Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Obligatory Skyrim Post

You didn't expect me to forget making a post about the Game of the year 2011, did you? No, certainly not. Although, frankly, why waste any time on it when everyone's talking about it anyway? Well, I will keep the praises short, because everything that has to be said about how gorgeous it is has been covered elsewhere already. Just read the reviews, but actually... you're probably too busy playing the game already.
Fine, let's get the praise over with quickly, of course I have my obligatory screenies to share again. Just, before going into detail, Skyrim looks amazing. Fantastic. Breathtaking. The world design is wonderful.
And it's not (as some who stopped playing games after Oblivion might think) the latest, greatest next-generation graphics we have here. Actually, technically Skyrim is almost a little dated, at least compared to modern shooters. If you played the last two Fallout games the graphics are just the logical evolution from there on, a lot of it looks very familiar. That's not a bad thing at all, it only makes the game run very well even on slightly dated hardware like mine - much better than the Witcher 2, for example, which I had to tune down a lot. My dated comp (4-core 2Ghz Xeon from 2007, ATI 4870 graphics) easily runs it on Ultra, as long as I keep the Antialiasing on 4x - and there's really no reason to push that further up. Anyway - no, Skyrim is not the next Crysis, technically. But the world design is simply breathtaking. Period. And it runs on a wide range of hardware too, hooray! Chances are good you can play it with decent graphics - if you can run NWN2 with nice settings, you can run this.If you can run Fallout 3, you can run this.

And while we're there, let me explain that Fallout 3 thing here quickly for those who never touch anything non-medieval: Fallout 3 and New Vegas are both very very close to Oblivion and Skyrim technically and are the logical evolutionary steps in between the two. If you played one, you will immediately feel familiar in the other, Fallout 3 could simply be called Oblivion in a post-nuclear setting. And both Fallout 3 and New Vegas are great RPGs you really should play unless you're stubbornly demanding your elves and orcs. Hey, you can even use swords!  That just for those who still think the Fallout games are First Person Shooters...

Back to Skyrim and.... Screenie time!

Water in Skyrim - probably the real "next-gen" thing, at least I've never seen better than this. I get teary eyes when I watch those streams and waterfalls. Wonderful!

Forest - probably not the best screenshot, but the forests are... what else, wonderful. 

Climbing snowy mountains... 

Walking into blizzards... 

... and watching the northern lights over some icebergs at night.

Those are just some of the many screens I took, but I'm sure you've seen enough already. The world is incredibly believable (not to use the word "realistic" for a fantasy game), yet still artificial enough not to pass as a cold, hyper-realistic setting like Crysis etc. In one word, atmospheric.

Interiors and caves actually look a little less realistic, they're still good, but here it's easy to see the roots from Bethesda's past games.

What Bethesda really improved is the character creator. One possible reason why I never really got into Oblivion might've been that whatever you did, your character looked ugly as sin. Fallout 3 improved on that, but only Skyrim is really satisfying now. Whatever's still missing the community can and will fix with some mods.

Oblivion: Whatever you did, ugly as sin. Some mods improve that a bit, but it never got really good. Game of the Year or not, other games at the time had much nicer looking characters, even NWN2 could do better (without the face morphing of course). 

Fallout 3: A lot better than Oblivion, but it still took quite a long time to make a decent face - most of the presets are still ugly as sin and require a lot of work. In the end, my characters always looked quite the same because only a few slider positions really looked okay. Some mods help here again. 

Skyrim: just a googled pic, I think one of the presets. A very decent working base, can even be improved. You can make very realistic and good looking characters right out of the box, with upcoming mods I doubt there'll be anything left to be desired anymore.

What else is left to say about the world design? A lot of it is familiar from older Bethesda games but nevertheless great, like the realistic items and loot, the careful design of it, the little physics games. If other companies like Bioware just invested a little percentage of that into their own games (and don't mark everything as "junk" without even using a unique icon), they could improve their games a lot.
Bethesda also improved the NPC behavior quite a bit, their daily routines and reactions to what happens around them is very pleasant to watch (just run a few items over in their home and listen to them complaining). The Witcher is the only game I know that did better on the daily routines, but then again at least Skyrim's NPCs react to stealing in a realistic way and all, something the other game designers constantly forget. In that aspect, Bethesda's games were always well crafted and improve from title to title. Seriously, the world design can't get much better anymore than this. 

Okay, now enough of the praise. "Casa", you ask, "where's the stinker? You always complain about something, don't let me down here!" 

Why of course, I won't let you down. I'll leave the usual bugs and not-so-great UI design to the others.... The real stinker is the notorious bad writing in Bethesda games. And I don't blame Bethesda alone for this, I also blame you. YOU! Yes, that's right. Because wherever I nag about the writing, people don't seem to care - "It's a sandbox game, I don't expect good writing in one" is a typical reply, or "can't expect Bioware quality" or whatever. I reply: Yes, I expect that, especially in such an ambitious game that focuses so much on the detail in it's general world design. And don't tell me it's not possible - that has already be proven wrong. We'll get to that. 

First of, the notorious "Bioware is the holy grail of writing" thing - I disagree. Bioware's stories haven't really improved since Baldur's Gate, and their standard formula is getting quite boring over the time. They still write a lot of dialogue trees, probably more than any other company, right.

Doesn't help with the fact that e.g. Dragon Age 2 was an incredibly boring game. And don't tell me either Mass Effect's or Dragon Age's main plot was anywhere new or exciting. It was just the presentation that made it good. But this is not about the main plot, because as I heard someone say recently - "who cares for the main plot in a Bethesda game? The main point is avoiding it as long as you can so you can explore the world!".

