Skyrim: Peeves and Praises (PS3)

Praises

I mentioned in an earlier post that the stat screen has either been obscured or eliminated.  Unless I”m missing something, I’m pretty sure it’s been eliminated at this point.  Initially I was worried there was some aspect of the game that’s been dumbed down or simplified. Final Fantasy 13 does this, and I think it’s a major weakness of the game.  Cutting out the obscure D&D stats is a good thing, but only if it’s done in such a way that gives you some ability to customize what you’re doing.  In FF13, I felt as if I was always constrained as to what was happening with my characters.  There was some sort of crystal grid or some ridiculous mumb0-jumbo, but basically powering up your characters was done in a straight line.  Any shot at taking on the toughest challenges in the game demanded you max out all areas of the grid anyway, so the destination as to what your party looks like at the end is always about the same.

On the contrary though, Skyrim has removed the D&D stats and replaced it completely with the skills system from prior iterations, coupled with the “perks” trees.  The result is to remove all that commitment to what your character is up front by rolling a die to choose attributes, and making the character the sum of his or her own actions.  You want to use great magic, well, practice and your level will become higher.  You want to be better with a shield, use a shield.  There is a certain logic in this that is appealing.  It does away with all this odd terminology and replaces it with something more simple.  Unlike FF13, Bethesda can get away with this by replacing these skills not only with a good leveling system, but also by injecting a higher level of interaction from the player.  Skyrim very clearly wants to break the RPG mold and just be an action game with a ton of customization.  That might be the best way to think of it actually, it’s an action game where you have a lot of options.

Where Skyrim, and newer sandbox games made by other American publishers, completely excel is their ability to replace the RPG menu-drive combat system with something fluid.  Combat isn’t hitting  R1, or “Attack” over and over again, it’s moving around, dodging arrows and parrying battle-axes.  These games are going to continue to smash the JRPG format in the coming years, and it’s easy to understand why.  There are downsides to letting the player takeover as the missing element to statistics tables; it might be harder or entirely too easy for someone.   It’s a risk worth taking though.  Sure smihing or alchemy are basically a menu driven event system, but at least they’re based on the underlying world where you need to either explore, barter, or steal to find supplies.

I suspect the trend of reducing attributes with actual action and player involvement will continue with this franchise, and I suspect Bethesda’s games will get better.  The JRPG franchises of old need to stop experimenting with crazy menu format gimmicks, dispense the sphere grids, junction systems, and crystal grids of old.  The menu system in FF6 was fine, it kept being changed after as the SquareSoft tried to hang onto the quant aspect of gaming, but introduce something to jazz it up.  It didn’t need to be jazzed up though, menus are ok.  The combat’s representative, I get why the guy doesn’t need to run all the way over there to do damage.  It’s just like a game of chess; you don’t need to give the king a knife or something to show how he’s killing the rook.  As you may have guessed, FF13 was disappointing, and the game mechanics were fundamentally frustrating and flawed.  It was another unsuccessful hybrid of action and menus.  If you’re going for full on action, you’ve gotta go all the way.  Skryrim does this successfully, and Oblivion did as well.  Not that the JRPG menu format needs to die completely.  I’m not a firm believer that representative combat is bad.  But the more goofy systems that are introduced to replace good-old fashioned character classes, the worse that genre will do.

Ok, now onto something that’s been noticeably lacking.  A friend of mine suggested that I add some peeves to my review of this game.  He’s right, I’ve given a lot of praise here without any complaints.  At the time, I didn’t have any, but after logging in some serious hours over the past few weeks, I’ve got a few gripes that are worth noting.

1. Unbalanced Enemies

Skyrim uses the randomization elements as Fallout for enemy populating, so if you’ve played those games, you’ll have an idea what I’m talking about.  As you advance in levels, the enemies will advance as well.  Some only have one subset, so a Snow Bear (Polar Bear) basically always has the same stats from what I gather.  Enemies that are based on humans usually have a lot of different level varieties.  From low levels to high, you’ll run into a Bandit, then a Bandit Outlaw, then a Bandit Plunderer/Marauder, etc.  Of course as your character gets strong, the enemies should get stronger too, but Skyrim takes an unbalanced approach to this concept.  A group of bandits at level 40 for example, might be comprised of a low level Bandit, a Bandit Outlaw, and a Marauder.  All these enemies look pretty much the same, but the level of difficulty is completely different.  Consequently, you’ll knock the two first guys down with one sword swing, but the third guy will take 50, or will kill you with one big smack from a warhammer.  I’m a one many army that’s killed 20 dragons, and one guy with a loin cloth and a rock tied to a stick killed me?  What gives?

