dogsounds reviews: Big-ass Skyrim review. Fus Ro DAH!, motherfucker!

squidbear dogsounds reviews Skyrim BethesdaWell, Just holy crap. When was the last time we updated this blog? Like, a million years ago? Jeez. I haven’t had time to draw any Avoid Spikes Strips, but you think we could have written a few bits here and there. 

Anyhoo, to try and revive the blog, let’s start with something simple – a dogsounds reviews: article. There hasn’t been a great deal of gaming activity going on at dogsounds Towers of late, mainly for two reasons: 1) I have a massive backlog of podcasts to listen to, and b) I have been playing games that allow me to pootle about whilst listening to said podcasts. Fallout 3, Red Dead Redemption, and the big-ass game theat is the newest addition to the big-ass game stable: Skyrim

How does the game shape up? Let’s find out!

I should probably preface this review by admitting that Skyrim is almost my first introduction into Bethesda’s stable of sword and sorcery games. I played The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion for about, maybe, 6 hours, before I put it in the box, welded the box shut, put the box in another box filled with tigers, welded that box shut, set it on fire, buried it, and then poured molten glass over the impromptu grave site to seal it for all time. Long story short: I hated it.

When I played Oblivion – just shortly after it was released – I had no real experience of long-ass, open world games and RPGs. At that time I preferred first-person shooters, and couldn’t stand sword and sorcery lah-de-dah nonsense. I found that genre all too flippy-floppy bottle-bottom glasses feeble. Give me a rifle, and I was happy. Give me a sword and a world full of cliche races like elves and orcs, and I just wanted a rifle. But, in the spirit of adventure, I gave it a try. One should fully understand something before one dismisses it outright.

So I played 6 hours, and dismissed it outright.

It looked awesome – for the time. But I hated the setting. I hated the incredibly complex levelling, crafting  and inventory system that I struggled to even barely understand. I hated the utterly irrelevant combat system where what you saw had no relation to what you were supposed to be doing. I hated the twirly-wirly “we’re trying to be all historical” impossible to read font. I thought the characters looked like they had escpaed from a not-very secure mutant farm. I hated the little charm/intimidate minigame ( I couldn’t get the hang of it, didn’t understand it, and when dudes smiled, it creeped the bejesus out of me). I hated the fact that there were eight million characters and only 3 voice actors. Everything seemed arbitrary, unconnected, and just too damn arcane. I had no idea what I was doing, how to do anything, or what I was supposed to do. I felt nothing for the people, not the world. A good game should make you want to play it. I did not want to play Oblivion.

Oblivion, The Elder Scrolls, dogsounds, mutant

Seriously, I don’t fancy yours mate. Also, impractical armour much?

Now, looking back, this conclusion was to be expected. I had no idea of how that game worked, and diving into any RPG system, complex or simple, with no previous experience of any kind, is like drinking battery acid to see if you will like tea. But I knew no better, and my opinion of that gametype became firmer with time.

Lightbulb

And then I played Fallout 3.

I won’t go into detail how that came about, as I have covered all that in the Fallout 3 review, but what I found in Fallout 3, much to my joy, was a much simpler, accessible and palatable RPG system, that also included firearms. I was hooked. I was able to use the more logical layout and navigation in Fallout 3 to learn the basics of Bethesda’s levelling and perk system (and finally undertood that shit). It also helped that the game looked fantastic compared to Oblivion (it still holds up well, despite many rough edges) and had engaging stories, characters and settings, and a seemingly endless wealth of things to do and places to explore. I was smitten, and as of this writing have sunk almost 500 hours into that game.  It also carried a great sense of humor and lacked the annoying self-importance that was oozing out of every pore of Oblivion. Whereas Oblivion was all “Look at me, this world is so believable and my armor is so shiny and mythos mythos mythos blah blah blah”, Fallout 3 was “Dude, I totally blew you to smithereens with a pencil. Awesome!”. Of this, I approved.

So when the next instalment of The Elder Scrolls – Skyrim – was announced, my reaction could, at best, be considered lukewarm. I had not forgotten my abjectly venomous reaction to Oblivion, and it burned. But as time went by – time that Included Fallout: New Vegas, and with it a bit more of an exposure to  in-depth crafting system – I found that my interest started to peak. Bethesda said they had leaned from the Fallouts how to streamline their menu and levelling systems; that Skyrim would have a simple perks system like the Fallouts, and so on. Whereas Fallout 3 was known as “Oblivion with guns”, the reverse was beginning to emerge: Skyrim was beginning to be referred to as “Fallout with swords”. I warmed. I started to think that, hey, if it really does play more like Fallout 3 and less like Oblivion, well, maybe I should check it out. Despite my loathing of poncy knights in armor and all that nerdy no-sex-life tabletop nonsense.

In fact, I have to salute Bethesda’s PR suits, because, hey, I bought that sucker on launch day, five thousand page game guide and all. So what happened?

I was blown away. That’s what happened. let’s get the review going.

What is it? 

In the best tradition, you are an unnamed prisoner, and you start the game bound, on a prisoner transport, on your way to be prosecuted in some way or other for some undisclosed crime or other. The game is the fifth in the Elder Scrolls series, set 200 years after the events in Oblivion, and is set in a previously unencountered (yet mentioned) region of the continent of Tamriel known as Skyrim. This is the northern tip of Tamriel, and unlike the lush, green mediaeval setting of Oblivion this region is a cold, harsh landscape, full of mountains and snow, and home to the Nords, a Viking-like warrior race. Burly, blonde hair, pseudo-Scandinavian accents – you get the picture.

There is civil unrest in Skyrim – the Imperial armies of Cyrodil, under the command of the emperor, are determined to bring Skyrim under the protection of the Empire, but for many residents of Skyrim this is not something they wish for. Not wanting to sacrifice their heritage and unique culture and religious beliefs, many are opposed and have formed a rebellious group known as the Stormcloaks. You enter the game as a neutral – throughout the game, this civil war acts as a backdrop, and you can take sides if you wish, or remain uninvoled. More on that later.

Anyhoo. As the civil war rages on (well, I say “rages”, it’s not actually that evident through the game, other than the occasional side quest or offhand comment), there is another threat to Skyrim – many fear that the Dova – ancient Dragon gods that nearly removed humans (and the other humanoid races) from Tamriel many centuries ago – may have returned, bent on trying again. This rumor is confirmed when, as you are about to be executed for your unmentioned crime, a big-ass dragon appears, and starts wreaking havoc – allowing you to make good your escape.

Skyrim, Xbox 360, review, Alduin

That’s a big chicken…

As the story proper starts, Skyrim’s branching and non-linear story telling comes into play – you can escape with a Stormcloak convict, or with an Imperial guard, and your choice here sets in motion a whole branching set of circumstances that will unfold as you play the game. No spoilers, but later on you kill your first dragon, and when you absorb its soul you learn that you are Dovakhiin, the Dragonborn, infused with the knowledge and blood of the Dragon Gods, and possibly the only hope of defeating the Dragons and protecting Skyrim and Tamriel from their threat, and off you must go. So, there’s that.

Nice set of gams

The first thing that strikes you about Skyrim is  – rather obviously – the graphics. They are simply stunning. I played on Xbox 360, and although the PC version can push the visuals even further, the console version is by no means a slouch. Skyrim is a gorgeous world of forests, snowy mountain peaks, raging rivers and waterfalls, charming and believable villages and impressive towns. When you stand atop a high mountain peak, you really can see the whole of the game world in front of you, and have no doubts, the world is built in such a way that if you can see it, you can most likely get to it. I have not found any invisible walls, other than those at the absolute edges of the playable world. The world map is a marvel in itself – instead of a diagram or small local map, the camera simply flies up skyward to an overhead view. Of the whole game world.  No separate screens. In fact, the map itself can be gamed a little, and with some clever manipulation, you can actually see that the game world is bigger than the play space – massively so. So much that on PC, intrepid gamers have found regions and landmarks of Tamriel that exist in the Elder Scrolls universe, but that do not feature in this game. The centre of the Empire, Cyrodil – a whole different country on the continent – is clearly there, as is the enromous spire at the center. It beggars belief that Bethesda would build the whole damn world like this – it’s like setting a game in New York, but building the world out to include California.

