Wednesday, 17 December 2014

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (PC) - Part 1

Today on Super Adventures I'm finally done with that awkward 22nd letter of the alphabet, and the last 'V' game I'll be taking a quick look at this year is... Elder Scrolls: V (also known to some as Skyrim).

Released in 2011, five years after Oblivion, Skyrim is the fifth of the main Elder Scrolls series, and the first to sound like it's a James Bond movie title. This theme music on the other hand sounds more like what you get when 90 people chant their own made up lyrics to the Elder Scrolls theme introduced in Morrowind... it's basically amazing. Here have a youtube link, may it make your day just that little bit more epic.

I sank a considerable number of hours into this game a considerable number of months ago, so I'm not coming into the game blind, but I can't remember any of it in any kind of detail. As always I'll be playing it utterly unmodded, like a fool, to give you the most authentic screenshots possible. I'm not really a fan of mods to be honest, as I don't like the idea of tweaking a game to suit my tastes. For me it's a bit too much like getting out the red pen and scribbling edits over the pages of a novel I'm not liking. Once I've tasted the power of godlike power of an author I can't immerse myself in the experience in the same way.

(Click to view images in an astoundingly modern 1280x720 resolution. Actually I've just upgraded my PC at bloody last, so this time I've thrown in a few at 1920x1080 for you to enjoy. That's 125% extra pixels, free!)

Skyrim dragon loading screen
The game doesn't have a model viewer, but it almost makes up for it with these loading screens. I get to twist this amazing stone sculpture of a dragon around and stare at its intricate normal mapped spikes while I wait. And wait. And wait.

Okay the game's finally loaded and... it turns out that I'm a prisoner, well that's a huge shock for an Elder Scrolls game. This time though I'm a prisoner of the intro sequence as well, as the game's decided to pull a COD: Modern Warfare and basically trap me in a car. There's four of us on this ride but my character refuses to speak and Ulfric Stormcloak over there has a gag over his mouth, so I have to put up with the other two chatting about how entirely fucked we all are.

Being captured (off screen) by the Imperial Legion for the crime of being in the wrong place at the wrong time is bad enough, but the Imperials have decided to drive their convoy through the dullest part of the nation of Skyrim: a road overlooking nothing but icy hills, where even the trees are grey. It's already miserable enough outside for me right now in real life and I'm freezing my ass off; I don't need to use my expensive new hardware to simulate this experience (I miss my old machine, this newfangled PC I've just built is too power efficient to work as a decent heater).

Skyrim is meant to be a game about exploration, freedom, a bit of conversation, and some spectacular landscapes, and the intro has none of this. To be fair the dialogue I'm being exposed to is filling in important backstory and introducing the main players with admirable efficiency, but the designers absent-mindedly forgot to throw in a hook and make me care first.


I've hit the character creation screen at last! My unfortunate hero is lining up to be killed for treason, but at least Bethesda are letting me define how her head will look as it rolls away from the executioner's axe. Well, up until this point there was always the slim chance that I might be playing as someone else, who really would get killed during the intro, but this interruption by the character creation screen has just removed any tension and doubt about their survival. So that four minute unskippable cart ride just got even more pointless.

When I scrolled down and saw all those sliders I was ready to shower praise on this face editor for all the options it has, but then I realised that half my choices here are just 'cheek colour', 'nose colour' etc. Also a lot of the sliders switch between a dozen or so presets, so you can flick between eye shapes and nose shapes, but there isn't much scope for fine tuning. On the plus side, I get to edit the hero's face in broad daylight for once, so I can actually see what I'm doing! Shame she won't keep her head still.

