You’re hours or maybe entire days into Bethesda’s roleplaying opus, probably bleary-eyed, a little edgy, coming out of the weekend like you chugged a case of Honningbrew Mead and fell into a phantasmagoric stupor. Maybe it’s time to step back, take a break and give things a second look, just to be sure everything’s running smoothly.
Like with this list of 10 things that have, so far, greatly improved my quality time with The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim.
Fiddle the difficulty setting
You didn’t know there was one? There is. It defaults to “Adept,” which translates as “middle-of-the-road.” I’m nothing special, gaming-skill-wise, but I have found Skyrim’s battles a trifle simplistic at that setting (with exceptions, mind you, those exceptions being “frost trolls”). You can bump things up two notches, to either “Expert” or “Master.” I’ve been playing on the latter, and while it’s still no Dark Souls, it does force you to think tactically instead of charging in, gamepad triggers-a-blazin’, resulting in much more satisfying wins.
Use your housecarl
By housecarl, I don’t mean some manservant with a setting-inappropriate moniker. No, this is the person assigned to you by the Jarl of Whiterun once you’re to the point where, well, you just might need a little help getting things done. Fear not, you gain skill experience by using skills, not killing stuff, so letting your housecarl tank while you help from the flank or nuke away with ranged damaged can be a great way to get past difficult encounters.
Adjust your TV’s black levels
Skyrim employs a brand new custom graphics engine (dubbed “Creation”), which includes more realistic lighting, though on the LCDs and LED TVs I’ve tested, that can manifest as too much blackness in low-lit, inside areas or when the sun’s out and triggering high dynamic range effects. If your character’s back side looks blacked out in third-person mode when facing toward bright sunlight, for instance, you’ll definitely want to tinker with your TV’s (or game system’s) black level settings.
Don’t grab everything in sight
No really, don’t. Most of it’s worthless junk anyway and just bogs you down. When I’m rummaging, I use what I call the “200 rule.” The 200 rule just means I ignore anything with an estimated value of less than 200 gold. And remember, the value you’re seeing’s only estimated—what you actually get for it depends on where and to whom you sell it as well as your Speech skill rating.
Pay Attention to “Active Effects”
Skyrim’s interface hides a lot. There’s no “diseased” status screen, for instance, though the game’s done a nice job getting people to react to you if you’re sick, e.g. “You don’t look so good,” and so forth. If you want to know whether you’re sick, how it’s affecting your abilities, or anything else about your overall well being, be sure to keep an eye on “Active Effects,” located at the bottom of the Magic menu.
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Don’t set your friends on fire
I know it’s tempting to spray all that glistening purple-pink lamp oil pooled between you and a troop of advancing undead bad guys with gouts of fire to light things up, Nick Cage-style, but if you’re hiring mercenaries or following my housecarl advice, you’ll want to be mindful of their position, tactically speaking—friendly fire definitely happens in this game, and Bethesda neglected to code in a “fire bad!” artificial intelligence subroutine.
Don’t try to kill everyone
Sure, you could in past games, but so? To say you could? Because that made the game better how, exactly? In Skyrim, people you can’t kill (children, key individuals) just drop to the ground and submit before recovering a few moments later. That’s a good thing, because it lets the design team tell a better, more reliable story, while at the same time keeping us from dealing with the broader implications of mass murder, which are that, were you to go on a killing spree, Skyrim’s leaders would simply deploy an army to take you out.
Take time to improve your gear
Do this especially if you’re playing on the higher difficulty settings. It’s simple, really. From wildlife like rabbits and bears, you get hides, which you can convert to leather on tanning racks (found near most weapon’s shops). Leather begets leather strips. Both of those can be used to improve armor. And if you carry around a pickaxe, you can mine deposits for various types of ore, which can be refined into metal and used to improve weapons. The upticks are slight—a point here, a point there—but the benefits add up, especially as your smithing skill improves and delivers higher quality yields.
Use environment traps to soften up tough enemies
You don’t get skill points for luring enemies into found dungeon traps, so do this sparingly, but if you want to bring their health bars down to more reasonable levels, pressure plates that unleash piles of boulders or clouds of poison darts do nicely.
Keep an eye on your character in third-person view
If visual bugs that last the entire game sound like an eyesore, be sure to check your character after he or she’s been shot by archers. The arrows are supposed to “dissolve” after a few moments, but I ran into an irritating big where a shaft running through my character’s leg didn’t, leading me back six or seven saved games—and hours of work—to a point before the glitch to remedy the problem.