The best kittens, technology, and video games blog in the world.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Skyrim review

I finished playing Skyrim just a couple of days ago, and it deserves a proper review, not just a quickie of the type I usually write on my Google+. By the way, if you use Google+, feel free to follow me there to get all my brilliant ideas which were too long to fit 140 characters. Or on any other non-Facebook social network you can find me.

Anyway, Skyrim. I played Oblivion a few years back, and for all its flaws I really loved it. At least up to the point where I made myself 100% chameleon gear. Then the game got a bit boring, but I was 90% done anyway by then so it's not a big deal.

And I loved Skyrim even more than Oblivion, but before we get too enthusiastic about it...


The main theme of Skyrim is dragon stuff, and it's one massive spectacular miss.

Dragons are spectacularly weak if you have any kind of distance weapon - either a bow or a lightning bolt. They just fly around pointlessly, taking damage, and every time they actually hurt you they'll fly away to let your health regenerate - even without bothering with taking cover or using health potions.

By the end of the game I was able to kill weaker dragons with a single sneak shot from my Daedric Bow, and the tougher dragons just needed a few lighting bolts on top of that to convince them to die and let me eat their souls.

Even the final boss - who's some sort of a god and used to rule the entire world some time ago - is less threatening than an average bear. Stephen Colbert was right.

Now not only dragons are awfully weak - dragon shouts - your special spell-like ability which supposedly separates you from the common masses - is even weaker. Even highest level shouts are worthless compared with low level weapons or spells, and there's no way to upgrade them - the best you can do is somewhat lower cooldown period between shouts, but even with Amulet of Talos and Blessing of Talos that's still way too slow. Meanwhile 1-shot sneak-kill-nearly-anything bows and 0-mana top level fireballs are all within your reach on mid to higher levels.

Maybe some mods fix it. But I doubt it - dragon shouts look entirely unfixable because every player character has full access to them for quest reasons - so if they were made very strong you wouldn't have archers, and warriors, and mages, and thieves, and everything else you could be - you'd have just one dragon shouter character class instead. But they could be made at least somewhat less useless.

The entire dragon-related main quest is pretty mediocre compared with many far more awesome side quests. I think I cared far more about the Civil War, and just about any guild quests than about the dragon stuff.

Character Customization

This is modern equivalent of grown adults playing with dolls. You can even choose makeup for your character! Oh sorry, it's called "war paint", since we're playing a serious game, not a Japanese RPG.

So I just have two questions:

  • Why cannot I choose hair in blue or pink or another cute color
  • Why even bother if pretty much just about every single armor covers your character completely and you'll only see eyes, or not even that. I even did some questing without any helmets so I can see my character, but then since my helmet and cowl both had archery bonuses, it was prudent to put it back on once fighting started.

Both issues sound like something mods should be able to fix with ease.

Game Balance

Game balance in Elder Scrolls? Of course there is none. You can make totally broken character with infinity+1 swords etc. in many different ways. That's part of the charm of the series I suppose. If you want more balanced game look for mods.

The best build seems to be to max out enchanting, smithing, and some alchemy, since that's how you'll make infinity+1 gear for everything, but it's sort of balanced out by this kind of play being boring as hell.

Other than for the first 10 or so levels of game, there's never any reason to care about money, which is great, since looting and trading systems are just awful.

Bows are brutally murderous. You can sneak into a room and 1-shot sneak-murder 2-3 people before anybody even realized that you're there and you lose your 3x sneak bonus. Since 2-3 people is how many opponents a typical room has at most, it means with a bit of caution you can clear out entire dungeons without anybody getting into your melee range. Not that getting into melee range would hurt you - you can literally slow down time with your bow, outrun everyone even in your heaviest armor (for some reason everyone else is really slow, even without any perks etc. Skyrim has no Athleticism skill so it's puzzling), and only huge mobs of high level monsters can seriously hurt you.

