Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim – 10 levels in

I’ve been playing Skyrim for a few hours now, have reached the somewhat arbitrary marker of ‘level 10’ and have plenty of opinion of this gaming behemoth that’s taking metacritic.com by storm with an average score of 96%.

PC install complete, ultra settings selected, play.

A pleasingly short Bethesda logo and I’m at the start screen. I start. Loading times are quick and then I’m in. My eyes excitedly waiting for the screen to caress them. For an opening it’s pretty bland. I’m met by a few prisoners in a cart. Their graphical fidelity is only as good as I remember Oblivion being, which is BAD (and I’m not saying it’s the same as Oblivion, I’m not a retard. I’m just saying it’s how I REMEMBER Oblivion looking). Shadow tearing is abundant across the characters faces, there’s a noughties amount of bump mapping in use and I’m mainly unconvinced.

Things feel a bit like wading through porridge. It’s the same feeling you get when on an escort quest in WoW or at a key point for the AI in the original Operation Flashpoint. Immediately you can feel the engine creaking beneath your ‘fur wrap’ covered feet. People seem to float about like in Fallout or Oblivion or Fable. The bubble is close to bursting.

Some ‘stuff’ happens that I won’t spoil and then you’re out on your own, holding a sword and wondering what the fuck to do. ‘Great!’ you might think, and I normally would in a sandbox environment except this isn’t a sandbox. There isn’t anything you can do except float across the terrain looking for someone to give you a fetch or deliver quest.

There doesn’t seem to be any tutorial element in Skyrim which surprised me as it left me not knowing I had the power to cast fire from my hands for the first hour. Under ‘system’ in the pause menu there is a ‘help’ option which is quite detailed but it’s hidden in the wrong place for sure.

Graphically the world is at times beautiful, the night auroras and excellent use of HDR being particularly noteworthy. At other times you will find yourself trudging across a landscape rife with popups and only average Level Of Detail control. It’s a shame to stand at the top of a vista and be able to see the polygonal downsizing of distant lakes. I’m sure that’s not how LOD is supposed to work.

The problem for me so far is that this pretty thing Bethesda have made is big, not clever. They have emphasised finding ways to get more and more people to interact with you and give you quests but if the quests are boring then more and random is not a great idea.

I just keep thinking of the tight gameplay of Zelda, especially in light of the latest incarnation, Skyward Sword. Everything means something in a Zelda game. Everything is worth searching for and finding. In Skyrim however, at least thus far, nothing is worth having yet there’s 100x more of that worthlessness to explore.

Of particular frustration is the sneaking elements, the success of which seem entirely down to chance and, to be honest, lady luck has not once smiled on me.
Sure, I appreciate I need to level up my sneaking but the game just misses the trick of all sneaking predecessors before it. Metal Gear, Thief, Splinter Cell… it’s like the developers never played them.

Here’s an idea. Let’s kill a guard and put on their clothes. That way I can blend in for a bit at least… oh, no. The game doesn’t understand that.

Let’s kill a stable owner and steal a horse without anyone knowing. Oh, no. The stable owner telepathically related his searing pain to the city guards 1 mile up the hill and I’m under arrest before I’m on my steed.

The game does do well to make you feel in control when dual wielding. The bumper buttons are satisfying to press as you blast lightning from one hand and swing wildly with a dagger from the other. Actual contact feedback from a sword swing is much less impressive though. It feels like you’re swinging through honey and when you hit them the enemies generally refuse to acknowledge it until their health is at 0.

A major controller frustration is its poor use of button real estate. Instead of a weapon/spell rotation button Bethesda have opted for a ‘favourites’ list. In principle it makes sense when the game has so many items to choose from but it is mapped to my top and bottom D-Pad buttons simultaneously and the right and left buttons are left unmapped. Much better would have been to map your 4 favourite magic schools to each button and a button press to rotate through them. Pausing the game to select a barrier spell to protect against a fireball for 3 seconds… it’s never going to happen for me.

The layout is further frustrated by a split pause and items screen. Both could have been wrapped into one and indeed would make more sense to do so, providing a more fluid access to quests and their locations. As it is, one button provides a map with quest markers and a back pedal and secondary button give you the quest information.

The quests themselves are frustrating to track and it is probably down to Bethesda’s efforts to minimise screen clutter with a tidy UI but the compass in particular is inadequate and would most certainly benefit from Warcraft’s new numbered questing system. Am I trudging across 10 miles of tundra to give someone a hat or is it because I need to save a village from a dragon attack? Shrug.

I have fought 3 dragons so far and, at least currently, the game engine seems to have been designed without aerial combat in mind. All 3 fights were a frustration and my AI companions did most of the work in bringing the dragon down from the sky.

Fights and the world at large are further diminished by a lack of any cinematic elements. Whilst this might well be seen as a good thing (look at Half-life 2) it lets the player down here. There’s no true sense of awe or power; things feel big but not grandiose. This is something that is conversely so brilliantly affected in the fantastic TV and cinema trailers for Skyrim.

Essentially, thus far at least, Skyrim feels like a big, beautiful, boring game. Where other games are smaller so as to give meaning to their contents Skyrim seems to do away with that for anyone but the hardcore RPG fan.

At level 10 Skyrim is full of elements that snap you out of the world Bethesda has created leaving you thinking that cardinal of RPG thoughts – ‘this is just a game’. Hopefully by level 20 it will be ‘Is this just a game?’ but I have my reservations *equips Fur Wraps*.

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