Saturday, February 4, 2012

Video Game Review: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

SPOILERS, potentially. I dunno, I'm just not paying attention to whether or not I'm spoiling, so go at your own risk.

Skyrim. Well, well, well, Skyrim. Your judgement day has come.

So, at first I was just opposed to Skyrim. I didn't like what I saw, I didn't see a point, I didn't understand what people found fun. BUT, I decided that it would be wrong to judge it without playing it first. So I decided that I would give it it's fair shake and try to see everything it really had to offer by getting 50/50 achievements. Well, I've done it. Level 50, Skill at 100, every quest line done, and more. And now I get to judge you.

Graphics: This was a big sticking point that a bunch of peple tried to convince me was good. And they're, um, complicated. Take any screenshot, and you will have a beautiful looking game. Put it in motion and, aside from the movement of a dragon or water when you're NOT in it, it will entirely cease to impress. Character models are way above Oblivion, but aren't quite incredible or even really the current-gen look we're used to on anything other than the Wii. When most things, especially people, are animated it tends to just look silly or awkward, and everything looks really goofy in third person. Animations clip, and models don't interact in any meaningful way, and things just teleport in and out of screen. Of equal disappointment is the way all the environments are totally static. Things stay the same, hitting things causes no effect (aside from a little soot stain if you blast it with fire), and you either slam into solid pieces (potentially as small as a large stair step) or you clip through whole objects (like large bushes that you just kinda phase through), with no effect upon the object. Seriously, would it be that hard to rustle the bush a bit and play a slight sound bit when I pass through? Other complaints include the entire underwater (must it always be so murky?), the uniformity of the entire overworld (grassy with dirt, stone texture, snow covered, and water are the only options guys?), and the similarity of all the dungeons. Like, all of them, with a couple exceptions. You have rock/grass underground, snowy cave, Nord ruin, and Dwemer ruins. This is really sad, because there are so many places providing opportunity for a lot of cool variety and they proved that when they WANT variety they can really do it (Bloated Man's Grotto, Blackreach, Sovngarde, and a couple others, though only a couple). Also, ick to that stone texture. It's EVERYWHERE, and I hate how it's all stretched and boring. I know stone is very hard, and most games don't look great with it, but hell, if I have to see it that much I want it NICE. Also, most of the particle effects (fire, lightning, snow, poison mist) are really obnoxious and get in the way a lot, especially for archery (even more so if you're wearing the Ebony Mail).
That said, I did say that it looks great in screenshots. The models are all pretty well made when standing still, and the item models you see in the menu all look good. Water flow is very nice when you're not in it (the wake is less good, though it's still pretty alright), although the transition point between rapids and normal is quite abrupt and weird, but it's not that bad. The Dragons look great until you get get really close to the wings, whiched looked like the texture stretched a bit weirdly, but I only really noticed because my dragon-killing technique involved being right up against his wing, so you really have to look for this to see it.
Essentially, I stand by what I said originally. The graphics are decent, but with a video game it can't only be good in screenshots, so it's definitely not something I would flaunt all the time as a strength for the game.

Plot and Story Structure: I gotta say, this is the game's weak point. First, let's look at the main plot. Only marginally longer than any given questline, it features a lot of killing dragons. It brings you to two of the interesting places, and actually incorporates an Elder Scroll as a main plot thing, which we certainly can't say for Oblivion. So, it's definitely not the MOST boring quest line, but it's only marginally more substantial than any of the others. The final boss is really easy to crush into a stunlock though, which they really should have seen coming. It's not like Sword/Shield is a rare combination (btw, that was my main combo).
The Mage College questline was my favorite. It was my first time going to a Dwemer ruin (which also made it my first change from the standard dungeon look), and the Eye of Magnus thing was actually pretty cool. The final battle was, as usual, very anticlimactic, and it didn't tie up loose ends at the end really. Makes me think they're setting up a plot point for Elder Scrolls VI. This questline was one of the shortest though.
The Dark Brotherhood, my god. I heard from everyone, "Oh yeah, the Dark Brotherhood ones are the best quests!" What are you all talking about? I was bored to all hell, and blazed through them all really quickly. I have no interest in the Night Mother, and would honestly have just rather left all the targets alive. The super-big last target didn't really interest me either. But alas, the achievements say be an assassin, so I'm an assassin.
The Thieves Guild is, um, gimmicky. The short questine is pretty alright, and the Nightingale stuff looks really cool. The power you get at the end is kinda useless, but still not the worst set of quests. The LONG version of the questline, on the other hand, involves doing almost 40 of those "Extra work" jobs from Delvin and Vex. Okay, so I loading screen to the cistern, loading screen to the flagon, talk to quest giver and give in my last job, talk again to take a new job, loading screen to the cistern, loading screen to the top, loading screen fast travel to the target town, loading screen into their house, boring steal, loading screen out of the house, loading screen back to Riften, loading screen to the cistern, loading screen to the flagon, turn in quest, etc. And you KEEP doing this. Really artificially extended the length of the questline.
The Companions were just kinda uninteresting. There was a good number of missions, and they did a good number of things, but just weren't very interesting. The power you get is kinda cool, but I literally NEVER used it. It just wasn't epic or affecting in any way, it was all about becoming a werewolf, going werewolf-hunter hunting and get turned into a major revenge thing when a dude dies on your own mission. Really now, if you're going to get that mad over it you really shouldn't have been going out in the first place. Meh.
The Civil War questline wasn't all that fun. It was wide-spanning and affected the world a bit, but the missions were all "Go into fort, stand there and kill all the soldiers." I was Legion, by the way. Freaking terrorist Stormcloaks.
Okay, those are the major questlines. But they're not the problem here. The problem is the way they approached DOING these things. All missions are split into small objectives, and every objective is boring. Every. Single. One. (Almost.) Usually, they are "Go talk to X," "Go kill everything in area Y," or "Get item Z," and the compass up top points you directly in the direction you're supposed to go, so the entire game requires almost no mental work to get things done. There are a couple kinds of puzzles, and only a couple. There's the rotating picture then pull the lever ones (with the snake, and the hawk, and the eagle and such), and there's the _gemstone_ Claw ones, which are cool the first time but afterward are less so. One notable exception is the Blood on the Ice quest, which removes the goal arrow and actually requires you to try and piece things together to catch the serial killer. I liked that one a lot. But those are the extreme exception, and in general there's just a bajillion stupid fetch-quest Misc. Objectives and pointless quests. Even if they sound like they're cool, the distillation of every quest down to really boring little pieces
BUT, I must give the structure its due praise as well. There are a LOT of quests, so you can probably find something you like. It's a good structure if you don't WANT to think while you play, which is, I suppose, a valid way to play. The best thing about the story structure is that there is a LOT of cool backstory and info if you dig for it, but it's all outside the quests. Most notably, it's hidden in the books. I actually heard that there's an ebook compilation of all the Skyrim books out there, and I actually might get that and read it. Also, where you find some of those books is quite entertaining - I remember going through a cave full of bandits, who were all acting like total badass types, and I kill the big brute orc boss chief guy, and when I go to raid his living area I found The Lusty Argonian Maid on his bedstand. Told some funny things about that dude that I actually like. Adds character. Also, I liked the Daedric quests since they were generally something different, and you got a unique item out of it, even if some of them were useless (Boethia's Proving is a painting? REALLY?).
So basically, you have to really try to immerse yourself in the story to get anything out of it at all. Not much room for getting caught up in the story unintentionally.

