The Monster Series Returns
Within the genre of RPGs, it’s understood by fans that these games will normally take tens of hours to complete, with 30 as the approximate average and 60 for those that want to do a little more exploration, and then, for most, the apotheosis is 100 or so hours if you really want to see every damn thing the game offers. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim doubles that. Easily. This embarrassment of gaming riches, however, comes at a serious cost.
The Prisoner. Again.
As with every other Elder Scrolls game, the fifth installment begins with the player as a prisoner with no past and a huge world to explore. This time out, the game opens with the player on a wagon being carted to a public execution, which is interrupted by the return of the dragons to the world. Amidst the chaos, escape occurs, some basic tutorials are experienced, and then it’s off and running into a massive world with stories, adventures and wonder around almost every corner.
Graphically, Bethesda is using a heavily-rewritten Gamebryo engine—now dubbed Creation— and it shows many improvements, while still showing off its Gamebryo roots. There’s no doubt that that environments, lighting, and characters are all dramatically improved from Oblivion and Fallout 3. Characters in particular receive some much needed rhinoplasty to finally shed the “sculpted from gooey clay” look that has plagued Bethesda games for much of this generation. The real-time, dynamic lighting is noticeable, and the environments have a detail and complexity that makes it immediately apparent Bethesda is serious about stepping up their game in the looks department. Where the old Gamebryo peculiarities come into play are in the more physical aspects, such as animation and physics. Although the characters look better than previous Gamebryo rendered characters, they still move like them, and the physics of objects and people can get terribly confused, with spoons, pots—and even enemies frozen in ice— spinning off into the horizon at the touch of your boot, or just giants batting hapless victims into the stratosphere. There are also some drops in the frame rate, serious ones, but that will be addressed later in the review. Suffice to say the art direction, combined with the more robust engine has given the game a much needed face lift that—considering the scale—makes it extremely competitive with other open world games out there like Red Dead Redemption and Just Cause 2.
The audio is also generally an improvement. Musically the composer, series veteran Jeremy Soule, has gone deep into choral compositions, with a lot men shouting out in Draconic language to give players the sense that the Vikings are betting on their personal victory heavily. The arrangements themselves—orchestral, of course—come from good Germanic stock, with strong echoes of Wagner and Strauss in the composition. It’s exactly the kind of classical experience a fantasy game needs, with the male choir chanting during combat and more placid flutes playing during pastoral treks by the mountain and lakeside.
The voice work is generally of high calibre, but as expected, it’s hard to populate a world with what feels like hundreds of characters and not have them all start to sound suspiciously alike when you’re hiring a much smaller handful of voice actors. Occasionally the audio will hiccup with one voice actor saying something, only to be replaced by a completely different voice actor—for the same character—when you make a different dialog choice. These limitations aside, the actors do a good job with their performances so while the delivery is spot-on; it's the daunting prospect of filling a world with a legion of unique characters that make the mechanics flounder.
The sound effects, however, are pure pleasure. The sound designers have really picked up and ran away with the Viking chorus motif, using it to reinforce everything from the player’s own dragon shouts to using it as a warning that the player is near dragon related artifacts. The directional sound is intelligently used as well, with dragons flying overhead and breathing fire, the effect of which carries over to appropriate speakers. Directional audio is also absolutely vital for stealth characters who need to hear enemies before they see them, so as to better sneak past them. Between the clangs of sword on shield and the crisp hum of lightning being cast as an attack spell, sound effects are very well represented in the game and used dynamically. It’s not the slam bang, non-stop audio assault of something like Modern Warfare 3, but the game is punchy and bassy when it needs to be and restrained and melodic during the more quiet moments, handling both beautifully.
