Here are the top 7 things I hate about Skyrim. I’m not going to bore you with the details of the game itself, I’m going to work on the assumption you’ve heard of it and the other Elder Scrolls games, and that you are fairly on board with what it’s aiming to do. I’m just going to pitch straight in and tell you what I hate about it.
7. Some of the features I enjoyed in previous iterations of the game aren’t there any more. Specifically, the realism of the weapons and armour degrading over time. Having a sword that retains its edge however often I bash it through the face of a bandit just isn’t realistic. I used to do a bit of battle re-enactment, I know for a fact that a shiny shield boss stays shiny and new for precisely as long as you fail to use it for. Now I can just use my gear all the time for as long as I want to, and there’s nothing to stop me other than getting tired of it and wanting to change into whatever has caught my eye most recently. And where is the lock-picking game from Oblivion? Those devilishly frustrating tumblers were a great minigame, I thought. It really made me feel like a thief.
Now, both of these features were arguably annoying, tedious and fiddly. I always felt they added hugely to the experience of the game, though, and it’s a shame that they’re gone.
6. The storytelling is uneven. Some examples – following my guide to a distant shrine, I was set upon by first a wolf pack and then a ragged bunch of bandits in rapid succession. The guide didn’t give a damn, he just kept on trucking, so intent on leading me to my destination that he couldn’t be bothered to see if I was still there. I got very lost and angry, and when I eventually caught up to him, wasn’t allowed to do anything about it. He was too essential to the story, I guess, so I could hit him as much as I wanted and he’d basically ignore me, neither dying nor getting riled up. Anybody who’s protected by the game mechanics, however important it is for the overall plot, makes the game feel broken, like seeing your GM fudge a dice roll.
A second example – in the midst of a stirring action sequence, I was following a group of guards to defend some vital city defences. On our way there, I saw at least three other things so interesting I desperately wanted to stop and explore them, but felt the pressure to help defend so keenly I didn’t have the heart to stop and stare. And when I came back later, they’d gone – the random encounter had finished, the people involved had moved on, and I felt I’d been robbed of a visceral experience. But fair enough, I suppose.
A third example – the stories are extremely varied from quest to quest. A typical sequence might go ‘Gritty Norse darkness, political machination, entrancing thriller, ghost story, Gritty Norse Darkness, Talking dog! Gritty Norse darkness.’ I can’t settle into one thing when fifteen others are constantly pulling at me, it’s bewildering. This amazing diversity is hardly something to complain about, especially in a market where most games have virtually none. But it can play against itself when you’re not careful, too much of a good thing is confusing.
5. Too Much Combat. Also a bit harsh. This is open and unsettled wilderness. And it’s hardly the hilarity of vast chunks of every MMO ever, where if the local mobs are bears then there will literally be one bear for every two square metres in a forest. Remember that sampling square from GSCE biology, where you throw it randomly on the ground and then count the creatures inside it to get an idea of the local diversity? Well, there are parts of World of Warcraft where the square would never hit the ground, it would just bounce off a whole bunch of bears. That doesn’t happen here, but there’s still a slight tendency for too many tertiary predators to turn up in the same part of the world. It’s also a bit bizarre in the way the fights sprawl and spill into each other. I got into a four-way with some bandits, some mudcrabs, a mammoth and a dragon (as the actress said to the bishop) only last night, and the stupidest thing about it was that the Mammoth won by miles. That feels deeply wrong, but at least one can’t complain about the landscape being monotonous.
4. I’m too heroic. Okay, the standard for RPG games is that you happen to be born in the right time with the right magic abilities in the right place to accidentally stumble into some massive world-threatening sequence of events. But one of the things I liked about Oblivion was that I didn’t start off feeling like an uberlord of everything, I had to earn it. Here, as in Morrowind, you are luckily the chosen one. But on top of being the chosen one, in Skyrim that happens to mean you have Jedi-like super powers. Straight off the bat, I stop feeling like a tiny cog in the uncaring vastness of a medieval fantasy in which I must forge my own destiny, something the last two caught extremely well. Hell, I was reluctant to even bother with the main quest in Morrowind. I really wasn’t interested in the religious war of a bunch of moody dark elves. I only helped them out grudgingly at best, and then only because I’d run out of things to steal.
Not so in Skyrim. Here, my magical shouting marks me out as unique straight away, and I sort of feel like everyone looks up to me too much from the get go. I wanted to earn that feeling of being special, and it’s taken away from me. Even worse, I know that millions of other people out there are also the unique chosen one. How dare they! This game should be mine and mine alone.
