Nov 24, 2011

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Review-in-Progress: Skyrim Impressions #2

Review-in-Progress: Skyrim Impressions #2

There’s so much to say about Skyrim, and I’m getting closer to my final verdict. For now you can Click here to check out the first “Skyrim Impressions” feature and read on to get my updated impressions.

UPDATE 2 [11:34 AM, November 24]

My adventures in Skyrim have been plentiful since my last update. I’ve been able to get a feel for a few different regions, and I’ve grown to appreciate how everything from coniferous forest to frozen mountainside can meld together with the right spacing and environmental design. Half of the fun of exploring Skyrim comes from just that: exploring. By treading new ground off the beaten path and daring to seek an answer to your burning questions about the game world, you’ll certainly find more than you bargained for. The best part? Almost all of that content is both fun and rewarding.

I touched on the changes to level scaling last week, but what I hadn’t realized at the time was just how well this idea complements the world and makes all of your gaming feel worthwhile. You may be able to fight your way through a fairly tough dungeon only to have your ass kicked by the undead boss waiting at the end. A sudden ambush of Hagravens (banshee hags with a penchant for explosive fire magic) might spell doom for you as you traverse a steep mountainside on your way to a hunter’s lookout. Are these moments frustrating? Sure, for an instant. You might have to reload a save, give it a few more tries, or flee from the fight altogether. You’ll feel defeated, cheated even, by your inability to survive or thwart your foe.

But then, a few moments later, you’ll start to reflect back on the experience. You’ll think about where you went wrong, what advantages they had over you, and what you can do to improve. You’ll head to town to stock up on supplies, search the wilderness for vital poison ingredients, or study with mages to find that perfect enchantment you desperately needed. You will learn from your mistakes, but the thought of “the one that got away” or “the only one I couldn’t beat” will always be in the back of your mind. And finally, when you’re confident that you can best your opponent, you’ll return with all the tools and knowledge to finally defeat the enemy that previously bested you. Knowing that you’re not the strongest being in the world makes Skyrim feel immeasurably more realistic – and unpredictable – than the Imperial province of Oblivion.

As I raise my skills and gain a better understanding of the full range of magic and items available to you, I’m impressed by the gameplay balance that’s been struck throughout. Reducing the Magicka cost of Adept Restoration spells is a useful perk, but what if you’ve been itching to add a Fortify Magicka Regen enchantment to a ring you’re carrying? A perk that boosts all enchantment effects by 20% can help, and you may as well make use of the ring since none of your usual merchants have any bartering gold left for it. Still, you might want to get an axe that deals fire damage to deal with the Ice Wraiths you come across. Either you’ll have to find a fire-bearing axe as rare loot while adventuring, or forge it yourself, which requires high-quality materials, and forging with such metals as Dwarven or Ebony requires Perks in the Smithing tree.

All of these decisions need to be weighed against each other, but remember that focusing your efforts in any particular direction means you’re likely missing out on other cool bonuses that are just as useful and fun to experiment with. I give enormous credit to Bethesda for incentivizing every skill and every playstyle in this manner. Whether you want to play as a stealthy assassin, sword-brandishing battlemage, or death-dealing necromancer, systems are in place to both reward you and highlight what you’re missing out on. I’m having an absolute blast with my current character (who specializes in Destruction magic and One-Handed Weapons), but I can’t wait for the eventual day when I start a new journey as someone totally different. Everything I’ve seen and played in Skyrim tells me that the experience will be just as awesome.

On the technical side, things are looking up in some areas and down in others. The aesthetics of Skyrim continues to astound me, with the incredible architecture and design of Markarth and its subterranean Dwarven ruins taking the spotlight recently. Meanwhile, atmospheric sounds like birds chirping or wind howling complement an absolutely fantastic soundtrack by composer Jeremy Soule. A couple of the game’s tracks (especially those you’ll hear while exploring) feel eerily similar to songs from past Elder Scrolls titles, but that’s certainly not a bad thing. Overall, the music and the way it’s used to heighten emotion, add drama, or soothe the player when appropriate are far cries above the awkward silences and sudden breaks of Oblivion.

Much ado has been given to Bethesda’s inclusion of over 70 voice actors for Skyrim, and so far I’m satisfied by both the quality and variety of the voice work. It’s easy to tell after several hours that only a handful of actors cover the vast majority of guards, and I’d guess that there are 20-30 unique voices for your average NPC. The rest are divided up among prominent roles in the main story, faction quests, and Daedric Shrines. I don’t feel comfortable making a final call on the quality of dialogue and story-telling just yet, but a mix of genuine accents and a wide range of greetings rarely break the game’s illusion. Still, sometimes I wonder why every Jarl sounds like Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Now, how about that “down side” I mentioned? If you follow me on Twitter or have listened to Vivid Gamer’s Skyrim podcast, then you already know the console version (seemingly mostly PS3 owners) of Skyrim has been suffering from some very serious technical issues. Specifically, severe and constant framerate drops occur under certain conditions. Bethesda has yet to make an official statement, and the only consensus reached by the community is that the problems begin during long play sessions after your save file hits a certain size. My save file size is currently about 6.7 MB, having logged over 30 hours on my way to level 25. I haven’t experienced game-breaking framerate drops yet, but I’m paying very close attention to the situation as it develops on Bethesda’s official forums and elsewhere. A patch for all three platforms is currently undergoing certification by Sony and Microsoft, and Pete Hines (Vice President of PR and Marketing for Bethesda) has stated on Twitter that the PS3 patch will “improve long-term performance” when it hits sometime after Thanksgiving.

My advice? Hold off on your Skyrim purchase until after the patch goes live and the community has had time to play with the update. The framrate bug is only one of many bugs found throughout the game. People have been reporting numerous quest bugs on both consoles to go along with the occasional freezes. For those who are wondering, the PS3 version uses FSAA (full-scene anti-aliasing) and V-SYNC for a smoother and more consistent visual experience than is offered on Xbox 360, which features “clearer” details at the cost of jaggies. If you happen to own both systems, I’d recommend waiting to see how the situation unfolds after the first round of patching occurs. On the other hand, a well-equipped PC trounces both as the platform of choice.

Leave your comments and suggestions below, and let me know your burning questions and sincere hopes for the game. I’ll try to touch on them as I post over the next few weeks. Thanks for reading, and stay locked to Vivid Gamer for more on The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.