Skyrim – Infinite Dragons

The Games Media have been positively ecstatic about dragons in the run-up to the release of Skyrim, breathlessly reporting how there will be infinite dragons, how they’ll be able to attack you almost anywhere.

Hang on though, aren’t we just talking about infinitely re-spawning enemies who stick themselves in the game where you least expect it? I thought infinite baddy respawners were bad unless they were limited to a location where you expect respawning?

Imagine you’re sitting in your car trying to get to your College of Magic and your mobile / cell goes off, so you answer it. “Cousin”, comes the accented voice from the tinny speaker of the expensively crap ‘phone, “we should go to a gentleman’s club”. Then Roman Bellic flies in, crushes half the Liberty City rush hour traffic, belches – engulfing you in flame and kills you dead.

That is literally what playing Skyrim is like.

Well, not quite.

If you haven’t played Morrowind, (and I highly recommend that you do) Morrowind had enemies called Cliff Racers. They’re annoying flying animals, looked like dog-sized Pterodactyls. Why were they annoying? Their ability to fly made them hard to hit whilst they could hit you with relative ease.

Dragons are really big Cliff Racers.

Speaking of Morrowind, I’d rather have seen town-hall sized Emperor Crabs than dragons. Skyrim is much more fun when you don’t have to worry about a dragon coming along and killing your companion making you want to reload. Dragons are so … trite, which I think, in a lot of ways, The Elder Scrolls in general, and Morrowind in particular, have done well to avoid until now. Morrowind’s … well, everything was strange, your character truly was a stranger in a strange land, everything in Morrowind was peculiar and unusual. There were none of the expected things, but instead, giant floating jellyfish, living rocks, octopus men, bizarre Lovecraftian ash creatures, whip-like tendril trees, surface lava floes, massive twisted alien structures of dark purple metal, enigmatic Telvanni houses where you must be capable of levitation to enter, clockwork cities.

In The Elder Scrolls, dwarves are a sort of elf, and Nords were breathed into existence.

Strangely, according to various interviews, and hell, the back of the box, Skyrim “reimagines and revolutionises the open-world fantasy epic”. What better way to reimagine and revolutionise the open-world fantasy epic than to add … dragons. What better way than to take the strange swamps and bizarreness of Morrowind, or even the peculiarities of the Oblivion Plane in the eponymous game and then setting Skyrim in medieval Europe.

Specifically Norway.

And then making that place more normal than Solstheim, Morrowind’s own little slice of Skyrim. Where incidentally, the werewolves aren’t crap and there’s a patchwork airship.

Skyrim’s biggest sin is of course the inexplicable decision to give all the Nords (who are basically norsemen) the most appropriate accent possible. I know what you’re thinking, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, of course not.

Austrian.

Think early Arnold Schwarzenegger. Okay, that’s not really Skyrim’s biggest problem, it’s the lack of non-Nord children in the game.

Actually, the real problem is that it’s dull. Really quite dull. Not all the time of course, there are some wonderful moments, but in your playthrough of Skyrim, at times, you will be bored by the utter tedium. The miscellaneous “procedurally generated” (by which I mean pick an item to recover, and then pick a place to recover it from) quests can also be a bit dull. Much more so than say, Fallout 3. Speaking of which, I thought we’d learned lessons from Fallout 3, but in some ways Skyrim is a step backwards, Skyrim for example, doesn’t tell you when a companion / follower character has died, and the menu system, or rather half the menu system is a huge step backwards.

That’s right, what could be better than having a normal menu system for things like quest selection, stats, and system manipulation? Why of course, also having an additional menu system that works completely differently. In one menu to shift tabs / columns left and right, you use the shoulder buttons of the control pad. In the other menu only actual left and right shifts the menus left and right. You use left to get to submenus of magic, and right to get to the submenus of items. The shoulder buttons assign weapons, one for each hand since hands are mapped to each shoulder button. Also your torso, and head, and feet.

Sometimes.

Only in that menu. Even when that menu pops up for container transfer.

Ah, the joys of habitually hitting a shoulder button to switch column only to find that you’ve not only picked up something that you didn’t want to, but that you’ve also equipped it whilst having no idea what it actually is since you were merely trying to shut a menu. Now you have to exit that menu and open your equipment in search of whatever-the-hell-it-was-that-you-just-put-on. Remember, in the other menu, shoulder buttons switch tab left and right respectively.

It might not sound like much of a complaint. Well, how often do you use the menu? That’s the thing though, you have to use it rather a lot, especially if you want to take advantage of the magic system in the game. The problem is not enough quickslots, a lack of sensible behaviour, and a lack of flexibility. I was expecting it to work a little like Morrowind, Oblivion, or maybe just Fallout 3. For some reason, instead of Oblivion’s useful way of approaching torch-holding, with you pulling out your equipped torch only when you “holster” your hands. Instead of Fallout 3’s eight quickslots, or Morrowind’s ability to assign whole outfits to a single slot, instead of those. What do we get? The worst aspects of all of them. We have just two quickslots that contain just one item each, selecting the same quickslot twice doesn’t give us what we had before we quick selected. So you really can only assign one thing in a quickslot, say, a torch, and then have the other quickslot be what you normally use instead of a torch.

What we end up using instead is the quickmenu feature, where we can pause the game to bring up those spells, items, or abilities we have previously favourited. It’s not so good for fluid and dynamic battles unfortunately, since you have to open the menu just to switch one of your hands to an appropriate spell.

On the other hand, overall, Skyrim is so much better than Oblivion in pretty much every way, and makes massive system improvements over both Morrowind and Oblivion, although the magic system has been over-simplified at this point. I mean, Skyrim is hardly a bad game, and looks very good, nice to see good optimisation for the Playstation version. It is a very good game, but there are serious criticisms to be made that cannot be as easily forgiven as with Fallout 3 and Morrowind, the same criticisms that I think will make it, in time, appreciated less than those great high-points of modern gaming.