Gameplay: The core mechanic. It, um, works pretty good! The formula hasn't really changed. Swing weapons, cast magic, etc. The twist in this game is the Shouts, which I honestly neglected entirely until the end with Dragonrend. I think I still have 11 unused Dragon Souls that I just haven't bothered to use. Maybe I'm not getting the most out of the system if I just stayed on Novice the whole time (I don't play for difficulty, I have other games for that), but I really never felt exceptionally threatened except when I was either severely outnumbered or up against an incredibly tough enemy. Actually, Dragon Priests annoyed me some. Whatever.
Basically, the gameplay isn't anythign groundbreaking, but this isn't a flaw either. Tolerable.

Levelling: I wanted to keep this a bit separate from Gameplay. I LIKE the levelling system. There, I've said it. I think this is a good idea that Skyrim has implemented. Of course, this is the same as Oblivion as well, but I still like the system. Level based on using skills, and not just killing stuff and later allocating skill points, allows you to build any sort of character build you'd like. Heavy Conjuring, with Block? Sure. Sword and board? Sure. Sneaky bow sniper? Sure. Flexible and cool. Some of the perks are wholly uninteresting, but with some cooler perks the system could be awesome. Probably my favorite concept in all of the Elder Scrolls.

The Menu: Oh god, the menu. B button menu? Really? I use B to cancel out my choices. I accidently jumped out of the menu more times than I can count. Also, I HATE inventory management. Next to level grinding, it's my least favorite thing in games. And Skyrim makes you do it CONSTANTLY. I spent almost a third of my 135 hour playtime in that bloody menu. It's probably okay on the PC, but it's hell for the Xbox.

The Overworld: I also kinda liked the overworld. It was boring to look at, but I liked trying to unlock as many places as possible. I never went IN anywhere, but I liked having the places light up as white on my map.

Sound: Okay, I played with the sound off. Not because the sound was bad, but because I was doing tedious things and wanted to have Netflix running in my headphones instead. However, I have the soundtrack downloaded, and I DID listen to sound at some parts. By and large, the sound is boring. The ambient overworld is dull, the town is dull, the dungeon is dull. The one exception is the title theme ("Dragonborn") and the dragon fight music, which is justa  variation of the title theme ("One They Fear"). The voice acting wasn't bad, but wasn't superb either.

A Final Note: This quite upset me - if you want to get achievements, be ready to be evil. Very evil. The game seems to try to give you some subtle morality bits, where you can refuse folks or only take good guy things or whatever, but if you want the achievements you HAVE to be evil. You need to do a bunch of contract killings, slaughter the emperor, rip off and steal from like 100 people and take Riften's corruption to a whole new level, support a corrupt corporation owner (Maven), lead a thieves guild, go out on a revenge hunt, serve over a dozen Daedric/Demon Princes, and steal from pretty much everyone. What the hell, Bethesda. Some of us don't LIKE murder and larceny. It would be okay if an equal number of achievements were for doing good, but there AREN'T any of those really, unless you count the morally-absent main quest line.

Final Conclusion: This game is good. It is. The problem is, it's not great, and everyone acts like it is. It does nothing new for the RPG genre, it makes a bunch of stupid choices, and people flaunt points about it that aren't really that impressive. I wouldn't even consider it for GotY material. I'm in the minority here, but you're all hyping up an average game, in my opinion. But whatever, to each his own. If I absolutely must give a grade, I give it a 7/10.

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