I’ve now been playing Skyrim for almost a week. I’ve put about forty hours in so far and I’m still loving it. The world and story are some of the most immersive I’ve seen in an Elder Scrolls game to date, and if you’ve ever played an Elder Scrolls game before you’ll know that’s high praise. This is a series that is known for its incredible scope and even more incredible ability to immerse you in a rich world. Skyrim takes that to a whole new level. While in some areas there are only subtle refinements to the formula, they are often in critical areas where their effect is profound. For example, in Oblivion there were many scripted events in which a character or other subject of a quest would just happen across your path relatively independently of the path you took. However, there were definitely cases where you could be searching for quite some time to just run into a certain event. It could pull you out of the immersion as you were forced to either start a thorough search, turn to the guide book, or simply give up on the quest until a later time. So far in Skyrim I’ve never felt like I didn’t know where to go. The answers and story weren’t spoon fed by any means, rather the answers and targets occur after just the right amount of searching. It’s a very pleasing way to interact with a semi-scripted set of events. You never feel out of control of the action, but equally you don’t feel herded like cattle down a narrow corridor. The ability to kill just about any NPC makes the whole system feel incredibly fluid. There is very little requirement to complete all the but fewest of main story quests to advance and if you want to play a character with a tendency to randomly kill or annoy quest NPCs for no reason then you absolutely have that opportunity. The balance change from Oblivion is subtle but it has a vast overall effect on the flow of the game.
Another set of changes that stand out to me are in the combat system. While it’s still nowhere as slick as many first-person action games, there is much less sword flailing than there used to be. The encounters feel much tighter and there is a lot more opportunity for employing spacial tactics such as using doors to funnel enemies together or leveraging an altitude advantage such as standing at the top of a stairwell or ledge. Battles can often go one way or the other based upon a few key advantages or disadvantages, and as a result you are never left feeling overpowered by an enemy; there is often a tactical option to swing the tide of battle in your favor. There are definitely moments where I have felt my own character is unrealistically overpowered, but who really complains about killing a few foes with a single swing? It’s just epic feeling. Archery has also been improved subtly; especially with regards to sneak attacks. Enemies in Oblivion had an uncanny knack for knowing exactly where your first arrow was fired from. You’d hit them once and more often than not they would turn and start charging right towards you, even if you’d attempted to snipe them from cover. This time around it is not unreasonable to pick off a few unsuspecting foes by finding a good ledge from which to rain down fire.
The skill system has been reworked a little, ultimately being more clear than Oblivion. Unfortunately the changes are significant enough that long-time players may be a little disoriented by the new setup. The only criticism here is the difficulty encountered when navigating between nodes in the new skill trees. The nodes are set up as stars in constellations that represent certain skills. Moving between them is a random affair at best and it can be frustrating to accurately select the item you want.
There are some noticeable glitches, both graphically and with the gameplay. I’ve had to load a previous game a couple of times to get past some particularly bad problems. In one case everything I came near would instantly die, like a long-range Midas touch of instant doom. Ordinarily in a game like Halo this would be no problem, however in Skyrim that means you’re also nuking all of the friendly NPCs, quest-givers, and merchants. Not to mention that being a walking avatar of doom loses its appeal fairly quickly. After all, you want to swing that new shiny sword of killing +1 and do the deed yourself from time to time. The other glitch I’ve encountered is with some enemies being able to attack through walls. They aren’t always bounds checked properly and I’ve been hit by a few spells and arrows that somehow emerged through a layer of solid rock without being able to return the favor. Fortunately, in both cases the problem cleared up by loading a recent save game.
On the note of saving, do it often. Get used to saving like you were working on an old 386 in a location where the power might go out at any moment. While the autosave feature does a fairly decent job of saving your character here and there, I have run into a couple of occasions where I lost about an hour’s worth of play due to not having recent save files to call upon; something that is particularly irritating when you are loading to fix a glitch rather than as a result of your own foolhardy actions.
I get the sense that I’m about 20% through the game so far. I’m approaching a level of map and location visibility, a level of power, and a decent enough stock of equipment to feel about a fifth of the way done. I’m basing this on no particular metric other than a familiarity with other titles in the series and the approximate size and length of those games. It’s also inline with the Bethesda prediction of about 300 hours of game time. I’ve zipped through some of the early stuff quickly, and the endgame always takes a little longer. I tend to play by completing everything pretty fully. I do all of the side quests in taverns, and definitely stop for scenic detours along the way. I’ll dump loot in the houses I buy and sometimes even arrange books on bookshelves or items on tables. I’m certainly not a streamlined player but make up for the detours by ploughing through dungeons at a fair pace.
In terms of game activities, I’d say I’m seeing the following breakdown:
60% questing – Completing objectives, exploring dungeons, making progress
15% maintaining – Selling items, crafting potions, weapons, and armor, sorting through bags
25% role playing – There is an immense amount to see. Sometimes you have to stop and take it all in.
For an open-ended role-playing game that’s a pretty good balance in my opinion. Just enough action to keep you moving, and just enough maintenance to make crafting and bartering fun without feeling arduous.
I’ll update more once I get a bit further in.