The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Screenshot

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 The Elder Scrolls V: 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.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Screenshot

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, The Elder Scrolls V: 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".


Sparky Clarkson

Sparky Clarkson

Sparky Clarkson grew up in the hot lands of Alabama, where he was regularly mooned by a cast iron statue. He played his first games on a Texas Instruments 99/4A computer, although he was not an early adopter. He eventually left Alpiner behind, cultivating a love of games that grew along with the processing power of the home computer. Eventually, however, the PC upgrade cycle exhausted him, and by the time he received his doctorate from the University of North Carolina he had retreated almost entirely to console gaming.

Currently Sparky works as a scientist in Rhode Island, and works gaming in between experiments and literature reviews. As a writer, he hopes to develop a critical voice that contributes to a more sophisticated and interesting culture of discourse about games. He is still waiting for a console port of Betrayal at Krondor.
Sparky Clarkson

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17 Comments on "Oh, Bethesda, Skyrim does have its issues"

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Chris
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I feel Skyrim is a letdown as well (if that is what you were getting at). The main quest was very generic and not really that interesting. Same with the other quests, though some of the Deadric quests are pretty cool. Magic is the only type of combat that doesn’t drive me insane. The random jumps in difficulty in some of the dungeons are rather annoying to. Granted I don’t expect the last encounter to be a cakewalk, but when I go through almost all of the dungeon with no problems at all and then get one-shot by Marokei, there… Read more »
Alv
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[quote=Googoo24] And lets not even mention Beth’s Fallout New Vegas. A game which presented the player with a variety of choices in both character interaction and ways to tackle the game. Does Uncharted/Demon Soul’s allow you to convince a man to kill himself? Does it allow you to manipulate characters into giving you vital items instead of putting a bullet in their head? Are their numerous endings (I’m not talking two or three)depending on what you did in the game? If not, then how can it be claimed that these games make the player a “king?” [/quote] Uncharted/Demon’s Souls do… Read more »
Shane
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I agree with everything. I feel Like I am the only person who thinks that Skyrim is a step back from fallout’s plethora of dialogue options. Fallout 3’s perks were more interesting and I am yet to come across a single quest in Skyrim (45 hours in), that even comes close to any of the quests in Fallout 3 (excluding the kinda lame main quest) It feels that in their mission to make the world so populated and dense that, unfortunately, none of the quests are interesting at all. Admittedly, aside from the gorgeous graphics in Skyrim, I still find… Read more »
Jack
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Totally agree with your comments Sparky.

Was looking for a dramatic improvement in combat and felt it was let down – combat wise it’s not a great improvement from Oblivion. They could take a lesson from the combat style of Monster Hunter.

Dragons are far too easy and I cut down the Emperor’s elite body guards with one or two swings- what the? No wonder the Empire is on the brink of collapse.

Googoo24
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What happened to that lengthy comment I made before this one? LOL! I bet you guys are on break. LOL! Happy Thanks giving. Anyway, I explained how no game truly allows the player(s) to be “king;” that every game possesses limitations of some sort. To ridicule Beth for not having memorable/experience characters (which I wholeheartedly disagree with), and to praise games such as Uncharted and Demon Soul’s as possessing these traits, is questionable to me. The Demon Soul’s series barely has semblance of a coherent story, but just drops the character into a world to find their own path. Should… Read more »
Googoo24
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What happened to that lengthy comment I made before this one? LOL! I bet you guys are on break. LOL! Happy Thanks giving. Anyway, I explained how no game truly allows the player(s) to be “king;” that every game possesses limitations of some sort. To ridicule Beth for not having memorable/experience characters (which I wholeheartedly disagree with), and to praise games such as Uncharted and Demon Soul’s as possessing these traits, is questionable to me. The Demon Soul’s series barely has semblance of a coherent story, but just drops the character into a world to find their own path. Should… Read more »
Pepada
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So, what game allows you more freedom?

Googoo24
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How is anything you just mentioned any different in Demon Soul’s/ Dark Souls or Uncharted? Games which completely lack major/significant interaction (for the most part) and focus exclusively on combat or scripted events that can never be altered? Uncharted’s events/storyline elements are completely scripted. How do those games make the player “King”, when they are so strict in their design? You also say the concept of character interaction is “lacking” in Beth games. Have you played New Vegas? That game abounded with choice and freedom. Please, tell me some of the major “choices” (in terms of character interaction) you’ve made… Read more »
Daniel Markstedt
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The freedom you’re offered in Skyrim when it comes to NPC interaction is the freedom to walk away. Unlike Fallout 3 (IIRC) you may exit out of any conversation at any time (‘B’ on 360). So in the cases I didn’t like where a particular dialog tree was heading, I just imagined my character throwing up his hands and walking away in rage. 🙂 That said, I do feel that the dialog trees as far more limited than for example Fallout 3. It’s very seldom you’re allowed to confront the NPC or ask for more reward money, etc. As a… Read more »
Alv
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[quote=googoo24]@Alv

Do games like Uncharted allow you focus on the story at your own leisure? No. Can you mold your character to fit your play style? No. Is the world your oyster?

[/quote]

Don’t kid yourself here. It’s all an illusion of choice, of an open world, of freedom. An illusion which is frequently broken when one comes up against the natural limitations of the game, which are most evident in the said character interaction. Why are my dialogue choices limited, when the world is my oyster?

googoo24
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@Alv People put a 100+ hours into games like Skyrim because they’re immersed in the experience; not because they’re forced to. I’d take Skyrim’s bugs over repetitive, plot forced games any day of the week. Do games like Uncharted allow you focus on the story at your own leisure? No. Can you mold your character to fit your play style? No. Is the world your oyster? However, all the above is subjective. It all comes down to preference, but if I play a game for 100+ hours, it most be doing something right. BTW, how can Beth learn from From… Read more »
Alv
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The character interaction and unscripted nature of the experience on offer has always been the achilles heel of Bethesda games. I sank 100+ hours into both Fallout 3 and Oblivion and both left me feeling pretty empty towards the end. The worlds they create are rich and beautiful, but the characters you encounter are bland and soulless, and the main storylines are without punch after dilution with endless hours of ‘side’ quests. Bethesda could do worse than learn from From Software, who use characters to add to the atmosphere rather than the story. By building stories around weak characters (probably… Read more »
Googoo24
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Yep, it’s a typical Elder Scrolls game. Infinitely addictive, but filled with more bugs than a wet sugar-mill filled with dead cow carcasses. At least it isn’t the so-painful-but-good experience I dealt with when playing Oblivion. I swear, that game would crash at least every ten minutes when I originally played, but, strangely (or perhaps not), I kept coming back. I won’t even comment on inexplicable problems like side-quests characters dying, guards brawling among themselves or the questionable leveling system. However, you’d think–particularly with all the bragging about the size of the development team–they’d have “exterminated” the bugs prior to… Read more »
ZippyDSMlee
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Yikes this is more of a beta than the last one, good thing I am waiting a year or 2 before I bother with it, by the time 3 or 4 expansions hit it will be worth while..

LBJ
Guest

Perfectly Said Mr. Johnson.

Havblue
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I suppose it’s the typical blessing and curse of the Elder Scrolls series where if you walk into a room there are 50 or so things you can pick up and move around. Walk into a pub and you’ll send plates flying. Guess what? Your save file is tracking that. It might not track *where* that stuff belonged originally but it will track each item’s orientation in 3D space. Most games don’t allow this freedom; most crap is glued down -or- the game doesn’t need to track it for very long. I dunno, expecting the game to know that you… Read more »
Chris Johnson
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I think you’re right on both counts – I think this is Bethesda’s best work yet, and yes AI pathfinding is awful and occasional glitches do happen. However, I think this is the “cleanest” release I’ve seen from them, and the Major Questlines are really oustanding, better than any other TES game – by far the biggest issues being the Companion AI and interface (no quick keys?!?). At least the quick keys will be fixed by a mod. Must say as a Morrowind devotee, I do enjoy all the dunmer fan service (dwemer ruins, Hlaalu farms, etc). But like you,… Read more »
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