Skyrim, Xbox 360, review, Alduin

Vista: a stunning view, or a shit operating system.

Light ripples through heavy tree cover, buildings have a real solid look to them, and interiors are wonderfully lit with a marvellous mixture of log-fire homeliness and slightly oppressive mystery and decrepitude. Butterlflies flit, foxes dart, bears shamble, deer graze and look around nervously. Although the world is one of fantasy, you get the feeling that given a couple of weeks in the hills of New Zealand, Peter Jackson could get Weta to totally build the shit out of Skyrim and it would look just the same. Unlike Oblivion and Fallout, Bethesda have created a “new” engine for the game (although it seems to be a heavily updated version of the old Gamebryo engine) and it shows, Characters – whilst still not quite right – are vastly improved upon from earlier games, now looking a lot more human – or, more like whatever they are supposed to look like. I played as a Khajit – the cat-like race – and Khajit now look much better, nobler, and believable, rather than the complete abortions of previous instalments. Armour, clothing , weapons, facial hair – all looks fantastic. Although, it has to be said, Bethesda still haven’t got the hang of hair. Man, the hair is terrible. Animation is vastly improved over even Fallout 3 and New Vegas, with movements more lifelike and convincing (although, like the hair, writing code for NPCs to cope with non-horizontal surfaces is still on the to-do list). Your character animates very well, and finally the engine gives a third person view that is actually practical. I tend to fight and explore interiors in first-person, and use third-person when out and about for the improved field of view. In Skyrim, it no longer feels like your character is floating a few inches off the floor, and combat is also possible in third person. If Skyrim’s visuals left me with one thought,  it was that boy, I really can’t wait for Fallout 4.

Boom! Boom! Bang! Oh wait, no guns.

Alongside the stunning views in Skyrim, it is also impossible to ignore the audio, which in of itself creates a convincing and believable environment for you to explore. Now, I absolutely adored the environmental audio in Fallout 3 – by which I mean the “outisde sounds” – the little gusts of wind, the sounds of dust and debris rattling about, the crickets and insects at night, that all created this utterly absorbing little world. And in Skyrim, the same is self-evident, although sadly there is less dusty breeze and more things flying around and living outside-world lives. There are the howling winds in the mountain peaks, the subtler breezes on the lower slopes, and the woodland sounds in the valleys. The environmental sounds are very cleverly mixed so as to sound organic and convincing – no obvious loops. When a small insect flies past you with a tiny buzz, unseen, it is rare enough to stand out. Very very occasionally, you will hear a bee bumbling about – again, so infrequently that you really do believe it is there. The minutae are exceptionally well done.

The less ephemeral sounds – weapons, footfalls, fire, magic – are also excellent, with only a few glaring failures (the crackle of fire,  and some water sounds loop very obviously, in the same way as the “interior machinery” sounds in Fallout 3).

Voice acting is much improved from previous games. Bethesda stated that they had taken on board the criticism levelled at them from Oblivion and Fallout 3 – having, like, 3 voice actors – and had greatly increased the headcount for Skyrim. And, it has to be said, they did. The voice cast is much expanded – 70 actors, if I remember correctly, including some very well known names. This is indeed a great improvement – but there is a caveat. Although there are more individual voices, Bethesda have fallen into an old habit. There are lots of unique characters with unique voices, for sure, but as you wander around Skyrim you will still come across the same oft-repeated voices for the non-essential characters – the old woman, the guy with the staccato speaking rhythm and the hard “th”, the cast of children who are all straight from Little Lamplight caverns in Fallout 3, the obseqious elven voice dude. and, of course, the legendary “Arrow in the knee” guard dude, to name a few. And, to make things more annoying, it seems no-one can quite agree on what a Nord should actually sound like – I found the faux-Scandic accent quite pleasing, but then next to the guard who has just stepped out of an Ikea advert you get the shopkeeper from the rough part of New York, and the woman from New England. It seems a shame that, with such a big voice cast, Bethesda didn’t make a bit more effort with the non-essential characters, or at least record a much greater repertoire of lines for each. Often, different characters with different voices will stick to the same lines as each other. If you are going to get 30 actors in to voice, you may as well give them different damn lines. And it is a shame that the Nords didn’t stick to an accent – there’s no point taking great pains to create a whole world, to then undermine it with American accents. “I am Blomjir the Ancient, and I have lived here all my life! And this is my friend Grognak, who has also lived here, in the house next door, all his life and yet sounds nothing like me at all!” Not a major issue, but it bugs the shit out of me, given the effort put into the game elsewhere. Overall though, the voice acting is fantastic (although the guy that voices, amongst others, the mage in Whiterun, is a terrible, truly terrible actor).

