Initially I had no intention to pre-order Skyrim, the new Elder Scrolls game. Fact was, I hadn’t any money – I’d spent it all on a trip to see a close friend of mine in a far away city consisting of ring roads, horrible concrete buildings and lots of construction work.
Things didn’t go to plan.
I ended up on a train home the following day; shaken up, out of pocket (another 50 quid for the journey home), feeling both upset and angry (at myself and at my friend), and generally down-and-out. So, naturally, the first thing I did on coming home was to crack open a beer and order a computer game that would offer me hours and weeks and months of fresh escapism. The money? Who cares!
Truth was, I once had an unhealthy relationship with Morrowind… I’m not exactly proud of it (a relationship supported by awkward interfaces and a very slow running speed is hardly something someone can be proud of), but I think me and Morrowind made a pretty fine pair. I adored her ability to conjure up imaginary worlds, how experimental she was, and how she just didn’t care if you went around beating the hell out of everybody. She’d frown upon it – maybe give you a telling off – but otherwise she’d shrug her shoulders and let you do as you please.
Then her sister came along with a nicer interface, more polygons and finer pixels – and I found myself once again absorbed into the Elder Scrolls family. This love was short lived, however, and I the images that were so pronounced in Morrowind were absent from this more mainstream sister who preferred stereotypical fantasy role-play over creativity and experimentation. Didn’t stop me from indulging in a good few hundred hours of cave and grassy grove exploration, though…
It’s not surprising then that many of my friends have been asking for my take on Skyrim. Is it Oblivion? Is it Morrowind? Is it Fallout with bows and swords? I think it’s all three – but I can’t say for sure because, though I’ve been playing for a few days it feels like I’ve barely begun (seriously, when do you ever hear those words in a game review these days? I’ve only been playing for a few days, I’m sorry. Games these days are barely more than two days in length, max. Just goes to show what kind of a game Skyrim is eh?).
First things first: the music is very Morrowind. I can’t really pin down why it feels very Morrowind but it does and its glorious. Bethesda aren’t afraid to take it away either, and all to often you’ll enter a cave to be greeted with an eerie musical silence: just the ambient drips of water through a hole in the ceiling and the far away coughs of a haggard bandit on night-watch. Then when the arrows start flying the music picks itself up into this ‘orchestral blur’ flailing swords and clashing shields – as if the conductor himself were standing just off screen, improvising your very actions. It really is beautiful.
Interface is pretty – but still a drag. I’d be happy for something far more minimal than the blocky health and magic bars and the very modern fonts – but that’s just me being picky – what I can complain about, though, is the inventory system. It’s not abysmal like Morrowind was, but it’s pretty show-offish… all these rotating HD images are wonderful but it’s an inventory, it needs to be easily accessible and practical. As it currently stands, you have to trawl through a lot of side menus to get to what you want, and when you’ve equipped something you’ll have a lot of fun trying to find it again to un-equip it. The favourite system is also unfavourable (HA!) on the console, all to often find myself pausing the action to sort out what hands are using what and in real life that doesn’t tend to happen until the forth or fifth pint.
Environments are beautiful AND full of stuff to do/interact with – it’s not as original as Morrowind but at least its moved away from the copy-and-paste Oblivion cave entrances that, though very cool and whatnot at the time, were a far cry from the myriad of textures/entrances/environments found in the predecessor Morrowind. Nevertheless there are giants, and sabre-toothed cats, and dragons and more imaginative fantasy-esque creatures that keeps things more than entertaining outside of the cities, dungeons, caves, worship sites and all the other awesome places I’ve seen in my brief stint. You’ve also got puzzles within the caves themselves – and the trap systems have been made more complicated and harder to spot – it makes things pretty intense… I can tell you that.
Characters are far more fleshed out than they were before – but I haven’t (yet) met any that would win a BAFTA or globe for their performances. They move around more though which makes things feel more alive, but can be a real pain when you want to find someone and they’re not where they usually are. This doesn’t tend to be a major problem, but it can be irritating.
Not much has changed in terms of combat except the whole two-hands thing. It’s very useful and it makes sense but its not like Bioshock did it, right? Or Goldeneye on N64 with the double equipped pistols, right? It’s good that it’s there, but its still gimmicky and nothing amazing – though it is an improvement on the older games. Oh, and magic is far more fun than it ever used to be. Finally it actually feels like you could run through the whole game playing just as a mage, which was pretty difficult in Morrowind andOblivion. Now its smoother, its faster, and it’s far more effective and fits the two-hand gimmick like a glove (I’ll stop, I promise).
I was very concerned as to the way levelling would work in Skyrim. Oblivion (I felt) was spoilt by the enemies auto-levelling system, and it ruined the potential for tension in the game. I never really felt powerful, and though quite equally I can say that I never felt weak I didn’t feel like I had achieved much when I levelled up, or spent time in the stats screen. At the end of the day levelling up just meant bigger enemies and more powerful items, which didn’t seem all that powerful when you used them against the more powerful enemies. In fact, they felt a little redundant. In Morrowind we had none of that nannying nonsense – stumble into a Daedric shrine at level five and you’d be shredded to pieces within seconds, decide to start a punch up early on in the city and can’t pay the fine? You’re screwed, nothing else to say – Morrowind didn’t beat around the bush: it handed the world to you as it was and said nothing more about it. Maybe it would nudge you a little in certain directions in the beginning but it opened up pretty fast and you were forced to think on your feet. Levelling up and choosing your skills became increasingly important if you wanted to enter that cave full of skeletons just outside of the town walls, and when you stumbled out of that place holding onto all the silverware you could carry; bloodied and cursed and poisoned and diseased and limping you felt like you had damn well achieved something. It also rewarded exploration in a way Oblivion completely ignored – chests hidden in high places, or behind nooks, and in these chests you could find some amazing pieces of kit that could really help you out.
I have to say, as much as the absence of a spreadsheet skill system is a great step forward, I still feel like I want it there. In Skyrim we still have to choose what skills to improve and how, but the new system does away with the nostalgia of numbers and mathematics. It’s a shame to see it go, but the new system is pretty tight and gives a greater sense of reward when you level up. The maths are still there behind the scenes, but these figures are now expressed in actions – in perks. It makes it feel like you are working towards something. I can’t really say much about the enemies and levelling yet – although I’ve been mauled by several enemies already, which seems to suggest a more Morrowind-ian approach to enemy levelling, which I am so so so thankful for. Had it of been another echo of Oblivion, I might have avoided it altogether…
So far it’s a fantastic game, absolutely amazingly awesome.
Well worth the £40 I shouldn’t have spent on it.
PS: (also, the map is huge – I forgot to address that, and people have been asking how does it compare with Oblivion and Morrowind. My answer so far – bigger than Oblivion, not sure if its quite as big as Morrowind – but that might just be because travelling by foot in Morrowind was just so. damn. slow.)
Over and out.