Archive for December, 2011

It has been a month since the release of TES V: Skyrim and about three weeks since I posted my review. After all of the glowing things I said about Skyrim in my review, it’s going to seem like I’m going to eat those words. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The game remains an awesome game. I still believe that people will be playing it for years to come. Jeremy Soule’s soundtrack still rocks. Todd Howard is still “da man”. None of that changes. I said it was awesome, I meant it.

But as I pointed out, there were several areas where the ball got dropped. These are not game-breaking fumbles, but I think they are the areas that weren’t well implemented. Some are about issues that, had PC gamers been uppermost in the developers heads, might not be issues. The rest are about changes from previous games that just don’t sit well with me. I am not a developer (I don’t even play one on TV). Please keep that in mind. I do not claim any special expertise in the area. My only claim to fame on this topic is that I’ve been messing with the Elder Scrolls for a bit more than 15 years now and it is from an Elder Scrolls perspective that I’m taking issue.

Issue #1: The Inventory: Having just returned from committing mayhem, murder and the occasional wedgie on the denizens of some gods-forsaken hole or other, I step into my cozy little piece of heaven in Whiterun with the sole intention of relieving myself of all of that burdensome loot. Some I will want to sell, some I will want to disenchant, and some I will want to keep until I can figure out what to do with it.

Being borderline OCD on such matters, there is a place for everything and everything must go in its place. Except for figuring out what that  place might be. Books are simple. I do have a couple of bookcases, after all. They seem to work the first couple of times I try to use them, but after that? “Pfft!!!” Potions and ingredients are also fairly simple since there is a chest set aside for that purpose. Food items go into their proper place and everything else gets dumped into the trunk upstairs.

Problem #1: the key to place single items into the container and the key to remove everything from the container are THE SAME STINKIN’ KEY!!! The only difference is whether you are looking at the container’s inventory or you are looking at your inventory. As far as I can tell, there is no way to remap this function. One misplaced keystroke and BAM! I’m staggering under a few thousand pounds of junk that couldn’t be sold (I already bartered the local merchants down to their last septim), couldn’t be disenchanted up at Dragonsreach (the court mage is a bit of a snoot, but at least he lets me use his equipment), couldn’t be turned into something else and must, therefore, be stashed for a while. So back to the Inventory screen I go. Uh…. yeah, need to stash those weapons, those arrows, that armor, those ingots… Didn’t I already do that once (twice, three times)? Yep, the pain of a consistently misplaced keystroke. Twenty minutes later, I’ve managed to stash everything again and it’s time to get back to adventuring.

Problem #2: finding my stuff again. Once it’s in the container, getting one particular item back out again is a problem. On the inventory menu, my stuff is conveniently broken down into categories: weapons, armor, food, books, scrolls, potions, etc. The container? Well, it’s just kind of the container. Everything in it is a hodgepodge. About the only logical thing about it is that the stuff most recently put in is at the top of the list. Since I keep pulling everything out (see Problem #1), that means it does get reorganized (frequently), so armor and weapons go in before crafting items like Leather and ingots. There are no categories for the stuff in the container. It’s not even alphabetized. C’mon folks! If you can sort things into categories in my inventory, why can’t you do it in the container? Or at least have the decency to provide one container for each category when I’m decorating my house?

Problem #3: the active area for clicking. This is one place where it’s clear that the PC interface was an afterthought. Consoles don’t use mouse pointers, as far as I know. They just need to scroll down the list until whichever category they’re looking for is highlighted and they’re good. The PC interface has a mouse pointer and there is no indication of which areas are active (clickable) and which areas aren’t. As a general rule, staying to the right of the category name seems to be the workable method, but if you click on an area that isn’t clickable, the inventory screen closes and you have to start over again. This would include clicking on the category name in many cases (especially “MISC”).

Problem #4: reading. There are tons of things to read in Skyrim. Many of the books from as far back as Arena and Daggerfall are still in the game. On a side note, it’s interesting that there are all of these books, but we never see where they come from. There must be a huge printing industry set up somewhere to account for the numbers, but there is nothing to indicate where. Anyway, you’re in your inventory, reading something. You finish and close the item and want to open up another one. No can do. You must go back to the categories, click on “Books” again, and now you can select another item to read. Tedious, unintuitive and generally sloppy.

Issue #2: The <CAPS LOCK> Key: Console gamers probably won’t understand this. PC gamers will undoubtedly commiserate. The <CAPS LOCK> key toggles whether you always run or always walk. While you’re walking, holding <L SHIFT> lets you run; if you’re running, holding <L SHIFT> makes you walk. The problem is that it changes, frequently, at the most inconvenient times and with no warning. So where you were running by default, you’re suddenly walking. Or, if you were walking, you’re suddenly running. The running isn’t so bad, aside from bumping into stuff, unless you’re also sneaking. Running while sneaking is generally a very bad thing. It makes you much easier to detect, which makes the whole sneaking thing kind of pointless in the first place. If <CAPS LOCK> “on” means “run”, then it should always mean “run”. It shouldn’t mean “run or maybe walk, depending on whether you’ve done something, like talk to an NPC or transition to an interior/exterior area, since the last time you tried to move”.

Issue #3: Magic: For those who might not have noticed, Skyrim is a Fantasy Role-Playing Game. The “Fantasy” part is what’s important, because that typically means spell-slinging. And there are major problems in this area.

Problem #1: once a spell is in your spellbook, you’re stuck with it. Spells and their effects do not improve as you get better at spell casting. The spell that did 8 points of fire-based damage at the beginning of the game, does 8 points of fire-based damage at the end of the game. The fact that I’ve now got a spell that does 25 points of fire-based damage doesn’t change that. I’m stuck with that 8-point spell forever. There should have been some way to remove spells from your spellbook short of going into the developer’s console, figuring out the unique identifier of the spell and deleting it that way. And gamers have been asking for this since Daggerfall, at least (that means about 15 years). One would think that somewhere in those 15 years, someone at Bethesda might have figured out how to let you delete an outdated spell.

Problem #2: spells don’t change. That 8-point spell from the beginning of the game doesn’t change. On the weapon side of the equation, I’ve got an arrow that does 10 points of damage. If I upgrade my bow, it will do more damage. But if I upgrade my Destruction magic skill, the spell does the exact same thing it did when I could barely cast it. So, no way to upgrade it and no way to delete it. An almost complete waste.

Problem #3: no Spell Maker. The ability to create your own spells with the effects that you want/need has been a staple of the Elder Scrolls since the first game (Arena). There is no Spell Maker in Skyrim. This is one area that made the Elder Scrolls different from any other FRPG on the market and it wasn’t implemented in this version for some reason or other. As a longtime Elder Scrolls fan, this is borderline heresy.

Problem #4: overall weakness of the magic system. Compared to previous games, the magic system just seems weak. I think the root cause of this was the introduction of Shouts and is probably related to the absence of a Spell Maker. Shouts were a major item for the new game and the developers probably consciously decided to give it center stage by toning down the magic system a bit from previous games. If this is truly the case, I understand the reasons and agree with them to a certain extent. But there can be too much (or too little) of a good thing and I think they’ve crossed that line. Perhaps a bit more time with the game might change that opinion, but at a bit more than 200 hours of playing time at this point, I’m not hopeful. This issue was so troubling, that I almost docked the game a half-point over it in my review. I decided not to in the end because of the question about the role of Shouts, but still…

Issue #4: Faction Quests: I’ll be honest about not having completed all of the faction quest lines. Up to this point in time, I’ve completed the Mages Guild quest line, completed the Thieves Guild quest line (minus a couple of upgrades), completed the Companions’ quest line (minus most of their Radiant quests), wiped out the Dark Brotherhood once and moved about two-thirds through their quest line. That’s about it. I consciously stayed out of the fray between the Imperials and Stormcloaks, but eventually sided with the Imperials just to be done with it. There really is so much other stuff to do in the game that staying focused on these things is a bit of a chore. Some might see this as a weakness of the Elder Scrolls games, but I count it as one of their strengths, so am not griping about it.

At any rate, what I’ve seen thus far are fairly weak stories, especially with the Mages Guild. Here’s the gist of it: welcome to the College of Winterhold, young Apprentice. We’re going to send you to a Dwemer ruin where you’ll accidentally uncover a hugely powerful dingus. Find out what that dingus is and does, then retrieve another dingus to deal with the first dingus. Congratulations on doing that, Arch-Mage. Lame to the point of laughable.

There are so many untapped subplots floating around that the failure to take advantage of any of them is almost criminal. Oblivion’s Mages Guild quest line had a marvelous story centering around the conflict between the Mages Guild and the Necromancers and your involvement was crucial to resolving that conflict. There is a similar conflict brewing between the College of Winterhold and the Thalmor, but almost nothing is done with that. Additionally, there are potential quest lines involving your fellow classmates at the college, but there is little aside from a fetch-and-return mission from each of them.

My initial take on the Thieves Guild was along those lines, but the story finally got me and it was hard to set it aside for other quests. In my admittedly subjective view, the Thieves Guild quest lines from both Oblivion and Skyrim are the best faction quest lines. There are lots of untapped stories among the members of the Guild. I’m not sure whether this is being saved for DLC or as hooks for the modders to build on. But I’m willing to forgive that in exchange for the main story, which was well done.

My initial encounter with the Dark Brotherhood was to infiltrate the sanctum and kill them all, which I did (ho, hum!). On my second run through, I joined, although I have not yet completed their quest line. The personalities, I think, are a lot better than Oblivion’s. The quest system works fairly well, but since I haven’t completed it, I don’t know how well their Radiant quests will turn out.

I was NOT thrilled with the Companions. For fear of spoiling, let me just say that it forces your character to do something to complete the quest line that most players would have preferred to be optional. I hit that point and just dropped it the first time through. On the second time through, I completed the main part of their story and still have some of their Radiant quests to go. I am still not thrilled with them, largely because of the choice issue early in the quest line.

Skyrim introduces a new faction, The Bards’ College, but does almost nothing with it. In fact, the three quests that you can get from them have a problem in that you can’t get rid of the quest objects after you finish. My suspicion is that this will be the subject of a future DLC (hopefully at least the subject of a patch), but only time will tell. As of of the 1.3 patch, this had not been fixed, so I’m still toting their quest objects.

The civil war presents a couple of interesting boo-boos on Bethesda’s part. Without spoiling any of the story, no matter which side you choose, you’ll be told to clean up any encampments of the other side after the main story is finished. This is a task that you cannot complete because each encampment has one character that continues to be flagged “essential” and cannot be killed. If you’re looking for a way to work on your weapon/armor/blocking skills, just bring lots of healing and go to town on him or let him go to town on you. There is also at least one house that cannot be purchased if the civil war is resolved in favor of the Imperials before you try to buy it because the character that gives you the quest isn’t around afterward.

Issue #5: Crafting: I’m very conflicted on this issue. On the one hand, thanks to equipment degradation, previous games almost required that “Armorer” become a secondary or tertiary skill, regardless of the class chosen. Skyrim removed that degradation, so “Smithing” now becomes a conscious skill choice. You are no longer required to carry around a ton of hammers to maintain your equipment. You find or buy the components and craft whatever weapons or armor you want. You must expend skill perks to craft anything beyond simple Iron or Leather, so it superficially seems to resolve the problem. But on the other hand, the skills seem way overpowered. With a decent enough supply of gold, you can purchase or smelt a ton of Iron Ingots and Leather Strips, craft about 450-500 Iron Daggers and become a master of Smithing. You can then turn around and sell those daggers to get a good start on becoming a master of Speech. Find one cheesy enchanted weapon, destroy it at an Arcane Enchanter to learn the enchantment, and then apply that enchantment to the daggers to get a huge jump on becoming a master of Enchanting, too.