Skyrim review dogsounds Xbox 360

Wait…are you guys Welsh? Or is that Scottish? Or…Brazilian?

It has to be said that the soundtrack is awesome, and not just the beautiful main theme. Despite one or two clunkers, the music is good enough that I have left it on ( I turned the Fallout 3 and New Vegas soundtracks off after a few hours, as they contributed nothing and became tiresome).

The fun bit

Now, you don’t intend to fork out your hard-earned just to look and listen to the game, of course. What the game like to play?

Simply, it is fantastic. Engrossing, mesmerising, captivating. Not perfect – it is a Bethesda game after all – but very, very good.

Exploring and fighting are a joy. Navigating the world of Skyrim is always interesting, whether in a town or a forest. The map is intuitive and very pretty, and despite the occasional bug where a quest marker isn’t pointing in the right direction, is straightforward and not instrusive. Control-wise, controller options are logical and make sense. There is a handy favourites menu to allow you to select the items you will likely use most often, instead of having to enter the full menu every time you want to swap a weapon, change an item of apparel or use a potion. When you are in the main menu, you can hit the “favourite” button to mark the selected object, weapon or clothing, and then when in the game proper pressing up on the D-pad pauses the action and shows this quick-list of favourited items for you to select. With the sheer number of things you can equip, this is much more practical than the 8-item hotkeys from Fallout 3. The menus themselves are reasonably logical and straightforward, although given the number of different menu options, the menus are split into different catergories and areas, with the map, items, spells and perks menu on the B button, and the gameplay memu (settings, load/save, quests etc.) on the start button. However, it has to be said that the actual design and layout of the menus is a little shonky – item lists are squished into a small space, meaining long item names are jumbled and fonts sizes are all varied, and the order of the items is alphabetical, meaning that you often have to hunt around quite a bit to find the item you want. Without the favourites hotkey, the menu system would be an abortion, but it is saved a little by that. It should be noted that if you use the Kinect voice controls, menus can be sorted and filtered, and this does make life a little easier.

Skyrim menu ui review dogsounds

The UI design is slick and stylish, and also a liltle hopeless.

The story and plot are very well crafted, and if you breeze through the main plot without side questing, you will have a good time – but you will miss out on a great deal. During the main quest you will meet some great characters, and the branching non-linear options you have give a great deal of flexibility. Whilst there is no specific karma system such as in Fallout 3, the way you deal with characters will influence – to a certain degree – how you are treated. Certain quest lines will change how you are percieved. Become a werewolf, and people will tell you that you smell funny, or that your grin makes them uncomfortable. Join the Thieves’ Guild, and some people may not be so trusting. Let off a Dragon shout in a town, and the guards will chastise you for scaring the locals. Commit a crime in a hold – a town – and you may be attacked by the guards there, but not in other towns where you have committed no crime. Like the Fallouts that came before though, the real meat of the game is the random exploration and the side quests that are given to you on your travels. Your quest log will very quickly become a huge and imposting list. There are the story quests, the optional non-story quests that have a name and description, and then a separate list for the “miscellaneous” non-story quests that are the usual basic go here and kill dude/get thing affair. These are the radiant quests (see below). With 250 locations, a large number of story and scripted quests and a theoretcially infinite number of radiant quests, you miss out on a lot if you just barrel through the story. Throughout the course of the game you will also come across characters who can become your followers, and some of these hold mini-quests of their own. As always, a follower can be an excellent ally in combat, or even just a pack horse.

