Sigh. I wanted to be caught up on Survivor by Thanksgiving. Really I did. But then Skyrim came out, and work got insanely busy, and…
Ah well. I guess I can just do a blog post about Skyrim instead, eh? What I’m going to do is give you my one line review of the game, and then spend a dozen or so paragraphs supporting it. Sound good? Here we go:
Skyrim is all the things that were good about Morrowind, plus all the things that were good about Oblivion, without most of the things that were bad about either.
Of course, to really understand what I mean by this, you have to know how I felt about Morrowind and Oblivion. So that’s what the meat of this post is going to be.
Morrowind is not the type of game I typically played, back in the day. I was never big into PC games… not that it would have mattered, considering nobody I knew had a PC that could run Morrowind when it was brand new. It got shoehorned into an Xbox release, though, and it just so happened that a buddy of mine had an Xbox. I don’t know why he had an Xbox, but he did, and we were all camped out over his place one weekend with not much to do but play games. So I got to watch him play some Morrowind.
What ended up happening was, he played for about eight hours and then went to bed. Then my other friend picked up the controller, and he played for eight hours, and then he went to bed. And then I picked up the controller and… well, the shifts just cycled like that for about four straight days. It’s miraculous this story doesn’t end with the Xbox combusting and burning the house down, but there you go.
Anyway, the level of freedom and immersion present in Morrowind was unlike anything I’d experienced in a console game before. If you saw a dude walking down the street, and you liked his hat, you could kill him and take his hat. You could put it on and wear it around, leading the town guards on a merry chase. If you went into a shop and paid $50 for some potions, well, it makes logical sense that the shopkeeper would be $50 richer now. You could steal that $50 back, if you were good.
What impressed me most was, things were where you’d expect them to be, with no consideration given to the player as focal point of the world. Take any JRPG, for example. Every town has a weapon shop, and is surrounded by monsters. Right? But it doesn’t make any logical sense that the weapons and monsters both just so happen to get stronger along a particular route. It’s nonsensical. It’s a concession made to the player, and nothing more. Are we to believe that heroes who get their start in the “late” kingdom are simply screwed, because they couldn’t possibly face the frost giants outside of town? Or that blacksmiths in the “early” kingdom are incompetant, because all they know how to make are wooden swords?
Morrowind wasn’t like that. Castles had vaults, and breaking into them meant accessing all the kinds of things you’d expect to find in castle vaults. Quests had rewards, but the reward matched the means of the person from whom you’d taken the quest, rather than some arbitrary expectation. If you saw a mill next to a river, it’s because that’s where someone might build a mill. Not because they needed a place to stick a save point.
My favorite example is levitation. There were lots of ways to levitate; you could read a scroll, cast a spell, drink a potion, enchant a ring. All of these would supply varying levels of speed and duration. What shocked me most, though, was there were areas in the game that required you to levitate! There’s no levitation tutorial, you understand. You don’t earn yourself some permanent ability that opens the game world for you. It’s not a double jump. You’d never, say, find a treasure box with a Float scroll sitting conveniently next to a gap you need to cross. Rather, the game simply expects that, if you play long enough, you will solve the problem on your own. I really liked that.
Tying it all together is one of the most interesting settings I’d ever seen in an RPG world. Vvardenfell is an ash-blasted wasteland, recently colonized by an Empire which has, by all rights, overestimated its ability to keep a lid on the indigenous population. It’s all very much high fantasy, but it’s an alien kind of high fantasy that stands out from the typical swords’n'sorcery fare. In this setting, you might wear armor made out of hardened insect carapace. Or travel out into the Ashlands to meet with an elven voodoo priest. Or stumble upon devil-worshippers in the middle of some fel ritual.
I was particularly taken by the raging debate about slavery. Owning slaves had been considered a god-given right by the dark elves of Morrowind for generations. When the Empire (who had outlawed slavery) came in and colonized the island, it was done peacefully only by making special allowances for the natives to keep their slaves. There is a very rich backstory here, involving wealthy slaveowners and an underground (but illegal) abolitionist movement. None of this is integral to the game, mind you; it’s not what the core story is about. There isn’t a quest line designed around it. You don’t take a moral stand on slavery and get different rewards depending on which side you picked. It’s just there to color the world, and there are lots of other things like it.
The downside of Morrowind, at least on the Xbox, was that the interface was absolute wrinkly horse scrotum. The only way to travel from one area to another is to memorize or notate the intricate web of stilt striders, mage’s guilds and ferries. (“Hmm, I think I can use this mage’s guild to teleport to Ald’ruhn, then strider over to Balmora and take a boat to Hla Oad. Er, or was the boat in Vivec? Wait, aren’t there two boats in Vivec?”) Compounding the problem is that your map isn’t annotated with important information. You’ll be given directions to the West Hills Cave along the lines of: “take the path until you see the big rock, then turn left into the woods and cross the stream.” Sometimes that was enough. Sometimes you couldn’t tell what the dude meant by “big rock”, and you’d end up circling a mountain for three hours searching for a cave entrance.
Worst of all, though, is there is just no convenient way to wield magic spells. Spells must be equipped before they can be cast, so switching spells means going through all the steps of switching equipment: open menu, flip to magic page, scroll down, pick spell, close menu, heal yourself, open menu, flip to magic page, scroll down, pick spell, close menu, throw a fireball. Swapping between two weapons is just as cumbersome, and so is using magical items. Is it any wonder I played a straight-up barbarian?