The whole process strikes me as being way too much. This is not a complaint about the system in general, though. I think the concept was well considered. The crafting mods were among the more popular in Fallout 3. The concept was carried a bit farther in Fallout: New Vegas and it was only logical to include it in Skyrim. But the skill progression strikes me as being too much, too fast. This is more of a game balance concern than anything else. I suspect that some of the first mods (the nudie ones are already out) will be attempts to tone this down a bit.

I’m still working on getting my head around Alchemy. So far, I like the concept as it has been used in Skyrim. I’m still trying to work out most of the details so that I can understand how the ingredient effects show up in the finished potions. Skyrim’s system seems more like Morrowind’s than like Oblivion’s. It’s not as over-powered as Smithing and there are no ingredients that boost your Alchemy skill, so creating alchemy-boosters to make even more powerful alchemy-boosters (and so on) isn’t the issue that it was in Morrowind. Using potions does not seem to have any effect on your skill, so Alchemy becomes a truly conscious choice as a skill path. On the whole, I like it. I still find it a bit confusing, but I like it. Most of those same comments could be applied to Enchanting.

Issue #6: Leveling: Another issue where I’m conflicted. On the whole, I rather like the lack of classes in the game. Classes have always struck me as a bit of a box into which you had to shove your character concept. Previous games had your little-used skills count for nothing as far as leveling went, so your focus was on your class skills. This did lead to the condition of players focusing on developing their off-skills and ignoring their class skills in order to gain an advantage in the game. Consider someone, for example, who selected Mage as their class and then spent the majority of the game developing their Armor and Weapon skills and advancing their magical skills only when necessary to level up and gain the attribute bonuses. Having high-level combat skills when your class skills were anything else meant that you used high-level combat skills to deal with low-level creatures, which really unbalanced the game.

Skyrim removes most of this by making all skills count toward leveling. It’s just that the higher-level skills count for more toward the next level than do the skills that you hardly use. Since I’m a big fan of one-handed weapons, my two-handed weapon skill hasn’t progressed much out of the teens because I never use them. Yet when I pick up a skill book that boosts my two-handed weapon skill, it progresses me a bit toward the next level.

Normally this wouldn’t be such a big issue except for the fact that Bethesda uses leveled creature lists. If I’m busily working toward being able to craft a fine set of Glass armor (if I didn’t mention it anywhere else, the Elven and Glass Armors look completely awesome – major kudos to the graphic design team for this), I could very well end up getting my ass handed to me on a silver platter because my combat skills aren’t up to dealing with the higher-level critters that spawn because of the increases in my Smithing skill. It’s a conundrum and one to which I can advocate no workable solution. It goes back to there being no such thing as a perfect game, I guess. It’s another area where I suspect that the modding community will step up to the plate and take a swing. I look forward to seeing what they come up with, but am currently disappointed with the current implementation.

Issue #7: Other Stuff: On the whole, I’m pretty thrilled with the game. The fact that I’ve racked up 220 hours of play time with the game within a month should be testament enough to that. But there are lots of niggling little issues that do detract from the overall experience. Some of them are bugs that should have been caught and patched by now, others are scripting issues that are just flat out annoying. So far I haven’t run into anything that is truly game-breaking. I still think the game is awesome and have hopes that either Bethesda or the modding community will fix some of these issues. I’m not thrillled with the Creation Kit being delayed as long as it has since many of these issues could be resolved through an unofficial patch mod of some kind. We’ll just have to see how that goes once it becomes available, but they are issues that really shouldn’t have been there in the first place.