Bethesda have also implemented a much-improved radiant AI system to dish out random side quests. Often these will be jobs given to you by mercenaries or tavern owners, and are usually to kill bandits/trolls/giants/dragons and that sort of thing, but they are randomly generated and tap into your gameplay history. Radiant quests will often send you to a part of the map you haven’t explored, or send you somewhere it thinks you might find interesting, rather than to a dungeon you have already visited. Adding to this random element is the design of “dungeons” – usually bandit camps or caverns. They are now all individually designed, so unlike in Oblivion where every dungeon was pretty much a clone of the others, every single location in Skyrim, whilst sharing basic design elements, will be unique.

Travel in Skyrim is a joy. Locations will appear on the map as unexplored if a quest requires you to go there, and these look different to explored locations on the map so you can easily see where you have and haven’t been. You will also come across battle maps in the world, and clicking on locations on these maps will add them to your map. You can fast travel to any location you have already explored, or you can take a stagecoach to unexplored destinations, but to be honest Skyrim is just such a beautiful land that you will be missing out if you don’t just walk there.

Skyrim map dogsounds review Xbox 360

Dammit, where’s the Five Axles rest stop?

Combat is fun and engaging, and although there is still something missing with melee combat – there is no true feeling of connection – it is still good, and a vast improvement on the random flailing found in Oblivion. To be honest hough, I couldn’t quite shake my love of ranged combat, and after a while found myself fighting exclusively with bows – which, levelled up, can be devastating. Magic can now be used alongside single-handed weapons, so you can have a sword in one hand and a spell assigned to the other, which makes for interesting combinations. Enemy AI is not great, as once you are detected they pretty much barrel up to you and start wailing, so there is no great tactical difference between a soldier, a bear and an undead Ancient Nord Draugr. One frustration is that there is no way to tell an enemy NPC from a friendly NPC until you get close enough to aggro them. This can be annoying if you are playing as a stealthy character, keen on critical stealth kills, as you often have to walk into a location to see if the characters aggro or not, and then run out again and hide until they un-aggro.  There is a shout and a spell that can mitigate this, but it’s absence by deffault bugged me. I should also point out that the first time you fight a dragon, it is the most awesome thing ever. The thirtieth time you have fought a random dragon, not so much. At least you can sell the bones for good gold.

When you start the game, the major difference between Skyrim and earlier Elder Scrolls games is that you no longer have to decide character traits from a list of skills that mean absolutely nothing to you. You are not forced to choose between a swordsman, mage or archer and so on, and then remain stuck with that for the rest of the game. You don’t need to have that conversation that goes “Nimble Frothing…do I want that? I don’t know what that is. What the fuck is that? If I don’t take it and then later realise I need it,will I have to start the game again? Godammit, Bethesda!.” Character creation as simple as choosing the race and the racial trait that comes with it. For example, choose Khajit and you have night vision and a strong melee attack. Choose a different race and you get a slightly different racial perk. Once you start to play your character levels up naturally, and with each level you can spend one perk point  to “buy” a perk from a large list – and can choose whatever you want. You may initially put your points into one-handed swords, only to decide later on that you want to start using magic instead, and start adding your points there. Then you may decide to change again and put points into archery, opr alchemy, or speechcraft, or any of a large number of traits. You are not restricted to playing in a specific way through the whole game. Further flexibility comes from the idea that specific skills – archery, one handed weapons, two handed weapons and so on level up independently, so the more you use a weapon or spell type, that more that skilll level increases, and the more perks open up to you. The more you use something, the better you get, and you can change your style at any time. Crafting has also been much simplified – now you can craft weapons and armour at a blacksmith’s forge, and indeed, forging is a skill that you can level up and assign points to – the higher your skill level, the better armour and weapons you can forge.

Skyrim shill tree dogsounds review Xbox 360

Whaddya mean, there’s no “bear wrasslin'” skill tree? Dammit.

Much has been made of the Dragon Shouts, or Thu’um that you learn as you progress through the game. as Dragonborn, you can read the Dragon language, and learn the Thu’um – shouts of immense power. Each Thu’um is made of three words in the Dova language, and as you find new words – usually by finding a carved Dragon Wall with the word on it – you gain that ability. You must then “spend” a dragon soul that you absorbed when you slayed a dragon to activate the shout. Simply put, Dragon shouts are a super-attack with a cooldown timer. One shout may create a fire blast, one may highlight the auras of enemies to allow you to see them through walls, one may slow time briefly, and of course the famed FUS RO DAH! will create a blast wave that throws enemies (and anyone else) all over the place. They are great fun, and a major plot point, but to be frank, you’ll probably use one or two of them, ignore most of them, and not use them that often. Although, with Kinect, actually being abel to shout the Thu’um for real to trigger it is a blast.

With so much to do and so much to see, Skyrim scores very high on the “game for your buck” scale.

Now, come on. It’s a Bethesda game. What did they fuck up? 

It seems a little unfair perhaps, but we all know what Bethesda are like for bugs. It’s almost more unfair not to pick at these.

With Skyrim, on the 360 at least, Skyrim is fairly bug-free. Any major glitches – incorrect texture streaming, backwards dragons, broken quests – have by now been patched and resolved. If your 360 is not connected to the net and you are playing vanilla what is on the disk, then these issues may remain, but dude, seriously, stick an ethernet cable in the back and sort it out!

Sadly, I cannot ignore that many 360 users are complaining at the moment of annoying stalls and hiccups in the game following the patch that gave Kinect voice control – I have this myself, and have for now stopped playing. It is not unplayable, just annoying. My understanding is that it may be a spawning  and memory issue caused by re-spawning nirnroot plant glow (“glowstacking”, apparently), so I can only hope this is patched before the first DLC becomes available.

Skyrim glitch review Xbox 360 dogsounds

Wait…what?

Also, despite this being an Xbox 360 review, it would be remiss of me to not point out the absolute clusterfuck that PS3 gamers have experienced. The game, for a lot of people, seems to become unplayable after a while as the framerate drops wildly. There seems to be an issue with game save file size causing this. Many other issues have been reported, and as far as I am aware many of these have been patched but not resolved for everyone. If you are looking to get this game for PS3, I cannot honestly recommend it without first suggesting you scour the internet and PS3 forums to see what PS3 users think. I’m no Xbox fanboy, but I can’t recommend a game that you cannot play.

In conclusion

So, at the end of the day, what have we got?

Simply, we have an outstanding game that, despite a few flaws, is an incredible piece of work, and is well worth the money. If you liked Oblivion, then you will sure as hell like Skyrim, although it is much simplified. If, like me, you despised Oblivion, but enjoyed Fallout 3 or New Vegas, then you will sure as hell like Skyrim. If, like me, you hated Oblivion but have never played Fallout 3 or New Vegas, then you should try Fallout 3 first (it’s like, £7 now or something), and if you like the feel of that, you’ll sure as hell like Skyrim. If you are a PC gamer, you will have the extra bonus of better visuals and an already extensive modding community that have improved the game even further. If you are on PS3…eh…do your research on forums first.

The one thing that would give the game a guaranteed 5/5 stars: Dogmeat.

Overall rating on the ever-changing dogsounds scale: 4.7 stars out of 5: Still not perfect – it is a Bethesda game – but just that little bit better than Fallout 3. Even though there are no cars to blow up.

3 Comments

  1. warbirdali
    Posted May 30, 2012 at 1:27 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Foxx is back! Never mind the review (since I am not a gamer) I want to know where, exactly, one procures a box of Tigers?

  2. Posted July 31, 2012 at 5:34 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Our corner shop has them, next to the Gentleman’s Speciality Publications section. That I passed purely by accident.

  3. Posted July 31, 2012 at 5:35 pm | Permalink | Reply

    And why are you not a gamer? Sort that shit out, bro.

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