Skyrim mini-review

I’ve been looking forward to Skyrim for months. I love RPGs, and the Elder Scrolls are the peak of the sandbox RPGs. There are two types of RPG, those that you improve your character by completing quests, and those that you improve by killing things. The former is very limiting in a sandbox game because it means all the exploring and random shit you do doesn’t improve your stats, but the latter is even worse because it distorts the way I play. Peaceful solution to quest or murder everyone involved? I’ll always lean towards murder because I know that will get me more XP.

The Elder Scrolls introduced (to me) a third way, improve by using your skills, wow, why did nobody think of this before. This is a brilliant concept that was implemented in a horribly broken way in Oblivion (I’m told it was done properly in the previous game, Morrowind, but I haven’t played that one enough myself to say). So the prospect of this system being done properly with modern graphics makes me squee with delight.

Skyrim screenshot

Skyrim screenshot

I played the game for a few hours last night. I say play, I think I spent more time on Google and forums trying to find workarounds for the horrid horrid interface problems than I did playing.

Lets start from the beginning. The first thing I do after installing a game is go into the options and remap the controls to a standard set I use for every game. Skyrim doesn’t have an Options in the initial menu, strange I thought, maybe there is an opening cut scene then I can change them in game. And there is, kind of, the opening sequence is a Half-Life style ride into a village on a cart. You can look around but not move, I didn’t dare press escape during this part because I was afraid it would skip it and I wanted to watch. You are finally given control and I jumped into the options screen to remap, no apparant problems.

Then comes the tutorial dungeon. This was awful, you are following a guy who constantly shouts at you to “Follow me”, “This way” etc. while I just want to look around, explore and loot all the containers. It’s like I’m playing Modern Warfare or something. Add to that the instructions for all the interfaces, like looting containers, reading books etc. all refer to the default keys not what I have remapped them to. So I was reduced to pressing every key on the keyboard in sequence to try and get out of the loot interface back into the game.

After the tutorial I’m left on my own, and things start to pick up. Though I realise that the tutorial didn’t actually explain half the things I want to know. I had been waiting for it to give me some spells and explain how to use magic, nope. Alchemy, nope. Archery, nope. So I started experimenting while I explored a little.

I saw a creature, I think it was a fox, running through the undergrowth and thought, here we go first proper combat, and chased after it. It didn’t seem interested in me though. I followed it for a bit and came a cross a man firing arrows, not at me though, he was a hunter. I started to realise that the rumours about non-hostile wildlife were true, this is exactly what I want. There should be lots of creatures that are just going about their own business, this really adds to the immersion for me.

While I’m experimenting I try and set up some hotkeys for the weapons and spells I think I might find useful. Favouriting items doesn’t appear to work though, I try every key on the keyboard, none of them mark an item as a Favourite. So I go to the internet, they say it’s the “Change PoV” key. Tried that, no luck. So I carry on playing for a bit without hotkeyed stuff, and this is when I realise that this is the worst game UI I’ve ever seen. They’ve taken the XBox360 interface and done the absolute minimum amount of work to get it to function on the PC. Clicking the mouse activates the currently highlighted item, not the one under your mouse cursor. To do anything you have to navigate through a sequence of menus that makes selecting a new item or spell a huge faff. It really is awful and I almost stopped playing.

Eventually I set the keys back to the defaults and just remapped the absolute minimum ones so that I could play comfortably. This got the Favourite system working, although it is still buggy, and keeps forgetting hotkeys.

I then proceeded to my first proper dungeon and everything changed. It was the one that had been shown in all the previews so I recognised what I thought were scripted events, but they aren’t. I was sneaking along and my sneak skill leveled up when I thought I was alone, strange, but looking more carefully at the corpses (some of which had come to life in the trailer) I noticed that one of them was more juicy than the others. So I fired an arrow at it, and sure enough it got up and came after me. I could have sneaked past them all without waking them if I had desired, this is great.

At the end of the dungeon my opinion on the game had turned right around. Despite the terrible interface it’s an awesome game, the sneak/archery combo is so much fun, and the magic system is great too (I’m dissapointed to have lost custom spells mind). This is obviously a game designed for consoles, with the absolute minimum amount of effort gone into the PC port, but if you can fight through the crappy interface you’ll find the great game hidden underneath.