubled in Skyrim before I start being bored with it. Skyrim is such a compelling game world that I'm even dreaming about it - a sure sign of dangerous levels of obsession. There's just so much more I still want to do, even with my 100+ hours main character. It's not even about getting the "achievements" - that kind of thing doesn't make me want to play. No, I like setting my own targets, such as topping out skill stats in all of my main "class" skills - so in the case of Cathal, my fighter-mage-thief, I want 100 in Archery, Destruction Magic, One-Handed Weapons, Heavy Armour, Enchanting, Smithing, Sneak and Lockpicking. As leader of the Thieves Guild, one "achievement" I do actually quite want is to restore the Thieves Guild to its former prosperity. (Incidentally, if you are playing a Thief/Assassin type character, make sure you do the Nightingales questline as soon as possible - the armour you get for it is awesome - not just in terms of stats; aesthetically it's fabulous.) It seems only fair that under my leadership, though by "leadership" I actually mean "doing all the jobs that Vex and Delvin can't be arsed to do themselves"... after all, I sold my soul to Nocturnal in order to oust Mercer Frey, so I might as well get the Thieves Guild up and running. And then once my Sneak skills are up to scratch, I can make a start on the Dark Brotherhood jobs.

I also want to own fully upgraded houses in all the Skyrim holds that I can (I already have houses in Whiterun, Riften and Windhelm) and give legendary dragonbone armour to all my housecarls. There are just so many things I still have to do. So I guess I better stop writing and just do it...
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