Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Skyrim: Elder Scrolls 5

A lot of people have been playing this massive game called Skyrim: The Elder Scrolls V, myself included.  It's got so much content and story quests, it will honestly take me several years to get through it all.  Most of that time may be because I like playing a sneaky character.  Regardless of the reason, none of you want to wait several years to hear about it, so I'm posting a blind mini review based on my 20 hours of playtime so far.

Skyrim is an Open World Action Role Playing Game, in the most open, literal interpretation of the term.  Like Oblivion, and every Elder Scrolls game previously, Skyrim contains a massive world.  This world is populated by npcs who literally "live in the world", complete with daily/weekly activities they do, some legal, some not so much.

A quick note to parents.  This game is rated M, and I heartily support this rating.  By a "living world of NPCs", the designers literally made a world, everything good and bad included.  This world contains exactly everything questionable you'd expect in a fantasy setting world, from bars full of people who "look for the ladies" to very violent betrayals and brutal death "critical hits", and a strong case of racism.  In the world, there are very few NPCs who would stand up for "what is right", and many of the quests force the player character to choose the "lesser of two evils" with no good "Everyone can get along" ending.  Bethesda went for a very realistic world, only stopping from putting something in the world if it would threaten an A rating and prevent selling the game.

Skyrim's world is very much an adult world, and combined with the ability of the player to pretty much do whatever they wish to do in the world(for good, evil, or sometimes neither or both), this isn't a game for younger kids to play.  Honestly, a lot of the gameplay mechanics and storylines for the quests deal with adult topics anyway.  I would only buy or let an older kid play this if you are truly comfortable having them deal with such topics.

Having said that, the fact Skyrim has such a detailed world is one of the main reasons it has become so popular.  Very few games dive this far into detail, or put this much effort into literally dropping the player into the world and asking them "where do you want to go, and what will you do?".

It says something about the effort and heart poured into the game world when you can go up to any book shelf in the game and can literally open and read, in the game itself, pages and pages of history, short or not so short fictional stories, theories books, and books on lost artifacts that are hidden throughout the game and may or may not exist in the land of Skyrim.  Or if you go into any of the NPCs houses throughout the game, you'll find lots of cluttered day to day life items around that all can be picked up, are physics enabled, and exist just so that the NPC can actually live a full wake, eat, do chores, visit the bar, go to bed life cycle.  You might even uncover a few questionable books or odd things that might tell you a bit more about some of their private life or secret guilds they might be a part of.

This is a level of detail that very few games even attempt to achive, and not only does Skyrim attempt it in full, it succeeds.

One of the biggest charms of every Elder Scrolls game is the open world nature of the games.  There is a "Main Quest", but once it's done the intro, the game just drops you into the world and you are free to completely ignore it.

As a matter of fact, a big feature of these games is that you can do a quest that's been scripted into the game, or you can simply walk around town following NPCs and chatting with them, training yourself, shopping, living in town by buying a house.  There's also nothing preventing you from walking out on your own "raids" of the many carefully crafted caves, forts, and dungeons just literally dotting the map, or trying to climb that mountain in the horizon.  Do what you want, the game will adapt, going so far as to roll up wilderness encounters while you walk there, which you may fight or sneak by, and who might even turn out to have a quest or be a friendly adventurer like yourself instead of the usual cannon fodder enemies so many other games spam the player with.

This is in stark contrast to many RPG games where their is a straight and narrow "area to walk in", a "correct" path to take to your destination, and a set arrangement of enemies to fight in each location.  This concept of a game is both super complex to do, and brilliant to play.

This isn't to say Skyrim is randomly generated.  Instead, the best way to describe it is like a campaign book for a D&D type session.  There is a prebuilt map, and prescripted stuff that happens in that map(the main plot of Skyrim won't turn on it's head if you play it again).  But there is also a "DM", for lack of a better description, who tries to spice things up, and keep things fresh, and even lets you go off "the beaten paths" to nowhere in particular.

Add in a massive, robust character creation, inventory, spell system, crafting system and enchanting system, lockpicking, and just about anything needed for a fantasy world to literally allow the player choices while still letting them have a sense of "leveling up" and getting stronger.  And you start to see why all these heavy RPG fans are really in love with Elder Scrolls, and why it's such a big deal that a new game came out.  Especially when that new game manages to not only improve on the old game in just about every way, but also capture the true open world spirit of what made RPGs so great in the first place, while telling your adventurer's entire story in a beautiful, immersive, first person perspective.

On top of all this massive stuff the game already does, Bethesda, in true Elder Scrolls tradition, is releasing the Construction Set Tools.  This is much more then a game "level editor", it's the full editor used to place and script everything in the entire game short of the first person game engine and rendering.  Every town, NPC, and quest you encounter in the game has been built using this editor.  Once the editor is released, a robust mod "plugin system" will allow players to download any quests, items, or engine modifications they want and activate or deactivate them as they wish.  Literally, this takes the concept of "Do what you want in the game world" to a new level of "Do what you want TO the game world, and then whatever you wish inside it".

The gist of it is that the PC players will be able to make their own unique "flavor" of Skyrim, by either downloading mods others made and mixing them into their own recipies for a Skyrim's universe, or simply cracking open the editor and making their own mods if they got a new idea for a gameplay quest or change that doesn't exist in the community yet.  As an example of just how powerful this concept is, I'd like to point out that Morrowind: Elder Scrolls III, a game that came out over 10 years ago, is still going strong and thanks to the modding community still keeps having new lands, quests, items, and gameplay overhauls to explore and play with.  Oblivion (Elder Scrolls IV) is no different, and I'd expect the same will happen with Skyrim.  In short, this game will never end so long as someone out there is still writing up quests or creating new dungeons or areas of land to expand it's already massive universe.

Ah, but every game has it's flaws, and sadly, Skyrim is not void of them.

First of all, the interface on the PC version is basically the same as the console version, and as such, doesn't flow nearly as well as it should.  A couple of interface mods exist that can fix this issue, but I haven't had the time to try them out myself yet.

One other major flaw is the AI, for all it's intellect at living in towns, these AI do some pretty stupid stuff in actual combat.  I've literally had battles where the AI will spend their whole health bar running up and down a rock trying to get to the ledge I had jumped to, and they were carrying a bow with a quiver full of arrows to shoot me with.  Sometimes it puts up a good fight, other times you wonder why they all ran into the same trap one by one like lemmings.

Given the size and scope of the game, as well as the many different terrains the AI has to deal with(and all without much guidance since there arn't any AI battle scripts going on), this is an understandable flaw, but it still breaks the flow of realism every once in a while.  Still, this has been a problem in every single Elder Scrolls game, and every single one is still very worthy of a playthrough regardless.  It should also be noted that there have been several mods for Oblivion that improved the AI combat logic a bit by letting them have more varied tactical choices.  I'd assume the same will probably happen with Skyrim once people get a good grasp of it's construction set.

I could go on and on, but I hope you begin to grasp that while Skyrim isn't for kids, it's awesome, and every adult RPGer with lots of free time should give it at least a chance.  I for one look forward to many more hours spent in the world of Skyrim over the next 2-5 years, until Bethesda manages to cook up the next one.  This is a company that not only makes and understands what makes Open World RPGs so good, they also work so very hard on keeping the lore and world accurate, consistent, and most importantly, alive.  They truly have crafted a very detailed world of their own, and then invited players to live out their own adventures within it.  This is what all Single Player open world RPGs should strive to be.

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