Thursday, 22 December 2011

Digital Solipsism: A Skyrim Review

There's a lot one could say about The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, and a lot of it good. Bottom line about the game, if you enjoyed its predecessor Oblivion, and Fallout 3 then this game should similarly peak your interest. Given I easily racked up 200 hours on both games, and the 72 hours I've so far dedicated to exploring the land of Skyrim, I can safely say that the game has more been worth the Australian retail price I paid for it.

Perhaps it's that I've effectively played this game twice before, or that I have a dread about encountering more giant spiders, that the time I've spent playing is more to do with the sheer scale of the game than anything else. There is a lot to do, though each "quest" seems to follow the same pattern. Someone gives you a quest, you run off halfway around the map to discover the new place, clear the dungeon, then return to get a reward. By the time I've done this for the 50th time (marked with a Steam achievement) the whole process was getting tiresome.

In Oblivion, the gradual progression in the storyline was marked by gates opening all over the world. In Skyrim, it's marked by dragon attacks. This gets a little tiresome for a couple of reasons. First is that it can get in the way of any actual quest being undertaken. Unlike Oblivion gates, dragons can't be ignored. Any kill of a dragon comes with very valuable and very heavy dragon bone, which meant for me needing to stop whatever it was I was doing in order to take the dragon bone back to where I could store it. Second is that the dragon souls that are absorbed accumulate at a faster rate than what they can be spent on. Much of my recent gameplay has been solely in search of shouts to spend the dragon souls on.

The leveling system has been tweaked slightly, taking away the annoying (or useful, depending on how you played Oblivion) task of managing how you progressed your character. I'm now levelling up from selling all the loot that pours out of Skyrim dungeons - speech is my 3rd or 4th highest skill without even trying, meanwhile Destruction magic is barely level 50 despite how often I use fire spells. Lockpicking is similarly a skill that goes up very fast out of pure necessity, so it does seem a little odd that more difficult enemies are generated on the basis of being better with one's tongue and fingers. Skillpoints do help with that.

It does seem odd, as well, that the shopkeepers will turn their nose up at the very idea of something being stolen, yet you're largely dealing with stolen goods anyway - it's just that you've normally killed a bunch of people first. It seemed strange in Oblivion, and still seems strange now, that shopkeepers can tell the difference between bought, stolen, looted off a dead corpse, or taken from a dungeon. The difference, it seems, is a marker in my inventory, which could be avoided by not labelling stolen goods as stolen. Can people really distinguish between which skooma I found in someone's house and in a bandit-filled cave?

Before I go on too long, I should probably mention the quests. Like any sandbox game, there's more than enough to keep you busy beyond the main storyline. My list of unfinished miscellaneous quests is quite high, as is the various quests from the various factions. In the 72 hours I haven't decided which side to take in the war (given that the main quest has the potential of the world ending, what importance is it over who controls Skyrim?), but as Dragonborn I suppose the events of the civil war can't happen without me. Likewise, I'm sure the end of the world is going to wait until I do enough of the main questline. If a tree falls in Skyrim and you're not around to play an integral role in that event, does it even occur?

It is probably a bit much to ask for; a world where events unfold over time isn't in the spirit of sandbox gaming nor in the economic interests of the developers. While it would be cool if the thieve's guild didn't just sit there waiting for me to restore it to their glory, I'm not sure whether or not they'd really put up with the amount of time I've spent at the mage's college. Would they be so understanding that I'm fighting a dragon in Riverwood while they're sitting in the sewers pining for the good ol' days?

That's the problem with the sandbox experience. As much as it's trying to create an immersive world, it can't create a world that's alive - only one that's alive so far as you interact with it - a sort of digital solipsism. Yet how to progress? With so many things to do and possible means of exploration, at times the question of what to do next is a vexing one. Have I neglected the main quest for too long? Is it finally time to go visit a Daedric shrine? What's actually in this blank part of my map?

In this, as much as anything else, Steam achievements play a role. They're meaningless rewards, but they are a good indicator of what to do. And when I only need to read 2 more skill books to get an achievement, it seems as good a reason as any to dive into more dungeons in search of what I've mostly done anyway. Need 4 more places to get the explorer achievement? Time to go exploring. It's probably a lot of stuff that I'd do anyway, only giving a reason to go through with it. As I race towards level 50 I'm trying to make sure at least one skill gets to level 100.

With so much to do, but limited gameplay mechanics in which to do it, a large part of the sandbox experience is quite tedious. I found this same problem with GTA IV, where by the end I was just doing the story so I could have a sense of completion. I'm not quite there yet with Skyrim, even after 72 hours, because the world is still exciting and interesting - even if at times it gets bogged down by repetitious gameplay.


Bob said...

I'm a very inexperienced player with this type of video game. My first impression is positive though after watching a friend and co-worker at DISH Network play it. I like all the fine details in the graphics in the Skyrim world, plus all the detail in the items that can be collected and used. I also enjoy a good fight with an enemy now and then, and it has dragons! I was sold after watching the first fifteen minutes, so I put it in my queue using my Blockbuster Movie Pass and I can’t wait to start playing the game myself, it looks awesome.

Therrin said...

Had the same problem with sneak, it kept leveling up ahead of my offensive skills. Alteration, too, seemed to go up significantly faster than Evocation.