This problem is about 100 times worse with mages, who all wear the same clothes and look the same.  Unless you’re targeting them, you’ll have no idea whether a novice or a master is throwing some lightning at you, making every encounter a huge gamble as to preparedness.  A weak mage won’t make a dent in your health, but his buddy will kill you with same attack that for some reason does 20 times the damage.  Part of the problem is that the enemies look the same, and have the same animations.  The strongest lightning spell looks very similar to the weakest.  I appreciate that the developers wanted to do a good job with one graphic, rather than making a lot of lousy ones.  However, when you can’t evaluate what type of enemy you’re fighting, you don’t know how to prepare.  It’s not that Skryim is difficult, it’s just that you don’t have any idea when the difficulty is about to kick in.  By increasing the levels of enemies, but not clearly giving a lot of guidance as to when this is happening , or who it’s happened too, creates some frustrating encounters.   Again, it’s not a question of difficulty, but of expectations.  If you’ve played Fallout and ever come up against a Super Mutant that takes about 1500 bullets to kill you know what I’m talking about.

2. Persuasion’s Gone

Ah, I miss the persuasion wheel.  Sadly, one of the goofiest mini games in RPG history is gone.  If you remember from Oblivion, the persuasion wheel would unlock speech options if you successfully made someone like you enough by using the same four speech techniques over and over again.  I mean, come on, who doesn’t like to be flattered?  It was a bad system, and could be avoided if you knew how to use magic to get around it.  Still, it had an important role in expanding the game’s concept of freedom.  It gave you the freedom to influence and get better results or avoid combat altogether.

It’s been replaced with the Fallout 3 system where you have a Persuasion or Intimidation option in certain interactions, and presumably at least, have a chance to get the better outcome depending on how good your speech skill was.  I think these little mini-games are a good break from the rest of the game, and to have only the occasional chance to use persuasion makes the whole speech skill tree kind of useless.  Again, on the riff I just did on stats, this would be classic character “charisma.”

In Oblivion, you’d often encounter persons who had information they didn’t want to give you, if they didn’t like your race or affiliation.  You knew they knew something, and the persuasion wheel was how you were going to wring it out of them.  It’s gone here.  Perhaps this is a good example of how getting rid of certain stats can be a bad thing; there is no replacement here for in-game persuasion that’s nearly as satisfying.

3. Puzzles

I was hoping for more puzzles and more thinking.  Early on, if you’re proceeding with the main story quests, you’ll encounter all sorts of Indiana Jones style temples with traps, and eventually a giant puzzle door.  The solution – spoiler alert – is by identifying what the key tells you are the correct symbols to display on the door.  The way to do this is to manually inspect the key-like item in the inventory screen and rotate it.  Classic!  It’s just like in the first Resident Evil (I bet you had to look up whether to open the book in the game to get the medal, am I right?), a feature that was sadly abandoned in Resident Evil 2.  I was stoked.  This was great. I really liked the oil slicks too, which you can ignite and create some great fire traps with.

Unfortunately, you see very few puzzles later on in the game.  The richness of the world that’s been created certainly would support spells that would let you use fire to melt ice, or shock water with electricity.  Maybe some use of an electricity spell to start an old Dwarven (or Dwemer) machine.  Where the strength of this game should be open-endedness and freedom, there needs to be some additional tools in your arsenal to create new paths or use your brain.  What bothers me isn’t that Skryrim is shorting-changing us here, it’s just that it could offer a lot more options for the thinking player than it does, without a lot more programming effort.  Fingers crossed that there will be some mods or expansions tapping into this need more.

4. Freezing/Loading Issues

Ok, this is really a huge problem with all of Bethesda’s games.  Granted, I would rather they keep making great games, but the issues with loading and freezing, and in some cases frame-rate clipping are pretty extreme.  I didn’t even think these problems were possible on a PS3 until I played Fallout.  Some of the old Fallout 3 style glitches are back.  Every few hours the game can freeze on you when loading a new environment, or freeze during combat leaving no options but to reset and hope you didn’t lose anything important.  It’s very frustrating, and I was caught off-guard as to how frequent it happens, especially considering I’m not even using a PC version.  My 80 gig PS3 burned out while playing Skryim a few weeks back, forcing me to buy a new one.  Hey, it was probably on it’s way out, but now I’m beginning to suspect there are some problems here.  I’m hoping the PS3 patch v. 1.3 will be out soon and will deal with some of these issues.  We’ll see what happens when the next round of patches come out.  It’s  a very complex game that uses a lot of processor resources.  I’ll be patient with a few blips here or there.  Freezing once every 90 minutes though is not acceptable though.

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