The Real Second Life
Bethesda games are massive. This is a given. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim takes this expectation and ratchets it up to daunting scales. Physically, the size of the game is similar in scope to Cyrodil from Oblivion, but the inclusion of mountains means Bethesda has the vertical real estate to throw far more into the mix than the more open plains of Cyrodil would allow. Having taken some lessons from the various open world games that have come and gone in the years since the launch of Oblivion, the amount of content available to players is truly staggering, evening intimidating. In addition to the expected main quest and the almost countless side-quests, there are mini-games like cooking, mining and even chopping wood for extra cash on the side. Players can now get married and the companions—depending on temperament—can go along for quests, or stay at home and run a business, even cooking meals and giving a skill bonus for sleeping next to them in the same bed. This is combined with the Radiant Artificial Intelligence system that has NPCs randomly creating new quests or changing conditions of existing ones to point players to new destination they may have never visited before. Quests are plentiful, and often quite substantial, with some nice turns of plot for many of the major side-quests, and some of the best writing the series has ever seen. It’s still not quite up to the level of characterization of a BioWare game, but the sprawling quests impart a real sense of just how comprehensive the world building is, which is where Bethesda has always held top marks in the industry. All of which is to say from a pure content perspective, this is already a cheapskate’s dream. If you’re the sort of person that wants a game to last as long as possible, then you are essentially paying for potentially months of MMO-scale play for only $60. That’s an insane amount of value for money.
But the increased scope of the game is something to be expected, as that’s the “bigger” portion of the equation. Where is it better? The answer is largely in the mechanics. In particular, the skill system has gotten a serious revamp that manages to feel streamlined without feeling dumbed down, despite the drastic reductions made. No longer are attributes governed by stats like dexterity, strength and intelligence, which in turn can affect various skills that can draw from one or more attribute pools. Instead there are only three stats – Magicka, Health and Stamina – with skills themselves being dependent only on Magicka and Stamina to determine the duration of certain actions. Skills are still advanced through usage, but it has been more intelligently implemented this time out, doing away with the laughable excesses such as running in a corner for hours in Morrowind while the player goes off to do something else, as the necessary skill is built up. It’s the infusion of the perks system from Fallout 3 that gives each skill its weight and advantage. Every skill has its own skill/XP requirement, the points of which are gained through using said skills. Each time a skill advances in rank – with a ceiling of 100 – that skill advancement adds to the overall experience point level of the player. When enough skills have advanced your overall level goes up, you can add 10 more points in your Magicka, Health or Stamina, and you get one perk point to spend. With a level cap of 50 this ensures that limitations as there are fare more than 50 perks to choose from when you consider that there are individuals skills for a broad range of crafting, magic, combat and thievery skills.
Combat itself has also gotten some tweaks to make it more in line with what players saw in Fallout 3. This is also true of the way the game scales its enemies. While the game still takes from Oblivion the concept that a sword that is true to its mark will always hit, the perks add in the RPG depth of bonuses to damage with various weapons, assorted secondary abilities such as slowing time when going into aiming mode for archers to better line up that perfect shot, and granting significant defensive bonuses for those willing to put perks into shields or armour skills. It manages to strike a balance between having the numbers of character stats still play a significant, determining factor in combat, while not ignoring the fact that a “dice roll” to determine whether a sword blow lands is a less than ideal way to manage an otherwise immersive RPG experience.
There are, however, some things that Bethesda could learn from other developers. Navigation across such a massive province is greatly helped by the use of the in-game map, but this map needs better functionality. As more and more locales and other points of interest are discovered, the typical player’s map by the end-game will be a confusing mass of dots and icons. Some kind of filter system—such as the one employed by the similarly over-populated Just Cause 2—would go a long way towards helping players find specific towns, dungeons or other areas they would like to explore that might not be marked out as part of a quest in their log. It’s a small thing, but considering how jam-packed the map is, the ability to sort through and view only cities, or dungeons, or temples, or a combination of these would go a long way towards spending less time muddling through the map. Another area that Bethesda badly needs to consider overhauling is quest log organization. For many players, there will be a rapid sense of being overwhelmed as the quests pile up, literally by the dozens. Right now, the only way to view quests is in the order they have been acquired, divided into “main/side” quests and “miscellaneous”, with completed quests removed and sorted elsewhere. Players need to be able to sort quests by some other form of categorization, such as “all quests available in the town of Whiterun,” for example, so that when they march off there to complete one quest, they don’t travel off to Riften on the far east part of the map, only to realize they have to return to Whiterun because they had three more quests that could have been completed there, easily missed because they were lingering at the bottom of a massive list, or sitting in the miscellaneous section that they forgot to check. These are minor but significant criticisms that Bethesda needs to think about since they throw a massive amount of information at players, but give few tools for them to properly organize it.
