Nitpicking The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim a Year Later

I've clocked another 71 hours in Skyrim's lovely winter wilds, which makes for a total of over 120. Time to nitpick a little, because I've said plenty of nice things already!

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I reviewed Skyrim more than a year ago — I’d spent at least 50 hours roaming its lovely winter wilds. But I didn’t finish it, because what does “finishing” a game like Skyrim even mean? End credits? Cheering spectators? A celebratory cup of Gatorade?

Sure, I could have hightailed it to polish off what the strategy guide calls the “main quest,” but that seemed like a wrongheaded way to approach the mother of all “go anywhere, do anything” Western roleplaying games. Incidentally, that guide is over 650 pages (it’s in fact a strategy tome). The “main quest” is covered between pages 117 to 154 — all of 40 pages. The rest of the quests, by comparison, cover over 250 pages. Seeing all the game has to offer is analogous to reading all 10 of Steven Erikson’s Malazan books: a question of weeks, if not months, working round the clock.

So I chose to play the game peripatetically, hopping down this rabbit hole or that one, sometimes recruited by spontaneous conversation as I fraternized with Skyrim‘s passerby, sometimes working off my quest dossier, often wandering just to see what a distant part of the map looked like or what the light spilling off the side of some foothill was. And then I stopped, because that’s life (and other games were calling).

Over the holiday break I had a rare four-day block of time to game uninterrupted, so, perhaps unwisely, I chose to have another go at Skyrim from scratch. Okay, “chose” is misleading. What actually happened was, when I moved my old Xbox 360 save games into the cloud, some of my Skyrim data disappeared. Whoopsie-doodle. But okay, I was looking for an excuse to revisit places like Bleak Falls Barrow and Ustengrav — to make that sublimely cool first pilgrimage up to High Hrothgar one rime-riddled step at a time.

And so I did. At this point I’ve made it back to level 32 — two levels higher than I’d managed the last time around. I’m still roughly 40 levels behind my brother, who’s apparently now slaying elder dragons with ease, but I’m through the game’s second act and most of the guild quests. I’ve found 50 skill books and finished 10 side quests, built three wings in a house courtesy Hearthfire, found 13 standing stones, discovered 100 locations, had a bounty of 1,000 in nine holds (and paid it all down), picked 50 locks and 50 pockets, and even started poking around Solstheim, the island near Morrowind you explore in Skyrim‘s third and most recent expansion. No Skyrim doyens, I’m not bragging. I know how far I have to go. I’m eyeing 1,550 out of 1,550 achievement points, too.

But I’ve also clocked another 71 hours according to my latest savegame, which makes for a total of over 120. Time to nitpick a little, because I’ve said plenty of nice things about Skyrim already! (I realize some of these complaints may be addressable in the PC version with mods, so think of this as a gripe piece aimed more at console players.)

Everyone but you hates money in this game. Who tucks trifling amounts of cash in random barrels around town or in funeral urns miles beneath the surface? Hey beggar-dude bothering me for a gold piece, go poke around the city’s odds and ends — free money! Why do I seem to be the only guy in all Skyrim making money looting the furnishings anyway? And what are zombie-skeletons doing carrying gold around (what are they carrying it in)? At least the wild animals (bears, foxes, rabbits, wolves, etc.) don’t have cash wallets for a change, so there’s that.

The weather inside is frightful. It’s kind of a mood-killer, standing under a roof or an overhang, or inside a ruin, watching particles of snow or drops of rain pour right through whatever’s overhead. It’s been an issue since Arena. What would it cost in development time to fix in whatever’s next?

All the world’s an ice-skating rink. Skyrim uses its own “Creation” game engine, but poking around the interwebs, I gather it’s just an updated version of the Gamebryo-Havok-SpeedTree mashup used in Oblivion. I’m not complaining: the game world’s gorgeous! But as in Oblivion, it often feels like you’re skating over the landscape instead of sticking to it. You don’t notice it so much in first-person mode (well, except for that fact that you’re a legless floating torso), but it’s glaringly obvious when you bump up against incline changes slightly higher than a single stair-step and get stuck, running in place like you’re jogging on an invisible treadmill.

Speaking of, why can’t I climb anything? Play Skyrim, then Assassin’s Creed III, then come back to Skyrim and you’ll see what I mean. Why can’t I pull myself onto a ledge that’s shorter than I am? Dangle off the edges of things Uncharted-style? Climb down carefully instead of leaping/tumbling over? How can you be a proper sneak-thief if you can’t scale the side of a structure, clamber over the shingles to a second- or third-floor balcony, then pick the lock on a window? I get that none of this is part of the world design in Skyrim, but wouldn’t it be cool if it was?

Difficulty, schmifficulty. I tried Skyrim on “Master” the first time around, but all that does is crank up the enemy damage done to you (and wind down how much you do to enemies). Translation: death-by-a-thousand-papercuts battles. The second time through I settled for “Adept,” which is Bethesda’s definition of balanced, but now I’m decimating everything with a handful of blows. I’d love to see adjustable difficulty that changes enemy behavior in interesting ways instead of artificially raising or lowering health and damage outlay.

Logic, schmogic. At some point Skyrim‘s heightened “realism” starts to work against it. It’s a hypothetically several-hundred-hour game, after all — plenty of time to mull over design choices you’d brush past in other games. Take dungeons. Isn’t it natural in a game stuffed with this much lore to wonder who installed the triple-axe-blade-swinging traps? Why the axe blades haven’t rusted or the contraption busted? Why you’re the first adventurer to pretty much stroll through and clean house? Why the quest objects are always at the end of the dungeon? Why there’s always an “escape hatch” waiting to trip you back to the surface?

“Call me butterfingers…” Putting stuff back as it was before you picked it up or knocked it over is next to impossible, say a soul gem in a chalice, a vase on a table or a book in a stack. You’re the clumsiest hero in the world with just three moves: throw, drag or drop. I don’t need a whole game based around precision object manipulation, but it’s kind of annoying running into the same shops and seeing the same stuff you accidentally knocked over, lying where it fell hundreds of game-days ago, knowing there’s nothing you can do to tidy up short of filching it.

Pathfinding issues blah blah yada yada. Your followers seem to hate actually following you. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could keep track of where everyone was on your map? One minute your companions are chugging along behind, the next they’re gone, distracted by something like a pack of wolves or getting flambéed by a dragon. Getting Maurice to follow me cross-country for “The Blessings of Nature” quest was like pulling teeth!

Sometimes Skyrim isn’t a game at all. Let’s end with a compliment: The last time I saw cloud-capped mountains and cascading sunsets this beautiful I was in Lucerne hiking the Swiss Alps. Sometimes you just want to admire the scenery in a game like this, following a subterranean river over boulders, past weird glowing mushrooms as the river meets an underground waterfall and the two flow over a precipice lit by mote-filled beams of sunlight that’s falling through a crack from somewhere above. There’s no “game” there, you’re just appreciating the awesomeness of where you are and the majesty of what you’re looking at.