Going outside, may be some time   Leave a comment

Skyrim and adventures therin (possibly part 1).

So the better part (quality if not duration) of the weekend was playing Skyrim.

I really like Bethesda’s big, open-world games: Oblivion, Fallout 3, and now this (I’ve barely played Morrowind; I tried last winter, but my adventure was running away from a skellington before going for a swim and getting eaten by a fish). Lots of people criticise them, particularly Oblivion, for a variety of (mostly fair) reasons, but I don’t care. Their complaints just aren’t things that bother me.

The reason I love them is that they dump you in their world, and leave you to it. There’s a main plot quest, but you’re completely free to ignore it, and there’s absolutely no downside to doing so. What these games are all about is exactly the opposite of a main quest; rather than a linear series of arrows to follow and hoops to jump through because that’s what you’re told to do, they’re about doing what you feel like doing whenever you feel like doing it. They’re about freedom. The freedom to walk over there to see what that thing is in the distance, or explore in this cave, or do quests, or break the laws and pay your fines, escape from jail, or just not get caught, or to wander around picking flowers and catching butterflies. They’re also about the freedom to be a mage, but to wake up one morning and think “today I’m going to strap on some heavy armour and hit things with a double-handed sword”. They’re about letting the player do what they want, how they want to. It’s the philosophy of Deus Ex spread over an entire country, without anyone talking in your ear telling you what to do (or a black helicopter in sight).

But the best thing is that other people can approach the game completely differently. One of my friends is hammering away at the guild quests – the companions, mages, thieves and whatnot. Whilst he loves nothing more than chasing down his quest arrows, I almost seem to avoid them; I played Oblivion for the best part of 200 hours with two characters, and I didn’t finish the main quest or any of the guild plot-lines (except maybe the Arena). I started them all, but spent most of my time sneaking around the dungeons I found, or picking flowers, or just riding my horse Patch* off into the distance. Save the world? Become Arch-Chancellor? Pah, how can anybody have time for such things when there is a world full of ripe mushrooms and loot-filled caves?

And the best best thing about Oblivion was that the very first dungeon that my second character explored, right next to the Imperial City, was one I’d never seen before. 130 or more hours of exploring, and still so much to see, even right where you start.

You may have noticed that Fallout: New Vegas, Obsidian’s Fallout 3 quasi-sequel-thing, wasn’t on my list. While it contained many improvements over Fallout 3, it was a far more directed experience; it looked like an open, explorable world, but always felt like you were being shuffled down its single directed path to Plotville (or the titular New Vegas). Coupled with not liking any of the factions or characters I’d met, I got tired and gave up shortly before you have to decide who to side with, as I pretty much had all the best toys already. It was disappointing, albeit a disappointment I played for 60 hours, so I must have enjoyed it more than I give it credit for. Perhaps I’ll go back, one day; it was definitely closer to the original two Fallout games, which I loved, than Fallout 3.

Talking of disappointments, Skyrim has one particularly huge problem. Something that was concerning from preview videos, but I didn’t like to think they’d make such an obvious balls-up. A thing that Oblivion and Fallout 3 were criticised for, but that Skyrim takes to a whole new level: its user interface is absolutely, hopelessly awful, in almost every way. “Almost”? One bit looks quite pretty. That bit is the constellations perk selector. The UI as a whole is utterly terrible – one of the worst I’ve had inflicted upon me (its crimes include: mouse support is inconsistent and broken; key assignments are arbitrary and inconsistent – when looting a chest, for instance, clicking an object in the container will take it, but clicking an object in your inventory will use it; it wastes vast amounts of space, and starts lists flowing off the bottom of the screen despite there being plenty of empty space above them; it doesn’t tell you when lists can be scrolled; it actively goes out of its way to hide information; remapping keys is a world of problems because they don’t change keys in menus, or do but don’t change the labels, or change some of them but not others making some actions impossible… It’s an utter nightmare) – but the perks selector… Oh my word. It is probably the worst bit of UI design I’ve ever seen, and I’ve played quite a lot of Dwarf Fortress.

