Wednesday, 17 December 2014

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (PC) - Part 2

Click the highlighted text if you'd rather be reading part one.


skyrim journal screenshot
Alright, my next quest requires me to head into the heart of Bleak Falls Barrow to retrieve a Dragonstone. Hey, I recognise that name! Bleak Falls Barrow is that ruin I saw up on the mountain after escaping the dragon ravaged town earlier, I remember Hadvar pointing it out to me.

This journal seems straightforward enough, with a list of quests on the left, and the info for each on the right. I'd definitely take it over Morrowind's chronologically organised quest diary, which desperately needed a contents page. On the other hand, I can see why a clearly presented checklist of goals would put some people off, especially when selecting one adds one of these little quest markers to your compass:
Who needs to pay any attention to directions or work out a location from clues when you've got one of these things pointing you straight towards your destination, right? Actually if you don't want to see these you can just deactivate the quest in the journal and they'll leave you alone, the real problem is that the game doesn't give you enough information to get by without them half the time. In Morrowind you can actually ask people for directions, but in this it's assumed that you'll just follow the mighty omniscient quest marker.

Personally, I'm fine with it. I've spent enough time in enough games trying to hunt down the one bloke or cupboard or tiny little ring to complete a quest that I can appreciate a marker that gets me in the right location.

I mean look at this. As long as RPGs keep pulling this shit, I'm going to have to consider quest arrows to be a sane and reasonable feature. Plus NPCs tend to wander around in this and I don't want to have to search houses and towns looking for the one person I need to speak with to continue my latest very important quest.

Finding my way to Bleak Falls Barrow wasn't all that difficult though to be honest, seeing as it's the massive creepy ruin on the side of the nearest mountain. I've found some bandits camping up here too, which is weird as this is the last place you'd expect to find anyone carrying anything valuable... or anyone at all really.

I keep forgetting that I'm just as good at sneaking as I am as anything else. I didn't pick not to become a thief, I just haven't done anything all that sneaky to stretch my skills so far. I think this particular talent will soon be left behind though, as I'm into the more overt kinds of combat right now. Sneak attack damage multipliers are tempting, but I doubt that a crackling bolt of blinding electricity magic is going to count as being stealthy.

Oh that's me in the middle by the way, I'm using third person view here because... I can. The third person animations seem more natural than in Oblivion, and light is a factor in stealth, but the only major advantage to it as far as I'm concerned is that it's the only way I get to check that my feet are still attached. Otherwise the game definitely seems more comfortable in first person.

The dungeon contains a deadly puzzle, and it has already claimed one victim! In fact it's probably claimed thousands over the untold thousands of years this place has been abandoned, but yet there are still darts left in the mechanism to be fired at people and it hasn't jammed up. I have to give the ancient Nords credit, that's some quality engineering.

Their puzzles on the other hand, well they're a bit crap. At first I tried spinning those three symbols lined up on the left wall until they matched the three symbols above the door... and that turned out to be the correct solution, because what else was it going to be? In fact, I bet I run into some smarter bandits in the hallways after this, because the only way to screw this puzzle up is to do what this guy did and just run up to the lever without checking the room first.

Well that explains what happened to the people who solved the puzzle. No really, one of them is still alive back there, all webbed up and yelling at me to run over and rescue him.

Unfortunately my regenerating magicka (blue bar on the bottom left) only regenerates so fast, so I can't keep shooting a jet of flame from my palm like this for long, and I ain't going to waste any potions for this stranger's sake. I know, I'll run right up to the giant spider and smack it with a mace, it's the last thing it'd expect! Mostly because I'm pretty much unarmoured with this mage robe on and what I'm planning is really dumb.


ONE DEAD SPIDER AND A FEW ROOMFULS OF ZOMBIES LATER.


See that spiky wall trap behind the zombie, along the wall in the middle? The bandit I just cut free of the web didn't. That'll teach him to run away from me with the key to the final chamber.

Man, these Viking zombies were a whole lot more interesting to me before I learned that their weapons weigh a ton and are practically worthless. Every time I loot a chest or kill a group of enemies I end up over-encumbered, so I have to scan through my inventory and do a quick sale price/weight calculation on each of my items in my head, so that I can dump the crap ones. You know what would be cool? A precalculated price/weight stat listed next to the weapon name, and maybe even some way to sort the list!

Fortunately I believe there are mods that add this feature. Which I'm not going to use.

skyrim level up screen
Oh hang on, this is new, I've ended up in a space battle from Babylon 5. Wait, this is actually the level up screen at last! Actually I've probably collected enough XP to level up a few times over by this point, I just didn't pay any attention to it until now.

The old attributes from the earlier games have been dumped entirely, along with the major/minor skill crap, so now I don't have to worry about training the right skills to get the correct stat bonuses each level. In Morrowind I got out a notepad to work it out, in Oblivion I skipped levelling up entirely, but in this I simply have to pick from 'Magicka', 'Health' or 'Stamina'...

Skyrim one-handed skill tree menu
... and then choose what perk I want to unlock. Yep, Bethesda went and took a term from the Fallout series to put in their fantasy game. Actually they probably took the font too now that I think about it. Each skill has an associated skill tree, with a lot of the perks simply being stat increases. Like I could put a point into the Destruction magic tree and half the magicka cost of novice spells, or put a point into the One-Handed tree to boost my damage by 20%. In fact I think I'll do that.

The thing is, unlocking the later perks requires levelling up the associated skill, and the only way to do that is to use it or hire a trainer. So levelling up my mace will be as simple as getting out there and playing the game, but unlocking higher level perks in the non-combat skills is likely going to take a fair bit of grinding.

Skyrim golden claw puzzle
There it is, the locked door I need the bandit's key to open, and it's got another 'match the shapes' puzzle on it! This time I'm reading the solution from the back of the key by spinning it around in the inventory, but it's the same deal. Man if this doesn't open up to reveal the lost city of Atlantis I'm going to be really disappointed.

Actually all I really want to see behind this door is that Dragonstone, so I can grab it and get out of here. I've got swords to sell.

Man, I hope that giant stone wall thing isn't the Dragonstone, or else that's going to be a bastard to carry out with me.

Actually it turned out to be a wall of words, and when I walked up to it one of them glowed and burned itself inside my character's soul. Or something. I haven't gotten any new powers out of it (yet), so I'll worry about what that means later.

On the plus side I also found the actual Dragonstone tablet (which turned out to be much more portable), and a Draugr Overlord who has risen from its long slumber to attack the trespasser who dared to activate his wall.

Should've stayed in bed mate.

There was a bit of a fight before this, with me hiding behind stuff and zapping him through the gaps, but when I ran up with my axe to finish him, the attack ended with cinematic death scene straight out of Fallout 3. Which was nice. Yeah it kind of breaks immersion to cut away from first person view, but it's not like I wasn't doing that already, and the scenes only seem to trigger on the rare occasions that I pull off a critical hit, so I've been conditioned to desire them.

Right, I've collected a stone tablet, a bit of loot and a glowing word, so I think I'm pretty much done with Bleak Falls Barrow; I can slip out of the back door that all these dungeons invariably have, pass through the gift shop, and then go somewhere with less zombies. I just have to get this Dragonstone back to Farengar and then I'll be free to get on with my own life. Maybe I'll join the Mages Guild, or the Mages College, or whatever they have here in Skyrim.


BUT THEN.

 
They sent me back out to fight a dragon! I mean I didn't have to, but it sounded urgent so I figured that I should get it out of the way first.

My plan is to hide up here and shoot lightning at it from a distance, because anyone getting close to the thing ends up like that archer down there on the right. Of course he's a bloody dragon and he can get from down there to up here in a heartbeat if he chooses to, so I need to be ready to duck behind a wall if he comes for me. I can't remember ever seeing a game boss as mobile as this thing, as he can get distracted and fly off to attack a goat half a mile away, only to swoop back and strafe me with firebreath out of nowhere.

I don't know if I'd call this fight epic, except this theme is playing (youtube link), so it pretty much is.


LATER.


As a reward for my impressive dragonslaying I've been made a Thane and I've been given a housecarl! Which is ironic because I don't even have a house yet.

A housecarl is basically a cross between a bodyguard and a pack mule apparently, as Lydia here has been 'sworn to carry my burdens', which she has to let me know every single time I access her inventory to dump some of my excess gear on her. And she sounds just that little bit more weary and annoyed every time I do it. Okay Lydia I get it, you don't want to carry a half-ton of dragon bones with you! But I haven't got a box of my own to store them in yet, and I don't feel comfortable putting my valuables in someone else's cupboard, even though I'm reasonably sure they'd be safe there.

Alright then, time to earn some coin to buy a house. And a horse.

But first I need to visit the Greybeards, who live halfway up the tallest mountain in the known world. 7000 steps it took to get here, though I pretty much skipped them and spent most of the trip jumping up rocks trying to find a shortcut.

Who even builds a fortress like this halfway up a mountain anyway? I know the Nords are naturally resistant to cold weather, but it must be really bloody cold up here. It doesn't even have much of a view because of all the mist.


SOME TRIALS AND ANOTHER ZOMBIE-FILLED DUNGEON LATER.


The Greybeards seemed like nice enough blokes, but they'd like me to take a final trial to prove I'm the true Dovahkiin, so now I'm back in another dungeon fighting more zombies to retrieve the Horn of Jurgen Windcaller. A Dovahkiin (or Dragonborn) is someone born with the soul of a dragon, and there hasn't been one around since the death of the last emperor due to the... incident in the last game a few hundred years back, so I'm pretty much the prophesied warrior of destiny for this land. Big shock. A Dragonborn has the power to take a souls of dead dragons and use them to unlock those glowing words I've been finding on walls to get shout powers. So 1 wall + 1 dragon = new super power.

So for hundreds of years the Dragonborns have been the rulers of all Tamriel, and yet here I am stuck in another stinking cave rekilling corpses and collecting antiques... I really need to aim higher. Still the horn's just over there, so I'm pretty much done with this place.

Well that didn't work out exactly how I imagined. Turns out that the Dragonborn trial I need to complete to prove I'm the one true Dragonborn... has already been completed by someone else. They were kind enough to leave me a note though!

And there's that word again: "urgently". In Morrowind the game encouraged me to take breaks from the main quest to build up my character and get to know the world, but in this everyone's so keen on me getting things done as soon as possible. Well I ain't gonna any more! I've got a checklist of distractions to see to first, plus a house to buy. I haven't even decided whether I'm going to side with the Imperial Legion or the Stormcloaks yet in that important civil war the game spent a four minute cart ride setting up.

When I first heard that the fifth Elder Scrolls game was going to be set in Skyrim, my first thought was that the entire country would look like Solstheim from the Morrowind expansion, with plenty of snow but not a great deal of variation, but fortunately it didn't turn out that way. It's much more of a stock fantasy world than Morrowind's imaginative and weird Dark Elf homeland, but it's a pretty one.

The game map is roughly the same size as Oblivion's but it feels bigger to me because of how it's separated into visually distinct regions. All this mist helps too, as it means I can't see as much at once. Morrowind likely had the smallest world of any of the main Elder Scrolls games, but it seems huge because you really can't see a great deal of it with the draw distance right up in your face.

I can go visit anywhere in Skyrim I feel like as well, because the enemies scale with my level. Everywhere I go, there's wolves and bandits, and they're all crap.

Oh shit, I was wrong! I was wrong about the enemies and fate has just thown a snowy sabre cat into my face to punish me for my arrogance. It's mostly wolves and bandits out here, but if I start exploring then every now and again I'll run into something a little out of my weight class.

As a magic user that means I'll be seeing a lot of this favourites menu on the right, which pauses the game and shows all the items, spells and weapons I've tagged in a convenient list. Well, it'd be more convenient if they'd bothered sorting it or splitting things into categories. I stick flames into my hands by hitting both triggers, close the menu, burn up whatever magicka I can spare, then open up the favourites again to equip healing and stick a bit of red back into my health bar before it's empty. And so on. I'm actually starting to miss Elder Scrolls Online's more interesting palette of combat skills, but then I've only got the most basic novice level spells right now.

Oh by the way, I should mention that I'm using an Xbox 360 controller and there's a good reason for that. The reason is that I'm sick of fighting the game. If you start it up with a controller plugged in you can't even use mouse and keys until you unplug it or finish the intro sequence. Plus once I got into the game, things like the 'drop item' key and 'favourite' key icons didn't change to match my remapping, so it became a mystery what it wanted me to press. Fine, whatever, I'll use the bloody controller if it'll make Bethesda happy. There's nothing actually wrong with playing with a pad, it's just not how I would've preferred to play.

Oh damn, there are dragons swooping around in the wild now as well?

Fortunately this one seems more focused on fighting a giant, so I can hang back for a while and then finish off the wounded victor. Seems a bit harsh on the giant maybe, but I walked a little too close to one of those guys earlier and he ran over and launched me into the sky with a single smack of his club, so fuck 'em! Well, at least they're not cliff racers. Nothing in this game has been a cliff racer.

Come along Lydia, we've got dragon bones to harvest. I'll need something ridiculous like 90 or 100 smithing skill to be able to craft a set of armour with them, but there's nothing to stop a mage in this from wearing full heavy plate and then enchanting it with something ridiculous if that's what they want. I'll just have to keep killing wolves, collecting pelts, and crafting leather pants until I get the skills.


LATER.


The city of Solitude at last, capital of Skyrim! Looks like a pretty happy place with its wide open streets and flags everywhere. There's an execution going on just over to my right related to Ulfric Stormcloak murdering their High King, but other than that folks here seem reasonably friendly and cheerful. I miss how crowded the shopping centres were back in Elder Scrolls Online though.

This is also the HQ of the Imperial Legion, as Skyrim has been a proud member of the Empire from the very beginning, seeing as it was a Nord warrior who founded the thing in the first place. A lot of folks in this country actually support the Empire and would rather not declare independence.

Meanwhile on the other side of Skyrim, there's Windhelm, ruled by Jarl Ulfric Stormcloak, leader of the rebels. It's a miserable city with grim looking architecture and narrow streets. Also the first people I came across here were being openly racist to an elf, so that didn't really endear me to the place either. It's not quite good versus evil here, but there is a difference between how the two sides are presented.

Right, so if I want to get involved in this war, I'll have to choose between fighting for the noble Imperials ruled by TV sci-fi legends Colonel Tigh and Commander Susan Ivanova (or their voice actors anyway), or the pissed off nationalistic Stormcloaks who feel betrayed by the compromises the Empire has made in order to keep the peace with their neighbours. The game has actually been painting both sides fairly sympathetically so far, with the psuedo-Roman faction being much more loveable than the one in Fallout: New Vegas (attempted execution-without-trial aside), and the rebels fighting for the freedom to worship their god, but it's a complex situation so I think I'm going to have to go see Ulfric personally and have a word with him. Actually, I'll let him have three:

FUS RO DAH!

Oh dear, I just accidentally sneezed all over Ulfric's dinner with my most powerful Dragonborn dragon shout, and sent the dinner all over Ulfric. Well, I say accidentally... it actually took about 20 attempts to get this screenshot looking right. And yet somehow, it never got old. Yeah, sorry Jarl Ulfric, but your shortsighted war of independence is only going to leave your nation distracted, isolated and open to a proper invasion by the Thalmor elves, so I must instead side with the Empire (and later hopefully declare myself emperor).


LATER.


Shit, I'm randomly fighting off two dragons now? Plus I've got a bloody enchanter or something called Krosis chasing me down the mountain with his rocket launcher staff. This... is so much better than any of the fights I got into in Morrowind or Oblivion, and I'll take dragons over those tedious Oblivion gates any day. Now then, where's a good fireproof rock I can hide behind?

Man, Lydia's not going to like it when I hand her two new piles of dragon bones to carry across Skyrim. I do like my walks in the forest, but sometimes I'd really appreciate owning a Jeep with a decent sized boot. What was I doing anyway? I'm sure I used to have goals and dreams at some point, before I got caught up in someone else's quest chain. Oh that's right, I'm meant to be saving up cash to buy a house and a horse and get myself a storage box I can call my own.


EVENTUALLY.


So this is what 5000 gold gets you in Whiterun: a money pit, with skylights. I'm sure it'll look better after I've thrown a few more coins into it, but really all I wanted was the box and a bed (for the 8 hour 'rested' bonus to levelling), so I'm happy enough. Annoyingly though, boxes don't have their contents separated into categories, so all my alchemy ingredients are going to get mixed up with my smithing materials!

Anyway I haven't got cash to throw away on my home improvement right now, as I need those 1000 coins to buy myself a ride.

From the Sword Coast to the land of Ivalice, from Middle-Earth to Ferelden, it doesn't matter what fantasy world you travel, you will at some point eventually come across a horse. It might be made of fire, or ridden by a Norse god, but it'll be there. I guess fantasy writers are either incapable or unwilling to imagine a world they cannot gallop through.

Hey look, there's that Mages College I wanted to join! I could ride up there and do a few quests, get involved in a whole other set of disputes and incidents and... maybe I should just turn the game off now and write something to end this while I still can.

First though I'm going to drop a basket over the Arch-Mage's head, steal all his soul gems and Fus Ro Dah his alchemy cupboard. Oh okay fine, I'm turning it off.


CONCLUSION

You know, for a game heralded by the chanting of 90 Vikings, Skyrim has been surprisingly laid back for the most part. There's a lot of walking involved; a lot of sorting through your inventory, manufacturing daggers, jumping up against rocks and working through dialogue options too. But I was fine with that, not every game has to be a rollercoaster, sometimes they can be a nice non-linear hike across a breathtaking landscape, around picturesque fantasy cities and through, uh... frequent dungeons. There are just so many things in this game to collect and investigate that I found I could keep myself busy even when I was bored of being bossed around by blokes with beards.

The game still has the clever NPC system from Oblivion that gives the population simulated lives, but they're about as interesting as characters as your average resident from The Sims. It's a big contrast from later BioWare RPGs for instance, where the characters and the things they come out with are half the appeal. I mean it was cool to walk into Whiterun for the first time and hear everyone chatting to each other for sure, but I soon learned that those lines are all they have, and familiarity turned to contempt. Sometimes a guard made a comment about something I'd done or a skill that I had and that was a pleasant change from hearing about the bloody knee injury that they all have, but otherwise it's like Groundhog Day inside those cities. Also people have this really annoying habit of sharing lines with other characters; I've gotten so sick of every weapons dealer in the realm saying "Hmm...blades, helmets, pretty much anything to suit your needs," in their own particular voice.

But really the game is about piloting a floating pair of hands that exist mainly to kill. Any quest I took or goal I set or journey I made at some point involved hitting something, and when I wasn't doing that, I was busy getting better gear for improved violence against the enhanced wolves and upgraded zombies I was spawning into the world by being better at violence. So it's fortunate that the combat system is thoroughly... adequate. It's a definite step up from Oblivion, a massive step up from Morrowind, and although it probably isn't going to impress a Dark Souls or Revengeance fan, I was satisfied with what I was given. More or less. So of course I must award Skyrim my highest possible award! It might not have the most interesting and alien world, but personally I think it scores high enough in the other departments to be the best of the series so far.

    

There you go, I finally wrote something about Skyrim for y'all! I'm now officially up to date when it comes to Elder Scrolls games... well aside from Redguard I suppose, and the N-Gage games. I'm not playing the N-Gage games. Anyway leave me a comment if you feel like it, I'm always happy to get feedback, doubly so if it's good feedback.

14 comments:

  1. I'm now officially up to date when it comes to Elder Scrolls games...

    Oh no, you arent! There is also Java namesake of Oblivion. >:)

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    1. I'll play that for the 100th anniversary of my Oblivion article.

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  2. > 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

    I agree, it's just like cheating an alphabet...oh, wait...

    > at least Bethesda are letting me define how her head will look as it rolls away from the executioner's axe

    Heh! Some other funny lines too. I enjoyed this.

    > I got out a notepad to work it out

    Notepad? Dude, please. I made a spreadsheet to half-automatically calculate my progress.

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  3. That next game is about exploring space as a lone wolf, isn't it?

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    1. I think I know what game you're referring to, and you're REALLY close.

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  4. After you finish the alphabet, how about a Nintendo themed special month or something like that?

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    1. That's not exactly what I've got in mind, but if things go according to my roughly sketched out plans you may not end up entirely disappointed.

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  5. Skyrim is Fallout 3 with dragons and elves

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  6. did you also grow up in the 90s with a steady diet of Sega and snes games?

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    1. Nah, I didn't really have a steady diet of any console games back then. My friend had a Mega Drive I'd see a couple of times a year, and my brother eventually got a Super Nintendo, so I'd sometimes play whatever he'd rented on that for 20 minutes or so, but other than that I didn't have much exposure. I did play a lot of split-screen N64 and PlayStation demo discs though!

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  7. 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.

    Skyrim has many, many flaws -- how it got so many accolades is beyond me -- but this is a major one; the central plot is dull as ditchwater.

    This main quest seems all kinds of urgent, I can't just ignore it to do whatever I feel like!

    I did the first time I played. I give them a lot of credit for that; the main quest may be dull but they don't force you to pursue it.

    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.

    And then there's this; it's hard to care about the already dull civil war plot when the sides are presented as they are. I'd guess that many people side with the Stormcloaks because they're freedom fighters -- or because they're Fake Vikings and Vikings are cool -- but I'm a little disturbed that those people overlook the fact that the Stormcloaks are also nasty racists.

    Cheering on the racists wrapped in norse imagery is all a little too close to neo-Nazi ideology for my liking. None of which is Bethesda's fault of course but it's still creepy.

    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.

    That's a bonus though. I despise equipment degradation in games. It's clear that any designer who implements such a feature has never had their car, washing machine, or boiler break down.

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    1. Bethesda did eventually get weapon degradation right with Fallout 3 though I thought. Being able to find a high-powered gun far beyond your level, and slowly fix it up to its full potential by feeding lesser weapons to it is such a great idea. It wouldn't have worked so well though if didn't fit the theme.

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    2. That's a decent approach. It's when your sword breaks or your armour gets rusty that it annoys me. I know some people have fun with crafting subsystems but I would rather go on an adventure, thanks.

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  8. I am still playing Skyrim but Morrowind is the best, still play that as well and someone on Did You Know via FB pointed out to me that High Hroather has 798 steps actually.

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