However, the one thing that plagues Skyrim, the one thing that is nearly unforgivable, is the presence of the same old Bethesda bugs.
I reviewed the PS3 version of the game, and Bethesda has had a notorious time of getting their games to run smoothly on the console. Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas both suffered from a bug directly tied into the user’s game save file. As the save file got bigger and more and more information was being stored, it had a gradual, inevitable effect on performance, resulting in choppy frame rates that got worse as the progress accumulated. By the end of Broken Steel on Fallout 3, my own copy was nearly unplayable, as it had degenerated into a slide show. Unfortunately, even with this newer engine, the same performance issues have appeared for a third time. The hitches in performance can be worked around by occasionally quitting out of the game and resetting your system, but the “grace period” for good performance gets smaller and smaller before needing a new reboot.
In addition to this surprising inability to nail this persistent bug, it has the effect of causing errors to creep into quests. As performance worsens, so does the game’s ability to accurately track what you do, leading to inventory errors where items that should be removed at quest completion remain in your inventory and can’t be stored, trophies not unlocking properly despite conditions being met, quests not starting up at all, because the game refuses to recognize the proper trigger has occurred, and quests not being complete because NPCs refuse to acknowledge that completion conditions have been met. Dragon corpses spawn consistently at the entrance to towns because the game refuses to acknowledge the corpse has been properly looted.
In other words, despite the fact that this is Bethesda’s third outing on this generation of consoles, the level of bugs, glitches and other errors that interfere with immersive gameplay are still out in full force. In five years, they’ve learned almost nothing about how to get a game to run smoothly on the PS3, though to their credit, this time the game didn’t freeze up the moment a friend came online and the system notified me of it.
This is made all the more painful by the fact that for every glitch that occurs with almost hourly regularity, there are moments of gaming that are breathtaking and make it worth the punishment. I have encountered moments in combat where the game simply refuses to let me swing a sword or cast a spell despite the fact that my weapons are at the ready, resulting in death. Thirty minutes later, I’m on the plains, hunting deer with a bow and watching one of the most beautiful virtual sunsets I’ve ever seen play across an imposing mountain range. It’s this juxtaposition of infuriating bugginess with inspired gaming moments that’s so characteristic of the Bethesda experience. Of course the other platforms also have their bugs; the PC has its random crashes to the desktop, and the Xbox 360 has its proper textures disabled if the game installed to the hard drive, but these bugs aren’t as consistently crippling to the experience as they are in the PS3. If I had played the game on another platform, my score would likely be significantly higher, but because my gameplay experience is on the PS3, I’m going to score it according to my personal experience.
In final analysis, this will eventually be the game of the year for many, especially RPG fans, but my own experience of it makes me hesitate. For a AAA game that has had the benefit of years of development time, the bugginess of the final product is unbelievably high. Doubtless there are patches in the works and then it may be the game it was destined to be, which, on the Xbox 360 and PC would likely be a 93 score from me, but not for my review of the PS3 version. If you have the choice, this is a worthy addition to your collection if you own either an Xbox 360 or a PC. If you only have a PS3, you, as a consumer, will simply have to accept that Bethesda does not like you very much, but is hoping for your money anyway on a product that is clearly far more broken than it is for other customers.