Monday, 28 November 2011

Review: Skyrim

Review: Skyrim

This is a bit delayed because of an unfortunate issue, namely that the PS3 version reportedly suffers game-breaking lag beyond a certain point. I went for a broad and shallow approach (I have a number of characters with varying play-styles but no one high levelled character) so can’t definitively confirm or deny this. I was going to wait until I had such a character before writing this, but decided it’d be simpler to just give a score with and without the bug (on the basis that it may be patched or not universal, and that it may not apply across platforms).

At the time of playing I’ve played with characters of most races, completed or gotten very far along multiple quest lines (a few guilds and the main quest) and clocked probably 45-50 hours, maybe more.

Character Creation

Much improved on Oblivion, although the humans (Redguard excepted) do all look pretty similar. The scars and war paint options are nice, and the weight slider is very welcome.

The beast races are the best done and most improved, I feel. The Argonians can have a range of skin colours, but also benefit the most from the options to change various face colours (neck, chin, lower cheek etc). Khajiit also look fantastic, and the only race I might have a slight downer on would probably be the Dunmer, who really were beaten with the ugly stick a little too hard.

In the First Impressions post I said character creation was mostly cosmetic, and whilst that’s partly true I underestimated the importance of different skill levels. This is disproportionately important from one skill to another (for example, increasing the skill level with one-handed weapons is a piece of cake, but something like smithcraft takes more time and effort).


My biggest problem with Oblivion was the awful levelling system, which made it quite easy to become progressively weaker the higher your level. Skyrim resolved this by axing attributes (Strength, Willpower etc) altogether, and instead make levelling contingent upon increasing skills.

At each level gained you increase Health/Magic/Stamina by 10 points and get a perk (eg increasing the damage done with a one-handed weapon, cutting the cost of Destruction spells etc).

This system is simple, very similar to Fallout and, thankfully, works very well. There are many perks that are either good or great and few fillers. In addition, there are often extra branches to the perk tree (each one takes the form of a constellation, with each perk a star) so if you’re a two-handed weapon sort of chap who only ever uses warhammers you can specifically increase the damage that warhammers do.

Many perks require a given skill level, which makes sense. Skills can be increased through use, reading a skill book (tip: these typically have a value of 50-70 and usually have a hint in the title as to what they improve) or getting training.

The system works very well, I’m pleased to say.

Gameplay (particularly balance of play-styles and combat)

I took a broad and shallow approach to testing this out, so I’ve got half a dozen or so characters, mostly low level, with two at 20+. My higher level characters were a pure warrior (Asgerd Njalsdottir) and a stealthy archer with some warrior skills (Shadowfang).

The pure warrior worked pretty well, but the game was easier (arguably too easy) with Shadowfang. He was able to kill people from a distance, often with a single shot, then kill the other foes who came to investigate what had happened. The use of certain warrior skills (smithing, one-handed and block) also meant he was pretty good in a toe-to-toe fight. I am glad, however, that the archery skill has been slightly beefed up and remains useful throughout, unlike in Oblivion where it became a bit rubbish at later levels. Also, you cannot run backwards (only walk), constantly firing arrows. A strong archer will be able to kill or halve the health of a feeble or average opponent with one arrow, but stronger enemies will be able to close the gap.

I did try a pure magic character, whom I fitted with stereotypical gear (ie enchanted clothes rather than armour). This was the trickiest of all options, as the damage potential was high (both in terms of receiving and delivering). I think the magic skills would work best with a hybrid character. There’s also a big leap between Novice and Apprentice level magic, as I discovered when some vile bugger put an icicle through my character’s head.

On the whole, combat is quite easy, but there will be times when you realise quite suddenly you’re out of your depth. I was climbing a mountain with Asgerd when a certain enemy appeared and kicked her arse. I tried a few more times but it was too tough so I left to level a bit, then came back and introduced its face to her sword.

The crafting skills are pretty damned good, especially smithing. This can seriously improve your gear and you can make your own. Firewood can be acquired with use of a chopping block and woodcutter’s axe, ore by mining with a pickaxe and smiths generally have a range of ore and ingots for sale.

Locks are perhaps a little too easy to pick, but the mini-game (basically the same as Fallout 3) is much more enjoyable than that of Oblivion.

Dragon shouts are excellent. I haven’t found too many, but a few, and most are either ones that are often useful or at least make sense (so, not many fillers here either). Some dragon battles are a bit easy (being a Nord gives a 50% frost resistance, so against a frost dragon this is rather handy) but others, particularly named dragons, can be more challenging.

The World

The world is fantastic. It’s massive (it does feel larger, to me, than Oblivion) and the changing landscape adds to the sense of scale. The mountains are often enormous and the game has a number of different climates (snowier in the north and east, forests in other areas, mountains, tundra etc). It is darker in both tone and colour than Oblivion, which fits well, although can make the world a shade gloomier.

Dialogue is improved upon, with people speaking whilst doing things (sharpening a sword on a grindstone, say) and the world continues to move around you. It’s also very similar to Fallout 3, with options that sometimes appear including Intimidate, Bribe, Persuade and Brawl (a bare knuckle fight that doesn’t give you a bounty).

Most of my characters are law-abiding, but Shadowfang’s a murderous bastard and so occasionally got a bounty. It’s rather immersion-breaking to slaughter someone in broad daylight, get caught and then get asked to, er, pay the fine. If you choose to go to jail then you lose the progress you’ve made towards improving one or more skills but the skill level does not decline.