3. Not original enough. It’s utterly annoying that this vast, beautifully-woven epic, truly worthy (in terms of its level of world detail and borrowed Nordic lore) could immediately be labelled Tolkien-esque. Yes, it’s another plunderer of Saxon and Norse myth. Yes, it’s got everything you expect in a fantasy RPG. Thieves guilds, werewolves, mead halls, lost dwarven holds, wraith-haunted barrows, giant bloody spiders, ancient prophesies coming to life, dark forces threatening the world, etc etc etc. One of the first big cities you see is so directly stolen from Lord of the Rings that it makes me feel very tired. Is this really all you can come up with, Bethesda? I’ve seen so much more interesting takes on classics than this.
No, fair enough, I’m lying. I can’t pretend for a moment longer, not even to try and make this review stand out in the midst of all the general chorus of ecstatic praise, that I could genuinely say this is a problem. Fine, Whiterun looks a lot like the capitol city of the Rohirrim. Dragonsreach is a clone of Meduseld, there, I’ve said it. I do not really give a damn – this is a bit generic, but I love that genre so much that a chance to explore a fresh new Rohan City makes me so excited I could giggle helplessly and cry with glee all at once. For every hackneyed cliche in here, there are nine or twelve amazingly realised and unique locations.
2. Doesn’t make as much of a graphical leap as I expected. I forced my wife to start playing the game with me, much to her long-suffering horror. She’s been hearing me ranting on about how amazing the game will be for months, and she sort of just about enjoys the character generation part that I could justify dragging her along to do that for me (I’m no good at it, my characters always look like a bum painted onto a melon). Title sequence rolls, and the very first thing she says is ‘It doesn’t look that great. I thought you said it would be amazing?’
I went into a defensive tirade at once, explaining I was only running it on medium settings (as pre-selected by my recently upgraded graphics card) and anyway look at the size of the world and the predicted freedom. My argument was undercut by a long and faintly irritating sequence on rails, in a landscape which looked so similar to Oblivion that I really couldn’t help but secretly feel gutted that my wife was right. The stone textures, the angular pines – they haven’t improved as much as I thought. I’d been playing Oblivion earlier in the week too, in a forlorn attempt to make the release come quicker, so I know what I’m on about. Although that’s also, in a way, testament to how well made Bethesda’s games are. A five year old title does age well.
I did turn the options up, though, and whilst it hasn’t leapt forward as much as something like Rage has in terms of eye-slaying sharpness, it’s still gorgeous. Detail and atmosphere are everywhere. I saw a headless horseman in a mountain pass at one point. A gorgeous forest pool filled with standing stones in another. The water and mist effects are mesmerising, the myriad creatures and characters wonderfully animated and very physical in their presence. The world lives and breathes around you.
1. This game has ruined my life. I’ve become an obsessed bore. I have lost the ability to talk about other things, or sleep, or concentrate on reality. Fine, reality has better resolution on the graphics and the ultimate in free choice, open-ended sandbox gameplay. But no dragons, or magical moon-powered axes, or exquisite beech forests full of ancient ruins. Okay, it might have some of those. But I can’t enjoy them from the comfort of my own armchair. Previously, game addict as I am, there was still hope for me. I could at least hold my head up high and tell people I am a doctor-turned-actor who also writes for a living. Now, I am essentially a flabby organic adjunct to my PC mouse.
This is genuinely a terrible thing, that this incredible computer game is so immersing. I’ve played a mere 14 hours since it came out last week, according to Steam, and it feels like 2. This game can and will eat your spare time like a poisonous Viking termite (they’re featured in the game, by the way), and will constantly drag on your willpower to achieve things of actual worth and importance in your life. I felt marginally better when I heard a work colleague admit to having stayed up until 0500 this morning playing it on her brother’s X-box. But not really – Skyrim will almost certainly cost a lot of companies and families both money and time better spent elsewhere. Bethesda has a lot to answer for. At least you can be sure they’ve sacrificed as least as much themselves.
So there you go, all the bad things I could come up with. I struggled to get as far as seven, really, I was aiming for ten. This is a monumental game, landmark stuff, and it’s hard to think of how to actually improve it. All of my above points are thoroughly true and I stand by all of them. But as the score below reflects, my heart is not in the criticism here, I’m just being perverse. It’s really that I’m just desperate to find reasons to spend less time playing it. I wish it was worse, I really do, because it’s going to be a painful draw on my evenings for some months to come. 14 hours of play has merely scratched the surface of something utterly huge and engrossing. It won’t be to everyone’s taste, obviously – the geeky teenage fantasy note will put some off, and the sprawling world is overwhelming to the point that it really does saturate you, there is too much to take in at once. Savour this like the finest of wines, if you can, and it will repay you with moment after moment of awe and wonder. I, however, will be drowning in this vintage until bubbles come out of my ears. Goodbye, everyone, I have to save Tamriel from darkness by stealing all its plates.