HD Textures (on a shiny new GeForce card)             |        Original Textures (on a well-loved old Radeon)
I said earlier that I hadn't installed any mods, but I did download the official High Resolution Texture Pack, which ended up pretty much doubling the size of my game's install folder. I can already see a difference though, as my character now has a much less blurry sack to wear and the faces have lost the strange golf-ball looking noses. The hair still looks a bit ass though.

skyrim oblivion argonian comparison
Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion                           |                              Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
All the normal races are present and correct by the way, but some look a whole lot more correct than they used to. Plus their heads are the right size for their bodies now, which is a step up from how they were in Oblivion. Also when you tweak one slider, the others damn well stay put this time. Personally I think I prefer how the models look like Elder Scrolls Online, especially the catlike Khajiit, but then that game's three years newer than this.

Weirdly once the face editing is over with, that's it for character creation. There's no attributes to adjust, no classes to pick, no skills to tag... I'm just led up to the nice bloke with the long axe and a bag over his face, and told to kneel down and lean over the basket full of head.


Skyrim Alduin says Zu'u Alduin, zok sahrot do naan ko Lein
Spoiler: I wasn't executed!

A timely intervention by a pissed-off dragon left the Imperial fort/village in flames and gave me a chance to make a break for it. But now I have to choose who to follow inside to safety: my rebel friend Ralof from the cart ride or Hadvar, the Imperial soldier who led me to be executed. It seems like a no-brainer really, but I know the Imperials from the other Elder Scrolls games, and even though this is set a few hundred years later and they're cosplaying as Romans these days, I'm still inclined to want to trust them.

Plus their leader is voiced by Michael Hogan of Battlestar Galactica and Fallout: New Vegas fame, and he's awesome. Also I couldn't help but notice that as men, women and children were running around in terror from a fire-breathing monster straight from the times of legend, it was the Imperials who were trying to get the civilians to safety, while the Stormcloak rebels were more concerned with protecting their own asses.

Sorry Ralof, but I'm sticking with Hadvar from now on.

Skyrim item menu
Alright, now that I'm indoors and Hadvar has cut my hands free, I'm able to get straight to the looting. Just like in Morrowind and Oblivion, I'm able to pick up and pocket basically every item in the room, no matter how useless or worthless they are to me, and I love that pointless freedom. It's also nice that when I see a weapon hanging off the wall, I can just grab the thing and use it; it's not just part of the scenery like it'd be in a BioWare game.

I expect that some are put off by Skyrim's default un-modded interface having a slightly more stripped back and sci-fi look to it than the traditional solid skeudomorphically-styled stone looking menus of a typical Western fantasy RPG, but I like it, so n'yah. Oblivion's awkward menu was made to look like a clipboard, so it's a step up from that for sure.

All the icons have been dropped this time around leaving only words, which would suit me just fine if they'd thrown in a couple of numbers to go with them. Sure I can view an individual item's stats by moving the cursor and selecting it, but the only thing I can see at a glance about my gear is a tiny triangle to let me know that something's better than either my bare hands or the sack I'm currently wearing. Oh also, it doesn't show the item condition stat anywhere you look... because you don't have to repair equipment any more! And thank fuck for that.

See I knew I chose the right side; my new friend Hadvar doesn't even want to fight these two Stormcloak soldiers we've ran into, he'd rather talk this out. Though this a tutorial fight to teach me how to swing a blade, so his efforts are doomed to fail.

Skyrim is a fully 3D real-time action RPG with a full range of motion for the single character I'm steering around, none of that Legend of Grimrock tile based movement or Paper Sorcerer turn based combat thing going on here. That means that this guy is going to run up and start hitting me now, and I have to either block his axe or get out of its way. Or I suppose I could just soak up the damage and hack away at him with my sword, that does sound more like something I'd do. I might even hold down the attack button for a bit and use up some stamina to pull off a power attack.

Like Oblivion there's no 'chance to hit' stat to worry about, so if I'm in range and facing an enemy, my attack is going to connect with them. Though my character's skill level still plays a role in how much hurt I inflict with each hit.

Hold up a second Hadvar, I haven't finished stripping all our victims yet. How will I know where I've visited already if I don't leave a trail of naked corpses behind wherever I go? It's their own fault by the way for not wearing anything under their expensive armour. There's only really four slots for clothing this time around: gloves, boots, hat, and everything else, so if you grab someone's chestplate you're getting their pants too, magically transformed to match your gender and measurements. 

I could grab a second weapon for my off hand, but I can't block while dual wielding so I'll likely leave them in my invisible inventory sack instead with the rest of the swag. And I can't dual wield the shields, sadly.

skyrim lockpicking screenshot
Oh thank fuck they've re-used the lockpicking system they put into Fallout 3! I really hated that tumbler minigame introduced in Oblivion. The trick here is to turn the lock slightly with the knife until the pick starts rattling. As soon as rattling starts I need to ease off and adjust the angle of the pick a little before turning the knife again, or else it'll break and I'll be back at the start again. This is a novice level lock though so there's a pretty wide arc for me to safely park my pick in to complete the lockpicking and collect me treasure.

Hey the dead bloke in the cell was a mage, and he was locked in there with his magic robes and a spell book still in his possession. Spell books can be read once to permanently memorise a spell and then they vanish, so that means that this poor prisoner spent his last few miserable days locked in a cage with just one book to read... and he never read it.

Hah, I knew that puddle on the ground looked flammable! Unfortunately it didn't occur to those Stormcloak archers standing in it right now; they'll be going up in flames themselves in a second, and then my buddy Hadvar will light up a second later as he runs over to hit them.

Turns out I actually knew this flamethrower spell from the start, along with an incredibly useful healing power, but they've taken away the dedicated casting button I had in Oblivion. I can stick a different spell in either hand in place of a weapon, or use the same magic in both hands for double the firepower, but I can't cast a spell without dedicating a least one of my attack buttons to it.


I'm finally out of the dragon-ravaged Imperial town and its myriad underground catacombs! Man, we must have travelled a fair distance through those dungeons and cave tunnels as the trees in this part of the world actually have some colour to them.

Now it makes more sense to me why they started me off somewhere entirely unremarkable; they apparently wanted to recreate that feeling of emerging from the sewers at the start of Oblivion, or Vault 101 in Fallout 3, and seeing the awesome landscape for the first time. Though I wish they hadn't.

Here's Oblivion for comparison if you're curious. It doesn't matter where you go in the game, if you turn around and look to the center of the map this is what you'll see.

I think the biggest difference that jumps out to me between the games is those mountains in the distance. Skyrim's mountains are much more interesting to look at, with mist drifting around their craggy peaks, but more importantly they're in the way. There's something on the other side of those hills, something obscured and mysterious, a place that I can discover. Oblivion's mountains on the other hand just mark the boundary of the map. The only things I'll find over there are impassable cliffs and invisible walls.

skyrim guardian stones screenshot
Hey we found something obscured and mysterious just down the road! They weren't too hard to find though to be honest, seeing as they were marked on that compass up there on the top of the screen. Hadvar told me earlier that it'd be probably be better if we split up, but I was curious to see where he'd go, so I followed him instead and he actually noticed me there and now he's commenting on the things like this that we find along the way.

These are the Guardian Stones, three of them anyway, and I can activate one at a time to give me a passive benefit to my character. They remind me of how I had to choose a birthsign in Morrowind and Oblivion to get similar bonuses, and that reminds me how I haven't had to choose a single stat or skill yet. I became a battlemage because I felt like using fire in my left hand and wielding a mace in the other, I've gotten better at wearing light armour because that's what I've chosen to wear... I'm making my character choices with the actions I take throughout the game rather than picking them from a list at the start, and that is a change I can 100% get behind.


A little further down the road I came across Hadvar's hometown of Riverwood (which by pure coincidence is also Ralof's home if you decide to go with him instead) and visited his family for supplies and a bit of info on what's going down in the country of Skyrim lately. I'm actually in the mood for a bit exposition now that I've been thoroughly dropped into events and there's been a bit of a hook to catch my interest. They really should've opened the game at the character creation screen in my opinion.