There seem to be more varied points of interest on the map than before. There are often lumber mills, farms, caverns, mines, watchtowers, crypts and Dwemer ruins. On the whole, dungeons tend to be larger and more distinctive than in Oblivion. There are some puzzles, which tend not to be too hard.

There are 9 cities, 5 of which are major and walled and 4 of which are minor. You can buy houses in the major cities, although this does involve jumping through hoops (some of which are not at all obvious), which is more tedious than engaging. The cities themselves are reasonably large and there’s plenty of opportunity for heroic questing/villainous theft.

I’ve not joined every faction, but have done at least a few missions for most of them. The main quest is better than Oblivion’s, and the other factions I’ve joined have had interesting questlines, although the Dark Brother (so far anyway) isn’t quite as brilliant as it was in Oblivion. The civil war’s particularly interesting, as it’s possible to see both sides of the conflict as reasonable.

Exploration is, perhaps obviously, enjoyable, but also more difficult than in Oblivion. Occasionally you’ll come across a creature that will just slaughter you (my first sabre cat took me to pieces) and traversing mountains is more difficult. You can sometimes go up steep slopes but often there are sheer rock cliffs that cannot be climbed. I haven’t come across any “You cannot go any further” messages, as I think the boundaries are marked with mountain ranges, which fits well with the province and is more natural than a message telling you to stop. An exception’s probably made for the far north, but I haven’t tried swimming to the North Pole to find out.

There are many occasions when you either must have or can choose to have a companion (generally I went without) which can be a great help. You can give your companion(s) superior equipment so they last better in the fights, or load them up like a donkey to free up your own inventory.


Generally improved from the last instalment, and the faces and water effects are the biggest changes for the better. Dragons look damned good, except for the rare occasions when they talk to you (and I mean talk, not shout) when their size means their snout is practically thrust into your face and all you can see is the end of their snout, which looks a bit rubbish.

Dogs and other creatures also look good, and inventory includes not only every item but also graphical representations of every magic spell and power (a power is either an innate passive advantage a race has, or an activated once-a-day ability, or something of either type that has been acquired through questing, or a temporary bonus).

The draw distance is better than Oblivion. (Draw distance means how far you can see more detailed versions of things like mountains and trees, and see smaller things like grass and little plants at all). However, sometimes I did see rather long-distance crude tree shapes when I should’ve been close enough for the better version. This wasn’t much of an issue for me, though. Looking around at soaring peaks, winding rivers and varied landscapes was excellent throughout.

The spells look a lot nicer, both single-hand and double-handed, and the effects upon enemies, such as burning, is a bit better. Third person is a lot better, but I think the game’s better in the first person (horses, weirdly, can only be ridden in third person).

A word on armour: it’s a lot more varied than in Oblivion, often with multiple varieties of a single material such as steel or leather. It also looks better and some (I can’t say without significant spoilers, alas) looks bloody fantastic.


I liked Oblivion’s soundtrack, but didn’t love it. However, Skyrim’s is absolutely fantastic, featuring the best game music I’ve heard for a long time. Everyone knows the main theme, which is great and sounds even better when fighting a dragon in-game, but there are also a number of other tracks that add to the experience when doing everyday things like climbing mountains or exploring caves.

Voice-acting is improved upon and there are, thankfully, many more voice actors. Most of them do a good job, and the proper Nordic accents add a lot to the atmosphere, (only for it to be destroyed by a character with a blatant and strong American accent… oh well). There are few duff characters, though, and having played through the early bits a few times I’ve decided the wizard in Whiterun is one of them.

Sound effects are a little better, although this isn’t an area where great improvement can be made.

Bugs and other issues

First of all, bugs and the like I personally encountered:

Freezes –

Infrequent, as I only have four in total to date. Annoying but not game-breaking.

Lag –

Not a reference to the super-lag mentioned above, but your standard slowing. Happens now and then, more so at higher levels or at certain points (the entrance to Whiterun being a prime example). Irksome, not too bad.

Mini-menu lag –

Occasionally it takes a second or two for menus (including the favourites mini-menu) to respond. Happens reasonably often, and it’s a bit tedious.

Arrow of Doom! –

When Shadowfang first acquired some great armour I’d sometimes flit into third person. It was then I noticed he had a bloody arrow sticking out of his head. Dropping arrows didn’t remove it, but thanks to Juhmel on the official Bethesda forum I found the answer: put all your arrows on a corpse and then retrieve what you want. The arrow disappears.

I have not, as yet, experienced the game-breaking lag bug. Apparently it kicks in around when you have save files of 8 or 9MB, and mine are 7.5MB or so. This would be a pretty horrendous bug.


Skyrim is an epic and engaging game featuring a wide range of potential playing styles in terms of combat, morality and race, all of which is backed by a fantastic soundtrack. There are occasional letdowns when it comes to voice-acting, but it’s a league better than Oblivion.

However, the game is a victim of the 11/11/11 release date, and if it’s the case that game-breaking lag begins at around 8MB saves (which I’d guess is level 25 to 30) then that’s a huge problem as it cuts down enormously on the scope of a playthrough.

Based on my own experience, I’d give it 9/10 (would’ve been 9.5 but for the freeze bug and other small issues).

If the game-breaking lag comes in I’d slash that to 6/10. [Reason for not being lower is that it still gives 30 odd hours or more per character. It’s not any higher because the cut-off means you can never have a really high level character or experience the top end armours, dungeons and so forth].

There’s a second patch out shortly, so maybe that’ll address the super-lag. If not, it’s a terrible shame.


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