Monday, 16 April 2012

3 Notes on Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

It's been a good few months since Bethesda released the fifth entry in the consistently epic RPG series, Elder Scrolls. As with many games last year I found that on the release of Skyrim I had other things going on and didn't manage pick up a copy, despite being initially very excited. However, a couple of weeks ago I found myself standing before a reduced price copy in Tesco, basket in hand, considering the endeavour despite being halfway through several other games.

I forwent  the opportunity thinking to myself (in faux-rational terms) that I had other things to do, other games to play. Yet the next evening I found myself driving to Tesco again, this time with the sole purpose of buying the game. To my dismay it had sold out! But at this point nothing could stop me. And thus I began the rather depressing quest of finding a copy of Skyrim at eight in the evening. Basically I drove to the next Tesco (it was quite far away) and, finally acquiring a copy, ranted it home to start what I should have started long ago. 

Anyone interested in this game has either already played it to death or read extensive reviews and blogs about it. Suffice to say Skyrim is epic, remarkable, beautiful; yet buggy, with dodgy combat and a levelling system which personally doesn't feel deep enough (I still miss my sheet of numbers). So instead of a review  - or an 'impressions' article - here are three things I noticed/liked so far about the game.

[I should mention that these, despite what I just wrote, are actually just impressions of the game. I am only so far into the game and currently at level 22. Especially the final criticisms may only be due to not having fully explored the game - therefore an anticipatory apology is in order.]  

Bioshock? Is that you? Strangely one of the first things which struck me as I felled my first dragon and sucked up its precious soul was how much I was reminded of Bioshock and 2K's sequel. The idea that to become more powerful and gain greater powers you had to go through a series of stages was something I really liked about Bioshock and particularly Bioshock 2. In Bioshock 2 to get more powerful Plasmids (magic powers) you first had to acquire a Little Sister by killing a Big Daddy then get her to extract Adam from corpses which meant dealing with an onslaught of Splicers, and then, after all that, you had to battle the Big Sister - the hardest enemy in the game. This meant that  becoming more powerful was kind of dangerous and sometimes you had to weigh up the pros and cons of getting more Adam.

Skyrim kind of takes it back to the simple two-step process of Bioshock 1. First read a Shout off some wall, then slay a dragon (Big Daddy) to get the dragon soul (Little Sister/Adam) which activates the Shout (Plasmids). See it makes sense! And then once I'd figured this out I kept seeing other references. First of all the perspective. I mean where else have I run around with a weapon in one hand and a magic power (Plasmid) in the other? That's right! And what are those things scattered around the Dwarven ruins? Portals eerily reminiscent of the Little Sister tunnels...? Ok so this may be going too far. Anyway, whether true or not I submit that there is at least a residual presence of Bioshock in the land of Skyrim.

Race Relations. Western RPGs generally love the politics of race. This is no bad thing and is one of the many ways that games can be seen as relevant to society today. Skyrim appears to deal with this issue pretty well. The game's introduction makes it quite clear that the Imperials are brutish, colonial thugs and upon being attacked by them I immediately decided that I was going to join the Storm Cloaks and banish the evil forces of the Imperial from Skyrim forever!  But then I actually met some of the characters from the rebellion I became a little put off by their own brutishness and general racism. And then I visited(/drunkenly woke up in) the town of Markarth. Slowly finding out about the town's past I realised that these colonial whippersnappers known as the Imperial were only following in the bloody footsteps of the Nords themselves. My ideas of righteous rebellion and do-goodery became confused, and I was happy.

Fallout: New Vegas, as much as I loved it, only hinted at the possibility provided by the inclusion of factions. The NCR were hardly liked by the entire populous but the only real alternative was the pure evil of Caesar's Legion. Skyrim on the other hand seems to present a more realistic conundrum between choosing between the oppressors and the oppressed.

'J'zargo is ready for more adventure.' The best adventures are those with memorable characters. This isn't a fact but it is an opinion held, unfortunately in this instance, by me. For all Skyrim's majesty and general brilliance I personally feel like it so far lacks in the department of character. The last Elder Scrolls game Oblivion was as much a campy, comedic romp as it was an epic quest (in fact it was arguably more so - seeing as the epic quest thing was a bit boring). There were some very funny and memorable characters in Cyrodiil and with the addition of The Shivering Isles, Oblivion felt like a game with a really healthy sense of humour. Skyrim so far seems to lack that.

There have been a few things which suggest that there will be more fun to come. The first was the quest 'A Night to Remember' which was funny in premise but turned a little sour after I had to kill a few characters I really didn't want to. The second is the character of J'zargo found in the College of Winterhold. He's arrogant yet apparently inept at writing spells, and has some pretty funny lines. I really hope that exploring further will provide a few more funny characters to break up the seriousness and make Skyrim truly memorable.
Epic grandeur in Skyrim

All in all Skyrim has been a blast so far. The depth of the landscape is astonishing and constantly invites player exploration. However I am finding the stripped-back RPG elements a little annoying and the menus and general user interface - for all its slick appearance - can feel cumbersome at times and too sparse at others. Similarly, why can I no longer bargain with tradesman? Is it some kind of lost art which disappeared somewhere between the events of ESIV and V? (additionally, why can I easily find out how many kills I've made but not my character's stats?) Anyway, the scale of the game is hard to overstate and its certain that - not only due to its popularity - Skyrim will remain in gamers' memories for a long time. I'm looking forward to discovering much more that Skyrim's remarkable world has to offer!   

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