Fighting magic is fairly weak. Fire magic is fairly decent, but even if you get casting cost down to 0 mana with some gear and get all the perks and Destruction up to 100, it's hard to match damage per second your bow does. Lightning magic is OK against dragons, but dragons are so awfully weak it doesn't really matter. Frost is just worthless since 2/3 of all enemies (including all Nords and all undead) are 50% or more frost resistant.

Melee builds are OK, sadly even the best armor can only reduce damage you take by 80%, so that's one thing which cannot be broken even by infinite+1 smithing and enchanting.

Sneaking and backstabbing (as opposed to sneaking and bow kills) is not a viable combat strategy, but it's fun as hell for assassinations.

There are also other unbalanced areas - lockpicking which happens with a minigame is super-simple from level one, but pickpocketing which happens by chance is extremely difficult until very late.

Anyway, the game is not particularly difficult so don't bother yourself with optimizing your build on default difficulty level.


Probably the worst aspect of Oblivion was its leveling system - there was a very complicated system for determining your level, so you were better off consulting Internet guides before even creating your characters to make sure the game won't be too unfair - and then all enemies automatically matched your level, making any kind of progress pointless, and progress in noncombat skills made the game literally more difficult. Oh and if your character had high level, all quest items (level-independent) were total crap compared with what you could find on just about any random bandit. Oblivion was pretty much unplayable without a mod to fix leveling system.

Skyrim largely fixes that, but not completely. You level in easy to understand way based on your skill progression. Enemies become somewhat better as you level, but not as ridiculously as in Oblivion, and their gear in particular doesn't improve that quickly.

With just a few exceptions (Ancient Shrouded Armor, Oghma Infinium, either version of Azura's Star), unique quest items are still worthless junk. A mod that would simply make them x2 better or so would improve the game greatly, without actually affecting balance all that much (yes, they're so bad).

Quests and Followers

Many of the questlines are totally awesome, and radiant quest system ensures you can fill the game with as much or as little random dungeon exploration and bandit killing as you want.

The main quest is relatively weak, but I'm sure if a mod could fix power level of dragons and dragon shouts, it would improve greatly.

One thing I particularly loved about Skyrim is the moral choice system - namely that you have a ton of moral choice but without anybody keeping any artificial score:

  • I started as a proper adventurer, who wouldn't even steal anything
  • Then I joined Thieves Guild, and my respect for other people's property waned somewhat
  • Then I joined Dark Brotherhood - and unlike in Oblivion you cannot do in by accident, it's a very much conscious choice to murder an at least more or less innocent person in cold blood. Then you get more murder contracts.
  • I thought that was about as low as I could get, then after some events in Markarth (I'll spare you the spoiler) I moved to freelance mass assassination sprees, mostly of town guards and Thalmor agents.
  • There was also a fun ending of Dark Brotherhood questline, which involved more and more morally dubious murders.
  • And then I got invited to join a cannibalistic ritual sacrifice to Daedric Prince Namira. How did I even get here?
  • In the end I sold my soul to just about every single Daedric Prince. I'm sure they'll figure some way to divide it once I die. (by the way hero of Oblivion became a Daedric Prince at the end of the expansion pack)
  • The only thing you cannot do is kill children, but there's a mod for that.

All of this is purely optional. You can play a morally upright character, defender of all that is holy, destroyer of Dark Brotherhood, and all Daedra worshipers etc. It's just much more fun to be bad.

The second most important questline after the main quest is the Civil War, where you can join the Empire, the Rebellion (there's also a second minor rebellion, with arguments shockingly similar to Ulfric's rebellion), or even manage to get them to agree to a truce. Of course the Rebels are a bunch of racist morons, just about every single one of them, and unless you're roleplaying a Nord fanatic I cannot think why anybody would not want to crush them for greater glory of the Empire. Ulfric is also obviously a Thalmor agent paid to destroy the Empire from within, and don't let lack of clear evidence in-game convince you otherwise.


In Oblivion you could have followers in some quests - they were mostly pain in the ass since they had constant level, but enemies leveled with you, and your followers could die very easily.