I have to shower some praise on the reworked conversation system though. It's exactly the same as the old one from Oblivion, except without the awkward zoom right into the face of the person I'm chatting with. Also the persuasion mini-game has gone! And I'm not having to pick from 'overly good' or 'absurdly evil' with every response! All lines are fully voiced by the way, and this time they seem to have gotten a few more actors so I'm not obviously speaking to the same seven people everywhere I go.

Alright, my conversations in town have blessed me with an actual real quest! I've been asked to go talk to the Jarl of Whiterun and maybe mention to him on behalf of Riverwood that a huge dragon is swooping around and obliterating towns in a literal firestorm. Also Hadvar wants me to go join the Imperial Legion, but one thing at a time. This main quest seems all kinds of urgent, I can't just ignore it to do whatever I feel like! Hadvar on the other hand decided he was happy to just hang around Riverwood for a bit, so now I'm on my own.

By the way, take a look at this new 3D map. It doesn't beat amazing paper map bundled in with Morrowind with all the secrets drawn on it, but it's a massive step up from Oblivion's tiny zoomed-in map window and it's appealing to look at too! If this was Oblivion I'd be able to fast travel to any major city from the start, but it's not, so I'll be walking all the way to Whiterun.

Elder Scrolls: Arena (MS-DOS)
Not that the game doesn't have fast travel. Even the first Elder Scrolls game, Arena, has fast travel, allowing you to jump across the world in the time it takes to show a short animation of a bloke on a horse. The difference between Skyrim and Arena though, is that Skyrim will only let me fast travel to places I've already set foot in.

Oh, plus there's another difference between the games worth bringing up. Arena looks like this:

Elder Scrolls: Arena (MS-DOS)
And Skyrim looks like this:

skyrim whiterun scenic screenshot
Why would you ever want to miss out on this view? Plus I'm sure I'll come across a lot of awesome things on my way down there, like... well, it's mostly been wolves so far to be honest, but any minute now I could stumble across a cave or a tomb or something! Probably more like windmills though by the look of that compass. Anyway, the point I'm making is that Skyrim is as much about going to places as it is about being at places.

I miss all the hopping though. In Morrowind I used to hop everywhere, building up my acrobatics stat to the point where I could leap over buildings. Bethesda took all that nonsense out in their later games though, presumably because people were enjoying it too much. Though they did at least give people the option to buy a horse to make up for it.


I'm in Whiterun! Seems like a nice place, I especially like the fact that it's full of shops for me to trade in these wolf pelts I've been collecting during my journey. Or maybe I could go over to the blacksmith on the right and use her tanning rack to turn them into leather. I'm sure whatever gear I craft with the stuff will turn out rubbish until I get a few levels in the skill, but I can't build the levels without turning out rubbish. Well, if I had the cash I could just ask her to teach me, but I ain't that wealthy.

skyrim local map whiterun screenshot
Awesome, the game's still got a proper local map too, even in dungeons and buildings. And it has the bloody shops marked on it, which is something I'm very grateful for after playing some of the earlier games. The game still has Oblivion's NPC system, so that everyone in town has a routine and their own house to sleep in at night, meaning lots of little keyholes for a thief to investigate.

I wouldn't dream of doing any of that though, as I'm an honest respectable adventurer. Plus I don't know anyone I can fence stuff to yet. In fact should probably race up the hill and go visit this Jarl I'm supposed to be meeting.

The Jarl seemed like a nice bloke, but his dragon specialist has a far more interesting looking office, so I'm screenshotting him instead.

Interesting looking, but also functional, as he's got an alchemy lab and an arcane enchantment bench behind him. I haven't gotten any potions ingredients or magical gear I feel like stripping apart in the name of research just yet, but the guy also runs a shop and I sure could use a few new spells. Annoyingly there doesn't seem to be an option to buy back items I've sold by accident so I have to quick save every time I use a shop, out of fear. On the plus side, the game has quick saves!

Will this Skyrim article ever end? Find out in part two!

Semi-Random Game Box