Monday, November 21, 2011

Skyrim Review, thoughts and rants.

Already, ten days has passed since Skyrim's release and people are either enjoying it fully while other are beginning to compare it with other games. At first with the previous 2 Elder Scrolls, namely Morrowind and Oblivion (I didn't play the first two) , I thought they were rich yet barren. If you compare Skyrim to old classics like Baldur's Gate, where you plan your party and your characters, go to the deepest dungeons, slay the big dragon and get epic loot, coupled with excellent storytelling, itemization and combat mechanics, Skyrim will automatically seem to pale in comparison. I can see where old school RPG players are coming from and what they yearn for. I am a huge fan of past Black Isle and Troika games and I am still waiting for an RPG that is like theirs

After like 3 iterations, Bethesda refuses to give proper itemization and interesting combat mechanics. You still left click 100 times to melee a monster to death. But people still love it. Recent games I personally enjoy like Witcher 2 got flushed into being a cult hit, sharing the same fate as previous Black Isle games. Yet games like Oblivion (which I personally dislike) are cheered by most gamers as a great RPG. Obviously amongst all the bad thing I found in Oblivion, Bethesda is doing something right which I did not notice and care much about back then because I believed that they were in the wrong.

So the question is, what are they doing right? Why do they choose to stick with mechanics I disagree with after every iteration? I have to stop comparing to the RPGs I know and essentially ask what are they trying to achieve. From the looks of it, Bethesda wants to create an immersive and realistic open world experience, to a certain extent because we know it is not fully possible, feasible and desirable. At the same time, they want to provide constant challenge for the players.

There are a few things below they implemented for this design I wish to discuss and examine. A quick recap and disclaimer though, I do not particularly like any of the mechanics they implemented, but just picking them out and see how is it possible that such mechanics appeal to their target audience, which I assume is just "as many people as possible".

'Blend' Combat Mechanics
In combat, you do not 'autoattack' or execute 'moves'. You simply slash/punch/cast spell. As boring as it sounds, it's actually quite close to what you do in real life. It is debatable whether this is a good or bad approach, but despite arguments, it is a strange undeniable fact that some people do enjoy left clicking 100 times repeatedly to kill a monster so long as he receives the proper feedback. Throughout the past 2 Elder Scrolls games, they did nothing but improve the feedback. Whether the feedback is enough is irrelevant in this discussion. The point is that it is an improvement. Skyrim makes it a little more logical with their new dual-wield mechanic.

This seems strange as it is the reverse of what game designers would want to do with their RPGs. Usually you would think "Let's have this mechanic where players can do combo A or do combo B and get different results!" Witcher 2 had some form of a combo system, Dragon Age was a hotkey-fest, Dark Souls have much focus in tactical maneuvering and usage of weapons. What if there are people who actually find all of them too difficult? Going through playtesting sessions for the games I make, it might not be far from the truth. Ultimately, clicking the left mouse button 100 times is not only logical to the common player, but also easy to adjust to. If you complain about your swings missing because the AI is moving around you, you obviously have not been in a fight.

Seriously, you either like this mechanic or you don't. It offers almost little to no depth, which may seemingly be a bad thing, but can be a good thing.

Enemy and item scaling according to player level has been something in Morrowind, Oblivion and now Skyrim. This part is really tricky. For one, it theoretically gives constant challenge to the players. However, it does break immersion or 'suspension of disbelief'. For example, I should be able to defeat the same named monster easier when I level up. To make matters worse, itemization scales with level as well. The designers are probably hoping that most players do not notice this scaling mechanic and only see the challenge before them. This has improved over the past Elder Scrolls though. It is no longer possible to make a level 1 character and kill trash mobs until the end of the main quest.

On the other hand, without scaling, it would mean that designers have to separate areas into level ranges, just like what most MMOs are doing now. This could run into the risk of players not visiting certain areas because its 'level is too low'. Also, if not done right, players will feel that the world is deliberately crafted and that his path is determined from the start. It's like how in Everquest where players who start in Freeport and just go from Freeport -> East Commons -> West Commons -> etc. In the example of WoW, players who start as an Orc just go from Valley of Trials -> whatever the troll village is called -> Razor Hill -> Barrens.

Somehow they must empower players the freedom to explore where-ever they want without making it too boring or too difficult AND at the same time ensure that certain monsters are a dangerous threat to the new player. They want to provide a world where players can explore, yet they want players to survive most encounters so that they don't feel frustrated. This really feels like some tug-of-war relationship between immersion and the need to provide constant challenge.

I have mixed reviews about Skyrim's execution of this mechanic. Some people said the game scales badly (as in they are getting killed at later levels), some say that the game is too easy (they just kill everything with or without min/maxing). Most of them are still playing Skyrim despite this, so I assume that it is working fine. For me, I haven't encountered any problems yet.

Pitiful Quests
Lack of carrots at the end of most trash quests demotivates many players from playing. Most of the quests do not promise good rewards for the effort you put into it. Is it really a problem? Is it okay to be asked to clear a fort of bandits for nothing more than 100gp and no further progression afterwards? For good measure, 100gp in Skyrim is worth as much as looting 2 or 3 of said bandits you slay. Not to mention that it is possible for you to just travel to the destination without triggering the quest and kill the bandits yourself if you need the gold.