So a few years go by and Oblivion comes out. Right off the bat, Oblivion fixed a lot of the issues Morrowind had. By removing some bad skills and streamlining others, it became easier to identify what kind of character you wanted to play, and then play it effectively. The addition of fast travel and quest markers means a lot less time flailing hopelessly or slogging along forested paths. Best of all, the game was built with the Xbox 360 controller in mind; spells and equipment can be mapped to your d-pad, opening up lots of playstyles which would have been prohibitively annoying in Morrowind.
Oblivion stepped up its storytelling, too, in my opinion. Questlines in Morrowind were often just a series of static missions without much linking narrative; you run jobs for your guild until you’re out of jobs, at which point they make you the boss. In Oblivion each guild has a truly engrossing storyline running behind it. In Morrowind I was usually burning jobs because that’s what you do in that game. In Oblivion I was doing it because I legitimately wanted to see what happened next. I still have yet to see anything in this series that engages me the way the Gray Fox story arc did.
The main questline was no exception. Morrowind opens with you stepping off a boat, having an interview with some douchebag, and being given orders to meet with some other douchebag. It’s practically an open invitation to ignore the main story and go do whatever — which is exactly what I did. It wasn’t until seventy hours later that I realized I was getting bored with the game and should probably devote some time to finishing the story. This task, what with my daedric armor and ring of infinite health regeneration, took half of an afternoon. I don’t really remember what happened. I think I killed a volcano guy? And met a dwarf robot? Whatever.
Oblivion opens with you and the Emperor of Tamriel escaping the Imperial City thorugh the sewers, and with horrible reports of demon gates chewing the landscape apart. You still get to that moment of, “Okay, you’re on your own, go do whatever,” but because the opening was so strong the story had a sense of urgency that Morrowind lacked. Completing the main quest wasn’t some chore I had to get around to doing; it was one of the reasons to play the game. I did it at the thirty hour mark this time, and was well-rewarded with some truly great scenes.
Oblivion’s faults involved a broken leveling system and a boring setting. All the monsters and challenges in the game world scale to your experience level, and leveling up is a function of using your major skills. There are a lot of non-combat skills, too, and if you spend the first five or six hours of the game brewing potions and picking pockets you can really find yourself in trouble later when it comes time to pick up a sword. Someone who knows how the system works can game it to great effect — and I did, once I’d taken my lumps — but a new player might just decide he’d been screwed and give up. I know some players who did.
And, well, boring setting. I don’t know what to say. Vvardenfel was an amazing wonderland of fresh sights and experiences. Cyrodill was Peter Jackson presents: Quasi-Roman Fantasy Setting the Three Hundred and Eighty-Sixth. It’s not offensively dull, or anything, it just doesn’t stand up and make you take notice. Towns are little medieval towns. Caves are holes in the sides of mountains. Forests are bunches of trees. The Imperial province is supposed to be a melting pot of every society in Tamriel. I guess they figured the way to get that across to leave out the interesting aspects of any of those societies. The Oblivion Gates were cool, but they were all exactly the same, so after the fifth one there’s no real incentive to keep exploring them.
So that was my take on Morrowind and Oblivion. Both great games, loved for different strengths. Now that bolded statement at the top of the screen should make more sense. Skyrim shares most all of the strengths, but doesn’t get anything wrong. (Except the bugs. Wouldn’t be an Elder Scrolls game without the bugs, I suppose.)
Actually, there is one new strength that helps bolster the towering pillar that is Skyrim, which wasn’t present in either predecessor: your hero can do everything. Absolutely everything. Your abilities are still governed by your race, your skills, and your star sign. But there are no attributes (Strength, Agility, etc.), which is a bold move for any RPG. In the previous Elder Scrolls games, you pretty much had to pick what you wanted to play at the start, and switching gears meant rolling a new hero. You couldn’t play a mage for thirty levels then decide you wanted to sword things, because even if you skilled up your sword skill your Strength would still suck ass. See?
But in Skyrim, it’s as easy as picking up a sword. Or casting a spell. True, you need to buy perks in those skills to use them more effectively, but most of the truly awesome perks are locked behind fifty or sixty skill-ups, and chances are your experience level is going to outpace your progress in any given skill. A player who spends his perks as soon as he gets them is diversifying by necessity, and will be good at lots of things. A player who is saving his perks until his skills are high enough to use them has the freedom to quickly shift gears into whatever new area of adventuring he wants to try. Both of these options are a world apart from “your magic skill is fine but your Intelligence still sucks, so good luck with that spell, nerd.”
Oh, and you can change your star sign at any time. So that passive benefit you picked at the beginning of the game that helps you sneak better doesn’t suddenly become worthless now that you’ve decided you want to pick up a greataxe.
On top of that, though, are the Shouts. These are special abilities identical to every player, and bound to no skill, attribute or perk. Every player gets them, has the same affinity for using them, and the same capacity for learning them. They are the great equalizer. It’s impossible to make your character truly boned because by the time the game starts getting difficult, you’ll have a steady stream of dragon words coming in. If you do decide to try a new playstyle on your existing character, you can be assured you have your Shouts as a fallback. Well played, indeed!
Hmm… anything else? Yes. Khajiit and argonian characters finally have a walking animation that doesn’t make them look like they have a load in their pants. I celebrated this by actually playing a catwoman. A sneaking mage catwoman who turned into a sword-weilding archer after twenty-six levels because the game let me do that. Beautiful.