The idea is lovely; your skills are represented by constellations, and on level up you pick a “perk” bonus, each of which is represented by a star. The implementation is terrible: you have eighteen skills, but can only see the status of a third or so, so you must scroll if you want to see anything about any of the others. To look at the individual perks, you have to zoom in to a single constellation, so only information regarding a single skill is visible. Can you see all of the perks? No, don’t be silly. Each constellation has about ten stars, but it zooms in so far, at such a funny angle, that you’ll usually only see two or three at once. This is a shame, because it’s about the only menu the mouse works consistently in. So you must use the keys to try to navigate the constellation. But what key takes you to which star? Well, that’s the problem. If you press right, say, and it takes you to the wrong one, you’ll press left to go back to try again. Makes sense, right? Except left usually won’t take you back to the star you were at, but a completely different one. You can also, despite the extreme close-up, accidentally navigate to entirely different constellations with any keypress at any time. The whole thing is utterly abysmal and has no redeeming features what-so-ever. Why they didn’t just rip off the skill tree UI from any other game that’s done it – Titan Quest, Diablo 2, Deus Ex: HR, this isn’t a new or hard problem – I don’t know. They could rip off the inventory, conversation, trading and everything else UI whilst they’re there.

Hopefully for their next game they’ll give the interface to the work experience bod, and move the UI guys over to puzzle design or something. They’d be some properly fiendish puzzles, at least.

Anyway, when not wailing and gnashing my teeth at the hopeless UI, I’ve been having great fun. My adventure started off by ambling south/west, eventually winding up in Falkreath, one of the southernmost towns. I spent some time exploring and cleared out a few dungeons before deciding I’d try and solve a few of the quests I’d stumbled upon, so adding their markers to my map I set out. This is the route I took, aiming to go from Falkreath – marked with a blue square – to either of the orange circles:
I knew I should have turned left at that cave.
This is why I rarely finish quests. Yes, I even managed to walk past both of the caves I wanted to go in without noticing. There are just so many distractions, flowers to pick, and ooh what’s that over there?

The screenshot also shows both how very pretty, and completely useless, the in-game map is.

So what did I get up to on my trek?
Well, at the first tree icon I fought a couple of Spriggans (tree-spirit-woman things). It was the first time I’d taken on two at once, and it was not an easy fight. Many quickloads were had that day.
On the way around the south of the lake I thought I’d practice my armour, blocking and melee skills by sparring with some wolves that attacked me (or “animal cruelty” as it’s more commonly known). Then there was a small island filled with bees (you can collect bees for potions! I am glad PETA haven’t yet spread to Tamriel), and just beyond there was a corpse. I had nothing to do with the making of this corpse, I just found him. There was also a horse – the first I’d seen! – which I probably could have ridden off on, but I didn’t think to at the time. I didn’t want to steal him, y’see, but that probably wouldn’t have been a problem. I think his owner was a corpse.
I crossed the river at the East end of the lake, exploring its rocky waterfalls. On my way back East I did some swimming and fishing, exploring a couple of wrecks before finding a half-submerged fort and taking part in a spot more animal cruelty. Mudcrabs, this time. Disgusting creatures.
Then I noticed the water-wheel icon. Ooh! What’s that? So I went to look, and snuck around behind a fisherman for a while. He didn’t seem to mind. Up in the hills I went for a look in a cave – some guy’s friends had been killed by Spriggans (told you they were bad news!) whilst hunting bears, so he wanted a hand AVENGING THEIR DEATHS. I made sure their corpses would be easy to bury by making sure they weren’t weighed down by anything valuable.
Just around the corner was a poacher’s camp (“The Jarl can’t eat every deer!”), so I borrowed their stove to cook some food.
A spot of fast travelling to Falkreath to flog my loot, and I set out from the water-wheel. I’ll get where I’m going this time! I think.
Until I see the mammoth-skull icon. What on earth is a mammoth-skull icon? It turns out it’s a Giant and Mammoth camp. Giants wander around the landscape, Mammoths in tow, and don’t attack you if you leave them alone. Unfortunately, I wandered up to a Mammoth to have a closer look, maybe give it a pat and a goodie, but it didn’t like that very much. Mammoths stomp quite hard. I tried to run, but the Giants had taken notice, and they have longer legs. When you are hit by a Giant you don’t just die; you’re often thrown into the air so far that you lose sight of the ground, and don’t come back down to earth before the game gives up and reloads your last save.
So I gave the Giants a wide berth, and came across a pilgrim near a bandit fort. I chatted to him, and he told me about the shrine he was visiting. Bidding him farewell, I thought I’d sneak up on the bandits and investigate (read: pillage) their home. Unfortunately, I was spotted and attacked – at which point the pilgrim charged in, massacred all the baddies with magic almost before I could get an arrow off, and then walked away as if nothing had happened.
Loaded down with goodies from the fort, I thought it was time to visit the shops. And Whiterun is just over there! Convenient. Ooh, what’s that… A windmill?

 
* A massive advantage to playing on the PC was that I could use the in-game console to actually rename my horse “Patch”. Can’t do that on the PS3, eh?

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