But what if that was not the point of the quests? Essentially, going by their design of having an open world, the main point of quests is probably to gives you a reason to explore. Maybe it allows the players feel that they are doing favors for the NPCs, as opposed to mindlessly walking around to kill monsters. Most of us veteran players know better, but will others know? I myself feel cheated when I was awarded the 100gp, I mean seriously they could really give me more. Then we talk about 'pointless' quests that don't even ask you to explore OR reward you with anything. Maybe the design was to let players feel that the game is more alive? I don't see it, but is the problem with players like me?

The quests does not work out for me, but I can appreciate what they are trying to do. Amazingly, non-hardcore-RPG players I know are able to talk about "the lady who sells potions in Solitude whose daughter was missing in action". For those who don't know (spoilers), there's this alchemist lady in Solitude who simply ask you to talk to a certain person, and return to her once you get information out of him. The reward was non-existent and it is really pretty pointless as a quest, but somehow, people who explore the area remember.

Immersion + Numbers?
I mentioned immersion, but yet there are numbers. What gives? Well, there is a limit to how far you can push the idea of immersion into the game. The hard fact is that for some things, players need to know its exact details. It won't help much if I were to

You can see how they evolved from Morrowind to Skyrim. Morrowind was very detailed as they gave me actual base stats and derived stats to try to min/max. In Morrowind, I can see my Strength, Willpower, Intelligence, Agility, etc. Skyrim is almost totally opaque. The only numbers I see are my gold pieces, the amount of stuff I got, my HP, MP, SP, my weight limit, my skill points, armor rating and . That's about it really. You can tell that they are pushing towards that direction of game play, where players should not need to worry about anything more than what is directly affecting them.

Is this a good thing? I prefer my game transparent, but honestly with their design, I can see why they just choose to hide everything from the players. It is mainly because of this Skyrim feels so mainstream, I believe.

These points are some of the gripes I have about the game (I might add more), which I think makes the game successful. Having written the points down allows me to appreciate the game more than I did before when I was just bashing. Despite this however, I stand by my feelings that Oblivion isn't a good game (Morrowind is better) because there are other points about that game which I totally don't agree with. Skyrim, however, is a huge improvement, enough for me to accept it as a 'good enough RPG'.

I can see how Besthesda's game designers are constantly pulling off a balancing act with all those implementations. They are always pursuing a white/black color but constantly end up somewhere in the grey area.

Finally, I am going to quickly label what I like and hate about Skyrim thus far aside from its game design philosophy.

First with the likes:
- Level Design. Not fantastic, but at least every dungeon I walk into isn't some direct copy of another. At least there are books (yes, I read them, some of them are quite interesting) as a lazy way to fill me in about the dungeon. Some dungeons are actually interesting enough to leave me wondering about it (I think there was one with a forge and ingots of moonstone outside a tomb).
- Graphics. God, I love the harsh snowstorms.
- Performance. Remember when Oblivion was lagging like crazy because it is compiling shaders and scripts on runtime? Skyrim's performance is awesome. I only managed to crash it once by running other games behind and alt-tabbing Skyrim like crazy.
- Shouts. Seriously, I didn't see this coming. Although some are useless, they are quite interesting to have.
- Dragons done right. Last dragon I saw was Dragon Age which isn't really interesting to fight with given its predictable behavior and small arena. I think I saw my friend fight a dragon in Dark Souls which was quite impressive, but it is scripted in an area. Dragons in Skyrim can appear anywhere and they kind of manage to get its AI working for every area they are in (i.e. they have to dynamically allow the dragon to access its surroundings). There are rare bugs of course but I don't really expect them to get it perfectly right even with tons of testing .

And what I didn't like:
- Talents. Firstly, they are badly designed. Secondly, I think they do not fit the design philosophy of their game. They could execute it more elegantly by letting NPCs teach you certain talents, maybe make you get talents by doing something (block 100 hits to get 20% better a blocking perk!). They could do some Fallout 3 thing where they give you perks based on the random things you do (kill 100 rats = 25% better at killing rats). I strongly believe that will fit in much better than what they have now.
- Spellcrafting. It was there in Morrowind and Oblivions. Where has it gone? It was easily one of the more unforgettable mechanic they implemented. I suspect it's because of the new implementation of the dual-casting mechanic which could cause problems for the spellcrafting system.
- Horses. Goddamit just get it right already!
- Riding horses. Why is it not in first person?
- Interface. I suspect that they are catering more towards console. In fact, it is quite obvious. The mouse input is occasionally buggy.
- Ugly interface. It's just looks really primitive to the point I think that they are placeholder art.
- Fast Travel. I should really have a whole rant dedicated to this topic. I hate the concept of Fast Travel, especially in the game like Skyrim. The carriages that transport you to main cities are actually good enough and it works just like how subways work. I'll probably talk more of this another time.

I think Skyrim is a pretty good game and an improvement from its predecessors. It is great in its own way and I really shouldn't compare it with conventional RPGs. It is different. It is a game catered more for Explorers than Achievers, almost just like how there are people who like Minecraft and those who don't. I can see how Achievers can easily get bored with its content, but for Explorers, this game is a friggin' gold mine.

I will definitely keep playing the game with my 'Captain America' unarmed cat build. I'm honestly not that much of an "Explorer" type player (I actually prefer to 'explore' different builds and play-styles) but I would love to see this build being viable in the game at Master level. Once I reach near end-game, I will try to post a guide on my build =)

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