In Skyrim you have some of them too - but after you finish some quests you can ask an NPC to join you in your questing. They are all either unkillable (the quest ones) or harder to kill (your regular non-quest followers) - when their health drops below some level all enemies leave them to regenerate their health and go after you instead. They can still die especially if you throw fireballs all over the place.

As far as I can tell followers have whichever level they had when you first met them, so at first they're pretty decent, but as you level up (and the enemies with you) they get progressively worse. Their gear is pretty consistently awful though. Another thing for modders to fix.

You can also buy a horse, but between fast travel system, no ability to fight from the horse, and the fact your horse is not any faster than you are on foot they're pretty useless. The only horse worth getting is one you get in Dark Brotherhood questline - that's one murderous beast, it even killed a somewhat wounded dragon once.


You might be a bit curious why I'm reviewing Skyrim now since it was released so long ago, but I follow consistent rule of not playing new games ever.

A lot of games - including entire Elder Scroll series, Total War series, Witcher series etc. - consistently have gameplay-killing bugs in their first releases, and only a few months later these were patched to the point where you could comfortably play without thinking too much about the bugs.

Unfortunately even so long after the release, Skyrim is about as buggy as Oblivion - and I really should have installed some kind of unofficial patch mod. Many of the bugs are easily fixable with console and quick Internet search, but a few minor issues weren't, or at least I couldn't figure out how. Quick-save often, since crashes will happen.

Not technically bugs but everything related to looting, trading, encumbrance, and managing equipment is one huge pile of fail. It's a case of them trying to use interface meant for console controllers (where it simply has to suck by basic laws of physics) on PC which has keyboard and mouses, and could easily have an interface which doesn't suck. Once again, console are the cancer killing gaming.

Do yourself a favour, start console (~), then type player.modav CarryWeight 9000, so at least you won't have to deal with this mess all the time during dungeon exploring, only once in a while when you're trying to sell the stuff you looted.

Skyrim vs Oblivion

Other that things I mentioned, how does it compare with Oblivion?

There are still fewer mods - and these games really need to be played highly modded - but zero-mod Skyrim is much better than zero-mod Oblivion (which was pretty much unbearable due to leveling system).

Since I played Oblivion wikis got really awesome. These days every time you have a problem, or the game has bugs it's just a moment to alt-tab to a browser and find a solution.

They finally hired enough voice actors to make it not feel totally ridiculous. Dialogs make somewhat more sense, usually. Of course you get zero respect from guards and other NPCs even if you're hero of the Civil War, slayer of countless dragons, Archmage, Thane of all cities, wearing full Daedric Armor, and running the entire Skyrim from the shadows. I shouldn't complain too much because it just reminds me how awful it was in Oblivion at times.

One thing which got really worse is that other than a few special locations which look really lovely, Skyrim is all bleak, and gray/white, and snowy. It's worse than even modern shooters and their gray and brown color palettes. IIRC Oblivion had much more graphically diverse locations. Yes, special locations in Skyrim look different, but all the snow gets really tedious after a while.

Another thing which got a bit worse is moving around the map. There are far too many non-passable mountains in many places, the map doesn't indicate them in any way, and Clairvoyance spell broke in the middle of the game (damn bugs...) so it was extremely frustrating to get to some places the first time even when you had them on your map. The second time you'll be fast traveling of course.

I cannot compare it with Morrowind, since I still haven't figured out which mods I need to install for it, and every website claims something different.

Anyway, even with all its problems it's an easy 10/10, and I'm very rarely so enthusiastic about game, or anything else for that matter.

Ask ahead if you have any questions.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

If you’re new to elder scrolls like me, you should know this game is super easy to jump into without prior knowledge of the series. I was over at a co-workers house from Dish, I noticed it has limitless replay value because you can basically do what you want in it, also with a great great storyline. Good characters that people can relate to. It has a great combat system that lives up to their fame so I added it to my video game queue using Blockbuster@Home. Blockbuster is great for people like me who enjoy playing games, but don’t have the money to buy them.