True that, nothing to add, and frankly, the main plot ideas in a Bethesda game were never any worse than Bioware's. No, it's about the small things, the dialogues and persons you meet on your way where Bethesda disappoints so greatly - and sadly, that's exactly the one and only thing that can't be easily fixed by the modding scene.

Now my real problem with Bethesda is that they just don't seem to care, and the best example for this is again companions. No, I don't expect Leliana or Morrigan in a Bethesda game, that's too much to ask for. But Bethesda's games have companions, and their companions have no life, they are simple tools/player slaves without any personality at all. You can give them orders, but you can't even ask them "who are you, what's your story?"
This was already my main problem in Fallout 3 (I never made it far enough in Oblivion to meet a companion, if they even exist), and Skyrim repeats it. Here's the main dialogue from a follower: 

And you know what? This is so immersion-breaking for me it ruins my game.  Realism (or say, a believable world) is not only nice landscapes, it's the right balance of everything. Bethesda is not Bioware, that's true, but they don't even care, they don't try at all. 
And frankly, when I see reviews, comments or some youtube videos, I see that the target group of gamers just doesn't care either, and that's what saddens me most. The whole setting and atmosphere of this game is gritty, realistic, mature, but then they take a whole jump back and make the writing for kids who go on an egoistic power trip only. If you watch some youtube clips about Fallout 3 quests, you usually end up with the kiddo explaining a quest over his headset while running around like on pills, in power armor with a huge cannon... target audience. Doesn't care for dialogue, wants to blow stuffs up.

No exaggeration here on the power trip too, because another problem I had in the game, regarding quests, is that I'm yet again not only the saver of the world, but people fall on their knees again too when I come by and want to make me king of their own little world once I helped them. 

I was literally bullied into the leadership of three guilds already, simply because Bethesda apparently didn't expect anyone NOT wanting to lead a guild. I promised my soul to 3 different factions too, simply because I had no choice, and my afterlife won't be pleasant when the werewolves want me here, the Nightingales there, the dragonborns... etc. etc. 

Now, the most ridiculous idea Bethesda had was the introduction of in game wedding. This is so sad it's almost funny again. Don't get me wrong, this is not about romances or such - Bioware's romance plots are famous and probably the reason half of their audience still loves them. But what Bethesda did is... sad? I don't know how to put it, let me just explain quickly how it works. You see the above dialogue pic with a follower. Now, if you want a "romance" in game you have to acquire a certain amulet and wear it, which adds another dialogue option:

To which she replies... "I won't lie, I am. And you?" ...

To which she replies: "It's settled then, you and me." Expect a kiss or something? Ha, no no, new quest:

Isn't that romantic? Hand me a tissue... well, the explanation is simple. This is not for the romantic souls among us, it's for the powerplayers who like extras: If your spouse is a shop owner (or opens one), you get extra coins once a day. They cook a meal for you once per day that increases stats (sexism anyone?). Resting in the house you share adds a stat bonus too. Did you expect something like a nice dialogue or a kiss? Well, this is a Bethesda game, go to Bioware, you fool!

In general, during the quests, the story is streamlined like a shooter and often makes no sense at all, I mean, at least give me the option to say "no" sometimes, or let me explain that they can't have my sould because it was promised to someone else already...? What I hate most is not that Bethesda's writing is not up to Bioware's, it's that they don't even give it a try at all. And that's probably because YOU didn't ask for it, but go by the rule "if I want to explore, I play Bethesda, if I want story I play Bioware". 

That there's room in between the two has already been proven by Fallout New Vegas, a Bethesda game. That's what makes this story so sad. Yes, the actual developer was Obsidian, using Bethesda's base, and that makes the huge difference. It's still generally regarded as a Bethesda game though, after all it's their logo most present on the box. 
I already said it in my Fallout NV post back last December - the combination of those two studios would be ideal and Bethsda should for Christ's sake just buy Obsidian and let them do their writing. Obsidian is the notorious "We are excellent writers but have no clue about artwork" candidate who will probably go bankrupt after the next Alpha Protocol disaster, and Bethesda is the one with breathtaking game design but no clue about writing. 
The problem is the gamers: Everyone complained about Obsidian's bad looking games, but nobody complains about Berthesda's non-existant skill in writing. 

Anyway, what Obsidian made of the Fallout 3 base is easy to find out on youtube. And just for the record, Fallout 3 companions were exactly the same as in the Skyrim companion pic above. 
Now here's as an example the dialogue with Veronica, one of the followers in New Vegas (btw, you Dragon Age 2 nuts, that's Felicia Day too, before Bioware decided to hype her for a mediocre DLC):

Notice something? Like, she talks about herself? Notice the amount of dialogue options you get? Should I continue with the whole questline each follower brings with them and that they never get tired to comment on a situation and are generally available for some small talk? Now, they might not be a Morrigan or a Leliana, and I don't even expect half as much from Bethesda as I expect from Obsidian. But hey, a little bit of life just for immersion? Because what Bethesda does with their companions is honestly an insult to roleplaying. And it completely ruins my immersion and throws me far out of the game. And yeah, it's sad that so few people agree. And it's sad that Obsidian brought the whole Bethesda series of RPGs a huge step forward in that aspect, and Skyrim jumps all the way back again. 

Now, there might be hope... at least it can be assumed that Skyrim was already long in the making when Fallout NV came out, it was simply too late and that Bethesda's next RPG might actually be inspired more by Obsidian's writing. For Skyrim there's no hope, maybe for a DLC, and knowing the modding community for Bethesda games I know one thing that they'll never improve is story and dialogues. As sad as it is this is not the NWN modding scene that cares a bit more about things like that. One hope remains, another future cooperation with Obsidian that again gives us (or me) the best from both worlds.

Anyway, even with the huge disappointment on the story side, Skyrim's sure Game of the Year and a must buy. It could just have been even better - if anyone cared.

No comments: